Tuesday, December 24, 2013

LISTS: My 10 Favorite Conversations For 2013

Any kind of love transforms over time, especially a love for film. Several elements of that transformation have become clear to me within this past year. I've let go all pretensions of being a film critic, particularly a front line reviewer, as the acumen required for such a task exceeds the irresponsible disregard I prefer as a committed film enthusiast. Silence remains the best critique I have for a film (and I have been silent on oh so many films this year), whereas finding a poetic phrase to capture the pleasurable experience of a film fulfills my spectatorial, if not critical, intent. Critic, enthusiast; one a kind of tough love, and the other an embrace of sorts. I maintain that all reactions, written as well as possible, contribute just what they are to just what this is. Perhaps not more but notably not less.

So just what is this everchanging medium? This so-called seventh art? At a holiday dinner the other night I expressed the lack of pleasure I feel in watching so many of the films that are coming out commercially, released wave after wave in purposeful barrage. I walk out of theaters dazzled, titillated, shocked, and confronted by technical efficiency and wizardry, stunned by effects that render my imagination more and more passive, desirous of performers that become increasingly buffed up and botoxed year after year, appreciative of a narrative twist in the tale here and there. And yet by the time I reach the front door of the theater, whatever catharsis has been manufactured dissipates. Sometimes I don't even make it past the lobby before it's gone. I'm left with a nagging feeling of not having been satisfied by the in-cinema experience, so I'll go home to my streaming services—Netflix, Vudu, Hulu Plus, Warner Brothers Archive—and find some effort from the '70s and '80s to satisfy my lingering hunger.

Were the films better made back then? Were the stories more interesting? Were the actors braver in their performance choices? Or is my pleasure simply that I don't have to do anything about watching an older film? Is that it? Is the pleasure that I don't have to argue the merits of a theatrical release with a 1000 other bloggers who want to be the first to foist their opinion, but whose foisted opinions remind me of those attacking antibodies that wrapped themselves around Raquel Welch to smother her in Fantastic Voyage (1966)? Do too many opinions too fast kill the movies we love? Probably not. Does critical consensus calcify our choices? Probably not. Still, I continue to resist year-end lists of the best and worst, only because they are neither, and because they are boring for circulating the same five films ad nauseum. Reduction as a process of achieving the best has long struck me as an overrated alchemical collusion with the studios. I'd rather abandon the best and pursue my favorites in an ever expansive pursuit. Part of my enthusiasm for film insists upon giving props to those projects that won't make it within 20 feet of the duly annointed, like those back-up singers who negotiate stardom (one of my favorite, most pleasurable films of the year, incidentally). For me, escaping consensus is more interesting because, face it, I was never one of the popular kids, their concerns were never mine, and probably never will be.

So whereas the hundreds of movies that come out each year resemble a catch of fish released on the deck of a trawler, a kind of Leviathan horror, with critics keening like seagulls after a bit of blood and gut, I turn and catch my footing to face the personalities that populate this ongoing haul. Because that's where I am truly fascinated. The people behind film—who make them, write them, edit them, star in them, create effects and music and light, who distribute them, program them, beat the drum about them, and stand in line for them—this is, for me, my favorite part of the whole fishing expedition. "Fishing for a good time," says the old Tom Waits tune, "starts with throwing in your line" and that's how I feel each time I approach someone for a conversation. Because that's another distinction that has become clear to me over time. I'm not interested in interviews anymore; but, I pursue conversations. Here are ten of my favorites from 2013.

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Anita Monga. Shifting away from the San Francisco Bay Area brought into focus all the City meant to me in the three decades I lived there, particularly those early years when I answered the beacon sent out over the States to come to the City to create and become myself. Diversions seemed more important than goals back in the mid-'70s, and they were easily found at the multitude of repertory theaters cast around each of San Francisco's neighborhoods. What can I say? I took these movie theaters totally for granted until they started disappearing one by one, such that now I am keenly aware of having participated in something that no longer exists, sentimental and nostalgic by default, and eager to capture that history before it recedes much further. Likewise, inspired by the Film Festival Yearbook publication on archival film festivals, I felt compelled to investigate the transmigration of repertory programming into archival film festivals within San Francisco's cinematic landscape.

As with any thriving cultural scene, there were key players, Anita Monga being foremost among them. I had been wanting to sit down to converse with Anita for a long time but she's been fairly evasive over the years. Thus, I was delighted that Karen Larsen arranged our conversation to discuss the Silent Film Festival's "Silent Winter" program. And am even more delighted, after the fact, to congratulate Anita for being inducted this year into the San Francisco Film Society's "Essential SF" roster of honorees. Well-deserved and long overdue.

My favorite quote of Anita's from our conversation: "My approach was to put together the most interesting programs and plumb the kind of history of films for ones that I felt people needed to see to be—I never thought of this as an educational process, but—there are films that people need to see. Everyone needs to see Citizen Kane. To be a well-rounded human being, and to understand Western culture, you need to see certain films, as well as read certain books. So I guess that was my approach. I don't mean to sound like I was thinking didactically at the time; but, definitely for me it was a process of sharing films with people."

Elliot Lavine. Is there a year that goes by where a conversation with Elliot Lavine is not one of my favorite conversations of the year? This gregarious raconteur has kept me entertained over a cup of coffee hours at a time. Eager to include him in my research on repertory programming and archival film festivals, and to discuss his most recent pre-Code program at the Roxie Theater--"Hollywood Before the Code: Deeper, Darker, Nastier!!"--Elliot and I met at Valencia's Four Barrel. My thanks to Susie Gerhard and Fandor's Keyframe for promoting our conversation.

My favorite quote of Elliot's: "In terms of the archival festival and its obligation to its audience, it's a strong obligation. Yet it's not a fundamentally necessary obligation. I'm of the belief that people should be willing to discover these films. They shouldn't necessarily be led to them, as if to say, 'This is good for you and you must come to take notes and study it and think about it and discuss it with your friends afterwards.' I would rather avoid that. Even though I teach film classes, what I try to impress upon my students is, 'Let your eyes do the work for you. Don't worry about meaning and subtext until later after you've had a chance to absorb your experience of the film. Some of these films will have no meaning for you whatsoever. And some of the least suspecting films are going to change your lives. Some little B-movie from 1939 is going to make you reappraise everything you've thought about art, whereas you're going to sit through some acknowledged classic and fall asleep.' So I would rather not be put in the position of educating audiences about film."

Joel Shepard. Champion of the thriving film scene in the Philippines, Joel Shepard has brought the best from that country two years running and with a third edition on the horizon. Ever interested in national cinemas, I welcomed the opportunity to talk to Joel about his latest programming coup.

My favorite quote of Joel's: "I've always been a little bit uncomfortable with the term 'curator', which seems to me to be a term that comes more from the visual arts of the museum and gallery worlds. I've never been sure exactly how it fits in to film. To be honest, it's always struck me as a little pretentious."

Rola Nashef. I had several excellent conversations at the second annual International Film Festival in Panama: most notably, with the festival's fêted guest Geraldine Chaplin; Ben Lewin, director of The Sessions; and Rodrigo H. Vila and Fabian Matus for Mercedes Sosa: The Voice of Latin America. Those have all been pitched and are awaiting publication; but, one of my favorite conversations was with first-time filmmaker Rola Nashef who brought Detroit Unleaded to Panama and, in the process, became a friend. Charming, hilarious, and a bright brave spirit, I transcribed our conversation to time with the film's L.A. premiere.

