Barrios altos (Berlanga, 1987)

José Luis García Berlanga’s Barrios altos is a fun, light thriller/sex-comedy, that feels very of the moment in Spain and very post-La Movida Madrileña.

Victoria Abril (who I know best from Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) plays Veronica, a woman who gets in over her head in the murder plot of her masseuse. The plot is convoluted and then explained-away, but the film is funny and the pacing breakneck enough that the plot matters less and less as it goes.

The 1980s Spanish punk culture seeps into so many frames of the film-

-and I think that’s important. Though this is easygoing fare, there’s still plenty of dark or seedy undercurrent. Veronica gets mugged, she borrows money from a homeless man (a funny moment, but also perhaps indicative of her naïveté of his desperation), she’s abused and hit by multiple men. She’s a strong, if flighty, heroine – and a good pair with her friend Ana (Carmen Conesa) who sleeps with nearly anyone in the film. Berlanga’s script makes note of bad neighborhoods (not the one pictured above), of a single divorcee who can’t escape the surname of her ex-husband, and of liberal sex. It all adds up to a portrait of Spain that’s colorful and progressive like much of Almodóvar’s work, but also one that’s still not forward-thinking enough.

That color palette – purples, mostly-

-is so 80s, and takes just a little bit of the realism and seriousness out of some of the subplots.

 

 

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The Arrangement (Kazan, 1969)

The Arrangement was such a surprise. Elia Kazan’s second-to-last film, it feels so much more progressive and together than The Visitors. It sort of reminded me of Frank Perry’s The Swimmer from the year before – classic Hollywood actor faces mid-life crisis amidst the trim glitz of the suburbs.

I like The Arrangement a whole lot, and for a lot of reasons. One is that it never quite goes how I expected it to. It seems for a good while like it’s going to be an advertising satire (those clean Zephyr cigarettes…), but it goes elsewhere. It’s about the dissolution of a marriage, the withdrawal of a man from society, how we measure success, and the immigrant experience. It feels autobiographical for Kazan, and maybe it should – he wrote the source novel.

What an immediate post-Bonnie and Clyde run for Faye Dunaway-

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There’s The Tomas Crown Affair, this film, Little Big Man, and Puzzle of a Downfall Child, all before she gets to Chinatown.

I feel like this is a out-on-a-limb film for Deborah Kerr. Kind of reminds me of the purported controversy over some of Jimmy Stewart’s dialogue in Anatomy of a Murder. Kerr is great as Florence Anderson, and she’s such a far cry from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. She plays her nudity and sexuality with such fierceness; it’s a great contrast to the ambivalence of Dunaway’s Gwen.

Kirk Douglas also get a space to showcase a bit. My favorite part of his was always Ace in the Hole, and now this is right up there. He gets to play two versions of himself, go crazy, calmly attempt suicide, and give big monologues.

The opening of the film is fantastic. It’s so symmetrical, pristine and high-key as we work our way from the exterior to a curtain magically parting and revealing Douglas’ Eddie and Florence in opposite beds:

Kazan cuts inside to this wide. The camera pushes forward, timed to husband and wife meeting at the foot of the bed for a practiced kiss:

A reverse of the room, still oh so symmetrical ends with them very much divided in their respective showers. Everything is pastel, soft, respectful:

Kazan pushes this opening so far that it can’t be anything but ironic. The film has so much varied technique. It really feels like Kazan is experimenting more than I’ve seen him do in other films. Here, Eddie looks back at his parents’ house and sees it in the past. His father (Richard Boone) sits there in the low-angle wide-shot. The steps up looking like those someone might ascend to reach a throne:

Kazan cuts in to a close-up of his smiling, confident father in the past, and then hard-cuts to the present. The house is in disrepair, the light fading, his father sunken, the wider shot now only at a slight low angle, but not one meant to impress:

And later is when Douglas must have had a lot of fun, playing two parts. Kazan uses this composite shot to great comical effect. There’s a cigar joke in this sequence. The vulnerability of Eddie on the right, despite the same leg position, hand position, and cigar, is so poignant:

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Towards the end of the film a prosecutor supposes on what Eddie might have done in his old family home by himself, with the blinds drawn and doors locked. The subsequent sequence is eerie. It reminds me (appropriately enough, since it’s coming back soon) of Bob’s over-the-couch entrance in Twin Peaks.

