geezer cinema/film fatales #196: nyad (elizabeth chai vasarhelyi and jimmy chin, 2023)

Nyad is the first fiction film from noted documentary film makers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. The transition is made smooth by the fact that Nyad is based on a true story ... the core of the script has written itself. I'm not sure I could actually explain the difference between a biopic and a film "based on a true story". The biopic suggests a focus on one person rather than a situation or event, and Diana Nyad is certainly an interesting subject for a biopic. But the "true" story is actually the best part of the film, especially the relationship between Nyad (Annette Bening) and her coach, Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster). If Nyad were simply a biopic, it would be like so many others, simultaneously slavish to biography and drawn to making reality into more interesting fiction. But whenever the film bogs down, Bening and Foster (and the rest of the cast, notably Rhys Ifans) raise it up again. (Bening and Foster both received Oscar nominations for the film.)

Diana Nyad is similar in some ways to Alex Honnold, the rock climber at the center of Free Solo, which was co-directed by Vasarhelyi, Chin, and others. Honnold has an obsession, and the willpower to do what it takes to accomplish something no one else has ever done. Nyad adds another dimension: she is in her sixties when she decides to swim from Cuba to Key West. Bening's performance is brave ... she's unafraid to show Nyad's harsher side ... and Foster hits the right notes as the friend who can keep Diana on track without taking too much shit.

The technical aspects of Nyad's swim are mindboggling, and the filming techniques are fascinating, as well:

But, as is often the case with this genre, what is left out can be too important to ignore.  I think Nyad's accomplishment is amazing, but it matters than her record has never been ratified "due to the lack of independent observers and incomplete records." It matters equally that nothing about this is shown in the film, as if we would be less amazed by Nyad's remarkable marathon swim if we knew there was some controversy involved.

Still, the story works well, as in most sports stories (a powerful ending is the usual for such movies), and the acting makes up for a lot. I've seen all five nominees for the Best Actress Oscar, and Bening certainly belongs in the same company as the others, although I imagine Lily Gladstone will win, Emma Stone was more outrageous, and Carey Mulligan is as good as always. I've seen all of the Supporting Actress nominees except for Danielle Brooks in The Color Purple, and again, Foster is a viable candidate, but I'm guessing Da'Vine Joy Randolph will win that one.

sátántangó (béla tarr, 1994)

Definitely a case of Eat Your Vegetables. I never found myself involved in Sátántangó ... OK, I laughed a couple of times, which I suppose is something, although two laughs in 7 hours and 19 minutes doesn't qualify as a laff riot. Yes, I know Sátántangó isn't meant to be a laff riot. I'm just looking for something to say about a movie I'd heard so much about, that I finally got around to watching, and as I expected, it's in the Terrence Malick Genre of Movies That Accomplish What the Film Makers Set Out to Do but That Aren't Meant for Me. (Factoid I didn't know: Malick is 12 years old than Béla Tarr.)

Seriously, this movie was never meant for me, and I can't dismiss it just because I didn't like it. So if you think you'd like to see a 439-minute example of Slow cinema, or if like me you are a wannabe completist who absolutely needs to see the 109th-best movie of all time according to the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They website, then by all means, go for it. Here's a tentative place to start, a Letterboxd list I just created filled with Slow cinema movies:

Slow cinema

Or, if you want to start with Slow movies I loved, check out L'Avventura or 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (some would argue these two movies are not Slow cinema), or Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (which most definitely is Slow cinema).

There was one segment in Sátántangó that I found objectionable far beyond the "Tarr is accomplishing what he set out to do" angle. I knew from reading about the film that there would be a scene where a girl tortures and kills a cat. I wasn't prepared for the actuality, though. As I wrote on Facebook, "The cat scenes were far worse than I expected after reading about them and also reading an interview with Tarr. What a bunch of shit ... oh, we didn't hurt the cat, we had a vet there, blah blah blah. When she put the cat in a mesh net, the cat didn't look like it wanted to be a movie star as it struggled to escape. When she forced the cat's face into the milk, the cat wasn't having any fun. But it's all OK, because it's Art."

In honor of Phil Dellio, I have to post this highlight from the film, since he has used it many times as a way to convince me ... well, not sure what, but it worked, I did finally watch the movie.

film fatales #83: zama (lucrecia martel, 2017)

Lucretia Martel takes her time between fiction features ... Zama was her first in nine years, and only her fourth since 2001. But she's busy ... between 2001 and the present, she has also made more than half a dozen shorts and a feature documentary. Zama was highly anticipated.

I wrote about her La Ciénaga,"You need to settle into its rhythms, you need to accept that Martel isn't going to hold your hand, but there's a difference between wanting the audience to be uncomfortable and making a movie that did not connect with an audience. Scenes begin and end in the middle, you aren't always immediately sure where you are, but you aren't lost." Much the same could be said about Zama.

