Monday, July 18, 2016

Noirs, neo-noirs, plus seats and sound: notes on the Cinematheque's summer programme

The Cinematheque (1131 Howe) has been doing some significant and welcome upgrades, for those who haven't been in awhile. The most obvious one is the seats; it's the second Total Seat Refurbishment at that cinema in recent memory, and this is the one that deserves to stick. Those who recall the seats before the previous seats - the dread original Cinematheque seats, which were an exercise in austerity and a good reason to pack a pillow, if attending a double bill - know that when last they upgraded, the Cinematheque went from seats that scored 4/10 for comfort to maybe 6/10 at best, seats that were indeed an improvement over the previous but not in themselves all that comfortable, especially compared to, say, International Village and the then-newly-opened Vancity Theatre. The Vancity still has the most comfortable theatre seats anywhere in Vancouver by far, but the new seats at the Cinematheque are definitely catching up, are now at least scoring 8/10 as far as cinema seats go. The seats are no longer an issue - even for my girlfriend, who has demurred on attending a couple of double bills there because the seats were simply too uncomfortable; double bills are now back on the menu.
But there's another improvement: the sound at the Cinematheque has been upgraded to a brand new 7.1 Dolby Surround. To celebrate, the Cinematheque will be playing three very sonically-interesting digital restorations. Two are in 5.1 mixes, The Conversation  and Apocalypse Now. The former is a grim, great Gene Hackman vehicle, directed by Francis Ford Coppola at his peak, with editing and sound design from Walter Murch. Sound is key to the plot: Hackman plays a guilt-ridden wiretapper who becomes convinced his recordings of a young couple foreshadow a murder that is about to take place. Besides owing a little bit to Antonioni's Blow Up, with Hackman teasing out missing bits of audio with obsessive tweakings of his tapes in much the same way that David Hemmings enlarges pictures - there is a strong streak of Catholicism to this film that places it in interesting proximity to the early works of Coppola's peer, Martin Scorsese, particularly Who's That Knocking At My Door, in which the near-deification of the female image leads a confused young man to make a very significant mistake. But I don't want to say more. I bet Stanley Kubrick - who often had scenes of horror take place in or in proximity to toilets - loved the commode scenes in this movie. Somehow, toilets have never really been a locus of horror for me, at least not cinematically, but this film definitely has one of the most disturbing toilet moments ever (not the one pictured below).
Apocalypse Now, meanwhile, is one of those great (if morally and politically questionable) achievements of cinema that I am kind of done with, was kind of getting sick of even in my twenties, when friends who considered it the greatest movie ever made insisted on watching it again and again and again. There was a time when I welcomed the opportunity, and I must have seen it thirty times or more in my life, and thanks to that Redux version of it was compelled to revisit it just a few years ago. It's up there with Blade Runner and the works of Kubrick as films that break through the barrier between serious and popular consumption of cinema, such that people with a very, very limited knowledge of film are overwhelmed with its accomplishments and feel themselves free to proclaim it the greatest thing that's ever existed, kind of like someone who has only ever eaten hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza getting all excited about the discovery of Chinese food, or someone proclaiming Robert Johnson the greatest bluesman who has ever lived, without ever even having heard of Charley Patton or Son House or Bukka White or Skip James or... It doesn't mean that Chinese food and Robert Johnson are bad things, it's just that the valorization of Apocalypse Now has more to do with the limited ways things came to mainstream acceptance back in the 1970's, 1980's, and 1990's, when the channels information flowed through were so much narrower, than it does with its actual place in world cinema.
The film's accomplishments are real nonetheless, however, and it IS a unique film in the history of cinema; if Heaven's Gate marked the greatest failure, from the time when Hollywood auteurs went overboard with the carte blanche they had been given, Apocalypse Now surely is the greatest success. I kind of agree with the likes of Jonathan Rosenbaum and Robin Wood that it's a morally and politically questionable film, mind you, rather obscenely using an actual war in the service of a nihilistic, possibly immoral message, rewriting the actual suffering of the people of Viet Nam (and the American soldiers pressed into service there) with a sort of adolescent existential posturing (there's a Leonard Cohen line about a "heart of darkness alibi/ that his money hides behind" that comes to mind). By the climax, you're invited to embrace what seems a positively pro-murder point of view, essentially calling in the airstrike on the human race. Maybe we're meant to be horrified, but I'm pretty sure my friends back in the day were reveling in the darkness of the "kill'em all, let God sort'em out" vibe that prevails when all the madness culminates in murder... I'm not sure even Joseph Conrad would find it acceptable. Still, the sound design (and editing), again by Walter Murch, truly are up there near the top of the list in terms of what the film achieves, and it's visually stunning and compelling as we go up the river. Cheers to the Cinematheque for projecting the original theatrical cut, vastly superior to the Redux version, which, for all its interesting bits, bogs down in the French plantation scene, simply gets too talky and digressive to sustain the narrative. The original cut has always been my preferred, and this is a brand-new digital restoration of it.
Most piquant in the three sound-series films, however, is the 7.1 restoration of Steven Spielberg's Jaws - a great summer movie for misanthropes, and probably one of Spielberg's most honest expressions. For all his respectability these days, Spielberg's greatest accomplishments are, by me, his most sadistic and exploitative, where children are menaced by things with teeth (though I'm also a great admirer of Close Encounters of the Third Kind). There is a brilliance to how revolting Spielberg manages to make all the beach flesh on display in this film - how much he stokes your desire to see shark teeth sinking into people - while not making his protagonists, through whose eyes we mostly see things, seem particularly misanthropic at all; the subtext of the film probably has something to do with the struggle to keep caring about other people in a world where stupidity and corruption run rampant, but by keeping the darkness and cynicism and despair of its protagonists mostly off the screen, we can like them and accept them (and can find no way to project and release our own misanthropy on them, much as the film stokes it). More interesting than just kill'em all, anyhow. I actually have no idea what a 7.1 mix of Jaws  would sound like; I kind of wish I hadn't played it for my girl in recent memory, because this is the film, of the three, that I have the greatest fondness for, and I can't recall ever having seen it on the big screen. Plus Jaws has such great performances from Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfus, and Robert Shaw!

