Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)

Though I prefer Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, the only other Fassbinder film I have seen, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant more greatly convinces me of Fassbinder’s talent as a filmmaker. It might possibly be the most visually ravishing of all films set for the most part in a single room. The bleak, somber tone achieved through many awkward conversational pauses, moments of anguish, and an absence of all but ironic music, the meticulous camera movements and frequent manipulations of the depth of focus that place the female characters in varying dramatic proximities to each other made me think it Fassbinder’s equivalent to Bergman’s Cries and Whispers of the same year. Its adeptness at telling its story about a lesbian fashion designer trying to transcend established norms and gain possession over an aspiring model seems to me more skilled than the melodramatic tale of love between an elderly widow and a young Arab. And yet The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is so predictably defeatist, Petra’s fate is locked from the outset, and as Jonathan Rosenbaum notes in his essay about the film, the enormous reproduction of Poussin’s Midas and Baccus that dominates a great quantity of the compositions serves from the beginning as a patriarchal rebuke to von Kant’s misguided attempts at liberation, at the same time the mannequins are ever-looming symbols of inhumanity and the absence of intimacy in Petra’s attempted conquest of Karin. The film is bitter to the core, reveling in Petra’s sadness and frustration only at the end to deny her even her servant Marlene, who relinquishes her docility only in the last minute when her mistress needs her most.

Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937)

If most of McCarey’s features are as powerful as Make Way for Tomorrow, then no doubt he will soon be among my favorite directors. What I find so amazing about this film is how emerging from so much sadness and neglect is the complete resurgence of premarital romance and infatuation, a period in marriage that I have been told never happens for some couples. The paradoxical development of a new love bursting forth from the most tragic of situations is achieved in large part through McCarey’s insistence that the viewer be subject to every stray moment of embarrassment or intimacy; when the former occurs without the security of the latter, as when Lucy infringes on her daughter-in-law’s bridge classes, the viewer cringes, but come the finale there is a marriage between the two that makes the couple seem so pure, innocent, and childlike in their love for one another. The film’s depiction of New York as seen through the eyes of the newly enraptured old couple has more wonder and romance than even Woody Allen’s famous Gershwin montage, and the final shot all the dragged out devastation of that which closes Truffaut’s The 400 Blows or Ozu’s Late Spring.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, 1930)

The Blue Angel is at first glance a playful farce, taking a rigid, repressed, and respected professor (Emil Jannings), and dooming him to fall in love with a young, flirtatious cabaret dancer (Marlene Dietrich) at a burlesque house called The Blue Angel. Its first two acts alone are a travelogue of visual and auditory wonders, one the spatially fragmented club full of spiral stairways, trapdoors and a goldmine of exotic props and trinkets, and another the complete dissipation of sound upon the closing of doors or the shutting of windows. Yet it is also tragic, and one biting shot, one of the few in which Sternberg moves the camera, beholds the professor alone in his cavernous classroom after having been reported for his engagement to Lola. Hopes for a more dramatically involving movie would appear to be dashed with what ensues: a quick proposal and happy marriage that ostensibly reeks of love-conquers-all. But the professor’s spiral from college instructor to traveling showman, while ever hilarious, eventually erupts in a brutal sequence of events that involves the motif of the tragic clown and the revelation of his wife’s philandering, all of which return the wounded man back to his classroom in a shot that mirrors the earlier emotional cliffhanger, this time with a lyrical beauty that fully employs Sternberg’s reputable talent for gorgeous low-key lighting. What a wonderful film.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1943)

From the outset I was thinking there was no way I would like this more than Black Narcissus, but by the time it got to the passages about Candy’s German friend Theo, perhaps the film’s most sympathetic character, I realized that this was not only so much more than a propaganda film, but extremely gutsy (the British government largely disapproved of it). There is a sometimes veiled, sometimes clearly exhibited skepticism about the British military and government, and while the superficial tragedy may be that the honor and by-the-books approach of the British was becoming lost in the fight against the Nazis, as Candy remained fixed and unchanging, perhaps there is a hidden tragedy that this notion of British manners and rules was always an illusion. The scene in which Theo stands out as more experienced and as having more foresight than the entire mass of British politicians and generals is pretty audacious. Though Colonel Blimp is a fictional character, the film has the feel of a biopic, the irony being that this man feels more real than Patton, La Motta, and Mishima put together due to the Archers' frank and intimate approach to studying his life; rarely did they feel the need to make him ‘provocatively’ enigmatic or eccentric. I was taken aback by how overwhelming the ending was, how surprisingly gentle and transient the shot of a leaf floating in a pool of water when compared to the comic and theatrical extravagance of the rest of the film, and the resulting feeling that the viewer really has experienced the life of this man in full.