It helps to approach Zama without trying to squeeze it into pre-conceived notions. The more you try to figure out what is going on, the less you'll get out of the movie. Which isn't to suggest Zama is too obscure for enjoyment. It's just that its pleasures have less to do with narrative thrust and more to do with the feel of each scene. The title character is an official functionary somewhere in Argentina. He wants to leave ... he spends much of the movie trying to facilitate his release ... his desire is understandable, but Zama becomes something of a comical figure because his hopes are never going to be fulfilled, and at times, he seems to be the only person that doesn't realize this. The arc of his story is probably the easiest thing to latch onto, but Martel isn't really concerned with audience ease. Meanwhile, the subject of imperialism wavers between text and subtext, as the nobility exists on the backs of slaves it barely acknowledges.

Zama is comical, although his trials finally become too extreme for us to laugh at. And life for the slaves is not funny at all. Martel effectively blends subtle commentary and absurd bureaucracy, all the while condemning the ruling class for their perfidies. It's a fine movie for a patient audience. #61 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

l'argent (robert bresson, 1983)

There is a famous tower on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. The official name is Sather Tower, but no one calls it that. We call it The Campanile. It is a landmark that helps as a reference point for new students who don't quite know their way around yet. But for most of us, it is known for its carillon, which can be heard over much of Berkeley (we live a mile from campus, and we can hear it just fine).

A pair of falcons live on the tower, and they recently had triplets. A few webcams are set up so people can watch the lives of the young ones. I've taken a peek ... doesn't do much for me ... but my wife has it running constantly on her laptop so she can watch whenever she gets a notion. She loves it, and tells me tales about what the birds are doing.

Robert Bresson's films, minimalist and contemplative, demand our attention. (My favorite is A Man Escaped.) I often appreciate his movies more than like them, but among other things he is the ultimate "I'll do it my way" film maker, and while I tend to complain about those directors, I always respect them. And with Bresson, I have at times felt more than mere respect. L'Argent is one of those I like.

At first, L'Argent ("Money") seems to be a movie that follows a counterfeit bill through various hands, but eventually, it becomes a story about the people who come into contact with the money. You wouldn't say that "nothing happens" ... in fact, quite a bit happens. But it is presented in a matter-of-fact manner. There is a car chase. A bank is being robbed. We see the getaway driver. We see a man walking down the street reading a newspaper ... he seems important, yet this is his only scene and he's largely irrelevant. We see cops with guns, we see the robber with a hostage. Back to the driver, who hears a shootout that we don't see. Eventually, a cop car pulls up alongside him, and he tries to escape (this begins the "car chase"). Bresson switches between shots of the driver's foot on the gas pedal and views from his rear view mirror. He quickly crashes into another car. It's hard to think of another cinematic car chase with so few fireworks. Something happens, all right, but it's as if Bresson doesn't want to us to see that something.

Bresson is also known for using non-professional actors. He doesn't want "acting" in his movies ... the blankness of the non-actor leaves the audience with nothing except the action (often as simple as a close-up of a face that moves slightly) and the dialogue (which is sparse at times). We don't, we can't be distracted. Action scenes without action, acting scenes without acting. It's easy to understand why my wife, who has no problem looking at a webcam of baby birds, would go stir crazy if she had to watch L'Argent.

Look at this scene, with the perfect YouTube title "Bresson eliminates acting". The driver is in prison. He gets a letter telling him his daughter has died. We see the letter, read by an anonymous mail checker whose face we don't see. In his cell, the letter is read by his cellmates. For a brief moment, we see him with his face buried in his pillow. He raises it for a moment, lowers it again. We never see him reading the letter. Bresson has "eliminated" any possibility of "acting" by shooting and editing it this way.

This is fascinating stuff if you want to delve in. Otherwise, it's not much better than the web cam of the baby birds. #164 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

colossal youth (pedro costa, 2006)

Do I want to talk about “Slow Cinema” (or should I call it “Contemporary Contemplative Cinema”?), or do I want to just talk about Colossal Youth on its own and be done with it?

I feel a bit like I’m getting a crash course on this stuff, given my recent dive into the works of Andrei Tarkovsky. And part of me thinks I’m just warming up for the challenge of Sátántangó (Phil Dellio, who is the person who got me to put Sátántangó on my Request List, said of Colossal Youth, “Only 156 minutes, though--that's like a trailer for Sátántangó.”)

I don’t want to be reductive ... well, of course I want to be reductive, but I’m also trying to combat that tendency in myself ... I resist the very idea of “Slow Cinema”, not as an option for artists, but as something I want to watch. I wonder what my reaction to Colossal Youth would be if I’d known what it was in advance? (For some reason, I thought it was a 100-minute Japanese pop movie.)

