Wednesday, June 30, 2010


My 1980 Geek Project didn't help me uncover too many neglected gems, but I did have lots of fun and Alain Resnais did change my life yet again. So, I decided to give 1981 a shot, and this was a much more productive venture.

Since 1981 saw the trend of the infantilisation of American cinema continue (if not always with depressing results), and the West didn't deem it necessary to import much Eastern product, the Europeans dominated. (Obviously this is in terms of rewarding cinema, not box office.) Specifically the French and the Germans were the ones doing the dominating. And specifically (in the absence of fresh movements and aesthetics), leftovers from the 60s French New Wave and the 70s New German Cinema.

But, what leftovers! If only more of them were still left over and firing on all cylinders.

I tried to see as many of the year's notable films as possible (with an initial cap of 50, then 60 and finally 70 titles). Ultimately I missed out on things like Jack Fisk's Raggedy Man (with a reportedly enchanting Sissy Spacek in the lead), Tramont's All Night Long (it stars Gene Hackman and Barbra Streisand in slut mode - you've never heard of it and possibly for good reason, but Pauline Kael was a fan), and a Robert Aldrich movie about itinerant lady wrestlers, the title of which escapes me right now. Overall however, I don't think I've missed out on any particularly significant titles - though [alas] few early-80s titles have managed to amass much cultural cachet or significance.

So with that in mind, let's start with eighteen 1981 joints that need to be seen and talked about much more than they have been so far. (A ranking with occasional comments on the rest of the 70 titles I've seen will hopefully follow.)

  1. THE AVIATOR'S WIFE (Eric Rohmer)
    As I previously wrote: A 20-year-old Parisian could watch this and find him- or herself yearning to be young and shambling in and out of love through the streets of Paris. It’s easy to get lost into its breezy, melancholy, huggable feel and maybe even miss out on the withering dissection at its core of what happens to our perception of love and romance as we are forced to mature.

  2. THE WOMAN NEXT DOOR (Francois Truffaut)
    Amour fou let loose amid the suburbs. Really more like trapped. With no escape from the dinner parties, tennis clubs and psychiatric wards. Like most of Truffaut’s (still neglected) late-career masterpieces, it strikes a sublime balance of passion and precision.

  3. CIRCLE OF DECEIT (Volker Schlondorff)
    A wartime melodrama of vast metaphorical scope as well as shattering immediacy. Schlondorff does overreach a tiny bit and (along with the source novel writer Nicolas Born and co-writer[/legend] Jean-Claude Carriere) makes the still-common mistake of prioritising the suffering of white Westerners in a wartorn country above that of the residents of said country (in this case, a staggering, disembowelled Lebanon). But on matters of intimacy, death, humanity and, above all, war, he is consistently, frighteningly profound.
    It's also worth noting that much of the film's depth and haunting detail stem from Bruno Ganz's wracked, searching gaze and Hanna Schygulla's majestic grace.

  4. DIVA (Jean-Jacques Beineix)
    Retrospect suggests that this nutty, 80s-electric neon-noir pastiche was a glorious one-off fluke. It spends its running time teetering on a tense edge between kitsch and pulp poetry. It leaves you breathless.

  5. THREE BROTHERS (Francesco Rosi)
    Partly for obvious reasons and partly because I'm not confident that my adulation alone is enough to convince you to seek out this neglected, didactic-but-breathtaking Francesco Rosi fable, I will have to resort to quoting Pauline Kael:
    orking with his longtime cinematographer, Pasqualino De Santis, Rosi, who has one of the greatest compositional senses in the history of the movies, keeps you in a state of emotional exaltation. A simple image - such as that of the old man just walking - has the kind of resonance that most directors never achieve."
    It's true, you know. In Rosi's (and De Santis'!) hands, a twenty-second cutaway of just trees or a field or anything really can come off as the most moving thing ever.

  6. BLOW OUT (Brian De Palma)
    You won't find much woide-eyed worship in this corner of the room for Brian De Palma's hollow, perpetually bloated setpiece-engineering. But when it comes to this delicious, impeccably orchestrated conspiracy thriller, I'm resolutely a believer. Though it isn't any less vacuous than The Untouchables or Scarface or Femme Fatale or The Fury or The Black Dahlia, it's more traditionally engrossing. The narrative doesn't feel like a half-assed effort to stitch together a bunch of silly setpieces, and it leaves you feeling satisfied for hours rather than minutes after the credits roll. Unlike De Palma's other films, the next day I still remembered watching this one. So if we were to figuratively say that those others are akin to sloppy, drunken one-nighters, this one feels more like sturdy, sober-minded sex with an intellectually limited but appreciably muscular fling.
    (Disclaimer: a) Feel free to revise that last sentence in accordance with your budding preferences; and b) I am not referring to John Travolta - ew!)

  7. PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (Herbert Ross)
    A commercial venture this aggressively anti-commercial could never exist today, but then it's a miracle that it ever did: A pessimistic, withering musical meditation on sexual mores and repressions in the Depression era with then-emerging stars stepping (or shuffling or soft-shoeing or gyrating) out of the drama to goofily lip synch scratchy big band tunes recorded in the 30s. Also, the protagonist is an unremitting asshole.
    It's an insane picture, and certainly a flawed one and a difficult one to warm to (the miming takes some getting used to - especially when you're just busting to see Bernadette Peters let properly loose). But if you stick with it, it pays off and breaks your heart along the way. Also you get to see Christopher Walken dance, and that's always a joy.

