IN THE INDISPENSABLE book-length series of interviews François Truffaut conducted with Alfred Hitchcock in 1962, the British director is asked by his worshipful interlocutor to say “a few words on silent films, in general.” The Master of Suspense ends a brief disquisition on the changes to cinema wrought by the advent of sound with this maxim: “Summing it up, one might say that the screen rectangle must be charged with emotion.” As abundantly demonstrated in “The Hitchcock 9”—a traveling program of brand-new restorations of the director’s extant, long underseen silent films that kicks off at the new Steinberg Screen at BAM’s Harvey Theater on June 29—his impeccable instincts for enthralling those gazing at that rectangle were present at the very start of his fifty-one-year career.
Some of what would become the director’s best-known motifs—a blonde in peril, a man falsely accused, a cameo by the filmmaker himself—appear in the taut thriller Blackmail (1929), both Hitchcock’s last silent movie and his first talkie (he shot two versions). Fair-haired Alice (Anny Ondra), the sweetheart of a Scotland Yard detective (John Longden), starts seeing an artist on the sly. After some mild flirtation in his garret, the painter tries to rape Alice; she kills him with a bread knife. The distraught young woman begins to see hands clutching blades everywhere, a hallucination memorably rendered when a neon advertisement for a cocktail becomes a flashing sign of repeated stabbing motions.
That transmogrifying billboard is just one of many brilliant visual flourishes on display in this nonet. “[T]he silent pictures were the purest form of cinema,” Hitchcock declared in his exchange with Truffaut, and what’s most thrilling about this series is witnessing how the man who would make Vertigo and Psycho decades later was already evincing technical virtuosity, confidently experimenting with camera and editing tricks.
“The Hitchcock 9” offers other types of discovery, too, particularly in films like The Ring (1927), which shows the director working in an atypical genre: the romantic dramedy boxing movie. Hitchcock’s sole original screenplay, The Ring opens at an amusement park (a setting he’d return to in 1951’s Strangers on a Train), where Australian pugilist Bob (Ian Hunter) makes a big impression on carnival ticket taker Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis) after knocking out her boyfriend, “One Round” Jack (Carl Brisson), and giving her a serpentine gold bangle. Hitchcock plays with reflections—in mirrors, on bodies of water, at the bottom of a champagne glass—and distorts reality altogether, waggishly depicting a drunk’s POV. This jocularity, rarely associated with Hitchcock films, appears throughout The Ring, particularly at Mabel and Jack’s wedding: Siamese twins and other fairground attractions fill up the pews; a groomsman hopelessly fumbles with the wedding band. But whether anomalous or presaging the director’s later classics, the titles in “The Hitchcock 9” prove what Truffaut so ardently believed: “In Hitchcock’s work a film-maker is bound to find the answer to many of his own problems, including the most fundamental question of all: how to express oneself by purely visual means.”
“The Hitchcock 9” runs at BAMcinématek June 29 through July 3.
Pedro Almodóvar, I’m So Excited!, 2013, color, sound, 95 minutes. Fajas, Ulloa, and Joserra (Carlos Areces, Raúl Arévalo, and Javier Cámara). Photo: Paola Ardizzoni and Emilio Pereda.
AN ADEQUATE PREDICTOR of how much one enjoys Pedro Almodóvar’s brash comedy I’m So Excited! might be how much one agrees with this statement: “Probably, intending to be campy is always harmful.” That aperçu, number twenty in Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” which follows her distinction between “naive” and “deliberate” camp, points to the main disappointment in the Spanish eminence’s twentieth feature, a return to the extravagant outrages of his early work in the 1980s. During that post-Franco period, Almodóvar’s sexually audacious, highly irreverent projects, populated by trannies, lezzie drug addicts, and pederasts, were at the vanguard of a newly liberated national culture and presaged the New Queer Cinema. And though a bit of errant cum dribbling from a character’s mouth will always get a laugh from me, much of I’m So Excited! plays like a second-rate drag queen’s Provincetown act: too broad and a little too pleased with its own naughtiness.
A mincing, jazz-handsy, lip-synched number, as wearisome as those endlessly performed in tourist traps in gay-resort towns around the world, is, in fact, the film’s centerpiece: Three flaming stewards for the fictional Península Airlines put on a choreographed show to the 1982 Pointer Sisters’ hit of the title for the first-class passengers on a technically bedeviled flight en route to Mexico City. (The English rendering of the original punning Los amantes pasajeros—which can be translated as either “The Fleeting Lovers” or “The Passenger Lovers”—plus the extraneous exclamation mark only adds to the sense of deliberate, enervating camp.) Travelers in the luxe section of the Airbus 340 include those with typically outlandish Almodóvarian professions, played by regulars in the director’s oeuvre, such as virginal, middle-aged psychic Bruna (Lola Dueñas, a member of the ensemble of Volver from 2006), and dominatrix to the 1 percent Norma (Cecilia Roth, best-known for 1999’s All About My Mother).
