Another monster month for May, with Criterion and Eureka dominating again with a surfeit of releases. Nevertheless, cult label Arrow impressed with their release of the intense Japanese high school indie Blue Spring, while Bluebell offered a bare-bones but welcome edition of classic sex comedy La Ronde.
A Face in the Crowd – 6 May (Criterion)
Kicking off May’s releases was the Criterion release of Elia Kazan’s brilliant satire, A Face in the Crowd. Based loosely on popular ‘man of the people’ figures such as Will Rogers Jr. and Arthur Godfrey, Kazan’s film explores the relationship between celebrity, media and political power. A Face in the Crowd was a star maker for Andy Griffith in his breakout film debut as salt-of-the-earth, plain talking country singer ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes. Griffith would later go on to star in The Andy Griffith Show on television, ironically mirroring the career of the role that made him a household name.
Historical satires are perhaps too often described as mirroring the troubles of the present, but it’s not to describe A Face in The Crowd is prescient – alarmingly so. The profound influence that the media holds over popular discourse, the thrall in which corporations hold the political establishment, and the ways in which these institutions work together to create power seems to grow in relevance with each political cycle. But Kazan’s most powerful statement is on the nature of demagoguery – not simply behind the “authentic” voices in the media sit the interests of the powerful and the privileged, but driving those interests is the ego – inflated, fragile and toxic.
Blue Spring – 13 May (Arrow)
Based on the comic strip by Taiyô Matsumoto, this 2001 film from Japanese indie director Toshiaki Toyoda plays like an electric shock of heightened emotion and violence against the puerile gross-out teen comedies of its Western early-2000s contemporaries. Apparently set in a modern-day Japanese high school, Blue Spring feels almost post-apocalyptic with its graffiti-covered corridors, abandoned save for the student gangs that prowl them while the teachers do their best to make themselves invisible.
Confining the action to the confines of the school grounds heightens the feeling of being trapped in a pressure cooker, creating a world in which high school is very much at its centre. The intricate social hierarchy of the school’s gang – determined by a daredevil game atop the main building and led by Ryûhei Matsuda’s sensitive Kujo – and brief explosions of violence create a sense of magical realism, but once which conjures both the intensity of feeling of adolescence and the toxic combination of unexpressed love and burning competition that often characterise male friendships.
Night of the Generals – 13 May (Eureka)
Part war film, part murder mystery, and part serial killer thriller, Anatole Litvak’s Night of the Generals represents an interesting moment in mainstream cinema. In the vacuum left by the collapse of the Hollywood old studio system, the doors were opened for mainstream films with greater psychological and moral fluidity; conversely, audiences’ desire for a good old fashioned wartime adventure had hardly dimmed.
At this nexus point of cinema history, the 1967 Night of the Generals finds space to explore moral pragmatism, ethical imperatives and the concept of justice within the extreme authoritarian power structure of Nazi-occupied Europe. As an American-British-French co-production, that the German soldiers who make up the cast all speak with impeccable English is a given; nevertheless, hearing English accents – particularly regional accents for the lower-ranked soldiers, is unsettlingly familiar.
Meanwhile, the radio announcer who spouts propaganda about the heroics of the obssessive-compulsive General Tanz (Peter O’Toole, playing a General under suspicion of murdering a prostitute) in a corn-fed American accent is nothing short of a deep dive into the uncanny. Against the backdrop of the ‘Valkyrie’ plot to assassinate Hitler, there is a fetishism that barely sits beneath the surface (check out the uniform and leather close-ups in the opening credits). Moreover, through the way that the narrative jumps back and forward to a post-war Europe, the film suggests that the spectre of systemic evil is not confined to Nazi Germany, nor are the ways that hierarchical structures constrain ethical behaviour.
November – 13 May (Eureka)
Estonian director Rainer Sarnet’s eery fable finally arrives in the UK following its 2017 world premiere. Based on Andrus Kivirähk’s novel, November is a haunting, beautiful fairy tale set in nineteenth-century Estonia, where forest-dwelling peasants contend with rebellious kratts – enchanted creatures constructed of tools and animal bones to perform tasks for their masters, animated for the cost of a soul by the Devil, played with mad, choleric relish by Jaan Tooming. In this community, farmboy Hans (Jörgen Liik) pines from afar for the local lord’s German daughter, while Liina (Rea Lest) harbours an unrequited love for Hans.
