Favorites: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Written and directed by John Cassavetes
Produced by Al Ruban, Phil Burton
Starring Ben Gazzara, Timothy Carey, Seymour Cassel, Robert Phillips, Morgan Woodward, John Kullers, Al Ruban, Azizi Johari, Virginia Carrington, Meade Roberts, Alice Friedland, Donna Gordon, Haji, Carol Warren, Kathalina Veniero, Yvette Morris, Jack Ackerman, David Rowlands, Trisha Pelham, Sonny Aprile, Gene Darcy, Vincent Barbi, Val Avery, Elizabeth Deering, Soto Joe Hugh

“The great function of conflict is that it arouses consciousness.”

–James MacGregor Burns


Almost as soon as he’s liquidated a pricey debt incurred while gambling, the cordial, debonair presenter and proprietor of a burlesque club (Gazzara) stakes a cumulative $23K on losing hands. The mobsters (Woodward, Cassel, Phillips, Kullers) to whom it’s owed expect his arrears paid in full only by the prompt assassination of a bookmaker (Hugh), but they never expected their cool, compassionate debtor to be so tough, canny, or unlucky.


Crime dramas don’t come much more reflective or humane than Cassavetes’s condemnation of ruinous rats, here opposed to a protagonist who’s as magnanimous as formidable. Conundra consequent of vice and ungenerosity are anatomized in toto, untainted by the delusion that nobility absolves. American cinema’s first fully independent auteur here plies Kuosawa’s burden: the moral man straining in an immoral world.


In intimate close-ups or at immobile, tracking and panning distances, we spy every expressive and gestural shading of Cassavetes’s dramatis personae, captured as graphically as his sparing, impelling violence. Like Altman’s contemporary output, this segues from dispassionate to personal observation without tonal incongruity or bathos.


Grainy gloom, glares of electric and solar sources, and both contrasting are lensed by Mitchell Breit and co-producer/co-star Al Ruban, who beautify bright, often gaudy hues.


Every lusty gust, desperate glance, loving stare, amiable assurance, indignant scowl or snarl, and smile radiant or hateful was felt as much as acted: Gazzara poured his essence into Cosmo Vitelli to vivify his director’s charismatic self-conception. As a stripper in his employ who jealously adores him, Johari exudes as much discontent as nubility. Seething, hissing Carey is no less intense as an intimidating heavy who foists by force the unlikely hitman’s unwanted felony. In a subtler approach, ordinarily avuncular Cassel insinuates more menace with a simple grin than most uttered threats. The club’s flamboyant host (Roberts) and ecdysiasts (Johari, Carrington, Friedland, Gordon, Haji, Warren, Veniero) credibly incorporate seedy, working-class entertainers.


Some melodic themes by Bo Harwood are heard within, and briefly outside Vitelli’s club.


Preparation for and execution of the titular hit are realistically riveting. Johari’s jaundiced stripper attacks a waitress (Pelham) during her rehearsal. In the aftermath of his settlement, Vitelli eludes killers, confronts the mother (Carrington) of his favorite employee, then encourages his sulking staff with a deliberative dispensation of wisdom. What a week!


No single chef-d’oeuvre from Cassavetes’s string during the ’70s is readily selected as the best, but this would be a tenable pick.

Recommended for a double feature paired with California Split or Saint Jack.

Favorites: Deathtrap

Deathtrap (1982)
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by Ira Levin, Jay Presson Allen
Produced by Burtt Harris, Alfred De Liagre Jr., Jay Presson Allen
Starring Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, Dyan Cannon, Irene Worth, Henry Jones

“The most important thing in acting is honesty: if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