While Bruna and Norma recall any number of Almodóvar’s earthy, forthright heroines, one of their cabinmates—a swindling banker unsubtly named Señor Más, or “Mr. More” (José Luis Torrijo)—is a symbol of Spain’s present-day financial crisis; other allusions to the country’s ongoing economic woes include the unconscious state of all those in coach, whose complimentary bottles of water were spiked with muscle relaxant. (Almodóvar likes soporific-adulterated substances: The characters in his breakthrough film, 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, gulped down gazpacho laced with sleeping pills.)
As economy class snoozes, the action at the front of the plane—including the cockpit, here with multiple meanings—becomes more frenzied and free-loving, particularly after the flight attendants, having finished their pantomime of Anita, June, and Ruth, mixes up a pitcher of mescaline-infused Valencia cocktail. And yet the prolonged scene of vigorous hetero rutting, Bruna’s ecstatic deflowering, and same- and different-sex blow-jobbing unleashes none of the erotic anarchic energy that defined Almodóvar’s earlier movies. Instead, the thrusting and humping are far less arousing than the film’s ravishing production design—the one aspect of the director’s work that remains unimpeachable.
I’m So Excited! opens in New York and Los Angeles on June 28.
William A. Seiter, One Touch of Venus, 1948, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 82 minutes. Eddie Hatch and Venus (Robert Walker and Ava Gardner).
AVA GARDNER HASN’T HAD the pop afterlife of Marilyn Monroe, whose graven image adorns countless T-shirts, posters, and handbags in guises ranging from retro-chic to Warholesque to gangster rococo (varieties including tattooed, tattooed angel, tattooed with death’s-head, and bandanna-masked with and without guns). Immediately preceding Monroe, Gardner’s heyday ran from The Killers in 1946 to The Barefoot Contessa in 1954, and she was more admired as a natural beauty and a devastating sex symbol. She wasn’t any good at playing the victim, or being one.
The jacket copy for Lee Server’s Ava Gardner: “Love is Nothing” (2006) sounds like hard-boiled hyperbole—or a Tex Avery cartoon—but it is actually a pretty accurate assessment: “Men, literally, had to prop themselves against buildings when she walked by…” (It wasn’t only men who saw her that way: “She was so beautiful,” singer Rosemary Clooney sighed, “it made your eyes hurt to look at her.”) Still photos never did her justice. Gardner’s presence, the no-bullshit way she carried and expressed herself, was the deepest source of her magnetism. In a time when movies were typically tongue-tied and phobic when it came to sex, no woman was more comfortable with her own body or voicing her desires than Gardner, and she came to represent all that couldn’t be admitted or shown—or touched.
In One Touch of Venus, made in 1948 at the height of postwar sex-role retrenchment and backlash against independent women, she is window dressing personified: a statue of Venus kissed by bumbling department store lackey Robert Walker and brought to life. Adapted from a pedigreed Broadway musical (composed by Kurt Weill, with lyrics by Ogden Nash and book by the legendary S. J. Perelman and Nash), it scavenged the show for bare plot bones and spare parts, excised most of the music, and brought in slapstick specialist Frank Tashlin as a co-writer. The result predictably feels like moviemaking-by-committee, the chief aim of which is to engineer how Gardner may expose as much flesh as permitted within the strict censorship guidelines of the period. Wrapped in a chiffon toga, she was shadowed by a prop man with a portable heater. His job was to keep her breasts warm so her nipples wouldn’t keep getting erect and ruining takes. This ballet of decorum and titillation is more hilarious than any of the gags cooked up for One Touch of Venus: trying so hard to make innuendo while never letting on to a single impure thought, with Gardner gliding among the chintzy sets with the imperturbable assurance of someone happiest being naked and tickled by the effect she has on these foolish mortals.
She gives the good-natured performance of a woman who is used to humoring men, until their desperate eagerness to please becomes a bore. Robert Walker’s infantile hero never rises to the level of man-child; he presents a forlorn amalgam of puberty and emasculation. As the ostensible all-American love interest, he looks like a startled cross between the eternally boyish Robert Cummings and an eternally twisted Peter Lorre—a confused affect that Hitchcock would harness and elaborate to such beatifically diabolical ends in Strangers on a Train, but here he is a dithering wreck bolting from closet to closet, never more unconvincing that when trying to act assertive, declaring, “I know my own mind.”
