Sunday, March 18, 2018

Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)

Tati’s Playtime hardly encourages a deep sense of people as individuals – few of its dozens of characters are even granted a medium shot, let alone a close-up. The movie seems to warn of nothing less than collective obliteration – submersion into mass standardization, into absurd consumerism, into systems and surfaces that can only be stained by human intervention (and of course this is even before the online/social media revolution), into hopeless distance from basic pleasures (embodied by the American visitors to Paris who are kept well away from all its points of differentiation). Looked at a certain way, it can feel overwhelming, and even depressing – Tati’s choreography is so staggering, often involving multiple bits of foreground and background action in the same shot, that it hardly seems designed for a human spectator. Of course, this is also at the heart of the film’s inexhaustible glory, of its status as one of the most singular of all cinematic masterpieces. And Tati seeds his design with remnants of past humanity or portents of a future one – the sudden appearance of old friends, of mysterious near-doubles, of things that are just funny despite everything. The brilliant extended climax in a restaurant that all but gets destroyed on its opening night speaks to the capacity of collective action for transcending stifling corporate calculation. But it’s also plainly a one-off, incapable of shaping the following day for more than a few dreamy early-morning hours. In one of its final gags, the movie posits that a moving window might actually influence the object that’s being reflected in it – something that might have seemed like the ultimate loss of control, except that Tati presents it as an elating moment, a promise that all isn’t yet heavy and tethered. Least of all, of course, M. Hulot, who returns to the crowd as modestly and mysteriously as he emerged from it.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Husbands (John Cassavetes, 1970)

Husbands is perhaps Cassavetes’ most darkly disorienting work, and probably his most aggressive one: its trio of protagonists interrogates and/or attacks virtually every utterance, every assumption, every active moment and every quiet one, exhausting each other (and possibly us) in their search for a new stable structure – the old structure fell apart after a fourth friend suddenly died. After Harry (Ben Gazzara) gets into a violent fight with his wife, he decides to take off for London – Gus (Cassavetes) and Archie (Peter Falk) tag along; they all set out to find women for the night, and all succeed (the inevitability of this, at least, is one thing the film never questions), but it never feels like conventional coupling will generate much of an answer to anything. The film sees better prospects for renewal within the dynamics of mysteriously-assembled groups, often from using song as a tool for moving past language, to a purer expression of emotion. As with most of Cassavetes’ work, the impact is hardly naturalistic, and doesn’t necessarily seem like an excavation of “truth” either, but it’s an astounding exercise in unbound performance, in traumatic destabilization. And you constantly feel Cassavetes’ delight in faces and voices and expressions, particularly it seems in observing English women with their strange accents and turns of phrase. Harry stays in London (defined here solely by its cramped interiors and its rain); Gus and Archie return, if only because they can’t figure out how to make a case for doing anything else. “What’s he going to do without us?” they ask, but the real question is the opposite one – how they’re meant to reconfigure their relationship yet again to accommodate a further loss. But whether they manage it or not, the final moments of Gus returning to his family (played by Cassavetes’ real-life children) leave little doubt that they’ll be husbands, and fathers, whether or not they’re also living out their concept of being men.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Mother Kusters goes to Heaven (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975)

You might initially consider Mother Kusters goes to Heaven to be one of Fassbinder’s flatter, less stylistically interesting films, until it occurs to you that’s probably the point, to record a cross-section of a society that hardly has the emotional and intellectual energy to lift its drab ugly ass of the ground. Mrs. Kusters works at home assembling electrical components (some 1,500 a week of them, we’re told) while her husband toils in a chemical plant, where one day he kills a boss’s son and then himself. The media pounces on the story as a lurid tabloid sensation, trashing the family accordingly; her daughter grabs the chance to wrap herself in scandal and advance her singing career, while Mrs. Kusters’s bewildered loyalty to her husband makes her an easy toy for the left, seeking to brandish her as the surviving spouse of an unrecognized revolutionary. Virtually every face is familiar from other Fassbinder works, feeding its sense of claustrophobic insularity, of self-devouring ugliness (nobody ever captured eye-hurting 70’s clothes and d├ęcor better than Fassbinder did, no matter that he did it in film after film). The restored version of Mother Kusters initially seems to end in terrorism and death, but then a caption introduces an alternative ending, originally used only on the American release it says, which leads to further dissipation of energy, before an act of kindness and a hint of a possible return to happy domesticity. There’s no suggestion Fassbinder ever envisaged showing the film with both endings, and yet it’s just about perfect, underlining how the tangle of personal and political will only ever resolve itself arbitrarily, either due to the unkind whims of society, or to the (perhaps) more sympathetic ones of the artist. Viewed now, at a time of particular shakiness for progressivity, the film speaks louder than ever of a collective inability to diagnose and shape the present, let alone look to the future.