My favorite quote of Rola's: "I've been receiving emails from young Arab American women who have only seen the trailer and tell me, 'I can't believe this movie exists.' I know that when I was growing up, I never saw anyone that looked like me, or any family that looked like mine, or representation of any of the issues I was dealing with, and—if they were—the representations were completely racist. It was a twofold phenomenon: we were either completely missing or completely bombarded with negative and racist imagery. So where was everybody inbetween? My absolute 'favorite' is the apologetic explanation for terrorist images. 'No, no, no, we're perfect. We are pious and religious and perfect people.' That's boring! Nobody's perfect."

Ted Hope. His short-lived term as Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society nonetheless produced one of my favorite events of the year: the A2E (Artist to Entrepeneur) Direct Distribution Lab, held during the 56th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival.  I'm grateful to Bill Proctor for setting up this conversation and to Susie Gerhard for promoting the piece on Fandor's Keyframe.

My favorite quote of Ted's: "The important thing for creative people to recognize is that the business of filmmaking is one of relationship with their community. Previously, we saw our business as that work product, generally the feature film, not the relationship of it. As a result, we reinvented the wheel time and time again. We built up the same audience each time that we did it, whether it was our own films, or films of a similar nature. We did not maintain—or even give room to participate—for folks from the outside world; but, the goal I think is that ultimately communities take responsibility for the things that they want. What that means is we move from being a passive consumer culture to an active participatory culture where part of being a community is also being a patron of the things that you care about, whether it's in the film space or any other cultural / societal / social enterprise. We have to make the things that we want happen. We can't wait for them to arrive. The beauty of the era we're living in is that we actually now have the tools, the connectability, to actually make what we want happen. If you want this movie that you love to be seen in Thailand, your enthusiasm and passion with a little bit of effort can make that happen. That bridge that you built now can be reinforced and used by a whole bunch of folks. Soon those friends of yours in Thailand are seeing a flow of the movies they were denied before."

Rama Burshstein and Hadas Yaron. I met with both Rama Burshstein and Hadas Yaron in San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel during the 56th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival where Burshstein's film Fill the Void was featured in the festival's New Directors sidebar. Fill the Void was an intimate glimpse into an unfamiliar culture, which remains one of the main reasons I watch film. My thanks to Karen Larsen for facilitating our conversation.

My favorite quote of Rama's: "I'll speak freely, having sex with someone is about that specific time you're having sex with someone. But having sex is a lifetime thing. Sometimes it's nothing and it doesn't work. Sometimes it's beautiful. The way it works doesn't necessarily have to be beautiful and then it doesn't work. Sometimes it doesn't work in the beginning and it becomes beautiful. When you commit, it's not about now. That commitment is to the road, and that road has so many things that nobody's leaving. Nobody's going. Nobody's wondering, 'Oh, will he call me tomorrow after we've had bad sex?' No. You have bad sex and then you work on it until you have good sex. Commitment revives love, but not in just a romantic way. Commitment doesn't let love go. You work at it. You understand it. You make it better. Imagine you're stranded on an island until the day you die and no one is ever going to rescue you, and you're there with someone. It doesn't matter who that someone is. They will be lover and friend for your life, you and him, that's it. Even the genders don't really matter—you could be homosexual: a man with a man, a woman with a woman—or a man with a woman, but that's the person you have to work with. And it will work, right? Because that's the power of commitment. But I can understand the fear of commitment."

Ulrich Seidl. My conversation with the fascinating Ulrich Seidl was brought to me by Marcus Hu of Strand Releasing who invited me to speak with Seidl. Nothing confirms my worth as a writer more than having a champion like Marcus who believes in my work, and I am grateful to him for his trust. I was excited by the opportunity because I had long wanted to pursue a line of inquiry with Seidl regarding the painterly in film composition.

My favorite quote of Ulrich's: "My visual style was present from the very beginning with my first film. At the same time, my interest in film developed only after my initial interest in painting and photography. The environment is important to me and that's why it's so present in my films because the environment says a lot about the protagonists moving through it. Over the years I've been able to perfect my tableau images to create a more concise answer to the questions I have about the world. My films are a product of two different elements. The first is so-called documentary film, which remains for me the way you capture things as they happen, but which also allows a lot of room for chance. The other element is a more artificial and artistic element. Much like a painter composing a painting, I am able to make choices about the decoration and the lighting."

Photo: Matthew Wordell
Joel Nagle and Amadeus Serafini. As I like to balance international film making with regional film making, living part-time in Idaho affords the opportunity to discover local projects with national and/or international potential. One of those would be Smoke, a short film directed by Cody Gittings and Stephen Heleker adapted from Alan Heathcock's short story of the same name. The film was shot this summer in Idaho and I am grateful to Heathcock for inviting me to the wrap party to have the chance to converse with the film's two lead actors. Smoke is currently submitting to film festivals and I'm crossing my fingers that the project is recognized and sent on circuit.

A favorite quote from Amadeus: "You have to be able to feel for the character and understand what they're going through to feel it yourself and to recreate it. Then, of course, being in the location or forcing the physicality upon yourself that the character experiences pushes you. It might sound silly to people who aren't in film, but a lot of arbitrary action gets you there. You may not be sad but try to cry. Once you start crying and start thinking about the character and about their back story, you can invent anything you want about their life to get there."

A favorite quote from Joel: "You're always going to have bumps and things that happen; but, what kept me coming back—after I'd walked away from things that had gone a little off—was the passion. Everyone was so genuine and supportive. They felt it. When people don't have that passion, when they don't feel that, and there are mishaps or miscommunications, that's when it gets really discouraging as an actor because you go, 'Wow. There's not even passion.' Passion helps you through miscommunication or rocky times."

Shirley Jones and Ben Mankiewicz. Because of my resistance to the whole publicity machine that surrounds films, an initial conversation I have with someone—as with Shirley Jones and Ben Mankiewicz—might be delayed in the press of events and miss its original (if intended) window. Then it becomes an exercise in finding the next window of opportunity to transcribe and place the piece. I spoke with Shirley and Ben back in April 2011 when Turner Classic Movies (TCM) was promoting their "Road to Hollywood" series in anticipation of the Turner Classic Film Festival. Missing my first window, I then waited, and waited, and suddenly this summer Shirley Jones wrote an autobiography and TCM featured her during its "Summer Under the Stars" program. Aha!! I leapt.

A favorite quote from Shirley: "I was in San Francisco doing my nightclub act with my husband Jack Cassidy when Burt Lancaster called me. He said, 'Hello, is this Shirley Jones?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'This is Burt Lancaster' and I said, 'Sure it is' and I hung up. Fortunately, he called back and he said, 'Shirley, this is Burt Lancaster. We're doing the film Elmer Gantry. Go get the Sinclair Lewis novel and read it. I want you for the role of Lulu Bains. I would like you to fly in on your day off and meet with our writer-director Richard Brooks. I'm co-producing with him and I'm playing Elmer Gantry.' He said, 'I think you'd be wonderful in the part.' Well, I ran out and got the novel and read it that day. I couldn't believe he was thinking of me for this role. I was thrilled to pieces, you know? Because, as I said, being a singer, I was never thought of as an actress and my career was virtually over at that point."

Ninetto Davoli. When Jonathan Marlow asked me if I would be willing to talk to Ninetto Davoli during the Pier Paolo Pasolini retrospective in the Bay Area, I said yes as a favor to him because Jonathan has long been one of my champions and one of my best friends. But I didn't know anything about Davoli and I had watched very few Pasolini films. But, as ever, Jonathan steered me right. Preparing for this conversation was one of the most pleasurable cinephilic experiences ever as I massaged Pasolini's work and culled out the resonant value of his relationship with Ninetto Davoli. Pasolini swiftly rose in my appreciation as I found his films beautiful. And Ninetto's vivacity and charm provided a wonderful morning in the Italian Cultural Institute. My thanks to Marlow, Fandor, Keyframe, Karen Larsen, and Amelia Antonucci of the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco for offering me this gift.

A favorite quote of Ninetto's: "Pasolini was not a cheerful person. Quite the opposite. He was, for instance, very shy. When he met me, it was like meeting himself as a younger person, as a boy. He saw in me the joy that he would have liked to have had, but hadn't had. He saw the cheerful boy that he would have wanted to be but now could no longer be. He suffered a lot as a child. He was the son of a school teacher and a colonel in the Army. He had a conflicted relationship with his father Carlo and this traumatized him; it stayed with him. His father had a commanding air. He was authoritarian, strict and austere. It was from his mother Susanna that he received tenderness, understanding and compassion. She was all that he loved. He adored her his entire life. In meeting me, he encountered the joy of living."

Monday, December 23, 2013


So little has been written about Mexican actor Arturo de Córdova, and even less is available in English in the United States. Thus, it is with great pride that I publish Eduardo de la Vega Alfaro's tribute essay to the actor written for the Morelia International Film Festival (FICM) program catalog (pp. 136-143), which this year honored the actor with a multi-film retrospective, most in newly-struck 35mm prints, and a couple on 16mm from private collectors (most notably Quentin Tarantino). My thanks to Alfaro and FICM for their permission to provide this comprehensive survey to a broader audience.  Production stills courtesy of the UNAM Film Archive.

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The film we usually associate with the figure of Arturo de Córdova is Él, which was made in 1952. However, the actor's artistic career that we celebrate this year in FICM has a depth and duration with few rivals in the history of Mexican cinema. For nearly four decades, his voice, first on radio and then on the screen, his elegant figure, his dramatic intensity and his sense of irony against the pretensions of the Mexican bourgeoisie made him a dominant presence in some of the best films from the Golden Age of Mexican cinema.

From November 24, 1952, to January 27 of the following year, the careers of Luis Buñuel and Arturo de Córdova coincided for the first and only time during the filming of Él, without a doubt one of the Mexican masterpieces of the extraordinary Calanda-born filmmaker, who was [a] landmark figure of the revolutionary and influential surrealist movement headed by André Breton. An impeccable and lucid adaptation of the novel of the same name by Mercedes Pinto, originally published in Uruguay in 1926, Él would be defined (and defended) by its author as one of his favorite works ("Perhaps it is the film in which I've put more of myself. There is something of me in the protagonist," he said years later). More than a few critics and specialists of Buñuelian art have highlighted its great merits and strengths (among them that of being one of the highest expressions of explicit and strictly Sadean cinema) despite the fact that the film is considered a typical melodrama like many made at that time to attract the vast public that liked the genre. As far as we were able to investigate, it was never quite clear what was the cause of which—after the insurgence of his prestige thanks to making Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones, 1950) and later two more films for the company Óscar Dancigers (La hija del engaño, 1951, and Robinson Crusoe, 1952) and others for Sergio Kogan (Susana, 1950; Una Mujer Sin Amor, 1951; and El Bruto, 1952) and Manuel Altolaguirre (Subida Al Cielo, 1951)—Buñuel decided to undertake the film version of the novel by Pinto. And there is no reliable proof of why he called on Arturo de Córdova to take the leading role. But it is not unreasonable to suppose that the Yucatan-born actor was called on because just at that moment his successful career was in full swing (in line with the industrial development of Mexican cinema) and that his figure was inextricably associated with that of the "heartthrob", "tormented" by all kinds of passions, which the director took advantage of to perfection to establish an ironic, inter-textual game with the long tradition of melodramatic cinema cultivated in Latin America. The case is that de Córdova, directed by Luis Buñuel, would achieve one of his most notable performances and confirm his reputation as an "international star" as Él would draw the attention of audiences across Europe.

But how did Arturo de Córdova—whose real name was Arturo García Rodríguez—rise to stardom? Born on May 7, 1907, in Mérida, Yucatán, the future actor grew up in a wealthy family made up of Francisco García, his wife Carmen Rodríguez and their children. The family's status would allow Arturo to study in the United States, Argentina (where he was a student at the famed Colegio Jesuita "Del Salvador") and Switzerland (where he took several classes at the Calvin Institute) and obtain a good education. He developed a keen interest in learning languages, which would be key for the eventual internationalization of film.

After traveling through several countries in Europe, in 1928 he returned to Argentina to finish his studies at Colegio Internacional de los Olivos (apparently at that time he took on the Spanish accent characteristic of that country) and began to work as a correspondent for United Press Agency, where he became assistant director of the office in Santiago de Chile. Determined to get a job as a journalist in the United States and to study at the prestigious Columbia University, in 1932 he stopped off in Mérida on the way and he met Enna Arana, whom he married on August 23, 1933, motivating him to stay and live in his hometown and get work there as a radio announcer and sports reporter. His desire to get ahead led him to move with his wife to Mexico City (where his four children, Arturo, Alonso, Enna and María de Lourdes were born) to work as a radio announcer at XEW, a broadcasting company where he worked with famous colleagues, such as Alonso Sordo Noriega, Ricardo López Méndez, Manuel Bernal and Pedro de Lille, who, according to some sources, suggested that he take the name that he would later be known by. At this time Mexican film production was taking off thanks to the advent of the inventions that allowed sound and image to be integrated. Consequently, there was a dire need for handsome men with good voices.

One of the 23 Mexican feature films made in 1935, Celos was financed by Producciones Mier and written and directed by the Russian immigrant Arcady Boytler, who already had a long career in theater and film in Europe, South America and the United States, and who achieved fame as a director of the remarkable and successful melodrama La Mujer del Puerto. The film needed a solid actor for the role of an attractive young man who threatens the marriage of a doctor, played by Fernando Soler. In agreement with Boytler, the producer Felipe Mier hired the already successful announcer Arturo de Córdova for that role and with this began one of the most outstanding film careers in Spanish-language cinema in the Spanish-speaking world. Inspired by the Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy and by a story of the same name by Mijael Artzivachec, Boytler's work attempted to compare, on its own ground, with Hollywood products like Jealousy (1929) by Jean de Limur, and Jealousy (1934) by Roy Williams Neil. In spite of its notorious defects in various areas, Boytler's film proved to be a prodigy on a visual level (thanks to sublime photography by Alex Phillips) and has been considered, and rightly so, the most remote national antecedent of Él. Pointed out by critics as a novice actor, de Córdova was able to represent very well, for the first time, the figure of an impeccable and neat man—according to his mother, this was one of the things that he had most sought to be since childhood.

Although it became clear that de Córdova did not like the atmosphere of the cinema and in fact resumed his work as a radio announcer, in 1936 he appeared as the male protagonist in Cielito Lindo, a folkloric melodrama set during the Mexican Revolution that, directed by Roberto O'Quigley, formed (together with two other films shot in that same year, Allá En Rancho Grande, by Fernando de Fuentes, and ¡Ora Ponciano!, by Gabriel Soria), the trio of films that contributed to a greater or lesser extent to the enormous commercial impact of Mexican cinema in the markets and imagination of the Spanish-speaking world, which in turn led to an exponential growth in the sector of national film production. As the plot of the film required, de Córdova was forced to sing a song. Without abandoning completely his work as an announcer (his haughty voice was the main character in the radio series Las Aventuras de Carlos Lacroix, very popular at the time), the development of the productive sector allowed de Córdova to represent various forms of masculine charm in ¡Esos Hombres! / Malditos Sean Los Hombres (Rolando Aguilar, 1936) and in Ave Sin Rumbo, La Paloma and La Zandunga, all three of which were filmed in 1937 by Roberto O'Quigley, Miguel Contreras and Fernando de Fuentes, respectively. In the last one, a folkloric comedy reminiscent of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, de Córdova became the partner of Lupe Vélez, from San Luis Potosí, one of the Latina stars forged by the colossal film machinery of Hollywood, which would give him a solid footing to begin to look for opportunities in foreign films.

During 1938, Arturo de Córdova acted in five of the 58 features produced by the national cinema: Refugiados en Madrid, by Alejandro Galindo; Hombres de Mar, by Chano Urueta; Mientras México Duerme, by Galindo; La Bestia Negra, by Gabriel Soria, and La Casa Del Ogro, by Fernando de Fuentes. In addition, by the end of the same year, the actor was added to the cast of Los Hijos Mandan (El Caudal de Los Hijos), made by the above-mentioned Gabriel Soria, which would be one of the last Hispanic films (i.e., spoken in Spanish) made in Hollywood. If all of those films contributed to de Córdova acquiring experience as a performer of characters who pass through a variety of genres, the case of Mientras México Duerme came to represent one of the first major incursions of Latin American cinema into the sordid world of organized crime, which plagued the city in dizzying expansion and would give it the category of a classic. For its part, de Córdova's performance in the film was celebrated even by the great poet and then demanding film critic Xavier Villaurrutia, who said (in the magazine Hoy, November 5, 1938) that "The discrete actor now has a better walked and defined field to display his physognomic game, to express various moods [...] And the truth is that he reaches, in important moments, expressions that he doesn't have anything to envy foreign actors, better trained and better directed, in general, than ours."

Between 1939 and 1959, the artistic career of Arturo de Córdova reached its period of greatest splendor. During that time, he participated in 73 films, including 22 that he made abroad and worked as the narrator of the documentary El Charro Inmortal (Rafael E. Portas, 1955). This period of splendor can be subdivided, in turn, in several ways, but in this case we prefer that the nationality of the films serves as our guide.

An exception is made with Él, ,which we have already referred to. Of the works of de Córdova during this period in Mexican cinema's history, we emphasize, because of their high quality, aesthetic rigor or ambition of authorship: La Noche de Los Mayas (1939), ¡Que Viene Mi Marido! (1939) and El Conde de Montecristo (1941), all three by Chano Urueta; ¡Ay, Qué Tiempos, Señor Don Simón (1941), Crepúsculo (1943) and La Ausente (1951), by Julio Bracho; La Selva De Fuego (1945), by Fernando de Fuentes; La Diosa Arrodillada (1947), En La Palma De Tu Mano (1950), El Rebozo de Soledad (1952), Las Tres Perfectas Casadas (1952) and Miércoles de Ceniza (1958), by Roberto Gavaldón; El Hombre Sin Rostro (1950) by Juan Bustillo Oro; Cuando Levanta La Niebla (1952) and Reportaje (1953), both by Emilio Fernández; Un Extraño En la Escalera (1954) and Feliz Año, Amor Mío (1955), by Tulio Demichelli, and El Esqueleto de La Señora Morales (Rogelio A. González, 1959).

Written by the famed Yucatecan poet Antonio Mediz Bolio, with the collaboration of Chano Urueta, Alfredo B. Crevenna and Archibaldo Burns, La Noche de las Mayas boasted the wonderful photography of Gabriel Figueroa and exquisite music by Silvestre Revueltas to recycle an ancestral legend in which Arturo de Córdova played with aplomb a handsome young indigenous man immersed in romantic and racial conflicts—a clear expression of the policy of protecting ethnic races decreed by the government of Lázaro Cárdenas. In ¡Que Viene Mi Marido!, de Córdova is well suited for an intentionally exaggerated and grotesque plot that also relied on Figueroa's photography and Revueltas' music. For his part, in the sumptuous but failed version of the great novel by Alejandro Dumas of the same name (which in turn marked the beginning of the systematic looting of universal literature by national cinema, taking advantage of the chaotic situation caused by the Second World War), the Merida-born actor played Edmundo Dantés, parsimonious and somewhat rigid, but with a good presence on screen at the moment of wanting to give this character some credible traits.

In the magnificent film of Porfirio Díaz nostalgia, ¡Ay, Qué Tiempos, Señor Don Simón!—the first film by Julio Bracho, one of the great builders of modern Mexican theater—Arturo de Córdova is easy-going and malicious. His successful interpretation of a charming soldier opposite the funny figure of Joaquín Pardavé is regarded as one of the factors that contributed to the enormous box-office success of a musical comedy that, without exaggeration, can be placed at the level of the French and Italian films made during the same time. For the much more ambitious Crepúsculo, inspired by a true story, our actor showed his great potential to embody characters tormented by physical and psychological degradation, as a way of ironizing the purpose of the early decadence of the Mexican bourgeoisie. Developed in expressionist atmospheres and Hollywood film noir (another masterful photographic work of Alex Phillips), the story and baroque style of the film is structured like a spiral that leads inexorably to the annihilation of the main character. And although too much of a tribute to Rebecca (1940), one of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpieces, La Ausente ratified the avant-garde leanings of Bracho (evident in recurrent use of sophisticated camera movements) and the solid performance of de Córdova, now as a petit bourgeois beset by doubt and a guilt complex due to the untimely death of his wife.

Despite fully assuming the conventions proposed by films such as the very successful Doña Bárbara (Fernando de Fuentes, 1943) and Canaima (Juan Bustillo Oro, 1945), both inspired by the literature of Venezuelan Rómulo Gallegos, La Selva de Fuego transcends its period and genre by the sober and careful direction of de Fuentes, the functional photography of Augustín Martinez Solares, the performances of the leading couple (Dolores del Río in the role of an exuberant woman and abstract symbol of beauty who awakens the instincts of a group of chiclero workers, and Arturo de Córdova, whose misogyny at the beginning becomes a devouring passion, tragically frustrated by adverse destiny), and the splendid villains played my Miguel Inclán, Gilberto González, Manuel Dondé and José Torvay.

At least from a formal point of view, the five Mexican films in which Arturo de Córdova worked to the strict orders of Roberto "the Ogre" Gavaldón (another film in which both collaborated, The Adventures of Casanova, belongs to another rank and nationality despite having been made in our country), are all succulent masterpieces filmed during the best period of the career of the great filmmaker from Chihuahua. In La Diosa Arrodillada like in En La Palma De Tu Mano and Las Tres Perfectas Casadas, de Córdova embodied strictly urban characters with marked bourgeois aspirations, but who ended up dominated (or devoured) by their frenetic eroticism and criminal impulses that are inherent in the ambition for money.

At the same time, En La Palma De Tu Mano marks an apex in Latin American film noir and is a worthy example of the pure style of the author and the immense capabilities of his cameraman, again the great Alex Phillips. In contrast, the honest doctor in El Rebozo de Soledad (shot in the Tierra Caliente region of the state of Michoacán) and the apparently aseptic priest who stars in Miércoles de Ceniza (developed at the time of the Cristero rebellion and with splendid initial scenes filmed in Pátzcuaro and its surroundings—majestic photography by Agustín Martínez Solares) are rather emblematic figures that require another type of interpretation. However, both films suffered the weight of the complex expressiveness of de Córdova, who in all the films directed by Gavaldón had the good fortune of sharing roles with other great figures of the Mexican star system of that era, such as María Félix, Leticia Palma, Carmen Montejo, Pedro Armendáriz, Stella Inda, Laura Hidalgo, Miroslava Stern, José María Linares Rivas and Victor Junco.

