The American Cinematheque at the Egyptian theatre, Hollywood Boulevard
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Wilshire Boulevard
The love of film runs deep in LA. At any moment there are at least two great festivals to choose between. Lately Ive been juggling the American Cinematheques Alain Resnais retrospective, Celebrating the New Hollywood of the 1960s and 1970s and Mods and Rockers against the LA County Museum of Arts Artificial Humans in the Cinema and a Robert Altman retrospective. Both LACMA and the Cinamatheque often screen brand-new restored prints of never-to-be-seen-on-PAL lost masterworks. LACMAs silent screenings are accompanied by live Wurlitzer for which the gallery occasionally (as for Der Golem) commissions a complete original score. The Cinematheque regularly invites the director, stars, scriptwriter and/or producer to the theatre to take questions, and the crowds ripple with barely recollected celebrity. The industry permeates the art world too, and the best gallery art has lately been cinematic as well. Steven Prinas Vinal 11 (1999), acommissioned piece for the Gettys Departures show is a finest recent example But who needs me. You can read about that in the latest Artforum.
A representative, but not exhaustive list of what I have seen lately:
Tokyo Story (dir. Yasujro Ozu, 1953, Japan)
Domestic Ikebana - a fragile equilibrium built of screens and doors, coats hung in hallways, slippers, jugs, sake bowls, hairdos, school books, indifferent children and their resolute parents all swinging into a gradual, intractable, decline as a Japanese family embraces modern urban life. Sweet, harrowing, intricately wrought, many damp eyes.
Cisco Pike (dir. Bill L. Norton, 1972, USA)
Kris Kristofferson is an all-time star. He hasnt aged a day since his first movie and nor has the Wilshire/Vermont intersection. In this loose groove, through dusty, sun-bleached, pre-Reagan LA, Kris plays an ex-teen-dream country-folk star whos sunk to dealing grass to former fans. Facing his third conviction and a five-year jail term (somethings changed - under Californias current three strikes law hed get life!!!) Cisco has one weekend to move 100kgs (!!!) of Acapulcos finest for a pre-inflationary $10,000 (!?) so as to glean parole from crazy, rotten-to-the-core cop Gene Hackman (anyone heard of the "Rampart Scandal" over there? - the LAPD NEVER changes). Karen Black maintains the lotus position throughout.
Payday (dir. Daryl Duke, 1972, 103 mins, USA)
Lay back and be lacerated by Rip Torns under-the-skin personification of a Merle Haggard-style lude-popping, virgin-breaking, mommas boy country star set to auto-destruct as he cuts a path through a gentle southern bounty of poultry, pills, puppies, various progeny, big slow lumbering bouncers and pretty lil country girls that litter his road to oblivion. Had Fassbinder found solace in the aching glory of Country Rock he might have made this vortex of a movie.
Badlands (dir. Terence Malick, 1971, USA)
Where is she now, that Sissy Spacek? The guileless, coltish skinny white girl with all those unnatural passions was everywhere for a while. Remember Three Women, Coal Miners Daughter, Carrie? Badlands was her first and its huge - with Martin Sheen shootin away her daddy in the first half hour and her hardly even crying.
The Swimmer (dir. Frank and Eleanor Perry, 1968, USA)
Love, hate or suffer waves of embarrassing ambivalence over this EXTREMELY ECCENTRIC Burt Lancaster vanity piece: a camp suburban allegory tracking an aging, Speedo clad ex-WASP Burt as he "swims home" through a mosaic of suburban Connecticut swimming pools - ex-lovers, raging stallions, all-grown-up-but-cuter-than-ever babysitters and a torrent of stiff martinis - spending his youth, his strength and his faith with every stroke. Based on a John Cheever short story.
Film is for me an attempt, still very rough and very primitive, to approach the complexity of thought and its mechanism. (Alain Resnais)
Visite à Lucien Coutaud, Visite à Felix Labisse, Visite à Hans Hartung, Visite à Cesar Domela, Portrait dHenri Goetz and Visite à Christene Boumeester (dir. Alain Resnais,1947)
Resnais shot this series of artist portraits when he was just twenty-five, setting his preoccupations for a lifetime. In tracing the composition of a painting from inception to completion, he found a simple, elegant model for the interplay of action and memory - the mechanisms of free will. The paintings third dimension is time, through which the artist embarks on "a ceaseless journey into interior space" (Henri Goetz).
Je taime, je taime (dir. Alain Resnais, 1968, France)
...is such a journey. If conscious life is the collection of images, threaded through time like beads on a string, and if the present moment is, for each of us, the latest of those beads to be gathered, formed and threaded, then what might come from cutting that thread, tying in it a knot, tangling it or weaving it back beside itself? Resnais simple, brilliant and impossible to access sci-fi (the cinamatheque had to get a new print made in France) finds perhaps its closest correlate in friend and some-time collaborator Chris Markers La Jetée. In both films, time travel provides the premise for a thought experiment, the celluloid strip embodying a consciousness. Resnais plays his lead character like Grandmaster Flash, scratching over and again through the events that led him to attempt suicide, until the psychical strain nearly kills him all over again. Most affecting is his lurching translocation from spongyform time capsule/womb back to perhaps his last truly happy moment - swimming underwater in the summer sea.
