Portrait of a Lady on Fire set the film world alight last year. It didn’t succeed quite in the culture-shock storm-the-box-office fashion of other non-English language features like Parasite, probably because Portrait‘s power wasn’t unlike that of a secret: it never relied on making a big splash (narratively or even externally) to make the intimate feel universal. Everything about that film seems secretive, not least of which, obviously, is the forbidden romance between its two leading women. Consigned to privacy in isolation together for a limited amount of time, the fragility of their secret lends a sense of doom to the film’s loveliest moments. Part of the brilliance of Portrait was this: these lovers are on a literal island away from the norms of society, and yet are still forced apart in the end by those very same norms.
The lovers of Rafiki have no such refuge, apart from the private moments they make for themselves amidst the Nairobi bustle. Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), in fact, lead individual lives that are likely more public than most. Kena is the daughter of a prominent politician seeking election in the coming days. She spends much of her time in the same haunt preferred by the vicious town gossip, who hardly even seems to recognize privacy as a concept. Ziki, meanwhile, is also the daughter of a politician — the one running against Kena’s father, of course — and spends much of her time dancing with her friends around town. Her floor-length multicolored braids are not those of someone who appears to shy away from the spotlight.
Just last week, 30-year-old Alyssa Nakken became the first woman to coach on the field during a Major League Baseball game. It’s a noteworthy milestone for its empowering inclusivity, and Nakken acknowledged that her role forever means that “girls can see there is a job on the field in baseball.” It’s also noteworthy, of course, that things like this shouldn’t have taken the better part of a century to come about in America, though that unfortunate reality shouldn’t overshadow the positive progress inherent in Nakken’s achievement. The glass ceiling is still intact, perhaps, but there’s a meaningful new chip in it.
When — not if — that ceiling is finally good and shattered, we might also look back on Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own, which brought to light the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the ’40s and ’50s. Now recognized as the forerunner of women’s professional sports leagues in the U.S., the AAGPBL was conceived as a societal distraction, more or less, while a sizable number of male American ballplayers were off at war. Four teams were formed, which eventually expanded to ten teams, and what might have been a single-season distraction grew and grew to a legitimate sport.
Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.
In The Harder They Fall, sportswriter Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) finds himself in a moral conundrum. He’s covering the boxing phenom Toro Moreno (Mike Lane), an absolute barn of a fighter who’s touring across America on an unprecedented winning streak. The conundrum? Toro can’t actually box worth a damn. The glassjawed giant has been set up by his manager Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) and had all of his fights fixed, though that particular fact is kept secret from Toro himself. Benko’s scheme ensures that the audience has a built-in perception of this fighter, that Toro’s reputation — even if it’s engineered behind his back — will equal dollars in Benko’s pocket. People love a clear-cut hero, an undeniable winner, and Benko forms Toro into exactly that. But Eddie’s not convinced, even if the blissfully-ignorant Toro seems to be having the time of his life in this heroic role. Shouldn’t the athlete himself have some say in how he’s portrayed to the world?
As Bogie’s last film, the noir-ish drama is of a piece with many of his other movies. Eddie isn’t at all riding around gallantly on a noble white steed, nor is he above making a quick buck off a media frenzy now and again. But as his relationship with Toro grows, Eddie softens and soon realizes he has to champion the athlete in response to a ruthless media and Benko’s managerial machinations. It’s not the Quintessential Humphrey Bogart picture, but The Harder They Fall is still deserving of a place amongst his filmography. And as a sports drama, it’s refreshingly not your classic scrappy underdog tale. A string of famous boxers lend some credibility by making appearances throughout the film, too, from Jersey Joe Walcott to Max Baer.
If you threw Spike Lee’s filmography into a pot and cooked it down, stirring occasionally such that all of the ingredients are thoroughly intermingled, you’d be left with Da 5 Bloods. Lee’s new Netflix joint is nothing if not ambitious, and at its shakiest it does feel composed of variations on ideas he’s had in previous films. Take the war-never-ends framing device of Miracle at St. Anna, the style-and-substance mentality of BlacKkKlansman, the epic scope of Malcolm X, a pinch of the melancholy soul-searching of 25th Hour, a dash of the motley cast of Get on the Bus, and Spike’s secret sauce, of course, that blunt intrusion of American history into an otherwise routine narrative. The last ingredient is always a tough one to swallow, but in Da 5 Bloods its sourness is even more noticeable. As with the final scene of BlacKkKlansman, the dark American past we’re witnessing is often only a few months old.