According to the author's confession, the truculent and sophisticated story of El Hombre Sin Rostro, an undervalued film as none other, was designed to be interpreted by Arturo de Córdova. By then, the actor had already become the stereotype of the psychotic mind, moved by uncontrollable forces from the unconscious, a subject so dear to the studies of Sigmund Freud. But our great expressionist creator and outstanding Vasconcellist soldier Juan Bustillo Oro knew how to surround the protagonist with a sinister and overly comfortable atmosphere that was not far from the rigor reached by the aesthetics of Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. For that reason, the film is a complete lesson in psychologistic cinema in the best sense the term can possess, i.e., that it favors the in-depth study of individual behavior.

The figure and the work of Arturo de Córdova also fit into the world of Emilio Fernández, but it was not by chance that this occurred in two films a little removed from the themes that characterized the film of someone who was considered to be the Mexican director par excellence. Urban and modern melodrama with a psychotic protagonist, Cuando Levanta La Niebla retained much of the "claw" of its author, which allowed de Córdova to show off all of his acting abilities. This last one was also present in the few moments in which the great actor appeared in Reportaje, a film that brought together much of the "star firmament" of the Mexican film industry with the purpose of raising funds for an altruistic foundation.

In the excellent and sumptuous melodramas Un Extraño En la Escalera and Feliz Año, Amor Mío, directed by the Argentine Tulio Demichelli for producer Gregorio Walerstein, the sober and solid work of de Córdova served to prop up the respective careers of its leading female protagonists, Silvia Pinal and Marga López.

Finally, the strange case of El Esqueleto de La Señora Morales, a bold and blunt adaptation by Luis Alcoriza about a macabre story designed by the Welsh writer Arthur Machen, ended, in a very high tone, the best and most prolific period in de Córdova's career. A perfect mix of satire and purified recreation of a petit-bourgeois world in sharp decadence, the masterpiece of Rogelio A. González seems to have been produced so that his male protagonist would put into it all his experience in order to create a character who above all serves to throw chemically pure poison onto the conservative Mexican mentality in which, practically since its very origin, our film industry has been sustained.

Of the 14 Mexican films that Arturo de Córdova participated in between 1961 and 1970, including his works as the narrator in Los Hermanos del Hierro (Ismael Rodríguez, 1961), Así Era Pedro Infante (Ismael Rodríguez, 1963), La Recta Final (Carlos Enrique Taboada, 1964), among others, only El Gángster (Luis Alcoriza, 1964) stands out. That was because of its declared (although not totally achieved) paradoxical sense and for its candidly entertaining character—features that allowed its lead actor to show his great comic vein, which many other directors did not exploit to the fullest.

Parallel to his career in Mexican cinema, Arturo de Córdova also worked on many foreign productions. Of the 24 films that shaped his transnational career (more or less the same number of films made by Pedro Armendáriz at the margin of the Mexican film industry), seven were funded by U.S. companies from Hollywood, six were Argentine, another six were made on locations and in studios in Spain and with money from that country, two more were filmed thanks to the main sponsorship of Brazilian companies and one had Venezuelan-Argentine investment. Those that may be regarded as the most outstanding works for their own sake and for the remarkable work of de Córdova are: ¿Por Quién Doblan Las Campanas? (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Sam Wood, 1943), a sober adaptation of the novel by Ernest Hemingway; El Pirata y la Dama (Frenchman's Creek, Mitchel Leisen, 1944), a very romantic work barely disguised as an adventure film; Casanova Aventurero (Adventures of Casanova, Roberto Gavaldón, 1947), which was a good satire of the mythology created around the famous lover, artist and scientist from Venice; New Orleans (Arthur Lubin, 1947), a musical comedy that preserved on screen the appearances of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and other great jazz performers; Dios Se Lo Pague (Luis César Amadori, 1948), a sordid urban melodrama that was a huge success in the majority of Latin American markets; La Balandra Isabel Llegó Esta Tarde (Carlos Hugh Christensen, 1949), an intense erotic-passionate drama which was intended though it did not succeed to lead the way to develop a film industry in Venezuela; and Los Peces Rojos (José Antonio Nieves Conde, 1955), a stylized crime melodrama filmed in Spain.

Our honored star won the Ariel Award for Best Actor three times for his performances in En La Palma De Tu Mano, Las Tres Perfectas Casadas and Feliz Año, Amor Mío, and was nominated for the same recognition for his remarkable performances in La Selva de Fuego, Medianoche (Tito Davison, 1948), El Hombre Sin Rostro and Mi Esposa y La Otra (Alfredo B. Crevenna, 1951). These awards are further proof of his great ability as an actor, but barely offer an idea of all his virtues and of his impact on the public that consecrated him as an idol.

On November 3, it will be 40 years since the death of one of the most prominent representatives of the "star system" from the classic period of Mexican cinema. In the 11th edition of FICM, we remember this date with a sample of some of his best and most dazzling appearances on the screen, which in turn constitutes the first tribute that an international film festival has paid to the figure of enormous artistic dimensions that was and remains to be Arturo de Córdova.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


We're mid-month into the centennial celebration of Burt Lancaster's birthday. At Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Wednesday nights have been devoted to Lancaster, inarguably one of Hollywood's most popular leading men. Robert Osborne has written a profile for TCM, as has Roger Fristoe. At Fandor's Keyframe Daily, David Hudson has detailed various retrospectives of Lancaster's films, which have—in effect—been celebrated all year long. The Film Society at Lincoln Center mounted their "Man of Steel" retrospective in May, the Harvard Film Archive showcased Lancaster's films from July through September, Eastman House continued the celebration into October, Cornell offered a tryptich in early November, and the Morelia International Film Festival (FICM) dedicated their "Imaginary Mexico" sidebar to Lancaster with 35mm screenings of Veracruz (1954), The Unforgiven (1960), and The Professionals (1966).

Steve Seid of Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive contributed an essay to FICM's catalog to accompany the "Imaginary Mexico" retrospective, and The Evening Class is grateful to Seid and FICM for granting permission to republish same for a North American audience.

* * *

Burt Lancaster can be a tough hombre, a tough hombre with a grin the size of Texas. And it's not just one grin, but multitudes, called into action to be wry, or welcoming, or devilishly threatening. Put that smirky smile on an actor trained as an acrobat and you have a pliable mug perched atop some great athleticism.

When first pinched for the pictures, Lancaster didn't have that signature smile. His mid-1940s debut roles in The Killers (1946) and Brute Force (1947) were too hang-tough even for a sneer, but in time his bravado emerged. By the early 1950s, that grin came flooding forth in the swashbuckler send-up, The Crimson Pirate (1952), showing off his physical daring, a characteristic he would trump in Trapeze (1956), that soaring tribute to the Big Top. Lancaster could be the unctuous dreamer of The Rainmaker (1956), his deluded smile more an ooze, or he could raze careers with a few caustic curls of the lip as J.J. Hunsecker, the newspaper columnist of Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Lancaster could be barely contained, reveling in roles like the handsome huckster of Elmer Gantry (1960), or a model of restraint, resigned to the reserve of that famed Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).

By the time his youthful acrobatics had waned, Lancaster had stretched his more mature manners as an actor, limber now in gesture not gymnastics. Who can forget the vertiginous emotions of Ned Merrill, the long-drowning suburbanite in The Swimmer (1968), the world-weary wisdom of McIntosh, the reluctant Indian scout of Ulzana's Raid (1972), or Lou, the aging mobster, hit by antique desires in Atlantic City (1980)?

