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Mercurial Talents

Ryo Nishikawa in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist (2023)

April, the cruelest month, was especially cruel this week. Not even a full day after the shocking news broke that Laurent Cantet had passed away, we learned that Michael Verhoeven was gone as well. Like Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989), Verhoeven’s o.k. (1970)—even though it’s set in a European forest—is based on the Incident on Hill 192, the 1966 rape and murder of a Vietnamese woman by American soldiers. When o.k. premiered in Berlin, the jury presided over by George Stevens voted to have it removed from the competition.

Jury member Dušan Makavejev protested the decision and Verhoeven insisted that his film was not anti-American. “If I were an American,” he said, “I would even say my film is pro‐American.” Several directors pulled their films, and like Cannes in 1968, the Berlinale essentially came to a standstill. The controversy led to the founding of the Forum in 1971. And Verhoeven returned to the festival, winning a Silver Bear for Best Director for his Oscar-nominated The Nasty Girl (1990), the story of a German high school student researching her home town’s Nazi past. Verhoeven was eighty-five.

“Not only a film critic,” write Locarno artistic director Giona Nazzaro and Cinecritica coeditor Piero Spila, “not only a historian—among the greatest in international cinema—Adriano Aprà belonged to a rather exclusive group of thinkers: those who made things happen.” Aprà, who wrote books on several Italian directors, founded magazines, ran cine-clubs, programmed and directed festivals, and appeared in Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s Othon (1969), passed away last week at the age of eighty-three.

Lourdes Portillo’s The Devil Never Sleeps (1994) is “a fascinating, highly personal documentary in which she strives to unravel the events leading to the death of Oscar, her favorite uncle in Mexico,” wrote the late Bérénice Reynaud when she spoke with Portillo for Filmmaker. “Was it suicide? Was it murder? And if murder, why? The film delves into family romance and elliptically deals with the unspoken presence of witchcraft and the ‘mystery’ of Oscar’s sexuality.”

“Arriving at no solid conclusion, the documentary interrogates the form’s own claims to truthfulness,” wrote Laura Davis, introducing her interview with Portillo for the Notebook in 2020. Portillo, whose The Mothers of the Plaza of Mayo (1985)—a group portrait of Argentine women who gathered weekly to protest the military regime—was nominated for an Academy Award, was eighty when she died this past weekend.

This week’s highlights:

  • Today through Tuesday, Film at Lincoln Center will present a series of features by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, and then on Wednesday and Thursday, Eiko Ishibashi, who scored Drive My Car (2021), will perform her live accompaniment to GIFT, which FLC calls “something like the concentrated, wordless flipside” of Evil Does Not Exist (2023). “While Hamaguchi’s films tend to explore relatively quotidian situations—quarrels and quandaries in the workplace, the home, and other corners of contemporary middle-class Japanese life—his films are nonetheless deceptive and mercurial, seemingly designed to frustrate distracted viewers with their gently misleading plotlines and occasionally abrupt shifts in tonal register,” writes Leo Goldsmith for 4Columns. “There is a waywardness to Hamaguchi’s films that belies their sense of rigor and precision, as if they were as open to contingency as their fickle characters.”

  • Ángel González and the team at They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? recently polled more than eight hundred critics to come up with a list of the greatest films ever made that did not score a single vote in the 2022 poll conducted by Sight and Sound. In the Beyond the Sight & Sound Canon, the director with the most films in the A-List is Fritz Lang, with eight, followed by François Truffaut, with seven. Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias, in the meantime, carry on discussing their way through the S&S list, film by film, from the bottom to the top. So far, they’ve made it to #78, Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994). “This isn’t a misanthropic film so much as an expression of a profound disappointment with humanity itself,” writes Phipps.

  • In a two-part essay for Gagosian Quarterly, Amit Chaudhuri places Satyajit Ray in the tradition of modernist artists influenced by Japanese wood-block prints and “at an angle to the ‘great art’ lineage that privileges the viewer’s vantage point outside the artwork. Two separate series of shots in the first half hour of Pather Panchali ‘transgress . . . this separation . . . of seeing and being seen,’” writes Chaudhuri, quoting Roland Barthes’s essay on the Eiffel Tower. “Ray is interested not in heavy strokes, deep backgrounds, and vanishing points but in cursive flows, transverse lines . . . What Matisse does with a carpet or rug Ray does with the verandah. What Matisse does with the carpet’s patterns Ray does with shadow. The source for both is the block print.”

  • Emily Barr “could swear” that her brother, Philip Seymour Hoffman, “based much of his acting technique on watching Gene Wilder” caught off guard in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975). Writing for the Paris Review, she sees traces of Wilder in “Sandy Lyle sharting at the party in Along Came Polly, Scotty J. trying to kiss Mark Wahlberg’s character in Boogie Nights, and the CIA agent Gust Avrakotos smashing the window in Charlie Wilson’s War. All three characters possess the same loud, obnoxious physicality. And then you see it in more nuanced ways, like when the brother in The Savages sneaks a cookie before the support group meeting is over, or when Freddie Miles plucks the piano keys in The Talented Mr. Ripley, or when Truman Capote takes tiny bites from the baby-food jars in Capote. These gestures brought his characters to life, and made us empathize and identify with their excitement, embarrassment, anger, and heartache.”

  • On Sunday, as a tribute to Joan Chen (The Last Emperor, Twin Peaks), the San Francisco International Film Festival will screen her debut feature as a director, Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl (1999). During the Cultural Revolution, a young woman, Xiu Xiu, is sent to a desolate region of Tibet to learn how to breed horses. Over time, she also learns to love her trainer. “Chen paints this wind-bitten portrait of growing up with inconsolable melancholy,” writes Elissa Suh, who talks with Chen for Screen Slate. “With unwavering determination, Chen covertly filmed in Tibet and was subsequently temporarily banned from China for her efforts.” Checking the print recently, Chen found it “slightly faded,” and she’s issued a call: “If anyone happens to be in the field of preserving worthy films, try to find me!”

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