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blu-ray series #25: the battle of algiers (gillo pontecorvo, 1966)

I’ve long been suspicious of universal canons in arts like movies and literature and music. I’m fine with telling you what movies I think you should watch, but I operate from my personal perspective, and don’t mean to claim any insight into what belongs in the Canon of Everyone.

But I’m going to say straight out: The Battle of Algiers, about the Algerian War of Independence, deserves to be in whatever canon you offer up. Apparently ragged, with the faux-documentary style that in lesser hands muddies more than it illuminates, The Battle of Algiers addresses a topic timely in 1966 and timely in 2015: insurrection.

Pontecorvo is usually lauded for the verisimilitude of the filmmaking here. Supposedly, groups on every side of possible revolution (from the Black Panthers and the IRA to the U.S. Pentagon) have studied The Battle of Algiers for insight and instruction. This speaks to the seeming reality of what is on the screen, and it is indeed a remarkable film for that reason. I think one result of this is that Pontecorvo is praised for making his movie look realistic in the manner of Italian neorealism, while ignoring other aspects of the film that also illustrate Pontecorvo’s strengths. Specifically, he has a way of directing crowd scenes that far surpasses most of what we see in films.

We’ve all seen movies that use a low budget and non-actors to create an illusion of documentary realism. However big the themes, these movies are often determined to show off a smallness of visual sense, as if anything larger would give the lie to the illusion of realism. Pontecorvo doesn’t have this problem. He can move large groups of people around in such a way as to seem both like casually-shot documentary footage and planned choreography. This doesn’t look “fake”, either ... we’re not talking Busby Berkeley. The IMDB tells us, “Although the mass scenes look spontaneous, it took quite some planning to make them look that way. Director Gillo Pontecorvo would often draw chalk lines on the ground, dividing the mass in separate groups which had to start walking on cue in order to get proper crowd movement.” (You can also see Pontecorvo’s work in this area in his film Burn!, where he uses color to great advantage.)

Pontecorvo also manages to be, if not impartial, at least understanding of both sides. The French have their reasons for putting down the rebellion, and by using Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the film, to play the local leader of the French forces, Pontecorvo gives us a calm and focused presentation of the French side. Martin convinces us that torture is necessary. (He is also the only Frenchman who seems to understand where history is headed, which makes him even more reasonable, even as he acts to forestall the march of history.)

Pauline Kael famously said, “The Battle of Algiers is probably the only film that has ever made middle-class audiences believe in the necessity of bombing innocent people”, continuing, “perhaps because Pontecorvo made it a tragic necessity.” The French colonel may be reasonable, but his actions are disturbing enough that we want to see revenge taken. In this, and in other ways, Pontecorvo is clearly on the side of the insurrection. But he knows there is a human cost to the actions on both sides ... a tragic necessity. In the film’s most famous sequence, three women plant bombs in public places. We see their committed yet concerned faces. We see the faces of the people who are about to die. We see the explosions. Public acts made in the name of the masses, but personalized by the focus on the women and the victims.

In earlier times, I hesitated from giving The Battle of Algiers my highest rating. Now, I have no idea what I was thinking. #60 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10. For a companion piece, see the aforementioned Burn!, with Marlon Brando.

what i watched last week

Love in the Afternoon (Eric Rohmer, 1972). I knew this as Chloe in the Afternoon, but “Love” is how to translate the original title (“L'amour l'après-midi”). It follows Claire’s Knee as the sixth and final film in Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales”. I wrote about Claire’s Knee, “Most of the suspense in the second part of the movie comes from waiting to see if the man will ever get to interact with that knee.” There is nothing quite so specific in Love in the Afternoon as that knee, but the feel of anticipation is similar. Will the married Frédéric (Bernard Verley) have sex with not-his-wife Chloé (Zouzou)? Zouzou has something special (this was what put her on the map as a movie actress ... before that, she was known for her part in the pop culture of the time, including a spell as Brian Jones’s girlfriend). But the film is repetitive. Will he or won’t he isn’t compelling enough to keep my attention for 97 minutes. Remade by Chris Rock in 2007 as I Think I Love My Wife. 6/10.