Give me Eve Arden’s simple old-fashioned Hollywood sexual orientation as the brusque, wisecracking, man-hungry lesbian—aka the career woman, whose professional aptitude means she can’t get a husband and therefore her self-deprecating wit must attest to her fraught need for one. She gets her man—her boss, of course—in the end thanks to Venus, but poor Eve and Ava would make a more believable couple: They share a mutual bemusement at heterosexual folly and the male id(iot). One Touch of Venus gives you a sense of how far movies had retreated from the smart, irreverent screwball comedies of Hawks and Sturges—directors Gardner never got a chance to work with, who might have given her more memorable vehicles than this Etch-a-Sketch template for I Dream of Jeannie–type sitcoms to come. But it provides an agreeable glimpse of an actual movie goddess, a term that has been thrown around a lot but was never so breathtakingly applicable than to this icon of polyamory and romantic anarchy. Mogambo is her truest film work, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman her nuttiest (she would have been perfect for a Kubrick remake of Pandora’s Box—as a black comedy), but all her best unprintable lines were in real life. A smart-assed reporter asked her what she saw in that bum Sinatra, in 1952 “just a hundred-and-nineteen-pound has been.” “Well, I’ll tell you—nineteen pounds is cock.”
Now that would look great on a T-shirt or tote bag.
One Touch of Venus is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Olive Films.
Andrew Dosunmu, Mother of George, 2013, RED Epic, color, sound, 106 minutes. Adenike Balogun (Danai Gurira).
NOW IN ITS FIFTH YEAR, BAMcinemaFest has become a place not only to discover small, unheralded gems but also to preview idiosyncratic movies scheduled to open later in the summer or in the fall. The discerning audience that the festival has cultivated gives great word of mouth. The two not-to-miss movies, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (opening in July) and Andrew Dosunmu’s Mother of George (opening in September), suggest that the once promising project of American independent film has not entirely devolved into Hollywood calling cards or Malick “homages.”
Set in Crown Heights’ Yoruba community (which makes BAM the ideal place to see this movie), Mother of George stars two remarkable actors, Danai Gurira and Isaach De Bankolé, as a married couple who are having difficulty conceiving a child. Refusing to allow the patriarchal line to come to an end, the potential grandmother insists that the wife resort to a traditional practice, which is difficult for men and women who have begun to assimilate to accept. Shot in scope ratio with an extremely shallow depth of field (cinematographer Bradford Young employed the RED Epic), every image suggests the way one sees and feels when one is between two worlds. Just as visually striking, albeit meaningfully impoverished, Computer Chess is an adolescent nerd’s anxiety dream crossed with a faux documentary about a computer chess tournament set in a predigital world of Portapak video and fifty-pound computer terminals with eight-inch screens. Patrick Riester is perfect as a naive contestant wandering the corridors of a Kubrickian hotel where ghostly cats and sexually aggressive women lurk at every turn.
Less striking stylistically, Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner and Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 are moving, honestly introspective narratives about halfway-house counselors who forge empathetic relationships with their troubled clients. The difference between the two films is that the fear of future in Martin Bonner is particular to middle-aged men, while in Short Term 12, traumatized teens are helped toward becoming independent adults. The ensemble cast of the latter film is so in sync and true to the experiences of their characters that at many moments, one might mistake fiction for documentary.
Also distinguished by some wonderful young actors, Tom Gilroy’s The Cold Lands is a geographically contained road movie about a bewildered, newly orphaned boy (Silas Yelich) who forges a relationship with a barely adult traveling salesman. And in Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love, a fourteen-year-old girl (Gina Piersanti) in mourning for her mother pretends to vast sexual experience when she tags along with her older, sexually promiscuous girlfriend. The objects of the girls’ indiscriminate desire are a group of aspiring white rappers with regular jobs who hang out after hours watching porn and improvising lyrics, “Some girl, I popped her pussy like acne,” being a high point of their macho posturing. Piersanti captures the heroine’s desperation to be certified as sexually desirable, but in her insistence on fragmenting every scene, Hittman doesn’t give this expressive and intelligent actor the space she needs to get under the character’s skin—or ours. (I worried more about the girl’s dog than I did about her.) Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl (2001) is clearly the movie’s inspiration, but while narratively elliptical, Breillat almost never breaks within individual scenes. Hittman’s revision of Breillat’s characteristic editing strategy makes It Felt Like Love feel like Breillat-lite.
Tom Gilroy, The Cold Lands, 2013, color, sound, 101 minutes. Atticus (Silas Yelich).
The festival doesn’t lack for comedies, the most amusing of which is Michael M. Bilandic’s graduate art school satire, Hellaware. Here a hapless, aspiring documentary photographer seizes the Bushwick moment with his images of a Delaware-based (hence the title) rap group who’ve taken Insane Clown Posse much too seriously. On the other hand, Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies is proof that even a first-rate cinematographer (Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Ben Richardson) has zero effect on Swanberg’s lugubrious improvised dialogue and predictable plots. What two class acts like Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick are doing with Swanberg and his crew of interchangeable, self-pitying bushy-browed, brunette guys is something that their agents should have to explain.