    In 1981 geeky tongue-in-cheek horror movie revisionism with dead-eyed (and -voiced) leads was not yet exasperating. In fact it was clever and inspired and thrilling.

  9. MUDDY RIVER (Kohei Oguri)
    You know this trick: cute, scrappy children, irrepressible poverty painted in hushed, reverent monochrome.
    But damn it, it works. (At least here it works - don't you try this at home, kids
    That said, you have to give Kohei Oguri credit for his peerless reproduction of that lyrical early 50s aesthetic. It goes a long way towards transporting you to the period.

  10. PIXOTE (Hector Babenco)
    It's a fine line between exploitation and ghetto lyricism. Babenco spends just enough time on the right side of it to make this a devastating experience.

  11. MARIANNE AND JULIANE (Margarethe von Trotta)
    A thinly veiled speculation about the relationship between Baader-Meinhof co-founder Gudrun Ensslin, and her journalist sister. Director Margarethe Von Trotta plays around with the chronology in ways that are sometimes poetic, sometimes emotionally dislocating. Some of the confrontations become too literal, others too conceptualised. But you can’t accuse von Trotta of a dearth of complexity or psychological detail. Irrespective of the story’s didactic undertones, the relationship dynamics – particularly between the two sisters – are wrought with sensitivity and startling acuity. It’s a flawed but rich, resonant piece of work.

  12. POSSESSION (Andrzej Zulawski)
    I've already covered this bit of insanity
    so forgive me for repeating myself but I'd like to draw your attention to it again.
    Here we have Kramer Versus Kramer: Unexpurgated and Unhinged. If that doesn’t sound delectable, just ponder the notion of Isabelle Adjani in her shrieky phase replacing Meryl Streep in her meticulous phase. In a movie that understands divorce isn’t a poignant drama of bonding. It’s a grotesque surrealist psychosexual horror, with intellectual pretensions. With a creature in the closet: Oh, how to describe the creature? Something like a rancid vagina with tentacles, which in time naturally evolves into a slithery phallus. With tentacles. All this interspersed with conversations between hypergesticulating men with clashing accents along the lines of: “There’s nothing to fear except God, whatever that means to you;” “For me God is a disease;” “That’s why through disease we can reach God.” As her own wholesome pliable doppelganger Adjani commences a staggering monologue
    with “There’s nothing common to all women except menstruation.”
    So yes, intellectual pretensions galore. But the film’s real value has nothing to do with intellect, and everything to do with viscous, delirious where-could-this-possibly-go-next please-stop-no-don’t-stop fun. I, for one, refuse to live in a world without it.

  13. THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE (Nils Malmros)
    A nostalgic portrait of a selection of sixth-graders set in 1953, where, for once, nostalgia doesn’t preclude blunt insight. The casual sadism; the crudely budding sexuality; the perpetual half-hushed muttering and sniggering in corners; the arbitrary shifts in status; the vague gestures suddenly infused with secret, forbidding significance; the weird struggle to get rid of residual shyness and innocence - in other words, adolescence: it’s all there.

  14. COUP DE TORCHON (Bertrand Tavernier)
    A French farce crossed with a colonial noir shot through with nihilist dialectics and a loose, unfussy, rough-edged style. It’s so unlike any other movie, particularly any movie made up to that time, that you’re never sure quite what it’s up to or where it is it’s going precisely. It’s an exciting piece of work. The script is actually based on a Texas-set Jim Thompson 60s pulp novel relocated to a West African village in the days leading up to WWII.

  15. DO YOU REMEMBER, DOLLY BELL? (Emir Kusturica)

    Emir Kusturica’s warm, textured debut is marred by one of the main nostalgic-rites-of-passage missteps: while exoticising women and presenting them through an adolescent boy’s eyes, he also implies there’s not much more to women worth presenting. But fortunately, the token bewitching pair of young tits with a blank face attached, which would normally dominate the proceedings, is here demoted to a subplot. And the rest of the film is suffused in tender poetry.

  16. VERNON, FLORIDA (Errol Morris)
    Morris' second film is probably his lightest piece of work, and his most hilarious. It’s a bunch of interviews with what you could only assume are the titular town's most eccentric citizens. Highlights include a fanatic turkey huntsman's proposed cure for all kinds of disease, the local policeman requesting a '10-47' on his walkie-talkie, the minister discussing his true calling as well as his delivery of a particularly hazy sermon. It's the kind of doco where the personalities (and the wisdom they dispense) seem so incredibly far-fetched, it's difficult to believe they really exist.

  17. TRUE CONFESSIONS (Ulu Grosbard)
    A wobbly but complex-enough and thoroughly compeling riff on the Black Dahlia scandal.

  18. BODY HEAT (Lawrence Kasdan)
    Of all Double Indemnity rehashes this is the most successful. 1981 is now far enough away that the imitation-Chandler dialogue no longer registers as hollow and pretentious but as pleasingly nostalgic, moderately clever even. The film never completely sheds the muggy pall of familiarity, but the script is uncommonly taut, the sex - refreshingly steamy and the femme fatale, for once, neither killed nor domesticated.

For Part II - the Honourable Mentions and more -head this way.



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