Bloods as a melting pot of ideas mostly works in its favor, giving heft to a story in which four black veterans of the Vietnam War return to country to retrieve a cache of gold they’d buried decades ago. The changes brought about in those decades have affected each man differently, particularly Paul (Delroy Lindo) and Otis (Clarke Peters). Paul’s now a MAGA-hat-sporting Republican, and from the jump the group’s return to Vietnam sparks radical thoughts in his volatile soul. Otis is still the picture of collectedness he was in wartime, but he’s obviously wearied by how the American political climate seems to be regressing. Flashbacks to Vietnam center around the fifth Blood, unit leader Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who unites the crew under the idea that its time for black Americans to collect what they’re owed. With the U.S. government’s eternal refusal to pay out, a few million dollars in gold will do in the meantime.
The Earrings of Madame de… is the English-language title for Madame de…, as it was released in France, which heralds the heart-shaped diamond jewelry — not its owner — as the star of the film. The earrings do indeed play a major role, significantly altering the lives of those who possess them, seemingly propelled by their own willpower from one owner to another and back again. With a pinch more malice this would be The Lord of the (Ear)rings, a fantasy tale about tempting jewelry that instills a deadly pride in those who dare purport to wield such power. But the passionately humanist Max Ophüls ensures that this is always really the story of Madame de…, not simply of her diamonds, and the themes of pride and ownership don’t necessarily involve the earrings at all.
That sleight-of-hand is one of the many reasons Madame de… stands as the most highly-praised work by Ophüls, whose career as a filmmaker was constantly capsized by the onset of World War II. A German-born Jew, Ophüls fled and became a French citizen in 1938, only to have to flee further to the U.S. There he failed to break into Hollywood until an admirer of his work recommended him to Howard Hughes; it helped that the admirer was none other than Preston Sturges. Ophüls directed five Hollywood productions before returning to Europe in 1950, where a new stage of his filmmaking career blossomed. Each of his final films — La ronde (1950), Le plaisir (1952), Madame de… and Lola Montes (1955) — is a masterful achievement in its own right, championed thereafter by the likes of Samuel Fuller, Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson.
Those with a dream to fulfill have a better chance of survival. This is the idea put forth to Diego Fairman, a once-famous film director, as he lies in his hospital bed. He’s dying of cancer at the moment, given only a few months to live, his body ransacked by the disease at every turn. Diego’s life outside his body has been ransacked, too, the cancer boiling within him such that deep issues in his marriage, his family and his work all bubble to the surface. The ailing artist knows he wants to survive, but he doesn’t yet know that this means more than simply “staying alive.” Even if you’re in perfect health, your chances of survival are better with a dream to fulfill.
My Hindu Friend unfurls the story of Diego (Willem Dafoe) methodically, with the mixture of matter-of-fact realism and dreamlike romanticism that one should expect from writer/director Héctor Babenco. The former finds grounding in Pixote, Babenco’s documentary-esque 1980 film about Brazil’s delinquent youth; elements of the latter can be traced to Kiss of the Spider Woman, Babenco’s transcendent 1985 endeavor to bring Latin American magical realism into the mainstream. It’s fitting that Babenco’s own art impact My Hindu Friend, as the film is based on true events from his life. Inasmuch as Diego is a stand-in for Babenco, the inextricability of art and “survival” is always at the forefront.
There may be no other gangster film in existence that walks the tightrope Miller’s Crossing walks. On the one hand, the third film from the Coen Brothers is of a piece with the 1930s gangster flicks that influenced it, full of colorful criminals and double-crosses and rat-a-tat action. The dialogue is straight from Dashiell Hammett and the production design is straight from the pre-Code era, à la Scarface and Little Caesar. The gangster subgenre and critical thinking on the subgenre are historically grounded in realism, unlike the mythic and symbolic trappings of the film Western, and Miller’s Crossing honors that in its gritty, ruminative approach to a complex plot. It is, in short, a quintessential gangster film.
