Opens with Wallace Shawn in voiceover – he’s a playwright taking acting gigs, doing odd errands, going to dinner tonight with a man he’s been avoiding for years, once a friend and colleague and a celebrated theater director before he disappeared. The voiceover comes back to interrupt even after they start talking, but mostly Andre’s stories begin to take over the film.

“It has something to do with living.” Andre isn’t new age or hippie exactly, but very all-things-are-connected, seeing signs, everything is beautiful, living life for the first time, unusual coincidences, etc. He went to a forest in Poland to teach forty musical women about theater, compares the group’s trance activity to Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies, after which Wallace gives him a great look. Andre had a bad trip to the desert with a Japanese monk, was buried alive in India, compares himself to Albert Speer. When Wallace finally gets a whole line in, Andre mentions nazi death camps, what is it with this guy?

After Andre dominates for the first half, Wallace gets to tell a story of his own, which is about not being able to express himself. Andre says we’re all bored because of capitalism, and volunteers that New York is a concentration camp. References to Brecht, Sense & Sensibility, The Little Prince, Autumn Sonata. This is all leading to a blow-out fight, when Wallace can’t take his friend’s nonsense anymore – but it doesn’t, it leads to a good-natured disagreement. I can’t say I thought this movie was all that special for most of its runtime, or could figure out what it was getting at, but I can say it was a shock to experience good-natured disagreement in the climax of a film, and this should happen more often.

Very promising, opening titles over an auto assembly line, “with the participation of Bert Haanstra,” the factory work bringing to mind his great short Glas. Alas, Tati fell out with Haanstra (and his funders, and somehow Lasse Hallström), and this ended up a fitfully amusing, semi-improvised road-trip film that incidentally features Mr. Hulot as an auto designer helping transport his creation to a trade show.

The joke is that delays and misfortune make them miss the show completely – they get a flat tire, the truck’s clutch goes out, etc. But it’s hard to feel sorry for them (not that the movie asks us to) when they also run out of gas, get arrested for speeding through a border crossing, cause a ten-car rube goldberg car crash, and don’t seem to know what day the show starts – this is all professional incompetence. Anyway they’re a likable crew except for the grating American PR rep Maria.

Besides Hulot’s presence, you can catch glimpses of the style of the guy who made Playtime only a few years earlier, and can also catch his influence on Roy Andersson. Some cute bits: after the second garage stop Tati makes a rock music video out of traffic lines and road marking patterns. Montage of people’s windshield wipers matching their personalities, some good sight gags in the police station, Maria’s constant stylish wardrobe changes. But there’s also this disastrous bit:

Learned from Jonathan Rosenbaum’s article that Haanstra shot the nose-picking montage, and at least some of it is unstaged.

Jonathan Romney for Criterion:

Tati certainly appears less in control than in the vast coordinated ballet of Playtime. For the most part, the jokes in Trafic drum up a sense of languid, almost apathetic chaos, without there always being conventional payoffs to give the comic business a sense of purpose. Notwithstanding the painstakingly synchronized pileup scene, the film is characterized by slow-burn gags that create an overall comic atmosphere rather than work toward a clearly defined goal … Without a doubt, Trafic contains a hovering tone of despair that makes it a somewhat melancholic pendant to Playtime.

“Cops are pigs / cops eat shit!” You know when your cynical movie opens with a couple of news guys chancing upon a car wreck and filming the dying victims before bothering to call an ambulance, the movie’s gonna end with the death of a main character and the camera looking back at us, accusingly.

Pausing to get a beer halfway in, I looked up the female lead Verna Bloom (paper-mache artist in After Hours, Mary in Last Temptation of Christ) and realized our lead is Robert Forster – I had no idea, never seen him young before. Forster wheels around town with his soundman (Peter Bonerz of Catch-22, later director of Police Academy 6: City Under Siege) in the lead-up to the ill-fated Democratic National Convention. They follow a kid home and Forster falls for his mom Eileen (Verna).

Robert and Verna enjoying some TV:

The movie has character to burn. Playful editing, very mobile camera, and full of Zappa songs. A black community confronts the white camera crew about exploitation in the media, the morals of Mondo Cane are discussed, and in a movie (/city/year) where police are the villains, the reporters discover that their TV bosses have been letting cops study their raw footage. After Forster is fired, and before he’s hired by someone else to cover the convention, he seems like a calm and okay guy, just a good dude who loves shooting film and hanging out with Eileen and her pigeon-loving son Harold – so it’s the profession that’s sick, not him personally.

