Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2017 - Christopher Funderburg ""

Friday, January 19, 2018

Film Discoveries of 2017 - Christopher Funderburg

Christopher Funderburg is the co-founder of The Pink Smoke, an online film magazine, and the director of the feature film The Burning Bride.

(Philippe de Broca, 1962.)
Jean-Paul Belmondo stars in this story of a pick-pocket turned notorious outlaw (like Robin Hood, it’s based on a truth long since reprinted into legend.) Despite being a massive hit in 1962, it has disappeared almost completely from the cultural consciousness - sure Breathless announced Belmondo as a star, but Cartouche was the kind of box office phenomenon that gets people carried to their manicurist in a private jet for the rest of their lives. Unlike, say, Anna Karina or Jean-Claude Brialy, Cartouche allowed Belmondo to pretty much make the Nouvelle Vague a (small-ish) aspect of his career rather than the primary element: after Cartouche, he starred in only one other film for Godard.

This is all maybe two much of a prelude to say that you will love Belmondo in this movie, but he plays it like a Movie Star in a movie in need of a Movie Star. He stars opposite a stunning Claudia Cardinale and there’s no more gorgeous a pairing of stars possible than these two charming lovebirds. She plays a free-spirit gypsy who makes him promise they’ll “always sleep on straw” - the film slowly shifts from being a free-for-all swashbuckling adventure (it’s an obvious influence on the Richard Lester Musketeers films) to a tragic romance and as a result it packs an emotional punch that I didn’t see coming. Swashbucklers are romances by nature, but it still snuck up on me.

Maybe that’s because the film not only has a stylish playfulness to rival the most charmingly nimble Nouvelle Vague hits like Band of Outsiders or Jules and Jim but a slow-burning build towards the very French style of romantic fatalism also found in abundance in those films. It’s a bigger, more dashing, more sweeping, more expensive movie than anything Godard or Truffaut ever made so the comparison is ultimately only glancing. Man, it looks great, the photography, the costumes, the set design, and everybody looks great living in that world. Beautiful people in a beautiful film. Cartouche is first a film that is insanely fun, then beautiful, then restless, then genuinely sad. If you like Belmondo or Claudia Cardinale: see this movie. It’s an unexpected film in many ways, a movie that somehow completes a collection that includes Breathless and The Four Musketeers.
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(Jonathan Demme, 1998.)
When Jonathan Demme died, like a lot cinephiles I went through his back catalogue to rediscover films I had loved and give a second look to the orphans.* When it first came out, his adaptation of Toni Morrison’s jaw-dropping novel Beloved had been a financial disaster most generously greeted with polite confusion. Coming on the heels of Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, based work by a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author and produced by Oprah Winfrey at the height of her cultural influence, the expectation was that the film would be a juggernaut: critical, financial, etc. It did not work out that way.

Part of the problem is that Beloved herself is a deeply literary creation, the kind of character that works beautifully on the page but is almost impossible to pull off on screen. From her vocal tics to ambiguously supernatural nature to her unsettling mix of childlike innocence and raw sexuality, it’s a character that’s hard to imagine being realized perfectly by any performer. Thandie Newton might come as close as possible - and she’s the film’s biggest problem. The farther the story wends away from Beloved, the better it plays; Danny Glover and Kimberley Elise are especially dynamite in it.

Truthfully, the film is more Winfrey’s than Demme’s. Her personality can be felt more forcefully in it, if only because she stars. The film only exists through the sheer force of her will and she gets the most out of the people she has surrounded herself with: Demme, Glover, Newton and even Toni Morrison included. The best parts of this mammoth 3-hour epic are indelible: Beloved emerging from the swamp covered in bugs, Kimberly Elise’s happy ending undermined by being shoved off the sidewalk by a gaggle of white businessmen, a cake with handprints in it, Glover and Winfrey’s scenes alone together. The opening shots of a decaying, snow-covered country cemetery are as gorgeous and precise tone-setting as you will find in all of cinema.

Beloved might be the perfect example of a novel that simply can’t be made into a perfect movie - but the film shows how this combination of artistic talents is something unyielding and undeniable in its own right.

* When I write about Demme, I’m never sure if I’m supposed to (as a matter of critical transparency) mention that I knew him in a professional capacity or if that’s bullshit name-dropping. If you suspect my valuation of Beloved is all screwed up because of what a great guy Demme was, I can’t deny there’s a chance of that. He was an A+ human being.
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(Frederick Wiseman, 1980.)
Sometimes I feel like I’m never going to run out of new Frederick Wiseman films to see. For years and years, his work was very tough to find on VHS or DVD and even now it rarely gets screened in repertory cinemas. I try to see as many as I can, but it’s work. Film Forum’s complete Wiseman retrospective this summer in NYC was a fuckin’ act of grace for a Wiseman fanatic like myself who despite decades as a fan still somehow had a dozen films left on the docket.

Like any time I catch a new Wiseman movie, I came out of Model thinking, “That might be my very favorite Wiseman movie of all!” I guess the consistency of that temporary delusion is a testament to the uniform excellence of his work: they all leave me feeling like I just saw one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen. Like nearly all his films, Model follows an institution throughout the day-to-day process of their work, in this case a New York modeling agency. We see young hopefuls drop off their portfolios, agents set castings, commercials being filmed, even the tedious process of getting a very precise, very goofy post-production effect completed with the help of leg model who exhibits a bottomless patience and almost superhuman endurance with the act of having her leg photographed over and over with a margin of error of centimeters for her movements.

