Beat the Devil (1953)
Directed by John Huston
Like in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Humphrey Bogart is a globe-trotting fortune hunter out to plunder the developing world like a Conrad antihero who grew up playing stickball—here, he and dreamy-divine wife Gina Lollobrigida are en route to a shady uranium fortune somewhere in Africa. Like in The Maltese Falcon, he’s racing for his MacGuffin in unfriendly competition with a seedy gallery of expatriate character actors of the kind you can imagine standing drink after drink on your one excursion into the kind of exile cantina they haven’t left in years—chiefly including Peter Lorre, who looks, as ever, like an Al Hirschfeld drawing of Peter Lorre.
The difference this time around is Huston’s cowriter Truman Capote, the real-life Man Who Came to Dinner of the talk-show decades—the two supposedly made up the film as they went along, pulling all-nighters to contrive the next day’s dialogue. Capote’s great gift is to make cravenness simply sparkle, and he does so here, in dialogue dropping wicked pearl after pearl as everyone waits around in dusty Italy for their ship’s captain to sober up; then regards each other warily on a choppy voyage ending and brief toe-tap into the global South, rendered in a postwar parody of prewar exoticism. As everyone eyes each other suspiciously, Bogie and La Lollo enter into casual, crisscrossing infidelities with outwardly crusty-genteel British reprobates the Chelms. Jennifer Jones, in blonde dye job and doll-like bangs, takes gleefully to the fanciful and frankly thirsty Mrs. Chelm—quite a surprise, and perhaps a genuine id-exercise for Mrs. David O. Selznick, the studio system’s most prized trophy. Mark Asch (February 17-23 at Film Forum in new restoration of original cut; showtimes daily)
Tehran is the Capital of Iran (1966)
Directed by Kamran Shirdel
Disruptive filmmaking very often sets out simply to tell the truth. Governments keep control, after all, by denying the truth and replacing it with tales that can’t be questioned. Leaders know they stand to lose power in a world where citizens grow more aware of the oppression and neglect shown towards their fellows, thanks in part to their own complicity. Disruptive films therefore work by raising spectators’ awareness of what’s happening to their neighbors—and what could someday happen to them.
Four luminous examples were made by Shirdel in the second half of the 1960s, after the Iranian director had returned home from studies in Italy and begun work on short educational films. These socially conscious documentaries filled with poetic force soon outlived their commissioned functions, though, and were banned for years after their making for telling the truth. Among the best is an 18-minute-long film whose title is simple fact. Tehran is the Capital of Iran takes place in the neighborhood of Khazaneh, where six out of every seven household heads are unemployed and where the residents accordingly lack education, hygiene, and recreation. The film narrates daily struggles in a clear, straightforward way while lighting the faces of striving laborers, sleeping homeless men, wrestling children, and grown women crowded into classrooms for volunteer-run courses. As some of these women repeat the film’s title phrase, one’s mind is left to wonder over what its truth means.
Tehran is the Capital of Iran will screen in the second of three programs co-curated by Ernest Larsen and Sherry Millner in connection with a new DVD anthology of disruptive films, released by Facets. The other strong films in this program include Joyce Wieland’s Rat Life and Diet in North America, from Canada; Olga Poliakoff and Yann Le Masson’s I Am Eight Years Old, from France and Algeria; and Larsen and Millner’s own Graven Images, from the U.S.A. Aaron Cutler (February 16, 7:30pm as part of “Disruptive Film: Everyday Resistance to Power” at Anthology Film Archives)
What’s Up, Doc? (1972)
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
This screwball-throwback recasts Looney Tunes as romantic comedy. A boyish, brashly Brooklynish Barbra [sic] Streisand does her best Bugs Bunny, confounding a stodgy, absent-minded musicologist (played by Ryan O’Neal), whom she has arbitrarily targeted for harassment/romance, with surreal, sardonic conversation and aggressive antics. (She says the title line while munching on carrots in the meet-cute.) He’s her sputtering Fudd, just without the gun, and a delightfully consternated Madeline Kahn, making her film debut, is his fuddy-duddy fiancée. Set in San Francisco—in the airport, a hotel and the hilly streets—the movie sports zippy one-liners, zany physical comedy and madcap scenarios that build to boffo climaxes; there are a few groaners, a few guffaws and a couple gut-busters, adding up to old-fashioned but vivacious slapstick in the Frank Tashlin style. Henry Stewart (February 16, 9:30pm at the Nitehawk)
Harlan County, USA (1976)
Directed by Barbara Kopple
Kopple’s riveting documentary classic still reverberates truths about our forgotten working class. The film reminds us how organized labor used to be as American as apple pie, even in places like Kentucky—where unions were once part of the populist fabric. Kopple’s film focuses on the 1973-74 coal miners’ strike in the titular southern Kentucky county, which began after Duke Power Company refused to sign the standard union contract when workers for their subsidiary, Eastover Mining Company, joined the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). The strike echoes the “Bloody Harlan” of the 1930s, a series of violent skirmishes involving coal miners and mine operators, which resulted in several deaths.
