With 2009 rounding to a close, it already feels like best-of and top-ten lists have been pouring in for months, and we’re already tired of them: the ranking, the exclusions (and inclusions), the rules and the qualifiers. Some people got to see films at festivals, others only catch movies on video; and the ability for us, or any publication, to come up with a system to fairly determine who saw what when and what they thought was the best seems an impossible feat. That doesn’t stop most people from doing it, but we thought we’d shake things up a bit. Last year we polled the contributors to The Notebook to find some general consensus on what movies everyone liked. For our 2nd Annual Writer’s Poll, we’re doing things differently.
I asked our contributors to pick a single new film they saw in 2009—in theaters or at a festival—and creatively pair it with an old film they saw in 2009 to create a unique double feature. Some writers chose their favorites of 2009, some chose out-of-the-way gems, others made some pretty strange connections—and some frankly just want to create a kerfuffle. All the contributors were asked to write a paragraph explaining their 2009 fantasy double-feature. What's more, each writer was given the option to list more pairings, without explanation, as further imaginative film programming we'd be lucky to catch in that perfect world we know doesn't exist but can keep dreaming of every time we go to the movies.
How would you program some of 2009's most interesting films into double features with movies of the past?
Public Enemies (Michael Mann, USA) + Hollywood or Bust (Frank Tashlin, 1956)
Through a coincidence that has proved handy for this survey, I watched these on the same day in July—Mann’s in commercial release, Tashlin’s (unfortunately) on an old VHS dub, letterboxed. Of course they’re worlds apart, tonally. But Mann and Tashlin, for all their monumental differences, are in a few key respects comparable figures to the Hollywood of their time. Both in their era are not-always-respected “auteurs” doing work that anyone with eyes & ears can see is a thing apart from other work of their time and place—yet, it is crucial to that time and place. And they’re both filming projects, over and over, that are dumber than they are. This is because—I would speculate—they comprehend the idiot savantism of Hollywood, but also use that as a point of departure, not arrival. Both films indicate something about what might be worth paying attention to, in Hollywood cinema, as both system and as ground against which an individual can react. And animals figure importantly into both as connective elements—be they “blackbirds” or Great Danes.
Poem for the Rooftops of Iran: "Where Is This Place?" (Anonymous, 2009) + Soul Power (Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, 2008)
"She gets taller when she stands on your toes. The bitch. Eternal marriage at home and national liberation abroad." —from My Life as a Man by Philip Roth (1974)
Totò (Peter Schreiner, Austria) + Slow Summer (John Cook, 1976)
Two films about Vienna. Two films about artists—or rather artistic individuals—who live in Vienna. Neither of them are originally "from" the Austrian capital. John, the main character in John Cook's fictional film Slow Summer, played by John Cook, is, like John Cook, a photographer and filmmaker from Canada. The subject of Vienna-born, Vienna-based Peter Schreiner's documentar is, Antonio Cotroneo—Totò to family and friends—and is a poet from Tropea, a village in Calabria, Italy. Their stories are told in black and white: Slow Summer was shot on Super 8mm film, then blown up to 35mm; Totò was shot on digital video, then transferred to 35mm. German is spoken, as well as other languages. Both films are outstanding. But otherwise they are quite different.
Vincere (Marco Bellocchio, 2009) + Abschied von Gestern (Anita G.) (Alexander Kluge, 1966)
Opera/History—genealogy of nations, genealogy of moving pictures—dialectics: light and shadow, violence and words—power and resistance—endless foundations—popular culture and propagandas—women as Antigones, men as Creons.
She, a Chinese (Guo Xiaolu, UK ) and Vivre sa vie (Jean-Luc Godard, 1962)
Imagine Nana from Vivre sa vie with better survival instincts, and you're pretty close to She, a Chinese.
La donation (Bernard Émond, Canada) + Journal d'un curé de campagne (Robert Bresson, 1951)
Paradise (Michael Almereyda, USA) + Carriage Trade (Warren Sonbert, 1971)
Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, USA) + The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, 1926)
Material (Thomas Heise, Germany) + One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder, 1961)
Billy Wilder's One, Two Three and Thomas Heise's Material would make for one marathon double feature—the first runs just under two hours, the second a bit under three—but however you'd choose to view them, you'd discover that there's more to this juxtaposition than the way they provide nifty Cold War bookends: Wilder's film is set in Berlin seemingly moments before the Wall was built; Heise's documents the long crumbling of that Wall, 1988 through 2009. One's west, one's east, but there's more to it than all that. Cinematically, each film is everything the other is not. Wilder's movie is one long, tried-and-true hard sell, driven by plot, rat-a-tat one-liners and sheer volume. Which is fine; some nights, I'm buying. Heise's Material, an essay film, a home movie, a cluster of documents, seems to rewrite its own rules as it shifts from section to section, each comprised of just one or a very few long takes of varying stocks, black and white or color: Preparations for a production of Heiner Müller's Germania Death in Berlin; massive protests on Alexanderplatz, threatening to tip at any moment over to bloody violence; an exploration of a small-scale model apartment building, with tiny manikins spotted through open windows going about their daily lives; prisoners' testimonies; public hearings; the demolition of the GDR's last, most prominent presence, the Palast der Republik; a song. A country is wished away, then remembered. Time is taken and patience is demanded (and rewarded), but on a radically different schedule than that of "contemplative cinema." Each shot is too busy, too loaded, verbally or otherwise, for meditation, at least on a first viewing. No other film this year presented such a welcome challenge to my notions of what cinema can be and do.
