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The Year in Film 2019 - Part Two

The Fifth Cord [Luigi Bazzoni, 1971]:

Watched: Feb 12, 2019

The Fifth Cord is best described as a 'giallo' in blue. Its colour scheme frequently coming back to the shade in question, which saturates the image, giving it a melancholy feeling. A kind of day-for-night emptiness that seems quintessentially matched to its procedural elements of urban alienation and police investigation; creating an impression of sadness and isolation that stands in contrast to the sun-kissed exoticism of other films from the same sub-genre, such as Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), Don't Torture a Duckling (1972), The House with Laughing Windows (1976) or the later Tenebrae (1982). As a work of pure formalism, The Fifth Cord is a film concerned as much with the visual representation of lines and shapes, or blocks of colour and light streaming through vertical and horizontal blinds, as it is in the machinations of the murder mystery. Every location is interesting and commands the frame. Photographed by the legendary Vittorio Storaro, who brings to the film something of the same stylisation that he brought previously to Bernardo Bertolucci's great masterpiece The Conformist (1970), The Fifth Cord remains one of the most distinct and visually intelligent films in the sub-genre's history. Luigi Bazzoni is one of the real enigmas of Italian genre cinema. At his peak he directed only five feature-length films, three mysteries and two westerns, and then, following a break of almost twenty years, returned to make a series of documentaries. I saw his later film, Footprints on the Moon (1975), around the same time I started this blog and it was one of the films I most wanted to write about. Like the film in question it's a bizarre mystery, elevated by incredibly ornate art nouveau interiors and Storaro's photography, which, as a subversion of its genre, feels closer to Last Year at Marienbad (1961) than A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971).

Woman on the Run [Norman Foster, 1950]:

Watched: Feb 17, 2019

The actuality of late-1940s San Francisco turns this already compelling noir into a time capsule of real locations, brimming with energy and atmosphere. As a protégé of Orson Welles, director Norman Foster builds on the standard thriller template and elevates it through "Wellsian" affectations and idiosyncrasies, including formalist stylisations, canted angles and the kind of shot compositions that recall The Lady from Shanghai (1947). However, the filmmaker isn't just paying homage here; the characters are compelling, while the storytelling is relaxed but suspenseful. In the lead role, Ann Sheridan is one of the great protagonists in the history of the noir subgenre. She's resilient, driven and remains sympathetic without having to play aggressively on the standard weak-willed characteristics of "the damsel" as often presented by the non-femme fatale characters in these kinds of films. Even when the narrative requires her to be placed in moments of peril, she still maintains an air of strength and commitment. The final act, set both above and below the boardwalk and between the rides and attractions of an end of pier funfair, demonstrates levels of suspense and storytelling engagement that place the film quite comfortably alongside the analogous thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock, such as Notorious (1946) and Strangers on a Train (1951).

The Last Movie [Dennis Hopper, 1971]:

Watched: Feb 19, 2019

Comparisons to Orson Welles's long gestating and only recently completed "final" feature, The Other Side of the Wind (2018), seem fair; Hopper's once obscure but newly resurfaced follow-up to Easy Rider (1968) is a similar relic to the counterculture, and to that brief period in American cinema, liberated by the influences of Europe and Japan, where anything seemed possible. As a complete work, The Last Movie is at points enthralling, disaffecting and completely disorienting, with moments of visual transcendence. The image of a native film crew re-enacting a shoot with wooden cameras is especially brilliant, as Hopper and his collaborators find a perfect figurative shorthand to the immaterial nature of cinema, its inaccessibility as a genuine folk art, and how the practicalities of making a film, when reduced to this kind of childlike game of performative playacting, are reclaimed and demystified. While the film can prove difficult and even distancing, it feels like an important work that's worth enduring in order to grapple with some of the themes and ideas that Hopper and his co-writer Stuart Stern are presenting. Step back from the film's chaotic mosaic of conflicting plotlines, alienation techniques and drug-induced lunacy, and The Last Movie reveals a sensitive and elegiac commentary on the end of American idealism, "the west" and the western, and the disintegration of the Hollywood machine. It's a frustrating and often languorous experience, but it nonetheless remains a singular and impassioned piece of work that is unlike anything produced today.

Climax[Gaspar Noé, 2018]:

Watched: Feb 23, 2019

The first hour of Climax hints at a genuine masterpiece: something powerful, visceral, original and shocking; "pure cinema" with an emphasis on form, movement and rhythm. To experience some of the film's strongest sequences is to experience one of the most confident and compelling uses of sound and image to convey an atmosphere of chemically enhanced boredom giving way to jubilation, abandon, and subsequently chaos. It falls apart somewhat in the final third, refusing to progress to a deeper level, never quite developing into a narrative that exists beyond the drug trip disorientation theme. That said, I still liked Climax more than any other work I've seen by Gaspar Noé; a filmmaker I usually despise. The film probably had more potential to do something extraordinary, something that reached beyond the experiments with form, or the attempts to shock or provoke, to find a genuine purpose or philosophy that becomes emotionally as well as psychologically transcendent, but it's still a film that contains moments of brilliance, and one that I'm keen to return to. Even if his sincerity and integrity as an artist can be called into question, Noé has always been a skilled technician, and Climax finds the filmmaker working at the peak of his abilities.

Beauty and the Beast[Jean Cocteau, 1946]:

Watched: Feb 24, 2019

It was the film critic Mark Cousins, and the 'tweet' in which he argued that the then-recently released Glass (2019) was to M. Night Shyamalan what The Testament of Orpheus (1960) was to Jean Cocteau, that reignited the spark of interest I had in the work of the artist in question. Having subsequently re-watched both Orphée (1950) and its abovementioned companion piece, I turned my attention to a film that I've read about and seen clips from since the very beginning of my developing interest in film but had otherwise never fully seen. Long since considered to be a classic of French cinema and a key work of fantasy cinema in general, Cocteau's adaptation of the 1757 story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont is a marvel of atmosphere and imagination. Before the advent of computer-generated imagery, the early cinema, from Georges Méliès to Robert Wiene, was akin to a magic act, where special effects were created 'in-camera' using a variety of theatrical techniques. Cocteau maintains the traditions of those early pioneers by creating fantastical, otherworldly images through simple techniques, such a slow-motion, mirrored images, double-exposures, miniatures and forced-perspectives, and even reverse-motion, all creating the impression of a twilight world that seems to exist outside of our own. The thematic interpretations that have carried from Leprince de Beaumont's text through to other adaptations made since are still apparent, but it's arguable that Cocteau, who was a homosexual, was using the relationship in his film to comment on the marginalisation and debasement of homosexuals in post-war society, as men were ostracized and turned into "beasts" by the prejudices of others, simply because of their romantic desires. Either way, the film is defined by Cocteau's usual interest in acts of faith, poetic gestures, and the existence of doorways, windows and magic mirrors leading between worlds.


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