Daily Projections, 6-11-2019: El Sur (1983)

Title: El Sur
Director: Victor Erice
Country of Origin: Spain
Year: 1983
Screening format: Blu-ray
Setting: home
First viewing? yes

It’s hard to break down the plot of something like El Sur. Much like Erice’s first feature, The Spirit of the Beehive (made a decade before this one), El Sur is about mood and atmosphere. And what an atmosphere it is. Estrella is a child in the early days of Franco’s Spain. For Estrella, her father is a source of wonder and mystery who she longs to be close to but who remains shrouded in darkness. Literally. For much of the first half of the film, Augustín (her father) is lit from only one side, half of him obscured by shadows. Watching El Sur feels like a rare glimpse into the Platonic ideal of cinematic photography. Everything about it – the tone, the lighting, the photography, the way the camera moves (when it moves) – feels luminous. Lighting, particularly early on, lends the film an air of enigma, reflective both of Augustín’s mysterious past and of a child’s half-formed understanding of the world. As she grows, Estrella’s world (and her father) emerge from the shadows as more is illuminated, dreary, gray, and cold as her new reality may be. To watch El Sur feels like watching a live action Caravaggio and, to my mind, the fact that Erice has made so few feature films is one of the great injustices of European cinema. El Sur itself is really only half the film it was intended to be (the agreed upon 81-day shooting schedule was cut off after 48 days, apparently due to a lack of funding). Yet maybe it is that scarcity which lends an air of magic and mystery to Erice’s existing work.

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Daily Projections, 6-9-2019: Spring In A Small Town (1948)

Title: Spring In A Small Town
Director: Fei Mu
Country of Origin: China
Year: 1948
Screening format: DVD
Setting: home
First viewing? yes

Considered by many to be the masterpiece of the first great era of Chinese filmmaking, if not the greatest Chinese film of all time. A young wife trapped in a passionless marriage (I won’t say loveless, because I believe there is some love there) with an ailing husband becomes reacquainted with a long lost love who shows up on her doorstep one day after 10 years away because he also happens to be very close friends with her husband. She, of course, is forced to choose between her family and the one who got away. From the plot description alone, it sounds like a Satyajit Ray film (or at least a Tagore story). Some sensitive portrayals here, especially by Yu Shi and Wei Wei as the husband and wife, respectively. Spring In A Small Town often feels like it owes a great deal to the self-contained family dramas of Ozu and to Italian neorealism. Indeed, it is well situated within the general ethos of post-War drama. Though, at other times, certain editorial choices (cuts and transitions within an unchanging wide shot) seem to denote the passage of time and almost evoke the spirit of French New Wave a full decade ahead of Truffaut and Godard, even if they were, in fact, necessary quirks rather than stylistic choices. Lovely low-light scenes produce some beautifully shaded and shadowed images, particularly in the last half hour.

Daily Projections, 6-6-2019: Pretty Poison (1968)

Didn’t have the easiest time getting through this one and felt consistently distracted throughout most of the first hour. Anthony Perkins is Dennis the apparently reformed juvenile delinquent recently released from a mental institution and on probation after serving a decade or so for (apparently accidentally) burning down a relative’s house not realizing his aunt was still inside. Tuesday Weld is Sue Ann, the beautiful young high school honors student, terribly clever but stifled by her overbearing mother. When Dennis, prone to flights of fancy, tells young Sue Ann that he is a secret agent, an innocent fantasy quickly morphs into a genuine crime spree. But who is the true psychopath. To me, Pretty Poison bears some resemblance to Badlands (though lacking Malick’s sense of visual poetry) and even another Tuesday Weld flick, Lord Love a Duck. Perkins’s character, Dennis, while generally deadpan, still feels like the moral compass of the film. Weld’s Sue Ann, however, always feels a bit hollow and never really rings true. Perhaps that’s the point. Some confusing directorial choices – overly tight closeups, an awkward angle two-shot right in the opening scene – often make Pretty Poison feel cheap, more like an exploitation picture than a film worthy of the likes of its two stars.

Title: Pretty Poison
Director: Noel Black
Country of Origin: USA
Year: 1968
Screening format: Blu-ray
Setting: home
First viewing? yes

Daily Projections, 6-5-2019: The Man In The Moon (1991)

Title: The Man In The Moon
Director: Robert Mulligan
Country of Origin: USA
Year: 1991
Screening format: Blu-ray
Setting: home
First viewing? kind of (first since an edited cut on TV 20 years ago)

Coming of age drama made in the ’90s, set in the ’50s about love and loss and I guess everything else that coming of age dramas were about in that era (I’m looking at you My Girl). I can’t say I’ve watched many of the latest generation of coming of age films, but The Man In The Moon stands out above just about any I can remember from any era. Director Robert Mulligan (To Kill A Mockingbird) doesn’t set a foot wrong throughout the 100 minute runtime. The film is sensitive to the realities of life on the cusp of childhood and young-adulthood without ever really indulging in the sappy sentimentality that accompanies most of us when we look back on our youth. The Man In The Moon instead feels like a film fortifying itself for the world to come, not without optimism, but with a dose realism and an eye for the things that matter most, the things that will last. A lot is made about Reese Witherspoon in this, her debut, and for good reason. She absolutely lights up the screen with a performance that lights up the screen and puts veteran actors to shame. Maybe it’s the fact that she was truly still a kid yet to come into her own that makes her perfect for The Man In The Moon. Sam Waterston, too, is at his best as her hard-working father, a man of few, but always poignant words. Incredible cinematography by Freddie Francis (The Innocents).

Daily Projections, 6-4-2019: Miquette et sa mère (1950)

Title: Miquette et sa mère
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Country of Origin: France
Year: 1950
Screening format: Blu-ray
Setting: home
First viewing? yes

A film Clouzot apparently had little interest in making and greeted with equal disinterest by critics and audiences alike, though still very funny if you ask me. Two timid lovebirds (Miquette and Urbain) kept apart by a scheming uncle-Marquis who has designs of his own on Miquette as she strives to make it as an actress in order to make jealous the lover she believes has jilted her. The humor is broadly farcical, blend of irony and slapstick, not unlike Preston Sturges, though considerably more French and likely to have scandalized American audiences of the time (e.g. a particular ancestor is well regarded for having had the Sun King). The very best scenes are played between Danièle Delorme (Miquette) and Bourvil (Urbain). The latter a gifted physical comedian who plays the bumbling idiot well and the former with a gift for portraying the coquettish ingenue. Something in the way Delorme glides through the film, even in the comedic moments, the way she dodges an aspiring lover’s advances while never seeming to notice them, is almost balletic. There is an air about her performance which recalls…someone, though I can’t say for sure who. Perhaps Sidney Fox in Once In A Lifetime. Miquette et sa mère gets a bad rap for some reason, though you won’t hear it from me.

Daily Projections, 5-22-2019: Miracle In The Rain (1956)

Title: Miracle In The Rain
Director: Rudolph Maté
Country of Origin: USA
Year: 1956
Screening format: TV (TCM)
Setting: home
First viewing? yes

Aired following Minnelli’s The Clock. Recorded for later viewing because people on Twitter kept going on about how good it was. Miracle In The Rain begins like a standard wartime romance. A soldier (Van Johnson) in the city on a pass meets a girl (Jane Wyman) and wriggles his way into her life (sounds a lot like The Clock so far), they fall in love and promise to get married after the war. Miracle In The Rain continues to play like standard romance until midway through the picture Van Johnson is killed in action. From which point, Ruth (Wyman) becomes despondent and fixated on a statue of St. Andrew in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It’s different, certainly. Van Johnson is Van Johnson, but the more impressive performance is turned in by Wyman (only a few years before the oldish maiden aunt in Pollyanna) as an always demuring Ruth finally allowing herself a bit of happiness only to have it dashed away. If anything, Miracle In The Rain (novella, story and script by Ben Hecht) is proof that Hecht could make the occasional foray away from biting cynicism, though he never really seems at home in this melodrama. Or does he? Ruth’s fixation on St. Andrew eventually leads to her becoming dangerously ill. And yet, St. Andrew is, among other things, the patron saint of protection against sore throats…and fever.

Daily Projections, 5-21-2019: The Devil Doll (1936)

Title: The Devil Doll
Director: Tod Browning
Country of Origin: USA
Year: 1936
Screening format: tV (TCM)
Setting: home
First viewing? yes

A wrongly convicted prison escapee takes advantage of a deceased acquaintance’s technology enabling him to shrink human beings down to doll size and control them with his mind. He sets up shop, disguised as an old woman, in Paris and uses his dolls to exact revenge on the people who framed him and to clear his name so his daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan) and mother may live without shame. It sounds like a Tod Browning movie because it is, made perhaps even more Tod Browning-y by cowriter Erich von Stroheim. Somehow, the “wrongly convicted” aspect of The Devil Doll makes the idea of the ever-grandfatherly Lionel Barrymore roaming around Paris killing people moderately more palatable, though there is still the element of Barrymore in drag to contend with. Maureen O’Sullivan is charming enough in her role as Barrymore’s estranged daughter, though somehow she doesn’t make nearly the impression of her fiancé Toto (played by Frank Lawton). Interesting moral concepts arise at multiple points during the film, issues like guilt and shame and revenge. Barrymore’s Lavond frequently shows signs of guilt over his actions – in an “it took prison to turn me into a criminal” kind of way – though any sense of guilt is ultimately trumped by a sense of responsibility to his remaining family.