August 30, 2012

Word has it that the fascinating Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi was so intrigued by Robert Altman’s A Wedding that he decided to try his hand at the same story.

A Wedding, film audiences may recall (and not many people do, since the blessed event was barely consummated at the box office), takes the usual Altman cast of eccentrics and turns them loose—that is, throws them together—with rambunctious results. Among the series of social and sexual gaffes that followed, Altman tried to toe the line between comedy and commentary. He’s done that before, with success, but A Wedding went wrong somewhere, in a sour way.

Don’t worry—Zanussi’s version is not just Marriage—Polish Style. The format of Contract is the same as A Wedding: mix together a bunch of people who have little in common outside their happenstance connection with the bride and groom, get them in the same house, and let ’em simmer for a while. Sooner or later, the lid will blow off.

The hosts are the groom’s father (Tadeusz Lomnicki) and step-mother (Maja Komorowska), a well-to-do couple who own a house nestled in the country. The itinerary is such that a civil ceremony is performed one day, the church ceremony the next, and the big reception immediately following.

Well, the bride’s father doesn’t make it to the civil ceremony. The host’s ex-wife icily announces her intention to spend the night in a convent rather than be a guest of the man she despises. Then the groom’s aunt (Leslie Caron) arrives, having smuggled a dog in under her lush fur coat, and loses her wayward daughter at a hotel.

These problems are small potatoes. At the church ceremony, the bride is suddenly seized by second thoughts. She excuses herself mid-sacrament and flags down the first car that drives by. As the husband follows, the parents are already smoothing things over. “Everything’s fine,” they insist, as they will keep insisting against all odds and against all evidence throughout the tumultuous reception ahead.

Zanussi handles the ensuing adventures with a nimble hand, but the comic format is deceptive. Contract systematically shreds its characters of their trappings of wealth, glamour, and propriety in which they have wrapped themselves. The bizarre hijinks of this crew are all aimed toward that end, and Zanussi—whose Ways of the Night, a more solemn examination of people at ethical loose ends, had a Seattle arthouse run earlier this year—is adept at maintaining the orderly balance of fun and confusion.

His chief collaborator is Maja Komorowska, the actress with whom he has worked often. As the hostess, she glides into every awkward situation—and there are many of them—and manipulates things back into a nervous status quo. She’s like the kid who runs back and forth, patching holes in the dike, not realizing the entire structure is about to give way. It’s a splendid performance.

The end of the film is deliberately enigmatic; it’s reminiscent of the sea monster at the end of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Somehow, this final mysterious visitor gives the characters a challenge, a rebuke, and maybe even a small, ironic blessing. Any film that has that many possibilities in its last moments has done its work well.

First published in the Herald, November 1984

This movie, made in 1980, was one of the reasons Zanussi was considered an exciting figure at this moment. In a footnote to Seattle theater history, Contract was the first movie that played at the Market Theater in the Pike Place Market, an eccentric and wonderful place to see stuff in the mid-Eighties.

Death Watch

June 11, 2012

Death Watch has probably disappeared from local screens by now, but it’s an ambitious and interesting film that deserves a little notice. Director Bertrand Tavernier has had three intriguing movies hit Seattle screens in the last few months: A Week’s Vacation (1980) at the Film Festival, The Judge and the Assassin (1975) at the Seven Gables, and Death Watch, the French Tavernier’s first English-language film, at the Crest. Shooting in English seems to have been a bit of a problem for Tavernier, as Death Watch doesn’t flow quite as smoothly as A Week’s Vacation. But there are so many ideas flying around in Death Watch—maybe too many ideas—that it’s always fascinating to watch.

For one thing, Death Watch is engaging just in terms of storyline: a TV producer (Harry Dean Stanton) comes up with an idea for a ratings bonanza. He puts movie camera in the eyes of one of his cameramen (Harvey Keitel) and has the guy record the final days of a patient with a terminal illness (Romy Schneider). Schneider doesn’t want her last days filmed, and she tries to escape; when Keitel finds her and stays with her, she doesn’t know she’s being filmed, so her life is recorded, and she becomes the highest-rated show for days without knowing it.

