I recently had the chance to revisit LA JETÉE, after watching Terry Gilliam’s adaptation 12 MONKEYS for the first time. And Chris Marker’s influential science fiction short film is even better than I remembered. (12 MONKEYS was pretty good, too.) The loose narrative tells the story of a man enslaved in an apocalyptic present, who is sent back to a woman in the past, in preparation for seeking help from the future. The sci-fi elements work all the better for remaining ambiguous, relying more on evocative visuals than clear explanations. And of course, the film is famous for relying (almost) entirely on still photographs, which lends it a disjointed, picture book quality. The photographs themselves are beautiful and stark, and do an amazing job of world building, even while showing very little. The sound design is similarly atmospheric. And it all comes together toward a moving conclusion, proving that constraints and creativity go hand in hand.
Happy New Year, everyone. Here’s to the future.
This illustration originally appeared in Issue D of the excellent film zine Shelf Heroes.
Well, what can I say about this film? It’s one of my absolute all-time favorites, and I’ve watched it more times than I can count. In case there’s anyone who hasn’t seen it, DR. STRANGELOVE is Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War black comedy about nuclear annihilation, starring Peter Sellers in three separate roles. As satire, it’s basically perfect, squeezing every bit of humor out of the fact that our world’s safety rests with a handful of men who are either petty, incompetent, or unbalanced. And as terrifyingly realistic as the chain of events seems to be, it’s also funny as hell, start to finish, even fifty viewings later. I could easily rattle off a list of favorite jokes, or expound on how Kubrick matched his deliberate style to comedy, or explore the broad influence of the film’s iconic imagery. But lately I’ve been giving more thought to the film’s singular plot. Peter Sellers may play a range of parts, yet this is a film with only two characters: the earth, and humanity. And I’d be hard-pressed to name another film that makes me want to root less for humanity. Especially one this goddamn delightful.
When I first heard of this movie, sometime last year, I couldn’t believe it. A sci-fi psychological thriller? Starring Rock Hudson? Why did no one tell me this existed? Finally I got my hands on it, and I’m happy to say it met my high expectations and then some. John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS tells the story of a middle-aged banker who is given the opportunity—or rather, gently coerced into the opportunity—of starting all over again. A mysterious company puts him under the knife, and he emerges as Rock Hudson, a painter living in Malibu, free from friends and family and obligation. But what should be a fairytale of course unfolds like a nightmare. The film’s style is consistently sinister and claustrophobic, from Saul Bass’s unnerving opening credits to striking cinematography that makes liberal use of distortion, odd angles, and close-ups. The tale’s biting critique of reinvention in the 60s feels extremely relevant, and not just because MAD MEN has revisited those themes decades later. As for Rock Hudson, he gives a phenomenal performance as a man who can’t quite reconcile who he is with the life he finds himself leading, a roll I can’t help thinking he understood. If only he had been in more films like this one. Hell, if only there were more films like this one.
In 1968, the Monkees set out to make an art film, forgetting that they were not, strictly speaking, artists. The notorious commercial flop that followed was the final nail in the coffin of their careers, flummoxing their fans and ignored by everyone else. But it’s hard to reconcile all that tragedy with the pure joy that is HEAD. The film’s structure is a cyclical series of loosely connected vignettes, ranging from music videos to psychedelic dreams to anti-war satire to stoner sketch comedy. It’s hit-or-miss to be sure, but the overall effect is bizarre and fun. Even while the Monkees try to break away from their television personas, they just can’t help hamming it up for the camera. Those goofy performances may dampen the film’s artistic merit, but they are also what make it watchable 50 years later. And beneath the slapstick, there are some genuinely interesting cinematic experiments, and a still relevant commentary on pop culture and artifice. Basically, this is as entertaining as 60s counterculture filmmaking gets, and I’m so glad it exists despite what a bad idea it was at the time. Keep an eye out for cameos from Frank Zappa, Dennis Hopper, and the film’s coscreenwriter Jack Nicholson.
Right from the get-go in Luis Buñuel’s BELLE DE JOUR, the viewer is dropped into the nebulous space between reality, fantasy, love, and desire, and then kept there for the remainder of the film. The story stars Catherine Deneuve as Séverine, a well-off housewife with an active imagination, who can’t manage to reconcile her kinky fantasies with her happy but sexless marriage. At least, not until she decides to become an upscale sex worker while her husband is away. I’ll admit that I enjoyed this film far more than I was expecting. For something that came out in the 60s, Séverine is given a surprising amount of agency over her own sexual development. The narrative is interspersed with erotic dreams in surrealist fashion, until it’s unclear what is and isn’t real. And in this way, her unusual sexual interests are presented without judgment, as though the film were a considered meditation on BDSM only pretending to be an exploitation film with a moral. Deneuve’s subtle performance seals the deal with a glimpse into some, but not quite all, of her character’s psyche. She takes the film’s complexity, and turns it into a puzzle to be solved. Not only is this now my favorite Buñuel film—it’s also one of my new favorite portrayals of female sexuality. Who would’ve thought?
