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.

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: Mieheke (1936)

Title: Mieheke
Director: Valentin Vaala
Country of Origin: Finland
Year: 1936
Screening format: DVD
Setting: Home
First viewing? yes

A little white lie spirals out of control. How many times have we heard that one before? It’s films like Mieheke, I suppose that lead to the inevitable comparison of Valentin Vaala with Ernst Lubitsch. It certainly isn’t the serious melodramas like Ihmiset Suviyösää, beautiful though they may be, that gave Vaala his reputation for “sophisticated urban comedy”. Mieheke gives Finland born, Michigan raised actress Tuulikki Paananen the first major role of her brief career (the most well-known in the US being Consuelo Contreras in Lewton’s The Leopard Man). Paananen plays a young woman who lies about being married in order to obtain a job as a secretary. When her employer insists on meeting her husband, she plucks one from the cafe across the street in the form of Tauno Palo. In true “sophisticated urban” fashion, the men are incorrigible philanderers and the women love to tease. In keeping with the Lubitsch tradition, there are even a handful of musical numbers. Tuulikki Paananen, in her first starring role, is an absolute delight as the waifish mastermind of this particular marriage plot. We also get to spend a few memorable minutes with a still quite young Regina Linnanheimo a few years before she would turn in a blistering performance in Teuvo Tulio’s Levoton Veri.

Daily Projections: The Clock (1945)

Title: The Clock
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Country of Origin: USA
Year: 1945
Screening format: TV (TCM)
Setting: Home
First viewing? no

Could Vincente Minnelli’s whirlwind wartime romance The Clock have been made had it not been, well, wartime? In a sense, yes. Light speed romance movies had been made before (Lonesome: 1928) and since (Before Sunrise: 1995) with several others in between. But The Clock has a subtle lyricism about it that I don’t think can be found in similar films, and much of that is due to the wartime setting. Robert Walker is, after all, a soldier on leave, about to return to the front. As such, there is a cloud of potentially impending doom constantly hovering in the background. And, though characters rarely address it directly, they do live as though every moment is precious because there really may not be a future for them. It’s actually refreshing to see Judy Garland act without breaking into song at any point. And James Gleason is always a highlight of any film he appears in. But what is most remarkable about The Clock is the elegance with which the subject matter is treated. Minnelli never really resorts to melodrama or sappy romance, though the temptation must have been very real. The Clock is instead funny, romantic, suspenseful, heart-breaking and uplifting. It is genuinely sweet and unselfconscious and, like any whirlwind romance, over all too quickly.

Daily Projections, 2-12-2019: Cold War (2018)

Title: Cold War
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Country of Origin: Poland
Year: 2018
Screening format: DCP
Setting: Belcourt Theatre
First viewing? Yes

Notes: I’ve barely made a sound since this one finished. No one in the theater did, either. Everyone left the room in silence. It seems wrong to behave any other way. Going in, I had my doubts that Cold War could ever live up to the impossible standard set by Pawlikowski’s last film, Ida. They are, certainly, distinct from each other, but are propelled by the same icy poetry that buoyed Bergman’s best films of the ’50s and ’60s (the same era in which Cold War—and Ida—take place). Cold War is the story of a single romance told through vignettes against the backdrop of the Cold War. Each character lives a separate life that happens entirely offscreen. It could easily seem that Pawlikowski is taking the easy way out, ditching exposition altogether in favor fleeting vignettes. But that is the point. At one point, Wiktor refers to Zula as “the woman of my life”. Those moments are everything. They are the only thing. In some sense, I suppose Cold War is a road movie about two people traveling in separate vehicles whose journeys sync up only when fate (and traffic) allow. The music (brilliantly chosen throughout) makes for a wonderfully evocative third character. It’s also pleasant to note that Lukasz Zal’s perfect cinematography in Ida was no fluke.

Daily Projections, 1-11-2019: Winter Woman (1977)

Title: Winter Woman
Director: KIM Ho-sun
Country of Origin: South Korea
Year: 1977
Screening format: Streaming (YouTube)
Setting: Home
First viewing? Yes

Notes: Winter Woman was, apparently, the best selling Korean film of the 1970s, based on a popular novel with a rather leftist message (at least for 1970s South Korea). I haven’t read the novel and I won’t pretend to be an expert on that period of Korean history. All I can say for sure is that Winter Woman, especially the first hour, tends to err on the side of confusing. I had to pause the film multiple times to consult a synopsis of the novel in order to understand what was happening on the screen only to find out come the end that Winter Woman the film is only kinda like the novel to the point that, if you changed the title and the character names, someone familiar with both could easily write off any similarities as coincidence. Anyway, the film made Chang Mi-hee a star in Korea, but so much of her performance is overshadowed by an overindulgence in non-diegetic sound (far too much reverb on all narrated segments and a soundtrack alternating between Bach and cheesy 1970s synthesizers). I know the point of the film is, ostensibly, the sexual autonomy of Korean women, which is all well and good, but I can’t help but think that I-hwa’s naïveté sets her up for trouble early on. Twice, she tells a man (different men) “I’ll go anywhere with you”. Not a good idea.

Daily Projections, 1-3-2019: Twilight of a Woman’s Soul (1913)

Title: Twilight of a Woman’s Soul
Director: Evgeni Bauer
Country of Origin: Russia
Year: 1913
Screening format: DVD
Setting: Home
First viewing? Yes

Pre-Revolutionary Russian cinema. It’s interesting to note the stark difference between this and the groundbreaking work of the likes of Eisenstein and Vertov only a decade later. Not that Evgeni Bauer is without his merits. Surely, he is one of the first true masters of cinema. Those familiar with films of this era will note the difference in Bauer’s framing and composition, even in this very early example of his work. Vera is a wealthy but lonely aristocrat who has decided to dedicate her life to helping the poor. On one particular outing, she is raped by an “injured” man who she, in turn, kills. Later, when her new husband learns of these events (on their honeymoon, no less) he leaves her. At least, I think he leaves her. It’s possible she leaves him. The lack of intertitles makes it a little difficult to tell if she is kicked out or decides to leave willingly. What is not unclear is the surprising emphasis everyone seems to place on the sex part of the rape (rather than the crime of it) and the fact that the subsequent murder is, practically, an afterthought. Overall, Twilight of a Woman’s Soul is a film about guilt: Vera’s guilt over her past experiences and her husband’s guilt over treating her with undue harshness. The only ones who appear to experience no guilt are the poor, who are not painted in a good light at all.