–George Burns

For four flagrant flops in consecution, their famed but fading playwright (Caine) of thrillers is driven to dejection, desperation and distraction of a kind inspiring the murderous machination to invite a sometime student (Reeve) who’s penned and posted him a first-rate foray in his manner to his home for collaborative colloquy, so to dispatch the gifted greenhorn with an article from his panoply of stage props and antique weaponry, and crib the thriller as his own to revive his career and finances. Attic dialogue, anfractuous artifices and artful auguries of Levin’s hit stage play are preserved and magnified in this penultimate picture of Lumet’s second winning streak, as sable in its hilarity as it’s diegetically flexuous, defying and denying prevision for initial viewers first with a perverse masterstroke at midpoint, then a succession of vicissitudes as both the sinuous plot and that of its culprit’s eponymous work unfold pari passu, complicated by the homicidal author’s squirrelly, cardiopathic wife (Cannon) and a meddlesome, clairvoyant celebrity (Worth) of Netherlandish extraction. Caine was cast choicely in the seething, sulky, scheming, creepy lead opposite Reeve, whose typecast stature as cinema’s charming, caped darling made selection of a wickedly rigorous role as impressive for his professional daring as his patently protean proficiency. “To show you any more would be a crime,” proclaims this movie’s trailer in sincerity; that first of several twists may not shock with the potency it had over three decades ago, but the cinematic dash with which Lumet and continually contemporaneous collaborator Allen adapted Levin’s ingenious source elevates it in transition to the filmic medium. It’s shot, played and cut with such irresistible, hysterical, cutthroat, playful panache, you almost can’t envision its proscenium!
Recommended for a double feature paired with A Shock to the System.

Favorites: The House of the Devil

The House of the Devil (2009)
Written and directed by Ti West
Produced by Josh Braun, Larry Fessenden, Roger Kass, Peter Phok, Derek Curl, Badie Ali, Hamza Ali, Malik B. Ali, Greg Newman
Starring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Greta Gerwig, Mary Woronov, A.J. Bowen

“That which is new can only be effective in the context of what is old and familiar.”

–Krzysztof Penderecki

They’re almost as often botched as assayed: period pictures representing the 1980s seem unattainable undertakings for millennial filmmakers, their generation virtually defined by inauthenticity and the pervasive nescience of their precious sociocultural tabula rasa. At worst, even the era’s trappings are inadequately recreated: rather than earth tones, neon and pastel accents and accoutrements predominate in ’82; leg warmers are garbed glaringly as late as ’88; working- and middle-class households enjoy amenities of appliances and entertainments they couldn’t possibly yet afford; no residua of the ’70s are observable, be they tacky decals, ill-conceived drapes of pea-green and brown paisley or stripes, or enduring, smutty shag sprawling wall to wall. Worse, when an informed crew have replicated interiors, vesture, chattels, etc. so well as to excite the very zeitgeist for those of us who remember, the fastidious facade is shattered the moment an actor utters either parlance scripted in poor imitation or a contemporary vernacular voiced via uptalk and other insufferable habitudes.

West and his crew clothed his slow, steady exploitation of the bygone satanic panic with a rare verisimility to polish one of a few top-notch American horror flicks produced during the aughts. Its scenario would in lesser hands seem like hackery: yearning for privacy, repulsed by her slatternly roommate and desperate to secure her first month’s rent for lodging at an inviting rental house, a cute collegian (Donahue) leaps at the opportunity to babysit for an elderly couple (Noonan, Woronov) with an avidity abated by their conditional oddities, but her dubiety and suppressed suspicions prepare her neither for their grisly intrigues nor her Luciferian fate, engrossed upon a lunar emersion following the night’s total eclipse. Sagely refraining from complete pastiche, West instead incorporates techniques popularized in the ’70s and early ’80s into his vigorous idiom. Frames frozen during opening credits, lingering close-ups and zooms of varied velocities amplify tension, stress vehemence and arrest the eye. He’s incapable of a poor shot — whether still or creeping thwart and through hallways, enfilades and immaculately dressed rooms — and maintains pace and consistency by cutting his faintly grainy, chromatically rich Super 16 footage with a punctilious art worthy of his script, complete for its shades of portent and playful, preordained protagonist’s expatiating exploration of her employers’ mansion to establish spatial and tonal parameters, and raise the eyebrows of those most wakeful in her audience. Notwithstanding a few anachronous elements (a payphone accepting quarters, car alarm and latter-day faucets), this picture’s immersive for Jade Healy’s transformative production design, Robin Fitzgerald’s charming costumes, and meticulous art direction courtesy of Chris Trujillo, all complemented by Mike Armstrong’s memorable opening tune and fantastic faux newscasts helmed by second unit director/sound designer Graham Reznick. Only a few lines delivered with present intonation remind one fleetingly of Donahue’s contemporariness, and her achingly lovely, post-Celtic phenotype is as becoming of the era as her high-waisted bluejeans or knit scarf. She’s all but perfect in the role of unwitting tour guide and victim, but still spicily upstaged in their every shared scene by indie darling Gerwig as her crude, cheeky, feathered best friend. Both are foils for Noonan and Woronov, veterans of creepy roles who expertly enact a gentility veiling subtly subjacent menace. Disregard naysayers who misrepresent West’s cunningly cultivated suspense as longueur by omitting one of the best jump scares at which you’ll ever flinch, and that his prolonged preludes lead to a strobing, severely stridulous and sanguineous climax. Both the gently foreboding, pianistic themes and quintet’s strepent strings of Jeff Grace’s score, as well as adjunct music and painstaking audio design by Reznick and foley artist Shaun Brennan, intensify without disrupting disquiet of many key scenes. Few of West’s Anglophone coevals (Carruth, Mitchell, Cosmatos) evince an apprehension of their medium’s dramatic, thematic and technical dynamics so penetrating as his; well aware that the devil’s in the details, he, Reznick, et al. are just old enough to faithfully recall and evoke the ethos of ’83, when society was still sufficiently sane and cohesive to judge these atrocities shocking.

