Ebb and Flow (2014)
Directed by Gabriel Mascaro
The Brazilian filmmaker Mascaro’s half-hour-long film (which will screen together with his feature-length documentary Housemaids) follows, in closely observational and often sweet fashion, the daily routines of Rodrigo (played by Márcio Campelo Santana), a young deaf-mute man who lives with his mother and young sister in a lower-class neighborhood of Recife. Rodrigo is also HIV-positive, and by following him as he meets with doctors and jokes with friends, the film aims to show him simply as a person dealing with the problems of his everyday life. He releases stress and tension in a nightclub during some of the most beautifully fluid dancing seen on film in recent years. Rodrigo, who is seen as physically deficient and limited by others, himself possesses incredible ease and comfort in his body. In this sense, the film shares a great deal with Mascaro’s most recent feature, Neon Bull, which also shows characters moving fluidly through space as a way of adapting to challenging circumstances.
Mascaro writes by e-mail, “When the ArtAids (ESPAIN) foundation presented me with the challenge of finding a way to incorporate my artistic research into discussions around HIV and AIDS, the first idea that came to me was to try to establish a representation of reality that is often lost in the imagery of prevention campaigns. I wanted to explore aspects of day-to-day life, ‘normality,’ indifference, comings and goings, the banal. As such, the film does not deal with HIV from the perspective of its being a pathology; rather, the film reveals a sensory, bodily, and emotional experience that interacts with people, time, and space.
“The film is experimental in its approach, incorporating hybrid techniques that mix ‘reality’ (or documentary) with ‘fiction’ (or narrative). The aesthetic choices of fixed camera shots and extended time frames are intended to transmit the sensorial experiences of Rodrigo, who was chosen as the main character in order to weave a web of sound vibrations, noises, silences, doubts, and ambiguities. Rodrigo’s day-to-day life serves as a laboratory for small-scale performances in which we observe the body in movement, enacting unique gestures in time. His body is strong, yet it is also fragile. It subtly seduces us, invites us to come closer, sketching phonemes and ideograms in the air, displacing the senses and interrupting the silence. Rodrigo’s daily comings and goings draw us into a journey made up of ordinary experiences in which incommunicability and diversity are reinforced by means of their otherness. Through the glimpses of Rodrigo’s world represented in this film, ties are established between the multiple and fluid identities of his character and the various layers that his being traverses on his journey.” Aaron Cutler (April 15, 6:30pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Mascaro series)
Sweaty Betty (2015)
Directed by Joseph Frank and Zachary Reed
Made on the cheap by residents of the neighborhood it depicts, this shaggy pig story offers a low-fi snapshot of Hyattsville, Maryland, a low-income, predominantly African-American town just outside DC. As seen through the eyes of teenage friends Scooby (Seth Dubois) and Rico (Rico S.), it’s a lively yet mostly aimless place, peopled with loving parents, loyal friends, and local characters the rest of the community appreciates and supports—like Floyd (Floyd Rich), who’s trying to get his beloved Washington football team to make a mascot of his gigantic pet pig, Charlotte. All the actors, who were encouraged to improvise based on their own lives, seem comfortable and unself-conscious, and their (subtitled) slangy banter and the largely improvised rhythm of their days feels refreshingly free of capital-D drama. Frank and Reed raise the perils that ride the coattails of poverty and racial discrimination deftly, both through throwaway comments made by the characters and through the animals in the story. Floyd is eager to do something with Charlotte in part because she’s getting too big to easily feed, and a young pit bull Rico and Scooby wind up with goes unfed for far too long, gets lost, and is eyed by a loudmouth who brags about how he could turn it into a fighter by brutalizing it, all over the course of just one or two days with the boys. Their risky situations are an unsettling reminder that poverty can make a life dangerously unstable, even when most of its individual moments are good. Elise Nakhnikian (April 17, 1pm at the Museum of the Moving Image’s “New Adventures in Nonfiction”)
The Honeymoon Killers (1969)
Directed by Leonard Kastle
This spirited indie shows how another half of America lived—the people on the fringes of small cities across the country, from Pittsfield to Albany, Mobile to Valley Stream. Its characters are the lonely, the frumpy, the unmarriable, the sort of unglamorous people who’d hardly been seen on an American screen, let alone in a love story, since Marty. Its tawdry subject is true crime homicide, like Roger Corman’s C-movie Bloody Mama, but it’s artier, with long takes often focused on action most other directors would leave offscreen. The script was based on the trial transcripts of “The Lonely Hearts Killers,” a pair of lovers who found victims through personal ads and mail-order matchmakers; they both died, as gaga as ever, like the OG Mickey and Mallory, in 1951—in the electric chair at Sing Sing.