Apparently I like these movies more than I realize. The Wikipedia entry for “Slow cinema” lists more than 40 “notable examples” of the style, and among them are movies like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which I placed at #44 on my list of 50 favorite movies of all time; Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which I loved; and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which I also loved. In other words, as with all genres, there are going to be ones I like and ones I don’t.

Colossal Youth reminded me of Terrence Malick movies. I rarely like them, but I admire Malick’s ability to make the movies he wants, following his vision without much compromise. Based on Colossal Youth, and on things I’ve read about him, Pedro Costa makes the movies he wants to make. As I once said about Malick, Costa doesn’t care if I thought Colossal Youth was boring. He didn’t make it for me, he made it for himself. I admire him for that.

But I didn’t like watching his movie.

The film looks great. It’s often so dark you can barely see, but that fits with the settings. There are occasional shots that stun:

colossal youth

But honestly, it’s like watching paint dry. I often call movies like this “Coffee Table Movies”. The picture above looks great, but it would look as good in a book you had on your coffee table as it does on the screen, and I don’t have to stare at the book for 156 minutes.

So, call me a philistine. But I don’t let that fact prevent me from watching movies like Colossal Youth. You never know when one of them will end up on my Top 50 list. #548 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and #45 on the 21st century list.

what i watched last week

Three Colors: Red (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1994). And so I finish the Three Colors Trilogy. I suppose I liked this one the best, but “liked” is the operative word here. I didn’t love it. The two leads (Irène Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant) are good, and while the various plots are confusing at the beginning, it’s rather charming the way they come together in the end (and also charming the way Kieślowski brings together the main characters from all the films in the trilogy at the end). I said after the first film, Blue, that I reserved the right to raise my grade if I ever saw it again … I definitely feel like I’m missing something. #471 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940). The movie is so entrenched in the film canon that it’s become difficult over time to remember any differences between it and the equally-praised Steinbeck novel. John Ford’s reputation is probably better than Steinbeck’s at the moment, but that kind of thing is always subject to change. Tom Joad is one of the great characters of American culture, and Henry Fonda does a perfect job with the part, even if, like his daughter Jane, you can sometimes see him figuring out how to best play the character … he’s not a method actor. John Carradine is the surprise here; his hammy acting usually draws attention to itself in bad ways, but he’s much more subtle and moving as Preacher Casy. (Carradine has always fascinated me, due mostly to his claim that he was in more movies than any other actor. Early in his career, he was in A-pictures like this one and Ford’s Stagecoach, but by the 1960s, he appeared in one crappy horror movie after another. While he was still a favorite of Ford’s, turning up in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence and Cheyenne Autumn, other titles from the 60s include Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, Hillbillys in a Haunted House, Las Vampiras, The Astro-Zombies, and Blood of Dracula’s Castle.) Jane Darwell won the acting Oscar as Ma Joad, and she’s not nearly as awful as Pauline Kael claimed (“impossibly fraudulent” was her phrase), but Judith Anderson in Rebecca should have won that award. There is so much to like about The Grapes of Wrath (Gregg Toland needs to be mentioned), and I can’t argue with those who would call it one of the greats, but I’m hesitant to go that far. #124 on the TSPDT list.

Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947). The stylized look of the film is striking, and the atmosphere of repressed eroticism is extremely intense. It’s all in the service of a story about trying to remake the world by separating yourself from it. The separation doesn’t work, and the contrasting acting styles of Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron show how different people react to their failures. Byron gets the more showy role, and she makes the most of it, but, as with the film as a whole, the lighting, camerawork, and directing do a lot to make the actors’ performances so good (Byron said that Powell “gave me half of my performance with the lighting”). Not everything works; Jean Simmons as a dark-skinned native looks weird, and her subplot isn’t much, either. But once you’ve seen Byron applying lipstick in close-up, you’ll forgive everything else. #145 on the TSPDT list.

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973).

what i watched last week

Three Colors: Blue (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993). The first film in a trilogy, and the first I’ve seen directed by Kieślowski. I felt as I watched that I was in a bit over my head, but the film washes over you in a way that makes emotional sense by the conclusion. Juliette Binoche is in virtually every scene, so it’s a good thing she’s such a good actress. Early on, when she presents a stoic front to the world, she manages to suggest the emotions bubbling underneath. Kieślowski offers a variety of methods to show her re-emergence, but it’s Binoche who subtly makes us believe the gradual transformation back to something resembling her whole self. Kieślowski takes his time telling his story (not in length … it’s only 98 minutes, but there is no rushed feeling), and while some highly praise this film, I think you need to be in the right frame of mind for it to work on you. #501 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974).

