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July 25, 2023

Revoir Paris

revoir paris.jpeg

Alice Winocour - 2022
Music Box Film DVD

Hands are a key part in several films by Alice Winocour. The title character in Augustine is a young epileptic woman with a clawed left hand. After she takes a serious tumble, Augustine realizes her hand is no longer paralyzed and in addition to moving her fingers, she is apparently cured of her epilepsy. She is last seen running away from the medical institution which was as enlightened as might be expected in 19th Century France, that both improved her condition but also kept her imprisoned as a subject for experimental treatment. In Disorder, the right fist of the veteran soldier, used with powerful force to fatally punch a would-be kidnapper in the face, also forces the soldier to distance himself from the woman he has been hired to protect.

In Revoir Paris, Mia searches for the unknown man who held her hand in the darkness, among the people hoping to survive a terrorist attack at a restaurant. When Mia makes love with Tommy, another survivor of the attack, Winocour films close-ups of the hands of her actors caressing each other, exploring their respective wounds.

The French title translates as "Paris Memories" which not only sounds sappy but is misleading. Winocour's film was inspired by Bataclan shooting, one of several coordinated terrorist attacks that took place in Paris in 2015. Winocour's brother was a survivor of the theater massacre that left 90 people dead. Most of the film is about Mia's recovering of her memories of what happened that night. While not always signified as such, several of the fragmented memories are from Mia's point of view. The terrorists are only visible as partial black shapes. There are brief bursts of light illuminating the bodies on the restaurant floor. At one point, Winocour breaks to have the Senegalese cook, the man Mia is looking for, tell his story. The fragmented memories has its literal iteration in the form of a postcard, a small detail in one of Monet's Water Lillies paintings, the link a young woman has with her parents who were among the restaurant victims.

While the film does not discuss the identity or motivation of the terrorists, it is not entirely apolitical. By breaking the narrative to show the cook's point of view, Winocour touches upon how the Parisian restaurant industry depends of immigrant labor, some of which is extralegal. Mia connects with other survivors of the attack both as a means of remembering that which has been forgotten or blocked out, but also to verify her own memories. The psychological wounds such that even after several months, Mia finds it diffucult to resume her former life. Mia moves to a friend's apartment located across the street from the Place de la Republique. Winocour recreates the gathering of people who have annually gathered to memorialize the Bataclan shooting since 2015.

The DVD comes with interviews with Winocour and stars Virginie Efira and Benoit Magimel, plus a post screening discussion from the Cannes Film Festival of 2022.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:44 AM

July 21, 2023

A Dandy in Aspic


Anthony Mann - 1968
KL Studio Classics BD Regions ABC

The basic narrative of A Dandy in Aspic is played out in the opening credits. A faceless, featureless marionette is manipulated by very visible strings. The hands of the puppeteer appear from the top of the frame. The more the marionette moves, the more it gets tangled up in its strings until it can not move anymore.

Adapted from Derek Marlowe's novel, this is a low key genre film released at the time when spy thrillers were still popular. There are no big action set pieces or fantastic technology. Even the sex is muted. Even though the film was made during the era known as The Cold War, with British spies versus Russian spies, the heart of the story is a double agent manipulated into chasing himself. While identified mostly as the British agent Eberlin, he is the targeted Russian Krasnevin. The aspic here is West Berlin, and Eberlin's attempts to return to Russia.

The film is now mostly remembered as the last film by director Anthony Mann. As Mann, only 61 years old, died while on location in West Berlin, much of the film was directed by star Laurence Harvey. This is one film that would have greatly benefitted from a commentary track by someone well versed in the films by Anthony Mann. The brief supplement from film critic Richard Combs is helpful in identifying those parts of the film that show Mann's hand. Several of the exterior shots have Harvey seen behind bars or grating, as if already caught in a trap. There are interior shots with a character in close-up on one side of the screen while two other characters are seen in full shot on the other side. Combs uses a couple of shots from El Cid, erroneously titled as shots from Fall of the Roman Empire, to make his point. There are very few alternating close-ups in the scenes of dialogue. Most of the film is composed of two-shots and group shots, as if to say that while Harvey's character is in opposition to virtually everyone else, he can not separate himself from the world without destroying himself. There are also a number of zoom ins, visually underling, that is not visually characteristic of Mann's work.

