(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2020)
Salesman– Criterion Collection
Anyone can aim a camera, ”capture” a moment, and move on…but there is an art to capturing the truth of that moment; not only knowing when to take the shot, but knowing precisely how long to hold it lest you begin to impose enough to undermine the objectivity.
For my money, there are very few documentary filmmakers of the “direct cinema” school who approach the artistry of David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. Collectively (if not collaboratively in every case) the trio’s resume includes Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter, The Grey Gardens, When WeWereKings, and Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser.
In their 1969 documentary Salesman, Zwerin and the brothers Maysles tag along with four door-to-door Bible salesmen as they slog their way up and down the eastern seaboard, from snowy Boston to sunny Florida. It is much more involving than you might surmise from a synopsis. One of the most trenchant, moving portraits of shattered dreams and quiet desperation ever put on film; a Willy Loman tale infused with real-life characters who bring more pathos to the screen than any actor could.
Criterion has done their usual bang-up job here, starting with a new restored 4K digital transfer. There is a commentary track by Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin (from 2001). Extras include an archival 1968 TV interview with both Maysles brothers (sadly, all three directors are no longer with us).
The inclusion of “Globesman”, a spot-on 2016 parody of Salesman from the “mockumentary” IFC series Documentary Now! was a nice surprise (there’s also a short appreciation of Salesman by Documentary Now! co-creator Bill Hader).
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 23, 2020)
Traditionally, Memorial Day Weekend triggers thoughts about upcoming summer getaways and/or road trips. After 2 months (and counting) of hunkering down in quarantine mode, most people are raring to go…anywhere really, beyond their neighborhood. A road trip to the county line would feel like a grand adventure at this point (“If I take one more step Mr. Frodo, I’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve been since March 11th!”). But pragmatism reminds us that a pandemic doesn’t take a breather on holidays, nor care a whit about summer vacations:
For the first time in 20 years, AAA will not issue a Memorial Day travel forecast, as the accuracy of the economic data used to create the forecast has been undermined by COVID-19. The annual forecast – which estimates the number of people traveling over the holiday weekend – will return next year.
Anecdotal reports suggest fewer people will hit the road compared to years past for what is considered the unofficial start of the summer travel season.
“Last year, 43 million Americans traveled for Memorial Day Weekend – the second-highest travel volume on record since AAA began tracking holiday travel volumes in 2000,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president, AAA Travel. “With social distancing guidelines still in practice, this holiday weekend’s travel volume is likely to set a record low.”
Memorial Day 2009 currently holds the record for the lowest travel volume at nearly 31 million travelers, according to AAA. That holiday weekend, which came toward the end of the Great Recession, 26.4 million Americans traveled by car, 2.1 million by plane and nearly 2 million by other forms of transportation (train, cruise, etc.).
AAA expects to make travel projections for the late summer and fall, assuming states ease travel restrictions and businesses reopen. Already, there are indications that Americans’ wanderlust is inspiring them to plan future vacations.
So hey-buck up, little camper…you can still take a (virtual) road trip this Memorial Day weekend with one or more of my picks for the Top 10 Road Movies:
Five Easy Pieces (Amazon Prime Video) — “You see this sign?” Thanks to sharp direction from Bob Rafaelson, a memorable screenplay by Carole Eastman (billed in the credits as Adrien Joyce) and an iconic performance by Jack Nicholson, this remains one of the defining American road movies of the 1970s.
Nicholson portrays an antihero teetering on the edge of an existential meltdown; a classically-trained pianist from a moneyed family who nonetheless prefers to martyr himself working soulless blue-collar jobs.
Karen Black delivers one of her better performances as his long-suffering girlfriend. The late great DP Laszlo Kovacs makes excellent use of the verdant, rain-soaked Pacific Northwest milieu. And don’t forget where to hold the chicken salad…
Genevieve (Amazon Prime Video) — A marvelous entry from Britain’s golden age of screen comedies, this gentle 1953 film centers on the travails of an endearing young couple (Dinah Sheridan and John Gregson) as they join their bachelor friend (Kenneth Moore) and his latest flame (Kay Kendall) on their annual road trip from London to Brighton as participants in an antique car rally. After the two men have a bit of a verbal spat in Brighton, they decide to convert the return trip to London into a “friendly” race, with a 100-pound wager to be awarded to whoever is first across the Westminster Bridge.