There's quite a few other inspired programming choices this summer. Blood Simple still might be the best of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, one of the films appearing in the neo-noir "sidebars" to the Cinematheque's summer noir programme.  It's a comedy so black that it isn't at all funny, the first time through; in fact, until you discover that the film has a bonafide punchline, it may not seem like a comedy at all. A lifelong favourite, it's probably the best film that any of the actors in it are associated with (sure, John Getz was in The Fly, but his character in that film is pretty one-dimensional, compared to this one, and by god are Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh, and Frances McDormand fantastic here). Mistrust, betrayal, misunderstanding, sleazy deals and murder, with a positively sweaty visual sensibility perfect for a hot summer night, if we ever actually get any. A great film. I'm annoyed that the Coen's trimmed a couple of minutes for their director's cut, seemingly for the simple perversity of releasing a director's cut that was shorter than the original theatrical version, but I must admit, the last time I saw it, I had to strain to recall what was missing. I saw this almost as often in my teens and twenties as I saw Apocalypse Now. I watch it less now, but my love for it has diminished not one whit.

To Live and Die in LA, while perhaps not dripping with quite as much sweat as the Texas-set Blood Simple, is probably the sunniest noir ever made, and a worthy film to revisit if you're a William Friedkin fan. I am, and I like William L. Petersen, John Pankow, and Willem Dafoe, the principals, a lot, but it's one of those films - stylish and gripping - that somehow doesn't manage to linger long in the memory, which for me is the true hallmark of a film with more style than substance. A few moments aside - Dafoe burning his artwork, say, or a violent moment in a men's room, or a wrong-way-street carchase ("we're only going one way!") - what mostly lingers in the memory is the bright colours and daylight exteriors and general, somewhat excessive visual flare of the film. There's nothing much of the story that manages to stick, which in a way keeps it fresh: it's a film I have to revisit every few years just to remember what happens in it. Worth a watch, though! 

I have nothing at all to say about Seconds or Point Blank, the "psychedelic" neo-noir sidebar that also accompanies the noir program; both are films that, believe it or not, I've only seen once, and that years ago, so I can't write much on them. I am a fan of the Richard Stark Parker books, but recall finding Point Blank a little too tricksy as an adaptation of a novel in that very, very straightforward, stripped down series; I prefer The Outfit or even the director's cut of Payback as being truer in spirit to the source texts, though there's no question that Point Blank is the greater accomplishment cinematically or that Lee Marvin is fantastic as the Parker figure (then not allowed to be called Parker, but he's far more Parker than Jason Statham will ever, could ever be). I like the idea of doing neo-noir sidebars, however. It would be interesting to do a Euro-noir sidebar sometime, maybe with films like Revanche, Red Road, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, or Jerichow, for example, or maybe even some of Fassbinder's noiry works?
My favourite unsung neo-noir, meanwhile - NOT playing at the Cinematheque - is a terrific Elias Koteas vehicle called Hit Me, directed by Steven Shainberg (Secretary, Fur, the upcoming Rupture). It's an under-rated, un-sung film, adapted from Jim Thompson's A Swell Looking Babe. It likely isn't going to show up on any Cinematheque programs anytime soon, though. Shainberg talks about the film here. Koteas fans should seek this film out; it's by far not the best film he's been in, but it's definitely his biggest, meatiest role that I've encountered (bearing in mind that I've missed the entirety of his TV work).
As for the actual noir programme, this has become quite a welcome summer ritual; I'm always eager to see what films the Cinematheque has picked. Kiss of Death, with a great Richard Widmark villain, and the rather politically intriguing Thieves Highway - about courage and corruption among long-haul truckers - are my favourites of the ones I know. I can't recall for sure if I've seen Where the Sidewalk Ends, but Otto Preminger has made some of my favourite noirs ever (especially Angel Face and Anatomy of a Murder). Of those I don't know, I'm most curious about Johnny O'Clock, because I love Robert Rossen's The Hustler so much, but have seen few of his other films; and The Reckless Moment, because I like James Mason. Turns out I have nothing much to say about any of these films, however, except yay, the summer noir season is upon us
For those seeking cheerier, brighter film fare, the much beloved early Miyazaki film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, will be screening in late August. I have loved this film since I saw the mutilated American VHS version, Warriors of the Wind, in the 1980's. It's a hero's journey variation with a female protagonist, an environmentalist message, and some of Miyazaki's most stunning imagery; much as I love his other films, this is the one that I call my favourite, to this day. It's too bad they're only playing the English-dubbed version, which will be friendlier to English-speaking children in the audience, perhaps, but makes it a harder film for me to pitch at the Japanese students I teach. Maybe I can sell them on the idea of seeing a favourite film in an English-language version, as a way of practicing their listening skills?

Avant-garde wise, there's also a very welcome program of Tony Conrad film works. I met Conrad once, saw him play, and eulogized him not long ago. I might try to do something else on this. People with an interest in experimental cinema and/ or drone should take note.

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