I love this first frame. The big wide, that could be a POV. We just see some legs creeping into the top of the shot. The emptiness and the slowness of the approach lend to the creepiness, which is magnified when Kazan cuts in to the well-heeled Eddie, peeking around the corner, wolf’s grin on his face. The reverse shows the current Eddie, cowering:

The Arrangement just feels really fresh, despite being nearly 50 years old!

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Max and the Junkmen (Sautet, 1971) and Perfect Friday (Hall, 1970)

Claude Sautet’s Max and the Junkmen is such a good, hard-boiled, existential crime film. Michel Piccoli and Romy Schneider are great as the eponymous detective Max and Lily, the prostitute whom he fools into aiding and abetting a crime.

Sautet’s style is smooth. When Lily first enters Max’s apartment he shoots their initial movement in two well-placed shots. Starting in a low-key wide, Max approaches camera and turns on the lights. He retreats to the back as the camera slowly pushes in on Lily:

The camera lands in a medium shot on Lily and then quickly pans left to right with her, ending in this medium-close high angle:

Sautet cuts to Max coming out of the back in a medium shot. He walks close to the lens and we pan with him, landing in an over-the-shoulder reverse:

It’s just such a simple way to change the mood from mystery to romantic, to give Lily a beat by herself, and then to bring them together again. It could feel so much cuttier in another film.

The blocking isn’t always so broad though. Towards the end Max confronts Rosinsky (François Périer). The space is just a little tighter, but the tension is different. In this case Sautet walks Max in with his back to us (rather than approaching us in the scene above), and then lands in an over-the-shoulder. We get a reverse medium with Rosinksy’s reflection in the background:

From there Sautet really relies on small movements. Max walks up to Rosinsky so they’re face-to-face; Rosinsky retreats and we get another OTS; Max again walks up and again we get another profile face-to-face:

Rosinksky walks away and faces Max; Max walks away from Rosinsky:

It’s not until this end, when Rosinsky definitely walks across the room and leaves Max behind that the tension changes:

These two competing styles – Lily and Max, and Rosinsky and Max – are great examples of different ways to block for different results. Lily and Max’s scene is more open. They occupy their own spaces and frames. They maneuver freely around the room.

In the latter scene the two actors hit really tight marks. They constantly close and open to camera. They angle around each other, uncomfortably face one-another, and trail and lead each other. No one is ever anchored (ala Lily in the earlier scene).

Perfect Friday

If Sautet’s film is Melville-like, then this one is kind of feels like Ronald Neame. It’s a fun, small heist film, featuring a great lead turn from Stanley Baker as Mr. Graham, a bank manager planning a heist. Ursula Andress is three years removed from Casino Royale and director Peter Hall is clearly intent on playing up her sexuality. While it’s an important narrative element, it also feels like she’s naked as much as she’s clothed.

The aspect ratio is listed as 1.66:1. It felt different than that. Or maybe I don’t watch 1.66 films often. It just felt so tall and thin – like a vertical iPhone movie from the ’70s.

Hall and editor Rex Pyke must have seen some Point Blank before making this movie. The quick, fragmented edits remind of Boorman’s film. They work, adding to the jaunty tone and the bifurcated perspective.

 

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Magical Girl (Vermut, 2014)

Well, Carlos Vermut is certainly someone I’ll now be watching out for. Magical Girl is a trip. That’s in every good sense of the word. Definitely indebted to Buñuel, maybe most particularly to Belle de Jour, this tripartite film is cleverly structured, darkly funny (if you like your humor pitch, pitch black), and enticingly ambiguous. If modern Spanish cinema is internationally synonymous with Almodóvar, perhaps Vermut will change things.

Vermut’s film is made up of a lot of really clean, static frames. They’re often wide and symmetrical:

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I think the real achievement here is in the mood. I thought a lot of Kaurismäki while watching Magical Girl. There’s something slow and deadpan. While in the Finnish films that adds up to something pretty funny, in this Spanish one it all adds up to something both off-kilter-humorous, and quite disturbing.

Vermut uses an overlapping structure, and that’s fun, but it’s the enigma of who Damián (José Sacristán) is, what his past with Bárbara (Bárbara Lennie, who is amazing in this film) is, and how all of this will come around to confront Luis (Luis Bermejo). So, in short, much of this is about the withholding of information, or the tease of it (i.e. the prologue between a younger Bárbara and Damián.