Kopple and her crew are strikingly committed to delving into these miners’ lives: they go into their homes, attend their meetings, and turn up at their 5am blockade. More notable is the fearless support of these men’s wives’ and daughters’ in the picket line and their ruthless solidarity in the perpetual struggle. Like Fahrenheit 9/11, Harlan County, USA is among the few American documentaries to enjoy nationwide success, and like Michael Moore’s 2004 doc, it resonates louder today. Alejandro Veciana (February 17, 7pm at the Metrograph with Kopple in person)
The Last Waltz (1978)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
A gorgeous lesson in in “print the legend” anti-journalism, Scorsese’s first music documentary shimmers with mendacity and the unmistakable golden hue of created nostalgia. Scorsese wants the boys in The Band to bring him closer to the rock and blues legends he admires but is too timid and infirm to seek out himself. Robbie Robertson and his unwilling cohorts have to bring the music to him. They want no part in it, telling rambling pointless stories over endless beers and games of pool, refusing as much as possible to help two white men share their storied past with any old passerby. Meanwhile the music rockets up and down the Richter scale of authenticity. Neil Young comes out looking deranged and homeless, the cocaine on his nose taken out in post. Muddy Waters, shot unblinkingly by mistake, is ushered off stage to make room for clay-faced Eric Clapton, who stole his shtick and made it palatable for a soulless white middle class. Bob Dylan, their patron and ghost, sees the Band off just before he found Jesus and his career experienced a kind of temporary rapture. Some of these guys couldn’t know they were already legends and didn’t know that this self-conscious rhapsodizing was unnecessary. What of the film? It’s a lie, sure, but aren’t they always sweeter? Scout Tafoya (February 17, 18, 7pm at the Museum of the Moving Image’s Scorsese retrospective)
Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965)
Directed by Donald Brittain and Don Owen
To treat his neuroses and rejuvenate his spirit, unparalleled poet and novelist Leonard Cohen would often return home to Montreal, each trip a mix of self-preservation and asylum. Though Cohen was raised in a well-to-do Jewish family with ties in the garment industry, his Canadian voyages consisted of chiaroscuro verse readings, smoke-filled bistros, snowglobed parks and three-dollar-a-night hotel rooms—the perfect cocktail for a selfless thirty-year-old on the rise. Don Owen and Donald Brittain’s film was released in four short years after Cohen was in Cuba during the Bay of Pigs, and two years before his debut as a musical artist—though the writer had already begun his lifelong obsessions against violence, with the love and admiration of women and, foremost, achieving the homeostasis of one’s soul. We get a glimpse of photos of Marianne and Leonard’s life tucked away in Greece, though this Cohen is otherworldly, a man whose charisma hangs over each of his conversations like a suspended feather—perpetually looming and observing but never quite reaching the ground where everyone else walks. Samantha Vacca (February 17, 7pm; February 18, 9pm at Anthology Film Archives’s Cohen tribute)
One Way or Another (1974)
Directed by Sara Gómez
The Afro-Cuban Gómez died tragically at 31 before she could see her film completed, but it’s a blessing she got it made. The movie is a brain-massaging mix of romcom, documentary and Cuban propaganda that never feels sloppy as it toggles confidently between the three. Stark title cards with text like “WITH THE TRIUMPH OF THE REVOLUTION, ALL MARGINAL SECTORS OF THE POPULATION WERE INTEGRATED INTO SOCIETY” give way to a cute flirtation between schoolteacher Yolanda and laborer Mario, whose buddies subject him to macho joshing about his friendzone status (there’s a similar dynamic in Alile Sharon Larkin’s A Different Image, also screened in BAM’s series). Gomez sneaks some healthy skepticism into this generally pro-Revolution text, taking particular aim at the male chauvinism that’s rampant in the secret Abakuá society. The thrilling genre stew recalls hybrid Cuban works like I Am Cuba and Memories of Underdevelopment, though there’s nothing so gentle and touching as Yolanda and Mario’s pillow talk in those. Justin Stewart (February 18, 4:30pm at BAM’s “One Way or Another: Black Women’s Cinema, 1970-1991”)
God’s Country (1986)
Directed by Louis Malle
In 1979, Malle went to Glencoe, Minnesota and shot footage for a PBS documentary. The project fell through, but Malle returned to the Midwest farming town of 5,000 people in 1985, meeting up with people he interviewed six years earlier. And then a year later, PBS aired his completed film, God’s Country. In the first two-thirds of the film, Malle captures the texture and feel of the town, interviewing and interacting with bankers, police officers, softball players, convenience store and Dairy Queen owners, fathers, mothers, children, young people, and old people. It amounts to a picture of a traditional, conservative, hospitable yet prejudiced, and homogenous town filtered through Malle’s editorializing narration. In the last section, when Malle returns, the mood has changed. Turns out Reagonomics was for the worse, putting this farming economy into a depression and jeopardizing the livelihoods of many in Glencoe. Tanner Tafelski (February 19, 4pm at Film Comment Selects)
The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Directed by Wes Craven
Craven’s bonkers satire of post-Reagan America is one part Do the Right Thing and one part Home Alone. The story centers around a young LA teen nicknamed “Fool,” who pulls a reverse Kevin McAllister by breaking into the sprawling home of his white landlords after they threaten to evict his family. He enters in search of a cash jackpot but quickly realizes that the bloodcurdling shrieks and groans he hears seeping through the walls and floorboards might belong to other unlucky guests who never found a way out. Everett McGill and Wendy Robie (both of Twin Peaks fame) play the incestuous sibling landlords with feverish glee. Their performances, punctuated by a dominatrix costume’s recurring appearance, tiptoe the line between campy fun and surreal horror and lend the film its unexpected humor. A.J. Serrano (February 19, 9:45pm at BAM’s “The Art of the Social Thriller,” programmed by Get Out director Jordan Peele)