Castro Street (The Coming of Consciousness)

(USA 1966)

Bruce Baillie’s experimental short film Castro Street has nothing to do with San Francisco. It has no plot, no dialogue, and no characters — unless you count the machines, silhouettes of workers, numbers, words, ads, colors, and sounds that wander in and out the frame like a stream of consciousness. The point is to convey a certain mood through visual and sonic elements.

It works. Dominated by shifting shades of red and blue superimposed over black and white, a drab industrial bleakness emerges from the constantly moving images and noises of oil refining machinery and trains. Suddenly, a welcome bit of nature comes into a view: a field of grass. Toward the end, a familiar pop song that I can’t place is trying to break out of all the noise. I looked it up: “Good Lovin'” by the Rascals.

Overall, Castro Street is not particularly exciting — but it’s pretty.

In 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed Castro Street (The Coming of Consciousness) “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: Canyon Cinema

Distribution:

11 minutes
Not rated

(Daily Motion) C-

 

Suspiria

(Italy 1977)

“We must get rid of that bitch of an American girl. Vanish! She must vanish! Make her disappear! Understand? Vanish! She must vanish. She must die! Die! Die!”

— Madame Blanc

Dario Argento’s cult classic Suspiria is a perplexing film, and not because it’s scary. It’s pretty ridiculous, tongue and cheekiness aside.

Cowritten by Argento with Daria Nicolodi from Thomas DeQuincey’s 1845 essay “Suspiria de Profundis,” the plot is prosaic: American ballet student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) enrolls at “the most famous school of dance in Europe,” the fictitious Tanz Dance Academy in Freiburg, Germany. Suzy notices immediately that something about the place isn’t quite right — maybe it’s the two students who are murdered the night she arrives. It doesn’t take long for Suzy to discover that the school is a front for something far more nefarious. Except for a few good lines here and there, the writing is terrible. The acting is even worse. The two exceptions are Alida Valli as Miss Tanner and Joan Bennett as Madame Blanc, both of whom deliver fabulously campy performances as women of power at the school.

None of this matters, though, because this isn’t Suspiria’s raison d’être. No, Suspiria is a sensory masterpiece that places style way ahead of substance. In other words, it’s eye candy.

Argento expresses his vision through his imagery, and it’s unforgettably dazzling and unique. From the opening titles to the last scene, Argento shocks, thrills, and seduces with color, light, shadow, and surreal imagery. His sets are elegant and fake, and his blood is even faker. He lights the screen with bright reds and glowing blues (when it’s not all black from night), and he keeps the perspective distorted to create a trippy dissonance. Plus, he throws in a number of creepy psychological menaces, from maggots to a dog attack to a treacherous room-size wire dustbunny. Luciano Tovoli’s camera work perfectly articulates Argento’s vision.

This is what Suspiria is all about:

Suspiria1.jpg

Suspiria2.jpg

Suspiria3.jpg

Suspiria4.jpg

Suspiria5.jpg

Suspiria6.jpg

Suspiria9.jpg

Suspiria7.jpg

Suspiria8.jpg

The soundtrack by Goblin is a nice touch, and it goes far in creating the mood here.

For all its flaws — and there are many — Suspiria is a memorable film. We caught a digital restoration of the original print, which is five or six minutes longer. A zealous audience member engaged us in a discussion as we left the theater. He told us that Suspiria is the first of a trilogy known as “The Three Mothers,” and he enthusiastically recommended the second film, Inferno. I’ll see it someday, but it’s not a priority.

With Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Barbara Magnolfi, Susanna Javicoli, Eva Axén, Rudolf Schündler, Udo Kier, Margherita Horowitz, Jacopo Mariani, Fulvio Mingozzi, Franca Scagnetti, Renato Scarpa, Serafina Scorceletti, Giuseppe Transocchi, Renata Zamengo

Production: Seda Spettacoli

Distribution: Produzioni Atlas Consorziate

98 minutes
Not rated (alternate version)

(ArcLight) C+

Breathless [Á bout de souffle]

(France 1960)

“After all, I’m an asshole.”

—Michel Poiccard

The third time is a charm: after seeing Jean Luc-Godard’s first full length feature film, Breathless, I now understand the love-meh relationship I have with his work.

On one hand, he’s got a remarkable grasp of human behavior and what motivates it. He’s got a snarky sense of humor. He’s stylish. His technique is gutsy for a lot of reasons. His characters are flawed. His subject matter is cool. He knows how to make a film look pretty, and most of them might as well be deemed official historical documents of the places where they were shot. Seeing a Godard film is like traveling back in time, an incidental bonus he probably never considered. I love all of this.