The Damned United (Tom Hooper, 2009).

what i watched last week

Things are hectic enough around here that I didn't post this, which I know worries all of my fans. Since the new TV is now on the way, I find myself unwilling to watch any movies ... I want to put it off until I've got something better to watch them on. Still, I got the following in:

Goal! (Danny Cannon, 2005) It's easy to see why these movies keep getting made. Generic sports films always have exciting endings, and even the worst of them can drag the emotions out of the viewer with that built-in audience pleaser. Goal! is not the worst of them. It doesn't often rise above the norm, though, with a checklist of cliches. Still, the scenes of life for Mexican immigrants in L.A. are nicely done, and since the movie is approved by FIFA, there are a gazillion cameos by big-name stars, and you get to see the real teams playing in the real stadiums.

Mamma Roma (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962). Magnani is wonderful, in an Anna Magnani way. The rest of the movie is an odd mélange, which I suppose is its charm for many.

oscar run xxi: million dollar baby (clint eastwood, 2004)

We end this year's Oscar run with Million Dollar Baby, the latest in a long line of films to split critics between the Clintistas and the Paulettes. (You think I'm kidding about the Paulettes? I just typed "eastwood paulettes" into Google and got 324 hits. At this point, if you complain about a Clint Eastwood film, you're accused of being a Paulette even if you don't know what one is.) I suppose I'm a Paulette, but I've always liked Clint Eastwood more than did Kael. Which doesn't mean she was wrong about him.

Clint Eastwood directs the same way he acts: he makes room for whatever someone else has given him. As an actor, he's more iconic than anything else, funny when his dialogue is funny, heroic when the script calls for it, limited but, as he said in Magnum Force, "a man's gotta know his limitations," and Clint's a man if anyone is. Given how many actors have no idea of their limitations, you can see why audiences like Eastwood. Imagine Brando at his best, or his worst ... say, Streetcar Named Desire and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Clint Eastwood would never be good enough to play Stanley Kowalski, but neither is he an imaginative enough actor to be Dr. Moreau, at least as Brando played him. Clint Eastwood isn't great or awful, he just is, an actor who knows his limitations.

And that's how he directs. He makes room for the script, he lets his actors do what they are good at, he brings the films in on time and on budget, and after directing almost 30 films, does anyone, even his greatest champions, have any idea what constitutes the style of Clint Eastwood, director, other than that he knows his limitations and doesn't get in the way?

There's a value in such an approach ... I've ranted on more than one occasion about directors who are so taken with their style that their movies become self-referential messes. Give Clint Eastwood good scripts and good actors (and give him a good role, himself ... Eastwood the actor is the perfect match for Eastwood the director) and he'll give you a good film. Bad script, bad actor, bad film. (You'll note that Clint's fans rarely bring up the formulaic tripe that makes up a good portion of his career as a director,   Absolute Power, say, or Space Cowboys ... but not Bronco Billy, I love Bronco Billy!) He's like a modern version of the studio system director.

Million Dollar Baby is one of his good movies. The plot, while not always predictable, is a bit canned, but the dialogue rings true even when it turns poetic. Morgan Freeman never gave a bad performance in his life, and Hilary Swank continues to show greatness in a variety of roles, whether it's Oscar bids like this one or nothing parts that she elevates, as in Insomnia. The montage of fights where Swank kicks ass in one-round mismatches is delightful ... if you're thinking to yourself "I can't believe Hilary Swank as a fighter," well, this is the movies, and she's very believable kicking ass, and it's fun to watch. On the other hand, the film tries a bit too hard for its PG-13 rating ... the violence of the boxing matches is too often like a pulled punch, and the absence of R-rated cursing is noticeable.

Here's the thing. I am not the biggest fan of Raging Bull, but there's no question who made that film. It's lunacy and pulp power could only come from Martin Scorsese. Clint Eastwood will never make a movie as personal and stylish as Raging Bull. And that's no knock on Eastwood the director. In fact, coming from a Paulette it's massive praise indeed. But the idea that Clint Eastwood is an Oscar-winning director is as sure a sign as any that the golden age of American films is long past.

femme fatale (brian de palma, 2002)

Femme Fatale

Oh my goodness. Femme Fatale is one of the ultimate Brian De Palma movies, which means you should already know whether or not you'll like it. It has all of his touches, shall we say: the voyeurism, the style-over-substance (or perhaps, style AS substance), the seemingly effortless visuals and awesomely silly plot, the self-referentiality (the only time this movie exists outside the world of Brian De Palma movies is when it's attaching itself to other movies ... it's never about real life). Me, I think it's nothing short of miraculous how easily he pulls off these stunts, and I suspect in the future I'll think as kindly on this movie as I do on his earlier flawed classics like Blow Out. Others will prefer their voyeuristic trash with a classier tone; they are welcome to go watch David Lynch movies. 7 on a scale of 10.