Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Painfully Funny: The Complete Directorial Works of Elaine May

When I joined Ian Mantgani and Craig Williams to form The Badlands Collective in 2013, our goal was to celebrate films that had been overlooked and filmmakers whose work was in need of reappraisal. At our first meeting we made a list of directors who fit the bill, and one of the first names on that list was Elaine May. We believed that May was one of the most distinctive, brilliant and influential artists to emerge from that celebrated New Hollywood wave of the 1970s, and yet her films seemed to have slipped through the cracks as her contemporaries have been integrated into the canon. Nobody on the rep circuit was screening Elaine May’s films, nobody was releasing them on DVD and blu-ray, and nobody was talking about her as a great American director. We resolved to do something about it.

Doing something about it turned out to be a lot easier said than done, however. Elaine May’s work has been so neglected over the past four decades, viable prints have become incredibly scarce and the rights to them have become very complicated. For many years it seemed that our plan to present all four of her films together as a director on 35mm was going to prove to be a pipe dream, but now – five years later – we are finally ready to bring Elaine May back to the big screen.

The Badlands Collective is proud to present Painfully Funny: The Complete Directorial Works of Elaine May at the ICA in London on the weekend of September 21-23. We are screening A New Leaf (1971), The Heartbreak Kid (1972), Mikey & Nicky (1976) and Ishtar (1987) and we have secured some rarely seen 35mm prints for this special event. This could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Elaine May’s small but remarkable body of work presented on film, so book your tickets now and join us at the ICA to discover and celebrate a comic genius.

Full details are available on the Badlands Collective website

Tickets for each individual film are available from the ICA website – £12 for each film (£11 concessions) or £35 for a pass to all four features (£8.75 per film).

Saturday, August 25, 2018


The central characters in Spike Lee’s new film BlacKkKlansman are two police officers, one black and one Jewish, who work together to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. That’s a juicy hook right there, and one that’s perfectly aligned to Spike Lee’s filmmaking sensibilities, with the fact that it’s based (however loosely) on real events making it an even more intriguing proposition. So why does the film feel so tepid? Perhaps that sounds like an odd way to describe a movie that left me feeling shaken, angry and tearful as the closing credits rolled, but the undeniable impact of the closing five minutes just left me wondering where that fire and fury had been in the preceding two hours.

It certainly begins in an attention-grabbing fashion, opening with a clip from Gone With the Wind that segues into a white nationalist recruitment video, with Alec Baldwin (a frequent Donald Trump impersonator, of course) raging against the black and Jewish encroachment besmirching his proud white America. As Baldwin spits invective, images from DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation are projected onto the screen behind him. Griffith’s film becomes a key motif in BlacKkKlansman; this was Hollywood’s ultimate racist epic, a film that led to the rebirth of the KKK, and Lee frequently references it while also subverting its famous cross-cutting technique. Lee also references Tarzan in a speech given by Kwame Ture, to talk about the ways in which black audiences were historically forced to empathise with white heroes, and by extension to hate themselves. Spike Lee’s films have always been keenly aware of America’s past cultural sins, and BlacKkKlansman is attempting to engage with that legacy, while simultaneously telling a story rooted in the 1970s and commenting on America as it stands, or falls, in 2018.

That range of perspectives and layers of meaning isn’t unusual for a Spike Lee film – a sense of overreach, of a film pulling in multiple directions at once, is often what makes his work feel so energetic and alive – but here they are allied to a central narrative that fails in a series of ways. When we first meet Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) he is starting work at the Colorado Springs Police Department, and he is the only black man in the precinct. He is warned that he may face hostility and resistance, but his path from the records room to undercover work is smooth, with only one overtly racist cop apparently embodying the entirety of the force’s prejudices. This is a truly baffling decision on the part of Lee and his four co-writers, with this one bad cop getting the whole police department off the hook. The scene in which he gets his comeuppance is laughable, sitcom-level nonsense. Just what is Lee playing at here?

