Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Favorite Film Discoveries: March 2013

Belatedly putting this post up, partly out of forgetfulness/sloth, but partly out of indecision on which of the many fine films I saw last month for the first time to include. Keeping track of my film viewing can be maddening: it only reminds me how much I still have to discover. Still, if I can find films of this quality to experience freshly each month, I only end up believing in the vast beauty of cinema more. The 10 films below are but a sampling of the quality I continue to find wherever I look.

1. Duelle (une quarantaine) (Jacques Rivette, 1976)

Rivette tips his hat to noir, then supersedes its moral ambiguities for ones of identity. As sun and moon goddesses duke it out for the chance to feel like a mortal for more than 40 days of the year, the humans they manipulate shift their own responses in relation to the constant siege of manipulation, seduction and threats of beings of higher existence (and, in more tactile terms, class). One character comes into such strength at the end she nearly steps outside noir tropes to inherit Final Girl traits as well. Full review to come.

2. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)

An exquisitely formal musical that deftly avoids cheap, cruel irony in playing the color-coded, sing-song world of the format to more neorealist scenarios. Clarifies the musical as a heightened expression of all emotion, not merely joy. Full review here.

3. The Girl Can’t Help It (Frank Tashlin, 1956)

Tashlin’s satiric edge surreptitiously shows how white appropriation has defanged pop jazz before putting it in a museum, then lays the foundation for the same to happen to rock ‘n’ roll. But in ‘56, the Little Richards and Fats Dominos still had a say, and as much as he tries to portray rock as a cynical gold rush for corrupt types to make a fast buck, Tashlin cannot bend his material into the shape he wants because it’s still heating up in the fire. The total formal mastery of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? makes it the superior picture, but there’s something fitting about an element of true anarchy that sleeps even Tashlin’s control. Full review here.

4. By the Bluest of Seas (Boris Barnet, 1936)

Barnet fills the poetic void left by Murnau, producing a sun-kissed ride on the frothy Caspian quietly radical in its total subversion of Soviet propagandic principles. In a battle with love, labor’s lost. Full review here.

5. Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985)

The title’s biblical origins tip off that this war film will eventually depict the apocalypse itself. Split-diopters keep the traumatized child protagonist’s shivering, blank face ever in focus as the horror continues in the deep recesses of a horizon that holds no hope. By the end, the poor boy looks as if he has just stared into the face of a Great Old One, his mind burned out by the knowledge of something so horrific. His ending, fevered daydream of turning back history concludes with a moral victory, albeit one instantly rendered meaningless for the death that continues unabated around it.

6. Perceval le Gallois (Éric Rohmer, 1978)

An unfinished poem rendered in an unfinished world, its closed-set artificiality undercutting the chivalric paean with gently lacerating irony. An interactive chorus does its best to spare the audience of the unstoppable repetition of a film that must by necessity move in circles so it can move in its contained setting at all. Rohmer, the devout Catholic, adds a Passion Play reenactment at the end, but it cuts away with Christ’s death as Perceval sets out on an unwritten future, his god only just beginning His brief descent into Hell at the cutoff as he heads on in a stupidly single-minded quest for His cup. Devotion is a worthy trait, but not when one sacrifices all human bonds in pursuit of objects.

7. The Patsy (Jerry Lewis, 1964)

My favorite Jerry picture yet, a typically self-reflexive work that routinely showcases his auteurial mastery even as the film routinely shares the spotlight with all the people who make “it” possible. To make a star, it takes a village, and when the star is Jerry, the village will likely be torn asunder as he flails about helplessly yet in perfect control.

8. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (Roberto Rossellini, 1966)

The nobility is as unwashed and fetid as the peasantry, it seems. Maybe even more so: the peasants must go out and work and air out their nasty bodies, but the Louvre and Versailles must be choked with sweat and bodily fluids. And as the aristocrats physically rot in their own juices, Louis XIV asserts dominance over them all by enslaving them with fashion and favors, leaving their lingering class resentments to similarly decay. The Fronde weighs heavily over everyone’s mind, but the Sun King’s pageantry is worth all the military strategy that retained his crown in that conflict.

9. Steamboat Round the Bend (John Ford, 1935)

I would revisit this loosely plotted, folksy post-Reconstruction comedy well before I returned to The Informer, Ford’s vastly more celebrated picture from the same year. His patented blend of unvarnished sentiment and deeply critical analysis gets a hell of a showcase here, and Stepin Fetchit puts the intended satire of his persona on full display in a comic sequence that may encapsulate the earnest but hilariously backward pride of Southerners better than anything I’ve ever seen put to film. Full review here.

10. From the Journals of Jean Seberg (Mark Rappaport, 1995)

A work of profound film criticism, sketching out film’s social and aesthetic entry into modernism through the turbulent career of a wasted actress. Personal and professional lives blur, persecuted and dismissed characters reflect the Establishment’s treatment of the performer, and contemporaries’ more privileged and secure forays into the same radical awakening are matched by their continued work in plum roles as Seberg rotted away under the FBI’s glare. In four minutes, Rappaport’s insights into Breathless make a better case for that film’s seismic upheaval than all the buzzword reappraisals in the world.

HM (no order): Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1991), Halloween II (Rob Zombie, 2009), Lust For Life (Vincente Minnelli, 1956), La Notte (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961), My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Aleksei German, 1984)


  1. Hi Jake,

    Halloween II is listed in your honorable mentions; what is your take on it?

    I found it to be one of those successful failures which although I can't critically "recommend" is full of interesting choices. The commentary track is highly recommended (like any of Rob Zombie's).

    Thank you.