The documentary selection is first rate. Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman’s Remote Area Medical is on site with the titular volunteer team that provides basic care to people in need. Here the relief corps sets up shop for three days at the vast Bristol Motor Speedway in Pikesville, Kentucky, where thousands of people who haven’t seen a doctor or a dentist since grade school (if ever) camp out in line for days to get their abscessed teeth pulled or have a basic physical exam. The organization formerly served in third-world countries but turned its focus to the US when it became clear that the need is just as great here. As a vérité doc, Remote Area Medical eschews specific political analysis, but one suspects that most of the clinic’s grateful clients voted Republican and will continue to do so. Anyone who believes, as Bush 43 claimed, that everyone in America can get the medical care they need by going to an emergency room should be forced to watch Remote Area Medical with their eyes in the kind of vise Kubrick applied to Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.
While Lucy Walker’s brilliant The Crash Reel is headed for HBO this summer, it takes the big screen to do justice to the kineticism of its championship snowboarding sequences. The focus is the once gravity-defying Kevin Pearce, who suffered a massive head trauma practicing for the Olympic tryouts in 2009 on the twenty-two-foot walls of Park City, Utah’s half-pipe. (The height of the walls for competitive snowboarding has, we’re told, tripled, while helmets only provide protection for seventeen-foot falls.) The movie follows Pearce’s near-miraculous recovery and his attempt, despite the opposition of his immensely supportive and loving family, to return to the slopes. Walker then opens out from Pearce’s misperception of his own body’s capability to the problem of brain injuries in general, and how they can lead to the chaotic emotions and dangerous behavior that, with increasing frequency, have become headline news. Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq’s These Birds Walk is a vivid, enormously affecting depiction of the daily life of a few of the runaway boys who live in one of Karachi’s Edhi orphanages, part of a huge philanthropic organization that has been the life work of Pakistan’s devoted, elderly Abdul Satar Edhi. As a depiction of the codes of male behavior among poor kids in Pakistan and the adults who find meaning through caring for them, it is an eye-opener beginning to end.
BAMcinemaFest chose for its opening night film David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a Malick-infatuated Texas melodrama about which the less said the better.
The fifth annual BAMcinemaFest runs through June 28, 2013 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.
David Cronenberg, Crash, 1996, 35 mm, color, sound, 100 minutes.
BORN IN THE DYING YEARS of the Victorian era, scarcely a decade apart, the automobile and the movie camera are almost exact contemporaries. Ever since, their destinies have been interwoven, together creating an age of The Windshield and The Screen.
At various times it’s been asserted that the essence of moving pictures is the chase, the car chase in particular being the vein with the richest history. Anthology Film Archives’s “Auto-Cinema” program is distinctly not interested in that sort of car movie, but rather in movies where filmmakers variously use the car as a dramatic staging ground. Even within these parameters, there’s a wide world of films to choose from, and “Auto-Cinema,” composed of seven features and a shorts program, can’t help but be defined by its omissions: Where is Pialat’s We Will Not Grow Old Together? Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop? Straub and Huillet’s History Lessons? Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs?
“Auto-Cinema”s narrative selection is built around two auteur tentpoles, while the rest of the program generally has a noncommercial, experimental leaning. Chip Lord, cocreator of Amarillo’s monumental car-culture art installation Cadillac Ranch, is represented by the 1989 faux doc Motorist. From behind the wheel of a ’62 Ford Thunderbird, driving cross-country, Richard Marcus recalls his youth during the Golden Age of the American automobile. His recollections are intercut with vintage advertisements, their fin-tail futurism complementing stop-offs in hyperreality, in the UFO-crazy Sun Belt. Underlining the film’s long view in which one civilization’s artifacts inevitably become another’s status symbols, Marcus crosses the boxed-and-shipped London Bridge in Lake Havasu, Arizona, to deliver a Japanese collector the T-bird, a relic of “an advanced mechanical civilization that no longer exists.”
Another east-to-west cross-country travelogue, Bette Gordon and James Benning’s car radio-scored bicentennial film The United States of America is included in the shorts program, also featuring Alfred Leslie’s 1964 The Last Clean Shirt. Leslie’s film thrice runs the same single take, shot from the backseat of a biracial couple’s convertible as they drive from Astor Place to Macy’s on Thirty-Fourth Street. First the jabbering wife’s gobbledygook monologue is untranslated; the second time around, it’s subtitled; the third time, the subtitles spell out the silent man’s thoughts. The text, jaunty and flittering, was provided by the poet Frank O’Hara and offers an observation on a world in which drivers have supplanted citizens, an observation that might subtitle this series: “It’s the nature of all of us to want to be unconnected.”
Disconnection is pandemic in the future-present world of Léos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012). Denis Lavant plays a sort-of street theater virtuoso who’s squired around Paris in a white limousine, donning a new disguise at each appointment, where he will perform for a presumed invisible audience. There are moments in which Holy Motors actually is the vivid dream of the mechanical-to-digital age zeitgeist that it aspires to be—say, when the acrobatic Lavant dons a motion capture suit and engages in contortionist, fleshless sex with a spandex-suited partner, creaking like leatherette upholstery. But such an episodic film is only the sum of its parts, and Holy Motors is often logy with import—not to speak of that unmentionable Kylie Minogue song.