Recommended for a double feature paired with The City of the Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, Black Christmas or Beyond the Black Rainbow.

Favorites: Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World

Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World (2014)
Written and directed by Belinda Sallin
Produced by Marcel Hoehn
Starring Carmen Maria Giger, Tom Gabriel Fischer, H.R. Giger, Carmen Vega, Mia Bonzanigo, Müggi, Stanislav Grof, Sandra Beretta, Hans H. Kunz, Leslie Barany, Andreas J. Hirsch, Marco Witzig, Paul Tobler
A volume of photographs and footage visualize a conspectus concerning the career of this reverend painter, sculptor and interior designer, whose months ante mortem are also recorded at his triplex residence in Oerlikon and locales of engagement in Sallin’s dual documentary, an engrossing eulogium for a figure whose unique corpus vivendi conjoined while challenging conventions of popular and high arts. Within a domicile grandly adorned with its inhabitant’s art crept amid cluttered confines a plump and rasping Giger, for whom infirmity hadn’t attenuated a vitality of imagination still evident in sketches, and whose anecdotes evidence inspiration informed by persisting night terrors, personal trauma and a determination to resolve and channel fear into graphic and plastic design. Accessorial accounts by his wife (Carmen Maria), mother-in-law and secretary (Vega), coadjutants (Fischer, Beretta, Witzig), agent (Barany) and ex-wife (Bonzanigo) affirm and enlarge on those by their distinguished dey, portraying a freehanded friend, discriminating hoarder and gentle eccentric whose talent and characteristic Swiss industry sluiced psychic pother as otherworldly imagery. Treating of vital cycles, feminine exaltation and a morbidly skeletal abstraction of the eternal, the seamless fusion of flesh and mechanism in Giger’s emblematic phantasmagoria obfuscates and recontextualizes variance between structure and semblance, contraption and corpus, its sprawl and detail no less personal for its transcendent universality. None other in depiction, influence or memory casts so dark or abiding an umbra in Giger’s universe as his novennial model, muse and ladylove Li Tobler, whose visage, adversities, personality and presence persist post mortem in enormities of canvas and sculpture lovingly crafted in bereavement coursing more abundantly than childhood anxieties or lurking unease into inhuman contours contorting her elegance as baroque grotesquerie imaged in memoriam. His career’s outset propagating early paintings as prints via the patronage of poster publisher Kunz lead in ascent during the ’70s to cult renown, culminating in the publication of the compilation Necronomicon, which in turn prompted Dan O’Bannon and Ridley Scott to boost by collaboration his commercial breakthrough as designer of Alien‘s chillingly extraterrestrial derelict and organisms; clips shot during this rise expose the artist’s uncompromising punctiliousness, prolific productivity, jocular blasphemy and unexcelled dexterity as an eximious master of the airbrush. Decades later, a moribund Giger accompanied by his Carmens visits Bonzanigo at a formerly familial chalet in misty Flims she’s renovated ulterior to his gift, attends an exhibition to unreserved ovation at the Ars Electronica Center in Linz hosted by curator Hirsch, and signs autographs at his museum in Gruyères for exceedingly dyed, pierced, tattooed and emotional fans. Sallin’s lens is always proximate but never invasive in scrutiny of its subject’s sanctum and lifestyle, where the odd and ordinary mingle: Beretta prepares pizza for her quondam employer, who with his wife entertains collaborators and acquaintances, peruses his mountains of books and views a telecast of Shadow of the Vampire as his Siamese cat Müggi seeks affectionate attention; meters away before backdrops and amid furnishings and sculptures of forbiddingly ghoulish and venereal ingenuity, Vega wrangles her son-in-law’s finances while Fischer and Witzig organize with scrupulous care a superfluity of cumulative chattels spanning three houses, five decades and a lifetime wherein interior space was filled as indulgently by creation as oniomania. For devotees and the uninitiated alike, Sallin’s overview and celebration of Giger in extremis is the only motion picture to exhibit him in his environment, a matchless document of an artist as fertile, strange, singular and accessible as Dalí or Moebius. In death, Giger’s immortality is reified in his museum and galleries, themed cantinas and monuments, album covers, chairs, microphone stands, periapts, posters and calendars parading portent and eros from natal to terminal states — the impossible, incessant invention of a brilliant and boundless mind.
Recommended for a double feature paired with (Soft Self-Portrait of) Salvador Dalí or Jodorowsky’s Dune.