Out of Africa (Sydney Pollack, 1985). The great Karina Longworth wrote an interesting essay on the relationship between Pauline Kael and Meryl Streep. She quotes an interview where Streep said, “[Y]ou know what I think? That Pauline was a poor Jewish girl who was at Berkeley with all these rich Pasadena WASPs with long blond hair, and the heartlessness of them got her.” (In the original interview, Streep adds, “And then, years later, she sees me.”) Longworth continues, “In researching my book, Meryl Streep: Anatomy of An Actor, I read dozens of interviews with Streep spanning about 35 years, and catalogued hundreds of quotes. This was one of the few moments of absolute candor, one of just a handful of times when Streep let a personal feeling trump her very savvy understanding of the politics of publicity. Her comments were clearly spontaneous, emotional, and unprofessional — all adjectives that Streep likely thought could fairly be applied to Kael’s written judgements of her.” There is a difference between an actor’s public persona and what they bring to the table as actors, but what I take from this anecdote is that Streep was almost always in control in the interview process. It’s that control that shows in her acting, as well. She is almost always masterful. I rarely dislike her. But I’m always aware of the effort she puts into getting it right. Which is better than getting it wrong, and Streep has given us many outstanding performances over the years. But that effort she makes often distances me from her characters. Since Out of Africa relies greatly on Streep (co-star Robert Redford isn’t his usual charismatic self), the distancing means I’m not really appreciating what I’m seeing. Winner of 7 Oscars, including Best Picture. #869 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 6/10.

Into the Woods (Rob Marshall, 2014). For what it’s worth, I liked Meryl Streep in this. But I couldn’t get through the movie, giving up with an hour to go. Later, I checked ... the only Sondheim movie I ever saw was West Side Story. I am willing to believe that he is a genius. And I feel especially bad since this was a request. But the longer I watched, the more I disliked it. Which is on me ... taste preferences and all ... so I’ll give it an Incomplete.

News from Home (Chantal Akerman, 1977). 7/10.

disgruntled, by asali solomon

If I were still teaching, I would love to assign Disgruntled, which is high praise coming from me. It is the best kind of coming-of-age story, an enticing blend of the specific and the universal, so that I often saw myself in the main character, Kenya, who we follow from first grade through twelfth. I saw myself, but I also entered a different world, that of a young black girl in Pennsylvania, whose life, happy and sad alike, is revealed by Asali Solomon in a you-are-there mode that gives us not only the externals of Kenya’s neighborhoods, but also the internals of Kenya’s thoughts and emotions. Kenya is a finely-drawn, believable character, a strong center to a novel that covers a decent amount of time.

While Kenya is the core of the story, Solomon also offers an extended family of characters in support that are just as intriguing. Kenya’s mother and father, and then her step-father, and later a communal family with her father, two women, and three kids, all are distinct personalities. And each living situation that presents itself to Kenya offers different challenges, some of which are easier for her than others.

Kenya is herself different from other kids (but then, what heroine of a coming-of-age novel is ever ordinary?). What we learn over time is that, while she may be invested in her difference, that difference is compounded by her outside world. When she is young in West Philly, she isn’t quite like the other kids ... her family celebrates Kwanzaa, not Christmas, as an example. When she transfers to a mostly-white private school, the differences are more obvious (and class is also more clearly a divider), and she is gradually understanding that some of her feelings of difference come from the way the people around her make assumptions about who she is on the outside. Perhaps most dramatically, when she moves in with her father on his communal farm, she experiences a life that is in many ways farther from her earlier upbringing than was the private school.

When Kenya returns to her mother at the end of the novel, we know how far she has come, and there is a hopefulness that even as she returns to her past, she has learned enough from her experiences to create a new life down the road. She “comes of age” just in time to begin again.

