two movies about nothing

Last Year at Marienbad is infamous for being an inscrutable art film. Endlessly parodied, it introduces us to three people: A, a beautiful woman, X, the man who says they met last year and planned a tryst this year, and M, who may be the woman’s husband or lover. They converse and walk through a dreamy, immense mansion and grounds built around strict geometric patterns, endlessly repeating themselves in variations of what may be the past, fantasies of it, and fantasies of the present and future. In some scenes it seems as if X and A are lovers and did plan a romantic rendezvous, and in others it seems he is pestering her.
Alain Resnais has said the film has no meaning, but it inspires endless conversation. The only other film I’ve seen of his was Night and Fog, the brutal documentary about the Holocaust that remains the best film made about it. In Marienbad, he makes masterful use of tracking shots, mirrored compositions, reflections and frames where the actors pause while the camera slowly tracks around them. The cinematography makes the mansion seem endless and confusing, the gray outdoor scenes recall a house of purgatory lost in the mist, as in the ghost tale The Others. The slow tracking shots were an obvious influence on Kubrick for The Shining, and like his haunted Overlook Hotel, the very setting here seems dreamlike and unreal.
Like a cross between the ennui of L’Avventura, where the people are so shallow that they might disappear into the background, and the emptiness of the suits in American Psycho, where one can be mistaken for another, Last Year at Marienbad could be about the mutable persistence of memory, as Dali painted it; one party drifts into another, one year of vacationing at Marienbad is like the next, and who’s to say what was promised, and who forgot whom? Was someone shot, and did we flirt, and make plans we never meant to keep?
There are obviously many interpretations and this is the kind of film, like Doubt, which claims the final act is the discussion you have afterward. Ebert loves how gripping it is, and it is true- though little happens, like the other infamous film of this sort My Dinner with Andre– which is merely a conversation over a meal- it can be hard to look away. The narration- something Resnais is masterful at using, as in Night and Fog– and the incredible camera work and framing, whether it is A’s face or watching the men play endless, fruitless games of matchsticks- draw you in. “Seinfeld” was famously a show about nothing- a bare framework that master comedians and writers used to prove that even with nothing, they could make us laugh. And here, with barest semblance of plot, characters drawn from archetype, and dialogue that circles in on itself and goes nowhere, a masterful director can make us watch.
It helps that A is a stunning beauty, and X, who narrates, is a master seducer. M, by contrast, has a severe brow and resembles Peter Cushing at his most villainous. We are told little, but we begin to think of him as her husband or lover, for he dominates her in some way. M also has an unerring habit of winning all the games he plays, with ruthless skill. The film became a puzzle during its time and it remains as intriguing, though admittedly hearing those who saw it in theaters during its release gush about it is a “you had to be there” situation. What can compare? Will Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York rise to the challenge? I enjoyed this, it appealed to my love of German Expressionism. Do I know what it means? I like to think Resnais was playing with minimalism, and showing how film techniques can draw us in and make even the gauziest image feel three dimensional.
The exact opposite technique is used in the excellent, ahead of its time, feminist masterpiece: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Directed by Chantal Akerman, the camera is beyond static and almost seems to disappear. At the same height, unobtrusively observing the monotonous life that unfolds before it. It is over 3 hours long, and in theaters it was an excruciating test of both bladder and concentration to watch. The maddening rote is its message; Jeanne is a widowed housewife who fends for her son and herself- she prepares and serves dinner thanklessly, cleans the plates, and tends the house. We see three days of her Sisyphean toil.
The first introduces us, and we pore over the minutiae of housewife habitat and behavior. In the early ’70s, women were becoming liberated and this is a stark reminder of how few choices they had. That becomes even more evident as we see day two, when a gentleman arrives at the apartment for sex. Her son is unaware of what she does to send him to school, of course, and is even callous in his disregard. He takes his life for granted. When he describes sex as disgusting, and wonders how women can tolerate it, she begins to unravel. Her sacrifices are utterly disrespected. I won’t tell you what happens on day 3; you can watch all 210 minutes to find out, but the ending is incredibly powerful.
Director Chantal Akerman surely was a great influence on Michael Haneke, one of my favorite film makers. He’s probably best known for Cache and Funny Games, but his film most resembling this one would be The Seventh Continent, which brutally depicts the empty life of a nuclear family. Classic film fans, and fans of Haneke especially, should give Jeanne Diehlman a shot.