Favorites: La Cérémonie

La Cérémonie (1995)
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Written by Ruth Rendell, Claude Chabrol, Caroline Eliacheff
Produced by Marin Karmitz, Christoph Holch, Ira von Gienanth
Starring Sandrine Bonnaire, Isabelle Huppert, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Virginie Ledoyen, Valentin Merlet
Over shared secrets, scuttlebutt and dudgeon, an industrious and taciturn housemaid (Bonnaire) and pertly obtrusive postmistress (Huppert) bond at the convergence of their scandalous lives shortly after the former’s hired by a gallerist (Bisset) at her husband’s (Cassel) Lucullan rural estate. Under the clerk’s impertinent influence, her only friend’s limited occupational relations deteriorate with a swell of recusancy until jaundice peaks to a bloody fever pitch. His distinctly Marxist merger of the Papin sisters’ notorious murders and Rendell’s popular novel A Judgement in Stone bespeaks Chabrol’s inspiration via Sartre’s politicized interpretation of the former, but this is no cheap or simple dogmatic allegory: notwithstanding their unintentional condescension, his wealthy victims are as bountiful as beautiful, erudite and evenhanded, while the unhinged yet animate antagonists of the underclass reject responsibility with contumelious abandon. Instead, Chabrol imputes detriment to division of class; despite all her employers’ best intentions, Bonnaire’s peripheral domestic is an isolate at a social margin, while Huppert’s dominant intimate is as much a creation of neglect as of madness. Not since his derided, deliberately desipient Tiger series had Chabrol’s style so plangently echoed Hitchcock’s, and never ere so elegantly: players step to close-ups, conspiratorial zooms emphasize unabashed confessions and confrontations, interstitial shots are framed in residential and vehicular interiors, pans repeat subsequent to dissolves and overhead shots rotate in ascent. Sparing, subtle foreboding’s manifest in verbal suggestions, creepy little surprises and the direful strings of a fine score penned by Chabrol’s son and preferred composer, Matthieu. As fans and others familiar would expect, the leads are sublime for their elan; without a word, relinquishing her vanity and nearly uglified by gauntness and a heinous, proletarian haircut, the usually beautiful Bonnaire evinces heart-rending frustration with tearful contortion and gall by glares, a fitting foil for jabbering Huppert as an impenetrably unrepentant accomplice in a part that any lesser actress would likely overplay. Neither might a false note be heard from their co-stars — Bisset’s infallible even under the baton of hopeless hacks, but her painstaking presence and nuanced delivery couldn’t feel more natural. At an age when he’d all but abandoned ideology, Chabrol concocted to almost universal acclaim a work of sneeringly sophisticated agitprop and blackest humor that may be enjoyed as an acute crime drama, but whose implications publicize the concerning conspicuity of servitude, humiliation ensuing crippling ignorance, and consequences of indigence. Worse, his perverse pair personify every sick or uncultivated little girl permitted to grow into a mundane monster.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Rope.