When Keitel begins to have second thoughts about the humanity of his filming, there’s a problem: he cannot close his eyes, because if the cameras are deprived of light for more than a few minutes, they will malfunction and blind him. (This means that he no longer sleeps, and there is much made of the fact that his dreams have been taken away from him.)

An overload of rich cinematic material here, and Tavernier isn’t quite the accomplished juggler to pull it all off—not yet. But the thing remains compelling, a fact that is in large part due to Romy Schneider’s superb performance. Keitel is erratic, and gives a non-directed performance, but Schneider, seen against the stunning landscape of Scotland, makes her private character seem quietly triumphant at film’s end, and leaves behind a record of a very human being.

First published in the Herald, November 1982

This is a complete coincidence—I just pulled out this review because I was looking for sci-fi titles last week—but apparently Death Watch is currently enjoying a restored re-release in Britain, and getting a little of the attention it failed to get the first time around. It is well worth a look, and Romy Schneider’s performance is special. By the time this opened in the U.S., she was already dead.

The Return of the Secaucus Seven

May 2, 2012

It’s not every good movie that convinces you of its worth in the first five minutes—from the git-go, as Joan Micklin Silver might say. Sometimes it takes awhile—especially if the filmmaker is an unknown quantity, as is the case with John Sayles’ first directing effort, The Return of the Secaucus Seven—before you suddenly realize that Hey! this guy knows what he’s doing! After a few minutes and scenes into Secaucus (and, nicely, before we have even had a chance to sort out who’s who in this weekend get-together of old friends), we notice that the people we are watching have a very stylized way of speaking—and they don’t merely respond to what has been said when they’re answering somebody; they also bring back phrases or refer to incidents that have happened long before (either in screentime or in real time).

For instance, just the first name of an ex-boyfriend of one of the women is conjured up as a running gag, and it gets funnier every time his name is invoked (Dwight, for God’s sakes) even though we will never come close to seeing the guy. Such rich intricacies make the screenplay very solid—but I think that, being in the middle of a breathless screenwriting class, I’ve probably got Screenplay on the brain; and it’s important to note that Sayles makes a very satisfying, modest directorial debut (particularly under such low-budget conditions). Not that I care to separate the success of Sayles’ script from the success of his direction, ’cause I believe they go (as they should) hand in hand. But, to grab the first example that comes to mind, Steve Tesich’s script for Breaking Away was also very solid, and directed with fine professionalism by Peter Yates—yet somehow that professionalism could not quite match the spirit of the screenplay, and didn’t make for that special experience when a really enjoyable film clicks onto a higher level altogether.

Well, The Return of the Secaucus Seven clicks. The way Sayles shuffles bodies around in the frame is a nice complement to the seemingly freewheeling screenplay, and his occasionally showoff-y editing (like the cutting between J.T. and Maura on their walk/talk versus the rest of the gang back home trying to decide whether to present J.T. with a possibly depressing 30th birthday cake—the rhythm of the editing somehow reinforces the complexity of the dialogue) also highlights this. Just watch the movement—by the actors, of the dialogue, of the editing, of the music—during the long scene in a tavern. It’s a deliriously happy mixture of all those elements, judiciously weighed and beautifully timed (“Sunday! Sunday!! Sunday!!!”).

Anyway, it’s a relief to be able to recommend a movie wholeheartedly again; and refreshing to be engaged by a filmmaker who does not speak down to his audience, or feel that he has to (it’s exhilarating—as one exhausted character says at the end of the movie, “I get so excited with people around who I don’t have to explain my jokes to”). Sayles goes so far as to begin his movie with a series of still photographs, full face and profile, of his main characters—and we can’t possibly understand why they’re there or what they are until the movie is four-fifths over. Then we jump back to that opening, realize what it was (and what the title means) and as a healthy moviegoer, you have to smile—isn’t it nice to be respected again?