Derek Marlowe thought Laurence Harvey was miscast as Eberlin. There is a sense of detachment in Harvey's performance that makes sense for a man disconnected from his true identity. There may be something too personal for the Lithuanian born Zvi Mosheh Skikne who became an iconic British movie star. Tom Courtenay appears as Harvey's supervisor and nemesis. The film marks the first of three films released in 1968 in which Mia Farrow received star billing, a young woman who seems to coincidentally appear in Harvey's life. If you look close enough during a scene in Farrow's apartment, you can spot husband Frank Sinatra's album by a turntable. The most delightful performance is Lionel Stander as a top Soviet agent, doling out Cuban cigars and made-up Russian aphorisms.

A Dandy in Aspic also goes against the grain of the time by not showing a "Swinging London" where the first half of the film takes place. Visually, the film partially recalls Mann's film noir roots, of questionable men doing questionable deeds under the cover of darkness.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:18 AM

July 18, 2023



Carolina Cavalli - 2022
Oscilloscope Laboratories

Amanda introduces its titular character as a young woman who simultaneously longs for friendship while closing herself off from breaking her self-isolation. In her mid-Twenties, she is one of a line of single men and women attending revivals of classic films. At a cavernous space, she is one of maybe a dozen people wandering alone to the sound of techno dance music. There is a pervasive sense of disconnection, that Amanda is part of a generation of young adults who choose to isolate themselves from the world, for their own reasons. While this is an Italian film, the story of the difficulty of creating and maintaining active friendships could take place anywhere.

Amanda's family has moved back to Turin after living in Paris. Amanda is encouraged to visit Rebecca, the daughter of her mother's best friend. Rationalizing that had her family not moved, Rebecca and Amanda would have grown up to be best friends, Amanda decides her mission is to ingratiate herself, unaware that Rebecca is both more rebellious and reclusive. It is at this particular moment that Cavalli films actress Benedetta Porcaroli with the film's title superimposed over her image, striding towards the camera like a heroine in her own western, 25 minutes into the film.

The second third of the film is in part about the battle of wills between Amanda and Rebecca. Door slamming from Rebecca eventually gives way to Amanda's persistence. A tentative truce becomes friendship marked by a shared distrust of family and society at large. Amanda and Rebecca's relationship mostly exists in Rebecca's room, in a modern, fortress-like mansion. On her own, Amanda's attempts at relationships turn awry in her small town with would-be boyfriends.

Amanda is the kind of character one can enjoy watching on film, the sometime comic, anti-social, anti-heroine. It is the kind of role that is usually played by male actors as men who are not particularly distinctive except they are in a state of rebellion against either their family or society in general. What would be judged as annoying in real like is amusing to watch on the screen. Carolina Cavalli has noted in an interview that she was inspired by the classic literary characters of Matilda and Pippi Longstocking, wondering what they would have been like as young adults. She has cited filmmakers Aki Kaurismaki and Roy Anderson for a shared sense of off-kilter humor. Currently playing in New York City and Los Angeles, Amanda is scheduled for upcoming theatrical screenings in U.S. art and indie houses.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:01 AM

July 11, 2023

The End of the World


La Fin du Monde
Abel Gance - 1931
Kino Classics BD Region A

Abel Gance's reputation as a filmmaker is primarily based on one film, his 1927 Napoleon. It seems less than coincidental that this epic would appear in that brief period just before sound was introduced, when silent films hit their artistic peak. End of the World was Gance's follow-up to Napoleon. As such, it is a record of a filmmaker undone by artistic ambition and the havoc caused with the demand of using new technology.

Even the people involved with the restoration of The End of the World are not shy about discussing the film's various problems. What was originally a three hour work was cut down by almost half. I am not sure if a longer running time would have made the narrative more logical, but there is some choppiness that makes the identification of some of the characters and their relationship to each other unclear. Basically, an actor, Jean, is love with Genevieve. Being financial impoverished, marriage is out of the question. Jean's brother, Martial, is a scientist who retreats from society to his observatory. For some reason, Martial is the only person who notices that a comet is on a direct course to hit earth. Jean, first introduced as Jesus in a production of the Passion Play, entreats Martial to encourage the world's citizens to be part of a Universal Republic prior to being carted off to an asylum. Meanwhile, a wealthy investor, Schomburg, has his eyes on Genevieve. The rest of the world comes to realize that Martial was correct about the comet which among other things creates panic in the financial markets. As if there were not other things more important, Martial and his financial partner, Werster, are to be arrested for manipulating the stock market. Gance spends so much time on questions of the human condition that the spectacle of the earth's destruction is almost like an afterthought.