The simplicity of BlacKkKlansman and its broad, sketchy characterisations becomes more glaring the deeper Stallworth and his white partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) get into the Klan. The two lead actors give fine performances, but they are given nothing to play. How does Stallworth feel as a black man, sitting on the phone with David Duke (Topher Grace) and attacking his own race and saying “God bless white America”? He generally seems flippant and chilled, as if it’s water off a duck’s back. Similarly, Zimmerman is a Jewish man making anti-Semitic remarks when he’s in the Klan’s company, and he has to spout racial epithets while his black partner listens in; in one instance he even says it to his face. How does he feel about this? Does it take any psychological toll? The agnostic Zimmerman is given the most intriguing line in the film: “I never used to think about it,” he says of his identity. “Now I think about it all the time.” But the film doesn’t follow this thread and go deeper than that. We have a black man pretending to be white and a Jewish man pretending to be a Gentile, with both men expressing hatred of their own people, and the tension and complexity of this situation is never explored.

But it’s quite clear that Lee isn’t interested in these people as characters, he’s after a bigger story. The Ku Klux Klan exist in BlacKkKlansman as representatives for the white supremacy movement in the United States that has culminated in the Trump administration, and he draws the parallels bluntly and repeatedly. He puts familiar phrases into their mouths – there is talk of “making America great again” and chants of “America first!” – and characters discuss the idea that a man like David Duke may one day ascend to the highest office in the land, a line that provoked knowing chuckles from the viewers I saw the film with. Knowing chuckles isn’t what you sign up for with a Spike Lee film, though, and only in its final moments does it really grab audiences by the throat. The natural endpoint of the KKK/Trump equivalence that Lee has developed throughout the film is the footage from the Nazi march in Charlotesville in August 2017, the murder of Heather Heyer, and Trump’s notorious claim that there were “very fine people on both sides,” which is the footage he uses to bring the film to a close. The images are shocking, enraging and upsetting, and they’re guaranteed to have people leaving the cinema in a sombre mood, but they feel strangely disconnected to what’s gone before.

BlacKkKlansman is still a Spike Lee movie. It still has a “sheeeeeee-it!” from Isiah Whitlock Jr. and a trademark dolly shot, and it still has standout scenes that feel like the kind of moments only this director can conjure. I loved the close-ups on the audience during Kwame Ture's address, their faces spotlit in a beatific light, and a late monologue by Harry Belafonte carries a raw emotional force – like the ending, it’s a moment in which Lee confronts the viewer with the stark reality of racial hatred. But these powerful episodes only serve to highlight how sketchy, cartoonish and banal the rest of the film feels. BlacKkKlansman is consciously a work aimed at appealing to a mass audience, but this attempt to make a more mainstream film seems to have dulled the blade of a director who has done far more audacious work recently in a bunch of films that nobody cared about. A Spike Lee-directed studio release is inevitably going to be more interesting than a regular mainstream movie, but after the immediate impact of the film’s ending had dissipated, I couldn't help wondering what else we were meant to take from it.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2018

It can get pretty hot in Bologna in June, particularly inside the cinemas. A perennial complaint in previous editions of Il Cinema Ritrovato was the sweltering and suffocating atmosphere in the Arlecchino and Jolly cinemas, where the most eagerly anticipated screenings tend to take place, and which are often oversubscribed, with every seat taken and attendees sitting in the aisles. I remember feeling rather light-headed during a packed screening of Vertigo on a rare Technicolor print, or emerging from Trouble in Paradise last year drenched in sweat and gasping for air – hardly the customary response to the Lubitsch touch. So this year's festival began on a high note, with an announcement before John Ford's The Brat that the cinemas were now equipped with air conditioning. In fact, I found myself suffering from a slight chill in some screenings this year, but it really would be churlish to complain.

The Brat was the opening film in the William Fox strand, curated by Dave Kehr at MoMA and scheduled to continue at next year's festival. The programme was a mixed bag of pre-Code pictures, some of them undeniably being minor films from major directors, but still possessing certain charms. The Brat won't trouble anyone's list of their favourite John Ford films, but it's beautifully photographed and very funny, with a couple of inspired comic sequences, and I loved Sally O'Neil's wide-eyed and squeaky-voiced performance. It's a shame her film career petered out just a few years later. Raoul Walsh's Women of All Nations similarly isn't anything like the director's finest hour, and in fact many audience members could be heard tut-tutting at its sexist and racist gags, but I have to admit that the sequence in which El Brendel tried to hide a monkey in his pants almost made me choke with laughter, and on that basis alone I am prepared to declare this film a rousing success.
More consistent laughs could be found in Bachelor's Affairs, a sprightly comedy in which Adolph Menjou marries a gold-digger half his age and finds it impossible to keep up with her. It's a lot of fun, beautifully played by every actor, and it gets the job done in 64 minutes – the joys of pre-Code cinema! Other films in this strand might have taken a look at Bachelor's Affairs and learned a few lessons about tight pacing. Now I'll Tell is built around a tremendous performance from Spencer Tracy, who plays an incorrigible gambler and liar, but it seems to run out of steam in the final twenty minutes, limping to its conclusion when the build-up had promised so much more. At least it fares better than 6 Days to Live, however. The title seems to promise knife-edge tension, but this sluggish thriller only comes to life during the surreal sci-fi section in the middle of the picture, when a recently assassinated politician is reanimated in the hopes that he can identify his murderer. There's so much potential in the wacky premise but the film squanders most of it, proving to be a slog even with a 72-minute running time.

