2006: Ten Favorite Older Films
Radley Metzger's The Lickerish Quartet (1970)
Seen for the first time this year, and in no particular order:
Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968). A mysterious visitor (Terence Stamp) arrives at the home of a Milanese bourgeois family and proceeds to seduce them all one by one. Is he an angel? Or a devil? Whatever he is, Pasolini thinks of him as someone “authentic” who disrupts the placid and frozen surface of their life, driving them all toward madness. I realize that my brief plot summary makes it sound sort of schematic but the film is not at all rote or mechanical: it is constantly stupefying and full of mysterious formal gestures and performance details. Sex, politics, religion—they're all entities in the ‘theorem’ of the film’s title.
The Lickerish Quartet (Radley Metzger, 1970). Until I discovered Metzger this year, I had no idea that there existed cinema that was utterly serious both about its value as art and its value as softcore pornography. Metzger’s movies are almost Alain Resnais-like, preoccupied with memory and strewn with atemporal shot-fragments, flashbacks and flash-forwards both real and imagined. The Lickerish Quartet is a collection of sexual fantasies played out in a picturesque European castle. These flights of fancy are rolled up into Pirandellian games of reality and fiction, and their nexus is, meta-cinematically, a movie projector in the living room that throws images on a screen, images that may be equally ‘true’ or ‘false.’ Great, imaginative film, both intellectually playful and, it must be said, inventively titillating. Next in line to check out: Walerian Borowczyk.
Love Streams (John Cassavetes, 1984). In a just world, it’s performances like these—by Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands in Love Streams—that would win Oscars; no Academy Award-winning performances I’ve ever seen can match their emotional truth and power. The physical presence of these characters and the complexity of their desires make you think—this is what human beings are really like! In the wake of Cassavetes films, other movies can feel a bit fake and cartoony in their human depictions….
The Chelsea Girls (Andy Warhol, 1966). When I was a kid, I used to think that Ben-Hur was an epic film. No, this is an epic film. I'd propose that what makes an epic film is not just its length or its large cast of characters but how vast and challenging it can be to fully apprehend on one viewing. The Chelsea Girls is composed of twelve little mini-films (or sequences), each running about a half-hour. At any time, two of these films are projected simultaneously on the screen, with the sound of only one being heard. Each of the individual films comprises one shot with no edits. The Chelsea Girls runs three-and-a-half hours, without intermission. The film opens and closes with Nico and in between is a set of mostly improvised performances by Factory regulars. It’s thrilling, funny, boring, creepy, gross, wicked, laughable, disturbing, sadistic—epic stuff. (More reading on the film here.)
The Woman Of Rumor (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954). Mother and daughter fall in love with the same man; he is a client at the geisha house the mother runs. Tradition and modernity—kimonos and business suits—collide with each other both in the storyline of the film and in the film frame. The aggressively patterned décor—slatted partitions, latticed windows, gridded railings—hold the women vice-like. I also realized how much Mizoguchi likes to use art-making and art-experiencing as an explicit element in his films. He shows us characters watching a Noh play which echoes the story of our film; it’s like a double voyeurism. Later, we see two scenes of eavesdropping, with mother and daughter. (More patterned voyeurism.) When the film ended, I overheard the Japanese man sitting next to me tell his companion that the the word “geisha” was never heard in the film, only seen in the subtitles. The film referred to the women simply as prostitutes.
A program of films by Jean Painlevé accompanied live by Yo La Tengo. Painlevé made uniquely unclassifiable experimental documentaries about marine life which were poetic, witty and scientifically rigorous but also had the deep enchantment of art. I saw this program at Buffalo’s old and historic Shea’s Theatre. Perhaps because I was sitting in the fourth row, not far from the band, my memory of this evening is physical. My body remembers this film—big, strong waves of sound and image crashing into the audience—as much as my mind does.
Lonesome (Paul Fejos, 1928). A masterpiece of silent cinema that I caught at George Eastman House; I had never even heard of it. It follows one day in the lives of a man and a woman in New York City. Both of them are single and lonely. The formal invention in this film is to be seen to be believed. Rhythmic parallel editing, lightning dissolves, multiple superimpositions, fluidly mobile camera—they were performing all this intricate magic in….1928? Interestingly, the film was released right after the coming of sound, and at the last minute three dialogue sequences were shot and shoehorned into the film. They are stiff and static, and the dialogue is risibly banal. But I loved that these scenes made it into the film because it showed by contrast how stunning the silent sequences were in their freedom and imaginativeness. This movie is crying out for wider discovery on DVD.
Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970). The MGM logo has probably never preceded a film so un-Hollywood-like and experimental. The movie has three sections, all disjunctively different. The opening section, which includes the famous student meeting scene, has a loose, improvised feel (unlike other Antonioni); the second section sets us down in an engulfing landscape (very much like other Antonioni); and the third section ends with the most orgasmic explosion in movies. I had a pan-scan VHS copy of this film for years that I could never bring myself to watch; I tossed the tape soon after seeing it in teeming widescreen in the theater.
Shaolin Soccer (Stephen Chow, 2001). Cinephiles are suckers for films that exploit the unique powers of cinema, films that simply won't translate to other art-forms like literature, theatre, etc., without serious loss. Nearly every moment in Shaolin Soccer might qualify on this count. The ideas per foot of celluloid here are amazing. Not one opportunity for filmic ingenuity goes untapped: composition, camera movement, staging, editing, the physical movement of the actors, and of course, CGI—they’re all jaw-dropping, but in a playful, not in a pretentious or overblown, way. Alas, I’ve only managed to see the butchered Miramax version.
And now to cheat by squeezing into this final slot some great ones I've already had a chance to blog about in the last few months: Jacques Tati's Playtime (1967); Roberto Rossellini's India Matri Bhumi (1958); Pedro Costa's Ossos (1997); the experimental films of Martin Arnold; and Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet's The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968).
If you're in the mood, please feel free to share any great older films you might've discovered this year....