The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Week: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, November 2-8

repertory cinema-front page The Front Page (1931)
Directed by Lewis Milestone
This phenomenally fast-moving early screwball comedy has for years circulated in theatrical prints of dubious quality, a situation to be hopefully changed by the arrival of a new 35mm restoration undertaken in partnership between the Academy Film Archive and the Film Foundation and based upon a print owned by producer Howard Hughes. The first screen adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s hit play relied in large part upon the authors’ experiences as journalists for rival Chicago publications in the 1910s and 1920s. The “mythical kingdom” (per an early title card) in which The Front Page unfolds is a cityscape filled with shady business on the part of lawmakers and breakers alike, and one from which ace reporter Hildy Johnson (played by film newcomer Pat O’Brien) wishes to escape into marriage against the wishes of his editor, Walter Burns (played by debonair, charming, conniving—who else?—Adolphe Menjou).

Although the play has been adapted for cinema a number of times (most notably with Howard Hawks’s 1940 comedy of remarriage, His Girl Friday), this version is by far the spiciest. As Burns tries to hook his star Hildy back with the bait of covering an upcoming state execution of a potentially innocent man, a variety of pre-Code sights and sounds occur: Not just swear words and potty jokes (although those are to be found), but repeated expressions of a blunt cynicism about politics. In the film, people are condemned in order to please electorates, journalists lie their heads off for the sake of their careers, and women across different social levels are pushed aside by men wishing to keep their homoerotic gamesmanships intact. The November 2nd screening of The Front Page will be introduced by Academy Film Archive representatives Michael Pogorzelski and Heather Linville. Aaron Cutler (November 2, 7pm; November 6, 6:15pm at “To Save and Project: The 14th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation”)

repertory cinema-anguish

Anguish (1987)
Directed by Bigas Luna
A hypnotized man-child (Michael Lerner looking like the older brother of Seinfeld’s Newman) does whatever his mommy wants (a creepy Zelda Rubenstein), and what she wants is to murder and collect the eyes of anyone who wrongs her son. Not long into the movie, Luna reveals that this story is actually a film screening in some small theater in the US. Little do the viewers know that a killer is watching this film with them.

Luna’s reflexive movie-within-a-movie is a deadly cocktail of irony and tense parallel action of what’s happening in the theater. It’s a mesmerizing mise en abyme of film watching and recalls, as often noted by critics, Hitchcock and Buñuel, but also Lamberto Bava and John Carpenter. Next to David Fincher and D.W. Griffith, Anguish has some of the finest, sustained crosscutting in film history. Anguish, like Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968), takes on another level of meaning after the 2012 Aurora shooting. Tanner Tafelski (November 3, 6:45pm; November 12, 4:45pm at Anthology Film Archives’s “The Medium is the Massacre” [presented by Screen Slate])

Martin Lasalle in Robert Bresson's PICKPOCKET (1959). Courtesy Film Forum/Janus Films. Playing 1/13-1/14

Pickpocket (1959)
Directed by Robert Bresson
Bresson’s work is often regarded as cold. The way he directs his actors is perceived as mechanical—even emotionless. This is perhaps why Bresson’s films did not excite the art-house crowds, the way those of his fellow New Wave peers did. But in Susan Sontag’s essay, Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson, she understands Bresson’s cinema as “reflective or contemplative” rather than cold. She claims that, “one has to understand the aesthetics—that is, find the beauty—of such coldness,” in order to fully appreciate his work.

Pickpocket centers on Michel, a solitary small-time thief who commits petty crimes by skillfully stealing from people’s pockets in crowded spaces. He joins a group of well-versed pickpockets who pull off elaborate small thefts in public areas. Michel is a quiet man, who seldom visits his ill mother. Echoing Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the film depicts Michel as somehow unconcerned with consequence, relieving himself from any moral regard even flirting with the idea of getting arrested as he is followed and subtly provoked by a watchful inspector.

The same way Michel’s pickpocketing skills rely on slick deception by diverting one’s attention from one’s own pocket, Bresson focuses the audience on form, diverting your attention from the film’s own narrative scheme. This forces the spectator to contrast and compare these two elements (narrative and form) simultaneously. We now associate this with what we call “Bressonian,” and it is as compelling today as it was in 1959. Alejandro Veciana (November 4, 5:30pm, 7:30pm, 9:30pm; November 6, 4:30pm at BAM’s “Bresson on Cinema”)

repertory cinema-earth

Earth (1939)
Directed by Tomu Uchida
Uchida makes for a wonderful case study of how great older Japanese cinema is still largely undiscovered by US-based cinephiles and critics. The director (who lived between 1895 and 1970) worked prolifically and excellently on many different kinds of films, such as stylized historical works (samurai and kabuki epics included), socially invested crime drama (like his best-regarded film, Straits of Hunger aka Fugitive from the Past), and even contemporary musicals (i.e., the sad and delicate Twilight Saloon). His diverse stories and approaches were united by a compassion for human suffering, a quality that MoMA’s ongoing Uchida retrospective (the largest ever held outside of Japan) makes plain.

Earth is one of Uchida’s most celebrated works; even so, the film has primarily circulated in a version only two-thirds the length of its original 142-minute running time, a handicapping somewhat mitigated by the recovery of over 20 minutes of footage within the past decade. (MoMA will screen this 2006 restoration.) The realistic drama (whose story was initially rejected by the studio Nikkatsu, leading Uchida and his crew to shoot the film in secret) follows a peasant family in northern Japan over the course of four seasons, with a focus on widowed patriarch Kenji (Isamu Kosugi), who must work hard to pay off debts accrued by his elderly father-in-law (Kaichi Yamamoto) while keeping a protective eye out for the well-being of his teenage daughter (Akiko Kazami). The film interweaves fictional scenes of confrontations between characters with documentary images of daily labor in the interest of showing people struggling against environmental disasters and threats of man-made harm alike. Earth looks with clarity and sympathy—and, perhaps, a call for change—at people placed in vulnerable conditions by a system of indentured servitude. Aaron Cutler (November 5, 1:30pm at MoMA’s Uchida retrospective)

repertory cinema-after hours

After Hours (1985)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Originally intended to be Tim Burton’s debut feature, this blisteringly dark satire about a Manhattan yuppie’s horrible night out was an unexpected turn for Scorsese. At 97 minutes, it is one of his shortest films, and was also his first film in ten years to not star Robert DeNiro. Griffin Dunne, the DeNiro surrogate here, plays Paul Hackett, an office drone whose night on the town begins with the promise of romance but quickly dissolves into a paranoid nightmare. Scorsese stretches and warps time in this urban wonderland, juxtaposing frenetic camera movements against the backdrop of SoHo’s eclectic nightlife. Overlooked upon its initial release, After Hours deserves its place among Taxi Driver and Raging Bull as one of the filmmaker’s finest depictions of New York City. A.J. Serrano (November 6, 2pm at Film Forum)

repertory cinema-sailor suit and machine gun

Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (1981)
Directed by Shinji Sômai
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Haruki Kadokawa’s first foray into film production with Kon Ichikawa’s The Inugami Family (1976). The controversial polymath that some consider the Howard Hughes of Japan (maybe Donald Trump is a closer comparison…), Kadokawa peaked in the 70s and 80s, raising many eyebrows with his aggressive, yet successful marketing strategies tied to his epic blockbusters.

Sailor Suit and Machine Gun was a cash cow and star vehicle that paired art house director (sadly forgotten in the West) Shinji Sômai with pop singer and actress Hiroko Yakushimaru. Based on the book by the prolific Jirô Akagawa, Sailor Suit is about a high school girl inheriting a dying gang consisting of four remaining yakuza. With Sômai’s long takes, tracking shots and gift for staging in depth, Sailor Suit is a film in which a talented director shoots fluff, but boy is it well-made fluff. Tanner Tafelski (November 8, 7pm at Japan Society’s Kadokawa retrospective)

repertory cinema-big hanks

Big (1988)
Directed by Penny Marshall
Though Tom Hanks ably flexed his dramatic muscles as heroic real-life pilot Chesley Sullenberger in Sully, his performance as a disillusioned salesman in the less widely seen A Hologram for the King earlier in the year is, in some ways, even more noteworthy for offering bracing reminders of the terrific comic actor he was in his early years. Perhaps the peak of his achievement in that regard is his performance in Big. More than just the jewel of that 1987-8 cycle of young-old body-switch films (remember Like Father, Like Son? Vice Versa? 18 Again?), Penny Marshall’s film is also a culmination of Hanks’s on-screen persona throughout that decade—that ingratiating innocence of his characters in Splash, Bachelor Party, The Money Pit, etc., made literal in the form of Josh, a kid trapped in a man’s body and being schooled in the complicated ways of the adult world. With the zeal of a silent comedian, Hanks draws on his full arsenal of physical tics for the part—and yet, for all his manic energy, there’s never a sense that he’s begging for the audience’s affection. Instead, Hanks selflessly merges his own palpable joy in acting with the needs of the eternally youthful character he’s playing. If his performance in A Hologram for the King is any indication, even as Hanks has gained in world-weariness almost 30 years after Big, that charming inner child thankfully remains. Kenji Fujishima (November 8, 8pm; November 13, 2:30pm at MoMA’s Hanks tribute)

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