We at MUBI think that celebrating the films of 2011 should be a celebration of film viewing in 2011. Since all film and video is "old" one way or another, we present Out of a Past, a small (re-) collection of some of our favorite retrospective viewings from 2011.
These six movies are not necessarily the best old movies I saw for the first time this year, but the movies that most challenged my existing ideas of film and film history.
Tokyo Twilight (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1957)
April 21, Film Forum, New York, NY
Tokyo Twilight may be Ozu’s darkest film. Like a lot of his movies, it develops slowly as an accretion of small moments. It built so slowly, in fact, that I was surprised about 3/4 of the way through the film to realize how horribly ugly it had become. The received notion that Ozu makes quiet miniatures about everyday family life has always been a misconception—his families are usually riven by conflict that their surface politeness illuminates rather than obscures. Even so, Tokyo Twilight surprised me with its despair. There was a scene where a daughter confronted the mother who had abandoned her decades earlier and said “I hate you” as she ran out the door, which Ozu followed with a shot of the mother from the back sitting on the floor in the empty room. Only Ozu would shoot her from the back instead of giving her a reaction shot. He doesn’t allow us to identify with the mother or to experience her emotions ourselves. The spareness of his style not only replaces the expected emotions, but becomes the emotions themselves. According to IMDb voters, Tokyo Twilight is Ozu’s 12th most-watched film (with 1/3 as many votes as the recent box office hit Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked), but it seemed every bit as good to me as certifiable classics like Tokyo Story or Late Spring. The canon as we know it is so arbitrary. When the lights came up I remembered how much fun it is to be a cinephile, continually able to discover major works and reexamine major directors I thought I knew so well.
Niagara (Henry Hathaway, USA, 1952)
July 8, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY
I’ve never had much interest in Henry Hathaway or Marilyn Monroe, so I think it was mostly the quality of the print at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that made me fall in love with this movie: The Technicolor was so saturated it made my heart pound; I felt like I was on a first date. The yellows and blues of the rain slickers on the walkways beneath the roaring falls were the best pairings of two colors I’ve seen since Mario Bava’s black and gold spacesuits in Planet of the Vampires. Perhaps it was Bava’s spirit traveling backwards in time that inspired Hathaway in the most amazing sequence in the film, the murder scene in the bell tower. The music of the bells had called to Monroe earlier, infiltrating her dreams, making her turn fitfully in her sleep as if in the throes of an orgasm of alluring terror. Hathaway shot the murder scene from above, with the giant carillon in the rafters looming in the foreground like a set of overripe, Cezannesque pears, while Joseph Cotton and Monroe were mere silhouettes on a floor crisscrossed with shadows and splashes of crimson like an image from an absinthe-infused dream shared by de Chirico, Mondrian, and Dalí. Poor Alfred Hitchcock and that little movie of his called Vertigo; if only he could have come up with a bell tower scene this beautiful. Hathaway’s overhead compositions lasted only a few seconds, but those brief moments were the most inspired filmmaking I experienced all year.
The Mercenary (Sergio Corbucci, Italy, 1968)
July 16, Anthology Film Archives, New York, NY
The Mercenary boasts an all-star Spaghetti Western threesome: Franco Nero, Tony Musante, and Jack Palance, plus a score by Ennio Morricone to boot. And it’s so much fun to say Sergio Corbucci’s name out loud. Try it out at a dinner party and you’ll see ripples of curious laughter floating through the room. With names like these, you don’t even have to see the movie. Nevertheless, you should. Franco Nero is an Italian actor playing a Polish mercenary in the Mexican Revolutionary war. Musante is a Mexican peasant fighting for his people. Palance is an amoral dandy sporting a flower in his lapel. The movie pits the mercenary ideal against the ideal of political engagement and manages to make both seem attractive while at the same time acknowledging that the true mercenary will always help the revolutionary in the end. Oh, and there’s a great scene of a shootout between clowns in a bullring.