Solomon’s writing flows effortlessly. Each character has their own manner of speaking ... you never get that feeling where each character is just another mouthpiece for the author. Kenya feels auto-biographical, but Disgruntled is not a memoir. Solomon uses the raw materials of her life to create a world all its own.

music friday: here comes the rock and roll hall of fame again

What do I say that I haven’t said before? Mitchell Cohen has a good piece: “the hall”.

If you’d like to cast a vote or two yourself, you can go here:

As always, the two biggest problems with this Hall are 1) that the criteria for induction are too vague (“We shall consider factors such as an artist's musical influence on other artists, length and depth of career and the body of work, innovation and superiority in style and technique, but musical excellence shall be the essential qualification of induction”), and 2) rock and roll isn’t sports, you can’t go by the stats, it’s all just opinion. OK, those are really just one problem.

My thoughts on two of this year’s nominees:

Chic has been nominated so many times I’ve lost count. They belong in any Hall of Fame; their absence is a crime. They deserve induction based not only on the work of the band; Rodgers and Edwards extend the greatness of Chic with their work in production.

A big thing about these nominations has always been the divide (when it exists, which isn’t always the case) between lots of record sales and critical acclaim. Chicago may have sold 100 million albums, but the critics have rarely been fans of the band. The example I’ll use this year is Steve Miller.

The Steve Miller Blues Band opened at the very first rock concert I ever attended (they also performed as Chuck Berry’s backup band ... the resulting show turned up on a Berry live album). They hadn’t released any albums yet. Boz Scaggs had yet to join the band. In 1968, the soundtrack to a little-known movie, Revolution, was a minor hit in the Bay Area. It featured three local acts (Quicksilver Messenger Service, Mother Earth, and the Miller Band), with the highlight being Miller’s cover of an Isley Brothers tune, “Your Old Lady”. The song was pretty basic, but Miller laid down some of the finest guitar solos heard on that recording.

The band signed a big contract, went to England, and recorded their first album with Glyn Johns at the helm. There were a lot of reasons why that first album was so good compared to many of the other debuts of the Bay Area psychedelic bands. The oddest part, to my mind, is that the first side was the pinnacle of SF psychedelic rock (yes, I know about the Grateful Dead, just stating a personal opinion). It was odd because Miller didn’t seem like a “real” hippie. He was a blues man, famously a prodigy at a very young age, and his idea of good musicianship wasn’t the same as, say, Big Brother and the Holding Company. Miller sounded professional from the get-go, as Side Two of that first album, Children of the Future, demonstrated. So that’s the paradox: my favorite piece of psychedelia (Side One of Children of the Future) came from a blues band who were mostly up to other things, musically. (“Song for Our Ancestors”, which led off their second album, Sailor, was a more concise version of that psychedelic feel.)

He continued making albums on a regular basis, until 1973, when “The Joker” changed things. Miller became a dominant figure in mid-70s rock, with huge albums like Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams. Greatest Hits 1974-78 summarized this period ... it sold more than 8 million copies.

Have I described a Hall of Famer to you? For my tastes, that greatest hits album includes maybe half-a-dozen classics. I love Children of the Future and much of Sailor. But mostly, I think Miller gets nominated because of that mid-70s run, so the question becomes, do “Take the Money and Run”, “Rock’n Me”, “The Joker”, “Fly Like an Eagle”, and “Jet Airliner” constitute a Hall of Fame career? Toss in his first two albums if, like me, you think that was his peak.

I don’t see it. Miller was not influential. He was a solid professional, his music matched what people wanted to hear for a few years, but I don’t recall anyone saying their careers grew out of their love of Steve Miller’s music. Honestly, I think Boz Scaggs has a better case for the Hall.

The point is that I don’t know what makes a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. Except that if there’s no room for Chic, the Hall is pointless.