Favorites: The Ninth Configuration

The Ninth Configuration (1980)
Written and directed by William Peter Blatty
Produced by William Peter Blatty, William Paul, Tom Shaw
Starring Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson, Ed Flanders, Jason Miller, Neville Brand, George DiCenzo, Steve Sandor, Joe Spinell, Moses Gunn, Richard Lynch, Robert Loggia, Tom Atkins, Tonsi
Only the toughest, gentlest agape could bear and prevail in spite of the rigors suffered by a decorated USMC Colonel and accomplished psychiatrist (Keach) assigned to analyze unhinged military personnel cloistered at a disused castle in a Pacific Northwestern forest — the last installation of a network constituted to probe the mystery of psychoses shared by officers whose high IQs are their sole commonality. His charges encompass the multiple personalities of a captain (DiCenzo) compelled to assume vestments of nuns and pirates, two squabbling lieutenants (Miller, Spinell) planning Shakespearean plays cast with canines, and an atrabiliar astronaut (Wilson) whose mind snapped during the final countdown of his lunar mission’s launch. With quiet gravity, Keach’s unorthodox counselor attains advancement with his raving patients by confiding as much in them as in the sardonic chief medic (Flanders), stolid sergeant (Atkins) and furious, frayed major (Brand) under his command, but the arcana of his own pathology and identity threaten to unravel far more than his progress. His directorial debut adapts to the screen Blatty’s eponymous rework of his novel Twinkle, Twinkle Killer Kane with copious quotas of spectacle and substance, humor and horror, lunacy and humanity to illustrate the Christian postulate of benignant sacrifice as a manifestation and evidence of God. During the first hour, Keach plays an especially sedate straight man to co-stars portraying the madmen in his care, each yattering inspired tangents and amusing non sequiturs whilst chaffing with one another and Flanders’ ballasting, quipping colonel in scenes as arresting as hysterical. Blatty’s brilliant syntheses of comedy and profundity urge his story along while occasioning bounteous unforgettable moments: eyeballed by a scowling Moses Gunn, Loggia’s lieutenant sings and dances to Al Jolson’s There’s a Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder in blackface; Miller’s beleaguered director manqué berates his star puli (Tonsi) while propounding a theory concerning The Bard’s brooding Dane from which one of his analyst’s most successful apercus issue; in a static shot recalling Blatty’s early comedic projects (especially his collaborations with Blake Edwards), stationary Keach observes the passing, progressively wacky trumpery of his screwy segregates with silent aplomb during a propitiatory phase of their therapy, during which they’re encouraged to reenact The Great Escape and stage a production of Macbeth starring a doggery. Most famed among this picture’s iconography is the culmination of a wildly subversive oneiric scene wherein an astronaut plants the American flag on the lunar surface, then turns to apotheose the Crucifixion as Keach’s narration controverts a fundamental theory of macroevolutionary origin. The directorial greenhorn’s stylistic simplicity relegates in close-ups and wide, confrontational shots focus and rightful encumbrance to his players, and those allotted monologues in service of exposition and insight do them justice with a plausible, impassioned subtlety that never clashes with daffy antics always but a few minutes removed. In discourse as much as sequence, so much is expressed in shrewd subterfuge and allusion that the ingenuity of Blatty’s dialogue and prefiguration can only be best appreciated during a second viewing. In contrast, one of the most powerful slow burns yet committed to film depicts a failed, formidable struggle by Keach’s colonel to peaceably rescue an inebriated and despondent Wilson from a flamboyantly sadistic gang of bikers (Sandor, Lynch, et al.) as riveting as the flare of a fuse crawling to its dynamitic detonation. A veteran of Hollywood, Blatty’s superior aesthetics and cognizance of his medium’s secular terrain inhibited any ply for sanctimony; he knew full well that homilies and catecheses can’t survive beyond the bounds of ecclesiastic milieus, and that evangelism in entertainment can only succeed in a mundane context. His message of divine redemption through mortal sacrifice obliged by a distinctively Christian love is packaged as rapid-fire badinage, slapstick comedy, compassionate drama, thrilling violence and a conclusive epiphany that even nullifidians can accept as an inspiring axiom: that individual rectitude matters in a fallen and ignoble world. Whether it signifies absolution, atonement or providence is a question of faith.

