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Many Happy Returns

Laura Dern in Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk (1985)

Before turning to this week’s highlights, let’s note that a new 4K restoration of Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk (1985) opens today in Film at Lincoln Center’s virtual cinema. The winner of the grand jury prize at Sundance features Laura Dern in her first lead role as fifteen-year-old Connie in an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s 1966 short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” that, to Jake Cole at Slant, “feels like it’s told in two halves: one a relatively tame coming-of-age drama, the other its warped, funhouse-mirror reflection.”

Connie, who spends her days flirting her way through northern Californian shopping malls, is approached one afternoon alone at home by Arnold Friend, “a James Dean-styled hunk of red-blooded Americana in the chiseled shape of Treat Williams,” as Charles Bramesco describes him at Little White Lies. Chopra’s “deliberate pacing and long, beautifully composed shots culminate in the protracted standoff between Connie and Friend, whose aging-greaser eccentricity Williams embodies as a nightmare of madness and masculine entitlement,” writes Michelle Orange at 4Columns. “Dern’s long career as one of cinema’s great reactors was born in this nearly thirty-minute scene, in which her entire being flickers between coquettish intrigue, dark apprehension, and terror.”

When the restoration premiered at the New York Film Festival earlier this fall, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody observed that Chopra “strikes an astoundingly tactile, intimate vision of Connie’s terror together with the burdens of self-doubt and silence that she endures—and that predators foster. The film’s power is enormous throughout; spare means (long-held closeups, a four-minute take of sisterly confessions) evoke a drama that seems to have been filmed holding its breath.”

Besides the drama of the U.S. election that’s been keeping the world on edge since Tuesday, here are a few other things that have been going on this week:

  • In his latest outstanding piece for the New York Times, Wesley Morris looks back to the rise of the supercop in the early 1970s: “He’s just north of middle age, drunk, white, monomaniacal, trigger-happy; never caped yet stylish in his turtlenecks, sweater vests, pork pie hats and visible holster; and, in his way, handsome, roguishly. While everybody else is going by the book, the supercop declares himself illiterate.” But then, in 1971, along came Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and perhaps more consequentially, Shaft. Director Gordon Parks “discovered what still feels like a vaccine for all that ailed a Black moviegoer for most of the movies’ existence. Shaft was more than a supercop. Rather casually, he had to be super at everything, including being in on the joke, including sex.” As supplementary listening, let me recommend Starring the NYPD, an excellent episode of Jason Bailey and Michael Hull’s podcast about New York in the movies, Fun City Cinema.

  • In conjunction with Third Realm, an exhibition of contemporary art from Asia, Vancouver’s Polygon Gallery is presenting a new five-minute film that Apichatpong Weerasethakul made when he returned to Thailand after shooting Memoria with Tilda Swinton in Columbia. The title, October Rumbles, may refer both to the distant thunder heard on the soundtrack and to the current political unrest in his country that he addresses in an accompanying statement. “The way I usually make films I have to look inside myself, to search for memories and other stuff,” he writes. “But now I feel that maybe that’s not so healthy. To be able look at other peoples’ memories is a way to decentralize your thinking and create empathy for others.”

  • For Margaret Spillane, Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), loosely based on the series of events that led to a military coup and a string of far-right military juntas that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974, is “a sexy, high-voltage film that inaugurated a genre: the antifascist thriller.” The film “speaks directly to the present situation not only in its depictions of right-wing thuggery but also in its portrayals of intelligent, honorable people who cherish the virtuous-leader rescue story,” writes Spillane in a piece that the Nation ran on Tuesday, Election Day. Spillane warns that “the corrupt interests that have profited from the catastrophes of the past four years will still be securely in place. Z teaches us that the moment of reckoning constitutes not the end of the story, but the beginning.”

  • It’s been another strong week at the Notebook, with John Gianvito introducing Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, his 2007 film inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and Steffanie Ling reflecting on the early work of the late Ukrainian filmmaker Kira Muratova. And Jeremy Carr offers a solid primer on Eric Rohmer, who “placed the nuanced behavior of the individual at the fore of all his work.” After walking us through the oeuvre, Carr recommends a handful of films to start with and a few suggestions for further reading.

  • Let’s wrap this week’s round with something lovely and wonderful, the return of Sophia Loren. She’s eighty-six now, and The Life Ahead, an adaptation of Romain Gary’s 1975 novel La vie devant soi directed by Loren’s son, Edoardo Ponti, marks her first on-screen performance since they worked together six years ago on a half-hour adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s The Human Voice. In the run-up to the premiere of The Life Ahead on Netflix next Friday, Loren has been granting generous interviews, talking to the Guardian’s Xan Brooks about choosing Italy over Hollywood and Carlo Ponti over Cary Grant, and to Variety’s Peter Debruge about her childhood and her close friendship with Marcello Mastroianni. “When I speak about these things, I feel like I did it yesterday,” she tells Debruge. “I feel very, very young.”

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