Me and My Gal (Raoul Walsh, USA, 1932)
July 26, Film Forum, New York, NY
Me and My Gal was a revelation. It was just one of many excellent pictures in Film Forum’s pre-Code series this year that I hadn’t seen before. This one stood out for me because of its mixture of cynicism and generosity. I love movies that are kind towards drunks, and this has the best drunk scene ever, in which a bunch of cranky dipsomaniacs in an argument keep getting smacked around by a giant fish. I’d known Joan Bennett mostly from her Fritz Lang noirs where she’s beautifully statuesque and expresses fear or contempt with lots of raised or scrunched eyebrows, but here she’s a churlish kid sister who chews gum and trades wisecracks with Spencer Tracy. It runs 79 minutes and the whole thing felt like it was written, directed, and edited in about three weeks, which means that someone should be making 17 movies this good every year. But they don’t. I blame Spielberg.
Dead Birds (Robert Gardner, USA, 1965)
November 11, Film Forum, New York, NY
Ethnographic filmmaking is out of fashion these days, which is a shame, since even the most popular Hollywood movies (Harry Potter, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Bridesmaids) often function as narrative explanations of marginalized communities offered up to the world at large. In 1965, Robert Gardner–who is officially awesome since he helped found the Harvard Film Archive and hosted Screening Room, an interview program on TV with experimental filmmakers (check out his interview with Hollis Frampton on YouTube–that guy made a lot of great movies featuring only letters and words, but his hair is bugged out!)–documented the ritualistic warfare between two villages in the highland hills of New Guinea. Gardner focused on one or two people as his protagonists and structured the film with a death at the beginning and a death at the end to suggest that the violence that permeates this society will never cease. Our hero seems to spend most of his days sitting atop a watchtower at the perimeter of his village keeping his eye out for encroaching enemies. The villagers seem to spend all their time preparing for war. But when they do go to battle, they spend all day charging each other, shaking weapons, and firing arrows that never seem to hit their target, and by the end of the day, almost no one has been killed. Then they do it all over again. Gorgeous, violent, and irrational, they reminded me of every other civilization I’ve ever read about or lived in, except with better pig roasts and a more creative application of body paint.
À nos amours (Maurice Pialat, France, 1983)
November 17, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY
I had an uncanny experience while watching À nos amours when I realized that I’d seen the film once before and had loved it but had apparently forgotten everything about it. At first I was ashamed of myself, but then it dawned on me that my mind had buried the movie just as it might have buried the memory of a torrid love affair that was too painful to keep in my consciousness. Yes, I realized: I had forgotten the film because my love for it had made me feel as if I’d been unfaithful to Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes. Pialat works in the same territory, pushing and poking at his actors to discover the element of truth in every scene, whether melodramatic or banal. The young Sandrine Bonnaire plays a petulant teenager who sleeps around. She doesn’t seem to enjoy either sex or her sex partners all that much; it’s not really clear why she does what she does. Pialat would shoot two characters hanging out in a kitchen, following a disjointed conversation for three or four minutes, but then all of a sudden, one of Bonnaire’s family members would erupt out of nowhere and slap her for being such a dumb slut and Pialat would follow the violence as it unfolded from room to room, with all its yelling, missed punches, and pulled hair. Then, as the story progressed over the years, Pialat passed over a few chasmic narrative ellipses, so that the father (played like a curmudgeonly old bear by Pialat himself) was the center of the family life throughout the first half of the film, and then suddenly in one scene it became obvious that he’d moved out and that maybe a year or more had passed between the last scene and the next. Perhaps Pialat doesn’t capture the depth of emotion that Cassavetes does, but on the other hand, he’s less melodramatic and requires a more intelligent observer. I’ve been lighting imaginary candles at an invisible altar to Cassavetes now for seventeen years, but I couldn’t help thinking that in many ways Pialat is a more sophisticated filmmaker.