In my review of Nights of Cabiria, I noted that Federico Fellini grew more fantastical and whimsical with age, and he became forever less entombed in the limits of pure realism. True, and it might be assumed that with whimsy and fantasy come happiness and warmth. To some extent, they did; Nights of Cabiria ends on one of the most singularly uplifting notes in all of cinema. But whimsy does not automatically imply joy, nor a new leaf. Fellini was still an angry, tormented, complicated man; he had simply developed a new filmic vocabulary for exploring his emotions, whatever emotions they may be. New storytelling mechanisms dictated how he would explore emotions, and not what emotions he would explore. His application of Hollywood romance and Italian/ French romanticism was not always an uncomplicated acceptance, but more often a dare. Fellini would follow romanticism and melodrama to their limits and see if he could come out the other side a believer. With La Dolce Vita, melodrama is a slaughterhouse, and you unravel from the other side in shreds. Continue reading
Black Orpheus opens with a gesture that is both instantly transfixing and entirely pragmatic. A close-up in static of a classical Greek marble bas relief presented with stately respect and disquiet, and then a cataclysm of percussive instrumentation and flamboyant color from a Brazilian festival bursting through the image, almost blowing it up as we are pulled right into the vivaciousness of Brazilian culture and everyday life. It is an instantly lovable, provocative jab at the regal historicism of European art lulled into submission by the weight of relying on the past. It is a pop-art statement to the fire and enticing chaos of Brazilian life. An instant announcement that this film is not going to be you classical Orpheus myth, and that it comes from another artistic and cultural tradition entirely, one brimming with life and present-day presentational zest and movement. Continue reading
The Western, that forlorn, mystical genre that formed the girders of the American cinematic imagination, has been a boomin’ over the past decade. After a long quarter century no man’s land for the genre, something got in the air in the mid-’00s and the genre was popular again. We had the grisly tone poem The Proposition that found the historical and ideological connection between American and Australian history. We had the trio of stupendous 2007 efforts, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which interpreted the Western through the lens of the 1980s, the early 1900s, and the classic period, respectively. We had Tommy Lee Jones provide two deeply classical studies in anti-classicism in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Homesman, both infatuated with and critical of the violent “proper” masculinity of American society. The Western has become, as it always was in film, a prismatic, malleable creature prone to variations and styles and impulses that fitted it to the needs of the nation and the passions of the cast and film crew. Continue reading
In his moonlighting career as a director of steely, even mulish focus, the perpetually weathered, stern Tommy Lee Jones has taken the Clint Eastwood route of imbibing in the great American traditions, although he does not share Eastwood’s masculine commitment to the Sam Fuller get-in-and-get-out storytelling method. Jones imbibes so much, in fact, that he catches his nation’s favorite tradition, the Western, when the genre is looking the other way with its pants down. In his previous directorial work The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, he pursued the sociospatial region of the modern American small-town – a space forever clinging to its past and stubbornly, cantankerously refusing to examine itself – as an avenue for comment on the history of the American imagination. Continue reading
If you are a cinephile, it is a fair guess that you have seen your share of war-time romances, one of the stodgiest of all film sub-genres. But that does not mean you have a Soviet war-time romance, nor have you seen a Mikhail Kalatozov war-time romance. Kalatozov is one of the masters of world cinema (his later Yo Soy Cuba is both a passionate ode to a lifestyle and a perplexing, dumbfoundingly beautiful exercise in pushing the heights of camerawork to impossible achievements). He is not nearly as well known today as he ought to be (but the same can be said of all post-Eisenstein Soviet cinema, excepting Tarkovsky), largely because political lines in the sand were well entrenched by the time Cranes was made. He was bound to the lingering death of existing in a world with more interest in denouncing art than expressing it. At least Cannes got it right, putting political qualms aside and awarding The Cranes are Flying the Palme d’Or for its luminous artistic achievement, transcendent performances and craft, and its stunning ode to love and loss in a world that no longer knew the meaning of the former term. Continue reading
You can not find a more breathlessly adventurous and rewarding a period of Japanese cinema than the golden years of 1950-1955. The number of era-defining international monsters of world cinema produced by Japan in this period is arguably unmatched in any national cinema over any five year period: Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, Ikiru, and Rashomon, Yaujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Early Summer, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff. In this treasure-trove of embarrassing riches, Gate of Hell is usually considered an also-ran. Certainly, it qualifies as a “deep cut”, but only unfairly. Yes, it is no Tokyo Story or Ugetsu, but Gate of Hell is a stunning achievement, and it is stunning in a way that no other Japanese masterpiece from the period is. Continue reading
Othello should not exist. Not William Shakespeare’s venerable play, one of the great tone poems to dueling egos and wanton desire filtered not through hero and villain but split personalities tearing each other apart until neither can have what they want. But Orson Welles’ Othello, a work of ramshackle, stitched-together genius if ever humankind has produced one. It isn’t Welles’ greatest film, but it is likely the surest explanation of his unmatched gall, of his unending sweat, and of the limits, or lack thereof, of his genius.
Of course Welles the poster-boy wunderkind of Hollywood splendor, given full control over the powers that be to unleash his vision on the world, could release a masterpiece. Citizen Kane, Welles’ first film, and the first of many to serve as parables of his own brilliance and folly, was practically bred to be a work of unparalleled craft. It was almost an ordained masterpiece from its very inception; Welles had the hounds of Hollywood at his feet. An achievement, sure. But with Othello, he unfolded a masterpiece in piece-meal fashion, without anyone’s help, desperately working to clot the blood of a film barely stapled together with odds and ends over years of stilted, stuttery production. Nothing more could showcase the singular auteurism, the singular genius, and the singular madness of Orson Welles. This film is his ultimate statement of “my way or the highway” determination. Continue reading