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August 29, 2019

Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles

bunuel in the labyrinth.jpg

Bunuel en el laberinto de las tortugas
Salvador Simo - 2019

Perhaps the only thing more surrealistic than an animated film about Luis Bunuel is that the source is a graphic novel by Fermin Solis. The advantage of the formats allow for greater liberty and ease in alternating between biography and fantasy. That live actors are not used provides a distancing device assists is some of the fictionalized elements of the story, where even some of the facts are as odd as some of the moments found in Bunuel's later films.

Essentially the recounting of the making of the pseudo-documentary, Las Hurdes, known in English as Land without Bread, the narrative bounces between Bunuel following the initial screening of L'Age d'Or in 1930, and his childhood in provincial Spain at about the age of 9. Bunuel is met on the street by photographer Eli Lotar with a proposal to make a documentary on Las Hurdes, a poor and neglected part of Spain. Handed a book from Lotar, Bunuel protests that he does not make documentaries. The scandal from L'Age d'Or has effectively killed any anticipated projects. The artist Ramon Acin jokes with Bunuel that if he wins the lottery, he will use the money to produce Bunuel's next film.

The making of Land without Bread is both hilarious and horrifying. Bunuel's search for truth is undermined by his own manipulations of people. I would advise anyone planning on seeing this film to see Land without Bread first, and then see how Bunuel and company created some of the more dramatic images. Simo includes excerpts from Bunuel's film. The title of Simo's film and the graphic novel come from a line in the narration in Land without Bread, where the rooftops of the virtually identical shacks the poorest of the Las Hurdes residents call home, are described as resembling the shells of turtles.

The film begins with several unidentified people in a Paris cafe discussing the purpose of art before shifting over to Bunuel, still a celebrity among his peers. And while Simo openly brings up the discussion about art having any purpose or meaning, the unstated question brought up in the making of Las Hurdes would be about film as documentation, and having a film film about people living in dire poverty have their stories told by people of privilege. The filmmakers are shown to have some self-awareness of their situation although some of their actions could be interpreted easily as patronizing rather than generous. In retrospect, Land without Bread, even with its banning by the Franco government, did more for Bunuel than the people he filmed.

Also worth mentioning is that the Luis Bunuel presented here isn't as totally anti-clerical he has sometimes declared himself, but is depicted with a more complicated relationship to Catholicism. Two childhood incidents that indicate the future artist are of a young Luis presenting a magic lantern show, scaring his friends with the magnified shadows of insects, and Luis participating in the Easter celebration in his childhood town of Calanda, where the men dress in purple cassocks and drum in unison. Even here, Bunuel literally beats to his own drum.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:37 AM

August 21, 2019

Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood


Quentin Tarantino - 2019
Columbia Pictures

I was nowhere near Hollywood either in February or August of 1969. During that winter, I was finishing up my Senior year of high school in Denver. That August, I was in Detroit, staying with some relatives prior to going to New York City to begin my first year at New York University. But I have enough clear memories to have questioned the choices of film references and music in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood. Yes, I know Quentin Tarantino has framed his film as a "fairy tale". Aside from the alternate reality of a fictional actor's encounter with members of the Manson family, was the choice of film titles seen on theater marquees and posters, as well as a soundtrack that was derived from an AM radio playlist. Thinking about the film, I conjured up my own alternative to this alternative.

First, keep in mind that some of those movies would never have played at the same time. This was when a first run film would play in a major city, often on a single screen, when single screen theaters were the norm. It was also normal for a hit movie to play for months in that one theater. However, the reality is that while we see a prominent poster for Michael Sarne's Joanna, that film basically came and went in November 1968. And one can briefly see a sign for Tora! Tora! Tora!, a film that wasn't released until September 1970. To some extent Sarne, William Friedkin (The Night they Raided Minsky's) and Noel Black (Pretty Poison) are as far Tarantino will get in acknowledging the changing face of Hollywood filmmaking, when film school grads were beginning to make their mark.

Conspicuous in its absence is any reference to Columbia Pictures major hit of the Summer of 1969, Easy Rider. The closest Tarantino comes is having Rick Dalton call Manson family member "Tex" Watson by the presumed pejorative "Dennis Hopper". Some have conflated Rick Dalton's reaction as speaking on behalf of Tarantino, but I don't think it's as simple as that. Like Tarantino, many of the first film school generation filmmakers were influenced by the French Nouvelle Vague, especially the early films by Jean-Luc Godard. Possibly, Dalton is reacting more to Hopper's onscreen persona in Easy Rider as the character known as Billy (the Kid). Hopper appeared in True Romance, written by Tarantino. And less than two months earlier, Hopper could be seen briefly in one of the most mainstream of Hollywood releases that summer, True Grit. What is also significant about Easy Rider is that the bulk of the soundtrack is made up of already existing rock songs, familiar with some AM radio play, but even better known on that relatively new phenomena of FM rock radio, so-called album oriented rock that was independent of the more restrictive Top 40 on AM radio. What makes things a bit complicated culturally here is that FM radio was virtually less racially diverse than AM radio where you could hear Tommy James and the Shondells followed by Sly and the Family Stone, and The Supremes followed by The Doors. If someone depended on Once Upon a Time . . for film history, they would be unaware of how it part of a shift away from traditional Hollywood.

