Thursday, April 28, 2011

Le Grand jeu

1934, France, directed by Jacques Feyder

Unlike Sanders of the River, Feyder's Le Grand jeu quite successfully marries its (fairly brief) location footage in North Africa with studio-shot material, although if anything this tends to underline the superfluousness of the overseas setting, which is used mostly as a means to justify using the Foreign Legion as a plot element. While the film further burnishes the regiment's legend, the action could - as Glenn Kenny notes in his appreciation of the film - have taken place more or less anywhere, such is the destructive spirit that animates the lead character, played by Pierre Richard-Willm.

Unfortunately, Willm is perhaps the weakest element in the film: although he didn't start in films until 1930, his style often seems like those of a silent film actor, more mannered and emphatic than was the norm by the mid-1930s; I felt as though an intertitle was about to pop up to provide further clarity. By contrast, supporting players like Charles Vanel and Françoise Rosay (Feyder's wife), who both had substantial experience in the silent days, feel entirely at home here; their cynical view of life's transactions is more in keeping with the film's overall tone, too.

While Feyder's sometimes intoxicating movement - the whirl through the casbah, for instance - is the more eye-catching stylistic element, he's as adept at more low-key moments, extracting great tension from the repeated card-readings (from which the film takes its title). I've always found there's something hypnotic in watching someone perform some feat of manual skill, whether it's Daniel Auteuil repairing a violin in Un Coeur en hiver or Rosay placing a series of cards or pouring a glass of wine - acts that slow down the rhythm of their respective films and draw the viewer into a world of carefully crafted gesture.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Sanders of the River

1935, UK, directed by Zoltan Korda

Of limited cinematic value -- even in the 1930s at least some reviewers noted the problems of marrying studio-set plot material with "authentic" background footage shot on location -- Sanders of the River holds considerable historical/anthropological value, both for the record of certain aspects of African life provided by those location sequences and for the insights into the British colonial (and domestic) mind.

Viewed through a modern lens, it's a terrifically problematic film, with Paul Robeson's Bosambo character an excruciating, obsequious "native" stereotype who breaks into song from time to time. Although it sounds as though Robeson -- who disowned his participation in the film -- was gulled somewhat by the production team, it doesn't help that he's not the subtlest of actors, at least on this occasion. He's more a presence, and sometimes an impressive one, than an actor, and at times you get the sense that he's following Zoltan Korda's direction rather too literally rather than attempting to inhabit a character.

As in his other colonial films, Korda has little interest in giving us actual insight into the territories that came under British rule: the location footage is a mishmash from across the continent, blended together as a composite, undifferentiated "Africa," and the studio actors playing the major African roles are almost invariably non-African. Nonetheless, and presumably inadvertently, Korda gives us a fine insight into the realities of Britain's much-vaunted "indirect rule" system, where the only indirect aspect was the fact that the will of the local colonial officer was on occasion nominally transmitted through indigenous ruling structures. The film also provides a pretty good illustration of how the colonial administration shed all pretence of indirect rule and inserted itself directly in local affairs as soon as things got tough - a theme explored in Moses Ochonu's book Colonial Meltdown: Northern Nigeria in the Great Depression, particularly relevant here given the time period.

Note: This is part of my Watching Movies in Africa project. The film was shown in post-independence Ghana in 1956 and 1957 by the government-controlled West African Pictures chain. It had been imported, and presumably screened, earlier in the 1950s, too. While I wonder what exactly audiences of the time made of the film, it was apparently box office gold: the Accra screenings in September 1956 broke local records, raking in G£464 in two nights, a huge sum by local standards when a single cinema might only earn £1,000 in a month.

The image above is from the DVD Beaver review of the Criterion Collection Paul Robeson - Portraits of the Artist. The film is also available to view online at the Internet Archive, although the quality isn't great.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

My Man Godfrey

1936, US, directed by Gregory La Cava

Like many a Depression-era film, My Man Godfrey plays the social commentary light, with the generally privileged characters exposed to the tougher side of the life - the shanties and "forgotten men" - without ever being in any actual danger of joining their ranks (indeed, at some points the film seems to suggest that impoverishment is a robustly authentic lifestyle choice).