Left: Chip Lord, Motorist, 1989, video, color, sound, 69 minutes. Right: Abbas Kiarostami, Ten, 2002, 35 mm, color, sound, 94 minutes.
Holy Motors was one of two “drifting white limousine” movies released last year, the other being David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. Cronenberg is a certifiable gearhead—the most anomalous, for-hire piece of work in his filmography, the drag-racing flick Fast Company (1979), was made solely for the opportunity to work with fast cars. The limo in Cosmopolis stays at a stately crawl moving through a distinctly phony Manhattan; its cargo is a twenty-eight-year-old billionaire financier played by translucent-pale Robert Pattinson, lying out as though in his own coffin, the procession through crosstown traffic and rioting protesters turning into his own funeral cortege. Adapting a 2003 Don DeLillo novel, Cronenberg gets a creditable deadpan performance from Pattinson, but his film chokes up on DeLillo’s labored satire and clots of transcribed dialogue. By contrast, Cronenberg’s meeting with J. G. Ballard, adapting Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash into the 1997 film of the same name, is a custom fit. Crash, which inducts the viewer into an underground circle of car crash fetishists, is composed almost entirely of sex and head-on collisions, both arranged with a ceremonious seriousness, Cronenberg’s caressing camera making no differentiation between chrome and flesh. These man-machine conjunctions play up the cybernetic nature of the car-and-driver connection, elucidated by the cult’s resident philosopher, Vaughn, played with a pathological magnetism by a scar-wreathed Elias Koteas. (Interesting companion viewing is the slightly dotty 1971 BBC film Towards Crash, starring Ballard himself, which can be found on YouTube.)
No contemporary filmmaker, however, has dedicated themself so fully to exploring the world-through-a-windshield perspective, and the combination of proximity and isolation that exists between driver and passenger, as Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. In last year’s Japan-set Like Someone in Love, Kiarostami orchestrated a drive-by shot which ranks among his most heartbreaking: A Tokyo student moonlighting as a call girl is en route to an appointment as she listens to a string of voice messages left by her visiting grandmother, who’s trying to arrange a meeting by the train station. The girl instructs her driver to circle the station once, twice so that she may look out at the faraway, so-close old woman, expectantly waiting for a rendezvous that will never happen.
Such a beautifully calibrated moment will come as no surprise to those familiar with Kiarostami’s canonical Iranian films, two of which are playing Anthology: A Taste of Cherry (1997) and Ten (2002). The first takes place largely inside the Range Rover of its protagonist, a man who has set his mind on suicide, driving the hills around Tehran in an impossibly distended dusk which renders the atmosphere ever more hazily ethereal. Ten eliminates the exteriors altogether, its ten vignettes taking place entirely inside the car of its female protagonist, who has, it develops, recently been divorced. Here Kiarostami plays with the double-edged nature of the automobile as an element of both agency and dislocation.
“I’m interested in the automobile as a narrative structure”—Kiarostami might’ve said this, but it’s actually Ballard in Before Crash—“as a scenario that describes our real lives and our real fantasies.” Real life and fantasy are among the many dichotomies of the driver’s experience that are explored in “Auto-Cinema”: Intimacy and isolation, withdrawal and worldliness, fleshy sensuality and mechanical coldness, and a snug interiority that opens onto a boundless, ever-changing beyond.
“Auto-Cinema” runs Wednesday, June 19–Tuesday, June 25 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
SOFIA COPPOLA’S REMOTE, REPETITIVE The Bling Ring, inspired by a 2010 Vanity Fair article about a quintet of San Fernando Valley teens who broke into and robbed celebrity homes, is often as insubstantial as the reality-TV stars name-checked (and burgled) throughout. Continuing the writer-director’s favorite theme—the listlessness of the privileged—The Bling Ring centers on adolescent ennui devolving into anomie. But missing from this film are the exacting details and the perfect distillation of milieu that distinguished Coppola’s previous four (even those in which the depressive, pampered protagonists are intolerable, as in 2003’s Lost in Translation). The five felonious teens here are reduced to their cyclical actions: cooing at and pocketing ill-gotten, tacky swag, slo-mo clubbing, drug consuming, and selfie taking.
“I want my own lifestyle brand,” Marc (Israel Broussard), a new, pre-gay student at Indian Hills High School, tells his classmate Becca (Katie Chang) before she introduces him to the thrill of removing valuables—wallets, bags of coke—from unlocked cars. With the help of DListed and easily Googled VIP addresses, the two slip into Paris Hilton’s manor effortlessly (she keeps the key under the mat) while the heiress is away, marveling at her pet monkey, the throw pillows emblazoned with her image, and her holiest of hidey-holes, her “nightclub room.” (Coppola’s production designer took no liberties: Hilton, who was repeatedly robbed by the real-life juvie thieves, let the director film these scenes in her home.)