The film does begin with one great visual gag. The first scene appears to be a recreation of Jesus crucified, surrounded by his followers and Roman soldiers. Several shots later, it is revealed that what we have been watching is a stage production. Abel Gance did not play the part of an actor playing Jesus, but probably would claim he was portraying Jesus. As noted in the accompanying documentary, Gance thought himself a peer with Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith. Unlike Griffith, Gance managed to maintain a career well into the 1960s, though without the prestige and artistic control he had in the silent era. The End of the World carries with it both the strengths and weaknesses of Gance's silent era filmmaking, the use of flash editing and subliminal cuts versus the decidedly melodramatic acting.

I am not sure if the sound system was chosen by Gance or was imposed by the Gaumont studio as it bears the studio name. What is certain is that of the early rival sound systems prior to its standardization, the sound system used also undermined the production. This Danish sound system recorded sound on a separate roll of film that had to be run at 32 frames per second, when it worked at all. Unlike even many other films of the era, there is substantial use of non-diegetic music.

Those with a more casual interest in film may be befuddled by The End of the World. The more serious film scholar will find plenty to unpack here. The blu-ray is sourced from a 2021 2K restoration. While discussing Gance in relationship primarily with his more successful J'Accuse (1938), film historian Stephen Harvey neatly summed up Gance and his films: "Perhaps in quest of parallels to his own frustrated ambitions, Mr. Gance's sympathies were more engaged by films concerning heroic male visionaries, besieged by the small-mindedness of the world surrounding them."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:23 AM

July 07, 2023

Once Upon a Time in Uganda

once upon a time.jpeg

Cathryne Czubek - 2021
Yellow Veil Pictures

If it does not accomplish anything else, Once Upon a Time in Uganda does not only bring a little more awareness regarding not simply African cinema but popular African cinema. While the films have none of the polish of Nollywood, Nigeria's well developed film industry, it is also distant from the films of Senegalese Ousmane Sembene or the older films rescued and restored by the Film Foundation. What may make some cinephiles pause is that lack of acting skills, geysers of blood, and cheap computer generated special effects featuring exploding heads are all features rather than bugs.

Isaac Nabwana is a one-man film industry from Wakaliga, a slum in Kampala, Uganda. With a succession of home video cameras and a computer he built himself, Nabwana has made close to fifty films of over-the-top action laden with a sense of humor. Self-taught in every technical aspect, Nabwana's initial attraction to filmmaking was through his older brothers recounting the stories of the films they saw, largely 80s action films starring Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris, as well as the films starring Bruce Lee. Nabwana's cast would be made up of friends and neighbors. These were all labors of love, with Nabwana also working as a brick maker for income. Nabwana's films became cult sensations on YouTube that brought the filmmaker greater attention.

Cathryne Czubek's film is part documentary, part dramatic recreation of Nabwana working with former film programmer Alan Hofmanis. Making it his self-appointed mission, Hofmanis left New York City to meet and work with Nabwana in 2011. The film follows the evolution of a business partnership that survived a temporary breakup and eventual success with Hofmanis bringing Nabwana to international attention, culminating with the premiere of Crazy World at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019.

Even if Nabwana's DYI no-budget films have brought a certain amount of attention, any financial benefits seem negligible. With Hofmanis back in New York City, Nabwana is given a commission to make a film for Ugandan television. The director who laughed at the end of every take is replaced by a stricter taskmaster who has some professional grade equipment and a small crew at hand. Actors are still unpaid, but Nabwana's continually cheerful and supportive wife is glad to at least have funds enough to make sandwiches for the cast. Nabwana points out how his appearances in the news have made people assume that he has money. Not mentioned in the documentary is that the budget of Nabwana's earlier films was approximately $200.00, and that Nabwana would attempt to sell as many DVDs of his new films within the first week to beat the inevitable bootleg copies that would follow.

While I generally subscribe to the notion that filmmakers working with low or no budgets should work within their limits, Once Upon a Time in Uganda dispels conventional ideas about filmmaking when one has imaganation coupled with a healthy sense of humor.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:38 AM