BUCKING BROADWAY, John Ford, USA, 1917, 4
Presenter Peter Bogdanovich, who brought down the house with his Ford imitations, called this film “interesting for what Ford became, not so much for itself.” The DW Griffith influence is here very obvious — e.g. the climax has cowboys riding to the rescue, intercut with the barroom brawl where they’ll intervene. In this 50-minute featurette cowboy star Harry Carey is the dominant artistic force, here playing a bit more gung-ho than usual. But like with a lot of silent films, BUCKING BROADWAY is interesting simply as social archeology and rebuttal of what you thought you knew about film history — the cowboy is already somewhat “Other,” the object of fish-out-of-water in the city comedy, barely two decades after the closing of the frontier and the cowboy’s heyday, and with Wyatt Earp still around in Hollywood. Also surprisingly, there’s here a moment of purely-associational editing for psychological metaphor (involving a radiator). This is 1917, long before Eisenstein and Kuleshov.
IN MEMORY OF MYSELF, Saverio Costanzo, Italy, 3
I thought from the opening scene that I would love this film about a Catholic man in formation for an unnamed order (but apparently some kind of contemplatives). The initial interview asks all the right kinds of questions and the lead actor has an appropriately serious face. The opening scenes indicate how silent rules work, and the seminary environment is presented as devout, austere and without a hint of irony or parody (the film gets metaphorical points for never becoming anti-Catholic … see that later). But MEMORY’s script is all ellipses without drama — there are two other men who the lead character appears fascinated by, but we never really learn why (is it a homosexual crush? is it holiness? is it past acquaintance?) and they only come into focus when they leave, and the revelations turn out fairly banal and hardly justifying of either the lead man’s fascination or ours or the portentous loudly-mixed score ladled all over the film. And MEMORY stretches out its few plot points to death … no, it s t r e t c h e s t h e m o u t. The last few scenes get stronger, with the central character finally giving voice to some of what ails him, some of what conflicts him, and while they’re not things every devout man has not felt, it is truthful and causes him to consider whether God can really be calling him. But by the very end, and after plenty of telegraphing that “The Big Moment of Choice is coming, folks,” it didn’t matter which way the film-maker turned it — either in terms of its plausability or in terms of my caring.
NIGHTWATCHING, Peter Greenaway, Britain, 6
Well, I didn’t try to tear down the door at Burgundy’s, so that’s obviously a vast improvement over the last Greenaway film I saw. I swore the night I walked out of TULSE LUPER 1 in anger that I’d never watch another of his films. But I relented and NIGHTWATCHING turned out to be exactly what the buzz said it was — by Greenaway standards (underline that part, newbies), a fairly coherent, entertaining and accessible movie with a very good central performance by Martin Freeman, who plays Rembrandt as a bon-vivant “character” who learns what a bunch of asses an Amsterdam regiment is and decides to ridicule them and basically accuse them of murder in his “Night Watch” painting. There’s a couple of great scenes — one of Freeman recounting into the camera Rembrandt’s Greenawayized biography and doing it in a manner somewhat like a human being, and the unveiling of the painting, with cutaways to illustrate not only Greenaway’s theories but the elements in the drama which we had just seen (which made the typically stylized narrative seem not so arbitrary). Lots of elements in common too with COOK, THIEF, one of my all-time faves — the opening scene of a man being forcibly stripped nude on a setting made to llok like a stage, an opening curtain, lots of stylized talk about Art and other Big Topics (most of it intentionally stupid). Still this is Greenaway — there are tedious scenes and the specific historical thesis, that the painting caused retaliation from the officers, killing Rembrandt’s career is [insert Dutch words for “bullshit” and “self-serving”]. And I knew the former even before doing any research, simply from the way Greenaway “waterproofs” his theory by having the head of the team say nobody must do anything publicly, in order to hide their Vast Conspiracy from future generations. The broader thesis, that artists are night watchers who paint onto the black screen of the void, made sense. But the day’s next film went from preaching that to just doing it.
SILENT LIGHT, Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/Holland, 9
What is so special about the incredible opening shot, which some of my buds say is among the most beautiful in movie history? It’s not simply some “inherent beauty of nature” (I would not have been impressed by that), but the fact that the sunrise actually happens before our very eyes (though time lapse is used) and that Reygadas takes the time to show the light change the world, or actually creating our experience of it. And there’s real drama — what gets revealed to us as the shot continues. As in Genesis 1, in the beginning, the movie screen was a void. Then there were the stars. Then there was the light. Then there was a cosmic shape. Then there was nature per se [trees, hills]. Then there was nature as shaped by man [farms, crops]. Now that the natural world is fully revealed — cut to a home on a street [i.e., to man as fully civilized]. Yes, it’s a very lengthy shot but (1) we see the universe happen within it and (2) its length and slowness prepares us, trains us, for what follows. SILENT LIGHT is, in almost every conceivable way, paced slowly but precisely for that reason is deeply moving. The father in a Germanic Mennonite family in Mexico is having an affair but his religious conscience (he has seven children) will not let him at ease. This milieu makes the Official Art-House Style seem more like a natural fact. The people in this semi-separated religious community (they’re not isolated, like the Amish; they drive trucks, etc.) do speak slowly, do pause between sentences, never talk over one another, never engage in idle chat, etc. And so even such elements of Reygadas style as long takes and slow camera movements seem more like a reflection of this world than an imposed authorial contrivance. Simple. Beautiful. Perfect.