The Jolly cinema, where the Fox films were shown, was usually my first port of call in the morning, and it was also where one of this year's major director retrospectives was held. Going into the festival I'd seen about half a dozen films by John M. Stahl and admired or loved them all. Now I’ve seen twice as many, I’m starting to wonder if the man ever put a foot wrong. The Bologna programme had a couple of his lesser-known features, like the solid WWII propaganda film Immortal Sergeant and the amusing farce Holy Matrimony, but of course Stahl is at his best working in melodrama mode. When Tomorrow Comes (one of three Stahl films later remade by Douglas Sirk) is a beautifully crafted love story, following Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer as their romance develops in bustling New York locales – a diner, a union meeting, a sidewalk – and then forcing them to spend a night together as they take shelter from a raging storm. The film won an Oscar for its atmospheric sound design, but the moment that really pierces the heart is one of the film’s quietest, as the two leads sit together and acknowledge that they must go their separate ways. The final close-up on Dunne as Boyer walks away is perfection.
When Tomorrow Comes is a near-masterpiece, but might Seed be even better? It certainly felt like the greater revelation; more measured and thoughtful in its approach to tricky material, and with an even greater emotional punch in the final moments. Made in 1931, Seed stars Stahl’s favourite cad John Boles as a man who gave up his dreams of being an author and instead dedicated himself to a humdrum life as a clerk in support of his wife (Lois Wilson) and their five children. When he meets a glamorous old flame (Genevieve Tobin) who rekindles his writing urge, Wilson begins to suspect that she is losing her husband, both to his ambitions and to the other woman in his life. In contrast to the more heightened style of Sirk, Stahl’s films are stylistically restrained, constructed through simple two-shots and close-ups that are charged with emotion. He frequently lets the camera rest on Lois Wilson’s face, which betrays all of her character’s desires and fears as she watches her family fall apart in front of her, and the climactic ten minutes had me weeping. Seed is one of the great films about maternal love and sacrifice, and it ends on a wonderful, unexpected note of female solidarity.

Of course, restraint and female solidarity aren’t things associated with Stahl’s best-known film Leave Her to Heaven. While my Bologna experience is usually built around discoveries, it’s also a great opportunity to revisit favourite films on rarely screened prints, and when I learned that Stahl’s wonderfully lurid melodrama would be playing on a vintage dye transfer Technicolor print, it instantly became a non-negotiable part of my schedule. I’d seen the film projected digitally before, but this was something else. Gene Tierney’s green eyes and red lips have never looked so vivid, and this screwy, unsettling melodrama has never felt so deliriously transporting. Is there anything to match the feeling of seeing a masterpiece projected in its original format? Re-watching films like Deliverance, Meet Me in St. Louis and The Godfather on rarely screened Technicolor prints was a thrilling, revelatory and deeply moving experience.
Rare prints are always my priority in Bologna, but digital restorations are an increasingly prominent part of the Il Cinema Ritrovato programme. This year the great René Clair had two films on show, with his madcap silent comedy Two Timid Souls and his homage to early filmmaking Silence is Golden providing two of the most delightful viewing experiences of the festival. But the major revelation was from the man who challenged Stahl’s status as Il Cinema Ritrovato’s resident master of melodrama: Emilio Fernández. The Mexican director's excellent Enamorada was one of the big event screenings in Piazza Maggiore, being introduced by Martin Scorsese (and I was thrilled to find my Sight & Sound article on the film being using for the accompanying programme notes), but I was completely blown away by his 1951 film Victims of Sin. Set in Mexico’s red light district, Victims of Sin stars Ninón Sevilla as a cabaret dancer forced to raise another woman’s child, and protecting him from gangsters with the ferocity of a lioness protecting her cub. The intensity that Sevilla brings to her performance is something to behold; in a way, it reminded me of Elizabeth Berkeley’s full-throttle turn in Showgirls. Working again with master cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, Fernández delivers one powerful, dynamic scene after another, punctuating the narrative with exhilarating dance numbers. It’s a sensational, unforgettable picture.

Aside from the pleasing amount of melodramas contained within the festival lineup, It's hard to find many consistent themes or recurring motifs across Il Cinema Ritrovato's sprawling, eclectic programme. Sometimes it throws up odd double-bills, however; films made decades and continents apart that seem to be telling the same story in very different ways. On one afternoon I caught a 35mm presentation of a Chinese film called The Winter of Three Hairs, which is the story of street urchin who is entirely bald except for the three long strands of hair in the centre of his head. Sanmao is apparently an Iconic cartoon figure in China – as distinctive as Charlie Brown – and co-directors Yan Gong and Zhao Ming give their film a comic-book sensibility, with exaggerated performances, lively visuals and frenetic, episodic action. Despite being destitute, Sanmao remains a figure of dignity and honour; when pressed into stealing by a street gang, he feels guilty and immediately returns the victim's stolen goods, and he won’t take handouts from a rich family if it means changing his identity. Fortunately for Sanmao, Communism – in the shape of an abrupt ending, hastily added after Mao’s 1949 revolution – is here to save the day.
But who would save the street kids of Brazil? A couple of hours after The Winter of Three Hairs I sat down for Pixote (roughly pronounced as Pee-shoat), Héctor Babenco’s shocking portrait of delinquent kids, which has just been restored by the World Cinema Project. Within ten minutes we’ve seen a child get brutally gang-raped, and from there it only gets worse, with Babenco sparing us nothing as he follows 11-year-old Pixote’s downward spiral into crime, drugs and depravity. The director cast real street kids in the film and drew on their experiences and ideas as he crafted his story, with the young actors bringing an unsettling authenticity to their dead-eyed performances, while Marília Pêra is outstanding as the aged prostitute with whom Pixote and his gang enter into a short-lived criminal enterprise. This is a film driven by anger and despair but made with real artistry, with Rodolfo Sánchez’s richly textured cinematography creating a series of vivid images. Pixote ends with the young protagonist, gun in hand, walking alone down the train tracks towards God only knows what fate; an ending given an extra weight by the knowledge that the actor Fernando Ramos da Silva was gunned down by police within a few years of the film’s release.

Last year in Bologna I made two major directorial discoveries. Med Hondo and Helmut Käutner were filmmakers I’d never heard of going into the festival, but having seen three extraordinary works from each of them I instantly felt the need to see more. There were no such standout individuals in this year’s festival, and in general my discoveries felt more disparate and idiosyncratic. Consider The Czar Wants to Sleep, for example, a bizarre Soviet comedy about a spelling mistake that can’t really maximise the potential of its premise, but remains utterly compelling just because it’s so damn weird; and I was stunned by Lights Out in Europe, a 1940 documentary that captures preparations for WWII in the UK and abroad, containing astonishing footage that offered a fresh perspective on this dark era. I had a blast with the cheap but colourful Republic production Laughing Anne, I loved both the inventive Technicolor climax and the daft ‘Oirish’ insults in the rambunctious Marion Davies-starring comedy Lights of Old Broadway, and I snoozed through a 3D screening of Revenge of the Creature. (Although I appreciated the cameo from young Clint.)
Of course, I still came away from Il Cinema Ritrovato with regrets. The programme is so dense and wide-ranging it’s impossible to see everything, and it can be galling to hear friends raving about a film that you skipped; a film that you might never have another opportunity to see projected. It’s a big festival, and every year it seems to get bigger, with more people squeezing into every cinema, so it makes sense for additional venues to be brought into the mix. This year I visited the glorious Teatro Comunale for the first time, to hear Martin Scorsese talk, and I attended one screening in the Cantiere Modernissimo. Still in the construction phase, with exposed concrete and makeshift seating, this underground space opened its doors for the first time this year for daily screenings of the 1918 serial Wolves of Kultur, and even in its unfinished state it provided a lovely space to watch a movie. When the work is finished, it’s going to be a wonderful addition to Il Cinema Ritrovato; and, most importantly, it’s lovely and cool down there.