2009 was an extraordinary year for rehearsal films thanks to Pedro Costa's Ne change rien, Frederick Wiseman's La danse and, yes I said it, Kenny Ortega's Michael Jackson’s This Is It. The Wiseman and the Costa are two of the great films of the year, but I found This Is It equally enthralling. What is remarkable about this film, what makes it different from all others, is that it is a film that hadn't even been conceived a mere four months before it opened. On June 24, 2009, the day before MJ died, this film existed in nobody's mind (the footage existed, but only for archival purposes); by October 28 it was on hundreds of thousands of screens worldwide. Though Kenny Ortega has his name on it (and deserves consideration as one of the most influential auteurs of the decade thanks to the High School Musical juggernaut he drove into the middle of the '00s) it is no doubt a film made by committee and engineered to show its subject in the best possible light. But it is still a fascinating document of rehearsals for an event that would never take place, a record of a ghost. Godard's maligned Rolling Stones fantasia Sympathy for the Devil (which I watched in its brief New York revival just days before seeing the Jackson film), also showcases one of the world's most riveting performers getting his game on and is also fascinating as a document of creation. But this time you are watching something very much extant (one of the great songs of all time) being nudged and nurtured into being, filmed by a director as at odds with his subjects (Keith RIchards compared JLG to an accountant) as Kenny Ortega was in thrall to his.
I can't imagine that any theatre, anywhere, would book Argentine director Mariano Llinás Historias extraordinarias as part of a double bill. It runs 240 minutes, and its triple-header narrative contains enough incident for an entire miniseries. But it would nevertheless be illuminating—not to mention fun—to dissect Llinás' exquisite-corpse conceit through a film that utilizes similar dynamics of immersion and interruption: Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise (1973).
Wheat Harvest (Xu Tong, China) + Under the Bridges (Helmut Kautner, 1946)
It's almost too easy to connect Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker to Nicholas Ray's The Lusty Men (which enjoyed much-needed screen time as part of NYC Film Forum's July Ray retrospective); and I've already written elsewhere about the links I see between Jia Zhang-ke's 24 City and Godard's Tout va bien. So I want to spotlight a more unlikely pairing between two lesser known films that floored me. Xu Tong's debut documentary Wheat Harvest, heralded at Asian fests but yet to be screened elsewhere, is an incredibly intimate portrait of a Chinese farm girl who turns to prostitution in the city to pay her dad's medical bills. Dealing with a potentially salacious subject, it's explicit in the right ways: not visually but emotionally. I'm pairing it with Helmut Kautner's 1946 masterpiece Under the Bridges, about two lonely bargemen who contend for the same girl, who may not be as innocent as she appears. Under the Bridges is a whimsical post-Nazi confection that vaguely hints at the transactional relationship between sexes that Wheat Harvest makes explicit. Kautner's euphemistic depiction of bombed-out Berlin creates a romantic other-world operating on its own sublime emotional logic, while Xu peels away Beijing's glorified Olympic facade to expose alley brothels serving scores of migrant workers. But both are stunning depictions of small-town folks whose modest romantic yearnings are compromised by urban industrialization. Both worlds offer an unsentimental view of life as making due with what one has, while holding out hope for moments of unexpected sweetness.
Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden) + Hatsukoi: Jigoku-hen (The Inferno of First Love) (Susumu Hari, 1968)
A film seen outside Japan (Right One) where it wasn't distributed, and another, "a film maudit" written by Shuji Terayama with director Hari, re-released quietly in Tokyo. However tempting it was to match Alfredson's film with Truffaut's Small Change (1976), or George Roy Hill's A Little Romance (1979), Hari's First Love lit a spark by showing a character looking for love in all the wrong places .The director, in Japanese New Wave fashion, takes us inside those spaces and let his shots set fire to them. Eli, vampire nymph, is ready to burn for Oskarin the Right One, it is her radiance which sears the edges of the frames, giving the film its aurora glow.
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA) + The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1928)