On The Silver Globe (1988)
Directed by Andrzej Żuławski
To describe a Żuławski film with words—“guttural,” “primitive,” “extreme” come to mind— is to undermine the actual experience. Buffeted by tidal waves of verbosity, an invasive, always-moving camera eye captures actors driven to maniacal states often bordering acute pleasure and pain, radical ecstasy. His films are a cinematic other, almost unbearable yet impossible to ignore, and certainly his own. On the Silver Globe, his fractured sci-fi magnum opus returning in a new digital restoration, is no exception.
The story takes place over several generations, and begins with three astronauts from Earth landing on another planet to start a new civilization. They shack up on a beach and produce an inbred tribe of headdress-clad raving pagans who take the single surviving astronaut to be a God. After establishing order, the Old Man disappears—however, another man from Earth, Marek, arrives to check out the scene. A faction of birdmen resembling fascists now enslaves the tribe, Marek is hailed as the resurrected God, and a battle against the ravens ensues—but the tribe becomes embittered with the new God, and he is eradicated via crucifixion. Yeah. Jam-packed with gaudy otherworldly low-budget costumes, frenzied monologues that spew into insanity (featuring citations from numerous philosophers spawning centuries, and religious texts), a trove of fire-laden powwows, a beach bearing victims impaled on telephone pole-sized spikes, and rituals resembling enormous orgies, this will keep your eyes peeled for the full 166 minutes.
It should be noted: upon the opening scene, we learn from a narrator that this is “a shred of a film… one-fifth of which is missing.” (The missing parts are vaguely narrated while we witness footage from the modern world—people on escalators, footage of city streets—abrupt yet resting respites from the delirium.) After luring Żuławski back to Poland from France with promises to fund the film (after his commercial success abroad), the People’s Republic shut down the project deeming it controversial, or, over budget, in 1977. Surely, the film is loaded with grandiose questions, specifically revolving around notions of: what does it mean to enforce an organized religion? an organized society? Most akin to Aleksei German’s last film, Hard to Be a God, On the Silver Globe boldly attacks totalitarianism and radical institution as pure apocalypse. Perhaps, in the context of the venomous state of current events, both here and abroad, it is the perfect time to reevaluate this masterwork of impending unpredictable doom. Samuel T. Adams (Opens July 29 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center; showtimes daily)
Directed by Susan Seidelman
This first feature by Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan) is an uncomplicatedly plotted time capsule of the peripheral punk scene in dirty early 80s New York, sharing a sensibility in common with the early indies of Amos Poe (who pops up as a bar hustler), Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains and Allan Moyle’s Times Square. The main character, a striving bullshitter (she self-promotes with flyers reading “WHO IS THIS?” over a Polaroid selfie) played by amateur Susan Berman, is kind of a pill, but her dogged pursuit of beds to sleep in after getting bounced from her apartment eventually wins empathy. Her marks include a sweet dunce from Montana (Brad Rijn) who lives in a van stuck in a vacant lot, and the frontman for the title band, played by Richard Hell. The three leads (appealingly) lack slick acting “chops,” to say the least, but there’s a marvel of a bit performance by Katherine Riley as a depressed prostitute who lists her offerings from priciest to cheapest, ending with five bucks to see a scar “that’s in a real interesting place.” Featuring music by The Feelies, there’s also a great running joke about moving to different parts of the country (“My parents told me a Xerox copy center opened downtown… someone’s got to live in Ohio.”). The film’s ending, however, forgoes comedy for a bleak grace note. Justin Stewart (July 29-August 4 at the Metrograph, showtimes daily; Seidelman in attendance at 7pm screening on Opening Night)
Kanesatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993)
Directed by Alanis Obomsawin