With over seventy lead roles, Burt Lancaster nimbly inhabited just about every conceivable film genre, receiving recognition in the form of an Oscar® and three additional nominations, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild. Of his multitude of films, a half-dozen might constitute his Mexican sojourn, beginning with Vera Cruz in 1954 and ending with Valdez Is Coming (1971), where the-then 58 year–old actor plays a worn-out Mexican-American constable determined to exact justice for an innocent man's death. A pair of westerns, The Scalphunters (1968) and Lawman (1971), both produced in Durango, share the same stretch of broken earth, but only the former film conjures Mexico as an elusive safe haven for the fleeing bounty hunters.

But the sojourn, indeed, begins with Robert Aldrich's energetic Vera Cruz, a hybrid western with dashes of ever-twisting intrigue. When Ben Trane (a stiff but stately Gary Cooper) moseys into town, a dusty way station in 1860s Mexico, his horse is lame from the hard track. We know at once times are tough for this former Confederate officer, now a mercenary looking for a cause with a credit line. He teams up with Joe Erin (Lancaster), a mayhem-mongering gunslinger with a chilling smile. Dragging along a gang of greasy desperadoes (Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and Charles Bronson), they head for the Gulf Coast as the guardians of Emperor Maximillian's gold. Or so they think. Played for high mischief, Lancaster's amoral merc squeals with delight at the prospect of double-dealing and derring-do, a feral force amongst the tumbleweed.

Aldrich's second western, Vera Cruz was shot throughout the Valley of Mexico. One grand scene, an opulent gathering with the soon-to-be deposed Emperor, is staged at Max's Castle high atop the Chapultepec promontory. In another, the caravan carrying the Emperor's treasure passes close by Teotihuacan, suggesting in its stony grandeur that Mexico's true soul shall remain while the dalliances of the invaders shall pass.

Director John Huston also knew the landscape of Mexico. His great The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) was produced here—a decade later he returned to Durango to make The Unforgiven (1960), an eccentric tale about racial intolerance in the Texas panhandle. Written by Alan Le May whose earlier novel was the basis for The Searchers, this curiosity stars Burt Lancaster as Ben Zachary, the eldest son of a frontier family whose only daughter is an adopted Kiowa child played by Audrey Hepburn. When a stranger arrives declaring that she is "no Zachary," the community turns against this "red-skinned" foundling. An unusually restrained Lancaster plays the defender of his family's honor which riles even those within his own circle, especially his rancidly racist brother Cash, played by Audie Murphy. Eventually, the local Kiowa tribe try to buy pert Hepburn back, the denial of which escalates into an armed skirmish. If you look closely at the warring braves you might espy Emilio Fernández. Huston had hired Fernandez to supervise some of the action sequences, but it was rumored that "El Indio" would also play the part of a "bloodthirsty Kiowa."

Some would say Lancaster's greatest role was in Elmer Gantry (1960), directed by Richard Brooks. Six years later, director and actor reunited for a big rollicking western, The Professionals, that set the stage for Sam Peckinpah's more violently poetical The Wild Bunch. Here, the Mexican Revolution is waning when a wealthy rancher's wife (Claudia Cardinale) is kidnapped by Jesus Raza (Jack Palance), a former revolutionary leader turned bandit. Four men, all veteran fighters, are hired to retrieve the abducted wife: Rico (Lee Marvin), a weapons specialist; Hans (Robert Ryan), a horse wrangler; Jake (Woody Strode), a skilled tracker; and Bill (Burt Lancaster), an explosives expert, in keeping with Lancaster's incendiary personality.

Across the border and into a heartless terrain of desert scrub and treacherous ravines ride the "professionals" as they close in on Raza's encampment. Raza, who notably speaks Spanish for half of his screen time, is the disillusioned revolutionary, now turning the chaos of war toward his own ends. "The Revolución is like a great love affair. In the beginning she is a goddess…. In time, we see her as she is," he says to Lancaster during a lethal stand-off.

And Lancaster's Bill, the demolition man? A short-fused adventurer, he turned an adolescent urge for artful creation into its explosive opposite. This was the perfect role for Burt Lancaster who himself possessed a barely containable inner energy that threatened detonation at any moment. His great actor's art was keeping that energy enclosed within the nuanced bounds of his body. Expect ignition.

Thursday, November 07, 2013


As noted by Michael Hawley in his anticipatory overview of the 2013 edition of the San Francisco Film Society's French Cinema Now (FCN), the series—though abbreviated this year—is strikingly auteurial, no less in its opening night feature 2 Autumns, 3 Winters (2 Automnes, 3 Hivers, 2013) [IMDb], which typifies the fresh face of Gallic filmmaking. Sébastien Betbeder—whose debut Nights with Theodore was the winner of the FIPRESCI prize earlier this spring at the San Francisco International—has confirmed his ascendancy with this sophomore effort. "As for soon-to-break-out-talents," writes Gavin Smith at Film Comment, "I am betting on Betbeder." Smith describes 2 Autumns, 3 Winters as a "quintessential example of mélancomédie, the micro-genre of choice among a certain strain of up-and-coming French filmmaker" and he lays out the importance of the film's debut at ACID, an offshoot of the Cannes Film Festival (programmed by actual filmmakers): "Now entering its 21st year, the Association du Cinéma Indépendant pour sa Diffusion is a Paris-based organization of modest means dedicated to promoting the circulation of below-the-radar micro-budget indie work without distribution and made at the very edges if not completely outside of the French film industry."

A little context helps to underscore the importance (and prescience) of FCN's selection of 2 Autumns, 3 Winters as their opening night entry. Though some U.S. critics have sought to appropriate Betbeder's effort under the "mumblecore" aegis ("which is a stretch", Hawley chides), it is more appropriately an example of the current Jeune Cinema trend in French Cinema. "The trend," writes Adam Batty at Hope Lies At 24 Frames Per Second, "has been trumpeted in the French media fairly heavily, with Cahiers du Cinéma dedicating an issue to the work of young filmmakers like Guillaume Brac, Justine Triet, Antonin Peretjatko and Betbeder himself, who alongside Vincent Macaigne, the enigmatic star of 2 Autumns, 3 Winters, stand at the forefront of a major upheaval in contemporary French cinema." A synopsis of Cahiers du Cinéma's April 2013 dossier on the trend is available at David Davidson's site Toronto Film Review.

Hailed as "the new Gérard Depardieu", Vincent Macaigne has become in many ways the public face of the movement and one, Batty adds, "whose talents outline the intentions of this current wave of young French filmmakers." At The Observer, Kim Wilsher profiles Macaigne's rising star. "No fewer than three 'state of the nation'-style films featuring Macaigne were presented at this year's Cannes film festival," Wilsher points out, including Justine Triet's La Bataille de Solférino, Antonin Peretjatko's La Fille du 14 Juillet, and Betbeder's 2 Autumns, 3 Winters.

"A cine-literate streak runs through the collective," Batty continues, "with relationships within Betbeder's film defined and shaped around movies, and plotting derived from a perception of text, much in the same way that the earlier French wave digested and recontextualized existing works of the silver screen to tell a further tale." Batty finds 2 Autumns, 3 Winters reminiscent of Eric Rohmer's The Bakery Girl of Monceau "with its 'the cut as memory' approach to form and romance and omnipresent narrative voice apparent in Betbeder's text, while the pop-culturally driven, multi-faceted employment of technology recalls ... Godard."

