Friday Music Focus: 3/17/17

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While I was putting today’s list of five songs/compositions together, I came across this quote from Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan: “People make decisions that may have one intent and yet are somehow perverted into something else. And sometimes it’s because of design. Sometimes it’s because of happenstance. But very often, it’s mysterious to them.” Food for thought.

Bette Davis, “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” (scene from the film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, 1962, dir. Robert Aldrich). Just in time for the new FX mini-series “Feud: Bette and Joan,” I watched What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, featuring Bette Davis’s virtuoso performance as a former child star who grew older but never grew up. Ernest Haller’s stark cinematography makes “Baby Jane” look like a frightening wax figurine of Mary Pickford or some other silent star, a face that seems to be melting under the tonnage of caked-on stage makeup and still-golden ringlets. Simultaneously, Victor Buono, playing Edwin Flagg (the accompanist), offers his own master class in reactions to Jane’s grotesque exhibition.

Billy Idol, “Eyes Without a Face” (appears on the album Rebel Yell, 1983). Heard last night while walking past a store on Sixth Avenue (the chorus’s “Les yeux sans visage…” line sung by Perri Lister, wafting dreamily out of a speaker); I haven’t thought about this song in ages. I like to think that Billy Idol decided on the title before writing the song, either because he appreciated the 1960 horror film by Georges Franju, or just because it sounded to Idol and co-songwriter Steve Stevens like a cool name for a song. The lyrics don’t exactly connect with the title, but should that matter if the melody is memorable?

Peter Haycock, Derek Holt and Paul Di Franco (film score composers) featuring Eric Gale (guitar), “Closing Credits” (from the end credits of the film One False Move, 1992, dir. Carl Franklin). The year is young, but One False Move is definitely one of the finest films I have seen in 2017. Set in Los Angeles, on the highways of the Southwest and in the small town of Star City, Arkansas, the story combines film noir and Western genre elements in a uniquely blended crime drama that provided Bill Paxton with an excellent leading role (a naive rube of a sheriff who eventually learns that real crime can be vicious and bloody; imagine Fargo, but with a male lead instead of Frances McDormand). The film also granted superb supporting roles to Billy Bob Thornton (who co-wrote the original screenplay), Cynda Williams (who married Billy Bob shortly after filming wrapped in 1990, though they divorced in 1992), Michael Beach (a solid supporting actor for the last thirty years) and Natalie Canerday (who worked with Billy Bob again in Sling Blade, and later played Michael Shannon’s mother in Shotgun Stories).

P.S. If you want an additional endorsement: Gene Siskel gave One False Move the #1 spot on his list of the top ten best films of 1992 (his explanation for his choice starts at the 16:40 mark in the linked video).

Leonard Cohen featuring Sharon Robinson, “Everybody Knows” (appears on the album I’m Your Man, 1988; subsequent scene from the film Exotica, 1994, dir. Atom Egoyan). “Everybody knows, everybody knows/That’s how it goes/Everybody knows.” The Exotica nightclub is where the lives of several Toronto citizens intersect: stripper Christina (Mia Kirshner), tax/revenue agent Francis (Bruce Greenwood), rare egg smuggler Thomas (Don McKellar) and club owner Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian), as well as other characters who don’t appear in this particular clip – Eric (Elias Koteas), the club emcee who is obsessed with dancer Christina; Francis’s brother Harold (Victor Garber) and niece Tracey (Sarah Polley); the unnamed customs official (Calvin Green) who has a one-night stand with Thomas, putting Thomas’s contraband operation in jeopardy. These characters have messy pasts that have left them damaged psychologically and, in one case, also physically.

Atom Egoyan’s Exotica is a potent cocktail of sensuality and fatalism.  And if one has to perform stripteases in order to make a living, as Christina must do every night for the Exotica clientele, then what better soundtrack for one to disrobe to than the soul-baring songbook of Leonard Cohen?

James Horner, “The Launch” (from the score composed for the film Apollo 13, 1995, dir. Ron Howard). While watching Apollo 13 again and listening to Ron Howard’s commentary track, I was struck by the dignity of James Horner’s score in the scene when the NASA spacecraft embarks on its “successful failure” of a lunar mission. The secret to Horner’s success was his ability to respectfully represent the power of ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary feats, especially when they are faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

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1955: Part 3

The Criminal Life of Archibaldo De La Cruz (aka Ensayo de un crimen – “Rehearsal for a Crime”). Directed by Luis Buñuel. A deliriously funny and disturbing dark comedy about a would-be murderer who never follows through on his plans, Criminal Life would make a perfect double bill with one of the director’s later films, Belle de Jour (1967), since both are about sex, violence, social mores and lacy undergarments. The story is probably one of Buñuel’s most straightforward, although there are still quite a few surreal touches, like the murder of a mannequin by tossing her into a furnace (what an image!). It all makes for a magnificently macabre experience, bolstered by charismatic performances by Ernesto Alonso as the main character, Rita Macedo as slinky, sexy Patricia, José María Linares-Rivas as Patricia’s “guardian,” Ariadna Welter as pure, sweet Carlotta and tragic Czech-Mexican star Miroslava as another alluring beauty, Lavinia. With striking cinematography by Agustín Jiménez and a memorable music box melody by Jorge Pérez, I beg to differ with the other BAM moviegoer who I heard commenting that “this is not what I would call necessary cinema, I would say” when we saw the film there last summer. I consider Criminal Life one of Buñuel’s best films.