The film gets close to off the rails when it hews too close to Buñuel. That is, when Bárbara passes through a forbidden door, with the promise of some sexual violence (for money) happening on the other side. This shot is beautiful-

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-but it’s her encounters with the wheelchair-bound proprietor of said door-

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-that just feels really 90s-cheesy and cliche.

Otherwise, Magical Girl casts some spells. The frames are so rich and confident that they don’t often feel as static as they are. A scene where Bárbara laughs uncontrollably at a horrible thought is shot so eerily. Her back towards us for most of the time, all we can see are her shaking shoulders, until she turns and says something unthinkable:

 

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Get Out (Peele, 2017) and Personal Shopper (Assayas, 2016)

Two more really great ones from 2017. Both of these films are definitely aware of, and really play with classic horror tropes.

I’m probably not the first to note that Get Out is kind of The Stepford WivesRosemary’s BabyGuess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But all of those references notwithstanding, it’s also totally original and really, really fun.

Get Out is the rare movie that I want to see with a huge, loud crowd. That’s what it was – people talking to the screen, lots of side-comments…and it made it better.

Jordan Peele hasn’t really just made a horror comedy, he made a horror movie that’s also ironically funny. It’s not the same thing. I feel like horror comedies, if they’re actually scary, tend to either get laughs from corniness or homage, or in the reverse situation they just mock the genre. Peele has clear reverence for both genres and that shines through.

There’s also some daring choices. My favorite scene is Georgina’s (Betty Gabriel) close-up in Chris’ (Daniel Kalyuuya) room. The frame is so tight and it settles on Georgina for so long. As she moves slowly forward the dolly painfully moves back with her. The creak of her footsteps takes up most of the diegetic aural space outside of dialogue. And on his reverse there’s a really slow push in, compressing that space even more.

The scene is just so tight and effective. It’s beautifully paced.

Great performances in here, but on the Armitage family’s end, it’s Catherine Keener and Allison Williams that steal the show. That’s partially because their male counterparts, played by Bradley Whitford (hardly recognizable!) and Caleb Landry Jones, are just so much more animated. They, especially Jones’ Jeremy, feel a bit more like caricatures.

Personal Shopper

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria was one of my favorites of the year when it came out. Personal Shopper isn’t exactly to that level, but it’s damn good. The film is a good companion piece. Kristen Stewart again plays a sort of celebrity assistant. Here she’s Maureen, the personal shopper for the rarely on-screen Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten; whose character kind of reminds me of Chloe Grace Moretz’s in Clouds).

Also like Assayas’ last film, Stewart plays someone who seems slightly uncomfortable in her own skin, and enjoys slipping into that of another. She’s magnetic, and Assayas clearly thinks so, too. He trains his camera on her enigmatic face for the entire film.

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I had this same question after seeing Clouds: How does he get away with all of these fades to black? Most films – wouldn’t work. It’s so close to amateurish, but they’re done so confidently that you just kind of go with them. I also think that both films have an odd momentum. Neither is headlong, even though this one is a ghost story. Both sort of stutter their way (in a great way, mind you) across genres, and so the start-stop-start of an abrupt fade to black fits the pacing.

Sometimes Personal Shopper is classically gothic. Ghosts abound (including one in a shot that reminded me of the close from Life During Wartime), haunted houses creak and moan. But other times – probably most of the rest of the film – that mood just permeates the edges, and the film feels like something closer to the spy paranoia of a North by Northwest. I probably get the feeling because of how much time Maureen spends on her phone in this film. Sure, Hitchcock didn’t get tons of tension from a phone, but when Maureen is on a train, getting possibly-threatening, possibly-comforting texts, and Assayas constantly cuts to the screen, the tension is somehow so high that it feels like the “innocent bystander” narratives of North, or The Man Who Knew Too Much.

It’s amazing how much suspense is derived from the phone. Uncanny. A lot of that is how comfortable Assayas is to make this a film about technology. Maureen is a medium some of the time, but otherwise she’s on Skype or texting. And she seems so drawn into both worlds. It feels in some ways like a more serious companion to the TV show Search Party from last year (which I really liked), where the gambit is to make the film logically about a younger generation first and classically suspenseful second (and/or: identity film first, genre film second).

Assayas is the absolute master of “put stuff somewhere else to get the characters to move.” That’s often his blocking strategy and it works. His camera feels like it’s between handheld and steadicam. I love the motion of it. Like in Clouds he often moves two characters in a pretty small space. Here, one of the strongest scenes is between Maureen and Ingo (Lars Eidinger). It’s a long sequence, taking place entirely in a living room/hallway area. There’s so much movement of both character and camera and it captures her nervous energy and his odd ease perfectly.

There’s a scene in here that I’m sure will be (or has been) much talked about. Two consecutive sequences, one where something leaves a hotel (some ghostly presence) and, the next where Ingo leaves that same hotel, clearly just after, and in an almost identical series of shots. The two sequences are directly back-to-back, and are preceded by a really suspenseful moment that itself ends with, you guessed it, a fade to black. It’s such an ambiguous moment – almost like the pre-epilogue ending of Clouds.

The suspense of this moment: who or what is that first presence leaving the hotel. Is it Maureen and we’re just in her POV? Is it her brother, with whom she tries to communicate? It seems to leave the hotel and go across the street (which doesn’t happen with Ingo). Which of these two (the “presence” and Ingo) was the one texting Maureen? Either way, Assayas has already revealed in the film that ghosts very much exist, and this, as with a later scene, just further pushes that idea.

It’s not like Assayas is on a brand new track. Some of his earlier films are definitely female driven looks at identity, often masquerading as a specific genre. But with these last two it really feels like confidently he’s at the top of his game.

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Diamonds of the Night (Nemec, 1964) and The Return of the Prodigal Son (Schorm, 1967)

Diamonds of the Night is such a bleak, intense, daring experience. It’s pretty different than other Czech New Wave films, including director Jan Nemec’s 1966 film A Report on the Party and the GuestsIt’s kind of like if Chris Marker remade Come and See, maybe mixed with a little bit of Robert Enrico’s short adaptation of Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

The story is effectively about two young Czech men who have escaped from a concentration camp-bound train. Their flight, the audio of which is captured so impressionistically, is the entirety of the narrative.

Nemec’s film feels different than others of the period because of a general lack of irony. Despite some incredibly effective expansion of time and nearly-whimsical non-linear editing, the film still manages to harbor a strong sense of realism.

Some SPOILERS below.

Here’s one of my favorite clips from the film, one that captures most of those ideas. The static montage to start, culminating in a startling single of the woman staring at 0:22 is beautiful. I love that the rest of the room captures the young man’s attention first. It’s like his awe of the potential of food and shelter supersedes his awareness of a human presence in the space:

The jumping edits that follow, from about 0:24 – 1:00 are what brought me to Occurrence. He sees her history, makes split second internal decisions that are dragged out over time. That’s then harshly contrasted with how slowly she walks starting right at 1:00. The reality of it is so different – and painfully slow given his situation – compared to the flood of ideas that immediately fill his mind.

That his violence is so often repeated in this clip (for a third time at 1:52) really speaks to his instinct – steal, rather than rely on kindness.

2:40 is such a tough moment. Told entirely visually. You have to figure it out. And we do. That’s some beautifully difficult realism. The cut from 3:30 to the two men drinking milk is also bold. We’ve already seen his interaction with the woman, so rather than replay it we can assume that it was similar to what played just before. He face in the window at 4:14 is enigmatic: is it dangerous? Caring? Can they see her looking?

Here’s another clip:

Nemec’s strategy of expanding time at hugely dramatic moments is on display. That shot of the two men, back to us, facing the wall, repeats so often. It’s so dramatic. The bullet that could come at any time. We don’t see their faces. We don’t need to. It’s the faces of the celebrating old men – their captors – that are the blood-curdling story. Nemec just lets their wides and singles play. They drink, dance, smile, all while these two men are so near to death off-screen.

There are other quick intercuts – 0:20, 2:52; the mailbox slot and elevator, respectively. Flashes to a different, freer time. Moments of escape that are anything but.

When I think of New Waves I usually immediately think of French, Japanese, and Czech. But the forerunners for the first two feel technically so much more similar to this film than to other Czech New Wave work that I know. This film is angry – like other Czech films, sure – but it wears its anger outwardly, and combines it with a harsh, tragic beauty.

 

The Return of the Prodigal Son

I like pairing these films, because Evald Schorm’s 1967 also feels different for the period. It’s the first Schorm film I’ve seen, and The Return of the Prodigal Son feels less concerned with allegory, and more with despair. It’s interesting that this film feels somehow less hopeful than Diamonds of the Night, which is absurdly hopeless.

I think the difference for me is that where Diamonds repeatedly offers glimpses of abbreviated moments of freedom, Prodigal goes out of its way to snuff out what could easily be hope at any turn.

