CALL IT MY NIGHTS AT MORIN’S: An attractive widow (Emmanuelle Riva) in a rural village visits a priest’s bare walk-up to mess with him and gets drawn into religious and philosophical debates shadowed by desire. Jean-Pierre Melville helped inspire the La Nouvelle Vague with Bob le Flambeur (1956), and in Léon Morin, Priest (1961)—the filmmaker’s return after the flop of Two Men in Manhattan (1959)—he directs Riva (Elle in Hiroshima Mon Amour ) as the bored Barny opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo. Ten years after Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, the Breathless icon plays the improbable militant curate Léon Morin: young, sly, questioning, and boxer’s-mug handsome.
Instead of finding dogmatic certainty she can rattle, Barny encounters Morin’s jujitsu-like engagement with her doubts and criticism. Framing and reframing his two stars during their dialogues, Melville and DP Henri Decaë keep the audience on its toes; one scene in a confessional is shot in profile, the intimacy of the space recast as a disarming directness. Set during the wartime occupation—when the Army of Shadows director served in the Resistance—the film is filtered through Barny’s perspective on her changing surroundings, though these occupy only part of her charged internal monologue. Rolling tanks are heard through her shutters, not seen, and the war-related events that most hit home involve her precocious daughter, whom she secrets away with spinsters because of the girl’s Jewish father.
Morin’s ascetic rooms are a refuge from boredom and from the noise of the office where she works, but her visits with the priest are a battleground of a different sort. For Melville, ever alert to the treachery in the lived experience of absolutes, the spiritual and bodily temptation that Morin poses demands a torturous faith, but it is one, with cruel irony, that Barny cannot ultimately find satisfying.
Léon Morin, Priest is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection.
She was hundreds of years old, the oldest star ever, if you count emotional years, the toll they take, dramas galore for a dozen lifetimes. She was ‘She,’ who had stepped into the Flame once too often. – Kenneth Anger on Judy Garland, Hollywood Babylon (1975)
TINY JUDY GARLAND (she stood four feet eleven inches) was a performer of colossal talent, though her gifts were frequently overshadowed by just as enormous tendencies toward self-sabotage. Pills, illnesses (real and psychosomatic), chronic lateness to or absences on the set, suicide attempts: All contribute to the legend of “She,” still remembered, forty-two years after her death at age forty-seven from an overdose of Seconal, as the greatest casualty of Hollywood, of nonstop performing that began when she was just two and a half years old.
Viewing any Garland movie, thirty-one of which (nearly her entire filmography) will screen at the Walter Reade Theater, is undoubtedly affected by knowledge of her offscreen tribulations. And no Garland vehicle invites a biographical reading more than George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954), which boasts one of Garland’s most titanic performances.
A CinemaScope musical about Hollywood dreams and nightmares (and an adaptation of William Wellman’s 1937 movie of the same name), A Star Is Born was Garland’s comeback role after MGM, her employer since 1935, suspended her contract in 1950, a result of her inability to complete several films. (In between her MGM dismissal and work on A Star Is Born, Garland performed in an acclaimed vaudeville-style show at the Palace Theatre on Broadway; she would return to the venue several more times during her life, and daughter Liza Minnelli would mount a comeback of sorts there in 2008.) Garland plays Esther Blodgett, a singing and dancing hopeful promoted by the constantly pickled Norman Maine (James Mason), an A-list actor whom she saves from public embarrassment at a benefit concert at the Shrine Auditorium. They fall in love and marry, though their bonds are strained more than once as her career ascends and his flames out.
Esther, renamed Vicki Lester when she becomes a contract player—just as Frances Gumm would later be rechristened Judy Garland—represents an idealized version of the actress who plays her: always on time to the set, devoid of neuroses and self-destructive urges, steadfast in her care of an unwell spouse. In Norman, we’re painfully reminded of Garland’s own ignominious episodes, particularly when his studio drops him after twenty years of service, and during a stint in a sanatorium to dry out. (Following a nervous collapse during the filming of 1948’s The Pirate, Garland would convalesce in a private institution, one of her many hospitalizations.)
