Wednesday, March 20, 2019

#684: The Crime of Monsieur Lange

Directed by: JEAN RENOIR
1935, TSPDT Rank #350

Hollywood films of the 1930s are often like sparkling diamonds, while Jean Renoir's early sound films are more like unpolished jewels uncovered from the ash heap of history. But whereas La chienne and La nuit du carrefour could feel somewhat clunky in terms of their storytelling momentum, The Crime of Monsieur Lange is bursting with non-stop energy. Almost all of the action takes place in a cramped cluster of buildings within a single neighborhood - a frenzied beehive of activity where its always hard to get your bearings. There are women, men, and a wicked old publishing magnate who has his way with both of them. The publisher, Batala, is played by Jules Berry in what is much more of a star performance than René Lefèvre's portrayal of the titular everyman. Batala is as smooth and romantic as he is ugly and cruel. Rather than the classic femme fatale character that was seen in many films noir (with Renoir's La chienne as one of the prototypes), Battala is a true homme fatale.

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There is also a political dimension to the film, with Battala positioned as the "fascist" in whose absence the former employees of his company are able to fashion a working "cooperative" out of the company that once served only the man in charge. However, this angle isn't explored too deeply. What leaves a deeper impression is the ending. An old man in silhouette against a brightly lit window, a wolf in sheep's clothing, a murder in the shadows, and a couple on the run. As this film hasn't been properly restored for DVD yet, the bootleg copy I watched had awful sound and dull picture quality. Yet even so, the final shot is as beautiful as you will see in any film. We can only hope that this film and Renoir's other early works will get their due someday.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

#683: Harlan County, U.S.A.

1976, TSPDT Rank #675

There's a tendency to take the term "documentary" at face value and look at documentary films as "documents" or "records". Most documentaries, however, will show that the line between documentaries and narrative films is not so clearly demarcated. In Harlan County, U.S.A. for example, Barbara Kopple shaped over a year's worth of sporadic documentary footage into a narrative about the long labor strike in a Kentucky coal town, a narrative which makes us feel that we are witnessing the core truth at the center of an extended historical moment. This is what the best documentaries do, although maybe the only major difference between the preparation of narrative films and documentaries is that the latter takes more planning after the footage is shot rather than before, while during the shoot, the main objective is to be in the right place at the right time.

For whatever reason, perhaps to allow us to see what effect the passage of time had on the miners' strike efforts, Kopple often left time gaps of multiple months between strike footage, with the biggest focus being given to the final months of the strike, as we start to see the miners' life become more endangered, while at the same time the miners start to see a light at the end of the tunnel. The gaps between footage are occupied by skillfully situated interviews about the history of coal mining labor conditions and past conflicts in Harlan County, along with segments on the corruption within the United Mine Workers of America, whose contract the Harlan County mine workers fought to get their employers to sign. While Kopple put a largely positive spin on the miners' long fight for better pay and more rights, the focus on union corruption suggests that the fight is never over for the American working class.
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In any case, this Oscar-winning film is a great study in the methods that documentary filmmakers use to construct a narrative out of their material. There's a marked difference between a film like Harlan County, U.S.A. and a primetime news report. The careful mix of contemporary interviews, cinema verite footage, stock footage and potent folk music written about inhuman mining conditions and the long struggle for mine workers' rights is the mark of a filmmaker who saw a story that needed telling and spent years crafting it in a way that would resonate with audiences both in the moment and for decades to come. With this in mind, the line between a great documentary and a great narrative film is not all that pronounced after almost 50 years of hindsight. Although the fact that in capturing the miners' story, Kopple and her crew also became involved in their struggle, gives the film an added energy and a feeling of unvarnished reality that only a good documentary can provide.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

#682: Wanda

Directed by: BARBARA LODEN
1970, TSPDT Rank #375

Towards the beginning of Barbara Loden's sole directorial feature, we see the director, writer, and star of this film as a woman in white, walking down a black coal road lined with lush greenery. After an opening sequence which sets up the film's poor Appalachian setting in a series of brief shots in a cramped working-class home with a screaming baby, this image - a long shot as well as a very long take - is at once profound, beautiful and mysterious. Where is this woman going? Is she running away from the squalid home she's been living at? Is she going to take charge of her life and transcend the harsh working-class life she's been born into?

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Wanda initially seems to raise these questions, but its mentality is ultimately not such an obvious feminist rallying cry, as you might expect from an independent film made by a female director in the early 1970s. Instead, it's a very personal meditation on what it means to be a person adrift - with no direction in life and no clear identity. In Wanda, Loden's title character looks for direction and thinks she's found it in a petty criminal whom she refers to as "Mr. Dennis", a cruel, stupid petty criminal who has dreams of robbing a bank but no aptitude for crime whatsoever. Nevertheless, Wanda willingly allows Dennis to control her life - telling her what to do, what to wear, and eventually convincing her to help him in his doomed robbery scheme.

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Michael Higgins, the actor who plays Mr. Dennis, was the only professional actor in the film besides Loden. Combined with the film's low-budget, its grainy 16mm look and hard-luck settings, Wanda has all the makings of a political statement. However, while Loden didn't completely turn a blind eye to the societal conditions that shape people like Wanda, the main focus is on the psychology of her main character. With the low-budget production values and questionable results of many of the amateur performances in the film, Wanda isn't a perfect film by any means, but it's a priceless historical snapshot of its era (particularly in coal country) as well as a strong character piece. In its thematic goals and tone, it has in a lot in common with Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces - only with a woman who never had anything rather than a man who had everything and threw it away.

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The Criterion Collection has just come to the rescue and restored this rare film for release on DVD and Blu-ray! Find it here: