The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Week: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, January 11-18

nyc-repertory-cinema-4-adventures-of-reinette-and-mirabelle Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (1987)
Directed by Éric Rohmer
“Adventures” may be a bit of a misnomer here; in Rohmer’s four-part film, teenage girls Reinette and Mirabelle embark on the kinds of “adventures” that are more about navigating life’s mundane situations, from rude waiters to loud trucks disrupting rural idyll. It’s Rohmer’s peppering of subtle humor and his careful study of character—focusing his lens on two girls from different backgrounds (Reinette from the countryside and Mirabelle from the city) learning to live with each other as flatmates in Paris—that make this overlooked film from the celebrated French filmmaker such a delight to watch. The male love interests in Rohmer’s better-known works are often the most frustrating parts, but here, in his Frances Ha prototype, he portrays a realistic female friendship that endearingly swings from quiet confrontations to comedic sketches. And if you find Rohmer too talky, just you wait until the final adventure. Kristen Yoonsoo Kim (January 11, 2pm, 7:30pm; January 17, 6:30pm, 8:30pm at the Metrograph’s Rohmer series)


Black TV (1968)
Directed by Aldo Tambellini
The Italian-American artist, filmmaker, and poet Tambellini is known best for working with black. His most celebrated films comprise a seven-work suite called the Black Film cycle and combine abstract impressions hand-drawn and scratched directly onto 16mm film stock with firsthand registers that comment allusively on the meaning of “black” throughout the world. Tambellini, at age 86, still continues to use black in his work both as a color and as a concept, which he has described in sweeping, primal terms. In an interview conducted in 1967, during the creation of the Black Films (all of which have recently been restored by the Harvard Film Archive), Tambellini variously characterized black as “a state of being blind and more aware,” “a oneness with birth,” and “the expansion of consciousness in all directions.” His films sublimely illustrate these capacities.

Following this past Tuesday’s screening of six of the Black Films, Anthology Film Archives will screen the series’s concluding film, Black TV, together with three other Tambellini pieces (two of which further illustrate the powers of blackness, the third of which further illustrates the power of television). Tambellini will appear in person. His split-screen, ten-minute-long Black TV presents, with varying levels of static, two television monitors across which play a variety of sounds and images registered between 1964 and 1968. These fragments of a violent and tumultuous time include references to Vietnam War casualties, to Robert F. Kennedy’s death, to police beating back crowds in Chicago, and to Nixon’s ascendance to President. A human face riven with pain appears on one side of the screen while the words “Where is Prejudice?” and a billowing American flag appear on the other. Blackness surrounds the images throughout and acts as a unifying presence. Aaron Cutler (January 12, 7:30pm at Anthology Film Archives’s Tambellini retrospective)


Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Dircted by Nagisa Oshima
British POW Jack Celliers (David Bowie) is described as, like his portrayer, “a difficult man.” Difficult in that, yes, both rebel against authority—with quite a bit of sass—but both also wield unearthly traits that we have yet to fully grasp. Their sexuality is ambiguous. They are soldiers who do not fit the typical template. Complex men relying upon performance for survival. When an imprisoned Celliers mimes luxuries like a smoke or a shave, or when he eats flowers, his eccentric acts of peaceful opposition clash with the oppressive rods of his Japanese captors. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence finds tension with the rest of Oshima’s —instead of portraying sexuality and obsession explicitly, the provocateur chooses to be more gentle in his visual poetry, even as violent acts of nature and man triumph. It’s no typical POW film—the men are too starved and beaten to whistle cheerfully. There’s no great escape either—whether prisoner or captor, these men are trapped by their cultural mores, and by their dark pasts.

Most famously, there’s the enigmatic bond between Celliers and camp head Yanoi (fellow rock star Ryuichi Sakamato). Yanoi’s glammy visage (compared to a bedraggled Bowie—but damn, he makes it look good) suggests inner performative traits of his own: he’s acting a disciplined way of the samurai while repressing his obsessions toward Celliers. Is it erotic, or spiritual? Does Yanoi respect him for bravery, or as a fellow with a dark past? Celliers, on the other hand, figures him as a man in desperate need of affection; a man with absolute power in isolation. It’s similar to the film’s more underrated bond, the one that gives the film its title. Captain Lawrence (Tom Conti), the lone mediator between the British and the Japanese, has a frenemy in Sgt. Hara (Takeshi Kitano), with whom the film’s central arguments of cultural differences—particularly in approaching the human spirit—take place. Hara sees honor in death, yet, drunk on holiday spirits (mainly sake), he pardons Lawrence and Celliers. Even as Celliers proves to be not so lucky—one year on from Bowie’s earthly departure, those final images of him drying to death in sand still sting—the enshrining of his blond locks proves Oshima recognized in Bowie a legacy that would stretch far, far beyond death. Max Kyburz (January 13, 7pm at Japan Society)


Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Andrew Sarris once wrote that “there is no greater spectacle in the cinema than a man and a woman talking away their share of eternity together,” and when Jarmusch made his first out-and-out romance, he proved the lion of film criticism right. The share in this case is eternity itself, as we’re in the company of vampires, too hip and tired to raise their voices above a whisper. The Hunger might reasonably have come to this if Bowie hadn’t succumb to age. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are pale demigods who’ve filled their life with possessions and fetish objects to band-aid their eternally hurt souls. For Hiddleston, of late, that hasn’t proven to be enough. The film is a study in shared melancholy, of facing forever, and whether holding hands while it happens makes it any less intolerable. Jarmusch ultimately finds creativity, the product of human imagination, to be reason enough to face any indignation and hardship. And furthermore, that sharing the delight one finds listening to the perfect song, or watching a perfect movie such as this, is the most rapturous pleasure life can offer. Reason to live as many lifetimes as one is handed. Scout Tafoya (January 13, 14, midnight at the Nitehawk)


The Keep (1983)
Directed by Michael Mann
In many ways, The Keep represents Mann at his most elemental. Derided on its initial release and regarded as a film maudit by the director himself, there is no denying that it is a bit of a mess, full of hanging threads and awkward ellipses. But there is a weight to the film, the only one in Mann’s filmography that deals explicitly with myth and religion, that is as grounded in the eponymous cavernous fortress as it is in the characters (both Nazis and Jews) it centers around. In the end, the viewer can only stare in wonder and confusion, as is proper. Ryan Swen (January 13, 14, midnight at the Nitehawk)


Empire of the Sun (1987)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
What makes Spielberg’s films so notoriously universal is their focus on the family nucleus and the profound longing to reunite its traditional structure. Even though WWII drama Empire of the Sun is deemed one of his handful of underrated films, it is no exception to the Spielberg canon. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard, it was adapted by the English playwright Tom Stoppard, who likewise experienced in internment camps as a child.

Set during the Japanese occupation of China, the movie centers on a young English boy’s struggle in a Japanese camp, after being separated from his wealthy expatriate  family. The boy is portrayed by an adolescent Christian Bale, whose joyously captivating performance (arguably the film’s strongest feat) ranges wide from physical stunts to melodramatic bursts of rage and tears, and the angelic performance of a hair-raising Welsh lullaby, “Suo Gân.”The film erupts with some wonderful WWII clichés that only Hollywood can get away with, larger-than-life cinematography, and a cool, sly John Malkovich. What else do you really need? Alejandro Veciana (January 14, 2:30pm at the Metrograph’s Spielberg series, introduced by a conversation with Molly Haskell, author of Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films)


Variety (1925)
Directed by E.A. Dupont
Variety was made towards the end of the German Expressionist movement, at a time when increasing advances in film technique could be used to tell disturbingly simple stories. Dupont and his celebrated cinematographer Karl Freund employ a web of complex camera movements to depict people who are fundamentally entrapped. Their filmic adaptation of a novel by Felix Hollaender focuses on the lumbering and volatile Hamburg-based “Boss” Huller (played by Emil Jannings), who abandons his wife (Maly Delschaft), infant child, and carnival organizer’s work to resume his once-abandoned life as a trapeze artist in partnership with a foreign younger lover christened Bertha-Marie (Lya De Putti). The duo becomes a triangle with the entrance of Artinelli (Warwick Ward), an entrepreneur and fellow acrobat who forms a new act with them at the heights of the Berlin Wintergarten and strives to seize Bertha-Marie’s affections when the group is back on the ground. Vertiginous circus-set scenes give way to compositions framed tightly around Jannings’s expansive face as Huller realizes with twitch-and-glower-filled horror that he might lose his passion’s object once again.

This tragedy told in flashback form (with the possibility present, nonetheless, of redemption for sinners who seek it) was edited down on its initial U.S. release and will screen at Film Forum in a new digital restoration from the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation. The restoration offers the complete Variety in crisp, gold-and-bronze-tinted images that evocatively suggest the dangers of pursuing material success. Both Film Forum screenings will feature live piano accompaniment by silent film score composer Steve Sterner. Aaron Cutler (January 17, 6pm; January 29, 1pm at Film Forum)


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