“What is it that makes him want to destroy himself?” Esther sobs to kindly, paternal studio head Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford), losing hope that Norman will ever get better. Garland fans, then and now, have wondered the same; her mistreatment and exploitation by MGM, especially during her adolescence, may provide one explanation. But to dwell too long on the etiology of the actress’s personal misery and dysfunction—though Garland’s torments certainly inform the vulnerability so often associated with her persona—risks not fully appreciating the staggering power of her genius in A Star Is Born (and at least a half dozen other titles). “There are certain pleasures you get—little jabs of pleasure,” Norman tells Esther, describing his experience watching her sing “The Man That Got Away” at an empty after-hours club. Those jabs become tremors as we watch Garland, now as flawless headliner Vicki Lester, exult during the ecstatic musical number “Lose That Long Face.”
A Star Is Born screens July 31, August 5, and August 9 at the Walter Reade Theater in New York as part of the series “Judy Garland: All Singin’, All Dancin’, All Judy,” running July 26–August 9. A complementary program, “Judy Garland: The Television Years,” plays at the Paley Center for Media in New York July 20–August 18.
Peter Bo Rappmund, Psychohydrography, 2010, stills from a color video, 63 minutes.
PETER BO RAPPMUND’S PSYCHOHYDROGRAPHY is exactly what its title portends: a psychological portrait of water. Following the Los Angeles Aqueduct from its source in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains to the city (more than two hundred miles), and then from the Los Angeles River to its endpoint at the Pacific Ocean, the hour-long HDR digital video recombines visual and aural elements—both natural and industrial—to graph the massive technological harnessing of water, turning it into a pulsing, strobing kaleidoscope of the mind’s eye.
Rappmund’s main tool is time-lapse photography, usually the hallmark of glorified DP reels such as the Discovery Channel–esque Baraka (1992). Such supercompression of time provides a sense of temporal enormity, a bit of an obvious effect. But Rappmund—working with a camera that can process a single image with different timescales—emphasizes to a far greater degree time-lapse’s visual possibilities, using it to distort the texture, shape, and reflective properties of tranquil and flowing water to achieve an otherworldly aesthetic. Waterfalls and streams become surreal, glassy apparitions amid vast deserts; mirroring pools of streetlights and stars take on the appearance of frenzied wavelengths in urban canals. Psychohydrography makes us marvel not at the quantity of its subject but at how resplendent and constantly in flux it is.
The hulking, slowly crumbling technological apparatuses that reshape nature define the topography of Los Angeles and its surrounding areas. Psychohydrography features the drills and pipelines of the Aqueduct as well as the frescoed and graffitied concrete channel guiding the river (the latter memorably spectacularized in Repo Man  and Terminator 2: Judgment Day ); both are equally important characters in the drama of environmental engineering. Rappmund relies on an aural tapestry as much as an imagistic one, creating a nocturnal symphony of clangs, hisses, whooshes, and hums that accompanies shots of the channel’s neighboring power lines and train yards, increasingly overwhelming the sounds of frogs, birds, and humans. (It comes as no surprise that Rappmund studied with both James Benning and Thom Andersen at CalArts.) When Psychohydrography ends—with a glorious ten-minute, reverse-motion shot of the Pacific darkening against a psychedelic horizon of red and orange (evidently the result of the 2009 Station wildfire)—we realize we’ve experienced the journey of an artist who wishes to show the inherent conflicts of our man-made universe while remaking it himself.
Psychohydrography plays Friday, July 22–Sunday, July 24 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
Otto Preminger, Skidoo, 1968, color film in 35 mm, 98 minutes.
THE SQUAREST HEAD MOVIE EVER MADE, Otto Preminger’s Skidoo (1968) is a lunatic combination of gray hairs and longhairs—an unhinged misfire about youth culture starring actors who were teenagers during the FDR administration. Its hippest cast member is unquestionably Carol Channing, then forty-seven, who wildly frugs, sports oddly structured geometric clothes in brash primary colors, and sings the title song wearing an outfit best described as Revolutionary War chorine and a wig that presages the hairdo of The Muppet Show’s Janice.