Here is Chic with “Good Times”:

And here is Side One of Children of the Future:

film fatales #6: news from home (chantal akerman, 1977)

First, some history about the new series I’ve begun that I call “Film Fatales”. The name comes from a group with the same name that describes themselves as “a collective of female feature directors who meet regularly to mentor each other, collaborate on projects and create a supportive community in which to make their films.” I discovered them when I read a piece on Bitchmedia where the Fatales were asked for two lists, “Recent Women-Directed Films That Everyone Should See” and “Women-Directed Films That Inspired the Work of Film Fatales”. Later, a friend passed along another piece, “84 Films By and About Women of Color, Courtesy of Ava DuVernay and the Good People of Twitter”. I combined that list with the Film Fatales lists, and now I have a lot of movies to catch up on, all of which I’ll include in the “Film Fatales” series, even though the name isn’t quite correct any longer.

Chantal Akerman died a few days ago, and I realized I had never seen one of her movies, so I went to my lists to find a few possibilities. The “DuVernay” list came in response to a tweet earlier this year where she asked her followers to “Name three films you like with black, brown, native or Asian women leads.” Akerman was a white Belgian film maker, so she wasn’t going to be on that list. But, as her Wikipedia page notes, “Akerman's influence on feminist filmmaking and avant-garde cinema has been substantial”, so I was surprised to find that she wasn’t on the Film Fatales list, either. So I’ve created a new series for the blog, and already I’m breaking my self-imposed rules, because Akerman belonged on that list.

Akerman’s masterpiece is generally considered to be Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. I confess, though, that, knowing what I did about Akerman’s style, I was hesitant to experience her for the first time by diving into a 3 hour and 21 minute movie. So I chickened out and went with News from Home, which comes in at a much briefer 85 minutes.

News from Home can be easily described, although a description doesn’t give a feel for the experience of watching it. It consists of shots of New York, accompanied by ambient noise and several readings by Akerman of letters from her mother than she received when she lived in New York in the early 70s. I should add that I’m not sure of the chronology. I think it goes like this: Akerman moves from Belgium to New York in 1971. Her mother writes her on a regular basis. Akerman did the filming for the movie in 1976, after she had become known for Jeanne Dielman. This matters because Akerman’s mother is relating to her daughter before Chantal has made a name for herself, but News from Home doesn’t come out until after Jeanne Dielman. So there is some odd, minor disconnect between the Akerman women in the letters, and Chantal Akerman making this movie in 1976-7.

Akerman’s mother in the letters is a supreme example of passive-aggressive parenting, and it’s not hard to understand why Akerman might have wanted to escape. The New York photography, though, while not exactly bleak, has its own disconnect. We never see Akerman ... she becomes the camera ... and the camera creates a distance that underlines the ways Akerman is alienated from her surroundings. She had to leave home, but New York, at least as we see it in the movie, didn’t provide any answers.

I had enough problems with my own mother that I can’t be trusted when it comes to mothers in movies. I may have overstated the awfulness of Akerman’s mother. And when I learn that her mother had been in Auschwitz, that she had in fact lost her own parents there, her anxieties seem more understandable.

Watching the film today also complicates things. Akerman didn’t just die on October 4, she committed suicide. It is far too early to draw conclusions, but Akerman’s mother died last year, and this reportedly had a great and sad impact on Chantal. It’s difficult to watch News from Home without thinking of the events in Akerman’s last year. It is something like the closing image of News from Home, a long shot of the twin towers ... it inevitably strikes us differently now than it did in 1977.

I found that I admired News from Home. But I don’t think it’s a film we are meant to love. The cumulative effects of the letters from home creates a great sadness, but nonetheless the sameness of the imagery wears on the viewer, so that even at 85 minutes, it feels like it could be shorter. There is great skill behind News from Home, and there is a fairly rigorous display of alienation (the film has drawn comparisons to Taxi Driver). But Akerman may have tried too hard to pass that alienation along to the viewer, at least for me. #811 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

the strain, season two finale

I'm a fan of the movies of Guillermo del Toro ... of the ones I've seen, my ratings range from 6/10 for Hellboy to my highest 10/10 for Pan's Labyrinth. I enjoy watching The Strain, which is co-created by del Toro and Chuck Hogan from the books of the same name.