Marc and Becca soon team up with Chloe (Claire Julien) and Nicki (Emma Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga); the latter two are de facto sisters under the Adderall-dispensing, homeschooling, Secret-quoting, vision-board-making care of Nicki’s mom (Leslie Mann). Nicki, an aspiring supermodel, makes the most petulant demands: “C’mon, let’s go to Paris’s. I wanna rob.” And so we return to the socialite’s lair, this time glimpsing one of her Chihuahuas and her shoes (“Her feet are so big”). Yet the thrill of being amid such gaudy opulence stirs little excitement among this covetous group. The stripling burglars’ lassitude makes a viewer appreciate even more the ecstatic inventorying of James Franco’s Alien in Spring Breakers (“I got my blue Kool-Aid, I got my fuckin’ NUN-CHUCKS…”), still the year’s definitive movie on invidious consumption.
Though slight, The Bling Ring offers further proof of Coppola’s infallible instinct for casting young actresses. Like Kirsten Dunst in The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Elle Fanning in Somewhere (2010), Watson, the biggest name among the five housebreakers, gives a fantastic performance. Watching Harry Potter’s Hermione perfect the aggressive, flat-voweled vapidity of SoCal self-redemption speak (“I think this situation was attracted into my life as an opportunity to grow. I think it’s my journey to push for peace,” Nicki says before her court date) stands as the film’s sole revelation—a rare pleasure in an apathetic project about torpid teens.
The Bling Ring opens in limited release June 14.
James William Guercio, Electra Glide in Blue, 1973, 35 mm, color, sound, 114 minutes.
WHEN BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN wrote “Born to Run” and sang, “The highway’s jammed with broken heroes,” he might have been thinking of a then-current spate of road movies piled with unlikely co-riders and misfit loners. Two Lane Blacktop (1970), Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970), Duel (made for TV, 1971), Vanishing Point (1971), The Getaway (1972), Badlands (1973), The Sugarland Express (1974), Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974): Here was a bumpy Polaroid patchwork of the American Southwest, each snapshot presenting a different tangential angle on wide open spaces and arid claustrophobia, motorized dreams of freedom pitted against a world of roadblocks, scrap yards, tumbleweeds, and dead-end streets.
James William Guercio’s 1973 picture Electra Glide in Blue was a one-shot distillation of that tendency, a drive-in art film that gave Robert Blake his best role as pint-size, overcompensating motorcycle cop John Wintergreen, stuck patrolling a seemingly endless stretch of scarcely populated Arizona asphalt. It was a weird combination that somehow clicked. Guercio was a big-shot record producer who had made his name on brassy, crowd-pleasing albums for Blood, Sweat, & Tears and Chicago—not someone you’d think of as a natural candidate for a naturalistic film director. (He had also worked on records for the Firesign Theater, a clue there may have been more to him than his hard-sell reputation.) At this point, Blake had only two serious credits—In Cold Blood from ’67 and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here from ’69—and was probably still best known for having been a child actor in the Our Gang series (1939–44).
He brought a desperate, freewheeling conviction to the material that made it believable: Like his character, he knew this might be his only shot at getting out of the also-ran division. Guercio appreciated that, and built the movie around him with a palpable faith in his star: The reciprocity shines in scenes like Wintergreen’s getting dressed up for his first day as a plainclothes officer, dancing to the rapturous doo-wop of the Marcels’ “Most of All.” Blake throughout moves between cockiness and diffidence, a driven and scared man trying to wiggle his way through a narrow opening in a tight spot: His casual eccentricity and socially awkward will to do the right thing make him an unusually persuasive Everyman.
In film noir terms, that’s a nice word for “patsy.” But part of Electra Glide in Blue’s appeal is how it sets up a classic murder mystery—a staged suicide apparently covering up another crime—only to go off the grid and wander into less familiar terrain. It might be something as small as Wintergreen trying a pickup line on a pair of tall girls beside an ice cream truck: “Did you know me and Alan Ladd were exactly the same height, right down to the quarter inch?…Didja know he was so short, they used to have to dig a ditch just for the girls to stand in to kiss him?” Or something as charged as his paranoid, Dirty Harry–manqué boss (Mitchell Ryan) taking him to meet a woman it turns out they’re both involved with, a scene that doesn’t develop into a predictable male confrontation but rather is completely dominated by Jeannine Riley, another small-timer making the most of her chance at glory, delivering an epic, scathing monologue that leaves the two men shaken and virtually speechless. Eventually, the solution to the crime turns out to be something simple and all too human, a rebuff to the logic of conspiracy.
