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10/05/10 3:32pm

Angelica.jpg

Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica screens tomorrow evening at the 48th New York Film Festival. A Cinema Guild release.

At once amusingly playful and poignantly sincere, The Strange Case of Angelica finds Manoel de Oliveira, at 101 still the world’s oldest living filmmaker, hitting upon a rewardingly weird groove after the disappointingly skimpy Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl. A fairy tale about blissful surrender to love—and, by extension, the photographic image—Oliviera’s latest is both sublimely silly and deeply earnest, a snapshot of consuming obsession and the inspiring power of art that’s like falling into a bewildering, beguiling dream. That mood is epitomized by early corresponding images of Isaac’s (Oliveira regular Ricardo Trepa) face as he drives at night to a ritzy manor, and of the deep-red taillights of his car penetrating the surrounding darkness—unreal sights of fear, passion, curiosity, mystery and transition that encapsulate the subsequent material’s concerns. Isaac is a Sephardic Jew in Portugal, commissioned during the midnight hours to travel to a palatial estate, where the Madam (Leonor Silveira) wants him to take a photo of her beloved daughter Angelica (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), whom Isaac discovers upon his arrival, and to his considerable surprise, is deceased. More crucial still, she’s a borderline-angelic newlywed who not only comes into focus through his camera’s viewfinder, but seemingly to life itself, opening her sparkling eyes to smile at him with overpowering beauty.

The dead return to life through the lens, and so too does Isaac’s spirit, with this vision of resurrection affording him a new view on the world. Introduced as a man encased in the static emanating from his archaic radio, Isaac soon hears and sees his surroundings clearly—specifically, the “old world,” which takes the form of field workers toiling on the hill directly opposite his flat’s balcony, and is also epitomized by 19th-century piano music that accompanies transitional shots of the region. Soon, Isaac’s deathbed photos of Angelica sit alongside pics of angry-looking men wielding hoes, superficially incongruous portraits that nonetheless also suggest harmony in their celebration of life and humanity. The photographer’s consuming fixation on Angelica, however, affords no peace in reality, where caravans of noisy trucks outside his window, as well as behind-the-back criticisms of his “strange” behavior by his landlady and her breakfast companions, merely compound the dissonance wrought from his infatuation with a girl no longer alive. Rather, it’s only in black-and-white sleep where Isaac finds heavenly contentment, taking flight with Angelica’s glowing spirit in his arms and, along the journey, picking a white rose off a river’s surface for his love, a joyous smile on their faces.

Oliveira’s romantic reveries have more than a trace of cornball sentimentality about them. Yet The Strange Case of Angelica’s depiction of overwhelming amour—and the means by which Isaac’s love offsets his outsider Jew-artist-“madman” status relative to Angelica’s clan and the judgmental landlady—is nonetheless energized by random humor. Oliveira’s static compositions have a painterly grace, their studied airlessness proving no hindrance to good-humored drollness, as in the director’s jabs at the pretentious bourgeoisie, or the numerous shots in which Isaac clutches a locked gate and plaintively screams Angelica’s name. A discussion at the landlady’s kitchen table touches upon a perplexing range of topics, from antimatter and apocalyptic mosquitoes to economic crisis and climate change, in the process speaking to Isaac’s earthly/otherworldly predicament with oblique wittiness, and consequently recasting the action as a poetic tragi-rom-com. For Oliveira, the new and ancient, living and dead, and emotions both stymied and fulfilled, all coexist in intricately knotty ways, their relationships as natural as the food-chain pecking order shared—as seen in the film’s most amusing scene—by birds, cats and dogs.

06/23/10 4:00am

Anthony Mann Festival
June 25-July 15 at Film Forum

There’s ecstasy in the agony of Anthony Mann’s films. His is a cinema of anger and sorrow, of psychological torment and physical suffering, and if there’s a signature sight to be found in his canon, it’s that of a face in sweaty, grimacing misery. For Mann, whose three-decade career behind the camera from the 40s to the 60s is now the beneficiary of a comprehensive 32-film retrospective at Film Forum from June 25-July 15, the world is a place of hard men and harder choices, of nocturnal noir landscapes and open Western plains. There is perhaps no greater encapsulation of his work than the image of frequent leading man Jimmy Stewart, in 1955’s The Man From Laramie, being lassoed and dragged through a fire, and later shot point-blank in the hand, the hero’s quest for vengeance recast as a brutal test of body and soul. In Mann’s universe, paranoia (frequently of a sexual/romantic nature) runs deep and cruelty is pervasive, the director’s films thrilling not only as pure genre exercises but as thorny psychodramas, ones in which inner turmoil and conflict are expressed via strikingly choreographed, expressive visuals.