In any case, incisive socio-political analysis is very much a subsidiary concern for one of the zaniest of the screwball comedies, which features a wealthy young woman, played by Carole Lombard, whose eccentricities make many a Katherine Hepburn character seem even-keeled. As amusing as Lombard is, delivering dialogue at a blistering pace, the film is hardly the best advertisement for the subtleties of her talent since her character is such a relentless ditz (you can imagine Gregory La Cava offscreen gesturing wildly, "more ditz! more ditz!"). William Powell gets to display much greater range, playing essentially three versions of his character, with subtle transitions from one persona to the next; none of those personas seems a likely match for Lombard, but that's the magic of Hollywood, and the pacing is generally so swift that there's no time for reflection (entire trips abroad seem to pass in a flash).

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Terribly Happy

2008, Denmark, directed by Henrik Ruben Genz (Aka: Frygtelig lykkelig)

Given the rather low levels of actual violence in Denmark, it has produced a remarkably dark-toned cinema, whether in the form of the concussive urban tales of Nicolas Winding Refn (the actor Kim Bodnia, a veteran of Refn's debut film, Pusher, plays a key role here) or in the more bucolic settings of The Green Butchers or Terribly Happy. Indeed, the notion that the the countryside hides much greater horrors than the big city is the film's running - if overplayed - joke, with a big city cop finding himself in an apparently byzantine world of criminality far beyond his usual experience. For the most part, director Genz plays things very straight, controlling the tone in ways reminiscent of Patrice Leconte's Monsieur Hire, although the insistent repetition of incident ultimately makes the film seem rather longer than it is; that said, a genuinely disturbing scene about halfway into the film gives the tension entirely new, distressing dimensions that underline the sense of psychological turmoil experienced by the main character.

Friday, April 08, 2011


2010, France, directed by Olivier Assayas [Three episode mini-series version]

An absorbing, necessarily elliptical account of the career of the Venezuelan-born multi-national terrorist, Carlos isn't simply a biopic but an effective re-creation of the specific time of social ferment and debate during which such a figure could emerge. If anything, the running time of the mini-series isn't quite generous enough: while Assayas's central focus remains with Carlos, the side trips to explore the German extreme left wing have the potential to become compelling episodes in their own right, in the manner of Edgar Reitz's even more expansive 1993 social canvas Die zweite Heimat.

The film is especially compelling in exploring the contradictions between Carlos's own self-image - his experience of his actions, and his account of his motivations - and the actual success of Carlos and his fellow operatives. As depicted by Assayas, Carlos's planning is often haphazard and his negotiating skills flawed in the extreme, but he continues to believe in his own standing in the shadowy spy/terrorist nexus, as well as in his own skill as a leader, even where it's clear he's barely capable of controlling his own crew.

Assayas is always an astute user of music, and he deploys post-punk/new wave bands like The Dead Boys as a counterpoint to several of the film's most charged scenes - underlining the adrenalized experience of violence from the perspective of the perpetrator but also illustrating the way in which Carlos and his collaborators imagined themselves as media objects, complete with soundtrack, from the get-go. Indeed, it's in the smallest of details - the way a glass of Scotch is cupped, or the way that Carlos adjusts his sunglasses - that this obsession with self-image appears. It's an obsession that undermines Carlos's rhetoric of revolution at every turn, and which also marks him off as distinctly different from his more ascetic German colleagues. Those contradictions are acutely capture in Edgar Ramírez's terrifically committed performance: although he's a little too photogenic to be a fully convincing stand-in for the actual Carlos, whose magnetism was less apparent to the outsider, he embodies Carlos's sense of himself as a global, stateless actor.


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Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States