Guercio surrounded himself with smart pros, from cinematographer Conrad Hall to character actors Royal Dano and Elisha Cook Jr. (Cook’s desert crazy is, appropriately, the metaphoric descendant of Walter Huston’s prospector in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) The director rode in on a stagecoach’s worth of boy-genius hype, but the movie has very few ego-trip trappings—if he was determined to play the wunderkind, he would turn out to be a restrained one. (Guercio did write a pretty terrible score but employed his own music sparingly.) Using someone like Billy Green Bush, an actor who appeared in about one out of three TV shows that aired in the 1970s, he was able to defamiliarize everything about him—creating a monument to cracked instability under a seemingly straight-arrow surface. The Arizona topography is a similarly skewed composite, part Monument Valley, part cactus country. And from the looks of it, the motley motorcycle chase winds through the vicinity of Barstow or Adelanto, CA.
Electra Glide features a double ending: The first is a bizarre, deadly confrontation between Wintergreen and his partner that formally resolves the last loose end of the mystery. The second is a coda that revises (or inverts) the conclusion of Easy Rider in a tour de force reverse tracking shot that is the most sheerly pretentious and purely beautiful thing in the film, a long backward glance down the highway that turns into a visual hymn to the empty landscape. It’s a farewell to arms, dead cyclists, and all the fuel-injected fantasias of the fast-receding West.
Electra Glide in Blue is now available on Blu-Ray from Shout!Factory.
A FILM AGAINST FORGETTING, Jonathan Glazer’s majestic, outlandish Birth was itself nearly confined to oblivion shortly after it was released in the fall of 2004. It never received the accolades bestowed on another highly unconventional love story that came out earlier that year, Michel Gondry’s typically whimsical, too cute Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, whose central, just-broken-up couple attempt to erase their relationship from their memory. The somber Birth, in contrast, extols the power, no matter how destabilizing, of remembering.
Fittingly, a film about the tenacity of memory begins with an indelible opening scene: a sweatsuited man, his back to us, jogging through a snow-blanketed Central Park on a gray winter afternoon. He slows down under a bridge and collapses, a shot immediately followed by a newborn, umbilical cord still attached, emerging from a birthing pool. These striking images help viewers take an enormous leap of faith—to believe that the dead adult has been reincarnated in the infant.
Ten years later, that baby, now a grave prepubescent boy named Sean (Cameron Bright), will try to stop Anna (Nicole Kidman), the widow of the runner, from remarrying by claiming that he is her husband (whose name was also Sean). The kid is an annoyance at first, for both Anna and especially her fiancé, Joseph (Danny Huston), a doggedly persistent suitor easily threatened by his beloved’s past. But Sean, who shares with Anna intimate details about her marriage, soon completely convinces, if not seduces, her.
That this ludicrous premise works so well—few films capture as powerfully the delirium of reconnecting with someone thought to be gone forever—is testament to the deep level of conviction evinced by both cast and crew. For his second feature (after 2000’s sado-Ibero gangster romp Sexy Beast), Glazer wrote the screenplay with Milo Addica (whose first script was for 2001’s Monster’s Ball) and, revealingly, Jean-Claude Carrière, whose frequent collaborations with Luis Buñuel include That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Birth itself is about an obscure object of desire, yet one presented with supreme lucidity and focus. Little is known about Anna except that she lives with her mother (Lauren Bacall, perfectly doyenne-ish) in a luxe Fifth Avenue apartment; mundane details are excised to concentrate more fully on Anna’s growing enchantment with this enigmatic little boy.
Nothing registers that spell more intensely than Kidman’s face, particularly during a minutes-long close-up at the opera as Anna begins to allow herself to believe the impossible. With the slightest calibration—a lip quiver, a blink, a head tilt—Kidman brilliantly conveys both profound reserves of grief and the first glimmers of euphoria. Birth, which is screening at MoMA as part of a series honoring the peerless cinematographer Harris Savides, who died last year, serves another commemorative purpose: It reminds us of how great the actress, whose visage and mannerisms have only hardened in the past nine years, could be.
Abdellatif Kechiche, Blue Is the Warmest Color, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 179 minutes.
IN THE EYES OF MANY, Steven Spielberg’s jury did the right thing—or, rather, the correct thingawarding the Palme d’Or to Abdellatif Kechiche’s critically lauded lesbian drama, Blue Is the Warmest Color. Spielberg, who showed his sensitivity to French current affairs by voicing support for his host country’s cultural exception policy at last Sunday’s awards ceremony, presented the Cannes film festival’s top award to Kechiche and his two stars, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, just as another horrifying antigay demonstration was wrapping up in Paris, which has this month seen hundreds of thousands of far-right and religious extremists gathering to protest the recent passage of the marriage equality law.