In 1990, the mayor of Oka, Quebec decided to take Mohawk tribe land to expand a golf course. Naturally, the Mohawks of Oka, who had no say in the matter, were not thrilled about this deal. Prolific documentarian Obomsawin began filming the plight of the Mohawk peoples when this clear injustice was germinating in the courts, but Mayor Jean Ouellette decided to ramp up the action by introducing the military to the tribal grounds’ few entrances. With their supply route cut off and their families threatened by armored cars, assault rifles, and a government-sponsored starvation, the Oka Mohawks began arming themselves to stand their ground or make an exit. Obomsawin gracefully cuts between the daily struggle of the resistance and the history of Oka’s colonization to bring the Canadian government’s already explicit discrimination and racial violence to the front line of her war film. By the end, Obomsawin keeps filming the perishing Kanesatake territory as food runs low, children are bayoneted, and hundreds of Mohawk warriors line up for a showdown nearly three hundred years in the making. They have a government-sanctioned guarantee to lose their battle, but Obomsawin’s polemical document gives strength to Kanesatake’s constant war. Zach Lewis (July 29, 9:45pm at Metrograph’s “Native to America”)
Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)
Directed by Leo McCarey
If “Make America Great Again” instills more horror than inspiration, then Ruggles of Red Gap is the film you need to either acquaint yourself with or revisit. At the very least, contained in the tale of British servant Ruggles’ (Charles Laughton) fish-out-of-water discovery of the American dream is all the nuance with which Trump refuses to engage. His new American master, Egbert Floud (Charlie Ruggles), may be a prototypical ugly American in France, but there’s no denying the warmth, shorn of any class distinctions, with which he treats his new charge at home. And Ruggles himself eventually learns the error of his own stereotyping ways: An early rear-projection gag reveals the nightmarish Wild West conception he has of America, one that he soon discovers is false. Ruggles’s recitation of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—he, the foreigner, being the one man among full-blooded Americans in a Red Gap saloon who knows the speech by heart—remains a remarkable mix of savage satire and idealistic inspiration; the concluding rendition of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” in his honor still touchingly vibrates with possibility in this great land of ours. Ruggles of Red Gap presents America at its best—and it’s a reminder we desperately need now more than ever. Kenji Fujishima (July 28, 4pm at MoMA’s McCarey series)
The Transformers: The Movie (1986)
Directed by Nelson Shin
The original Transformers movie is a giant feather of nostalgia, sure to tickle anyone who grew up in the 80s watching cartoons and the toy commercials in between. Released in theaters—spun-off from the television series, bridging seasons two and three—the movie is set in 2005, a future that’s now awesomely old-fashioned: there’s a scene in which tiny cassette tapes are deployed to take out a boombox, but they’re defeated by different tiny cassette tapes. Mostly it displays a 20th century fetish for the automotive, for gears and metal, but it’s also as epic as Dune or Star Wars in its sci-fi mythology, set across multiple planets with all manner of mechanical threats, including “sharkticons.” There’s even a weird robot religion centered on access to “The Matrix,” a glowing crystal that is both heart and soul, and I think it contains robot heaven.
Many of the transformers here are sent to the robot afterlife. As kids’ movies go, this one’s on the dark side, unsparing in its frightening and often unheroic violence; its battles are not without their dead and wounded, collected afterward and either mourned or jettisoned into deep space, pleading for their lives. In the first scene, an entire planet is eaten, building by building, street by street, each sucked up into a great monster, all the residents we just saw blithely going about their day now murdered. The memorable villain’s sidekick Star Scream shoots off his foot when it’s stuck between metal doors, letting out a star scream; later, he’s disintegrated. Optimus Prime, the Aslan-like leader of the good guys, even dies in battle! (Twenty-five years after the first time I saw it, I can still remember every wound he suffers in his bot-to-bot fight with Megatron: the holes blown into his metal exterior, the light in his eyes powered down.) There’s intelligent marketing design at work: you’ll need to buy toys to mourn your favorite old characters, but also more toys to celebrate your favorite new ones.