This would’ve been a vaguely-memorable late’60’s anti-establishment movie, but for the ending. Harold goes missing, Forster’s at the convention, so Eileen walks the city wearing a bright yellow dress in the midst of the real police riots – some of the most intense location shooting I’ve seen.

Wexler shot everything from Burt Reynolds’ film debut in 1961 to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Conversation, to Hal Ashby and John Sayles movies, to concert docs and a Zappa video.

There’s shooting and there’s shooting:

Thomas Beard for Criterion on the movie’s True/Falsey nature:

Wexler has had a kind of double life as an artist, known both for his poetic reportage and for his role as a studio craftsman, and his bifurcated career is mirrored in the dual nature of Medium Cool … To watch a fiction film and subordinate its plot and characterizations to the documentary value of the world it depicts, or, alternatively, to watch a documentary and constantly question its veracity, is to read the work against the grain. Given the design of Medium Cool, a film that explicitly functions as both document and fantasy at once, to view it at all is to read it against the grain. It’s a movie whose very composition not only allows for but demands multiple kinds of perception and visual thinking; it preserves its own disorder.

Bogart is given the porn-star name Dix Steele, a washed-up Hollywood screenwriter who happens to be the last guy to see murdered coat-check girl Martha Stewart (not the rich felon, the actress from Daisy Kenyon) – other than the murderer, of course, which the cops suspect Dix of being, since he gets so fired up about the details of the case.

Dix’s alibi is neighbor Gloria Grahame (The Big Heat). She’s hiding out from her violent ex, and as the pressure mounts, with the murder suspicion and Dix’s new screenplay and his general manic-depression, ex-soldier Dix begins to act paranoid and violent as well. He turns on Gloria at the end, and she leaves him for good. Between this and Bigger Than Life, Ray seems very good at portraying men with manias.

Art and Gloria:

Bogie’s old war buddy Brub (Frank Lovejoy, useless cop in House of Wax) is police, walks the line between friendship and suspicion (as does Gloria). He works for Captain Carl Reid (of the same year’s Fuller Brush Girl – a profession mentioned by Grahame in this movie), who has it in for Dix until the dead girl’s mustachey boyfriend confesses to the crime. Art Smith (of Ride The Pink Horse from the same novelist) is Dix’s agent, at least until he casually fires Dix for slapping him. And speaking of the source novel, it’s fun that this film, reportedly a very loose adaptation of the book, is about a screenwriter writing a very loose adaptation of a book. Also good: the coat-check girl in this black and white movie telling Dix “I do hope it’s gonna be in technicolor.”

Brub and his wife Jeff, re-enacting the murder:

The earliest Ray picture I’ve seen, unless you count my notes saying I watched They Live By Night a couple decades ago on TCM, which I do not recall. Good, dark movie, but most importantly it seems to be the inspiration for lyrics from the Versus song “Morning Glory.”

As far as I could remember from watching the early Criterion disc in 1999, this was a short-ish movie about bell casting, so imagine my surprise discovering that it’s a long-ish episodic movie about a painter with an extended bell-casting sequence at the end. Not my favorite Tarkovsky – too Catholic, and I think we’re supposed to know something about 1400’s Russian art history going in, because otherwise there’s not much drama following around this painter who never paints anything.

Turns out I also remembered the intro – a man flying away on ropes and balloons – a soviet myth according to the commentary, of the first flight of man – followed by a shot of a horse rolling over. Andrei and fellow painter/monks Kiril and Danil take shelter in their travels and witness a profane jester being brutalized by the cops.

Danil, Andrei, Kiril:

Some years later, an elder painter named Theo invites Andrei to work with him, invoking jealousy from the other monks, particularly whiny bitch Kiril, who beats his dog in anger (the movie is not kind to animals in general). Andrei takes along his slacker assistant, gets into an escapade with some naked pagans, some people get blinded, then there’s a long section of war and torture because a prince and his brother are feuding, and I didn’t know the motivation for most of this until reading a plot summary later – I thought the point was “the 1400s were terrible, yet Andrei still managed to paint beautiful things”. At the end of this though, Andrei has quit painting, or even speaking. Funny to watch this movie about a painter not painting, the day after Devotion, which features writers not writing.

Theo and Andrei:

Painters, not painting, as usual:

The movie jumps forward a decade to the part I remember – a young bellmaker’s son is approached to cast a new bell for a church, by order of the prince, who will throw a party if they succeed and kill them all if they don’t. Young Boriska claims that his recently deceased father passed on the secrets of bellmaking, but actually the kid is making it up as he goes, publicly barking orders and commanding a hundred men, but privately sick with worry. Andrei and Kirill are hanging around while all this is happening, doing nothing helpful, and it ends with the triumphant ringing of the new bell, then a color slideshow of period icons.

