By John, posted by Tracy
Watching movies involves so many compromises. Apart from power usage and how the energy for that is created, there’s the manufacturing of the hardware, and the general ecological and human cost of producing films. It’s a long list, taking us through multinational miners, industrial exploitation, pollution and destruction of habitats, to exploitation of underpaid factory workers at various degrees of separation from the product itself. And it is product. The moment film-makers begin to negotiate with the process itself, distribution, and the realities of ‘audience’, even the most independent-minded movie enters the chain. And if one thinks there is a way out of this, maybe it’s worth bearing in mind some of the funding compromises or interference with filming associated with some of the most challenging and created-under-duress films.
Nonetheless, I have always enjoyed cinema, and have watched a large number of movies over my life. When engaging with a library, I first engage with the book and journal collection, then the video/DVD collection. And I tend to work my way steadily through a collection, rewatching and picking up items I’ve missed.
Having mentioned the funding for movies issue, one might highlight the selection of Cassavetes films on the shelves. John Cassavetes (1929-1989) is almost the ur-indie filmmaker of ‘modern’ American cinema, who not only wrote and directed many of his films, but also funded and even distributed them. Often working with the same actors, especially his wife Gena Rowlands and the underrated Ben Gazzara, Cassavetes created one of the most impelling, original, socially conscious and multi-genred bodies of work out there. Often funding his films through himself acting in major studio films (Rosemary’s Baby being my favourite, though The Dirty Dozen may have paid better), Cassavetes pieced together movies how, when and wherever he could. His films are elusive revolutions, at least in part because of the drive for independence. And one has the sense that, though he covers so much of the production ground, of getting the film done, he is in collaboration with his actors, especially the brilliant Rowlands whose performances in Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, and Opening Night are disturbing, destabilising and epiphanic. And watch The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) to see how genre can be twisted and reconstituted by labouring a point rather than editing it into oblivion. My favourite Cassavetes will always be his first independent film, Shadows, which was a shock-wave of understatement with something immense, political and confrontational that was a tribute to a film’s sum of its parts.
Other films we’ve enjoyed or admired or even endured with enthusiasm, all from one library collection, and I say ‘we’ because I watch films together with Tracy (the discussion that comes out of experiencing a film at a given time and place is part of the whole for us), include a selection of noir classics. Among them are Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel (1945) and the (literally) hypnotic melodrama, Whirlpool (1949) – even at his most laboured and illogical, Preminger has a chart of social concern and niceties he wishes to undo.
But for pure noir impact, it will always be the actor John Garfield for me (he was indelible in 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice), whom you can check out in Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948). I have always admired Garfield, who was born in poverty and was part of the Group Theatre Collective in New York in the 1930s, because he never named names at the House Committee on Un-American Activities, though he retracted his ‘beliefs’ shortly before his (early) death.
For me, in noir, it isn’t what the directors do with the male protagonists that matters, it’s what the women do to foil them, compromise, or undo them. Sherry is the femme fatale to watch in Stanley Kubrick’s genre ‘classic’, The Killing (which was a critical and commercial failure on its release in 1956 – often a good sign!).
Most recently, we rewatched Donald Cammel’s and Nicolas Roeg’s masterpiece, Performance. Cammel made few films but was a poetic director (and son of a poet) who obsessed over his vision and ultimately died of it. Performance was completed in 1968 but not released by Warner Brothers until 1970. And Roeg is at his best here – his cinematography is festering and disorientating (and said to be the forerunner of the MTV music clip, but I’ve always found that claim ludicrous in so many ways, not that Roeg probably minded). The studio (I detest studios) were disgusted with the film they ended up getting and had no idea how to read its mix of gangster film, darkest satire, parody-lite, psychedelic implosion, Borgesian labyrinths and mirrors, identity play, doubling, exploration of the many faces of the ‘performative’, porn (offcuts of the film were apparently shown as a ‘blue movie’) and sexual and gender ambiguity. And that short list doesn’t even begin to do justice to this intertextual tour de force. Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg (as respectively the jaded, ontologically compromised rock star and one of his girlfriends in a ménage that folds and folds into itself) are precisely what they had to be, and James Fox is overwhelming in the role that is said to have largely led to his leaving movies for a decade and embracing Christian causes. I’ll say no more other than that, much like Antonioni’s Blow-up, this film is a nexus for the construct of an ‘era’ and interpretations of such a construct.