Favorites: À nos amours

À nos amours (1983)
Directed by Maurice Pialat
Written by Arlette Langmann, Maurice Pialat
Produced by Daniel Toscan du Plantier, Emmanuel Schlumberger, Micheline Pialat
Starring Sandrine Bonnaire, Maurice Pialat, Dominique Besnehard, Evelyne Ker, Cyr Boitard, Tsilka Theodorou, Christophe Odent, Pierre-Loup Rajot, Cyril Collard, Pierre Novion, Jacques Fieschi, Valérie Schlumberger
As a paradigm of pulchritude and conduit for the exhaust of her disintegrating Polish-Parisian clan’s explosive acrimony, a subtle yet sluttish teen (Bonnaire) seeks in every man and boy she beds the imago of her charismatically choleric father (Pialat), a practiced furrier whose frustrations inhere and aspirations have been intrusted to his nympholeptic and emotively exhausted wife (Ker), and son (Besnehard) whose emergent auctorial talent is a source of both pride and concern. Still cherry-picking all the choicest haecceities of France’s cinematic perfectionists and the nouvelle vague who ostracized them, Pialat cultivated for this masterwork the esprit of brilliantly naturalistic, frequently improvised portrayals, and ambiences of stirring verisimilitude in lingering shots that bare the essence of personality while communicating and evoking the quiet excitement anticipating defloration, warm mutuality of parental and filial affection, the afterglow of amative coitus, suggestive silences at least as expressive as speech, bodily contours of sensuous immanence, yearning for inamorati absent, stinging spurns, their attendant heartbreak, and love shipwrecked on shores of caprice, all predicated upon Langmann’s autobiographical substratum, itself personalized repeatedly to befit the handsome novices dominating the cast. From her very first shot, Bonnaire’s as mesmerizing as she’s ever been since as much for her alluringly crude beauty as the instinctive and unpolished interpretation of her alternately estranged and enamored jilt, whose venturous individuality and lubricious whims leave in her wake a trail of misery — yet even at her most dallyingly detestable, an evident regret unveils a vulnerability as profound as those of her scorned swains. Her father’s imprudent yet inevitable abandonment of his nuclear household merely exacerbates and expedites its inhabitants’ dissolution: squabbles between mother and daughter erupt to magnify into altercations for which the latter’s beaten by her burdened brother in confused emulation of their extravagating patriarch. Worse, the most beautiful and ardent of her lovers (Boitard) finds himself scathingly shunned, the target of umbrage intended for the papa to whom his is the most striking semblance. His painterly background’s patefied in Pialat’s craftsmanship of lapidary precision enlivened but never misdirected by ad-lib inspiration; every scene’s painstakingly composed yet executed with such degage grace that their implications and exactitude may be overlooked during an initial viewing, always concluding satisfactorily (often sans resolution) to an unhurried pace that seems to elapse with sudden rapidity. Never was his extemporary genius so masterfully manifest as in a late postprandial scene, where his unbidden dad suddenly confronts and subjects his cognate family and new in-laws to condign, understated analysis and censure in a sequence as remarkable for its filmmaker’s unscripted sapience as for the spontaneous skill exhibited by the tyros in his charge, who respond in genuine astonishment without momentarily breaking character. Clearly, Pialat was as disinclined to append any tidy conclusion as to script rapprochement between his recriminative characters, if only to emphasize how the worst sinners among them are those most sympathetic, and that dysfunction and passion converge to people who can’t perforce be assessed at a glance…or a lifetime’s scrutiny.