Colorful, droll, and engaging throughout, especially thanks to Sheridan and Gregson’s onscreen chemistry. Oh, in case you were wondering- “Genevieve” is the name of the couple’s antique car! Director Henry Cornelius’ next project was I Am a Camera, the 1955 film that was reincarnated as the musical Cabaret.
Lost in America (Amazon Prime Video) — Released at the height of Reaganomics, this 1985 gem can now be viewed in hindsight as a spot-on satirical smack down of the Yuppie cosmology that shaped the Decade of Greed.
Director/co-writer Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty portray a 30-something, upwardly mobile couple who quit their high-paying jobs, liquidate their assets, buy a Winnebago, and hit the road with a “nest egg” of $145,000 to find themselves. Their goals are nebulous (“we’ll touch Indians”).
Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the “egg” is soon off the table, and the couple find themselves on the wrong end of “trickle down”, to Brooks’ chagrin. Like most Brooks films, it is painful to watch yet so painfully funny (I consider him the founding father of the Larry David/Ricky Gervais school of “cringe comedy”).
Motorama (Amazon Prime Video) — This darkly comic 1991 road movie/Orphic journey nearly defies description. A rather odd 10-year old boy (Jordan Michael Christopher) flees his feuding parents to hit the road in pursuit of the American Dream-to win the grand prize in a gas station-sponsored scratch card game called “Motorama”.
As he zips through fictional states with in-jokey names like South Lyndon, Bergen, Tristana and Essex, he has increasingly bizarre and absurd encounters with a veritable “who’s who” of cult filmdom, including John Diehl, John Nance, Susan Tyrell, Michael J. Pollard, Mary Woronov, Meatloaf and Red-Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea.
What I find particularly amusing is that none of the adults think to question why a 10-year-old (who curses like a sailor and sports a curious bit of stubble by film’s end) is driving a Mustang on a solo cross-country trip. Not for all tastes-definitely not one for the kids (especially since the venerable parental admonishment of “You’ll poke your eye out!” becomes fully realized). Director Barry Shils has only made one other film, the 1995 doc, Wigstock: The Movie.
Powwow Highway (Criterion Channel) — A Native American road movie from 1989 that eschews stereotypes and tells its story with an unusual blend of social and magical realism. Gary Farmer (who resembles the young Jonathan Winters) plays Philbert, a hulking Cheyenne with a gentle soul who wolfs down cheeseburgers and chocolate malts with the countenance of a beatific Buddha. He has decided that it is time to “become a warrior” and leave the res on a vision quest to “gather power”.
After choosing a “war pony” for his journey (a rusted-out beater that he trades for with a bag of weed), he sets off, only to be waylaid by his childhood friend (A. Martinez) an A.I.M. activist who needs a lift to Santa Fe to bail out his sister, framed by the Feds on a possession beef. Funny, poignant, uplifting and richly rewarding. Director Jonathan Wacks and screenwriters Janey Heaney and Jean Stawarz keep it real. Look for cameos from Wes Studi and Graham Greene.
Radio On (BFI Player) — You know how you develop an inexplicable emotional attachment to certain films? This no-budget 1979 offering from writer-director Christopher Petit, shot in stark B&W is one such film for me. That said, I should warn you that it is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, as it contains one of those episodic narratives that may cause drowsiness for some after about 15 minutes. Yet, I am compelled to revisit this one annually. Go figure.
A dour London DJ (David Beames), whose estranged brother has committed suicide, heads to Bristol to get his sibling’s affairs in order and attempt to glean what drove him to such despair (while quite reminiscent of the setup for Get Carter, this is not a crime thriller…far from it). He has encounters with various characters, including a friendly German woman, an unbalanced British Army vet who served in Northern Ireland, and a rural gas-station attendant (a cameo by Sting) who kills time singing Eddie Cochran songs.
As the protagonist journeys across an England full of bleak yet perversely beautiful industrial landscapes in his boxy sedan, accompanied by a moody electronic score (mostly Kraftwerk and David Bowie) the film becomes hypnotic. A textbook example of how the cinema can capture and preserve the zeitgeist of an ephemeral moment (e.g. England on the cusp of the Thatcher era) like no other art form.
Kings of the Road (Amazon Prime Video) — Wim Wenders’ 1976 bookend of his “Road Movie Trilogy” (preceded by Alice in the Cities and The Wrong Move) is a Boudu Saved from Drowning-type tale with Rudiger Vogler as a traveling film projector repairman who happens upon a suicidal psychologist (Hanns Zischler) just as he decides to end it all by driving his VW into a river. The traveling companions are slow to warm up to each other but have lots of screen time to develop a bond at 2 hours and 55 minutes (i.e., the film may try the patience of some viewers). If you can stick with it though-I think you will find it rewarding.
Sullivan’s Travels (Amazon Prime Video) — A deft mash-up of romantic screwball comedy, Hollywood satire, road movie and social drama that probably would not have worked so beautifully had not the great Preston Sturges been at the helm.
Joel McCrea is pitch-perfect as a director of goofy populist comedies who yearns to make a “meaningful” film. Racked with guilt about the comfortable bubble that his Hollywood success has afforded him and determined to learn firsthand how the other half lives, he hits the road with no money in his pocket and masquerades as a railroad tramp (to the chagrin of his handlers).
He is joined along the way by an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake, in one of her best comic performances). His voluntary crash-course in “social realism” turns into much more than he had originally bargained for. Lake and McCrea have wonderful chemistry. Many decades later, the Coen Brothers co-opted the title of the fictional “film within the film” here: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Trip (Amazon Prime Video) — Pared down into feature length from the 2011 BBC TV series of the same name, Michael Winterbottom’s film is essentially a highlight reel of the 6 episodes; which is not to denigrate it, because it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in years.
The levity is due in no small part to Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, basically playing themselves. Coogan is commissioned by a British newspaper to take a “restaurant tour” of England’s bucolic Lake District and write reviews. He initially plans to take his girlfriend along, but since they’re going through a rocky period, he asks his pal, fellow actor and comedian Brydon, to accompany him.
This setup is basically an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it feels improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s unexpected poignancy as well-but for the most part, it’s comedy gold. The director and both stars reunited for two equally enjoyable sequels, The Trip to Italy (2014) and The Trip to Spain (2017).
Vanishing Point (DVD or Blu-ray only) — I don’t know if there was a sudden spike in sales for Dodge Challengers in 1971, but it would not surprise me, since nearly every car nut I have ever known usually gets a dreamy, faraway look in their eyes when I mention this cult classic, directed by Richard C. Sarafian. It’s best described as an existential car chase movie.
Barry Newman stars as Kowalski (there’s never a mention of a first name), a car delivery driver who is assigned to get a Challenger from Colorado to San Francisco. When someone wagers he can’t make the trip in less than 15 hours, he accepts the, erm, challenge. Naturally, someone in a muscle car pushing 100 mph across several states is going to eventually get the attention of law enforcement-and the chase is on.
Not much of a plot but nonetheless riveting. Episodic; one memorable vignette involves a hippie chick riding around the desert on a 350 Honda a la Lady Godiva, to the strains of Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” (riveting!). Cleavon Little plays Supersoul-a blind radio DJ who pulls double duty as Kowalski’s guardian angel and a Greek Chorus for the narrative. The enigmatic ending still mystifies.
Mungiu wrote and directed this stark drama, set in the late 1980s, during Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s oppressive regime. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) are friends who share a university dorm in Bucharest. From the get-go, we can see that these two aren’t your typically happy-go-lucky coeds. In fact, none of the students on campus seem quick to smile; they vibe a palpable sense of lowered expectations for the future, and that air of innate mistrust that tends to fester in a totalitarian police state.
Gabita is pregnant and wants an abortion. Even though this story is set only 20 years ago, Gabita may as well wished for world peace and a million dollars in a Swiss bank account. In 1966, Ceausescu decreed abortion as a state crime in Romania, making exceptions only for women over the age of 42, and only if they had already mothered a requisite number of children. He also imposed a steep tax penalty, garnished on the income of any childless woman or man over the age of 25, single or married. […]
“4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days“ may not exactly be a romp in the fields, but it is a worthwhile 1 hour, 53 minutes for the thinking person; and depending on your degree of cynicism about our own state of affairs over these past 7 years…it can also be viewed as a cautionary tale.
The journey undertaken by the two young women is harrowing. But that film was set in 1980s Romania, under an oppressive dictatorship. Surely, a young woman in 2020 America who finds herself in Gabita’s predicament wouldn’t face those challenges, right? I mean, come on. “…a cautionary tale”?! Perhaps I was being a tad hyperbolic. Or was I?
The coronavirus outbreak has fueled attempts to ban abortions in some states, but providers where the procedure remains available report increased demand, often from women distraught over economic stress and health concerns linked to the pandemic.
“The calls we’ve been getting are frantic,” said Julie Burkhart, who manages clinics in Wichita, Kansas, and Oklahoma City. “We’ve seen more women coming sooner than they would have because they’re scared they won’t be able to access the services later.”
Some clinics are seeing patients who traveled hundreds of miles from states such as Texas, which has banned abortions during much of the pandemic on grounds they are nonessential.
Dr. Allison Cowett of Family Planning Associates in Chicago said one recent patient was a teen who drove from Texas with her mother. In Atlanta, Dr. Marissa Lapedis said her clinic accommodated a woman who received her initial abortion consultation in Texas but flew to Georgia when the Texas ban postponed a second visit to receive the abortion pill. […]
Another concern is that abortion bans will force some women into continuing with high-risk pregnancies.
“Without services, very sick babies will be born and families forced to watch them suffer who would, in other times, have made a different decision,” said Dr. Maryl Sackeim, a Chicago-based OB-GYN. […]
Amid debate about whether abortion is an essential service, anti-abortion protesters have mobilized outside numerous clinics — in some cases triggering confrontations with police over whether they’re violating social-distancing rules. In North Carolina, eight of about 50 protesters were arrested April 4 after refusing to disperse outside a clinic in Charlotte.
Even as many businesses close temporarily, anti-abortion pregnancy centers remain open. Virginia-based Care Net, which oversees about 1,100 centers, evoked the pandemic in a fundraising appeal, noting that unplanned pregnancies may rise during isolation and “our centers need to find creative ways to serve these parents and empower them to choose life.”
While it was not her master plan, the timing for the release of writer-director Eliza Hittman’s Sundance hit Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always (which premiered this week on V.O.D.) could not have been more apt. Hittman’s indie drama was originally slated for a theatrical opening in March, but was thwarted by its proximity to quarantine closures.
Like the protagonist in 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, 17-year old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a young woman in a quandary over an unwanted pregnancy who has only one real confidant; in this case it is her cousin, BFF and schoolmate Skylar (Talia Ryder).
They both work part-time as grocery clerks in a rural Pennsylvania burg. While Skylar is friendly and engaging, Autumn is sullen and introspective. In fact, our first glimpse of Autumn finds her singing an emo folk-style cover of an early 60s girl group tune at a school talent show (if you pay close attention, the lyrics will take on deeper significance as the film unfolds). Her performance is interrupted by a slut-shaming catcall from a yahoo in the audience. Undaunted, she picks up where she left off and finishes to a smattering of polite applause.
There appears to be a dearth of support at home too; her stepfather (who looks and acts like one of those belligerents who gets wrestled to the ground and handcuffed in any given episode of Cops) has to be brow-beaten by his wife into paying Autumn a compliment for her performance. Although it is never directly addressed, there is also an unsettling tension between Autumn and her stepfather that implies there could be some history of abuse.
Soon after, Autumn visits her local “crisis pregnancy center” to confirm what she suspects. The woman helping her is pleasant enough but obviously not a licensed medical professional. Autumn is handed an over-the-counter test kit and asked to self-administer. She is told that she is likely at 10 weeks. When Autumn fails to sing hallelujah and break into a happy dance, the woman makes a sort of duck face and nonchalantly asks her if she “has a minute” to watch something. Cue one of those horror show-styled Pro-Life videos.
Two things become clear. Firstly, Autumn does not wish to go full term (in a difficult-to-watch scene, she does a Google search on self-induced abortion and attempts a few methods that come to naught). And since she lives in a state where the parent of a minor must consent before an abortion is provided, she needs to quickly brainstorm a much safer way to take care of her situation while keeping it on the down-low from her parents.
Autumn and Skylar scrape together funds (seeded by an impulsive re-appropriation by Skylar while doing her end-of-shift cash drawer balance at the supermarket), surreptitiously pack overnight bags and head for the bus station. Destination: NYC (I half-expected them to sit across the aisle from Joe Buck, to the strains of Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talking”).
Along the way, they get chatted up by a gabby oddball named Jasper (Theodore Pellerin, who you may recognize from Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida). Autumn does not engage, but Skylar ends up giving him her cell number (probably just to shut him up) and giving him a politely non-committal answer to his offer to take them clubbing once they hit the city (dweeby Jasper is the only sympathetic male character in the film).
The Midnight Cowboy vibe kicks in again as soon as Autumn and Skylar disembark at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. They are not in Kansas anymore (well, technically rural Pennsylvania). Autumn does find her way to a Planned Parenthood clinic, where she is chagrined to learn that she is in fact in her second trimester (at 18 weeks, instead of 10 weeks as she was led to believe by the woman at her hometown pregnancy crisis center).
She is assured that if she still wishes to follow through with the abortion, they can facilitate. However, due to her status it requires a two-day outpatient procedure for maximum safety. As Autumn and Skylar did not budget for an overnight stay in prohibitively expensive Manhattan, the remainder of the film becomes an episodic ride-along as the pair find various creative ways to kill time between Autumn’s two medical procedures.
Hittman really gets inside the heads of her two main characters; helped immensely by wonderful, naturalistic performances from Flanigan and Ryder. Flanigan especially shines in the film’s pivotal and most emotionally wrenching scene, which takes place at the Planned Parenthood clinic in New York. Autumn is asked a series of questions by one of the staff that are designed to determine the client’s current state of mind, and to find out if she is living in an unsafe situation (e.g., sexual and/or domestic abuse). Autumn is assured there are no right or wrong answers; only “never, rarely, sometimes, or always.”
Interestingly, the character of Autumn reminded me of the eponymous protagonist in writer-director Barbra Loden’s groundbreaking 1970 character study/road movie Wanda (I suspect the film was an influence on Hittman). While Autumn is a 17 year-old high school student and Wanda a 30-something housewife, both characters have a strange, Sphinx-like passivity. Both women live in dreary, conservative working-class towns in rural Pennsylvania. Both are treated like shit by most of the males they encounter, yet are able to remain impervious and even above it all; as if they exist on their own transcendent astral plane. Their inscrutability could be read as a sort of feminist statement…albeit from an odd, counter-intuitive place. Just a thought.
This is not an allegory in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale, because it doesn’t have to be. It is a straightforward and realistic story of one young woman’s personal journey. The reason it works so well on a personal level is because of its universality; it could easily be any young woman’s story in the here and now.
Hittman has made a film that is quietly observant, compassionate, and non-judgmental. And despite what portions of my review may have led you to think, she does not proselytize one way or the other about the ever-thorny right-to-life debate.
Or does she? Perhaps the film is a Rorschach test; it is your decision to make. As it should be.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)
Until the End of the World – The Criterion Collection
Wim Wenders’ sprawling “near-future” techno-epic is finally available as a beautifully restored transfer by Criterion, in a 287-minute director’s cut (which Wenders himself has called his “ultimate road movie”).
Set in 1999, with the backdrop of an imminent event that may (or may not) trigger a global nuclear catastrophe, the story centers on Claire (Solveig Dommartin) a restless and free-spirited French woman who leaves her writer boyfriend (Sam Neill) to chase down a mysterious American man (William Hurt) who has stolen her money (and her heart). Neill’s character narrates Claire’s globe-trotting quest for love and meaning, which winds through 20 cities, 9 countries, and 4 continents (all shot on location, amazingly enough).
Critical and audience reaction to the 1991 158-minute theatrical version (not Wenders’ choice) was perhaps best summed up by “huh?!”, and the film has consequently garnered a rep as an interesting failure at best. However, to see it as it was originally intended is to discover the near-masterpiece that was lurking all along. Not an easy film to pigeonhole; you could file it under sci-fi, adventure, drama, road, or maybe…end-of-the-world movie.
The 4K digital restoration is gorgeous, and a new 5.1 surround HD DTS audio track accentuates the film’s excellent music soundtrack (which includes songs by U2, Nick Cave, David Byrne, Julee Cruise, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Patti Smith, et.al.). Extras include a conversation between Wenders and David Byrne and several film critic essays.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 13, 2019)
Stranger Than Paradise – Criterion Collection
With this 1984 indie classic, Jim Jarmusch established his formula of long takes and deadpan observances on the inherent silliness of human beings. John Lurie stars as Willie, a brooding NYC slacker who spends most of his time hanging and bickering with his buddy Eddie (Richard Edson).
Enter Eva (Eszter Balint), Willie’s teenage cousin from Hungary, who appears at his door. Eddie is intrigued, but misanthropic Willie has no desire for a new roommate, so Eva decides to move in with Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark), who lives in Cleveland. Sometime later, Eddie convinces Willie that a road trip to Ohio might help break the monotony. Willie grumpily agrees, and they’re off to visit Aunt Lotte and Eva. Much low-key hilarity ensues.
Future director Tom DiCillo did the black and white photography, evoking strange beauty in the stark, wintry, industrial flatness of Cleveland and environs.
Criterion’s restoration is beautiful. Extras include commentary by Jarmusch and Edson, and Jarmusch’s 1980 color feature debut Permanent Vacation (also restored).
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 6, 2019)
Detour – Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Many consider Edgar G. Ulmer’s artfully pulpy 1945 programmer as one of the greatest no-budget “B” crime dramas ever made. This is the “one” that hardcore film noir aficionados have been praying for “someone” to properly restore, and Criterion has delivered in spades (the movie had been languishing in “public domain” for years, precipitating a seemingly infinite number of fuzzy home video iterations of varyingly horrid quality).
Clocking in at just under 70 minutes, the story follows a down-on-his-luck musician (Tom Neal) with whom fate, and circumstance have saddled with (first) a dead body, and then (worst) a hitchhiker from Hell (Ann Savage, in a wondrously demented performance). In short, he is not having a good night. Truly one of the darkest noirs of them all.
I cannot say enough about the 4K digital restoration…it is a revelation and should help the film garner a new generation of fans (I also suspect that aspiring filmmakers can learn much about how to do more with less by studying it!).
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2019)
46% of this year’s SIFF selections are by female directors, as are 56% of the 2019 competition films (ratios which should be industry-wide, not relegated to the festival circuit). As part of this emphasis, SIFF is presenting two restored gems from pioneering actor-director Ida Lupino.
This 1953 film noir is not only a tough, taut nail-biter, but one of the first “killer on the road” thrillers (a precursor to The Hitcher, Freeway, Kalifornia, etc.). Lupino co-wrote the tight script with Collier Young. They adapted from a story by Daniel Mainwearing that was based on a real-life highway killer’s spree.
Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy play buddies taking a road trip to Mexico for some fishing. When they pick up a stranded motorist (veteran noir heavy William Talman), their trip turns into a nightmare. Essentially a chamber piece, with excellent performances from the three leads (Talman is genuinely creepy and menacing).
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2019)
Using excerpts from 100 year-old journals by Finnish linguist G.J. Ramstedt as a narrative, directors Niklas Kullstrom and Martti Kaartinen retrace his experiences in two countries. He was sent to Mongolia to study and compile a written record of the language, then was later assigned to a diplomatic post in Japan-where he studied the Korean language (I know-a little confusing).
While his studies were primarily academic, his journals reflected a more subjective take on the geography and people of the respective countries. The directors juxtapose Ramstedt’s century-old musings with modern travelogues of the locations he wrote about. Despite the intriguing premise, the film is deadly dull in execution-not helped by dry and perfunctory narration.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 23, 2019)
Wanda Goronski: I don’t have anything. I never did have anything. Never will have anything.
Norman Dennis: You’re stupid.
Wanda Goronski: I’m stupid?
Norman Dennis: If you don’t want anything, you won’t have anything, and if you don’t have anything, you’re nothing. You may as well be dead. You’re not even a citizen of the United States.
Wanda Goronski: I guess I’m dead, then.
That remarkable exchange is from the 1970 character study/road movie/crime drama Wanda, an underseen indie gem written and directed by its star Barbara Loden. Previously hard-to-find, a restored edition of the film is newly available from Criterion.
Wanda (Loden) is an unemployed working-class housewife. It’s clear that her life is the pits…and not just figuratively. She’s recently left her husband and two infants and has been crashing at her sister’s house, which is within spitting distance of a yawning mining pit, nestled in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country. We don’t have an opportunity to get a sense of her home life, because as the film opens, she’s on her way to family court.
A protracted long shot of Wanda daintily traipsing through the bleak obsidian moonscape of the coal pit as she heads for court with hair in curlers, white tennis shoes, white stretch pants, white floral blouse and carrying a white purse is…not something you see every day. It’s also an indication you’re in for a narrative with deeply existential subtexts.
When the judge scolds her for being late, the oddly detached Wanda shrugs it off, telling His Honor that if her husband wants a divorce, that’s OK by her; adding their kids are probably “better off” being taken care of by their father. Shortly afterward, Wanda splits her sister’s house and hits the road (hair still in curlers), carrying no more than that white purse. This suggests that either a.) she’s a dim bulb, or b.) freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
The first third of the film is episodic; Wanda wanders aimlessly, stopping at a tavern for a drink. A traveling salesman with a Vista Cruiser buys her a beer, she sleeps with him at a cheap motel. She busts him trying to sneak out the next morning, and just makes it into his station wagon. When they stop for an ice cream cone, he peels out and abandons her.
Nonplussed, Wanda kicks around some dull burg and drifts into a movie theater for a matinee and a nap. When she awakens, the auditorium is empty, and she discovers someone has rifled through her purse and stolen what little money she had been carrying.
Now officially broke, Wanda heads for the nearest tavern. The suspiciously furtive man behind the bar is less than friendly; he tells her to beat it, they’re closed. Nonetheless, Wanda asks him for food and drink. Giving her an incredulous look, he serves her (sort of). Through all of this, Wanda either doesn’t notice or doesn’t give second thought to the sight of the unconscious, bound and gagged man lying on the floor by the cash register.
Her “bartender” is a petty criminal (Michael Dennis) who has just knocked over the joint. His name (as we come to learn) is Norman Dennis, and the ever-malleable Wanda is soon on the lam with “Mr. Dennis”. The couple become a sort of low-rent Bonnie and Clyde.
Wanda is Terrance Malick’s Badlands meets Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA; like Malick’s film it was inspired by a true crime story and features a strangely passive female protagonist with no discernible identity of her own, and like Koppel’s documentary it offers a gritty portrait of rural working-class America using unadorned 16 mm photography.
The verité feel of the film (mostly shot using available light) was no accident; in a 1980 documentary by Katja Raganelli included on the Criterion Blu-ray/DVD, Loden explains why she ultimately decided on cinematographer/editor Nicholas T. Proferes (who had worked with documentary film maker D.A. Pennebaker). Of the various cinematographers’ work she had been looking at, Loden felt “[Proferes] really has some feelings for people, and he knows how to show ugly things without it appearing ugly…the ugly side of life.”
In that same interview, Loden also discusses how the project had been percolating for some time strictly as a script, and why she ended up deciding to direct it herself. “I sent it to some directors who liked it,” she recalls, “…they were all men, which wouldn’t necessarily make a difference, but they didn’t seem to understand what this woman was about. I would not take it to studios […] I wanted to make it my own way.” So…she did.
Although she could not have known it then, that decision has been since acknowledged as a groundbreaking move. The number of female auteurs in American film at that time could have been counted on one hand (Ida Lupino is the only one I can think of ).
Wanda also bridges an interesting cusp of second wave feminism’s effect on early-to-mid 70s American cinema. While its protagonist shares characteristics with Shirley Knight’s runaway housewife in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969), Ellen Burstyn’s widowed single mother in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), and (in a more tangential sense) the steadily unraveling suburban housewives played by Carrie Snodgrass in Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974), I could see how modern audiences might scratch their heads over how such a passive character who allows men to objectify her and generally treat her like shit could possibly qualify as a feminist heroine.
In a 2003 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, Marguerite Duras interviewed director Elia Kazan about Loden’s legacy (Kazan was married to Loden from 1967 until her death from cancer at age 48 in 1980). Kazan offered some unique insight on her character in Wanda:
“In this movie she plays a character we have in America, and who I suppose exists in France and everywhere, that we call floating, a wanderer. A woman who floats on the surface of society, drifting here or there, with the currents. But in the story of this movie, for a few days the man she meets needs her; during these few days she has a direction […] Barbara Loden understood this character very, very well because when she was young she was a bit like that, she would go here and there. She once told me a very sad thing; she told me: ‘I have always needed a man to protect me.’ I will say that most women in our society are familiar with this, understand this, need this, but are not honest enough to say it. And she was saying it sadly”.
So perhaps the sense of empowerment emanates not from the protagonist, who simply “is who she is” (i.e. a character, portrayed by Loden the actor), but the act of creation itself by Loden the writer and director of the piece (and the very personal place it comes from).
In an essay included as a booklet with the disc, Amy Taubin offers this take:
I thought it remarkable [when Taubin saw it in 1972], in part for the very reason many in the audience dismissed it: Loden’s Wanda was anything but a feminist role model. Rather, she was a version of the characters Loden had been playing on and off Broadway, on television […] She had been typecast as the kind of all-American beauty who believes that male desire is the only measure of her value, and necessary to her survival. […] Responses to the film when it was first released were mixed, with two prominent critics (Pauline Kael and Rex Reed) referring to Wanda as a slut and expressing their annoyance at having to spend time on a movie with such a negligible protagonist. […] Thanks to the feminist energy that has continued to evolve as it has seeped into the culture in the decades since the film’s release, Wanda can now be appreciated as a portrait of a kind of woman who, being no man’s fantasy, had almost never been seen on the screen before.
Hopefully, this release will help give this fine film the wider appreciation that it deserves.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)
Lost in America– Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Released at the height of Reaganomics, this 1985 gem can now be viewed in hindsight as a spot-on satirical smack down of the Yuppie cosmology that shaped the Decade of Greed. Director/co-writer Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty portray a 30-something, upwardly mobile couple who quit their high-paying jobs, liquidate their assets, buy a Winnebago, and hit the road with a “nest egg” of $145,000 to find themselves. Their goals are nebulous (“we’ll touch Indians”).
Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the “egg” is soon off the table, and the couple find themselves on the wrong end of “trickle down”, to Brooks’ chagrin. Like most Brooks films, it is as painfully funny as it is to watch it (I consider him the founding father of the Larry David/Ricky Gervais school of “cringe comedy”). Criterion’s extras are skimpy, but the 2K restoration is fabulous.