Boriska:

A more specific title would’ve been Bronte Sisters In Love. Charlotte is writing the more popular Jane Eyre while Emily is writing the critical fave Wuthering Heights, but we don’t see much of this, mostly we follow their fascination with their boringly strict minister-father’s bland employee (Paul Henreid, Bergman’s husband in Casablanca).

Oldest Charlotte is Olivia de Havilland in long tight curls (same year she played twin sisters in The Dark Mirror), Emily is Ida Lupino (just a few years before she’d start directing), and their drunkard painter brother Branwell is Arthur Kennedy (whom we recognized from the westerns). There’s also the youngest sister (Anne: Nancy Coleman) and mostly we amused ourselves by trying to tell the three girls apart.

Bran paints his sisters:

Part of a flurry of Brontë interest, after the 1939 Wuthering Heights, 1943 Jane Eyre (with Joan Fontaine, sister of de Havilland), and (purportedly based on Jane Eyre) I Walked With a Zombie. Mostly a stodgy, joyless costume drama from Warner Bros and Bernhardt (Joan Crawford’s Possessed), and the writers of Undercurrent and National Velvet and Above Suspicion.

Emily in the sky:

Satire about the limited/terrible roles for black men in hollywood movies – Townsend’s directorial debut, a few months before his film of Eddie Murphy Raw (and containing some hilarious Murphy impressions). Sometimes it’s clunky and low-budget, but overall a winning comedy. There’s a main plot, where aspiring actor Townsend gets cast in a demeaning role and takes the moral high ground by walking out, but half the movie is sketches and parodies, reimagining Hollywood hits with black actors. This was a couple years before cowriter Keenan Ivory Wayans would create In Living Color. Townsend’s girl is played by Anne-Marie Johnson of Robot Jox, and Paul Mooney plays the head of the NAACP.

Along with Talking About Trees, we’re catching up with movies we meant to watch at this year’s True/False. We had tickets to see this (plus two shorts) at 10:15pm on Saturday after four other screenings, but ran out of energy. It’s a mid-length movie combining three different kinds of things:

1. Modern news footage of police violence mixed with classic Black Panther film mixed with colorful HD shots of the director herself, posing and walking through the titular garden. This is sometimes set to music by Nelson Bandela (Random Acts of Flyness), and is overlaid with thin strips or entire areas of Mothlight flicker.

2. Concert film of Nina Simone in 1976, playing a rambling but wonderful song called “Feelings.” Incidentally, it seems like her entire persona was copped by Cat Power.

3. Street interviews, the director stopping women in Harlem to ask if they feel safe. The rest of the movie worked beautifully for me – I’d watch those sections all day long – but the interviews weren’t as enlightening. Of the True/False movies we’ve seen in the last 15 months that involve asking New Yorkers about their anxiety, I preferred Hottest August.

And since this was supposed to run at True/False with a couple of shorts, here’s something: a SXSW 2020 selection which moved onto vimeo instead. SXSW was the first fest to be canceled, and it happened while we were at True/False, the last fest to not be canceled. T/F got a last-minute premiere from SXSW on its final night, and I assumed everything else would move online and I’d hold a Quarantine Film Festival, but it turns out, after working hard for years to make your feature film and then getting accepted into fests, nobody wants to premiere on vimeo instead. Amazon’s doing a SXSW thing with only seven features, Mailchimp got all the shorts, and I watched this one then decided to focus on catching up with older films.

Blackheads (2020, Emily Ann Hoffman)

Stop-motion with 2D animation on top is pretty much my favorite thing… relationship-talk with zit closeups is about my least-favorite, so this short is gonna have to meet in the middle. Pretty fun example of displaying your influences – where Gaspar just stacked up his favorite books and movies for the opening scenes of Climax, Hoffman made miniature models of Persepolis and a Miranda July book for her character’s nightstand.

The lost, final Maysles film appeared online for a week during the Great Quarantine, was recommended by True/False enthusiast Alissa Wilkinson, so we watched. Filmed on eastbound and westbound legs of the Empire Builder railway route, so I had that Aesop Rock song in my head (“hi-ho silver, high-pass filter, live from an empire builder”). The movie picks up stories from several regular characters, with one-off scenes of riders in between, gradually building several cross-cut/cross-country journies – a woman going home to give birth, a woman returning to her family after years away, a couple of young men fleeing North Dakota to be with their loves, an aged photographer seeing the country for the last time… somehow all these people and more opened up to a camera crew on their train ride.