That New Hollywood that is unseen or ignored would include films like John Cassavetes' Faces, a film that Cassavetes made mostly with his own money from acting, free from any studio backing, The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks, the first studio production directed by the African-American writer and photographer, and Midnight Cowboy, initially rated X, officially prohibiting anyone under the age 18 from attending. Midnight Cowboy is almost the anti-Once Upon a Time . . ., taking place in New York City of 1968 at its seediest, also about someone who plays the part of a cowboy, sometimes not very well, accompanied by his enabler as it were. Whereas Rick Dalton's heterosexuality is never in doubt, Joe Buck is flexible as the occasion demands, while the perpetually sick Ratso Rizzo stands opposite of the athletic Cliff Booth. The only acknowledgment of any non-English language films are the four fictional Italian productions starring Rick Dalton.

Unless Quentin Tarantino is totally oblivious, as much as he might revel in an older Hollywood and some of the attitudes of that time, he has also been a beneficiary of following in the footsteps of the New Hollywood generation. It was Hopper and filmmakers like Henry Jaglom, who assisted in the final edit of Easy Rider that played a major part in importing the idea of non-linear narrative structure from Europe to the Hollywood studio film. And taking up where Kenneth Anger left off, Dennis Hopper set the template for studio films comprised of the film director's needle drops from their favorite records. Had there been no New Hollywood, which in turn evolved to the sudden elevation of younger male directors given multi-million dollar budgets on second films, it is quite possible that a video store clerk would still be dreaming about making his own movies.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:10 AM

August 13, 2019

Razzia sur la Chnouf


Henri Decoin - 1955
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The title translates as "Raid on the Dope". It's the second of two films starring Jean Gabin using French slang in the title, the other being Touchez pas au grisbi ("Don't touch the loot'). Also on hand is Lino Ventura, who would be seen again with Gabin in other crime films. More importantly for Gabin, this is one of the films that helped return the actor to commercial viability mostly in roles as a top gangster or maverick cop.

Gabin appears as Henri, a former associate of an Italian named gangster, returning from the U.S. to France in order to re-organize the languishing heroin trade. He first meets up with his French boss, Liski, who provides the names on the various employees. Henri's job is not only to make sure sales quotas are met but also employ two thugs who act as enforcers for those proving less than reliable. Henri's cover is a fashionable piano bar. Of interest to cineastes is that Liski is played by Marcel Dalio, Gabin's co-star in Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game, from seventeen years earlier.

According to director and film historian Bertrand Tavernier, Henri Decoin was unfairly dismissed with other French directors of his generation primarily due to the inconsistency of his work, some of which was clearly simply for hire. Tavernier also points out how Decoin was able to take what he learned directly from Hollywood directors onto his own work. This is most obvious in some of the more violent scenes, such as the use of a shot that is almost subliminal when the thugs' victim is beat up. The image of a getaway car's windshield cracked by a bullet anticipates as similar image in Bonnie and Clyde. A shot that first appears to be tilted is revealed to be of a mirror when the camera pulls back. Tavernier compares Decoin to Raoul Walsh in how he films action, not an inapt comparison.

What really struck me was Decoin's depiction of drug addiction and a multicultural Paris, unusual for a French film made in 1955, and unthinkable for Hollywood at that time. Lea, a drug dealer looking older than her years, snorts heroin off her hand in a well-lit bar. A group of men presumably from North Africa gather in their own little bar, smoking marijuana. Lea, who's attempts to bed Henri are rebuffed, seeks solace with a shirtless African, seen performing a solo dance, the camera framing the movement of his hips. One of the other dealers is Chinese, with his own opium den. There is also some dialogue indicating that one of the drug dealers is in a relationship with his male companion. Another unusual feature is the jazzy film score by Marc Lanjean, with arrangements by twenty-three year old Michel Legrand - his first film credit.

