The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Week: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, July 20-26

cocksucker blues-robert frank Cocksucker Blues (1972)
Directed by Robert Frank and Danny Seymour
This seldom-screened documentary, whose title comes from an unreleased LP by The Rolling Stones, follows the band members during their 1972 North American tour, a short time after the release of the album Exile on Main St and three years after the sad events at Altamont. The black-and-white film was made in vérité fashion by the Swiss-born photographer and filmmaker Frank and his assistant Seymour, and it captured the vulgar offstage realities of Jagger, Richards & Co. with such verve that they sought legal measures to limit its screenings. Laura Israel, Robert Frank’s longtime editor and the director of the new documentary Don’t Blink – Robert Frank, writes by e-mail that, “Being on tour with the Stones was like being in a spaceship, according to Robert. Everything seemed unreal, and I think that you experience this sensation of non-reality in the film. The most boring, mundane details of the musicians’ life on the road become fascinating, somehow. (One of my favorite scenes is Mick Jagger on the phone ordering fresh fruit from the hotel front desk.) Robert’s dark, sarcastic sense of humor is brilliantly revealed in the sequencing of shots and in the juxtaposition of sound and image. Just as his groundbreaking book The Americans is a lonely, honest look at America, Cocksucker Blues is a raw, unfiltered X-ray view of The Stones.” Aaron Cutler (July 20, 21 at Film Forum in conjunction with Don’t Blink)

Line Noro and Jean Gabin in Julien Duvivier’s PÉPÉ LE MOKO (1937). Courtesy Film Forum. Playing Thursday, July 21; Friday, July 22; and Sunday, July 31.

Pépé le Moko (1937)
Directed by Julien Duvivier
This romantic-poetic proto-noir is about Paris—though not a single scene is either set or shot there. Instead, it’s set in Paris’s funhouse-mirror reflection, the Casbah of Algiers, whose landscape looks like German Expressionism, or urban design à la M.C. Escher, improvised and seemingly unmappable (it’s not even on Google Street View!); it’s a 3-D labyrinth of winding staircases, a town of tunnels and trapdoors with a parallel neighborhood above, on the interconnected rooftops. It evokes the medieval Paris that Baron Haussmann razed, and thus it’s the perfect home for the sort that that wholesale destruction displaced—the criminal element.

Pépé le Moko is the nom de crime of the main character, played by Jean Gabin, a master jewel thief hiding out in the maze that is the Casbah—he’s a gangster gone native, living among those also at odds with the French government, though for very different reasons. Pépé is a Parigot in exile—he’s from Pigalle, the traditionally working-class quartier in the north—because he’s on the lam. In Algiers he meets another expat, a bejeweled lady, Gaby (Mireille Balin), and together they commiserate in their longing for home (like anyone else who’s ever been to the city and then left). “Being with you is like being in Paris,” Pépé tells her, adding, romantically, “You remind me of the Métro.” Swoon!

In one scene, the two name-drop their favorite places in Paris, each citing spots on opposite ends of the proverbial tracks. Luc Sante uses this dialogue as the opening of his recent social history, The Other Paris, to introduce its thesis—there’s “Paris,” and there’s its flipside. Most big cities have an uneasy relationship between these poles; in Pépé, director Duvivier suggests that Paris’s greatness depends on its ability to welcome both, to be big and varied enough not merely to be a home to everyone but to belong to anyone, regardless of class or rap sheet. Duvivier, working from Henri La Barthe’s novel, makes the representatives of these ostensibly opposing Parises fall in love.

But that love is unstable. In the final scene, Pépé is finally captured, trying to board a ship headed to Paris with Gaby onboard. Because their affair is symbolic, the tragedy’s not that they don’t get away together, but that they don’t get away together to Paris, that Pépé’s left behind in a city that’s Not-Paris, a bootleg Paris. Without a Pépé within its walls, Paris loses an essential component of its character, a Parisness as essential as Gaby’s. Together they make Paris whole; apart, they are less than their sum. It’s a prescient gentrification allegory.

The homesick Parisphilia reaches its apex in one Capra-esque scene, in which an aged woman, once a singer in the cafés—played by the great chanteuse Fréhel, one of the best proto Piafs—sings along to one of her scratchy records, “Où Est-Il Donc?,” about the bygone Paris she once adored. Tears fill her eyes; her voice cracks. Paris is the Don Giovanni of cities; we’re all just names in Leporello’s book. Henry Stewart (July 21, 7:20pm; July 22, 5:10pm; July 31, 6:50pm at Film’s “Les Durs: 3 French Tough Guys”)

MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW [US/1937] ELISABETH RISDON, LOUIS JEAN HEYDT, VICTOR MOORE,

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
Directed by Leo McCarey
Along with Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Yust’s The Homebodies and the extraordinary The House of Smiles by Marco Ferreri, one of the indisputable masterpieces of the cinema of old age. With bitter humanism, McCarey exposes the ultimate hypocrisy of the consumer family whose veritable bond depends on productivity, not love. Without resorting to facile sentimentalism, the director tells the heartwrenching story of an elderly couple forced to separate when they lose their house and none of their five children will take both of them together. The Friedrich Engels of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State would have undoubtedly appreciated this film. Giovanni Vimercati (July 21, 7pm; July 24, 2pm at MoMA’s McCarey series)