Preminger, the director of classics such as Laura (1944), Carmen Jones (1954), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and Exodus (1960), approached the film, the biggest flop of his nearly fifty-year career, with absolute sincerity. The director admired the script by Doran William Cannon, essentially a depiction of the clash between the Man—here represented by the Mafia—and hippies. The screenwriter, according to the Turner Classic Movies website, thought the film “delivered an important message of peace and love at a time when America was engaged in the war with Vietnam.”
In his early sixties, when Skidoo began production, Preminger had recently experimented with LSD and was eager to let the kids know that he dug their psychedelics. Turning on, tuning in, and dropping out is Jackie Gleason, starring as a retired mobster named Tough Tony, who’s summoned by God to carry out one last hit, a germophobic syndicate boss played by Groucho Marx. (The comedian also reportedly tried acid to prepare for Skidoo, which would be his last film.) Tony must pose as a prisoner at Alcatraz, where his target, “Blue Chips” Packard (Mickey Rooney), sits in luxe solitary confinement. But before the kill, Tony—obsessed that his wife (Channing) has been two-timing him, leading him to doubt that he’s really the father of his Vassar-bound daughter, who has just taken up with a bunch of freaks and peaceniks—is introduced to LSD by the Professor (Austin Pendleton), his draft card–burning cell mate.
“I see mathematics!” the sweat-soaked, chortling Tony announces during his altered state as bodies shrink and searing magentas and electric blues fill the screen. Soon the entire penitentiary is hallucinating after the Professor spikes the prison mess, culminating in Skidoo’s looniest scene: Two guards envision bare-assed football players, an image that morphs into solarized trash bins dancing to “Living in a Garbage Can,” sung by Harry Nilsson (who plays one of the sentries and who later sings the closing credits in their entirety, including the copyright information).
Released in December 1968, the film was a commercial and critical disaster; in his review for the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Skidoo [. . .] is something only for Preminger-watchers, or for people whose minds need pressing by a heavy, flat object.” The director himself admitted, with great understatement during an interview with Peter Bogdanovich collected in Who the Devil Made It, “I don’t think it was altogether successful in projecting what I wanted to project.”
But just what was Preminger trying to project? Tweaking the tone of Cannon’s script, Preminger tries to send up hippie-speak, having the chief flower child say things like “So we can all groove and do our own thing.” Yet the parody is about as biting as a Laugh-In skit. And though Preminger did succeed in casting one sort of outré star—the model Donyale Luna, who plays God’s girlfriend and was briefly a Factory habitué—most of his actors look as though they’d much rather be working the stage at Caesars Palace and pitch their performances so that everyone in the borscht belt can hear them. There’s no redeeming Skidoo. I suggest you see it immediately.
Skidoo is available on DVD beginning July 19 from Olive Films.
Ridley Scott, Alien, 1979, still from a color film in 35 mm, 117 minutes. Dan O’Bannon, The Return of the Living Dead, 1985, still from a color film in 35 mm, 91 minutes.
DAN O’BANNON may not be a household name, but when he died two years ago at the age of sixty-three he left his fingerprints on two of the most famous science fiction and horror films of the last thirty-five years: Star Wars (1977), for which he did computer effects, and Alien (1979), for which he wrote the script. He was something of a jack-of-all-trades: For Dark Star (1974)—his as well as director John Carpenter’s feature film debut—O’Bannon served as co-writer, editor, production designer, special effects supervisor, and star.
“Shock Value,” an upcoming BAM retrospective, displays the full range of O’Bannon’s talents. Gathering almost all of them in one bizarre package, Dark Star is a true oddity, a 2001 satire with hints of Keatonian slapstick and the absurdist philosophical musings of early Woody Allen. During a nearly twenty minute sequence, O’Bannon’s Sergeant Pinback (he plays the goofy, accident-prone astronaut with relish) chases a beach ball–shaped and -textured alien through a labyrinthine space shuttle, nearly getting crushed by an elevator in the process. In the climax, a nuclear bomb equipped with artificial intelligence is prevented from exploding when befuddled by a Cartesian brainteaser.
