A horror, comedy, and tragedy film in three acts, Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes mixes the follies of Ancient Greek plays with the wonder (and dangers) of classic sci-fi pulp. After being attacked by an unknown assailant, Hector (Karra Elejalde) unknowingly flees into a time-machine. He’s flung back to the start of the day, but he’s not alone—there already exists a Hector in this timeline. In a series of mad scrambles, he sets out to stop himself. The ingenuity of the script and subsequently the camerawork stems from Vigalondo’s recontextualization of perspective. Once the first act ends (or “time-loop”), the story has essentially shown its beginning, middle, and end. What remains to be seen are the unseen forces propelling the narrative forward; new characters and plot twists that exist for more than just the sake of surprise but rather instead serve to add a richness to the story. Scenes are repeated but Vigalondo shuns complete familiarity not only on the level of narrative but aesthetically as well. Reworked camerashots and angles reframe both how the story is understood and how they should be perceived. A long-form Kuleshov experiment where a stabbing can produce a wince at one turn and laughter the next.
Shot in black and white, entirely silent, and comprised mostly of close-ups, Les Haute Solitudes (1974) becomes an exercise in studying gestures; Dreyer’s close-ups of Renee Falconetti as Jeanne d’Arc elongated to an hour length film if you will. But perhaps the best reference point for understanding Les Haute Solitudes retrospectively is time. Andre Bazin compared cinema to the embalming of pharaohs, both acts preserving the dead, and this effect especially rings true here—the film’s two stars, Nico and Jean Seberg, both passed away tragically; Seberg would later commit suicide in 1979 and Nico would be stricken by a heart-attack in 1988. Through close-ups that draw immediate attention to their earthly bodies, it is almost as if their spirits are conjured and against the film’s dark backgrounds, rendering the images as a phantasmagoria.When either of the two appear in long-takes of close-ups, the film grain gives their respective faces an effect of being more real than real. Like saying a word repeatedly until its sound becomes completely alien. Their faces seem to shift in the grain and projected across a large-screen, their visages are overwhelmingly haunting.
Jean-Luc Godard has always incorporated the history of Western art and politics in his films, beginning with À bout de souffle (1960) where Humphrey Bogart and Charles De Gaulle both were re-purposed as critical tools of their respective hegemonies. Godard’s dual interests would continue to wax and eventually lead to a radical shift in his aesthetics, not once but twice. The first was in his collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin under the Dziga-Vertov group between 1968 and 1972; the second and more impressive of the two came after once he began to experiment with video as well as more directly exploring the relationship between film and various other arts through a historical lens. Allemagne 90 Neuf Zero (1991) is one of these films. Eddie Constantine reprises his role as Lemmy Caution, and the film centers on his journey from East to West Berlin, following the wall’s collapse. Incorporating various film clips, WWII photography, literature, music and sounds, Allemagne 90 Neuf Zero can be viewed as Godard’s attempt to understand just what the “west” is with Caution serving as the figure through which Godard moves through time. He, for example, juxtaposes Caution observing two women leaving a hotel with a similar scene from F.W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924). In another scene, Caution likens a couple at a car dealership to siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, members of the White Rose resistance group who were executed by the Nazis. To try and map out Godard’s references would be a mistake; rather, the importance lies in how Godard reworks references in order to create new meaning. In the case of Allemagne 90 Neuf Zero, Godard’s references are ways to engage with and understand the present not just through a German past, but a German past concerning, once again, art and politics, and thus figures such as Mozart and Lang play key roles. At one point in the film, Caution speaks of meeting with ghosts; the appearance of historical and literary characters here recall Week End (1967), but unlike Week End, Allemagne 90 Neuf Zero is not a wryly-playful pastiche. It’s a haunting meditation on the evils of Nazi Germany, but also of late-capitalism’s potential to subsume everything. When a street vendor cries that he’s selling pieces of the Berlin wall and to “come get history,” Godard makes it clear that nothing is truly free.