pootie-tang

Pootie Tang (2001)
Directed by Louis C.K.
Part goofily spoofy turn-of-the-20th-century biopic, part hip-hop Spinal Tap with the absurdist knob up turned to 11, Pootie Tang is not quite like anything else you’ve ever seen. Whether because of the self-described cluelessness that got writer-director Louis C.K. fired while the film was being edited or the voiceover-narrated frame that was then imposed by the studio, this parody of a star vehicle meanders a bit before sputtering to a stop, but it delivers plenty of pleasures along the way. Charismatic comic actors like Jennifer Coolidge (as a crazy-hatted siren whose notion of seduction includes chowing down on J.B. Smoove’s face as if it were a Milky Way) and Wanda Sykes (gyrating enthusiastically in a revolving array of candy-colored wigs as a home-girl rapper) create divinely ridiculous characters. Comedy writer Lance Crouther, in the only major role he ever played, gives karate-kicking hip-hop-artist-slash-actor-slash-role-model-slash-all-around-cool-guy Pootie Tang an appealing blend of open-hearted innocence and boy-can’t-help-it cool. We may never know the shape of C.K.’s original script, but that doesn’t stop us from enjoying the riffs he runs on things like Pootie’s magnetic sexual charisma, the magical powers of the belt his father used to beat young Pootie, or the infectious enthusiasm of Pootie’s nonsensical self-invented language. Sa da TAY! Elise Nakhnikian (July 22, 23, midnight at the Nitehawk)

Medium_Cool

Medium Cool (1969)
Directed by Haskell Wexler
Is there any film as relevant to the current state of America? Set in Chicago and shot during the months leading up to the ’68 Democratic National Convention, the film follows a television news cameraman (Robert Forster) as he records the city’s unrest. He justifies his passivity with the demands of his profession; the station hired a technician, not a social activist. But his detachment towards his camera’s subjects begins to wane after he learns that his station is cooperating with the FBI. Wexler combines fictional storytelling with documentary footage, blurring the boundary between real and fiction until the film’s conclusion—an extended sequence shot amidst the DNC riots—poses the question: when witnessing unjust violence, is it ethical to be a passive spectator? A.J. Serrano (July 23, 4:30pm at BAM’s “Four More Years: An Election Special”)

the-weeping-meadow

The Weeping Meadow (2004)
Directed by Theo Angelopoulos
Somewhere between the sensibilities and styles of Miklos Jancso and Ermanno Olmi, you’ll find Angelopoulos, cinema’s great collector of pilgrims. He hugged weary travelers and war orphans to his breast, refracting their humanity across great, glorious vistas. The great canvas of a movie screen never wanted when his images struck them, filling every frame with pained longing and battered hope. His characters, great big parades of them, trek across the unknown, crossing rivers, fields and great expanses of time on their way towards Angelopoulos’s modern Greece, a place rent asunder by obfuscatory financial policies. A film like The Weeping Meadow, his penultimate work, ought to serve as a reminder about what happens when you turn brother against brother, but no one ever really heeds that lesson. So it stands not only as a testament to the work the much-missed master specialized in—film as modernist frescos depicting history through the movement of communities—but as a beautifully optimistic hope that we might learn from our storied past. It slowly uncovers heaving throngs of working-class families, their destinies intertwined, spilling from one era to the next. Time escapes his characters, however hard they grip the present. Scout Tafoya (July 23, 6:30pm at the Museum of the Moving Image’s Angelopoulos retrospective)

boxer

Boxer (1977)
Directed by Shûji Terayama
Bunta Sugawara (oozing machismo as ever) plays Rocky Balboa to Kentarô Shimizu’s Adonis Creed. The latter is a greenhorn looking for glory and asks the washed up ex-boxer to train him and his bum foot. Boxer has a familiar narrative, but spiced with Terayama’s bold aesthetic that includes tinted film stocks, flat graphic compositions, and frenzied mobile camerawork.

Terayama was a poet, playwright, novelist, filmmaker, and boxing buff. He even wrote commentary for the sport in his spare time. Boxing and horse racing taught more about life than school, he once said. Last year, a museum dedicated to Terayama opened in Japan, cementing his legacy, but in Europe and America, he is all but forgotten. Boxer sees the radical artist working for Toei Company. Terayama’s only mainstream film bends and warps generic conventions to fit his sensibility. Tanner Tafelski (July 23, 27, 10pm at the Spectacle)

Cannibal-Holocaust

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Directed by Ruggero Deodato
An exploitation film that criticizes exploitation by being exploitative. That’s the best way to define Cannibal Holocaust without inspiring vomiting or heavy drinking. Deodato biographer Julian Grainger even called it “the bastard son of the mondo genre,” and it’s a bitter one, too. Behind every grueling and unwavering sequence of brutal rape, live animal mutilation, and, yes, cannibalism is a middle finger for both the media hubs commissioning such profitable footage and the privileged audiences hungry for it. Mondo films sensationalized real and faked documentary footage, with sex and death as the major draws. In current news cycles, much hasn’t changed, firming Deodato’s legacy despite his volatile methods. A major offense remains his manipulation of the Amazonian cannibal tribes to fit the Westernized image of savage primitivism, even if it serves the faked documentary within “directed” by three American filmmakers who can’t shake their home country’s colonialist instincts. Otherwise, Deodato’s on point; the camera fabricates intimacy by using zooms from afar (especially when capturing the Amazonians as audiences for their own carnage), Rizo Ortolani’s easy-listening score increases in distractive irony, and the closing image of skyscrapers rivals the jungle trees in meance. Max Kyburz (July 25, 9pm; July 30, 4:30pm at Anthology Film Archives’ “Mondo Mondo”)

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