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Moods and Memes

Juraj Herz’s The Cremator (1969)

Once again, we wrap another week taking measure of our losses. Toni Morrison, who became the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 and was also a deeply perceptive literary critic and editor, is gone. She was eighty-eight. “Morrison had a superfluity of gifts and, like few other writers of her era, bent language to her will,” writes Dwight Garner. “Her prose could be lush, or raw and demotic, or carefree and eccentric, often on a single page. She filtered folklore, biblical rhythms, dreams, choral voices and a steep awareness of history into her work.” The New York Times has also gathered tributes and remembrances from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Margaret Atwood, and many others.

The BFI’s Grace Barber-Plentie has tweeted a passage from Morrison’s 1970 novel The Bluest Eye about going to the movies: “There death was dead, and people made every gesture in a cloud of music. There the black-and-white images came together, making a magnificent whole—all projected through the ray of light from above and behind. It was really a simple pleasure, but she learned all there was to love and all there was to hate.”

Also gone is David Berman, poet, musician, and the subject of Michael Tully’s 2007 documentary, Silver Jew. Profiling Berman just a few weeks ago for the Ringer, John Lingan noted that he “wrote fractured, jangly songs using only cowboy chords—the basics at the end of the neck—but adorned them with couplet after couplet of bumper-sticker philosophy and strip-mall surrealism. Silver Jews fans carry Berman lines in our heads like fond memories.”

Yesterday, Jean-Pierre Mocky, whom Museum of Modern Art film curator Dave Kehr calls an “unclassifiable outlier of the French cinema,” passed away at the age of eighty-six. As an actor, Mocky is probably best known for his turn in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Vanquished (1953), and in 1987, he directed Catherine Deneuve in Agent trouble and Jeanne Moreau in The Miracle.

Especially notable this week:

  • In his report on this year’s Karlovy Vary Film Festival for Film Comment, Nick Pinkerton notes that he caught the new restoration of Juraj Herz’s The Cremator (1969), currently playing at New York’s Metrograph through next Thursday. Tackling the rise of fascism in the Prague of the 1930s, “Herz’s approach is to thrust us into the troubled headspace of Karel Kopfrkingl (a pudgy, clammy Rudolf Hrušínský), a mortician . . . whose proselytization for the merits of cremation gradually takes on a crackpot religious fervor,” writes Pinkerton. “Few movies have shown the capitulation to a totalitarian worldview more mordantly,” argues J. Hoberman in the New York Times. For Jonathan Romney, writing for Film Comment, The Cremator is “essential viewing if you’re a lover of morbid black comedy; a connoisseur of the kind of cinema that lies on the delicate border between horror and social satire; or a student of political and moral corruption.” And for the Metrograph, Courtney Duckworth surveys Herz’s oeuvre: “As with any skilled modulator of moods and tones—grotesquerie, sweetness, irony, eerie erotics—he was fond of the electrifying excesses of directors such as Fellini, Buñuel, and Shindo, especially Onibaba.
  • The interview that everyone’s been talking about this week is David Marchese’s extensive conversation with Nicolas Cage for the New York Times Magazine. Naturally, the dinosaur skull, the pet cobras, and all the other baubles of Cage lore are present and accounted for, but there’s also plenty of substantial discussion of his actual work. “For an actor to say, ‘I want to try something else,’ is a challenging road to take,” says Cage. “I’ve taken risks. But there has been a collision between the acting experiments and the memeification extrapolated from them. That has not been intentional.” In the meantime, he’s been watching a lot of Bergman and Tarkovsky lately. “I have all the time in the world in between movies to lose myself in these maestros’ films.”
  • For months now, a very 2019 thing to do has been to celebrate 1999 as a watershed year for cinema. Now, along with Brian Raftery’s new book and countless twentieth-anniversary pieces, we have an annotated list of that year’s top twenty-five films according to a dozen contributors to the A.V. Club. At the top of it, we find Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, a film that A. A. Dowd suggests “anticipated a new era of identity fluidity. Which is to say, even more so than The Matrix, perhaps, it was a harbinger of the techno-connected world to come: a portal into the twenty-first century, when the internet would provide everyone the opportunity to be, or at least pretend to be, whomever they wanted.”
  • At the Notebook, Ela Bittencourt is delving a good decade or two even further into the past. Punks, Poets & Valley Girls: Women Filmmakers in 1980s America, a series running in New York through August 20, “offers such an abundance of stylistic and narrative through-lines that it’s hard to distill them,” she writes. “This is partly the point of the BAM programmer Jesse Trussell: that if you forego focusing on commonly consecrated auteurs, suddenly the 1980s yield not a dearth or a trickle but rather a flood of films by women.”

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