In Ali Fear Eats the Soul, Rainer Fassbinder brings to the fore the social tensions of a post-WWII Germany, rendering it in the everyday lives of the film’s outcast couple, Emmi (Brigitte Mira) a 60-years old German widow and Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) a 40-years old Moroccan immigrant. Despite the language barrier, Emmi and Ali are able to find comfort in their respective otherness, shown no better than the film’s opening when the two meet and dance together in a bar, separated from everyone else. The two become the subjects of abuse from the locals, and when Emmi wishes to rejoin her community and begins to mistreat Ali, the film’s subtle commentary peeks through. At one point, Emmi shows off Ali to a group of friends, and they all take turns admiring the strength of his body. Emmi’s nationality allows her to conform whereas Ali can only ever exist as a fetish object, either shunned because of his looks or gazed at in wonder like a zoo animal. Ultimately, for Ali to be part of the German community he must subject himself to this role, and the process begins with “Ali,” a name given to dark-skinned foreign workers in Germany. Inspired by Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959) and All that Heaven Allows (1955), Fassbinder exchanges the melodrama in favor for a more poignant atmosphere that runs throughout, enveloping the film in the melancholy of lonely-hearts.
Chantal Akerman’s films examine the limited spaces in which women must find their freedom in. Take for example Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman (1975) shifting constantly between the kitchen, bedroom, and dining room, or Akerman as the unknown girl in La Chambre (1972) constantly on the move in order to avoid the camera’s gaze. In her musical Golden Eighties, this space takes the form of a single mall hall occupied by a salon, a clothing store, and a cafe. There are several women in question, all longing for a certain romantic longing. Seyrig plays Jeanne Schwartz, the co-owner of the clothing store, and a Polish Holocaust survivor who runs into her old American lover. Myriam Boyer plays Sylvie, a hairdresser in love with Schwartz’s Don Juan son Robert (Nicolas Tronc), and Fanny Cottencon plays Lili, the owner of the salon, the mistress of a local gangster, and Robert’s lover. Regret dominates the past and any seeming potential the future may hold. Love becomes displaced by complacency and money–two factors needed to live as Robert’s father advises him. Akerman’s prowess for developing psychological spaces seeps through here, drenching the film in an appropriately oppressive atmosphere. Biting lyrics in combination with at times upbeat pop music mask a deeper sadness where the efficiency of capitalism transforms love into just another tool for upward mobility.
In American culture the cowboy lives as a mythic figure, thanks in large part to the cinema and John Wayne, a man of modern legend. In The Rider, Chloe Zhao uses these same cinematic tools to deconstruct not just the cowboy, but a certain masculine ideal of what it means to be a hero. After sustaining a fatal head injury, Brandy Blackburn (Brandy Jandreau) must confront what it means to give up his life’s work as a cowboy. Zhao transfigures Blackburn’s desires and frustrations onto the landscape, juxtaposing a young-man with no hope against ranges that offer seemingly endless possibilities. With steady pacing, she displays a maturity for storytelling and character development, reminiscent of Kelly Reichardt and Claire Denis. Jandreu as Blackburn channels a vortex of conflict onto his body, forced to find reprieve in places where he doesn’t know how to. Bringing to the fore the ghosts of the Western’s past into modernity, Zhao asks, what does it mean to be a man?
Before Jean-Paul Belmondo’s iconic role as the Bogart-esque swaggering Michele, there was Harold Lloyd as Harold Lamb, another man who found cinema to be a world that corresponded with his desires. A bumbling fool and underdog , The Freshman centers on Lamb’s first year at Tate University and his attempts to become popular by modeling himself after the fictional movie character of “Speedy.” Lamb becomes Speedy down to his mannerisms, even going as far as copying Speedy’s asinine introductory tap-dance, his methods end up working for all the wrong reasons. Lamb becomes popular not because his moves make him effervescently cool, but because he makes himself appear an ass, which of course he doesn’t realize. Lloyd balances between being pathetic enough to sympathize with and ridiculous enough to be laughed at. His actions—whether attempting to impress a girl at a dance or the boys on the football team—ring with a sincerity that makes Lloyd in on the joke as much as audiences are. A sense of dread but also wonder follows Lloyd as scenes slowly build up into a new misunderstanding for the character to fall into. A heartfelt comedy in the vein of classical silent cinema.