To get kids hooked even deeper, the characters speak almost exclusively in iconic quotables. “Such heroic nonsense,” Megatron mutters, as the camera angle moves up to look at him and the barrel of his laser pistol from the point-of-view of the dying robot clutching at his leg, begging for mercy; you can almost still hear kids fanning out to repeat it in playground battles. (Other examples: “I’ve got better things to do tonight than die,” “One shall stand, one shall fall,” and so on to infinity.) It’s helped by the dramatic line readings from the talented character actors (the once defiantly blacklisted Lionel Stander, as Kup, stands out; his salty, Bronx-born drawl is the kind god doesn’t make anymore); plus, there’s the starry cast filling out new roles, including Leonard Nimoy, Eric Idle, Judd Nelson, Robert Stack and Orson Welles in his final film, his ailing basso profondo lending more terror to Unicron, the destroyer of worlds.
The goofy, galvanizing action sequences are set to pop-metal songs. (Bizarrely, “Dare to Be Stupid” by “Weird” Al, when he sounded like a disciple of Devo, is used for a dance party with the robots on a junkyard planet who speak in senseless clichés gleaned from TV, like the alien in Joe Dante’s The Explorers). And the animation is neither lazy nor cynical, sporting an anime-like aesthetic, visibly expensive but also artfully sophisticated, from its planet-eating space-monster design to its car-chase action sequences, possessing wit and style and horror—totally absent from the later, live-action Michael Bay films. It’s the difference between Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. This Transformers cartoon is among the best feature-length animation of the 80s, and by far the best toy commercial ever made—and this might be the only chance you’ll ever have to see it in 35mm. Henry Stewart (Jul 29, 9pm, at BAM’s, “Animation Block Party”)
The Fisher King (1991)
Directed by Terry Gilliam
The fusion of maudlin Richard LaGravenese and mad Terry Gilliam produced a rare alchemical miracle. Gilliam could flex his fabulist muscles with abandon, staying pinioned to a popular notion of cinematic reality thanks to LaGravenese’s cuddly homeless redemption story. Imagine someone trying to tell a story of a homeless man who thinks he’s a knight on a mythic quest today and not having to transport your sickness to an alley behind the theatre before the first act break. And yet Gilliam keeps the film from sinking into a quagmire of quirk, making his most confident film to date. Jeff Bridges, at his most monolithic, must repair a broken sense of self from the gutter and only Robin Williams’s addled former professor can help him. Bridges learns how to give back to those from whom he takes life support, just as Gilliam took an accepted form of storytelling and gave it the kiss of life. Some of Gilliam’s best images and ideas (Grand Central Station becoming a ballroom, a beautifully awkward first date, a suit morphing into a straitjacket, an evil knight tearing through New York) owe their existence to a script that only he could have allowed to transcend its cultural moment. That this movie works decades later is a nearly Arthurian feat unto itself. That it’s more heart-breaking than ever is because of Gilliam, Bridges, Williams and especially Mercedes Ruehl, the brash saint, as Bridges’s long-suffering girlfriend. Their deep commitment still stings the heart like the sweetest poison. Their work on this impossibility will leave a mark that will last forever, and you’ll be thankful in dark times to still have the scars. Scout Tafoya (July 30, 31, 11am at the Nitehawk)
Le Plaisir (1952)
Directed by Max Ophüls
“I’ve always loved the night and darkness,” admits the narrator of Le Plaisir, but the voice-over (Jean Servais, or, for the Anglophones, Peter Ustinov) is hardly necessary when Ophüls’s camera, that lover of glittering light, is on the scene. Adapting three short stories by French cynic Guy de Maupassant (a reminder that cynicism is sentimentalism, overcooked), Ophüls moves us through a dance floor, around a brothel, into a verdant countryside, and back to Paris, full of broken Roman statues and mirrors ready for a smash. The stories themselves ask less. In the opening “Le Masque,” an old man goes dancing, disguised as a young one. In the longest, middle piece, “La Maison Tellier,” a flock of working girls visit a village and feel renewed. In the concluding “Le Modele,” marriage is a pact between the guilty and the maimed. But Ophüls ennobles the material; those interested in pleasure should watch for the old man’s blank mask peeled off as his evening ends; the lighthouse flickering in darkness as lonely townspeople gather on the shore; one woman’s hat; another man’s cart; and the stairs shakily mounted by a would-be suicide. Elina Mishuris (July 30, 5pm; August 4, 8pm at MoMA’s Gaumont series)
Tourist Trap (1979)
Directed by David Schmoeller
It’s simple. Young pretty things stop at a remote museum full of eerie mannequins. Their car needs a repair, so they ask the museum owner for help. Things only get worse for this merry band of tourists. A big man with a tiny white doll’s mask is dead set on killing them.
