The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Week: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, November 25-December 1

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Dune (1984)
Directed by David Lynch
To appreciate this batty box-office bomb, you have to give up, right at the start. You won’t ever make sense of the plot, not without having source novelist Frank Herbert’s brain, so don’t even bother—absorb the basics and let the rest wash over you, starting with Virginia Madsen’s opening monologue, backstory tacked on at the producers’ request, the beginning of so much exposition; this is a movie almost defeated by its need to introduce its particular political systems and personal grudges within a world whose emphases are very different from our own. But give it a chance to move past all that, past the establishment of Herbert’s 10191 CE, which resembles George Lucas’s long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—a petty space empire conducting its affairs in mid 20th-century English. It all feels so very post-Kennedy, especially once the oil allegory gets going: the world of Dune relies on Spice, which enables space travel; it’s also medicine and a powerful psychotropic, throwing off the neat metaphor. Getting it back on track is the fact that Spice is only found on one planet, a desert planet, control of which determines control of the universe. Factions war.

This was Lynch’s last attempt at a mainstream commercial product, at least one that wasn’t based on an original (straight) story, and it feels like it’s his Spartacus, not least for the dialogue scenes in that stiff style of Old Hollywood epics. Producer pressure drastically shortened the length Lynch had envisioned, and the result is infamously unfollowable; critics hated the movie, and audiences didn’t pay to see it (at least not enough of them, based on its budget). But revisiting it now, there’s some pleasure to be had from its misguided spectacle, from its radical political subversive’s ascendance to messiah, taming giant worms and riding them through the desert—from the overwrought intensity of its psychedelic fantasies, bewildering plot developments and commitment to its baroque mythology. You can decipher the grandiosity so that it makes a sort of primal sense—but only if you give yourself over to it, embrace the mystery rather than try to define it, which is true, really, of all of Lynch’s work. Surrealism isn’t meant to be sorcerered into making sense. Henry Stewart (November 28, 7pm, at BAM’s “Turkeys for Thanksgiving”)

William Cameron Menzies’ THINGS TO COME (1936). Courtesy Film Forum. Playing November 27/28, December 10
Courtesy of Film Forum.

Things to Come (1936)
Directed by William Cameron Menzies
Hugely ambitious and boldly farsighted, Things to Come coolly charts the fall (war, plague, tribalism) and rebirth (rationality, a Space Gun) of one “Everytown” into an utopian, all-conquering World State, a vision of progress that perhaps only H.G. Wells, its screenwriter, could cheer. As futurist exhortations go, it is remarkably unpersuasive, starting eerily in 1940 with a world war that opens the door to a Neo-Dark Age and then, decades later, a gleaming, techno-tyrannical society, circa 2036. All the while, it looks fantastic, brimming with amazing sets, memorable design, and nearly every sort of trick shot. Helmed by great Hollywood art director Menzies and bankrolled by super-producer Alexander Korda, Things to Come is visionary and audacious, the present (now past) making the case that it’s as interesting as the future it so astoundingly envisions. Jeremy Polacek (November 27, 12:30pm, 2:30pm, 4:30pm, 9:50pm; November 28, 12:30pm, 8:15pm, 10:15pm; December 10, 9:45pm at Film Forum’s Menzies series)

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Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)
Directed by Robert Bresson
“I’ll have my revenge.” So vows Hélène (María Casares) in the opening moments of the darkly sumptuous second feature by the then-emerging French artist and aesthete. Spurred by the cowardly admission of her lover Jean’s (Paul Bernard) lost passion, Hélène’s quest for comeuppance quickly grows perverse as she attempts to lure her former suitor into a doomed romance with Agnès (Elina Labourdette), a young proletarian whose salacious past would, if discovered, bring shame to any potential relationship. The ensuing drama––both coerced and manipulated by Hélène, to ultimately futile ends––enfolds not simply vengeful maneuvering and situational irony, but also social satire and spiritual consciousness, rendering what would otherwise be a traditional melodrama into a modern morality play replete with near-metaphysical implications. And in that sense, the film is less an outlier in Bresson’s increasingly austere catalogue than a clarion call for a new way of considering human behavior and the frame by which such fate is made manifest. Jordan Cronk (November 27, 9pm; November 29, 3pm at Anthology Film Archives’s “Jack Smith Selects (From the Grave)”)

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Velvet Goldmine (1998)
Directed by Todd Haynes
For many of glam rock’s elitists, Velvet Goldmine‘s greatest achievement is a damnable offense: the arcs of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed are conveyed via intoxicating nostalgia, allusion (their names are never used; their androgynous likenesses replaced by pretty boys Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ewan McGregor) and embellishment (many of the stories are pulled from unauthorized accounts) over accuracy. But when it comes to a musical genre largely dependent on mythos and ambiguity, brazenly theatrical storytelling is the only option. Risking presumptuousness, Haynes places the short-lived cultural phenomenon on an eclectic plane shared by Oscar Wilde (a man who fell to Earth destined for queer idolatry) and Orson Welles (the investigative structure, which probes the whereabouts of a Bowie-like icon following his faked assassination, is cribbed from Citizen Kane), all while critiquing the commodification and idealism of celebrity. With Haynes, the only “correct” interpretation of an icon is a personal one. Max Kyburz (November 28, 6:30pm; November 29, 2pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Haynes retrospective)

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Hell Drivers (1957)
Directed by Cy Endfield
The Pennsylvania-born Endfield’s films often focused on people driven into desperate circumstances due to poverty and other forms of social exclusion. These films included two 1950-released Hollywood crime dramas, The Underworld Story and Try and Get Me! (aka The Sound of Fury), whose depictions of violence committed by American society against its working-class members were among the reasons for Endfield’s eventual blacklisting. He left the United States for England, where he directed films pseudonymously until reassuming his name with Hell Drivers. The film stars Stanley Baker as a drifter named Tom who picks up and strives to survive a job at a ballast transport company where the bosses award bonuses to drivers who move their trucks at especially high speeds. His only allies in his new, ultracompetitive workplace come to be an isolated Italian immigrant (Herbert Lom) and the company secretary (Peggy Cummins) who dates both men while painfully holding secret the extent to which the company heads are exploiting them and their fellow drivers. The reason Tom is there at all, he eventually reveals, is because of a larger system of exploitation: His status as a recently released prison inmate denies him virtually any other kind of work. Aaron Cutler (December 1, 7:15pm; December 4, 9:15pm; December 7, 7pm at Anthology Film Archives’s Endfield series)

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