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The All-Determining Lens

Mou Tun-fei’s The End of the Track (1970)

New Yorkers have spent the past few months taking a good long look at depictions of their city on film. In September, we launched the New York Stories program on the Criterion Channel. Abrams Books released Jason Bailey’s Fun City Cinema: New York City and the Movies That Made It in October, and in December, Vulture contributors put together a ranked and annotated list of the 101 best New York City movies of all time.

Starting today, Film Forum is presenting NYC’s Movie Renaissance 1945–1955, a series inspired by Richard Koszarski’s latest book, “Keep ’Em in the East”: Kazan, Kubrick, and the Postwar New York Film Renaissance. Force of Evil (1948) is the opening film, and if you can get your hands on a copy in print, the latest Cineaste features Brian Neve’s 1988 interview with blacklisted director Abraham Polonsky. It’s quite a ride.

4Columns film editor Melissa Anderson singles out The Marrying Kind (1952) and It Should Happen to You (1954), both directed by George Cukor and both starring the quintessential New Yorker comedienne. “While it may be a corny paradox to say that it takes a special kind of genius to play dumb, the great actress Judy Holliday nevertheless revealed the multiple strata underlying her exquisite portrayals of simplemindedness,” writes Anderson. “Any sentence uttered by Holliday in her Cukor comedies . . . highlights her vocal agility. Her voice seems carbonated, her words like bubbles that form and pop as if in an egg cream.”

Other standouts in the program include Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, and Ray Ashley’s Little Fugitive (1953), which François Truffaut claimed was a tremendous influence on the French New Wave, and a program of three-minute music films presented by Susan Delson, author of the new book Soundies and the Changing Image of Black Americans on Screen: One Dime at a Time. The series runs through February 10.

A few items that caught our eye this week:

  • The BFI season In the Eyes of a Silent Star: The Films of Asta Nielsen opens Thursday in London and runs through March 15. Sight and Sound has posted Robert C. Allen’s ode from 1973 peppered with praise from Guillaume Apollinaire, Lotte Eisner, Béla Balázs, and Siegfried Kracauer for “one of the first, if not the first, and one of the greatest, if not the greatest, international screen stars of the 1910s and 1920s.” In the more than seventy films she appeared in, Nielsen “summoned emotions, nuance by nuance, to her face and with the smallest movements could tell complex stories of passion and loss on camera,” writes Pamela Hutchinson in the Guardian. “In her memoirs, she called it: ‘The absolute gift of thinking yourself into fragments organized beforehand in your mind, which requires authenticity of expression in front of the all-determining lens.’”

  • Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley didn’t fare too well at the box office when it opened last month, but it’s reopening today, and several hundred theaters will be screening a new black-and-white version. In the Los Angeles Times, Martin Scorsese urges audiences to give it a chance. This new adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 novel is “truer to the animating spirit of film noir than the many ‘homages’ that have been made over the years,” writes Scorsese. “Guillermo is certainly speaking from and to his own time, but he’s doing so in the idiom of a time gone by, and the urgency and despair of then overlaps with the urgency and despair of now in a way that’s quite disturbing. It’s like a warning bell.” On the Movies That Made Me podcast, del Toro talks with Joe Dante and Josh Olson about films by Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick—and Martin Scorsese.

  • In his latest column on problematic movies for the Decider, Glenn Kenny suggests that the “intricate narrative structure” of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs “actually provides a sort of rationale for making the characters as vividly obnoxious as they are.” The film premiered at Sundance in 1992—the Ringer’s Sean Fennessey and Adam Nayman discuss the movie and that year’s festival—and went home empty-handed, while Alexandre Rockwell’s In the Soup won a grand jury prize. This week Filmmaker posted a 1993 conversation between Tarantino and Rockwell, who notes that, besides Steve Buscemi, their two films may not seem at first glance to have much to do with each other. “But I see a lot in common with these two movies. There’s no one star, they’re about people, loyalty, friendships, betrayal. I don’t know if they have common influences or not.” Turns out, they do: Jean-Pierre Melville to a certain degree, but especially the early work of Jean-Luc Godard.

  • The Olive Trees of Justice (1962), the story of a young Frenchman who returns home to Algiers to attend to his dying father, is the only fictional feature from documentary filmmaker James Blue. It was shot during the waning days of the Algerian War and “acknowledges colonial oppression as well as post-colonial displacement,” writes J. Hoberman in the New York Times. Writing for New York’s Metrograph, Giovanni Marchini Camia delves into the work of “a major filmmaker and thinker,” highlighting “the sad irony of his relative obscurity, one shared by many documentarians who commit themselves to rendering visible the invisible.”

  • Through the weekend, the Harvard Film Archive Virtual Cinematheque is presenting Tabooed Initiation: Two Films by Mou Tun-fei, a program of early works by the Chinese filmmaker who in his later years would turn to directing horror, kung fu, and sexploitation movies for the Shaw Brothers. I Didn’t Dare Tell You (1969) and The End of the Track (1970), though, are “gentle, humanist portraits of young people struggling to get by in an uneasy time of economic inequality, reminiscent of the Italian neorealists in their devotion to everyday life,” writes Sean Burns for WBUR. “What’s puzzling is how the director of two films so compassionate and delicately attuned to the human condition could spend the rest of his career as a pornographer and purveyor of ghastly, despairing images. Without delving too far into armchair psychoanalysis, one could imagine Mou’s sensitivity to the inequities so unsparingly depicted in his films ultimately curdling into rage.”

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