Muriel (dir. Alain Resnais, 1963)
In France, by 1963, two generations had been broken been by war. Muriel is a dusty middle-aged widow - French, so still sexy - whos concealing a nasty gambling habit, and perhaps an even nastier impropriety dating back to the German occupation. Her sullen, also sexy stepson has just returned from armed service in Algiers, bearing his own unspeakable burden. Everyone they encounter is likewise aveiled, corrupted, semblance of whatever they were before war took them away from themselves. Characters cross paths but never meet, co-existing in a present so that they might attempt to reconstitute the past. They cant be mended so they settle for a desperately clenched, awkward attitude of respectability. Resnais at his mostself-conscious, meandering and embarrassing. Its very hard to sit through but dont doubt for a moment that its worth it.
Le Chant du Styrene (dir. Alain Resnais, 1958)
A utopian candy-colored song to the material. Très versatile. Bowls, caps, straws, trays, pipes, planters, all the primary colours of the plastic rainbow, popping with miraculous ease from great oozing, rusted tanks, helped on by guys in white coats- just like all those glistening little eggs from a momma termite.
Toute La Memoire Du Monde (All the memory in the World) (dir. Alain Resnais, 1956)
Every pamphlet and paper and book published in France finds its way into the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and has done since the dawn of the printing press. Resnais followed a single volume into this ancient and swollen repository as it joined the multiple millions pouring up and out, overflowing through the wrought iron grills and shelves, swelling up into the attics and further up into the parapets, and squeezing down like treacle into the basements. The tension is palpable as small men in white coats, more termites with trolleys, glean space for yet another slim volume in a shelf already laden to its limits by the burden of a nations memory.
Providence (dir. Alain Resnais, 1977, UK)
...is the (far superior, and apparently unacknowledged) template for Paul Thomas Andersons Magnolia. Aged Patriarch John Gielgud (Jason Robards?) lies on his deathbed, wracked by colon cancer, dreaming, or surveying, or fantastically willing a series of sordid entanglements between his various screwed-up offspring. As he approaches his grisly end, drugged to the hilt and drifting in and out of consciousness, he gets to wishing for closure - and reconciliation with his estranged son Dirk Bogard (or Tom Cruise), a pig of a man whose boundless ambition and chilling misogyny have been honed by a sustained hatred of his dirty, philandering old man. It all comes back to the mother of course, who Bogard(Cruise) alone witnessed wasting away from spousal neglect, or cancer, or suicide, or a little bit of each.
Smile (dir. Michael Ritchie, 1975, USA)
The frocks, the dos, the two-tone Cadillacs, the middle-aged-guy-club antics, the dens, shrouded in the brown wall paper - for anyone raised in Southern California, Smile is pure, glorious décor nostalgia. For everyone else, its a brutal dose of sensory excess we never imagined anyone actually had to live through.
Panic in Needle Park (dir. Jerry Schatzberg, 1970, USA)
Pacino all young, jumpy and high and then falling. As a depiction of a community of New York junkies it occasionally lapses into piety, but mostly its clear and sympathetic and maybe uncomfortably close to the bone. Either way, someone was certainly trying to describe that experience. With the War on Drugs accelerating to a silent, frenzied battle, no one will be trying again for a very long time.
Chinatown is out on a brand new beautiful print.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (dir. Michael Cimino, 1974, USA)
Cimino was 25 when he wrote and directed this Clint vehicle. He went on to make The Deer Hunter (which this is not).
Pinocchio (dir. Giulio Antamoro, Italy, 1911) with Polidor [a very famous Italian clown of the moment]; The Automatic Motorist (dir. Walter R. Booth, UK, 1911); The Clockwork Heart (dir. unknown, France, 1912); Die Puppe (dir. Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1919)
Plenty of oogling, bum pinching and elaborate chase scenes. Die Puppe is a proto-Benny Hill tale of a woman-hating heir-apparent who marries a life-like puppet to avoid the real thing.
Frankenstein is probably fine, even great, but after Der Golem it just looked campy and prim:
Der Golem (dir. Paul Wegener, 1920, 85 mins, Germany)
So beautiful we might have stopped right there. The ghetto is built of towering conch shells, the night sky a velvet box filled with inauspicious pinholes. The women have blackberry lips and black stallion manes and quake with arousal at the mere glimpse of those fragile, impossibly fey, untrustworthy youths that court them. The Rabbis are ancient and loving and know everything except the awesome extent of their own power. Der Golem is the original Frankenstein, an ancient Jewish myth that both celebrates and cautions against the powers of Jewish sorcery. This Yiddish masterwork was produced during that brief summer between world wars when the German Jews assumed the liberty of producing complex, public renderings of their own mythology. Now it is terrible to watch: dangerously open and eerily prescient of the coming apocalypse that, within the following twenty years, would eliminate in its entirety the culture that had generated it. The Jews had seen it all before.
Joyce Campbell is an artist living in Los Angeles.