Hans and Liina’s love triangle forms November’s central narrative, but in truth it is little more than a spine from sprigs and tangles of folkloric images are enabled to spring forth: devotees of folk-horror and hauntology have been dreaming of an aesthetic this luminescent for years. November’s imaginative viscera are owed almost entirely to Mart Taniel’s cinematography; it is easy to compare the visuals of horror to the twisted angles and chiascuro of German expressionism, but November’s monochrome world evokes feelings etched far deeper into the bones of collective memory. Taniel’s visuals evoke European Romanticism in the bleached white forests and shifting pools made seemingly of light, over which the presiding full moon draws out wolfish desires.
The Woman in the Window – 20 May (Eureka)
Heralded as one of the most important films noir ever made, Fritz Lang’s 1944 The Woman in The Window sees its stars Edward G. Robinson and the eponymous window woman, Joan Bennett (reunited a year later in Scarlett Street) on top form as two strangers up to their necks in murder and deceit. Robinson’s patsy insurance salesman Richard Wanley has all the snivelling dissatisfaction with his life as Double Indemnity’s Walter Neff, but none of that character’s sense of self-preservation or world-weary nouse. Meanwhile, Bennett’s serpentine Alice Reed puts the lie to the myth that the femme fatales of noir have all got it planned from the start.
As much a victim of bad luck as Richard, it’s never made clear whether she plans the first-act murder of her jealous boyfriend, or just that Richard, one-time evening companion, is caught with her at the wrong place at the wrong time. Lang’s trademark urban paranoia and use of clocks as a visual signifier of tension and inevitability work to evoke the destructive relationship between unpredictable human behaviour and the indifferent machine of consequence and causality. While the proverbial noose closes around Richard’s neck, he just can’t help but give himself away, over and over again. The film’s Oz-like ending arguably undercuts the film’s climax, yet the paranoia of the unpredictable lingers.
Badlands – 20 May (Criterion)
There are surely few feature debuts as assured or accomplished as Terence Malick’s Badlands. Malick’s trademark fondness for the elegiac and his transcendent sense of romance embodied in the sublime American landscape are all very much present and correct here.
But there is also an earthiness to Badlands’ mise en scène that grounds its poetry in the lives of its protagonists – one which is perhaps lacking in his latter-day work. Indeed, the pull between the romance of living as outlaws and the horror of the violence that it entails is at the heart of the film – being as much a reflection on the myth-making of Americana – most obviously in the riffs on Bonnie and Clyde and Martin Sheen’s Kit styling himself after James Dean – as it is about Kit and Holly’s (Sissy Spacek, at once otherworldly and parochial) doomed love affair.
My Brilliant Career – 27 May (Criterion)
If Badlands works as a sort of post-modern Western, then the aesthetic of this 1979 adaptation of Miles Franklin’s novel, My Brilliant Career, is that of a classic of the genre; its harsh, untamed landscapes suit director Gillian Armstrong’s antipodean setting perfectly. But much like her later adaptation of Little Women, Armstrong explores the lives of women in settings that have traditionally been dominated by the stories of men.
Like the Westerns to which Armstrong pays tribute, wildness and civilisation are at the heart of My Brilliant Career; the external landscape of the American West – which is invariably tamed by its masculine heroes – is here internalised by its heroine, who embodies both the wilderness of the landscape with the heightened romance of the English gothic tradition. The film’s grainy texture – captured beautifully by this release – emphasises the tactical relationship of its characters to the vast country they have colonised. It’s just about enough to overcome a slightly over-familiar story that has echoes of both Austen and the Brontës, but that never quite lives up to the social critique of the former or the Gothic visions of the latter.
La Ronde – 27 May (Bluebell)
Initially banned in US by New York censors for its immoral content, Max Ophüls’ circuitous 1950 sex comedy still retains its capacity to raise eyebrows in its frank depiction of adult affairs. Bluebell’s release is basic, with no special features to speak of and occasional errors in the subtitles. Nevertheless, the blu-ray transfer is crisp. Famed for its technically impressive single takes, La Ronde is a film all about the feeling of motion – from its central metaphor of a carousel to the circular structure of its narrative, this inventive adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play is all about the illusion of moving forward while staying never getting anywhere.
The thrill of illusion is clearest in the fourth-wall breaking carousel operator (Anton Walbrook), who opens the film as the Master of Ceremonies, clad in contemporary garb on a theatrical set before changing his clothes and transforming the set into the ‘real’ Vienna – which we know of course to be another, more elaborate set. The oaths sworn, nothings whispered and doors forbidden are all just as artificial; La Ronde evokes the sadness to the lies that lovers tell each other, but also the joy and purity of fleeting pleasure endlessly lost and found.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell