Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
This is a beautiful restoration, with Tarkovsky’s previous feature Solaris to follow, courtesy of Mosfilm. Now a “quasi-private” venture, the studio outlived the USSR by adapting successfully to an environment of economic, rather than historical, materialism—meaning that it trades on the many Soviet-era classics it once produced, including Stalker and Solaris. Happily, nothing like the sci-fi apparatus of the earlier film exists in Stalker, though it too is an adaptation of a sci-fi novel: Roadside Picnic, by the brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. Stalker simply tracks three men—the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn), The Scientist (Nikolai Grinko), and the Stalker himself (Alexander Kaidanovsky)—as they sneak into a restricted area called the Zone, and maybe out of it again.
The Zone is restricted because people disappear there. This doesn’t discourage visitors: hearsay holds that inside is a room in which one’s innermost wish will be granted. A Stalker’s vocation is to lead room-seekers through a treacherous landscape that looks a lot like an idyllic rural stretch. He is both tour guide and psychopomp; this particular Stalker is also a husband who leaves his unhappy spouse and unhealthy child in the sepia-tinted world outside the Zone, eager to return to its Kodak-color fields.
Tarkovsky sent his trinity into the Zone via a disorienting chase through dim barracks and damp alleys, scrambling the categories of inside/outside: a car drives through a warehouse; a train travels between walls. Censors complained that the rest of the film was too slow, and indeed it isn’t wrong to describe the rest of Stalker as “three grown men on an endless hike through a grassy meadow” (the Stalker claims that the Zone must be traversed without pause). Given the length of Tarkovsky’s takes, this can suggest a critique of livelier cinema; constant movement can be just as aimless as long duration.
But Stalker isn’t aimless. Sure, given all that hiking, the mind wanders—and wanders back. At least one devotee of the film, which is about and inspires devotion, condemns this wandering as our modern inability to concentrate. Why not our old ability to transcend? Stalker suggests that the Stalker’s daughter, who cannot walk, has other methods of movement. Hers is not a cinematic childhood of chase sequences or imagined lands governed by arcane laws. It’s an experience of childhood that should feel even more deeply familiar to us: one in which deep and intense boredom gives way to discovery. Elina Alter (Opens May 5 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center)
It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)
Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly
A conceptual sequel to On the Town, It’s Always Fair Weather likewise sets a trio of G.I.’s loose in (and on) New York City—but instead of a 24-hour romp, they end up on a rueful survey of roads not taken. Having made a pact at the close of the war to reunite ten years thence, the boon companions (Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd) arrive at the appointed meeting to find themselves all but strangers to one another, wondering what kinship they could have ever had. For the film’s initial audience, the decennial in question was a real-life milestone, not some fanciful gimmick, and the directors do not truck with false cheer, dwelling closer to film-noir’s sense of unfulfilled promise and missed opportunities. The requisite happy ending is achieved through some well-orchestrated screwball that doesn’t quite rebut the more prosaic melancholy it follows. With a script by the great screenwriting team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and what may be the most inventive set of production numbers ever to grace an MGM musical. Eli Goldfarb (May 3, 8:15pm at Film Forum, with Amanda Green, daughter of screenwriter and lyricist Adolph Green, in honor of Betty Comden’s centennial)
Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
The apocalypse, when it comes, will not be in a ball of fire, the rising of the seas, or locusts descending. It will be three people, who did everything right, pierced by a thousand bullets like St. Sebastian’s arrows. Le Cercle Rouge is the closest Jean-Pierre Melville got to his ideal, a mix of Jacques Becker’s Le Trou and Bresson’s Pickpocket, a blue-gray nocturnal reconnoitering of the flimsy chains keeping men in their place. Handcuffs are slipped, locks picked, safes cracked, prisons, great, small, real and imagined, are left behind. All that remains is the frail frame in which perfection resides. Melville’s heroes are closed off to us, so they could come from anywhere. Soldiers, maybe? Lifelong hoods. They stuff years of treachery and foxiness into those tan and black trench coats, and know the way out of every room they enter. But Melville had lived long enough to know that perfection isn’t really possible. That no matter who you style yourself to be, a host of mangy variables will always nip at your heels. Le Cercle Rouge, Melville’s finest work of post-war privateering, revels in the silent concentration, the unyielding focus of lost boys out to reshape a changing landscape of cops, robbers and cowards into the perfect symmetrical object they know it could be. Let the circle be unbroken. The world ends when you’re dead. Scout Tafoya (May 5, 7:20pm; May 6, 4:50pm; May 7, 4:40pm; May 8, 4:30pm, 9pm; May 11, 9:20pm at Film Forum’s Melville series)
In the Heat of the Sun (1994)
Directed by Jiang Wen
Jiang Wen is perhaps one of the most notable actor-director auteurs working today, equally known for his roles ranging from Red Sorghum to Rogue One as he is for his directorial work, particularly his Cannes Grand Prix-winning film Devils on the Doorstep. His debut, In the Heat of the Sun, showing in a sorely needed restoration, is a rather intriguing affair. Operating almost in a poetic realism mood, it captures a summer and change in the life of a boy delinquent (who bears a marked resemblance to the director) as he makes trouble with his friends and becomes intensely fixated on a slightly older girl. But Jiang distinguishes his film with a firm sense of setting, in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, and an almost playful sense of reflexivity that makes this coming-of-age story genuinely unexpected and exciting. Ryan Swen (May 5, 9, 7:30pm at BAM’s Jiang Wen retrospective)
Directed by Rian Johnson
Pulling a successful hit job, presumably, requires emotional detachment. For loopers, in a world thirty years into the future, the detachment takes a split second—they await their prey in timely fashion, as the target is thrust into their path via the criminalized method of time travel. Loopers shoot, kill, and collect their pay. It is only when their future selves are their next task that hesitance arrives. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a sharp-firing, lonely francophile whose sole emotional outlet is through sex worker Suzie (Piper Perabo), faces a similar quagmire when Old Joe (Bruce Willis) appears. The job slips; Old Joe hasn’t lost his bite, and knows far more what Young Joe stands to lose. He has a mission of his own: hunt and kill young Cid (Pierce Gagnon, the film’s MVP), who will grow up to destroy the heart Joe spent decades developing. That is, if he can get tough mother Sara (Emily Blunt) out of the way.
Bending genre plasticity is Rian Johnson’s strength, as is reinterpreting referential fragments into something subtle yet riveting. Slyly quoting various practitioners of sci-fi, whether outlandish—Cameron, Gilliam, Otomo—or minimal—Carruth, Godard—Looper is an intelligent, increasingly rare crowd pleaser. Nevermind the heavily criticized make-up job on Gordon-Levitt—which will award Johnson and makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji ridicule forevermore—the film is a triumph in creating a practical world with few digital touches; beyond the wires lurking in the telekinesis setpieces, the murky urbane Louisiana cityscapes and rural farms are so scarcely affected, they could almost be current. Also arresting is cousin Nathan Johnson’s score, culled from gun rattles, treadmills, and slowed engines. A film so adept at depicting worlds falling apart, Looper crisply pulls pieces together into an, ahem, timeless tale. Forward thinking isn’t often this heart-tugging while badass. Max Kyburz (May 6, 7, 11:30am at the Nitehawk)
Swing Shift (1984)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
It takes only a small step to say that Demme was the greatest American filmmaker of the 1980s. The several beautiful movies that he made during this time—among them Melvin and Howard, Who Am I This Time?, Stop Making Sense, and Something Wild—in fact consist of small steps taken by lonesome people towards each other in the interest of forming a community. The (often, though not always, working-class) characters dreamed up by Demme—who passed away last Wednesday from cancer and heart disease complications at age 73—possessed small lives and enormous ideals, and spent their waking hours striving to strike a delicate balance between the two.
He consistently brought out fresh and wonderful performances from his actors, and to the towering roll call of names found in the films listed above can be added the brilliant ensemble of Swing Shift, whose ranks include Ed Harris, Christine Lahti, Kurt Russell, Fred Ward, and even a young Holly Hunter. The center of the film’s action is occupied by giant-eyed Goldie Hawn (four years post-Private Benjamin) in the role of Kay Walsh, an American housewife who becomes a klutzy and unexpectedly heroic airplane factory worker after her husband (Harris) joins the military during the Second World War. As was consistently the case with Demme, the film operates largely as low-key dramedy, covering three-and-a-half years in the lives of the characters with a focus on Kay’s blossoming friendship with nightclub singer-turned-riveter Hazel (Lahti) and her burgeoning/burdening affair with musician and fellow worker Lucky (Russell).
Demme initially emphasized the kinship between women; Hawn, who produced Swing Shift in addition to starring in it, ultimately recut the film to highlight heterosexual romance. Yet, even though the finished film unfolds in looser fashion than it could have, it still conveys the charms innate to many other films made both by its director and by its star. Swing Shift is a gentle film with love for every character in it. The basic sensuality of a work capable of inspiring viewers to want to hug each person onscreen will be emphasized at the Quad through the theater’s screening of Swing Shift on a 35mm print. Aaron Cutler (May 7, 1pm; May 10, 7pm at the Quad’s Goldie Hawn series)
The Stuff (1985)
Directed by Larry Cohen
The Stuff is healthy, delicious, and available at your local grocery. Also, it came from outer space. Cohen’s horror comedy isn’t the first film to unleash an alien invasion on Reagan’s America, but it certainly is the first to depict extraterrestrials as a mind-controlling dairy product. Playing like a cross between John Carpenter’s The Thing and a Tim and Eric sketch, The Stuff follows an industrial spy’s investigation of an addictive and deadly dessert. The horror elements elicit more yuks than yucks; the film’s humor flip-flops between intentionally surreal laughs and unintentional camp. Despite shoestring budget and slapdash special effects, Cohen manages to create a biting satire of American consumerism and its insatiable appetite. A.J. Serrano (May 7, 6pm at the Quad’s “Larry Cohen’s New York”)