Cable Quickies – Popi

I watched Popi with Alan Arkin on TCM during their Latino Images in Film Marathon, which I posted about for Quelle’s Out of the Past Classic film blog. I remembered loving the film as a kid, but seeing it now the drama is much more clear. Like many films of the late ’60s, such as The Russians Are Coming… The Russians Are Coming! also coincidentally starring Alan Arkin, there is a sense of datedness as Hollywood begins discovering its social conscience in earnest.

Alan Arkin plays Abram, a hard-working Puerto Rican immigrant widower with two sons, Luis and Junior, who he feels he is losing to the streets of Spanish Harlem. He works two jobs and gets 5 hours of sleep, as a super and a hotel waiter; he can’t marry his sweetheart Rita Moreno because he wants to put the kids first. But when he gets mistaken for a Bay of Pigs veteran at a Cuba Libre meeting at the hotel, he gets a crazy idea to go to Miami and have the kids be mistaken for Cuban refugees, so they’ll be taken in by rich benefactors.

Putting Alan Arkin’s brownface role aside- something he also did in the seminal cop buddy movie Freebie and the Bean (full review)- the movie really captures the feel of late-60’s New York and Spanish Harlem especially. The boys steal and jump the subway turnstile, learning from their friends; they fight with a crazy kid in the building, who likes to torture pigeons. The street is portrayed as quite rough and we see it roughening them, despite their good hearts. And this is what’s killing their Popi, who wants them to be able to be children.

Arkin and cinematotographer Andrew Lazslo

Arthur Hiller (who’d directed The Americanization of Emily, and would go on to Silver Streak) manages to make the film feel natural, with a mild comedic energy running throughout. The chemistry between Arkin and the dignified Moreno is good, but the film takes the unfortunate turn of actually having him go through with his crazy plot, which isn’t very funny, and seems very out of character. He takes them on a bus to Miami, teaches them to pilot a boat, and sends them out to sea. Then for three days he’s biting his fingernails, listening to the news, waiting for them to be rescued. When he thinks they’ve died, he throws himself into the ocean to drown himself, only to hear about them on his radio just in time.

The third act has the dehydrated kids in the hospital while he tries to sneak in to see them, and remind them to speak only in Spanish. And it feels forced. I missed the first half of the movie, when he was a worrisome father trying to keep his two boys out of trouble, and yearned for it to be a family comedy-drama that showed them surviving the miasma of ’60s urban malaise. But the two boys- whose acting careers sadly end a few years after this- and Arkin himself are such enjoyable company that the movie remains watchable.

Rita Moreno on set

It’s still a very touching relic and made a good point, that at the time the hard-working immigrants who came over were suffering while political refugees seemed to be getting the American dream everyone wanted. And it was a less patronizing portrayal of Hispanics during a time when Hollywood only wanted them with a switchblade in their hand, even if Arkin got the lead role. Rita Moreno got the Poitier role of quiet dignity to help assuage the brownface. It’s still worth seeing today, and while it’s heavier on smiles than laughter, it is still a memorable film.

Le Mans vs. Grand Prix

Part of me rebelled against comparing these two movies. Like Chevy & Ford guys, Porsche and Ferrari guys, car enthusiasts are usually strictly divided on these two movies. But mostly I rebelled because I didn’t want to again watch 3 fucking hours of soap opera bullshit masquerading as a car movie, in John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix. Admittedly the racing footage is some of the best ever filmed- Frankenheimer is one of my favorite directors, and probably the best to ever direct a car chase (before you sputter about the Bourne movies, which I love, there can be no Supremacy without first having Ronin)- but his epic racing movie spends too much time off the track.
James Garner is no McQueen, but he was one of the best actors of his time; he can’t be faulted for his role, and he is one of the most memorable parts of the film. Eva Marie Saint is always good, and this is no exception; Toshiro Mifune can say more with a look than either of them could do with a soliloquoy, and having him on board gives the film class and racing cred, for not ignoring the Japanese. That being said, after watching it for three hours, all I really remember is the racing, some crying, Garner having principles, and a crash where a driver is flung from his vehicle and dies hanging limp in the trees like a rag doll. That was a very powerful image of the dangers of motor sports, and the razor’s edge these enthusiasts live on. But when it comes down to it, it’s an indulgent, bloated ’60s epic in need of serious editing. It must have looked awesome in Cinerama, though.
Le Mans is definitely a creature of the ’70s, reminiscent of Two Lane Blacktop– without dialogue for the first 37 minutes of the movie, we learn the basic story watching McQueen drive up to a section of replaced guard rail on a motorway, and contemplate it. Without a single word, we know a crash occurred here, and he is remembering it. We’re brought back to that day, and follow him as he readies for the race, the tension mounting to a crescendo. Finally all we hear is his quickening heartbeat until the light turns green and the thunder of the engines roar, and they’re off. Sure, a bit gimmicky, but still effective; you can’t say the same about some of the montages in Frankenheimer’s film.

On the other hand, Le Mans is perhaps too laconic and trim. It feels like a documentary, but even a doc gets us a little more engaged in its subjects; one hour into its 106 minutes and you’ve seen a lot of car porn, but maybe we’re a little touchy-feely and want some emotional involvement. This was an exercise in indulgence as well– McQueen drove the original director, John Sturges of The Great Escape fame, away by taking control of so many aspects of the film. TV director Lee Katzin took the helm instead, and the film suffers from McQueen’s excess. There’s less Cooler King here than the dialing-it-in cold-eyed stares of The Hunter, his last and possibly worst film.

The third act, after McQueen’s character is out of the race, drags on until they pull him back in. The drama of Lisa possibly losing two men to Le Mans is captured in a single look, but it’s not as evocative as the film’s quiet beginning. Le Mans has its own spectacular crashes, with its super-powered Porsche and Ferrari battles, but there’s a little too much slo-mo used.
So what’s the answer? Like the eternal Chevy/Ford debate, they’re both flawed but have their fans. A car fan owes it to themselves to see both of these movies and decide on their own. It’s like owning an Alfa Romeo, or a project car. It may not be perfect, but if you love cars, it’s something you just have to do.

30. Eyes Without a Face

Schlocktoberfest #30: Eyes Without a Face

This classic from 60’s France is quite different and merges the dreamy world of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast with the familiar mad scientist genre. Dr. Genessier’s daughter Christiane was grievously injured in a car accident; she lives upstairs, wearing a creepy blank mask where her face once was. Her face gone, and her mind is slowly following, as the toll of her isolation and injury weigh more heavily on her. The only contact she gets is with the dogs her father performs medical experiments on, as he tries to develop a face transplant to make her whole again.

We’re introduced to this sordid situation as a luxury motorcar pulls over by the river, and a woman in a fur coat walks out in the snow to dump a body. Hitchcock wishes he opened a movie like this; it really draws you in, especially as horror of the bizarre obsession of a father for his child sinks in. For he’s not merely experimenting on dogs, but kidnapping patients from his clinic and using their faces! Unfortunately, he just can’t get it right.

Much of our time is spent with Christiane, who pines for her lost beau- who thinks she perished in the crash. She wanders the upper floors, hidden from view, wearing her plain blank mask. It gives her a doll-like quality, and she seems to glide like an apparition. We begin to feel the deep sadness of her state, the utter loneliness of her isolation and the deep emotional wound that her brutal injury has given her. And as for her father- he is portrayed as a normal doctor, which makes his horrific obsession all the more disturbing. When he peels the face off an anesthetized victim with cold surgical precision, it is more akin to the experiments of the Nazis than a serial killer, and all the more chilling.

For 1960, seeing a doctor scalpel a woman’s face off is pretty intense; it’s not as gory as Face/Off but it’s handled in a much more horrifying way. The film definitely influenced Tim Burton for the Joker’s mutilated girlfriend in Batman (1989). The chilling ending, when Christiane decides she can take this no more, is handled fantastically. The brutal comeuppance of the obsessed butcher juxtaposed with the haunting imagery of Christiane and her mask, walking into the night wearing a white dress with a dove on her hand, is quite memorable. And while the horror here isn’t of the shock variety, our brief glimpse of Christiane’s face, and the final shot, are enough to give this creepy classic a dash of gore. More arthouse than grindhouse, but a must see for horror fans.

And we know it also influenced one sneering ’80s fellow:

What the girl sings in the background is the title of the movie in the original French, Les Yeux sans Visage.