Last year at this time, I was just out of heart surgery, and pretty deep into a months-long recovery process that, among various other things, kept me out of public spaces (including movie theaters) and scrambled my concentration such that focusing on one thing, even something as wonderful as a movie, was a mark of considerable difficulty.
It was under those undue conditions that my editor, the estimable Philip Martin, and I conceived of an entirely stay-home project, whereupon I could study a full range of films from the classic era through to the modern age, that I had never seen before, and report my reactions to them as a kind of independent study class of cinema.
This year, we decided to keep it going for another summer, albeit stretched out a bit more humanely: Instead of 30 films in 30 days (an incredibly daunting task, it turns out), we're stretching it over the course of the summer. I have come up with another 30 films I haven't yet seen -- culled from various best-of lists (relying pretty heavily on Sight & Sound's decade compendium; scholarly recommendations; and personal choices -- which I'll watch over the course of the 90 days of summer. Hence, 30x90. Every two weeks, I'll file a piece on four, five or six films from the master list (which we'll publish on the blooddirtandangels.com blog, so you can follow along if you'd like).
We begin this year's installment with our first four films, capsules below. Like last year, I'm awarding a score on a 10.0 scale, along with what I'm calling a Relevancy score out of five stars. This score, even if I wasn't wild about the picture, suggests the significance of the film in the overall appreciation of cinematic history. Ahoy!
- A Brighter Summer Day (1991): Edward Yang's film, based loosely on a true crime story in 1961 Taiwan, is four hours long. When a film crosses the three-hour threshold, interesting things begin to happen. As with the intensely long oeuvre of Filipino director Lav Diaz, when you spend that much time with a group of characters in a singular geographic area, you begin to sink into the place more, and recognize more of the side characters and passers-by, allowing you more of an inkling of the actual lives being depicted. The story, set in the early '60s, centers around a teenage boy known as Xiao Si'r (Chen Chang), whose mainland China family was displaced to Taiwan shortly after civil war left the Nationalists fleeing the Communists to safer ground. Si'r is smart and feisty, but in the chaos of the culture, with rival youth gangs at near constant, and escalating, war, and his father (Kuo-Chu Chang), suddenly picked up and interrogated by the secret police for his political affiliations, the kid starts to become unglued. He fixates on the girlfriend (Lisa Yang) of a gang leader (Hongming Lin), who seems to play everyone off of each other, further raising tensions. At times, the gang's rumbles seem almost quaint (one gang's main hub is literally an ice cream parlor), but this particular clash -- with the sounds of Elvis, and other American pop artists wafting in the breeze -- soon escalates into something altogether more serious. As befitting its length, the film has an unhurried pace that allows the often motionless camera to linger on shots after the thrust of the scene has been achieved, arriving at a kind of poetic stasis. Unavailable in the United States until 20 years after its initial release date, it holds up as a sort of time capsule of a unique crux in Chinese history.
- Truly Madly Deeply (1990): Anthony Minghella's first feature is about a woman (Juliet Stephenson), deeply grieving the loss of her partner (Alan Rickman) after he dies, only to have him show up back at her flat one night from the afterlife. Despite the obvious connections to that other movie about a loving couple reunited from the abyss that year -- you know, the dumb-as-sawdust Hollywood flick with the ceramics wheel scene -- Minghella's film, as unpolished as the filmmaking might be, stuffs a lot of other ideas and textures into its frame. Blessed with a vintage Rickman performance, and the kind of naturalistic dialogue between couples that would eventually come to serve Minghella well in a little film called The English Patient a few years hence, Deeply conjures up some particularly poignant moments (including Rickman's line-reading in poorly accented Spanish of a devastating Pablo Neruda poem), and, topically enough, takes as its undercard the idea of immigration politics and what it might mean to actually belong. However, despite my best efforts, I couldn't get the idea that Stephenson looked almost exactly like Ewan McGregor in drag out of my mind, and it skewed the relationship between the couple in ways I couldn't avoid. It's certainly not Minghella's fault -- it would be six years until McGregor burst upon the scene in Trainspotting -- but it's indeed an unfortunate oddity that kept pulling me out of the frame.
- Sherlock Jr. (1924): Perhaps the perfect antidote to the summer glut of CGI behemoths, Buster Keaton's films are part riotous comedies, and part scintillating magic shows (one can imagine the packed house squealing in astonishment when the film was originally released), featuring almost entirely practical effects. Thus, when you see Keaton running over the top of several moving trains only to grab the spout from a gushing water silo, or when his careening motorcycle crosses a collapsing bridge, the thrill remains very much in place. This film, one of his more delightful confections, beloved in particular by cinephiles, sees him falling asleep at his job as a movie projectionist only to enter into the film being screened -- a dramatic love story called Hearts & Pearls -- and magically get whisked from scene to scene in a beguiling combination of live sets and pre-filmed bits. There are stunts whose mechanics you can recognize (some bumpy edit points are revealing) but many others that now, nearly a century later, still seem impossible. Through all the madness, perhaps the best effect of all is Keaton's perfect deadpan. His characters survive the giant catastrophes (moving trains, flying motorcycles, floating cars) somehow, only to suffer the smallest indignities (split banana peels, sticky newspaper sheets, swinging screen doors), but always with the same wide-eyed guilelessness. There aren't many films coming out of Hollywood at this point that anyone would even bother to watch 100 years from now, let alone hold up as amazingly well as Keaton's oeuvre.
- No Home Movie (2015): The late Belgian auteur Chantal Akerman said the meticulousness of the bored-to-death housewife who serves as the protagonist in her 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles was based on her own mother, Natalia. With this documentary, her last film, we see Akerman's mother, and their loving relationship, for ourselves. As in Dielman, Akerman favors long, static shots, which takes some getting used to, but ultimately, the simple-seeming shots of the living room in her mother's Brussels apartment take on the enhanced intimacy of their completely unremarkable nature. Over time, these lingering shots, often with Natalia, a survivor of Auschwitz, eventually walking past, or through, the frame, begin to capture the feel of actually being there. Utilizing her signature style, Akerman exposes a level of almost hypnotic intimacy, and here, on a subject she so adores, the effect is bewitching. As she and her mother talk over meals in long, set shots, you begin to grasp the give and take of the two of them, loving, responsive, and endlessly supportive (her mother likes to hearken back to Chantal's childhood, and how stunning she looked; Chantal, in turn, heaps equal praise on her mother, proud as she was to walk to school with her). Intercut with the interior of Natalia's apartment -- in her older years, she became more hermetic to the outside world -- Akerman's camera settles on scenes both immediately outside her apartment (amid the steady din of traffic), and in the somewhat bleak countryside around them, an endless wind ripping at the tops of trees, the fields, the dusty mountains to further embellish her leitmotifs -- her mother died, at age 86, shortly after its completion. In one Skype conversation, Natalia mentions how little she likes being on camera, but she clearly had the wrong daughter for that particular affliction. The film is made all the more poignant by the fact that Akerman committed suicide on the eve of its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival.
MovieStyle on 06/21/2019
Print Headline: 30X90