Mann began as an actor and Broadway director before catching on in the early 40s as the helmer of compact, gritty small-budget films, many of which would set the stage for his forthcoming noirs. In particular, The Great Flamarion (1945) and Strange Impersonation (1946) established a rough template for the remainder of Mann’s decade. Both revenge dramas fueled by sexualized passion and betrayal, the films are full of stark portraits of anguish and—in the latter’s case, the tale of a chemist who enacts an identity-shifting plot after being facially scarred by an experiment-gone-awry—nasty disfigurement. A sense of reality coming unglued permeates Mann’s noirs even when, as in T-Men (1947) and He Walked by Night (1948), the director casts his material in the guise of a pseudo-documentary via newsreel-style narration. And this vision of a frighteningly off-kilter landscape is in large part attributable to his collaboration with cinematographer John Alton, whose stark chiaroscuro lighting and geometrically arranged visuals—never more blistering than in the subterranean finale of He Walked by Night, or Raymond Burr’s crime boss hideout in Desperate (1947), illuminated only by a single, swinging overhead bulb—create an ominous mood of claustrophobia, suspicion and obsessive neurosis.

04/21/10 2:00am


George Romero x 3
April 23-25 at Anthology Film Archives

George Romero’s cinema is one of opposition—and not simply between the living and the undead. In his finest efforts, be they sagas of zombies, madmen or wild visionaries, conflicts between the human and inhuman also function as metaphoric battles of race, politics, gender and self. Romero is at his best when he has a real-world target in his sights, a prime reason why his latest tale of hungry, walking corpses, Survival of the Dead (in theaters May 21), is such a letdown—for the first time in his decades-spanning zombie series, the director’s action doesn’t come equipped with any socio-cultural underpinnings. Unlike its five predecessors, the film is merely an empty exercise in bad acting, familiar gruesomeness and, most stunning still, mediocre make-up effects. For genre aficionados, it’s a letdown of sizeable proportion, and one cast into even sharper relief by Anthology Film Archives’ April 23-25 mini-retrospective of three Romero classics—1973’s The Crazies, 1981’s Knightriders, and 1985’s Day of the Dead—that serves as a thrilling reminder of the halcyon days when the filmmaker’s work had more than just torn flesh on its mind.

Of this trio, The Crazies and Day of the Dead are the most natural bedfellows, as both revolve around hostility between average citizens, infected people mutated into monsters, and an untrustworthy military, their clashes providing Romero with ample opportunity to deliver scathing, era-specific critiques. Certainly, the army bears the brunt of the director’s censure in the former, a rough, ragged B-movie about a small Pennsylvania town transformed into the seventh level of hell by a military bioweapon that accidentally enters the municipal water supply, turning the population into homicidal lunatics and spurring the armed forces to lethally intervene. The ensuing chaos engulfs all, including a fireman and his girlfriend trying to escape the quarantined area, with soldiers slaughtering innocent and guilty alike and average folk going frothing-at-the-mouth psychotic. With shades of Kent State dancing around the frame’s fiery edges, Romero condemns the military establishment as a runaway murder train, yet reserves equal denunciation for his crazy everymen, who—as during a stunning intro sequence in which a father torches his home, trapped wife and two kids be damned—epitomize the pervasive national rot growing from within.

Twelve years later, and one zombie standard-bearer in between (1978’s attack on consumerism, Dawn of the Dead), Romero returned to the land of the not-living with Day of the Dead, greeted at the time as a disappointment but now clearly one of the director’s crowning achievements. A brutal evisceration not of a social trend or political movement but, rather, of mankind’s inherent nature, Day submerges itself in an underground bunker where a group of scientists looking for a cure to the global zombie pandemic have holed up alongside army men with increasingly fanatical views on how to handle the situation. What little social order remains doesn’t survive for long, as Frankenstein experiments to domesticate the undead are torn asunder by rampaging paranoia and self-preservation instincts. In apocalyptic crisis, the needs of the individual overwhelm those of the collective, with Romero’s end-of-days gem—its tension born not from jolt scares but from its hothouse atmosphere of doom—presenting a vision of self-interest, greed, power-hunger, panic and prejudice that lays bare the filmmaker’s jet-black view of the race’s destructive failings.

Given that its two compatriots in Anthology’s triptych are horror shows awash in mindless fiends, Knightriders would seem the odd film out. A 145-minute story about a counterculture troupe putting on King Arthur-style performances astride motorcycles at Renaissance fairs, it remains something of a strange bird, presenting in great detail a cloistered subculture—led by Ed Harris’ true-believer Arthur stand-in, who rules his roost with messianic authority—struggling to survive in a country where police brutality, mass-media celebrity culture, and a jaded population threatens its very existence. With an unreasonably prolonged Camelot-torn-asunder narrative, visceral but distended steel-horse jousting sessions, and three possible endings to its name, Knightriders never rises above being an occasionally gripping side-note for the director, elevated by its earnest empathy for outcasts and a solid supporting performance by make-up effects guru-turned-actor Tom Savini. Yet even as a minor entry in the canon, its not-so-subtle metaphor is clear. More than in any of his other works, here Romero stakes a direct claim for himself as an iconoclastic rebel-dreamer-outsider combating, along with his loyal likeminded comrades, mainstream corruption through strict adherence to artistic integrity—a position still fiercely held today, albeit free, as evidenced by the second-rate Survival, of the inspiration that once accompanied it.