In 14th century war-torn Japan, among overgrown waving grass and an ominous pit in the earth, live an old woman and her daughter-in-law. They barely subsist on selling the gear of murdered lost soldiers, but their careful balance is threatened when one of the local men returns home—and a cursed demon mask appears shortly after. ONIBABA is a dark but fun tale of two women who have essentially sold their souls to survive. It’s full of tension, horror, eroticism, and a pinch of humor, all heightened by some fantastic acting and black-and-white art direction. The two main actors seem to have mastered the cold, dead stare, while the wilderness around them perfectly mirrors their wild desperation. I can think of few films in which the landscape itself seems so dangerously charged. Scenes of the wind ripping through the grass, set to a jarring and experimental soundtrack, are enough to set the tone for the whole film from the start. And watching the vulgar, macabre story slowly unfold from there is a treat.
Criterion Affection prints are still available from now until January 7th! Purchase this illustration and others right here.
It’s clear from the first few minutes of Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA that this film is something special and strange, and just a bit creepy. It opens with a collage of shocking imagery before settling into the main storyline of a young nurse charged with the care of an actress who has suddenly gone mute. They retreat to the seaside for her recovery, and there they spend most of the film alone in each other’s company. The performances by Bibi Andersson (with all the dialogue) and Liv Ullmann (with no dialogue) are both incredible, as their relationship shifts between amicable, intimate, hostile, and sexually charged. They’re highlighted by stark black and white cinematography, and propelled by just enough plot to keep things moving before the story starts to fray and fall apart. PERSONA is a puzzle of identity, gender, and existential angst that I have neither the space nor qualification to unravel. But even at face value, there’s no escaping the film’s mysterious emotional impact.
I first watched this some years ago and recently had the chance to watch it again, and Agnès Varda’s CLÉO FROM 5 TO 7 is just as good, if not better, as I remembered. As the title suggests, the film follows its protagonist in real-time, from the hours of 5 to 7 o’clock. She tries on hats, meets with a lover, sings some songs, drives around with a friend. But her activities are just distractions as she waits to hear possibly devastating news from a doctor. It’s this duality between her exterior and interior experiences that creates the conflict of the story. On the surface, Cléo is shallow and girlish, and to be fair she’s a bit shallow under the surface as well. But only the audience is privy to the very real fears that manifest as superstitions and upsets, and get dismissed by the other characters as mood swings. It’s a nuanced exploration of the kind of person—frivolous for one, female for another—who is rarely taken seriously, let alone laid bare in all her flaws and strengths and contradictions. Character study aside, the film is also steeped in French New Wave style, but the kind of playful camera rule-breaking that’s fun and surprising, and never tedious. With all of that being said, in case you can’t tell, I love this film. I feel pretty confident in calling it my favorite New Wave film, full stop.
Weekends are two days long. And so, here is part two of my special WEEKEND double feature!
I’m not even going to try saying anything too insightful about Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film WEEKEND, the film that declares itself to be “the end of cinema.” It’s a sprawling, violent, scathing, traffic-jam of a film, following a loathsome bourgeois couple as they cross the French countryside to claim a dying father’s inheritance. The world, as Godard envisions it, is an endless road to nowhere, littered with flaming car wrecks, corpses, and cultural debris. Mixed into this are long Marxist tirades and revolutionary manifestos, which may possibly be the most heartfelt segments of the film, but I wouldn’t know because they’re so tedious they’re nearly unwatchable. Other scenes are much more entertaining, and many of them are darkly hilarious, and it probably says something that the most enjoyable bits are also the most violent and satirical. But as I said, on this one, I’m leaving the analysis to others.
PLAYTIME, a playful indictment on modern living, is the third film to feature Jacques Tati’s comic character Monsieur Hulot (and the second one I’ve seen). But Hulot, and the American tourist he befriends, play such minor roles in the overall arc of the film. The narrative, played out in little encounters and vignettes, is more about the impersonal wasteland of modern Paris—Tati’s notoriously expensive set built from the ground up—and managing to find some joy in it. As a visual person, I love that it’s such a visual film: the humor is all sight gags and image-based puns, the dialog is mere ambient noise, and the story could be told in the use of color alone. There is so much visual information going on, and so many clever moments packed into each wide-angle shot, that I’m sure I would pick up on twice as much at the second viewing. And though it starts a bit slow, I think the turning point of the film is the opening of a posh new restaurant, barely slapped together before its first patrons arrive. As the restaurant starts to fall apart, the characters and the film itself start to come alive with a beauty and charm that’s difficult not to love.