Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Movies of the Lost Barry Goldwater Administrations (1965-73)

How short can I keep these? I am reluctant to drop off from keeping a record of them because my lists are about the only area of my life that is at all organized any more, and serve as a kind of placebo for a sense of actual accomplishment.

This really was a good era for movies, and I say that as somebody who was resistant to much of its appeal for a long time. All three of today's well-known selections were ones I had never felt much of an pull to see, but they all have a more than usual interest about and are well worth the time, if you are going to use your time to consume entertainments anyway.

Mean Streets (1973)

Maybe I am the only one, but speaking as a 42-year old in 2012, I had long grown tired of Scorcese and DeNiro, not because I don't think they are any good, but because one gets tired with almost all people who are as constantly ubiquitous for as long a time as they have been. Here they appear before they became 'themselves', and the movie surprised me by how fresh and lively it is.  The subject matter for the most part hints at impending darkness, I suppose, but the darkness is not I don't think what it is primarily concerned with. Johnny Boy (the DeNiro character) is such a knucklehead that he apparently doesn't care about provoking people who are used to resolving their problems with firearms, which relieves the viewer of a lot of the stress of anticipating that eventually happening. It is Johnny Boy's outrageously oppositional attitude that mostly carries the movie, along with its vignettes of other unbounded characters, of places and attitudes of the time, and the collisions of these forces with each other. This is honestly the first movie I have seen as an over-30 in which I actually enjoyed watching Robert DeNiro's acting (though I suspect I would like him in  Raging Bull if I saw that again). Almost all of the actors in this inhabit their roles with an unusual seamlessness and honesty, or at least the ones playing the neighborhood guys anyway. You also believe that their lives are somehow worth having, maybe more than yours, because they seem so self-actualized.

While the film probably exaggerates it, the amount of casual violence and general mayhem, apart from 'business' related matters, that the movie depicts is pretty amazing. At one point Johnny Boy is up on the roof of his apartment building firing his gun off randomly for half an hour, putting out a few windows in the process, apparently without attracting the attention of either law enforcement or annoyed neighbor. He also on at least one occasion assaults and delivers a beatdown to a random person on the sidewalk and leaves him in a bloody heap while other pedestrians just step around the prone body. Women are hit, thrown to the ground and so forth almost as a way of establishing atmosphere and the characters of male protagonists.

The use of 60s girl group songs in the soundtrack is more than usually effective here. Their exuberance and, even in 1973, suggestion of nostalgia, doubtless matches the mood of the filmmaker and the other creative talent, if not the nominal storyline.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

If you are of that impossibly exalted class of person for whom even the professional upper middle class constitutes in its collective stupidity a source of near-endless mirth, this is apparently one of the most hilarious movies ever made. I think it is interesting in many ways, but it is clearly intended as an inside joke for friends and kindred spirits of the great Luis Bunuel and other instinctive artistic types--it can hardly have been expected to communicate hard truths to the real bourgeoisie, because for the most part they won't have any idea what the hell they're looking at (and won't care) and the people like me who perceive they are being made fun of and believe they would like nothing more than to change and become an irreverent artist/sage/ independent soul or whatever it is they ought to become obviously do not have any idea how one might set about doing so.

This movie actually won the best foreign picture Oscar in its year, to the confusion of all the writers of the time who both presumably liked the movie and had made their name in part by eviscerating institutions like the Oscars as frequently as possible. The choice does seem not to be consistent with most of the other winners in that category even at the time, mainly because it is by Oscar standards so unconventional and even outrageous. I am curious as to what inspired the academy to vote it the award.

I don't have to tell you that Bunuel is one of the most purely revered masters in the history of cinema. I am not going to, and probably can't, break down all of the messages and symbolic layers of this film, but I tell you there are few directors, if any, who project such absolute confidence as well as a lack of any evidence of mental strain or self-conscious effort in rolling out a movie. This guy is psychologically off in another world from just about everybody, at least when he is behind a camera. Although the film about his life that came with the movie gave the impression that he grew up in a village that was essentially medieval until World War I (Bunuel was born in 1900), his Wikipedia page states that his family moved to Zaragoza, which is a pretty large city, when he was four and a half months old, and that they were among the wealthier and more aristocratic families in town, which background makes his eventual artistic attainments seem more plausible. At the University of Madrid he became good friends with, among other future luminaries, Salvador Dali and Federico Garcia Lorca, out of which Spanish Surrealism was hatched. The 1920s was a golden age for magical youthful circles in the arts.

One person who is not a great fan of Luis Bunuel is my wife, who has had enough of his take on the world to unconditionally reject it. If you wanted to try to get her to watch one of his films and admit to its genius at this point you would have to try to sneak it past her, which however I don't think you could. I tried it with The Exterminating Angel, Bunuel's 1962 masterpiece about guests at an aristocratic dinner party whose ennui prevents them from physically leaving the dining room, but we only got about a third of the way through the movie before she threw up her hands and broke out in an accusatory tone: "This is that guy, isn't it? You know I can't stand that guy."