First published in the Informer, November 1980

I guess Joan Micklin Silver was the first person I heard use the phrase “from the git-go,” and I think it might have been during the huge Screenwriting course that Jeff Dowd (yes, the original Lebowskian Dude) and others organized at the University of Washington that Fall. Sayles came and spoke to the course (his remarks collected in Movietone News, a memorable talk), and so did Jonathan Demme and the Airplane! guys and a bunch of others. I’m trying to make the case here for Sayles as not merely a great word man, which Sayles’ own subsequent movies has made somewhat difficult; he so frequently seems suspicious of the juicier possibilities of moviemaking and of his own sense of humor. Interesting to see who came out of the cast with careers: David Strathairn, the hard-working Adam LeFevre, Gordon Clapp. Not necessarily the people you’d predict. By the way, an Oscar suggestion: the Irving Thalberg award (that’s for producing films) to Sayles and Maggi Renzi – can you think of a better example of producing genius than to work at the true indie level and re-invent the wheel every time out?

Berlin Alexanderplatz

July 27, 2011

Gunther Lamprecht and friends

For a lot of perfectly sensible reasons, the prospect of tackling 15 hours’ worth of a TV miniseries—and paying to see it in a movie theater, no less—is not merely daunting, but downright repulsive. Especially when you consider the quality of current network “novels for television,” as the high-falutin’ ads refer to them.

But Berlin Alexanderplatz, which is about to be shown locally for only the second time, is no ordinary TV series. It’s nothing less than the most remarkable project in contemporary cinema.

Typically, it came from the mind of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the young German filmmaker who carved out a unique place in film history for himself in the span of his madly paced 36 years. (He died in 1982.)

Fassbinder had long been fascinated and inspired by Alfred Doblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, which detailed the peculiar career of one man through the chaotic Germany of the 1920s. In 1980, Fassbinder got the chance to adapt the book for German television—which meant that, with 15 hours at his disposal, he could allow the narrative to unfold with unprecedented leisure and detail—for once, a true “novel for television.”

That’s exactly how Fassbinder filmed it. Characters move, and speak, and lapse into silence, with novelistic disregard for briskness. That may sound like a 15-hour drag, but Fassbinder’s seductive rhythms establish themselves at the outset, and before long you’re barely aware of watching the film at all—it’s almost more like living through a lifetime, as it is happening.

That lifetime, which belongs to Franz Biberkopf (played superbly by Gunther Lamprecht), forms a strange arc across the backdrop of a nation violently re-forming itself. As the film begins, Biberkopf is being released from prison, and he vows to never get himself in trouble again—taking a noncommittal stance that transforms him into something of a tabula rasa.

Franz wanders through this inferno, but can’t avoid sliding into the criminal world. He also can’t avoid women, most of whom seem wildly attracted to him. This is dubious at first, since Franz—physically and intellectually—resembles a big, likable, graceful camel. But the actor’s presence is persuasive enough to carry it off.

The actors—made up largely of the members of Fassbinder’s loyal stock company—have a lot to do with making the film so watchable. Barbara Sukowa (Lola) is tender and fierce as Franz’ true beloved; Elisabeth Trissenaar is lovely as an early flame; and Hanna Schygulla (The Marriage of Maria Braun) is stellar in a smaller role. Honors go to Gottfried John, for his disturbing creation of one of the most complete villains in memory.

This mind-boggling work, with its many demands and commensurate rewards, was screened over the course of a single week at the Neptune theater in December 1983. (The faithful who staggered from the theater at the end of that week did so in a truly altered state.) Now the Market theater is bringing it back, in a rather more convenient schedule: a single, two-hour block per week, shown every Saturday at noon (then repeated same time next day) beginning this week, through March 9.

It’s still a sizable chunk of time, and quite a commitment. But a commitment to Berlin Alexanderplatz pays off in various ways—not the least of which for the view it provides into the mind of one of the cinema’s most scintillating creators. This enormous work is Fassbinder’s greatest legacy.

First published in the Herald, January 1986 ?

Not RWF’s greatest film, no, but a big legacy, for sure. I watched it during the Neptune’s weeklong marathon, but not during the Market’s rollout. In a way I’m wrong about the movie resembling a novel; actually it becomes more like a dream, one that can stand still for an hour at a time. A novel must keep words going on a page, but here Fassbinder actually seems to stop time for an interlude, or make it feel like non-movie time. Reading the actual novel is absolutely on my list of things to do.