Favorites: Orchestra Rehearsal

Orchestra Rehearsal (1978)
Directed by Federico Fellini
Written by Federico Fellini, Brunello Rondi
Produced by Michael Fengler, Renzo Rossellini
Starring Balduin Baas, Umberto Zuanelli, Sibyl Mostert, Ferdinando Villella, Elizabeth Labi, Andy Miller, Clara Colosimo, Claudio Ciocca, Luigi Uzzo, David Maunsell, Franco Javarone, Cesare Martignon, Franco Mazzieri, Daniele Pagani, Angelica Hansen, Paolo Fiorino, Adelaide Aste, Ronaldo Bonacchi, Franco Iavarone, Francesco Aluigi, Heinz Kreuger
He was always fond of sampling sociopolitical phenomena through a microcosmic lens, and never more so than in Fellini’s facetia of an orchestra’s eventual insurrection against its carping, autocratic conductor (Baas). Though a rehearsal hall’s vitreous fourth wall, the ensemble’s spry amanuensis and factotum (Zuanelli) at the threshold of his retirement is first to bespeak the audience with a history of the hall now deconsecrated from its former glory as a church and auditorium, before the musicians follow suit ere their rehearsal and during a breather following one of their musical director’s diatribes. In gregarity, societal variety’s personified and contrasted, and idiosyncrasies evinced in interviews with an unseen television crew: a burly yet gentle bass tubist (Javarone) depicts the selection of his instrument as a commitment predicated as much on ruth as affinity; talkative percussionists avouch their exceptional frolic; neuroses and transports are ascribed alike by trumpeters (Mazzieri, et al.) to their artistic discharge; the flute is conferred by its lanky blower (Mostert) of gawky and exuberant charm a singular mysticism; wistful yet waggish trombonists (Pagani, Fiorino) introspect; a cheery, fetching pianist (Labi) declares sociality her sine qua non of performance; solitary spirituality, authority and antiquity are accredited to the oboe by its practitioner (Miller); lonely and chubby, a harp’s plucker (Colosimo) clings to her subsistence; one conceited cellist (Villella) professes the primacy of his instrument and the violin (which he subsequently derides); a clarinetist’s (Martignon) anecdote elucidates the clarity of the woodwind; their union delegate (Ciocca) commends labor reforms that heightened the professional musician’s dignity and salary; the Teutonic maestro in his suite bemoans a disenchantment with his symphonic society’s impudence and indiscipline, reminiscing of the felicity affected by his mentor’s mastery, and the age of his early appointments, when he commanded subordination of a finical standard. Throughout, recurrent tremors forebode a tumult to which the unruffled musical director repairs: a protest in which mutinous instrumentalists degenerated into a doggery vandalize the hall with graffiti and rhythmic cacophony first divides the orchestra into their conductor’s silent supporters and chanting dissidents; the schismatic broken consort’s rebels again predictably split into proponents of absolute meter purposing to supplant the maestro with a massive metronome, countered by wilder apostles of individualistic naturalism. Armageddon’s by demolition typed at this riot’s climax before order’s restored for the sake of survival, affirming the harmonious necessity of tradition, unity and authority. Less dynamic than his masterpieces, Fellini’s brief feature’s composed primarily of expositive static shots and elegant pans in swift time with Nino Rota’s lilting passages or slow scans of speculative significance. It’s nearly more abrupt than its substance can afford, but Rehearsal‘s scale and parabolic profundity exceeds the usual proportion of a duration shy of 70 minutes.