Yet even with such minimal setup, Tourist Trap (expanded from Schmoeller’s thesis project, The Spider Will Kill You) threatens to become an incoherent, but oh so delectable film. This is no matter though. Plot is the least interesting thing about this and most films. Focus on the elaborate death scenes. They draw your attention to sound. There’s Pino Donaggio’s lush score. It has a twinkling innocence, grand strings, and an ethereal chorus. Schmoeller also heightens your sense of the sound design. We hear, for instance, blood plop, plop, plopping before we even see the wound. And most chilling of all, you can’t quite place the voices heard that go with shots of dead-eyed dolls. “I hear voices in my head and they keep calling me,” OutKast once sang. Tanner Tafelski (July 30, 7pm at the Metrograph’s “This Is PG?!”; with Schmoeller intro and Q&A)
Of the Dead (Des Morts) (1979)
Directed by Jean-Pol Ferbus, Dominique Garny, and Thierry Zéno
What does death look like? How does it feel? These questions are raised in poetic form over the course of this film-long documentary journey, which was shot in six countries between 1977 and 1979. Faces of death (belonging both to humans and to animals) are glimpsed in date-specific religious ceremonies across Thailand, Nepal, South Korea, Belgium, and Mexico, while the mechanics involved in secular burials are explored in the United States. Bodies are shown being emptied of organs and sewn back together with new mysteries inside. Throughout, the afterlife appears as a territory of friends, and the dead and dying as active beings to be appeased for their living kin to find peace. Of the Dead has been grouped with contemporaneously made shock and exploitation films, but looking within this educational work’s contours leads to revelations of surprising gentleness. As people in rural and urban settings around the world speak about what it means to commune with the dead, we come to understand their work as a kind of lifelong self-preparation. Aaron Cutler (July 31, 3:30pm at Anthology Film Archives’s “Mondo Mondo”)
In the Line of Fire (1993)
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan (a rough-hewn, grey Clint Eastwood) still blames himself three decades later for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Insidious, loathsome ex-CIA agent Mitch Leary (John Malkovich, the exemplary villain) has been trailing Horrigan and manipulatively tunnels into the agent’s psyche. Leary plants the proverbial seed, warning of a forthcoming assassination attempt on the current president, and forces Horrigan into a hazardous position. Bludgeoning his way onto the president’s detail, Horrigan finds an ally and a love interest in agent Lilly Raines (Rene Russo), though the rest of the ambitious political team hates him. Petersen directs a cast of adept, empathetic actors who engage in realistic conversation and conflict; Russo and Eastwood’s sexually charged banter about past lovers, work ethic, and jazz music is convincing enough to be a real date while Eastwood’s relationship with his partner, played by Dylan McDermott, is candidly pragmatic. When he needs to, Horrigan breaks agency policy, he defies orders, he follows the madman’s clues, and he occasionally finds time for an ice cream rendezvous at the Lincoln Memorial. Thanks to Eastwood’s expertly gruff persona—which he perfected in the Dirty Harry films and other thrillers like Tightrope—the film is a mindful, realistic thriller that churns ahead with purpose instead of being endlessly labyrinthine like its contemporaries. Samantha Vacca (August 1, 5pm, 8pm at BAM’s “Four More Years: An Election Special”)