But I don't think The Strain is better than any of del Toro's movies. I suppose it's on the level of Hellboy, but that's about it.

What The Strain has going for it: delightful performances by Richard Sammel as an undead follower of "The Master" and Joaquín Cosío as a former luchador who also starred in Mexican masked wrestler movies. They are delightful because they know The Strain can be funny. Too many of the other actors are far too serious for a show about vampires with long tongues. It's also nice to see Samantha Mathis.

The worst thing about The Strain is the character Zach, the latest in a long line of awful children who do nothing but muck things up. Not everyone is Sally Draper. Zach's actions in the season finale were so stupid as to defy belief, except the character is regularly stupid. You'd think with so many vampires running around, one of them would do us all a favor and eat Zach, but no.

Like I say, I enjoy watching it, but it's not as good as The Walking Dead. It's certainly not as good as Penny Dreadful, which isn't quite the same genre but which is better than most shows. I guess it's about as good as Fear the Walking Dead, the prequel that just finished a short run. In today's crowded TV lineup, it's impossible to keep up with the good shows. Still, there's a place for second-level junk if it strikes your fancy, which is why I'll be there for Season Three of The Strain.

what i watched last week

Places in the Heart (Robert Benton, 1984). I visited the Criticker website and they were featuring Ed Harris, so I thought I’d watch one of his movies. Not that Ed is featured here ... the film got three acting Oscar nominations, including John Malkovich for Best Supporting Actor (it was his first credited movie role), but nothing for Harris, who is nonetheless fine in his lesser role. Speaking of acting Oscars, this is the movie where Sally Field won Best Actress and gave her famous “you like me” acceptance speech. I can barely remember anything about Field’s competitors ... I liked A Passage to India but don’t recall Judy Davis, and the only other nominee I have an opinion about is Vanessa Redgrave, who if memory serves was the best thing about The Bostonians. Field does a good job, although she’s a bit miscast ... she overcomes her Gidget past, but she still doesn’t really look like a Depression-era Texas farmer. But you believe in her inner strength, which helps carry the film. Benton’s screenplay also won an Oscar, and he’s done some great work in his career, including co-writing the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde (it lost to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in case you needed another reason to hate the Oscars). Benton knows the milieu ... he grew up where and when the film takes place ... and it goes without saying that he is skillful. But he tries too hard to show people’s better side, so many of the characters are little more than stereotypes of good behavior. 7/10. A good companion piece would be The Last Picture Show, which is a great movie. Peter Bogdanovich didn’t know anything about Texas except what he learned from movies (although Larry McMurtry did), but he rose above the stereotypes.

Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014). Christopher Orr calls it in The Atlantic: “If one were to somehow merge the Scorsese-directed Robert De Niro characters Travis Bickle (of Taxi Driver) and Rupert Pupkin (of The King of Comedy), the result, I imagine, would be someone very much like Lou Bloom, the antiheroic lead played by Jake Gyllenhaal in writer/director Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler.” Some have also compared Nightcrawler to Network, but unlike that movie, Nightcrawler isn’t really a satire. Network was a “what if” movie where what we saw was uncomfortably close to what was real. But Nightcrawler isn’t just close to real ... its attitude towards the news media is accurate. As Bill Paxton’s character says, “Welcome to the future, brah!” Having said that, this movie is as much a character study as anything. Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is the kind of psychopath whose creepy charm is apparent, until he bares his fangs. Rene Russo gets one of the better parts for a 60-year-old woman in today’s Hollywood (her husband is the director), and she makes the most of it ... you want more of her. Nightcrawler is pulpy and grimy, stylish, with some very good acting. I’m not convinced it has much to say, but I’m also not convinced it matters. #304 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.