On the other hand, stuff like this happens:
The pure gangster film we’ve described so far is constantly in sharp discordance with the Miller’s Crossing that knows it’s a gangster film. Self-awareness is not a traditional quality of the gangster picture. We’re supposed to be shocked when characters get riddled with bullets, not laugh at the absurdity of the manner of their demise (see above). Big hulking goons are supposed to be aces in fistfights, not whimper when they get bonked on the nose. And we’re not supposed to be expending energy reading into tophat dream symbolism during a traditional crime flick, right? In short, this is anything but a quintessential gangster film.
One of the best collections available on the Criterion Channel is one called Film Plays Itself, a self-reflexive assemblage of movies about movies. Here you’ve got your classics, like Sunset Boulevard and 8½. You’ve got your “out-there” stuff, like the experimental Symbiopsychotaxiplasm or Godard’s New-Wave Contempt. And you’ve got some modern triumphs like The Player and Adaptation. Each of these sort of screams CINEMA! in a not-so-subtle way, which is not a knock against them so much as a bit of a prerequisite for inclusion on the Criterion Channel in the first place. But the highbrow reek of such an overly-academic, carefully-cultivated program of thinkfilms threatens to become overbearing without any deviance — or at least it would, if not for Hollywood Shuffle.
In the mid-1980s, Robert Townsend saw the same problem that every black actor saw in Tinseltown: you either play a criminal, a convict, a slave or some combination of the three. Moreover, depictions of those figures were by and large stereotyped approximations rather than actual characters. Shuffle sparked when a white casting director turned Townsend down for a role because he “wasn’t black enough,” and Townsend recognized this as a brand of systematic racism baked into Hollywood itself. He only had to look to the local cinema at the time for evidence: the sole major studio production with black leads in the 1985-’86 movie season was The Color Purple, written and directed and produced by white men and a clear-cut case of overly-sentimental, stereotypical depictions of black men and women on the silver screen.
We’re always experiencing history now. Few grasp this concept like Alex Cox, who frequently eschews the traditional idea of “historical accuracy” in favor of something we might pretentiously refer to as historical truth. In 1986’s Sid and Nancy, a bunch of kids meet the title character just outside New York City, and when they hear his name — “Sid Vicious” — they immediately scatter. That never happened in real life, but the metaphorical depiction of Sid’s living legend trumps the facts because it actually tells the real story more effectively in film. The more all-encompassing example is 1987’s Walker, Cox’s searing indictment of America’s quasi-colonialist mindset toward Nicaragua. Walker, set in 1853, is full of intentional anachronisms in the form of modern items — helicopters, automatic rifles, Newsweek — that weren’t around at the time. If you presume this device might take you out of the action of 1853, you’re exactly right — and it more or less plants you in Nicaragua in the 1980s, where much the same U.S. meddling would spur the Contra War for more than a decade.
Tombstone Rashomon, Cox’s latest, is in many ways a logical extension of this view of history as inextricable from the present. The title somewhat bluntly particularizes the story at hand: this is the tale of the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, told in the kaleidoscopic style of Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Rashomon. The tale of this shootout — dubbed on its exhaustively-detailed Wikipedia page as “the most famous shootout in the history of the American Wild West” — has been told in film a hundred different ways already, most notably in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), John Sturges’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), and George Cosmatos’s Tombstone (1993). All of these technically depict the same event, but the varying degrees of accuracy and divergence speaks to Cox’s point: short of being present in Tombstone at about 3:00 p.m. on October 26, 1881, the vast majority of what we “know” about this event comes from its depiction in popular culture.
The Coen Brothers have been on my mind as of late. They usually are, granted, but especially so now that we’ve made the (ill-advised?) decision to dive into a complete Coen retrospective in our Director Series column. That means we’ve signed up for a lot of likable characters making drastically dumb decisions against a lovingly-rendered period America and a deep bench of memorable supporting players. You want pitch-black comedy? You got it. You want films that actually earn the moniker neo-noir? You got it, again and again. So how about a little break from the Coen-verse? Perhaps a new indie flick on Amazon to shake things up? Sure. Nice change of pace.