While I was watching this--alone--the dear one, who was doing something constructive, such as making Halloween costumes, at the time, came into the room for some purpose, causing me to pause the movie, at this scene:

She: I hate that guy.

Me: Yes, I knew you probably wouldn't want to see this. You have often expressed exasperation with the works of the legendary surrealist Luis Bunuel.

She: No--I mean, yes of course this movie is ridiculous, but I am talking about that actor.

Me: Fernando Rey? Who doesn't like Fernando Rey? The man is all suave sophistication (I stole this characterization, which for some reason struck me as both apt and hilarious, from Billy Friedkin, director of the French Connection, in which Rey also memorably appeared).

She: Ugh. He is slimy. And the beard is so repulsive! (shudders).

All right. I personally think Fernando Rey is great. He is in fact one of my favorite actors. But I suppose I should be glad that guys like this are not openly at least potential rivals in love for me, because I certainly can't beat them on their own ground.
Among the bonus materials there is some lovingly documented film footage of Bunuel ca.1970 mixing martinis on some kind of urban balcony or patio. I'm going to keep this in mind as a beginning prop or motif if I ever decide to do some video blogging.

Repulsion (1965)

This movie was never high up on my list of things I was eager to see, if it was ever on it at all, but having seen it I rather like it. Of course, I love this part of the 1960s, before everything became dirty and ugly and everyone became so adept at expressing how much they hated society and everyone in it apart from a few transcendent super-people. That accounts for part of it. Also it is set in the cool London of the time, and if not of the city itself, with a Polish director and French leading actresses, it was of that cool quality at least. I realized in watching this that this is a kind of story and style of direction that for whatever reason, probably because it resembles the way I experience life, I really take to. A small number of characters who have limited interactions/connections with other people, as well as an equally limited range of actions, these almost all routine in nature, which are drawn out enough in the film to attain heightened significance, such that the whole world of the film is equally appealing and disturbing enough to sustain interest.

I have to admit I am developing a certain amount of fascination with Roman Polanski both as an artist and an alpha male, which he certainly was/is. (I am of course aware of the terrible crime that he is accused of, and probably guilty of; it is a deficiency both of my soul and intellect that I can form neither strong opinions nor passions, either objective or subjective, in matters of punishment where crimes are concerned. Therefore I am going to consider my subject without pretending to feel an obligation to opine on what ought to be the outcome of his legal situation. Also, I strongly suspect that the percentage of prominent men in the film industry in this generation who technically committed crimes of a sexual nature, especially by today's standards, even if not as thoroughly degoutant as that Polanski is accused of, is probably fairly high, the point being that if a faultless history of socially acceptable sexual conduct on the part of the primary makers become required to enjoy watching a movie with an easy conscience, there won't be too many good films left to watch). He is short and not, I don't think, by conventional standards especially handsome--I know these things do not matter where the personality and intellect are legitimately strong, but in most instances where the latter are not the former are counted as serious deficiencies. But time after time, in dealings with powerful and, by the standards of normal people, almost unfathomably egotistical men, and beautiful and in some instances famously difficult women, he establishes his superiority over them and persuades them as it were that they must do as he wishes if they in fact want to continue to pass themselves off as whatever it is they think that they are. Most successful people have absolute confidence in their abilities and the propriety of their attaining to the most prominent heights in their field, as well as the will to impose themselves wherever they perceive it to be desirable or necessary, without much concern for possible negative consequences. In Polanski these qualities seem to be even more developed than in the run of celebrated artists.

The presence of Catherine Deneuve, fresh off of her iconic presence in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, here in light makeup as pretty much the embodiment of naturalistic 1965 blonde beauty, brought up the question, never really explored in depth on this site, of who my all time favorite French actresses would be. To which the answer is, I don't really know. There is among us a class of sophisticated male cinephile who, not finding his counterpart in sophistication, or perhaps just general adult maturity, in American women, movie stars and otherwise, seems to think Jeanne Moreau or, if he is really feeling good about himself, perhaps Anouk Aimee, would be the true girl for him. The contemporary or near contemporary analogue to these legends as far as highly civilized erotic appeal goes seems to be Juliette Binoche, or maybe Isabelle Huppert. One of my old college classmates, who was desired by many women but deemed very few acceptable to his standards, allowed 1980s vintage Beatrice Dalle to be at least worthy of consideration, which was no small concession coming from this gentleman. Then of course there is always Brigitte Bardot

Who else is there? Isabelle Adjani, Emanuelle Beart, the current French superstar (are they like white college basketball stars, you get about one every few years?) the truly delightful Marion Cotillard, and her immediate predecessor Audrey Tautou, you can go all the way back to Arletty...I don't know, it's just so gosh darn hard to get to know them as people, Catherine Deneuve maybe especially. You want to like to her but...can you? What exactly is there? This is going to take some time to figure out. I am not clear on my real feelings for anyone yet, other than that I think I like Cotillard and Tautou the mostest (have they been globalized/Americanized by their generation so as to become more accessibly palatable to us?) and Binoche and Moreau, whom I just cannot warm up to, the least.

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