In his commentary track, Nick Pinkerton gives Decoin short shrift, relying primarily on an overview of Decoin's career from the French film criticism magazine Positif. In terms of evaluating Decoin, at this time Razzia is the only film available for accessible viewing for English language viewers. One of the problems with discussing some older French films and filmmakers is that the dismissals made by the Cahiers du Cinema critics have been taken at face value, with a handful of those directors only more recently getting fairer reassessments. Where the commentary is more helpful is pointing out some of the actors, especially the less familiar supporting players. Pinkerton also discusses the connection between some of the French films of the 1930s with those of the 1950s, especially in connection with the novels by Georges Simenon. In the case of Razzia, the author of the source novel, Auguste Le Breton also appears as a small time hood named Auguste Le Breton. There is also a connection to The French Connection with a brief appearance by Marcel Bozzuffi. The print source appears to have been in pristine condition with beautifully rendered images. Most of the film takes place at night with a sky that is pitch black. This is French film noir at its blackest.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:56 AM

August 06, 2019

The Girl in the Fog


La ragazza nella nebbia
Donato Carrisi - 2017
Icarus Films Home Video R1 DVD

The Italian mystery writer, Donato Carrisi, has made his filmmaking debut, adapting one of his own novels into film. Carrisi's efforts were considered good enough that he was awarded the 2017 David di Donatello award, Italy's version of the Oscars, for Best New Director. I've not read the source novel so I am unable to comment on any changes. Carrisi does demonstrate visual flair, with the only weak spot being the final would-be twist at the end which should only surprise viewers not paying attention to several verbal and visual clues.

The story takes place in a small village in the Italian Alps where the residents all seem to know each other, and what tourist industry existed has virtually evaporated. A high school age girl, Anna Lou, has disappeared just prior to Christmas. Celebrity detective Vogel has taken on the case, bringing with him a small army of journalists and investigators. Vogel has become something of a reality television star. He is dogged by possibly misidentifying a serial bomber who was eventually found innocent. Vogel is intent on solving the mystery of Anna Lou, even at the cost of his reputation.

The first image is of Anna's house in the fog. The haze, the flatness, and limited nighttime colors initial make the image look like an illustration. Some of the other exterior shots give the impression of cardboard houses on an artificial studio set. The fog even carries over to the interior sets. There are also images within the shots, often of televisions set to the news, but also computer screens, and a VHS tape. These images within the image bring up the questions regarding the trustworthiness of what is supposedly documented. Carrisi also divides some of the sequences with overhead shots of a model version of the village, akin to something created from a fairy tale wooden toy shop. The village is pointedly remote, with the residents deliberately keeping themselves at a distance from aspects associated with life in the major cities. There are moments when Vogel appears to be visiting an alien landscape.

Carrisi uses a good number of overhead shots, as well as slow dolly shots, with the camera moving in or away from his characters. Most of the narrative is a series of flashbacks of Vogel's initial investigation from his point of view, as well as a sub-plot of Vogel's suspect. The actual mystery, or perhaps I should say mysteries, are subordinate to the themes of how public images are manipulated, and how an anonymous crowd response to those images.

Toni Servillo stars here as Vogel. Best known for his award winning performance in The Great Beauty, Servillo brings from that film the continued sense of someone world weary, who has seen and done everything, for whom nothing is new. Jean Reno appears as a psychiatrist with whom Vogel discusses the case, as part of an unofficial return to the scene of the crime. A virtually unrecognizable Greta Scacchi has a small role as a journalist whose decades long investigation suggest new clues.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:43 AM

August 01, 2019



Amanda Kramer - 2018
Cleopatra Entertainment

Amanda Kramer has mentioned The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Repulsion as two films that were key influences on her own feature debut. Ladyworld is about eight women attending a birthday celebration, trapped after an earthquake encloses the house of the hostess. The influence of Fassbinder is the more obvious with the all female cast.

Food and water are limited. There is no electricity, nor cell phone service. The hostess, Olivia, attempts to have some sense of organization, with meetings held, and speaking determined by whomever is holding the designated piece of crystal. One of the eight girls mysteriously disappears. There is also concern about an unseen man who is supposedly stalking the young women. Four of the women for their own clique, with heavy eye brows, smeared kohl around the eyes, excessive lipstick, and splotches of white powder on the cheeks. There are territorial disputes and personal grudges. The breakdowns and schisms become more extreme, yet there is a point where you wonder if the young women actually want to escape.

What I did find most interesting in Ladyworld was the soundtrack. Rather than a traditional use of music, there are what sounds like the mewing of cats, squawking of birds, and electronic and industrial sounds. Between the abstract sounds and the ambiguous ending is the sense that what transpires should perhaps not be taken totally at face value. The use of sound recalls Luis Bunuel's use of cat's mewing in Belle de Jour. Here, instead of indicating what may or may not be a dream, the sounds are more suggestive of the tensions between the characters. That the film can be interpreted on different levels is to the credit of Ms. Kramer. One thing is certain, when push comes to shove, literally, these young women are hardly ladies.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:49 AM