Not Coming to a Theater Near You | 2006 in review

by Rumsey Taylor

Fashioning year-end lists of any pedigree is for me an irrevocably ephemeral gesture. Largely absent of retrospection, and often prescribed in haste, these ignore what I consider to be one of the fundamental tenets of cinema, that favorites are not immediately discerned, and are instead cultivated, hence my continued preference for older films. Some of the below are recent discoveries, and some of I’ve seen many times before. In whole, they amount to my most cherished viewing experiences during the past year.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

It's a camp sexploitation horror musical that ends with a quadruple ritual murder and a triple wedding.

Roger Ebert, Time Magazine, 30 March, 1970

I watched Beyond the Vallley of the Dolls compulsively over the past several months. A viewing would accompany, and often interrupt, cleaning the dishes or folding laundry. But as enjoyable an experience as this film is, it is almost bettered by describing it to those who’ve yet to see it—even the most literal and objective descriptions retain the film’s ridiculousness. It cannot be overrated.

To see it for the first time is to be terrifyingly allured by its every sexist rebuttal, every epically moral dilemma, and every overflowing bust line. It’s ridiculous, but cohesive in its ridiculousness; when you see Petronella Danforth playing the drums (and singing) for the first time, it looks like it’s the first time she’s ever handled a pair of drumsticks. But notice the nuances that occur in these same scenes: that she is drumming in a dress, and that the song (the anthemic “Find it”) is really good—that a film so unpretentiously concerned with sleaze (rather, it thrives upon it) and unconcerned with authenticity (it occurs in an imagined Los Angeles) has such a great soundtrack is almost an afterthought. Totally overwhelming and impossible to immediately digest, it is among the very best films of the 1970s. Full review.

3 Films by Louis Malle and Elevator to the Gallows

That Louis Malle’s films are ushered out of inclusion in the French New Wave is not to say they aren’t essentially French. His first fiction feature, Elevator to the Gallows, is like many of its cinematic peers an employment of American Noir, and it stands among them well. It lacks the punk urgency of Godard and the suspense of Melville, but it is a markedly fashionable film. Any violence in it is forgotten once Jeanne Moreau’s passive, tearful eyes fill the screen, or once Miles Davis’ soulful trumpet is reprised. Noir is inherently style, and Malle fulfills the genre masterfully, even if his effort lacks the distinction of his peers.

His later films included in Criterion’s box set have little immediate resemblance to Elevator to the Gallows, but there is a significant consistency that surfaces in retrospect. Elevator to the Gallows centers around a botched crime: a killer, exiting the scene of his crime, forgets a crucial piece of evidence. In his panicked return he enters an elevator at the moment the building is shut down for the evening. He is trapped in the enclosed room, his getaway car (a convertible) on the street below with the engine running. A pair of kids, satisfying a sporadic curiosity persuasive to youths in Malle’s films, steal the car, and the loaded pistol hidden in the glove compartment. Involuntarily, they become implicit in a crime that should in no way involve them. It’s as if two young and reluctant viewers have found themselves in the film they should be an audience to.

Malle’s later films entail youths entrapped in similarly adult scenarios, beginning with Benoît and the proposition of sex in Murmur of the Heart. He approaches this not with some innate eagerness, but passive obligation. The same does not characterize Lacombe, Lucien, whose title youth participates in the German occupation of France not by obligation but indifference. Although he enjoys the authority it affords him, he never really seems involved. For the duration of the film, his indulgences tender little cost, his modest fantasy sustained. This characterizes much of Au revoir les enfants. Its characters are much younger, and have not the capable hostility of Lucien, but they are also initially sheltered from the war, by authorities they don’t immediately empathize with. All of these young characters are distinguished by an endearing naivety, but it is this very quality that establishes their larger intolerances and ignorance. My great appreciation for each (most especially Murmur of the Heart) is enhanced by familiarity with the others.

Dust Devil

1992 was an uncommonly highlighted year for film, containing the veritable resurrection of Robert Altman in Short Cuts, Quentin Tarantino’s introduction in Reservoir Dogs, and The Crying Game’s legendary twist. Correlating to none of these films, nor to any other I can immediately cite from the same era, is Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil. It is a quantifiably flawed film and a persistent curiosity, containing moments of such epic grace that the magnitude of its absence (some fifteen years between its brief theatrical release and its debut on DVD in 2006) is amplified, the motivations behind which are described in my and Tom’s reviews of this film.

The 5-disc Subversive Cinema set contains two cuts of the film (Stanley’s restored 107-minute version and a 130-minute work print), three of Richard Stanley’s documentaries, and the original score on CD. As with many, originally maligned films, Dust Devil’s lack of initial recognition is repented with celebratory excess.

Peter Greenaway: The Early Films

To hear Peter Greenaway discuss the state of cinema establishes him as one who has little conventional comprehension of it. This is contrary to how some of his best films establish him—they are characterized by long tracking shots and robust theatricality. He is capable in assimilating cinema as a componential and collaborative art—his work lacks distinction without Sacha Vierny’s cinematography or Michael Nyman’s pulsing orchestrations. It’s his refusal to admit that cinema is anything more than a nascent art that establishes him as one without understanding of its concentrated advances in reputation and technology. His is a career of great idiosyncrasy, but also one of indifference regarding its segue into the larger body of cinema.

Greenaway’s earlier films are furthered demonstrations of a hesitance to employ cinema conventions—deliberate retaliations, of a sort, against the art. Scattershot, hurried, and totally whimsical, these may amount to avant-garde exercises (besides the ironic narrator, the only consistency between these films is their lack of movie-ness), but they remain fully-realized works, even if they’re not cinema—which, I presume with little hesitance, Greenaway wouldn’t want them to be deemed anyhow.

The Falls is the magnum opus among these, a 195-minute film comprised of 92 chapters, each centralizing a single character whose last name begins with “Fall” and is a survivor of the Violent Unknown Event. Despite its length, the film accelerates through each story, but the culmination is a work of unquantifiable compulsion and organization, one that demonstrates – if not epitomizes – Greenaway’s signature obsessions.