Kastle wrote the script and took over the directing, too, after Scorsese was fired a week into filming. (At least one scene he shot remains in the film.) Kastle intended the movie as a critical response to Bonnie and Clyde and its romantic violence, as pretty as its beddable stars. He subverts every Hollywood shibboleth: the movie has a plus-size leading lady (a riveting Shirley Stoler, so crotchety she all but kicks neighborhood dogs) and a thickly accented leading man (God Told Me To’s Tony LoBianco, full of equatorial ardor and arm hair), and together they make a mockery of marriage with everything they do. They don’t even respect religion, as when they laugh while tossing an old lady’s Jesus portraits into a hole with her corpse. And it’s shot in dowdy black-and-white—suck on that, Arthur Penn!
Kastle, an opera composer turned one-time filmmaker because his roommate was a TV producer, lets the violence develop slowly, so when it happens, it’s more shocking and morally repugnant. I mean, sure, the victims are (intentionally) all red-state types wrapped in American flags, killed by a couple of with an insatiably uber-American desire for cash—facts in which at least Kastle and some leftist critics took pleasure—but he still makes you feel the barbarity of it, especially with one shot that stays on a victim’s darting, petrified eyes as she watches her captors prepare to kill her. The all-Mahler soundtrack, mostly from his sixth symphony, adds awesome gravitas. Henry Stewart (April 13, 29, 1:30pm at MoMA’s “Six New York Independents”)
Directed by Herrmann Zschoche
Banned until after reunification, East German film Karla stands tall amongst a slew of films made by a generation who came of age after WWII, searching for identity amongst a radically changing political temperature. Karla is a model teacher, part of a “new breed” from Berlin sent to villages outside the city to “teach people to think.” Honesty is her policy, but she soon finds herself tangled in a nasty web of bureaucracy steeped in contraceptive thought. Karla’s utter assertion to present her students with reality, and ultimately her rejection, is a sobering account of generational complexity, the struggle to break free from entrenched conformity. Samuel T. Adams (April 13, 7pm at MoMA’s “Germany 66”)
The Angels of Sin (1943)
Directed by Robert Bresson
The Bresson of intricate dollies, expressionistic lighting, and voluble dialogue is not the one we often think of, partially because he only existed for about three films. In his feature debut, the Austere Auteur explores the tribulations of one particularly overzealous young nun—member of a Dominican convent specializing in ex-convicts—with melodramatic vigor, channeled through a serene observance. The nuns are often shot with full-body in frame, irregular for Bresson, but the same transcendent end result reached in his canonical works is arrived at here via a different passageway. Performances are weirdly intense, not quite the stone-faced models of his later films, rather something more surreal and parochial, religious fervor both repressed and externalized into coded interactions that often induce moral self-flagellation. Fluctuating between melodrama and noir—inside the convent and outside—Les Anges du Peche announced Bresson’s deft mastery of genre, as well as a potent sense of the nonpareil cinema that was to come. Eric Barroso (April 13, 9pm at Anthology Film Archives’s “Barthes at the Movies”)
The Squeeze (1978)
Directed by Antonio Margheriti
As with many of the grindhouse fixtures offered by Nitehawk Cinema’s resident sleazemongers The Deuce, The Squeeze hoists a ragged pulp storyline—this time: “old timer re-emerges for one last big score”—sporadic genre touches, and uneventful stretches in-between. Luckily, Margheriti (serving, in another great exploitation tradition, under the Americanized alias “Anthony M. Dawson”) takes joy in his performers and emphasizes character-driven story, crucial to the Italian crime cinema worshipped by the younger New Hollywood directors. In the cold open, he literally plucks Spaghetti Western vet Lee Van Cleef, scowling eyes and all, off a ranch and into a wintry Manhattan jewel heist. Partnered with Lionel Stander and his gravelly growl, Van Cleef finds himself on the run after the job goes explosively wrong, finding refuge with neighbor Karen Black. The banter of their ham-fisted performances provide ample comic relief in a thriller that attempts to turn limitations into opportunities. Max Kyburz (April 14, 9:30pm at “The Deuce,” at the Nitehawk)
Flowers of Shanghai (1998)
Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
Flowers of Shanghai is as crazily sumptuous in tone as it is unwavering in historical faithfulness. Its conjuration of a 19th century Shanghainese bordello—wherein all of the film’s elliptical, single-take sequences take place—marries the sensual fragrance of an exotic harem with the otherworldly hermeticism of a cloister. Yoshihiro Hanno’s faintly electronic, synth-heavy score lends a majestic counterpoint to the film’s measured visual poetry.