Kiss Me Deadly. Directed by Robert Aldrich. This crime film, late in the American noir cycle, is striking if not sensical. (There are some noir stories that do end up making some sense.) Ernest Laszlo’s cinematography is often quite effective, perhaps the true star of the film, maybe never more than in the film’s final scenes. Ralph Meeker, meanwhile, does an excellent job (as usual – but then again I’m a fan), smoldering across the screen the tough-as-nails private eye Mike Hammer. One character describes Hammer as a “bedroom dick,” dialogue which I’m surprised got by the censors! Wesley Addy is also very good as police acquaintance Pat, while the various ladies (Maxine Cooper, Cloris Leachman, Gaby Rodgers, Marian Carr) are memorable, with particular praise going to Cooper as Hammer’s lady love, Velda. Other character actors appear too, including Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Juano Hernandez, Mort Marshall, Fortunio Bonanova, Silvio Minciotti, Nick Dennis, Jack Elam and Percy Helton, as well as the singer Mady Comfort. Michael Luciano’s editing is also worth mentioning. I’m not entirely sure how much I love Kiss Me Deadly, or whether I love it at all, but I’m glad that I have seen it. It’s very clear how influential it is as an example of pulp fiction in cinema.

Pather Panchali. Directed by Satyajit Ray. I’m so glad I got to see this on the big screen at the Film Forum, where I hope to see the following two parts of the Apu Trilogy, Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959), during this summer’s ongoing restoration of the Ray series. Like the first Ray film I saw last year, The Music Room (1958), the cinematography by Subrata Mitra is exquisite; I can’t believe this was his first film, as with Ray! (Pather Panchali was the first time either of them had stepped onto a film set or, in Mitra’s case, operated a film camera.) The performances by Karuna Bannerjee as Sarbojaya and Uma Dasgupta as her teenage daughter, Durga, are my favorites in the film. The actresses give complex portrayals of women at two stages of life, struggling to make their dreams into realities despite their humble surroundings and the oppression of expected domestic roles for girls and women. Chunibala Devi also leaves a strong impression as ancient “Auntie” Indir, as does Subir Banerjee as wide-eyed Apu, the baby of the family. Young Apu does not have as much to do in the film as does his older sister, Durga, but we often see the actions of the film from Apu’s point of view. Kanu Bannerjee also delivers a good performance as the family’s patriarch, Harihar, although he is in the film for less time than the female characters are. Throughout Pather Panchali there is an Ozu-like style of pacing, especially reminiscent of Tokyo Story (1953) when Ray shows pillow shots of rain, the river, wheat fields (this shot of Apu and Durga in the wheat and this shot of a passing train seem like definite precursors to Terrence Malick’s 1978 magnum opus Days of Heaven) and other elements of nature, as well as in the poor treatment of older characters by the younger generations. Ravi Shankar’s score lends beautiful sounds to the images, and though the film starts off a little slowly, by the end you’ll be totally invested in this world and you’ll feel a real emotional connection to these characters.

La Pointe Courte. Directed by Agnès Varda. I was fortunate enough to see Agnès Varda’s debut film at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on April 18 with Varda in attendance. She briefly introduced the film, sat and watched it with us and then stayed for a Q&A afterwards. Despite Varda’s insistence that she didn’t know what she was doing and the results weren’t that great, the film has really fantastic cinematography by Louis Soulanes, Paul Soulignac and Louis Stein and the editing was done by none other than soon-to-be-master filmmaker Alain Resnais. Philippe Noiret (always a wonderful actor) and Silvia Monfort play an unnamed couple whose philosophical dialogue about the state of their marriage, coupled with many of the three cinematographers’ excellent shots of them (like this and this), make me believe that Ingmar Bergman must have seen the film since I can see elements that were echoed in Through a Glass Darkly (1961), The Silence (1963) and Persona (1966) and possibly others. The scenes involving the local townspeople who live in the seafaring village of La Pointe Courte are also quite nice, especially the jousting competition and the accompanying festivities that are shown at the end of the film. You get a definite sense of the film’s connection to the Italian neorealism movement, whether Varda intended it or not. (She claims to have only seen a handful of films in the twenty-five years of her life before making La Pointe Courte.) I don’t know if I would have liked the film as much had I been watching it on DVD at home alone, but the experience in the theater was really enjoyable.

Smiles of a Summer Night. Directed by Ingmar Bergman. This Bergman romantic comedy about complicated relationships takes a while to get started, but once it does, it’s wonderful. The cinematography by Gunnar Fischer is absolutely exquisite, especially in the later parts of the film set at the Armfeldt estate. The glow of moonlight and shadows is gorgeous. As I knew would be the case, Gunnar Björnstrand (a veteran of many Bergman films) and Jarl Kulle (who played Don Juan in Bergman’s The Devil’s Eye in 1960) give very good performances, but I was also impressed by the ladies (Ulla Jacobsson, Eva Dahlbeck, Harriet Andersson, Margit Carlqvist, Naima Wifstrand) and by Björn Bjelfvenstam as Björnstrand’s son, Hendrik. As usual, Bergman’s philosophical writing comes across beautifully. By the end, the film picks up its pace and is really quite delightful. I think I still prefer The Devil’s Eye (as Bergman comedies go – and my favorite Bergman drama is The Silence) but Smiles is among Bergman’s finest works too.