A Palme with symbolic weight, this was also a popular win. Kechiche’s critical supporters, especially in France, are legion, and even most of its detractors will concede that Blue is a fine showcase for two terrific young actresses: the relatively unknown Exarchopoulos as the high schooler discovering her sexuality and the increasingly poised Seydoux as the bohemian painter who initiates the younger girl into erotic pleasure and the ways of adulthood. But as a coming-out and coming-of-age narrative, Blue is so familiar as to be redundant, and Kechiche’s rather dogged, airless conception of naturalism, predicated on distended scenes and a surplus of close-ups, largely forecloses the possibility of vitality, humor, and surprise. The detailed, protracted sex scenes—I timed the longest at seven minutes, though some wishfully clocked it at twenty—were the talk of the festival, as they were meant to be, drawing feverish praise, defensive praise, and more than a few feminist disquisitions on the male gaze. Kechiche did not exactly help his cause with the last faction by saying in interviews that he cast Exarchopoulos when he took her to lunch and was struck by her “way of eating” lemon tart; the anti-Blue camp also gained some traction with a blunt post-Palme blog post by Julie Maroh, who had written the original graphic novel and termed the film’s erotic scenes “ridiculous.”
The jury saved its other top honors for two films that seemed to have amassed the least opposition in a lackluster competition. The runner-up Grand Prix went to the Coen Brothers’ atypically fond folk-scene chronicle Inside Llewyn Davis and the third-place Jury Prize to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father like Son, a typically tender domestic melodrama about the painful aftermath of a postnatal mixup. Meanwhile, in a presumed bid for nominal edginess, best director went for the second year running to a Mexican troublemaker, although on the basis of his brutalizing narco-porn entry Heli, the young Amat Escalante lacks the instinctive hell-raising smarts of last year’s winner Carlos Reygadas.
Alain Guiraudie, Stranger by the Lake, 2013, color, sound, 97 minutes.
Cannes makes no secret or apology of its attempts to build and sustain a pantheon. But the prevalence of brand names and inner-circle auteurs means less room for discovery, and the overall impression, especially acute this year, is of an aversion to risk. The recent insistence on bringing genre pictures into the fold—a tendency in the official selection as well as the Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week sidebars—has only exacerbated the overfamiliarity. This year that meant turning an unwarranted competition spotlight on films like Takashi Miike’s clunky policier Shield of Straw and Nicolas Winding Refn’s turgid bloodbath Only God Forgives. Amid the surfeit of dead-end genre pastiches, Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin—winner of the screenplay prize—stood out as an unusually purposeful reinvention of a time-honored form, applying the martial arts movie’s sense of aggrieved injustice to the inequities of modern-day China.
Given the lockstep predictability of the competition, the Un Certain Regard parallel section remains both essential and frustrating, a hodgepodge of work too weak, too radical, or too bereft of movie stars to earn the ceremonial pomp of a red-carpet walk. One highlight here was the overdue Cannes debut of the Philippine master Lav Diaz, whose devastating Norte, the End of History, at just over four hours, demanded of its viewers perhaps the scarcest commodity at the world’s most clamorous film festival: patience. Spiraling out from a murder that links a disgruntled would-be intellectual and a kind family man, Norte immerses itself in everyday detail and surreptitiously attains the realm of mythic tragedy. At their best, Diaz’s marathon movies reveal just how much others leave out. With its rich colors and relatively streamlined narrative—his films are typically in black-and-white and last upward of six hours—Norte may be his most resounding and accessible demonstration yet of duration as a means of complexity and depth.
Also consigned to Un Certain Regard, Alain Guiraudie’s critical hit Stranger by the Lake—winner of a directing prize and the Queer Palm for gay-themed films—unfolds entirely in the vicinity of a nudist pickup spot that in the course of the movie becomes a crime scene. If the girl-on-girl sequences in Blue Is the Warmest Color are showstoppers by design, Guiraudie films his male characters’ hard-core dalliances, all conducted al fresco, with the same matter-of-fact sensuousness as ripples on a lake and the shifting light of dusk. A lethally precise film resting on a provocative tangle of wayward impulses—at times it suggests Cruising as directed by Hong Sang-soo—Stranger is many films in one: a minimalist thriller, a work of subcultural ethnography, and above all a tale of amour fou.
Back in the competition, two idiosyncratic bright spots emerged in the home stretch, although both—from American directors more popular abroad—divided critics and left empty-handed. In James Gray’s The Immigrant, a Polish woman’s arrival on Ellis Island in 1921 marks the start of an absorbing saga of disillusionment. The period world that Gray creates on limited means is at once vividly detailed and magically circumscribed; his taste for operatic emotion is here held in check by a withholding narrative and the characters, enigmatic yet sharply etched, are played with note-perfect ambiguity by Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard. Misleadingly branded a vampire movie, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is a wry, tender portrait of (extremely) long-term coupledom and encroaching mortality, as experienced by a pair of centuries-old bloodsuckers (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton). The couple’s seen-it-all perspective accommodates both goofball whimsy and apocalyptic ennui. Achingly sad and ravishingly beautiful, Only Lovers Left Alive is a rare gift from our most youthful sixty-year-old filmmaker: an autumnal work that is also a rejuvenating one.
The 66th Cannes film festival ran May 15–26, 2013.