At BFI, Jonathan Romney likewise detects the film's "irreverent cinephilia" with its short snippets of animation and nods to Bresson (Four Nights of a Dreamer), Eugène Green (The Living World), George Romero (Night of the Living Dead), and Alain Tanner (The Salamander), which the Denver Film Society considers the film's "most germane citation", sharing not only the alpine location of Tanner's films, "but also their free structure and spirit." At Cinevue, Craig Williams qualifies that—while the references come thick and fast—"it's not empty posing; even when a sequence from Alain Tanner's The Salamander is shown, it's done with such unassuming laissez-faire that it's obviously just second nature to Betbeder and his cast. The picture is concerned with people who have absorbed so much cinema that it's become a part of them. These are lives consumed by popular culture; a generation who see things through the prism of the arts and unconsciously use them as means to an end. In one terrific sequence, we even get the history of new wave and post-punk told through a young man's failed suicide attempts."

Romney states that this "fresh, no-frills feature" is "comic and tender in equal measure" while giving "the nouvelle vague an idiosyncratic 21st-century spin." Its "fractured, self-conscious style" suggests "a hip young Parisian novel making itself up, complete with chapter headings, as it goes along. Inarguably a guys'-eye view of life and love but also winning, literate and very distinctive." Dozens of short chapters alternate between moments of crisis and the comically inconsequential.

Yet even as one generation of filmmakers resuscitates the craft of their predecessors, the passage of time remains common to all, and is the most honest narrative assertion made by 2 Autumns, 3 Winters, which—as SFFS synopsizes—"applies indie charm to the vagaries of life." Given time, nearly all tragedy turns to comedy. It likewise addresses "the transformative power of calamity", whereas—as synopsized at the New Zealand International Film Festival—"much of this film's arresting emotional intelligence resides in its matter-of-fact grasp of the random impact of ill health and urban crime on ordinary lives."

"It should be added," continues the New Zealand International Film Festival, "that each of the three principals recount their highs and lows—often as they undergo them—to camera and with a fetching mix of impulsive disclosure and sheer bemusement." Before computer-generated backgrounds, this stylistic direct address and breaking of the fourth wall would, in most instances, achieve an ironizing distance, yet in 2 Autumns, 3 Winters it effects the obverse, drawing the viewer into the forthright ruminations of the film's characters and forging an intimate relationship. "While these direct-to-camera addresses occasionally take the form of an impromptu address from a rolling scene, ala Woody Allen or Jean-Luc Godard," offers Adam Batty, "more often than not Betbeder chooses to place these commentaries in their own section of the movie, quarantined and out of time with the concurrent structure of the movie in general. While comparable to the production methods of a reality television programme, this breakdown and restructuring of the filmic elements and styles of form is actually very cinematic. Sarkozy and the Chilean miners are cut next to animated sojourns in to the netherworld and video essay breakdowns of Judd Apatow movies to create a pop culture collage, with the final work encapsulating Macaigne's earlier (and unrelated) declaration that his world is 'more Hip Hop than New Wave'."

Not everyone agrees, however. At The Hollywood Reporter, Jordan Mintzer finds "a tad too many winks to the camera" in a film that "gets by more on style and sass than on its storytelling skills." As for the film's division into dozens of brief chapters, Mintzer complains that this often gives "the impression of watching a string of short films instead of an actual feature." He concludes: "Filled with oodles of visual flourishes, including a mix of grainy 16mm and HD cinematography (by Sylvain Verdet) and nonstop moody music by French singer-songwriter Bertrand Betsch, 2 Autumns often lets its cute and eccentric stylings get in the way of the story itself, which, once you strip away all the accouterments, feels rather underdeveloped."

Picked up by Film Movement for its North American distribution, Betbeder justifies his choices in the distributor's PDF press kit: "I wanted the narrative to be dense, to alternate between serious, critical moments in the lives of these young people, and more incidental moments that have no real impact. ...The chapter structure, the direct camera address, and the parentheses in the story turned out to be idyllic directorial decisions. An intimate and special relationship then emerges between the audience and the characters. Something magical and unique happens when the person on the screen looks at you and talks to you directly. I wanted to make this film in order to share something of what the society in which I live is like; to bear witness—modestly—to an era that is coming to an end, to the changing way people relate to each other. We love differently in 2013, we have a different approach to death. We are increasingly less carefree." Kristin McCracken solicits further commentary from Betbeder in her brief Q&A for the Hamptons International Film Festival. Festival Cinemania concludes: "Director Sébastien Betbeder succeeds admirably in recreating the languid rhythms of daily life of these French 'slackers' and their newly-defined sense of humor."

Wednesday, November 06, 2013


The San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) brings us the sixth edition of its French Cinema Now (FCN) series, beginning this Thursday, November 7 at Landmark's Clay Theatre. While it's tough seeing 2013's event scaled back from seven days to four, the good news is that the quantity of films has remained the same (albeit with fewer screenings). Two things crossed my mind while perusing the program. The first was an absence of anything lightweight or overtly commercial on the roster. The second was an impressive dedication to a loose coterie of directors by the SFFS programming team, with eight of ten FCN films this year coming from filmmakers whose works have been previously exhibited by the SF Film Society.

The SFFS alumni party gets going on opening night with Sébastien Betbeder's drôle and affecting 2 Autumns, 3 Winters, which is also the only FCN entry I've previewed in advance. Betbeder was the surprise FIPRESCI winner at this year's SF International Film Festival. His 67-minute, made-for-TV movie Nights with Théodore, set an enigmatic, paranormal-shaded romance almost entirely within Paris' Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Betbeder's follow-up retains the Paris backdrop, this time concerning itself with the ups and downs of two ex-art student bros in their early thirties. It's been labeled the first French mumblecore film, which is a stretch. While the film does feature floundering young adults and lengthy monologues, it's more stylized than its American counterpart, with an episodic structure, a lot of fourth wall-breaking and a diverse look obtained from shooting both 16mm and digital. Comic, bittersweet and smart, 2 Autumns should work perfectly as an opening night film.

2 Autumns, 3 Winters is just one of six FCN selections that had world premieres at this year's Cannes Film Festival. The FCN film I'm most anticipating is Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake, which competed in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. It was perhaps the best-reviewed film of the entire festival, leaving some critics wondering why it wasn't in the main competition. It ultimately won the sidebar's Best Director award as well as the fest's Queer Palm. Set entirely around a placid lake that doubles as a notorious cruising spot, the film has been described as a (very) sexually-explicit thriller that takes on the complexities of gay male desire. One much-discussed scene has had critics making comparisons to Hitchcock and Chabrol at their most unbearably suspenseful. A lot of fuss has also been made of the film's lush wide-screen photography and layered sound design. Unsurprisingly, the good folks at Strand Releasing have picked this up for U.S. distribution. Director Guiraudie is no stranger to FCN, having personally accompanied The King of Escape, his yarn about a gay, middle-aged tractor salesman on the lam with a teenage girl, to the Bay Area in 2009.

Also showing up in Cannes' Un Certain Regard was Claire Denis' Bastards, a downbeat and menacing familial tale of money, sex and power set in contemporary Paris. Although the film drew mixed reviews—critics complained about its obtuseness and confusingly fragmented narrative—it fared much better at the Toronto and New York film festivals. Critic Robert Koehler proclaimed it Denis' best film since L'intrus and Manola Dargis found Bastards "grimly beautiful and somewhat unhinged." (And then there's Ryan Lattanzio's ominous warning at Indiewire that after Bastards "you may never eat corn-on-the-cob again.") Once more Denis enlists the immense talents of cinematographer Agnès Godard (her first digital shoot for Denis) and musician Stuart Staples of the Tindersticks. The promising cast includes Denis regulars Grégoire Colin and Michel Subor, as well as Denis newbies Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni and Lola Créton. I wasn't crazy about Denis' last film, 2009's White Material, but these L'intrus comparisons have me hopeful that I'll be loving me some Bastards.

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi's autobiographical A Castle in Italy initially drew attention at Cannes because it was the only female-directed film in the main competition. Then came the almost unanimously horrible reviews, with The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw leading the pile-on ("smug, precious, carelessly constructed, emotionally negligible, tiresome, insufferably self-regarding and above all, fantastically annoying"). Tedeschi plays a retired actress with a ticking biological clock whose family is divided over whether to sell the titular family castle—in other words, she's got an acute case of RWPP (Rich White People Problems). As in real life, her character has a younger actor boyfriend (played by her actual ex, actor Louis Garrel) and a brother who's dying of AIDS (Tedeschi's brother died of the disease in 2006 and is played here by Filippo Timi, the Italian actor best known for portraying Mussolini in Vincere). This is Tedeschi's third outing as director / writer / actress, and all three films were co-written by actress / director Noémie Lvovsky (who attended last year's FCN with the opening night film, Camille Rewinds). I remember enjoying Tedeschi's Actresses when it played the inaugural FCN in 2008, so I'm willing to take a chance on this—in no small part thanks to the presence of Euro-hunks Garrel and Timi. Omar Sharif of all people is said to have a movie-stealing cameo near the end.

Speaking of Euro-hunks, Danish superstar Mads Mikkelsen plays the titular role in FCN's other film from Cannes 2013's main competition, Arnaud des Pallières' Michael Kohlhaas. Based on an 1811 novella that's a staple of German literature classes, the film features a French-speaking Mikkelsen as a 16th century horse merchant seeking justice after two prized steeds are seized and then abused by a ruthless nobleman. Reviews of both the film and Mikkelsen's performance were mixed, with the Hollywood Reporter's Jordan Mintzer opining, "Michael Kohlhaas provides a few quick thrills and some beautifully photographed landscapes, but never really convinces as an intellectual's swords-and-horses period piece." The critics were unanimous in their praise of Jeanne Lapoire's cinematography (she also shot A Castle in Italy), as well as the film's exquisite period detail. Being mad-for-Mads means I wouldn't dream of missing this, especially when the Great Dane is joined by an impressive supporting cast that includes Amira Casar, Jacques Nolot, Bruno Ganz, Sergi López and Denis Lavant.

My favorite film at FCN 2010 was Katell Quillévéré's Love Like Poison, an impressive, Prix Jean Vigo-winning directorial debut about a young Bretagne teen grappling with issues of flesh vs. spirit. Three years later Quillévéré returns with Suzanne, which opened the Critics Week sidebar at this year's Cannes. The film encompasses 25 years in the life of its protagonist, a young woman who lives with her widowed father and sister, gets pregnant in high school and eventually takes up with a small-time gangster. Although reviews were generally favorable, many critics felt the huge time gaps in the narrative gave the film a choppy feel. Variety's Boyd van Hoeij likened Suzanne to an "extended trailer for an entire season of a French working-class daytime drama." Critics were unanimous, however, in their resounding praise for Sara Forestier in the title role. This is the acclaimed actress who burst on the scene in 2003, winning a Most Promising Actress César for her fiery performance in Abdellatif Kechiche's Games of Love and Chance (aka L'esquive), and then winning the Best Actress César in 2011 for Michel Leclerc's The Names of Love. Perhaps a third César is not out of the question.

Just as Quillévéré's first movie was my FCN favorite of 2010, so it was a year earlier with The Wolberg Family, the passionate and quirky 2009 debut of critic-turned-director Axelle Ropert. She's finally made a second film, Miss and the Doctors, which is about two pediatrician brothers both falling in love with a barmaid whose diabetic daughter is in their care. The brothers are played by director / actor Cédric Kahn (Red Lights) and Laurent Stocker, the latter a Comédie Françasie actor whose work I'm unfamiliar with. As with The Wolberg Family, Ropert's latest is also a Bozon family affair, with actor / director Serge Bozon (La France) once more taking on a supporting acting role and his sister Céline Bozon delivering the cinematography. Because Miss and the Doctors didn't have a festival rollout and only opened in French cinemas two months ago, there are very few reviews in English. An exception is Jordan Mintzer's favorable write-up in the Hollywood Reporter, where he calls the film a "bluesy swan song for brotherly love" and compares it to "the sort of earnestly made, cleverly scripted adult dramas of Truffaut's late period." The film's original French title (Tirez la langue, mademoiselle) translates as "Stick out your tongue, Miss," which sounds less lame than its English counterpart.

Yet another directorial second feature in the FCN 2013 line-up is Anna Novion's Rendezvous in Kiruna. Like the filmmaker's 2008 debut Grown Ups, it stars Novion's off-screen partner, renowned character actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin (who's mostly known to me from the films of Robert Guédiguian). Here he plays a gruff French architect who must travel to Swedish Lapland to identify the body of a dead son he has never met, picking up a young hitchhiker on route. Rendezvous in Kiruna won the prize for Best Film at the 2012 Cairo International Film Festival, and in her review for the Hollywood Reporter, Sheri Linden appreciates how the movie escapes inherent road movie clichés and promises that "the story's quiet observations build into low-charge detonations that resonate for days afterward." The film's cinematographer, Pierre Novion, is expected to attend the FCN screening. Kiruna, by the way, is Sweden's northernmost city and the unofficial capital of Swedish Lapland.

The lone documentary in this year's FCN is House of Radio from Nicholas Philibert. It's the first film by the master French non-fiction filmmaker since Nénette, his fascinating 2010 study of a 40-year-old, zoo-imprisoned Parisian orangutan. This time Philibert takes on the massive entity that is Radio France, which is loosely the French version of NPR. The film is given an illusory 24-hours-in-the-life-of structure, although it was actually shot over the course of six months. Reviews for House of Radio have been generally positive—it premiered at this year's Berlin Film Festival and had a brief NYC theatrical release back in September—with the main criticism being that unless you are already familiar with Radio France, the film is a bit daunting. There is no voiceover narration or on-screen information imparted, so unless you know what screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and author Umberto Eco look like, you won't realize they are among the radio's on-air interviewees until the end credits roll.

After Stranger by the Lake, the FCN film I'm most dying to see is Vic + Flo Saw a Bear from French-Canadian director Denis Côté. This is the first time a Quebeçois film has been included in FCN's line-up and I hope it won't be the last. The SF Film Society did sponsor a Quebec Film Week back in 2008, but since then many important French-Canadian works have bypassed the Bay Area, including Côté's disturbing 2012 documentary about taxidermy and safari park animals, Bestiare (fortunately available for streaming on Netflix). Vic + Flo Saw a Bear tells the offbeat and ultimately harrowing story of a 61-year-old lesbian ex-con who retreats to the rural home of a paralyzed uncle, and is joined in short order by her former lover / ex-cellmate and her gay parole officer. The film premiered in Berlin, where it walked off with the prestigious Alfred Bauer Award, given each year to a film that "opens new perspectives on cinematic art." (Past recipients include Léos Carax, Tsai Ming-liang, Park Chan-wook, Fernando Eimbcke and last year's winner, Miguel Gomes' Tabu). Critics have been generous with praise, with Boyd van Hoeij calling it Côté's most accomplished work yet, and Screen Daily's Lee Marshall summing up the film's vibe thusly: "A rich, humane, surprising film, Vic + Flo Saw A Bear manages to mix the drollery of Wes Anderson, the genre swagger of Tarantino or the Coen Brothers and the opaque narrative of a Bruno Dumont in one intriguing package."

Cross published at film-415.