For all his strengths, on the other hand, a Godard film can be so damned…boring. Merde!

Fortunately, that’s not quite the case with Breathless, which I actually enjoyed. Godard and François Truffaut developed the story—I won’t call it a script or a screenplay because they made up much of it as they went along. Plot is always a loose construct with Godard, but there’s enough of one here to follow along fairly easily. Ugly cute guy (or is he a cute ugly guy?) Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a drifter car thief who fancies himself a French Humphrey Bogart, steals a car and drives it through the countryside. He shots and kills a policeman who pursues him.

With nowhere else to go, he heads straight to his American girl, Patricia (Jean Seberg), an expat student who sells a newspaper, the now defunct New York Herald Tribune, on the Champs-Élysées—that’s kind of weird—and writes articles here and there. She brings Michel to her apartment, where he hides out. He doesn’t mention anything to her about what happened. They get it on, or at least it’s implied that they do. She’s tells him she’s pregnant. One extended scene involves them lying around, talking.

Michel becomes a marked man, which he discovers soon enough after he leaves the apartment with Patricia and sees a newspaper with a headline about him. I won’t ruin the ending, but it doesn’t bode well for him—especially after Godard himself sees Michel.

Breathless is a psuedo noir thriller that’s low on action but loaded with morally vacant characters who lack any redeeming qualities. There’s a nihilistic sexiness to it. The narrative moves along in a jazzy free-form way, and the imagery here is every bit a part of the story as the characters. The ending is not a happy one. If nothing else, Breathless is a visual stunner—black and white cinematic candy. The restored digital version I saw literally glowed.

I can handle more films like this one.

With Daniel Boulanger, Henri-Jacques Huet, Roger Hanin, Van Doude, Liliane David, Michel Fabre, Jean-Pierre Melville, Claude Mansard, Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Balducci, Jacques Rivette

Production: Les Films Impéria, Les Productions Georges de Beauregard, Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC)

Distribution: Films Georges de Beauregard, Les Films Impéria, Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC), Euro International Film (EIA) (Italy), Pallas Filmverleih (West Germany), British Lion Film Corporation (UK), Cinematográfica Azteca (Mexico), Ciné Vog Films (Belgium), Wivefilm (Sweden), Films Around the World (USA), Rialto Pictures (USA), Criterion Collection (USA)

90 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes rental) B

http://www.jean-lucgodard.com/films.html

https://www.criterion.com/films/268-breathless

Eraserhead

(USA 1977)

I learned of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, his first feature length film, during my freshman year in college (thank you, U.D.). Somehow, seeing it escaped me until it screened at a recent Lynch retrospective.

The basic premise is easy to follow: Henry Spencer (John Nance, later Jack) is a schlubby factory worker who learns he fathered a mutant baby out of wedlock. At the insistence of her mother (Jeanne Bates), his freaked out girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart), moves into Henry’s tiny one-room apartment with the baby, who looks like a diseased E.T. wrapped in gauze. The baby cries constantly, driving Mary out of the apartment and leaving Henry to care for it. His neighbor, Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts), serves as an ever-increasing temptation and torment.

Really, it’s not the plot but Lynch’s presentation that makes Eraserhead unique. To be clear, it’s not his best film—not even close. It isn’t exactly representative of his work, either. Still, it’s interesting to see his trademarks in their infancy: a horrific and surreal atmosphere, bizarre imagery that here includes lots of spermatozoan objects and seemingly random scenes, spooky characters like the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), and of course Lynch’s dry and twisted wit. The sets and costumes are assembled with early 20th Century industrial junk. The soundtrack is essentially white noise in the background. Frederick Elmes and Herbert Cardwell’s cinematography is rich and textured, using black and white to create a look and mood that resembles a silent film. Their camerawork sets up a sense of claustrophobia that lingers for the duration of the film.

Like most of Lynch’s work, Eraserhead is open to interpretation. In simplest terms, it’s a horror story about the demands of the family on the individual, from small talk and dinners with in-laws to appeasing a partner to child rearing to straying from the family unit. In the tradition of great American playwrights like Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and August Wilson, Lynch focuses on the pains and dysfunction that often make familial burdens difficult to bear.

I didn’t quite grasp everything here—how pencilmaking fits into the big picture, for example. Regardless, Eraserhead is infinitely interesting. I didn’t find it particularly scary, but it definitely leaves an impression—I guess in that sense it’s a haunting tale. It’s a weird and original film. Here’s the weirdest thing about it: I actually felt something emotional for that mutant baby. Go figure.

