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Masters in Pieces

The Daily — Feb 12, 2021
Andrei Tarkovsky

It’s been a week spent looking back and up ahead, remembering a few of cinema’s greats and anticipating the films lined up for some of the year’s big festivals. We’ve lost not only cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno—be sure to see, too, the tribute from Lee Kline, our technical director—and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière but also regal actor Christopher Plummer and Tunisian filmmaker Moufida Tlatli.

Plummer, of course, always knew that The Sound of Music (1965) would be mentioned in the first line of every obituary, and eventually, he came to terms with that. But over the past seven days, writers have gone out of their way to spotlight his extraordinary work in John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station (2009), Mike Mills’s Beginners (2010), and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019). In the New York Times, Bruce Weber notes that Plummer, who was ninety-one, was “critically lionized as among the pre-eminent Shakespeareans of the past century,” and in the Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips writes: “Plummer had a voice like a viola and a smile like Lucifer’s. He was a royal technician and a fiendishly clever, infectiously witty instrument of cunning.”

When, in 2012, critic and filmmaker Mark Cousins put together a list of the ten best films from Africa for the Guardian, he included Moufida Tlatli’s The Silences of the Palace (1994), the story of young woman at the end of French rule in Tunisia told primarily through flashbacks. Sight & Sound has pulled up the conversation Laura Mulvey had with Tlatli that ran in its March 1995 issue. “I think that each country in the Maghreb tends to take up particular themes,” said Tlatli, “and the theme of women’s liberation is the one that has been special to Tunisia.” Tlatli, who was appointed minister of culture by Tunisia’s provisional government in 2011, was seventy-three.

While it took the Berlinale nearly a full week to roll out its 2021 lineup, SXSW unleashed its list of seventy-five features and eighty-four shorts, plus episodic narratives, VR projects, and special events—“an estimated eighty bags worth of popcorn or twenty bowls of queso”—all at once on Wednesday. From March 16 through 20, many of these films—not all of them, but many—will be accessible from anywhere in the world. Slamdance, too, opening today and running through February 25, is going global. A ten-dollar pass will give you access to twenty-five features and over a hundred short films and episodic stories.

Here’s what we’ve been reading and listening to this week:

  • In the footnotes to his outstanding essay on Andrei Tarkovsky in the New Yorker, Alex Ross mentions that he started writing the piece in 1993, set it aside, and picked it up again in 2020 because these “long pandemic months seemed a good time to burrow back into Tarkovsky’s world.” Ross fell under the spell of the Russian filmmaker as a teen, and his appreciation has only deepened as it has been tempered over the years by a deeper understanding of Tarkovsky’s complex humanity. “Among directors, Tarkovsky has become a godlike figure,” writes Ross, noting his influence on such directors as Terrence Malick and Béla Tarr but also on Elena Ferrante and Patti Smith. But “despite his avant-garde leanings,” Tarkovsky “ultimately gravitated toward nineteenth-century Romanticism and its fin-de-siècle mystical offshoots.” He also “displays a misogyny that is retrograde even by nineteenth-century standards.” In the end, though, for Ross, “as for many others, Tarkovsky bestowed a new way of looking at the world.”

  • Seth Abramovitch is coming in for well-deserved praise for his sensitive handling of a challenging profile for the Hollywood Reporter. In the mid-1990s, Shelley Duvall relocated from Hollywood to a rural community in the Texas Hill Country. “The locals are fond of Duvall, to them more of an eccentric aunt than faded movie star,” he writes. Duvall is clearly not well, but she can “converse for long, coherent stretches and conjure up the slightest details about her life and of her career, of which she remains very proud.” And rightly so. Abramovitch talks not only with Duvall but also with Lily Tomlin and Sissy Spacek about Duvall’s work with Robert Altman in seven films, including Thieves Like Us (1974), Nashville (1975), 3 Women (1977), and Popeye (1980). And then of course, there’s Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). “I don’t think I’ll ever forget the experience of watching seventy-one-year-old Duvall watching her thirty-year-old self meekly swing a bat at [Jack] Nicholson as he threatened to ‘bash [her] brains in,’” writes Abramovitch. “’Why are you crying?’ I ask Duvall. ‘Because we filmed that for about three weeks,’ she replies. ‘Every day. It was very hard. Jack was so good—so damn scary. I can only imagine how many women go through this kind of thing.’”

  • When playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) first saw Margaret (2011), he sent an email to writer and director Kenneth Lonergan to drop a word he says he doesn’t use very often: “Masterpiece.” Lonergan then asked Kushner to write the introduction to the screenplay when it was published in 2014. For a special issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room on the film, Chad Perman gets Kushner talking a bit more about Margaret and the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, “Spring and Fall,” that serves as a way into it. “Kenny manages to both embrace the wonderfulness and beauty of adolescence and the shaping of an adult,” says Kushner. All of us go through phases, passing out of one “and into the next one, and each time it’s like a little death, a little whiff of mortality, and leaves you grieving things. It’s both a great triumph and a great, aching loss. And I think Margaret just gets at that so fantastically.”

  • Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari won two top awards at Sundance last year and finally opens this weekend. The story of a Korean family immigrating to rural Arkansas has been generating a fascinatingly wide array of responses. For Kristen Yoonsoo Kim in the Nation, “each facet of this immigrant Korean family’s life can be felt with all the senses.” Minari is “a balm to my spirit,” writes Hannah Amaris Roh in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “not because it eases or fulfills [a] pressure for representation, but because the film does not concern itself with representational politics at all.” For Peter Kim George at Hyperallergic, the “problem with framing Minari as a story about becoming American is that if you look closely, it is not at all about this. It is about displacement, about desperation—about survival, and ultimately about American empire.” And for the New York Times, Brandon Yu has spent “the last year or so” talking to Chung, Justin Chon (Gook), Sandi Tan (Shirkers), Bing Liu (Minding the Gap), Lulu Wang (The Farewell), Alan Yang (Tigertail), and Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) “about their films and how they fit into the budding wave of works by and about Asian-Americans.”

  • Everyone wants movie theaters to survive this pandemic, and perhaps no one more so than Edgar Wright. He’s been talking up the moviegoing experience in the Guardian and Sight & Sound, and he’s overseen a special issue of Empire for which he’s invited dozens of filmmakers (Steven Spielberg, Greta Gerwig, Spike Lee, and on and on) to join in. Rather than send in a written response to Wright’s request, Quentin Tarantino arranged to chat over Zoom, and that conversation has turned into a three-hour podcast. If you’ve heard of, never mind actually seen, every title these two drop, hats off to you.

For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.

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