Ways in the Night

April 20, 2011

The Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi is almost unknown in these parts. He’s been making movies—and very good ones—for more than a decade, but outside of specialized circumstances, such as a film series or film festival, his films just haven’t had the chance to be seen.

This is almost criminal, because Zanussi’s films are among the most precisely realized movies being made anywhere today. Zanussi was schooled as, of all things, a physicist, and his films have the kind of cool, controlled exterior that lead you to believe they could have been made by a scientist.

What’s interesting about Zanussi is that his exteriors are misleading. In Zanussi’s characters, a stubborn, troubled spirit simmers behind a pallid façade, and a restless mind can’t ignore the longings of an all-too-human heart.

Ways in the Night is a good case in point. It’s set in a small town in occupied Poland during the Second World War. Friedrich (Matthieu Carriere), a young German lieutenant, discusses philosophy with his superior officer (Horst Frank), who is also his cousin. They have airy intellectual arguments about life and death, but Friedrich does not seem much more excited than he would be if they were discussing a game of cards.

But when he sees Elzbieta (Maja Komorowska), he becomes tormented. He desires her, and she sees this. When he tries to make polite small talk, she treats him with civilized contempt, and she turns his longing for her against him, as she flagrantly disobeys the rules of the Occupation.

Their battle lines are not as clearly drawn as it might seem, for soon you wind up feeling sympathy for Friedrich during his crisis. As his dormant human feelings surface, his military career becomes a shambles. Pulled in different directions, and paralyzed by the hesitation he feels as a newly thoughtful person, he is racked by doubt—and by the feelings he still has for Elzbieta.

Zanussi creates an exquisitely delicate atmosphere in this film, which makes it all the more startling when passions break the surface. And the framing device at the beginning and ending gives a sense of history circling around itself. The film’s final, eerie moments go beyond poetic justice; it’s as though the final chord of a concerto were being played, after a 30-year delay since the previous note.

Apparently Zanussi has left Poland; this film is a German production. But no matter where he makes movies, he’s always a compelling director. Let’s hope that distribution of his work becomes a bit more commonplace; based on the evidence so far, he’s going to come out of this decade as one of the very best filmmakers we have.

First published in the Herald, April 12, 1984

The film was released in the U.S. about five years after Zanussi made it. The late Seventies-early Eighties were a good period for his films actually being seen here, but he’s made about thirty films since 1984’s beautiful Year of the Quiet Sun, and very few of them have seen the light in the U.S. beyond the occasional festival. So my hopeful suggestion at the last paragraph came to a zilch by that yardstick. Really curious about a film he made in 2009, Revisited, which appears to be an inquiry into his former actors, including his plain-faced goddess, Maja Komorowska.

No Nukes

February 7, 2011

The shame of No Nukes is that is seems completely unaware of the fact that it is working against its own very noble cause. As we watch concerned and serious people talk about something which should matter to us all—nuclear power, its uses and abuses—there is an almost Hitchcockian pull against what we know to be right: Shut up, let’s get to the concert footage, man! A moment later, the guilt sets in, and we check ourselves; at least, good soul that I am, I checked myself. Some of the crowed I saw the movie with sent continuous bad vibes toward the screen during moments like Graham Nash nodding solemnly with Ralph Nader (no doubt about it, a pretty insufferable scene).

And such moments are interspersed throughout the movie; a funky James Taylor number ends, and just as you start to feel the rhythm of the film, talking heads will reel off a series of facts and figures about nuclear accidents. These are things we all should know, they matter, but that’s the great miscalculation of the filmmakers: they’ve made an important subject irritating. Even those with hearts most definitely in the right place can’t help wanting to see the cinematically alive Carly Simon rather than the deadish types who are seen planning the giant Madison Square Garden concert. And now here I am, yakking away about that stuff instead of talking about the stars—hmmm.