To me, Wiseman films, with their generosity of spirit towards human absurdity, are hilarious and joyful. But I can understand how anyone might find them tedious and dispiriting: they have tedium as a theme, they have the (potential) meaninglessness of human endeavor as a focus. Model threads that same needle that so much of his work does, of how things can be both so vitally important to the people involved with them and so strangely absurd. But don’t get the wrong impression: he’s not taking any of the expected cheap-shots at the shallowness of the modeling industry. As in all of his work, there’s a commiseration (if not precisely respect) for every absurdity he puts in front of his camera. The standard-issue revelations of Model make me glad I’ll never get to the end of watching new Wiseman movies.
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The Ballad of Narayama
(Shōhei Imamura, 1983.)
There are films that rip your heart out, that just leave you completely hollowed out, with nothing left to say, nothing left to think about. Shohei Imamura’s 1983’s adaptation of Shichirō Fukazawa’s novel is there rare artwork that can impact you, down in the deepest part of you, in a part of you that maybe you don’t want impacted. There’s a lovely 1958 adaptation of the same story (by director Keisuke Kinoshita) that tonally has almost nothing in common with Imamura’s gritty, grimy, tactile approach: in addition to making you stare into the abyss of your own soul (which is always fun), Imamura’s film makes you want to put on a pair of warm socks, brush under your fingernails and power-wash your hair. It may or may not convince you to finally bite the bullet and try to convince your wife to sleep with your brother so he doesn’t beat your horse to death in another fit of sexually frustrated jealous rage. I don’t know. That’s up to you. The viewer always brings something to the film, you know?

The story sets up a horrifying climax from the start: in a tiny mountain village, where food is scarce and the winters are brutal, there is a tradition of ubasute. That is, when an elder reaches the age of 70, they are taken to a remote part of the mountains and left to die. Sumike Sakamoto plays the matriarch of a family in this village, a strong and intelligent woman who has just turned 69. The film follows her throughout the next year, doing all she can to prepare her family and her village for life after her fatal exile, a tradition that no one around is convinced she needs to undertake. It’s a film explicitly about how we exist, about the meaning and importance of mores and customs that are generally treated in art with a spitefully anarchic dismissal. “Rules and traditions, man - they’re the problem right?” Satire is frequently (if not exclusively) about the stupidity of these social mechanisms and The Ballad of Narayama is not a satire. Nor is it a poem. Nor is it an academic exploration. It feels like after his death, when called to account for himself before God and all, Imamura will simply show this film to explain.

You write rules for how to live your life because life needs rules - you can’t invent your existence from scratch every single morning. You need rules codified into law because you have neighbors and if you’re going to survive this winter and the next and the next after that, you and your neighbors are going to need to come to some kind of agreement that keeps them from stealing your potatoes and keeps your family from being too much of a drain on their work. That these necessary rules governing existence can backfire spectacularly and create harrowing, nightmarish realities doesn’t mean there's a way to get along without them. The harsh irony of the film (as harsh as its fucking winter) is that it will never let you accept these rules - who on a spiritual level could accept a family being buried alive as punishment for petty theft? Maybe it could only be accepted by those in need of each and every potato available in order to not starve to death in February.

Is there a beauty in that? In taking your mother up into the mountains on your back and leaving her to die because your society has discovered few methods for successfully pushing back against the harshness of reality, against the unforgiving difficulty of existence? What Imamura knows is that the moment you have made peace with your answers, you will be confronted by the sight of your neighbors caught in the same questions and your doubt and your terror at the meaning of it all will be renewed.
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Mademoiselle Fifi
(Robert Wise, 1944.)
There’s a canonical 9 “horror films” that producer-auteur Val Lewton made for RKO in the first half of the 40’s, stone-cold classics like Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. But Lewton made two more films for RKO that get treated like biblical apocrypha: a “youth runs wild” picture called Youth Runs Wild and “group of strangers trapped together in a foreboding location” picture (aka an “old dark house” picture) adapted from a few stories by Guy de Maupassant. Even people who go to bat for The Ghost Ship will not tell you to see either of these movies and having seen both for the first time this year, that’s a reasonable enough position on Youth Runs Wild.

However, it’s totally baffling to me that Mademoiselle Fifi isn’t more commonly considered an important companion piece to the rest of Lewton’s RKO work. Directed by Robert Wise (who has set off many a “journeyman or genius” debate), it closely resembles the Euro-Art cinema of the time - watching it, it’s hard not to think of Max Ophüls’ similar 1952 Maupassant collection Le Plaisir (which also features a collection of disparate types crammed into a coach) but it’s equally hard not to connect it to what Lewton does as a filmmaker across his body of work. Fifi presages Isle of the Dead, especially, in ways that made it feel to me like a logical extension of his filmmaking ideals: set in a quiet moment during wartime (there are no bombs or guns going off in either film), a group in transit under an occupation finds itself lodging with an imposing authoritarian military officer (Boris Karloff in the case of Isle, the derisively nicknamed Mademoiselle Fifi in that film.)

Lewton’s brand of psychological-and-reality based horror always pushed the definition of the genre to begin with - and even in that context, the films Wise made with Lewton (Curse of the Cat People, The Body Snatcher) tend to be more horror-adjacent than pure horror. It’s a question that gets asked frequently of Lewton’s work: Is Bedlam a horror film? Is Seventh Victim a horror film? An answer of “sure, but also maybe not” doesn’t detract from their merits, even though some horror cinema purists will get angry for even bringing it up. This is all to say that if you like Val Lewton and in particular his work with Robert Wise, you should give Mademoiselle Fifi a chance even though on the surface it seems to have nothing in common with what people like about Lewton. What it does have is a darkness and a beauty to it that comes a from a real place, psychologically-speaking - and I think even hardliners would agree those characteristics are what makes Lewton’s work so unforgettable, in any case.
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