In an interview around Flowers’s French release, Hou remarked that, when watching his films, “one loses a sense of time—as in dreams, one can no longer measure the passage of time.” Flowers is a superlative display of Hou’s peerless unhinging of time. Tony Leung’s pensive, faraway gaze—while partaking of opium, drinking games, or lamenting a troubled love—almost singlehandedly rustles the film’s temporal continuity, wresting viewers’ attention from the there-and-then of the film’s action to some ruminative, lyrical beyond. Michael Blum (April 16, 10pm; April 17, 9:30pm; April 19, 6:30pm at the Metrograph’s “Metrograph A-Z”)
Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Thank goodness Kiarostami is reportedly in satisfactory health after a recent scare. Cinephiles can’t help but bemoan the loss, potential or otherwise, of their filmmaking idols, but considering the kind of films he’s made, Kiarostami’s loss would especially be a blow. Who else has regularly managed to combine formal and intellectual rigor with warm humanism as well as he? Sure, one could certainly look at his masterpiece Close-Up as simply another meta-cinematic experiment, using the true story of Hossein Sabzian—a poor man who was arrested for impersonating Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf in front of a middle-class family—as a springboard for a dizzyingly multilayered meditation on illusion, reality, and art’s ability to articulate deeper truths through artifice, featuring Kiarostami himself and employing the real people involved to reenact certain events. But empathy, not gamesmanship, is the real core of the film: Kiarostami’s curiosity about the personal and social forces that led Sabzian—a vocal wide-eyed admirer of Makhmalbaf’s films, and of cinema’s general ability to speak directly to people of all walks of life—to keep up this ruse in the first place. The film’s final sequence remains one of cinema’s most moving depictions of an artist bridging the gap between fiction and real-life in a spirit of solidarity. May Kiarostami continue to bring forth such humane gestures to the cinematic world, as long as his health will allow it. Kenji Fujishima (April 18, 7:30pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center; followed by a discussion with author Jacob Wren)
Directed by John Cassavetes
In 1970, Cassavetes, Peter Falk, and Ben Gazzara appeared on Dick Cavett’s show to promote their starring roles in Husbands. The episode, more recently reported by The New Yorker, was the worst in Cavett’s history. The trio’s cockeyed, foot-smelling antics, throwing themselves on the floor, and purposeful ignorance toward Cavett’s interview forced the host to walk off stage, and left the audience in a feverish anxiety. This interview, or lack thereof, is the perfect introduction to Cassavetes’s film; the three real-life and onscreen friends are more than a bromance. They embrace each other lovingly and often; they can make one another roar with laughter with a mere glance.
The film focuses on the intense emotions at the center of these friendships in a linear, vérité style that could only stem from Cassavetes’s heightened awareness of the human condition. After a friend of theirs passes from a coronary, the three remaining married men, Harry (Ben Gazzara), Gus (Cassavetes), and Archie (Peter Falk) anaesthetize their grief with a four-day bender beginning in New York City, with a brief stint in Port Washington, Long Island, and culminating in an overpriced trip to London. The friends are forced to question their own mortality, terrorized at the idea of growing older and missing out on being professional athletes (Archie’s pipe dream) or gallivanting drunkenly with one another, constantly pursuing one more drink and avoiding the notion that it could be the last. Their families and wives are mentioned, specifically in the case of Harry—who gets into a knock-down-drag-out altercation with his wife and mother-in-law, but relays to his buddies that though she’s better at sex, he likes his friends more.
At the end of their transatlantic jaunt, the men traipse home with the inevitable responsibility to their jobs and families, not with a solution or answer to the meaning of their existence, but more devoted to their friendship and slightly less disillusioned in their existential angst. Samantha Vacca (April 19 at Tenant416)