Did You See This?

Anarchy and Beauty

The Daily — May 28, 2021
Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (1933)

Think of MGM, and you’re thinking of such classic musicals as Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and sweeping epics like Gone with the Wind (1939). But the bulk of the films the once-great Hollywood studio made before 1986 was sold to Warner Bros. decades ago. MGM still had Rocky and James Bond, but for months, it had been looking for a buyer until Amazon picked it up on Wednesday for $8.45 billion. In the New York Times, Brooks Barnes, Nicole Sperling, and Karen Weise explain why Amazon has shelled out about forty percent more for MGM than anyone else was willing to pay. “For starters, it can.” Beyond that, though, as other studios funnel their films into their own services, Amazon’s Prime Video has become desperate for titles to stream and I.P. to exploit.

In festival news, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch has been confirmed not only for Cannes but also for the New York Film Festival in the fall before it opens in theaters on October 22. While we await next week’s announcement of the full Cannes lineup, Fabien Lemercier surveys dozens of contenders at Cineuropa. When this year’s Directors’ Fortnight opens on July 7, the Carrosse d’Or will be given to the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman. It’s something like a life achievement award presented each year by the French Directors’ Association, and past winners include Agnès Varda, Ousmane Sembène, and Martin Scorsese.

Starting on June 11, and throughout most of the summer, the NYFF will present selections from last year’s program—but this time around, in theaters. Highlights in the Big Screen Summer series include all five features in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology; The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror, a feature begun in 1967 by Raúl Ruiz and completed last year by Valeria Sarmiento; and the new restoration of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai (1998).

Here’s what’s caught our eye over the past seven days:

  • In the new Sight & Sound, Richard Porton presents a quick primer on the subject of his book, Film and the Anarchist Imagination. Moving through such works as Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983) and Pedro Pinho’s The Nothing Factory (2017), he arrives midway through at Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (1933). “The genius of Vigo’s film resides in the ability of its young protagonists to transform the carceral realm of the classroom into a liberatory zone more reminiscent of a playground,” writes Porton. “This deployment of play is especially apparent in a scene in which one of the more sympathetic teachers impersonates Chaplin—a heroic figure for anarchist cinephiles. The dreamy slow-motion pillow fight in the students’ dormitory, the movie’s most famous set piece, is a utopian affirmation of possibilities beyond the parameters of a repressive institution.”

  • Writing for Artforum five years ago, Nick Pinkerton suggested that if one were to “devise the platonic ideal of a pre-Code movie it would probably look quite a bit like Tay Garnett’s 1930 barrelhouse melodrama Her Man.” It’s a retelling of the story of doomed lovers Frankie and Johnnie starring Helen Twelvetrees and Ricardo Cortez and set in a Havana dive. A new restoration premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in 2016, and Farran Smith Nehme called it “an exhilarating discovery” in Film Comment. Now Her Man is screening in MoMA’s Virtual Cinema through June 10. “There’s an abundance of running gags,” writes J. Hoberman in the New York Times, “but what really sets Her Man apart is its fluidity. Garnett orchestrates several extended dolly shots through Havana’s red-light district—the camera navigating crowds, horse carts, and fistfights. The accompanying sound mix is no less swoon-worthy.” Her Man often plays “like one long barroom brawl.”

  • Marking the thirtieth anniversary of Daughters of the Dust, New York’s Metrograph is running an essay by Yasmina Price on director Julie Dash’s “constellation of influences and interlocutors.” Dash “operated in softer and more aesthetically driven registers” than other filmmakers associated with the LA Rebellion and turned to Sergei Parajanov, Andrei Tarkovsky, Isaac Julien, and Satyajit Ray “as points of reference in her image-making.” Her work was also in conversation with Black women writers such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Toni Cade Bambara. In light of her collaboration with artist Arthur Jafa as her cinematographer and painter Kerry James Marshall as her production designer, “it becomes clear how the film’s breathtaking visuals emerged from both the attentiveness to minutiae and a sweeping spatial sensibility.”

  • At Hyperallergic, Ryan Swen offers a guide to Jia Zhangke’s five feature-length documentaries and Jordan Cronk talks with the filmmaker about his latest, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (2020). Divided into eighteen chapters, Swimming draws on conversations with those who remember the late writer Ma Feng, best known for the stories he wrote in the 1950s and ’60s, and with three living writers, Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong. As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky points out at the A.V. Club, “what emerges is a fragmentary oral history of Chinese rural life across several transformative decades of the twentieth century.” Jia tells Cronk that what too often goes missing in “abstract or statistical histories” is “not necessarily what happened, but how things happened, and those are the details which I hope, once seen, will offer compelling evidence as to why we and other documentary filmmakers make the films we make.” Talking to Forrest Cardamenis at Filmmaker, Jia says that he wants his audience “to listen again and really face what we have experienced so that we will not make the same mistakes again.”

  • Making the same mistakes again and again is a running motif throughout Hugo Emmerzael’s engaging interview in the Notebook with Sergei Loznitsa, the director of such fictional features as My Joy (2010) and Donbass (2018) as well as several documentaries, including Austerlitz (2016), The Trial (2018), and State Funeral (2019). “The most prescient mention of crowds in literature was made by Alexander Pushkin in Boris Godunov,” says Loznitsa, referencing the play that Modest Mussorgsky turned into an opera, which in turn, was adapted for the screen in 1954 by Vera Stroyeva and in 1989 by Andrzej Żuławski. “There has been this tragic situation that involves the killing of a child. The finale depicts a large crowd that witnesses this horrific event happening on stage. In the last sentence Pushkin remarks that people are speechless. ‘The People are silent with horror.’ Starting from this remark, I think we can have a perspective on various events throughout Soviet history.”

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