In 2004, the United States Library of Congress deemed Eraserhead “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Allen Joseph, Jack Fisk, Jean Lange, Hal Landon Jr., Gill Dennis, Darwin Joston, Jennifer Lynch, Peggy Lynch

Production: American Film Institute (AFI), Libra Films

Distribution: Libra Films International (USA), Creative Exposure (Canada), Mainline Pictures (UK), Toei Yoga and Comstock (Japan), Chapel Distribution and Umbrella Entertainment (Australia), Eye Film Instituut (Netherlands), Potemkine Films (France)

89 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B-

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

http://www.davidlynch.de/head.html

Blue Velvet

(USA 1986)

Who hasn’t seen Blue Velvet? Even though David Lynch was already established by the time it came out, it’s the film that introduced me to him. I saw it once or twice in late high school or early college, definitely on VHS. The River’s Edge was the only comparison I had, and that was a weird film but…not on the same level. I found Blue Velvet totally watchable because it’s very dark, very sexual, very fucking weird, and very voyeuristic.

That was then, this is now: Blue Velvet is still all of those things, but I don’t remember it having the sense of humor it does. It’s curiously funny. It marks the start of Lynch’s style as we know it: not just surreal (he had already done Eraserhead), but macabre and perverted underneath the innocuous and mundane premise. Lynch sets up his narrative in pieces that refer back and forth, like a moving puzzle. It’s brilliant, and it’s a formula that’s served him well.

Blue Velvet starts with a severed ear on the ground, bugs crawling all over it. A local college kid turned stalker (Kyle MacLachlan) proves a bit too curious when his minor obsession with a night club singer (Isabella Rossellini) leads him into a sadomasochistic nightmare that neither he nor we viewers can turn away from. The whole bizarre and sordid story goes full circle back to where it started: that ear. 

Dennis Hopper as Frank, the gas-huffing sociopath who ends every sentence with the F-word, colors the mood here. None of it would work, though, without Rossellini’s vulnerability, which is crucial. 

Lynch considered Molly Ringwald instead of Laura Dern and Val Kilmer instead of MacLachlan. Thank goodness it happened how it did; what a different film Blue Velvet would have been. For a movie that relies so heavily on nuance, that could’ve ruined Lynch’s career. It didn’t. 

With Hope Lange, Dean Stockwell, George Dickerson, Priscilla Pointer, Frances Bay, Jack Harvey, Ken Stovitz, Brad Dourif, Jack Nance, J. Michael Hunter, Dick Green, Fred Pickler, Philip Markert, Leonard Watkins, Moses Gibson, Selden Smith, Peter Carew, Jon Jon Snipes, Angelo Badalamenti, Jean Pierre Viale, Donald Moore, A. Michelle Depland, Michelle Sasse, Katie Reid, Sparky

Production: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

Distribution: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, 20th Century Fox (UK), Transmundo Films (Argentina), AMLF (France), Concorde Film (Netherlands), Concorde Filmverleih (West Germany), Finnkino (Finland), Hoyts Distribution (Australia), Shochiku-Fuji Company (Japan)

120 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B+

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration [Sounds of Exodus: An Ode to the Great Migration]

(USA 2016)

Chicago filmmaker Lonnie Edwards made some waves with his 2015 documentary A Ferguson Story, which delved into some of the events following Officer Darren Wilson’s deadly shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The subject of Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration isn’t as heavy or bleak, but it’s every bit as intriguing.

Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration is a smooth, flashy short film that honors the music and dance forms that black Americans brought to other parts of the country, mostly industrialized cities, through the Great Migration from the South during the first half of the 20th Century. In just a few minutes, Edwards demonstrates how both assimilated into urban life and continue to shape modern culture. I couldn’t find credits, but the guy tap dancing in the stairwell stood out; his taps are downright melodious.

Production: 11 Dollar Bill

Distribution:

4 minutes
Not rated

(The Chop Shop/1st Ward) B

CIMMfest

https://www.soundsofexodus.com

Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil [Jheronimus Bosch, Touched by the Devil]

(Netherlands 2015)

For an artist with such a unique vision that transcends his time, Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil is a really boring tribute. I expected the focus to be on the artist and his ideas about hell—unfortunately, director Pieter van Huystee gives only fleeting, superficial treatment to both. Instead, the focus here is on the process of culling an exhibit in Den Bosch, the city where the artist spent his entire life, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his death. Oddly, none of his 25 or so existing works are housed there. The film follows a group of art historians as they circle the globe examining pieces to confirm or negate their authenticity and meet with museum executives to broker deals for borrowing works. Along the way, an unknown panel, The Temptation of St. Anthony, is “discovered” in of all places Kansas City.

