For the casual observer, Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders may as well be titled The Eyes of Anna Karina. The famously radical director’s follow-up to the hit film Contempt isn’t a favourite of American movie buffs for its politics or its thematic rigour. Instead, it’s a veritable spoof of film noir–at times a near-farce–involving a couple of small-time schemers who take their cues from Hollywood. Though Band of Outsiders is thought of as one of Godard’s most accessible works, it’s also one of his most dissonant. It’s a gritty crime drama wrapped around a light romance; a breezy comedy shot through with intimations of the geopolitical landscape of the 1960s; an homage to U.S. culture that incidentally imagines the decline of the American empire. In Godard’s body of work, Band of Outsiders–its story based on a novel by American mystery writer Dolores Hitchens–can be read as the connective tissue between the bones of Breathless, which is full of loving references to American cinema and pulp fiction, and the later Weekend and Tout va bien, which are explicitly critical of western culture in general and capitalism in particular.
With Pina, Wim Wenders aims to do for Pina Bausch and modern dance what Buena Vista Social Club did for Afro-Cuban music. In other words, it’s utility cinema — this is the film you show someone who doesn’t know much about modern dance, if you want them to learn quickly. That’s not a slam against the film — I loved Buena Vista Social Club — but simply a description. As a documentary, Pina eschews analysis in favor of experience. It’s not an overview of Bausch’s career, or a statement on her art. It’s a glowing celebration of the woman’s work and of the dancers who bring it to life. Wenders doesn’t dig into their personal stories, but his camera does dwell on their faces, often as they comment in disembodied voiceover on their experience with Bausch. The fact that they are, mostly, older men and women is both strange and refreshing — it made me think about how, if you watch enough films, you get your perceptions of beauty and physical grace tied up too closely with an expectation of youth. It’s clear that Wenders sees Bausch’s dancers conveying something mystical, or perhaps divine, as they move on stage. They seem serene, physically beautiful, and generally beatific. The time Wenders spends with them reminded me of those moments in Wings of Desire when the film passes briefly over the faces of ordinary Germans, their fragmented experiences standing out briefly from the pageant of everyday life.
Women are absolutely fabulous and also out to get you in Rote Sonne (Red Sun, an artifact of Munich, circa 1969, that puts an alluring, unnerving, yet weirdly dispassionate spin on social unrest. Shot at a time in German history when student protests and leftist communes were subverting the longstanding post-World War II status quo, Rudolf Thome’s film has a go at the country’s nascent feminist movement by taking as its subject a women’s commune populated by man-eaters. There are four of these succubi, and they’re submissive enough for five days of courtship and good times. But woe be to the who shows up for a sixth day with love on his mind and ends up with a bullet in his brain.
In Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays a prima ballerina with problems. She’s just been entrusted with a role she has no idea how to play. She lives with her mother, a bitter and broken-down control freak who comes on like Piper Laurie in Carrie. She’s scorned by her role model. She sees visions of her doppelgänger in mirrors, in construction walkways, and even in the bathroom. It’s possible that she’s growing wings. She may have an imaginary friend. She may be a virgin. She needs to get laid.
I’m a little late to the Play Time party, having sampled and abandoned Jacques Tati on Criterion laserdisc way back when, finding his work to require, I guess, more patience than I had back in my college years. But Play Time is new on Blu-ray, transferred from a recent HD remaster of Tati’s 70mm comedy of modern manners that has it looking better than it ever will outside of a movie theater, and it’s clearly a singular achievement. In an essay accompanying the disc, Jonathan Rosenbaum outright disses the whole idea of watching Play Time on TV, arguing that because public space is the film’s very subject, it’s also the most appropriate setting for its exhibition. (The film was probably never going to be a tremendous popular success, but Tati limited its commercial prospects by insisting that its initial engagements in France take place only in 70mm.) I missed that boat — there was a restored 70mm print playing in New York a few years back — but this Blu-ray Disc and a decent screen will at least allow a viewer to imagine what it must look like on a proper screen, and in that it’s highly recommended.