Well, if you must know, Taylor and Simon are a lot of fun, Jackson Browne (who is surprisingly perky backstage—I’d always pictured him as a glum chap) does a dynamite “Running on Empty,” and there is a revolting audience participation on Graham Nash’s “Our House.” There’s little of the cinematic grace of The Last Waltz so it’s up to the individual’s performance to carry things off: luckily, some of the individuals are up to it. I supposed there’s not much of the cat left to be let out of the bag, but it certainly must be said that Bruce Springsteen is magnificent. It does seem likely that the lad has some sort of future in film acting; energy flies off the screen when he occupies it. Whether or not someone harnesses Springsteen’s overripe (and quite marvelous) theatricality and works it into the subtler world of feature filmmaking could be one of the interesting questions in movie acting during the Eighties.

First published in The Informer, October 1980

The Informer was the newsletter of the Seattle Film Society, and this was one of the early reviews I wrote for it. No Nukes: even the title is nostalgia now; final stages of Mutually Assured Destruction and all that. Kind of hard on Graham Nash here, who seems like a perfectly nice, sincere man. I don’t remember what was so offensive about “Our House.” You may have heard the Springsteen thing didn’t work out the way I thought it might. Except for a couple of the videos he did for the Born in the U.S.A. album, Springsteen didn’t go in the direction of the movies, and that’s perfectly fine, as he had other things to do. I guess I liked Carly Simon, too.


December 14, 2010

It’s weird: Herbert Ross is this choreographer-turned-director, and one might expect that he would bring a quality of dance to his films. One would be wrong, though, because Ross, even when ostensibly dealing with dance in his movies (in The Turning Point and now his latest film, Nijinsky), photographs his action in the flattest manner possible; and what’s worse, he shoots the dancing sequences as though they were stretches of dialogue. The clumsy direction of the ballets in Nijinsky (cutting off George De La Pena’s brilliantly gliding figure at the waist, or using slow-motion that is absolutely awe-deflating during jumps) is the biggest disappointment of the movie; dance is quickly dispensed with so we can watch more very unshocking soap opera.

There is one aspect of this movie that is potentially intriguing: the film begins with a lengthy dolly into the insane face of Nijinsky, strait-jacketed in an asylum. Dissolve into the story proper, and then at the finish of the meat of the movie (volatile relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky, teacher and student, master/slave—you know) another dissolve into Nijinsky’s eyes, still mad, as we saw him in the first shot. Hey! Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, right? The whole thing was from the point of view of a crazy man, so everything in the movie is thrown into question…that would be great, if the movie worked that way, but nothing’s made of it; this framing device is no more than just that: a device, and the subtle ways in the Nijinsky’s point of view might change and disrupt the narrative are not dealt with. There’s nothing like the expressive Expressionism of Caligari here: is the director trying to tell us that the vision of an artist like Nijinsky is as pedestrian as that of a Herbert Ross?

Gee, this is sounding more down than I intended it to be—Nijinsky is a watchable film, nice to look at (the adjective “handsome” keeps cropping up in reviews, and it seems appropriate—well-tailored but unexciting), with a good feel for the backstage maneuvering and compromises of a traveling company (true of The Turning Point as well), and featuring a very funny supporting performance by Alan Badel as the weary, bitchy benefactor of the Ballets Russes. But at the end, when a series of stills of Nijinsky are flashed on the screen, we’d like to feel, ah, yes, here is the man as history can remember him, motionless and flat, but we’ve been privileged to view him in full vibrancy, defying gravity—except that that isn’t the way we have seen Nijinsky. By the end of the movie, there’s very little evidence that he is any less ordinary than the other people, and perhaps that’s the film’s greatest failing.

First published in The Informer, May 1980.

Yes, I sensed the popular demand growing: give us something on Herbert Ross’s Nijinsky! This one feels like a Seventies film, which in some ways it is, with a certain over-dressed, air-brushed aspect. I was just coming to the end of my own “career” as a “dancer” at about this time, which might explain some of my tsk-tsking at Ross’s ham-footed shooting of the ballet scenes, but whatever—I still don’t understand how a former dancer like Ross could fail so thoroughly to visualize the dance scenes. I haven’t seen The Turning Point since it came out, but I think it was shot better than this.