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Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorleac, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort

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Anytime, Anyplace!

Nine Flickhead Favorites

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Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages
(Code Unknown, Michael Haneke, 2000)
Asked to summarize his film for the presskit, Haneke was loath to reduce it to a list of convenient themes and ideas. Concerned with what he saw as “the Babylonian confusion of languages, the incapacity to communicate, the coldness of the consumer society, xenophobia, etc.,” Code inconnu merges these challenging elements into one systematic heap. Could any other method successfully illustrate the dilemma of the mind attempting to categorize the warring fragments of contemporary culture? From the picture’s bravura single-take street scene, Juliette Binoche — too beautiful in Trois couleurs: Bleu, beyond performance in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf — embarks on a run of emotions through a succession of seemingly innocuous (though taxing) endeavors. A masterpiece mosaic that reveals the ambiguity in ordinariness, Code inconnu unlocks its myriad secrets over multiple viewings.

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort

(The Young Girls of Rochefort, Jacques Demy, 1967)
Set in that quixotic never-neverland of sherbet-colored clothes and buildings, where happy people preoccupied with l’amour dance down sunny streets, where praises, desires and dreams are sung to Michel Legrand . . . yes, folks, this is heaven. When it comes to Demy, the majority may cuddle up ’neath The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but I find that affair humid and oppressive and operatically overbearing. No, I’ll take Rochefort any day, where Legrand pauses for idyllic chitchat, where rain is months away, and a fifty-five-year-old Gene Kelly (ten years beyond Les Girls and MGM) can sweep a twenty-five-year-old Françoise Dorleac off her lovely, pirouetting little feet. One shouldn’t announce such things for fear embarrassment, so keep it to yourself: this is my all-time favorite.

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Or are you just glad to see me?
Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper, The Fountainhead

The Fountainhead
(King Vidor, 1949)
Accurately described by Jonathan Romney as a film “in the grip of phallic dementia,” The Fountainhead is that paradox, a Hollywood studio assembly line production about cerebral and aesthetic integrity assuming priority over compromise and the wants of the collective. (Or, ‘moron masses,’ for those who wish to revel in the cynicism.) But hot sex is the selling point — remember that Vidor had just filmed so many perspiring brows in Duel in the Sun. ‘Erecting’ skyscrapers (heh heh), Gary Cooper nears magnificence when sweating it out in a quarry: can anything get in the way of his penetrating drill and panting Patricia Neal? Intellectual kitsch best viewed in the dead of summer — without air conditioning — we’re driven perilously close to unconsciousness when ascending Coop’s shaft (against a glorious Manhattan skyline), Max Steiner accelerating his crescendo toward a climactic, euphoric eruption.

Frantic

(Roman Polanski, 1988)
Grade ‘b’ Harrison Ford fodder . . . or a sly catalog of subversive Polanski/Gerard Brach clichés? Friends usually draw a blank when told of my appreciation for this one. Certainly not Polanski at his peak — Knife in the Water and Chinatown are forever, and Bitter Moon is in a class by itself — but who else would take such delight in satiating a by-the-numbers thriller with overt anti-Americanism and sadistic barbs at the bourgeois nuclear family? In Frantic, every scene picks at Ford’s withering pride and crumbling vanity until humility has knuckled him under. As he sweats, the script hones secondary characters to fine detail: the wheezing vagrant asking for a smoke, the hotel manager pursing his lips, the disparaging desk clerk fluttering his eyebrows, the police detective’s sarcastic, “yeah, Paris, city of lights!” Stepping out of Le Grande Hôtel before the neon lights of Burger King, Ford walks a global village indifferent to his debacle. Hindered by the language barrier, this American in Paris appears to have misplaced his wife. But no one understands — as in, ‘why do American men misplace their wives?’

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Leslie Phillips, Paul Douglas, Goon head, and Michael Coridia, The Gamma People

The Gamma People
(John Gilling, 1956)
It was sometime in 1965 when I set my alarm clock to watch this on TV at three or four in the morning. Until videotape twenty years later, little of it was retained, with one exception: the image of Paul Douglas running to the top of a hill, his hands raised slightly to his sides, a look of unspeakable loss, absolute sorrow, on his face. As he cried out someone’s name, the melancholy theme music swelled, a simple progression of twelve notes questing throughout the film for this one crucial moment. And the actor, a throwback to the old school of burly, overanxious lugs (re: William Bendix, Ernest Borgnine, Andy Divine), had the wounded look of a boy who’d just lost the family pet. A rare concoction of elements introduced, toyed with, but left undefined, The Gamma People is almost science fiction, almost comedy. When approaching political allegory, it retreats before pontification sets in. Nor does it suffer the banality plaguing most 50’s sci-fi — and I think the film works so well because ambiguity and genre-hopping has left little room for tedium. What qualities it owns are not to be attributed solely (if at all) to John Gilling, whose spotty résumé is filled with the kind of mediocrity The Gamma People pains itself to avoid. Indeed, given the humor, action, intrigue, the slant on communism, and an evil fascist mastermind out to rule the world, the picture is nearly a prediction of James Bond. Is it any coincidence that Cubby Broccoli was one of the producers?

Goodfellas

(Martin Scorsese, 1990)
In most of his films, Scorsese manufactures vivid representations of anger but falls short in examining the panic and self-centered fear enslaving his characters. Less concerned with analysis, he’s replaced portraiture with demonstrations of knee-jerk reaction. I’m not sure if Goodfellas is his best film — in fact, I’m not sure if Scorsese has yet made his best film, for much of what he’s done has weathered the anxiety of dysfunction. Substandard as a traditional gangster picture and ludicrous as a bio of mob gofer Henry Hill, Goodfellas sketches the giddy reminiscences of a boy harboring a fixation for naughty, older ne’er do wells. Threatening to dethrone The Godfather and brimming with pungent 50’s nostalgia, the detour to an entirely different picture arrives once the cocaine comes out and the half-Italian Hill assumes control. (Scorsese has ethnicity issues.) Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco play out an ill-defined family drama, while a series of fluctuating attitudes among other, more complex characters (“Do I amuse you?”) drops us into a mix of head-bashing and pistol-whipping gleefully overstated to caricature. Yet doesn’t it seem like such a good time? “Hey Henry! Whaddaya want? A leg or a wing?!?”

mulhol16.jpgMulholland Drive

(David Lynch, 2001)
The champion of a devoted following, Lynch has built a career on making minimal things seem larger than they are. Once it reaches beyond the calculated imagery, however, an unfettered mind can recognize how slight the material often is — Woody Allen for Dadaists. The formidable accomplishment of Blue Velvet had a lot to do with its acid bath homage to Douglas Sirk and Sam Fuller, while unleashing a cult icon in Dennis Hopper. But that film has already dated far more rapidly than one would have imagined. His masterpiece may turn out to be Mulholland Drive, three-quarters Freudian dreamscape (faces and facts jumbled by a speculative, wishful sleepwalker) followed by a murky exposition: yes, there is a story in here. It may lack the linear simplicity of The Bad and the Beautiful, but Lynch’s representation of Hollywood disenchantment is equally as valid as Minnelli’s, and ultimately more truthful. And where else can you hear Ann Miller utter the phrase “horse puckey?”

Performance

(Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, 1970)
When Colin McCabe proclaimed this as “the greatest British film ever made,” he demonstrated a recklessness inherent to sycophants. Surely such capricious statements are to be hushed in confidence, limited to the ears of trusted friends and most certainly behind closed doors. One can, however, appreciate his view: the beauty and wisdom of Michael Powell, 30’s Hitchcock, a handful of ‘kitchen sink’ dramas and Ealing comedies, and a smattering of respectable titles hither and thither merely anchors Britain to either Hollywood or UFA. Performance is strong with its own beast, a hodgepodge of oblique philosophy eager to twist convention. It borrows gratuitously from gangster movies and the 60’s school of Borgesian dual personality meltdowns: Purple Noon, The Servant, Persona, Les Biches . . . did this crazy subgenre culminate with The Man Who Haunted Himself? The divine combination of Cammell’s idealism with Roeg’s proficiency could be interpreted as an extension of those vice-and-versa themes explored within the scenario. But the filmmakers imbue it with raw vitality, constructing a vision at once repugnant and gloriously intoxicating. McCabe may be onto something…

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Steve Reeves about to abscond with Pegasus in The Thief of Baghdad

The Thief of Baghdad
(Arthur Lubin and Bruno Vailati, 1961)
Of course Douglas Fairbanks and Sabu blow this off the map. But allowances should be made for influences, and this was the first movie I saw in a theatre (at a fifty-cent kiddie matinee, ‘natch). Admittedly no fan of those homoerotic Italian oiled muscleman movies from the 60’s, I’d have to believe that this is the best of that sweaty bunch. We could extend auteurism beyond reason and credit Arthur Lubin, an American studio hack and proponent of the idiot’s delight of conversational livestock: Francis the mule, Mr. Ed, Mr. Limpet. But Thief of Baghdad possesses — dare I say it? — a serene poignancy otherwise absent from Lubin’s mooeuvre. More than likely, this is one of cinema’s happy accidents, when ingredients meshed, where Steve Reeves’s limited range dissipates against the hypnotic repetition of Carlo Rustichelli’s haunting score. It’s all childhood, of course, blatantly sentimental in blistering Eastman color.

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Copyright © 2004 by Ray Young