Beau Travail (1999)
Directed by Claire Denis
As is her elliptical wont, Denis doesn’t directly announce Beau Travail’s Herman Melville-based inspiration in the opening credits. Sharp-eared viewers, however, will immediately recognize that snatch of operatic music during a montage of French Foreign Legion officers doing calisthenics in the Djibouti desert to be from Benjamin Britten’s opera adaptation of Melville’s Billy Budd; the film itself gradually reveals its kinship to Melville’s novella in its tale of an ex-Foreign Legion officer, Galoup (Denis Lavant)—the Claggart figure—becoming consumed with jealousy toward a popular young new recruit, Gilles Sentain (Gregoire Colin)—the film’s Billy Budd—to destructive ends.
The use of Britten on the soundtrack cuts deeper than just its ties to Melville, though. Britten was a homosexual at a time when homosexuality was a crime in the UK, and his opera implies a homoerotic strain to Claggart’s attempts to destroy Budd. Denis, that great modern master of the sensual, runs with that homoeroticism, exulting in the voluptuous physicality of her often-half-naked male subjects, whether standing still or in rigorous motion. More than being just a study of machismo, Beau Travail is also an examination of faces and landscapes, with Lavant’s weathered visage—as craggy as the rocky desert landscapes his troupe is often forced to traverse—contrasting with Colin’s boyish, near-effeminate face, the purity of which is reflected towards the end in the salt flats in which he nearly dies. In a film dominated by mechanized movements and routine, it’s only fitting that the film ends with a fantastical vision of liberation through acrobatic, anarchic gyrations set to Euro dance pop in a neon-lit disco. Kenji Fujishima (January 6, 9pm; January 7, 5pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Illuminating Moonlight,” programmed by Barry Jenkins)
Sunset BLVD. (1950)
Directed by Billy Wilder
It’s hard to imagine Norma Desmond, the exiled, bygone silent era star who spends everyday mooning over her comeback, played by anyone other than Gloria Swanson, but Pola Negri, Mae West, and Mary Pickford were Billy Wilder’s original preferences. In many ways, Swanson’s life paralleled Norma’s: a former silent actress coaxed out of retirement to play the role she was born for, a seamless amalgamation of truth and legend.
William Holden is career-best as Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who happens upon Norma’s desolate mansion as he’s trying to evade bill collectors. Norma’s butler, an unflappable Erich von Stroheim (who also happens to be her first husband), leads Gillis into the parlor where Ms. Desmond lures him into the murky chasm that is now her life. She gives Gillis room and board, a new career opportunity, and trinket by trinket corrodes their professional relationship into one of emotional dependency. In order to keep Gillis after he’s frightened by her advances, Desmond attempts suicide, pulling him beyond just a kept man, making him an appendage.
With cameos from silent-film stars, an enduring scene with Cecil B. DeMille himself, a piquant script and impeccable photography and authority, Wilder’s tawdry tale of egomania in a world now forgotten remains unrivaled in its perfected disillusionment and melodrama. Samantha Vacca (January 7, 8, 11:30am at the Nitehawk)
Directed by Kirsten Johnson
Johnson’s powerful documentary is a fragmented story about the moral, professional and creative responsibilities one is instantly bestowed while working behind the camera. Her years of experience as a documentary cinematographer have gifted her with an array of astonishing material. Since much (if not all) of this material was never used in the documentaries they were meant for, it allows Johnson enormous creative leeway, and ultimately feels like she is showing us moments we weren’t supposed to see. But Cameraperson is also about what you don’t see—what Johnson frames away from, emphasizing cinema’s natural ability to juggle both what’s seen and unseen. This is what makes watching this film a wonderfully unique experience.
By using footage from her past work, Johnson puts together a visual memoir that juxtaposes numerous locations—from postwar Bosnia to an Al-Qaeda detention facility in Yemen to backstage at a boxing match in Brooklyn—giving way for some beautiful, thought-provoking associations. Johnson frames her subjects delicately, with absolute fascination and is always deeply empathetic, all while fleshing out some more personal and inner struggles on death, trauma and motherhood. Alejandro Veciana (January 8, 4:30pm at the Museum of the Moving Image’s “Curators’ Choice,” with Johnson and editor Niels Bangerter in person)
Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971)
Directed by Floyd Mutrux
LA dope fiends, pushers, hustlers, and petty thieves come in and out of focus in Mutrux’s pseudo-documentary. The people are real (all of them except ex-Father Knows Best star Billy Gray, who would be wrongly accused of being a heroin addict), the scenarios scripted. Mutrux’s heavily researched and remarkably assured debut plays like a precursor to Martin Bell’s observational documentary Streetwise (1984). Dusty should’ve launched Mutrux’s career. Instead, the movie merely froze it. Warner Bros. distributed Dusty, but had a change of heart. They shelved the film after only a week in theaters. They equated Mutrux’s non-judgmental approach to heroin use with endorsement.
Ever since its early-90s revival run and its home video premiere on the Warner Archive label in 2009, Dusty’s small following grows. More and more viewers see a film that captures a time when free love, the cultural revolution, and the hippie movement sours. Tanner Tafelski (January 9, 7pm at the Alamo Drafthouse)