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Out of the Past: Five Old Flames

Ryland Walker Knight

We at MUBI think that celebrating the films of 2010 should be a celebration of film viewing in 2010.  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 of 2010's retrospective viewings.


Something of a preferential order.

A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, Taiwan, 1991)

I was ready to be let down after hearing so much praise for so long, but this film’s reputation doesn’t do it justice. For one, you cannot summarize or condense the growing rings of significance that accrue as the four hours tick past, no matter how simple a story we have here. But it’s not just the “modern novel” structure that so impressed me (though it did) as much as how the film was shot, and lit. It’s not flashy, it’s not even as outright gorgeous as many of Yang’s colleague Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films (some of the best-looking films ever), but the film’s interest in light far outstrips pure compositional-aesthetic pleasures. That is, light—when it shines and how and what is illuminated at which hours—carries its own thematic weight. Sex is often shrouded, violence often spot-lit. But it’s never so schematic; which is, of course, the beauty of the film’s construction: giving something like “realism” a porous form. (If I was a better scholar of the cinema I might be able to trot out a good Rossellini example.) However, I did not take notes during the film so I cannot tease out all those overlaps in this little paragraph. Which leaves us with the title as our guiding metaphor; the title, we're reminded, comes from an Elvis ballad; it’s a daydream, a lonesome lover’s fantasy and plead for a time he’s never known, some utopia away from this dark muck we traipse through for most of the feature, which is nothing but the riot of adolescence’s confusion complicated at every turn and right angle.

(Seen at an under-populated screening at the Yerba Buena Center’s screening room, from the front row; I don’t doubt Saturday, January 15th’s “encore” across the Bay at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive, will be much more popular. As it should be, of course.)

Angel Face (Otto Preminger, USA, 1952)

Perversion comes with the territory—both in noirs and in Preminger. So, too, does a good dose of tidy Freudian mapping of relationships (dads make girls into trouble, one way or another) seem almost standard. But aside from the complications arising from sex, or just desire, there’s the closed-world effect of Otto’s circling cameras and the rag-doll crash finale to make sure you see just how low nihilism can go. Thanks, though, to the sexiness of Mitchum and Simmons, this isn’t a dreadful downfall; it’s a good tug-of-war instead. Who lets go when keeps surprising and who slaps who is always fun to watch.

(I watched it on TCM, and it looked great, but I’m even more excited to see it on film as part of Noir City 9, on Sunday, January 30th, at the Castro.)

The Small Black Room (Powell and Pressberger, UK, 1949), above, right

Somebody has to have posited this pair as poets of the psyche before. Though this film doesn’t have the formal bombast of, say, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), there are a number of set pieces designed to manifest Sammy Rice’s (David Farrar’s) warped perspective. And not just the scenes of Rice dead drunk in his apartment, all canted angles and marching soundtrack. The core idea of a man as a bomb, and defusing himself, is made less hokey because P&P made a point of making good genre work before making a point. It’s why all their propaganda sidesteps the ostensible (funded) motivations towards Real Art.

(Though it cannot compete with The Red Shoes on BluRay (or on film at the Castro)—what can, really?—the Criterion disc of SBR is, as expected, rather gorgeous.)

La captive (Chantal Akerman, France, 2000), above, left

A one-way breakup movie that’s only projections from the start, literally, and largely devoid of that creepy charge you might expect from a film inheriting both Proust’s La prisonnière (language, repetition) and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (seeing, cars) in equal parts. Or, its lack of affect is creepy. A lot of it’s due to Stanislas Merhar’s face, which looks drained most often, but it's also his voice, which he keeps clipped in to whisper these pathetic lines that do as much groping as his hands do. Sylvie Testud’s great, but her Ariane is hardly a character and, at its most basic, all she’s doing is rebuffing a gaze. The best way to do that is erecting a wall of silence but Ariane's almost complicit in her captivity; her impassive acceptance of certain routines is distressing; her self-avowed emptiness, blanching. It’s almost as if Akerman’s out to prove skepticism impenetrable, and valid: we can never know another.

(Like with La France, another Testud beauty that sits just off this top five (though it could be in this spot just as easily), I saw this flick on DVD and on my computer, which means I will jump at any opportunity I get to see it on film, where the whirring of projectors on screen and in back in the booth will multiply and make me grin.)

Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1990)

Nor, try as one might, can we be another. Though not simply because we cannot adopt (shouldn’t steal?) somebody else’s identity, or clothes; rather, every individual adds something to our fabric. The film is easily one of the genius feats of construction in lower-case modernist cinema. It may be a witness, its own witness at that, in complicated ways, but its need for an audience is simple charity: you will know your own level of compassion depending on how you react to this tale of ingenuity, daring, humility and mind-boggling legal complications. Yet all the formal, political and theoretical frameworks become afterthoughts, not fireworks, as we learn who this Sabzian really is and how he got in that courtroom or in that living room or onto that motorcycle.

(Waiting on a Blu-ray from Netflix to revisit this, as I saw it nine months ago or more at Film Forum, which is hardly an ideal venue, even if they project film and you sit close and you put your legs over the seat in front of you.)


Abbas KiarostamiChantal AkermanEdward YangEmeric PressburgerMichael PowellOtto PremingerOut of the Past
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