Museum politics and egos are caught in action, as is the thrill of discovering the unknown St. Anthony. A bit of time is devoted to an interesting discussion on works produced after Bosch’s death. Overall, though, Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil is a rather lifeless affair that shines bright when the camera is pointed at the artist’s work, but not really any other time. It fails to hit the notes or address any questions I wanted it to; its intriguing title is curiously misleading.

87 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C-

http://www.pvhfilm.nl/nieuws-226-jheronimus-bosch-geraakt-door-de-duivel-op-idfa.html?archived=0

 

2001: A Space Odyssey

(USA/UK 1968)

I expected a long, slow, laborious, and arty history of mankind extending into the near future—well, near for the late Sixties but already a decade past now—set to Classical music, with lots of scenery from outer space and little or no plot. Think of an elaborate promotional video for space travel—that’s what I anticipated. Fortunately, Stanley Kubrick was more sophisticated than that.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a cool film. After a silly opening segment that involves a group of apes, a monolith, and the birth of tools, the story jumps ahead two million years or so to the 21st Century. In the second segment, Dr. Floyd (William Sylvester) shuts down colleages asking questions about a coverup on his way to a space station to investigate an artifact discovered in a pit: it’s a monolith just like the one that sent the aforementioned apes into a frenzy. A third—and the best—segment involves two astronauts (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood) on a mission to Jupiter controlled by a computer named HAL. HAL is making mistakes, exhibiting jealousy and vindictiveness, and being generally creepy—a little too human. The final segment is a tripped out time warp for David, one of the aforementioned astronauts. And there’s that monolith again, this time inside a goofy Italian Renaissance inspired bedroom with a glowing dancefloor.

It’s total sci fi, but 2001: A Space Odyssey is clever in ways that allow it to transcend the genre. Kubrick’s vision of the future is not only elegant but remarkably smart and accurate. Humans are still human, but technology is everywhere. Despite the appearance of defunct companies like Pan Am and Howard Johnson’s, his characters use tablets, video conferencing, flat screen TVs, and plastic credit cards. There’s a coffee bar and acronyms for unidentified things called “ATM,” “COM,” and “HIB.” Furnishings and clothing look a little different in a realistic way. The story is open to many interpretations, none of which Kubrick ever debunked. He left a lot of fodder for discussion. I see why it’s on many “best of” lists.

I saw a restored version that included an overture and an intermission. The latter broke up what probably would’ve verged on too long for me.

In 1991, the United States Library of Congress deemed 2001: A Space Odyssey “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

(Music Box) A

Music Box Theatre 70mm Festival

http://www.filmsite.org/twot.html

Horse Money [Cavalo Dinheiro]

(Portugal 2014)

I have mixed feelings about Pedro Costa’s Horse Money. From a visual perspective, it’s amazing: Costa and cinematographer Leonardo Simões command light and shadow to create stunningly beautiful scenes in hospitals, industrial spaces, abandoned streets, even on a hill at night. It’s simple but gorgeous. Fucking gorgeous! The visual aspect made Horse Money worth sitting through to the bitter end.

The plot, on the other hand, is another story. Vague, confusing, and very esoteric, I’m not sure what it’s all about. I think—but I’m not sure—Ventura, a revolutionary who sold out for a normal life, is about to die. The film takes us along with him (and his shaky hands) as his life flashes before his eyes—kind of like Jacob’s Ladder. He meets characters from his past and literal demons that haunt him. He must come to terms with the choices he made that brought him to the present before he can let go. The whole thing is dreamlike and stream-of-consciousness. It’s moody, pretty, and unsettling; but it’s often maddeningly difficult to follow. The scene in the elevator—probably the most important in the film—is way too long. It actually made me claustrophobic. I couldn’t wait to get out of the theater.

Maybe Friday evening wasn’t the best time to see something like this—it requires a lot of attention. When I depart this mortal coil, I hope it’s much quicker and less tortuous (and less torturous) than this. Fuck me.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C-

http://horsemoney.co.uk

Antonio Gaudí

(Japan 1984)

Barcelona, one of my favorite cities, owes much of its color to Antoni Gaudí, whose personal stamp is all over it. With Antonio Gaudí [アントニー・ガウディー], Hiroshi Teshigahara directs a virtual tour of Gaudí’s major and not so major works, getting close up and even inside a few spots one otherwise might never see.

Antonio Gaudí is pretty, artful, perhaps even poetic; but it’s boring. Teshigahara offers no commentary or background on anything other than—surprise!—La Basílica de la Sagrada Família; even then, the narration is two minutes long, if that. A 72-minute moving postcard, Antonio Gaudí amounts to nothing more than an educational film or a tourism video. I’d rather see Gaudí’s work in person.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) D

https://www.criterion.com/films/536-antonio-gaudi