Favorites: Opening Night

Opening Night (1977)
Directed and written by John Cassavetes
Produced by Sam Shaw, Al Ruban, Michael Lally
Starring Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Joan Blondell, John Cassavetes, Paul Stewart, Laura Johnson, Zohra Lampert
The sudden death of an especially frantic fan (Johnson) following a theatrical performance is the catalyst that triggers its famous, jaded leading lady’s (Rowlands) inevitable midlife crisis, prompting increasingly aberrant dysfunction, oppugnance to her role of a woman suffering the wane of her allure and all its associated power, and delusive encounters with the deceased as a reflection of her teenage self: initially affectionate visitations that lapse by realization to violent confrontations. Even as the volatile actress struggles by rationalization to deny all affinity to her wholly apposite persona during a succession of ebullitions and collapses, she’s perforce the precessing lynchpin around which everyone in her compass revolves: the veteran playwright (Blondell) torn between fascination and frustration in observance of this tempest and equanimous producer (Stewart) who patiently weathers it, a former lover and co-star (Cassavetes) wisely distanced to sustain their professional relationship, her rock of a director (Gazzara) scarcely at amorous arm’s length from the star he adores, and his quietly long-suffering wife (Lampert), whose envy of her is tempered by respect. Cassavetes’ sixth collaboration with his spouse and most disastrous flop is one of his very finest films, shot in Pasadena with moderate experiment to maximize its evocation of shock, intimacy and the disquiet thrill of dramaturgy. By relegating himself to an imperative yet fittingly unflattering character, the independent icon situated himself optimally to work his experient cast to their utmost, substantiating both his trademark verisimilitude — essentially a motional still-life in close-up — and the veneer of staged artifice as parts parallel personalities. More indisposed than incapable of tackling her role’s rigors, the frailties of Rowlands’ lead dissolve the fourth wall to her attendees’ mixed disdain and ovation — indulgences culminating at the contemporaneity of her drunken prostration and the play’s premiere in New York as an extemporary episode of unexpectedly triumphal compliance to her production’s burden and audience’s appetites. Regrettably, this feature’s transient, overlooked theatrical runs in L.A. and NYC didn’t mirror the eclat of its conclusion.

Favorites: The Tenant

The Tenant (1976)
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Roland Topor, Gérard Brach, Roman Polanski
Produced by Andrew Braunsberg, Alain Sarde, Hercules Bellville
Starring Roman Polanski, Isabelle Adjani, Melvyn Douglas, Jo Van Fleet, Shelley Winters, Bernard Fresson, Romain Bouteille, Rufus
Nigh every shot of Polanski’s masterful castigation against ethno-national prejudice and personal paranoia brims with allusive guile and dudgeon, starring Romek as a meek immigrant clerk in oppugnant Paris who procures at some stiff expense a slightly sordid apartment suite of exiguous amenities, whose previous resident mysteriously defenestrated herself. Isolated by and persecuted for his exogenous condition, this chary outsider finds little more camaraderie among his bawdily contumelious colleagues (Fresson, Bouteille, et al.) than with his hostile landlord (Douglas), concierge (Winters) and fellow tenants, who reprehend him for disturbances minor, blameless and seemingly false. His sole cordial connection’s established by romancing a gorgeous, genial friend (Adjani) of the hospitalized anterior lessee, who he visits under friendly pretenses to sate his curiosity…but as his anxieties and rancor swell with the contumely he sustains, the timid immigrant’s adoption of his predecessor’s traits and trappings proves as much a means of relation as the vessel of his nascent madness. Not too many artists have so scathingly anatomized both societal biases and paranoid psychosis in direct correlation as had Romek as one of his continent’s thorniest migrants, and while his third flamboyant address of disquiet in apartmental confines (torn from Panic Movement author Topor’s novel Le locataire chimérique) suffered almost unanimous censure by obtuse critics and an indifferent public, it may be his thematically richest offering, conscientiously cut and composed with an unerringly equivocal eye for intimation and effect. As fine in the lead as his picture’s most surreal flourishes, the auteur’s very nearly upstaged by his fantastic cast, all clownishly dubbed in English to emphasize their characters’ essential shallowness. Almost incalculable in its influence (most famously manifest in certain pictures by Lynch and the Coens), Polanski’s refracted exposure of collective animus and the persecution complex submits in Kafkaesque candor a critical question concerning character: exactly what measure of one’s identity is informed and defined by perceived persecution?
Recommended for a double feature paired with Repulsion, Images, Barton Fink, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive