Thirty-first Year

1561.) Vintage: The third and final part of my interview with the great French cinematographer Caroline Champetier covers a lot of ground and still doesn’t put a dent in her amazing filmography. First off we talk about her frequent work with a performer, namely the legendary Jeanne Moreau. From that we move to one of the directors she’s worked with numerous times, Benoit Jacquot, and the film of his that is her favorite, A Single Girl (an experiment in telling a story in “real time”). From that we move on to her work with filmmakers Jacques Doillon and Margarethe von Trotta. The last filmmaker we discuss is Champetier herself, who has directed and shot a handful of features, including a telefilm biopic about the Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. I’m glad to have discussed a broad range of Champetier’s work with her – she’s done cinematography for some of the greatest films of the last few decades.

1562.) The Funhouse has a long history of doing Deceased Artiste tributes to the people I love. This week it’s the late, great actor Alan Arkin (who also wrote and directed). In Part 1 of my tribute to Arkin I cover the years 1966 to 1975, in which he started out with three film chameleon-like portrayals of very different characters. Leaving out his not-well-scripted turn as Inspector Clouseau, the trio of great films find him playing: a confused Russian sailor, a villainous hipster, and a deaf mute in a small Southern town. After that, Arkin continued to play “deep” character parts, but also played with his own persona, esp. in his starring role in Catch-22 directed by Mike Nichols (amidst an all-star cast of neurotic actors). Along the way there were gems of the “maverick Seventies” like Jules Feiffer’s pitch-dark Little Murders (which he directed and had a supporting role in), a revved-up buddy cop movie (Freebie and the Bean), and an unusual road movie (Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins). Part 2 to come!

1563.) Screw-up at Access Playback!

1564.) To celebrate the holiday season and commemorate the passing of William Klein (yes, it was several months ago, but we never forget the artists we love in the Funhouse), I present an episode built around Klein’s last feature, Messiah (1998). Klein decided he wanted to “illustrate” Handel’s classic with devotional imagery – thus, we have three kinds of footage seen in this film. The first are images of American excess, including Xtian conventions, celebrations in Vegas, and kitsch (a bodybuilder “for Christ”); the second is comprised of religious ceremonies from countries all over the world (some of the footage shot by Klein, some licensed from other sources); the third, which is perhaps the most memorable but is dropped midway through the film, are local choirs singing pieces from the Handel original. (A “regular” classical choir is singing the piece throughout, in English with French subtitles – the film was funded by different production entities, but most of the money came from France.) Klein does indeed tip his hand at one point and show sped-up traffic (which seems like a nod to Godfrey Reggio and his Glass-scored chronicles of human activity). Klein’s film thus moves through the landscape of some of his incredible photography – the culture of cities (as often tacky as it can be) and the faces of their inhabitants (shown here in a beautiful montage of couples at a Texas open-air event).

1565.) Vintage: In tribute to the passing of Agnes Varda, I present a discussion of, and clips from, her 2011 arts-cable miniseries From Here to There. Varda’s fiction films from the Sixties through the Eighties are superb; after that period, she made documentaries that were either sublime (The Gleaners and I) or charming but scattered, as with this five-part video diary. In it we see Agnes move from country to country, receiving honors for her films and interacting with her favorite artists. As could be expected, the interactions that are the most fascinating to me are with other filmmakers. Thus, her time spent with Chris Marker in his studio is the most vivid portrait of the man that exists on video (albeit with him still located outside of camera range); her reflection on the sale of Ingmar Bergman’s possessions is equally moving. But even Agnes’ uneven work is better than most mainstream filmmakers’ best pictures, so tonight we pay tribute to her moving from “here to there.”

1566.) The second and last part of my Deceased Artiste tribute to Alan Arkin finishes up his “golden” years (when everything he was in was worth seeing), plus some stray later projects I’m fond of. The chronology picks up in ’75 and features two of the films he was in that were box-office hits – The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, where he gave a nuanced performance as Freud, and The In-Laws. He was a producer of the latter, which shows how influential performers could still be in the creation of relatively small films (for big studios) even after the shift to “tentpole movies” for young minds. (But before Heaven’s Gate.) His re-teaming with Peter Falk is also excerpted but it was not a hit; in fact, Big Trouble (where Andrew Bergman left the project as director and John Cassavetes came in to fill the void; it was his last film) was barely released. The Eighties, Nineties, and so forth yielded a few good film roles for Arkin, but the 21st found him both winning an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine (not featured here; you can find it) and also appearing in senior buddy comedies that were instantly forgettable (and impossible to distinguish from each other). I have substituted a bonus (rare) final clip of him just a short time ago doing something closer to his heart.

1567.) In the “You Ain’t Seein’ This Anywhere Else” dept of the Funhouse, I present an episode devoted to Goldstein, Philip Kaufman’s 1964 debut as a filmmaker. Directed with Benjamin Manaster, the film is an episodic journey that includes dramatic and comic scenes, all grouped around the idea that an Elijah-like prophet (Lou Gilbert) has emerged from the water and is wandering around the streets of Chicago. There’s an allegorical, free-form aspect to all of this, inspired (according to Kaufman) by the French New Wave and the films of Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke, but the scenes featuring certain characters outline a plot that is very much of its time – including a thread in which an aspiring sculptor gets his girlfriend pregnant and she gets an illegal abortion performed by two traveling (and very chatty) abortionists. What makes Goldstein so special, though, besides its Chicago location shooting, is the casting of a number of Second City legends — Del Close, Severn Darden, Anthony Holland, Jack Burns, and the mother of it all, Viola Spolin — as well as novelist Nelson Algren, who tells an unusual story about a ball player to our sculptor antihero. The film is currently out of print on disc and has yet to show up in the usual arthouse spaces.

1568.) Spotlighting yet another “maverick era” film that has been underseen since it came out, I present an episode discussing and excerpting T.R. Baskin, a 1970 “small movie” that was made by a major studio with a seasoned but mostly conventional director (Herbert Ross) at the helm. The film is another one of those little character-study gems made in that era, which makes no grand statement and isn’t “epic” in any way, but ends up saying more about relationships and feeling lonely in the process. The plot revolves around a wisecracking (but very deadpan) young woman (Candice Bergen) who moves to Chicago to start a life and ends up encountering chatty people (and loneliness) at every turn. Peter Boyle is characteristically perfect as a traveling salesman “looking for a good time” who has been given her number, and James Caan is the lover that was “meant to be” but wasn’t. The script by Peter Hyams functions like a novella in its delineation of character and place (with the Chicago locations helping greatly in that respect); Ross’s only stylistic flourish is to mimic the paintings of Edward Hopper (something he later did in arguably his best picture, Pennies From Heaven). The performances are sharp (including Marcia Rodd as T.R.’s newfound best friend), the dialogue is revealing and funny, and the overall impression is of seeing “moments from a life” – something never done better (and more consistently) in Hollywood films than in the early Seventies.

1569.) In the “You Ain’t Seein’ This Anyplace Else” dept, I return to the work of the young Philip Kaufman for his second film, the comic-book, pop-art comedy Fearless Frank (1967). It’s an incredibly silly picture that happens to have a terrific cast, eye-catching Chicago locations, and visuals that are surprisingly both Godardian and Kirby-esque. The plot concerns a benevolent scientist (Severn Darden, pictured) who brings a young man (Jon Voight, in his first movie role) back to life as a superhero to fight the ruthless (and all-made-up) sidekicks of a crime boss (Lou Gilbert, the star of Kaufman’s Goldstein). These villains are holding a femme fatale (Monique van Vooren) hostage and are played by, among others, Ben Carruthers (Cassavetes’ SHADOWS), the young David Steinberg, and novelist Nelson Algren (!). The visuals are indeed the whole show as Kaufman both mimics comic books (the work of Kirby is brought to mind by the sight of Voight in his silver suit eliminating the villains) and the French New Wave – most prominently Godard, who had made widescreen films with bright primary colored images (Pierrot Le Fou, Made in USA) a year or two before Kaufman made Frank.

1570.) Vintage: Presenting scenes from another “film you ain’t seein’ anyplace else,” this week I highlight sequences from the French romantic comedy Adorable Liar (1962), directed by Michel Deville. The film is charming but slight, but it is worth highlighting because of its cast. Its two stars, Marina Vlady and Macha Meril, plays sisters from the country who are flirting with the men they meet in Paris. (Marina’s character is a liar who is eventually hoisted with her own petard.) The interesting thing with that pairing is that both women later worked for Funhouse favorite Jean-Luc Godard (separately but memorably). Other favorite performers appear in the film in small roles, including the great Michael Lonsdale and Pierre Clementi (whom we will be saluting in future episodes).

1571.) A brilliant British farce hits the Media Funhouse, in three distinct parts. The show airs late Sat/early Sun at 1:00 a.m. EST. (Click link below and in the comments.) This week: Can deconstruction ever be funny? The answer (yes) can be found in the trilogy of plays written by Alan Ayckbourn called The Norman Conquests. This week I begin a series of episodes devoted to this trilogy, which was made into a BBC miniseries that aired in the U.S. on PBS back in the long-ago that was the late Seventies. The series presents a weekend in a country house, in which six people endure each other’s presence while (central action here) a randy librarian, played by the utterly charming Tom Conti, tries to sleep with the female members of the family. He’s married to one sister (Fiona Walker), has planned a weekend getaway with her younger sister (Penelope Wilton) and, during the run of the plays, seduces his sister-in-law (Britcom veteran Penelope Keith). Ayckbourn wrote the three plays so that each one has only one setting (part one is set entirely in the kitchen), and only by seeing all three of the plays does the viewer truly understand what went on over the course of the weekend. In the process, the plays lay bare the construction of a farce — we have characters moving quickly in and out of doors, behavior being based on events we saw previously (or are going to see), and quiet, well-scripted moments of character exposition alternating with broad comic explosions. While this may sound cold and calculated, the result is a very entertaining portrait of some very “on edge” characters, with the whole thing stolen by Conti in a career-making turn as Norman, the very horny librarian.