Featured: The Criterion Channel – Act III Of An Infinite Exploration
Now, we’re in the thick of summer, and in between my other writing, job hunting, a wedding, doctors, and reading up world history (Roy Jenkins’ biography on Winston Churchill), I get my fix on a movie from Criterion Channel. If you’ve read my first two pieces, then you know which films I will have seen that I’m here to tell you that I love and worth the watch. In between Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and the films of Kelly Reichardt (Wendy And Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff), here are some more of these discoveries I appreciate watching.
A Day In The Country (1936)
Jean Renoir’s 40-minute feature is an exercise in futility in that it was intentionally made as a short feature. But the movie was not completed due to delays that forced Renoir to leave because he had to make his next movie under contract with. The producer and a second editor were able to use existing footage and title cards to create a formulaic feature ten years later when Renoir was in self-imposed exile in the US. (He even forgot about the film and was only reminded when a letter arrived informing him of the film being released at Cannes.) It’s a one-day film about a brief love encounter that does not succeed, only for a chance run-in that brings them together for a final moment. The scenery is gorgeous and matches the tone, even when the rains come to show the melancholiness of the situation. This movie was also done at the height of Renoir’s political involvement, backing the reform leftist government elected that year which highly invested in France’s cinema and invited future director Jacques Becker as an assistant and took over when Renoir left.
One of the best things about this movie is the special feature of outtakes assembled as one continuous movie itself. For Renoir’s 100th birthday, the surviving footage including screen tests and cut takes with the audio of Renoir directing and hands coming in the frame were placed as a movie longer than the actual feature itself. It was very rare of footage of hearing Renoir commanding the action and the frantic pace they were making shot-for-shot when they were lagging behind schedule. A similar behind-the-scenes assembly also was found for The Night Of The Hunter.
Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or-winning thriller of Sri Lankan immigrants immigrating to France, one of them a former soldier who has escaped the country’s civil war, is a powerful statement to a man’s desire for peace at any cost, even in the crossfire a drug-fueled gang war that entraps him a second time. Between his dark prison drama A Prophet and his English-speaking Western The Sisters Brothers, Audiard sweats out the viewer as we are conjoined to a man who lies his way into France with a dead man’s identity who just wants to start anew. But, as an asylum seeker, he and his fake family are forced to settle in the projects, low-end places where turf wars are always on and the fake Dheepan has to act as a bodyguard while he plans out their escape. You don’t have to understand the full background of Tamil people and three-decade struggle that engulfed the island until the late 2000s. Even in a new land, the false promise of a new life keeps asylum seekers in the tightened jungle fighting their own to survive.
While we all can talk about the Godzilla of today, the original version from Japan had an important meaning. Finally seeing it for the first time, Ishiro Honda created a cautionary tale about the pain of nuclear weapons; the country wasn’t even a full decade passed the war and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Technically, it was one of the first films where a miniature set was filmed being crashed by a man in a suit, itself an incredible marvel because it weighed more than 200 pounds after sticks, wire, and heavy coats of latex and molten rubber were made to make the suit. As for the film itself, instead of romanticizing it as Hollywood is doing to it now, the original Japanese version, it is one that does not simply breathe fire and stomp on villages without providing good entertainment and the message of stopping all use of damaging weapons. There was also its sequel, but with a bit of a Hollywood bend (co-starring Raymond Burr) that did not have the same social impact, but heightened its pop culture status.
Touki Bouki (1973)
Courtesy of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, this hidden gem from Senegal was influenced by the French New Wave. Writer/director Djibril Diop Mambéty made a truly Senegalese film (spoken in Wolof along with French) with homegrown actors going cross-country across the land in their new sense of freedom following independence. A young couple, tired of living in their desolate land, decide to raise money and move to France by taking a motorcycle dressed with a cow’s skull on top. Their encounters exhibit the free-spirit of the times being a new country matched by its create editing and shots, and open color of the scenery. Mambéty, who only made a few films before dying at age 53, was never classically trained and wrote the script or got the actors to improvise as shooting went on.
Performance (1970) / The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)
Films of the late Nicholas Roeg were put up and I finally had the chance to see his two movies featuring rock stars as the leads. Roeg co-directed Performance with Donald Cammell staring Mick Jagger playing a reclusive rock star as a gangster hides out in his home after being sought for an unordered hit. A mix of menage-a-trois and psychedelic feelings fill the house and its occupants, blurring identities to where the climax gives us an interesting question: who is who anymore? Following the success of Walkabout and Don’t Look Now, Roeg turned to sci-fi featuring David Bowie as a human android named Thomas who comes to Earth to collect and send water back to his planet. However, he lands in New Mexico and falls for a woman who introduces him to sex and alcohol, entrapping him in the Earth lifestyle. It is so surreal that matches the imagery of Performance and Don’t Look Now where we physically see the transition from one being to another, the de-alienizing of Thomas who then turns into a state of disrepair in his new, alcohol-soaked state.
Hamlet had five acts and I will produce five acts of my Criterion Channel’s coverage…or maybe even nine episodes like Star Wars. The list is never-ending.
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