The cosmic darkness of Alien, on the other hand, is never tempered with camp or intellectual humor. Though known more for its grungy, futuristic set design and H.R. Giger’s primordial, sexually suggestive title creature, Alien works largely due to O’Bannon’s ability to elevate B-movie scenarios into mythological nightmares with archetypal economy.
That ability remains untapped in Blue Thunder (1983), a bland, helicopter-centered action film starring Roy Scheider that indulges rather than interrogates the surveillance technology of its titular super-vehicle. More exemplary of the O’Bannon touch is his directorial debut, The Return of the Living Dead (1985), which he also wrote. On the surface a trashier version of George Romero’s iconic Night of the Living Dead (1968)—at one point a nymphomaniacal punk (scream queen Linnea Quigley) performs a striptease, for no discernable reason, atop an open-air crypt—Return nonetheless possesses some of the funniest, bleakest imagery to appear in any zombie film. After scenes that include the excruciating onset of rigor mortis in a couple of unfortunate zombie victims and the tactical ambushing of local police by an army of talking, intelligent zombies, the film ends with the military containing the zombie epidemic by nuking Louisville, all moral qualms swept nonchalantly to the side.
“Shock Value: Dan O’Bannon” runs at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn July 11–13 & 18–19.
Eve Annenberg, Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish, 2010, stills from a color film, 89 minutes.
EXUBERANCE, AWKWARDNESS, RECKLESSNESS, SPONTANEITY, AND YEARNING—qualities valued in productions of Shakespeare’s tragedy about teenage amour fou—are abundantly present in Eve Annenberg’s Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish. Defiantly artless and effortlessly sophisticated, the movie is an astonishment almost from beginning to end. It also has one of the funniest lines of the year (not to give it away, it concerns what every girl should put in her purse before she’s entombed).
A shape-shifting fiction that incorporates (sort of) a documentary of its own making, Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish stars its director as Ava, a graduate student moonlighting as a nurse in a two-bed emergency room that looks like it was jammed into the corner of someone’s apartment. Ava has a complicated backstory: Nearly two decades earlier, she fell in love with a Hasidic bookstore clerk, married him, and had a daughter whom she left behind when she fled her husband’s religious community. She has returned to Brooklyn hoping to win back the now teenage girl before she is forced into an arranged marriage. In the meantime, she takes on a paid assignment from one of her professors, a little something he probably was supposed to finish himself in graduate school. Although she doesn’t speak the language, Ava agrees to modernize an existing Yiddish translation of Romeo and Juliet, a seemingly absurd enterprise since Hasidic schoolchildren aren’t allowed to read Shakespeare, and anyone else who reads Yiddish, as one of the Hasidic dropouts Ava hires to help her explains, is over ninety.
The comment applies reflexively to Annenberg’s film as well. The audience for Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish are not members of the eastern European Jewish orthodoxy but its dropouts—and by extension the dropouts from every enclosed religious, ethnic, or political community that still sees the world through a feudal lens. Annenberg can’t escape the shadow of West Side Story—as when she sets the balcony scene on a Brooklyn fire escape—but her film has more in common with countless amateur productions of the play performed by high school kids who understand the tragedy of the feuding Montagues and Capulets because they live out similar gang wars on their own mean streets.
Which makes the film sound grimmer than it is. The pleasure of Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish is located in the lyrical scenes where Ava’s helpers—self-exiled from their religious community and surviving on the street through credit card scams—soar in their imaginations as they envision themselves as Shakespeare’s characters. Annenberg segues back and forth between Lazer, Mendy, and Bubbles lounging on Ava’s couch and the same three playacting Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio as they, for example, return on the D train from a day at Coney Island, joshing with one another in iambic pentameter—or Yiddish approximations of the same. (All Yiddish dialogue is subtitled.) Almost all the actors in the large cast are nonprofessionals, and, strangely, they are far more inspired and believable playing Shakespeare’s characters than they are as modern analogues to themselves. Since romantic love has no place in Hasidic culture, Romeo is more comfortable with his male pals than with Juliet (who, of course, is played by the same actress who plays Ava’s daughter). Indeed, the fact that Lazer can’t quite fathom what makes Romeo so crazy about Juliet until he acts out their wedding-night love scene—discreetly shot through gauze and introduced by a close-up of a Chagall painting—is exactly Annenberg’s point, and the point of all performance in life and art.
Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish opens July 8 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.
Nicolás Pereda, Summer of Goliath, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 76 minutes. Goliath (Oscar Saavedra Miranda).
AMONG THE LESSER-KNOWN FIGURES of Mexican cinema to have emerged over the past decade, Nicolás Pereda bears watching. Like other regional filmmakers, he focuses on local situations, using the same actors playing characters often with the same names, in stories with only slight variations. Four of his five features comprise, in effect, a small-scale human comedy about people of social invisibility and lackluster lives. (His only other feature-length work is a documentary rehearsal of a stage reading by Jesusa Rodriguez, a famous Mexican performer and director.)
The films have simple, almost inconsequential narrative premises, the barest of dialogue, and a kitchen sink–like banality (the last quite literally, in one instance). Where Are Their Stories? (2007), Pereda’s debut feature, opens with young Gabino (Gabino Rodríguez) sitting on his ailing grandmother’s bed. When he learns that his two uncles plan to sell her farm, he leaves for the city to see his mother (Teresa Sánchez) and to seek legal help. Juntos (2009) begins and ends with what seems like the same Gabino searching for his missing dog—perhaps a metaphor for his uneasy, but unexplored, relationship with his girlfriend. In Perpetuum Mobile (2010), Gabino lives with his mother (Sánchez) and works as a furniture mover with his friend Paco. At the end, when Gabino and his mother find his grandmother dead in her apartment, they simply wrap her in a blanket and bury her in the woodsa telling illustration of how little these lives matter in any larger social context.
In all three films, Pereda introduces diversionary scenes with mixed results. In Stories, the childless couple for whom Teresa works as a live-in maid asks her to conceive a child by the husband. Though she agrees, her visible distress following the act telegraphs the veiled pressure she felt to do so. In Perpetuum Mobile, Gabino and Paco remove the belongings of a woman bent on leaving her husband of thirty years, as he follows her around their apartment and convinces her to change her mind. Though such anecdotes seem intended as mordant commentary on the fickleness and insensitivity of the middle class, they have an uncanny, if restrained, resemblance to an episode in a Woody Allen film. Strangely, the protagonists Pereda apparently cares about are no more articulate about their lives, which is not to say that his actors are expressionless. Indeed, the performers are perhaps the strongest element of his work, capable of subtle shifts of emotion that justify many of the long-held shots. Yet, despite the presence of cultural miscellany (shelves of books and CDs) lining their apartment walls, they have little or nothing to say during these five- to seven-minute-long takes. The most animated conversation in Juntos is between Gabino and Paco, complaining about a malfunctioning refrigerator.
Pereda’s more ambitious but willfully puzzling Summer of Goliath (2010) tells a number of stories, none of them fully developed. Set in a rural environment, in which woods, fields, and rivers bear oppressively on the action, the film consists of stories that are juxtaposed with each other, scene by scene, in the fashion of a patchwork quilt. Once again, Teresa Sánchez and Gabino Rodríguez are mother and son, their problems compounded by the husband-father’s abandonment; once again, Gabino lacks a proper job, this time as he plays soldier with a pal. Pereda’s inclusion of interviews with minor characters whose situations are unconnected to the main one lends a documentary air to the entire work, blurring the line between fabrication and what seem to be actual events. The film’s title refers to a young man accused of killing his girlfriend. Though we hear no more about this after the interview that begins the film, it hangs over the movie as a specter of hopelessness and irresolution.
Pereda’s style—extended takes, often handheld and mobile; minimal dialogue; loosely constructed, unresolved narratives; and quasi-documentary touches—is so suited to the confines and aimless lives of his characters that it hardly seems a formalist choice. His approach is patient and observing, his long takes apt measures of the unhurried, directionless nature of his characters’ behavior. It’s not clear whether this style reflects a consistent authorial point of view or is the logical tactic for gazing at people whose personalities and lives would crumble under the analytic dynamics of montage. “Where Are Their Stories?” could be the collective title of Pereda’s films to date. It remains to be seen whether he will continue to address this question as he has or expand his aesthetic to consider its deeper implications.