The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Week: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, April 12-18

nyc repertory cinema-book of maryThe Book of Mary (1985)
Directed by Anne-Marie Miéville
Miéville’s short is customarily paired with Godard’s Hail Mary, but beyond the constant collaboration between the two directors (and the fact that they’re an item), they aren’t truly connected beyond the name shared by both protagonists: in this case, a young girl who finds herself growing up amidst her parents’ divorce. The short quietly relates moments we all know, from life or from fiction: the reveal in the middle of lunch, the travel between parents, times and constraints, the child’s growing self-absorption… But all of this is done in a very accessible way, framed precisely and focusing on what’s important: the child’s perspective, her world, her reactions, how she looks out the window in a moving train, how she clings to the little possessions that she’s loved her entire life in what she considered to be a conformed family. The camera, the acting and the naturalistic approach make this one of the best short films: it doesn’t bring attention to itself beyond its simple ambitions, its aim to be a film like the dormant volcano Marie, one we never see erupt in emotions, though the film erupts inside us as it ends. Jaime Grijalba (April 12, 13, 9:15pm; April 16, 6:15pm, followed Godard’s Hail Mary, at BAM’s Miéville retrospective)

nyc repertory cinema-himom-deniro

Hi, Mom! (1970)
Directed by Brian De Palma
Throughout his career, De Palma has made a career defined by pairing complete technical confidence with provocative, often intensely problematic subject matter. While the Hitchcockian, relentlessly stylized works of his mid-to-late career draw more attention, there is much to ponder in his early films, and none of them have more to say as loudly as Hi, Mom! The first half plays like a light riff on Rear Window, with all of its peeping potential explored through Robert De Niro’s Vietnam veteran. However, the second half largely abandons him and leaps into political territory, as an ambitious play called Be Black, Baby is mounted where white audience members in blackface are terrorized by black actors in whiteface. This shockingly realistic and nerve-racking sequence (shot in faux-vérité black and white) is immensely troubling, and De Palma’s depiction of this and the succeeding acts of “real” violence is perhaps too uncomplicated to function. But the anger and genuine sense of subversion remains, and that is what matters. Ryan Swen (April 13, 15, 2pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s series for their 2017 gala tribute recipient Robert De Niro)

Ecstasy (1933 Czechoslovakia/Austria) aka Ekstase Directed by Gustav Machatý Shown: Hedy Lamarr

Ecstasy (1932)
Directed by Gustav Machatý
It is easy to understand the original fuss over this Czech-Austrian silent film. For all of the film’s obligatory nods to nascent socialist-realism—shots of shirtless farmers with scythes breaking sweat to build a better tomorrow—the real juice, or pulp, lies in Machatý’s unabashed (for the epoch) sexual scenes. Eva (Hedy Lamarr), an unhappy newlywed ignored by her much older husband, returns to her paternal home. During a hilarious incident, in which she loses her clothes while bathing in a local pond, she is rescued by a handsome engineer. What follows is a tale of naked lust and regained independence. Machatý injects some pathos into the film’s finale, punishing his heroine for her brief happiness in a puritanical fashion. Given such a pale, unconvincing ending, what lingers instead are the deliciously fleshed-out romance, the subtlety and spunk of Lamar’s performance, and Machatý’s eye for realist detail. Ela Bittencourt (April 14, 7pm; April 20, 7:30pm at MoMA’s “Ecstasy and Irony: Czech Cinema, 1927-1943”)

nyc repertory cinema-high school-wiseman

High School (1968)
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
In 1968, vérité legend Frederick Wiseman went to Philadelphia’s Northeast High School to shoot his follow-up to his enthralling, controversial debut, Titicut Follies, a direct cinema classic about a correctional facility in Massachusetts for the mentally insane. High School is another American documentary landmark, a captivating forthright portrayal of an ordinary American high school and the continuous familiar squabbles between teachers and students.

Strict but not necessarily an ultraconservative high school for 1968, Northeast employs teachers who talk about birth control and challenge traditional ideas of patriarchal households while others quarrel with students about a young woman’s “proper” prom dress etiquette. Particularly amusing are scenes in which a Spanish class learns how to pronounce the words “existential philosopher” in Spanish, a hip young teacher introduces her apathetic class to the poetry in Simon & Garfunkel’s music and a wisecracking gynecologist answers anonymous questions about sex in front of an auditorium of pubescent boys.

The film is beautifully photographed, abundant in close-ups; Wiseman’s ability to get up close to students and render smaller narratives all while going seemingly unnoticed is an incredible feat. The way Wiseman’s directorial presence disappears in High School is an extraordinary and captivating effect. And although it’s a well familiar style, it’s still just as effective nearly 50 years later. Alejandro Veciana (April 15, 2:20pm, 6pm, 9:50pm; April 21, 1:30pm, 6pm, 10:15pm; April 22, 2:50pm, 6:40pm, 10:10pm; April 27, 2:20pm, 10pm in a new 35mm preservation at Film Forum’s “The Complete Wiseman: Part I”)

nyc repertory cinema-the queen

The Queen (1968)
Directed by Frank Simon
The Queen will screen at Anthology Film Archives on a 35mm blow-up from its 16mm original; both screenings will feature the presence of the film’s star, Jack Doroshow, who’s known better to the world as Flawless Sabrina. The then-24-year-old Flawless was the master (mistress?) of ceremonies for the 1967 edition of the Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant, a trans extravaganza held at New York City’s Town Hall. This event was recorded for posterity in handheld vérité fashion by Simon in his feature-length film debut. It gives us glimpses of a murderer’s row of judges including Edie Sedgwick, Terry Southern, and the immortal Mr. Warhol, as well as a full dive into an onstage rendition by Flaming Creatures star Mario Montez of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” The Queen’s hot-to-trot highlights, though, are the contestants themselves, such as the Philadelphia-born lovely blond Harlow and the ruthlessly preening Crystal LaBeija (“I’m beautiful. I know I’m beautiful”). The pageant’s lows and highs are conveyed across 68 taut, tight, tense, and tingling minutes, whose disputable outcome can’t erase Flawless Sabrina’s conviction: “Every one of these contestants, before they came here tonight, is a winner.”

The Queen will be presented within a series of 13 films collectively devoted to exploring transgender issues, and it’s positioned as the wise old forbearer to a number of wonders ranging from Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Old Moons and Ottinger’s Freak Orlando up through works completed this year. The film series is staged in conjunction with a series of photographs at the International Center of Photography called The Fluidity of Gender, which forms part of the larger ICP exhibition Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change. Aaron Cutler (April 16, 4:15pm; April 21, 7pm at Anthology Film Archives’s “The Cinema of Gender Transgression: Trans Film”)

nyc repertory cinema-body-and-soul

Body and Soul (1925)
Directed by Oscar Micheaux
Paul Robeson made his screen debut with this dual performance, incarnating opposite poles of human nature as two brothers—vicious and valiant. As wicked Isaiah, an ex-con impersonating a preacher, the force of Robeson’s personality is like a rupture in the screen, while Sylvester, seen only briefly and undefined except as an icon of gentle decency, takes self-effacement to the point of concealment. Caught between them are devout Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert) and her daughter Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell), as Isaiah’s predation incites a melodrama of scalding irony. Robeson’s radiant menace and Micheaux’s withering view of public piety both anticipate (but aren’t outdone by) The Night of the Hunter, then thirty years off. Once relegated to the margins of film history, Body and Soul, like a parable, has only grown more resonant. Eli Goldfarb (April 18, 7pm at MoMA’s “Making Faces on Film” program on images of blackness)

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