Despite what I wrote earlier, Prodigal must feel allegorical in some ways, simply because of the setting. Jan (Jan Kacer; is he supposed to be a reference to Zbigniew Cybulski’s Maciek in Ashes and Diamonds?) goes back and forth from a sanitarium constantly. Sometimes he escapes. Sometimes he’s let go. It’s almost impossible to not look for the microcosm in the enclosed walls, especially when no one seems happy, and the only adult who feels like she actually wants anything is the lead therapist’s wife…and what she wants is escape.

Schorm’s got some great blocking moments. Several sequences in the therapist’s office have a lot of movement, and are led by semi-whip pans that alternate between motivated an unmotivated. The action in those scenes comes close to jittery and uncertain.

Prodigal

The film feels influenced by Fellini (not least because of the circus at the end), and therefore also reminds me of Capricious Summer. In true New Wave fashion – not just Czech – it’s definitely about the aimlessness of youth; far more so than Diamonds (in that film, aimlessness isn’t an option). It’s not really a fair comparison. Diamonds looks to the past angrily, Prodigal looks to the present frustratedly. In that way they’re a pretty good overview of the pre-Prague Spring gamut.

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The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Fassbinder, 1972)

I know I write about blocking a lot but…this is possibly the best-blocked film I’ve ever seen. One room, six total characters, Fassbinder at the top of his game and getting ready to go on a run of masterpieces. He definitely had his obsessions, but hair lights and American pop music have to be towards the top of that list. Basically any frame with Margit Carstensen (playing fashion designer Petra) or Hanna Schygulla (playing her would-be muse Karin Thimm) has a gleaming rim light.

The film is “dedicated to the one who became Marlene here.” Marlene is played by Irm Hermann. She’s quite subservient to – and in love with – Petra, in a way not so different to, perhaps, Hermann’s real life relationship with Fassbinder (making the last shot of this film all the more interesting).

That dedication takes place over the opening shot. One that begins static on a stairwell, and then pulls back and tracks right:

The shot continues until it lands on Petra in bed:

Space is so important to this film. Fassbinder gets an amazing amount of beautiful coverage in such a small area and this opening camera move really lays out where a lot of things are. It also establishes that mural, and sort of works to push the allegory: the steps, by the end of the film seem so far away. Those cats lapping up milk on the stairs seem like something from another world. The exit that the stairs promise feels impossible.

I recently read an article about Ali: Fear Eats the Soul on Mubi. I liked the article, but about halfway down the author makes the claim, “In fact, you might notice in watching a number of Fassbinder works how very spartan the use of the camera is, often static and with very few pans, zooms or close-ups.”

Sure, Fassbinder likes a good static frame (see the ending of Pioneers in Inglostadt for example), but he moves his camera more than a lot of people. In Petra it’s ridiculously active.

That said, it’s some of the static frames that I want to look at here. There’s so much character movement in Petra that it seems it’d be easy to lose track of simple spatial relations. It’s pretty well-documented how obsessed with pre-blocking Fassbinder was and it shows here.

We see so many divided frames (much of that emphasis is on Marlene, as in the first frame above), and also a really expertise way of moving us around the room. In those frames above Fassbinder establishes Marlene’s back area where her typewriter is; shoots with that beam in the foreground to not only separate Karin and Petra but also to put us in, what has often been to that point, Marlene’s point of view; and shoots flat and romantic.

He also gets a lot of mileage out of some mannequins. They’re quite clearly compared to Marlene (again, often placed in her back “sketching” area):

I particularly like the second shot above. Petra looms in foreground (just before Fassbinder pulls focus to Marlene in the background) while Marlene is surrounded by all sorts of inanimate female representations. It just makes Marlene that much more lifeless.

Then there are other shots, also using those mannequins, that are just so expressive. Petra peeking out, like Benjamin to Mrs. Robinson, while a mannequin seems to spy in the background. Petra and a mannequin mimicking one another, while Marlene faces away, forced into her corner:

There’s also a real effort to make this about Marlene, though so much of the narrative revolves around Karin and Petra. Those first two shots below, showing Marlene by herself, framed deep in the hallway, represent a strategy that’s pretty consistent in here: even when others are having a conversation, find Marlene alone and frame her emphasizing that solitariness.

The last shot above is the last shot of the film. The room is sparser. It feels more like a stage than at any other time. Marlene takes center stage in a switch of the power dynamics that is at once empowering and depressing.

 

 

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