Canoa: A Shameful Memory (1976)

An angry mob, gripping torches and machetes, floods the streets to confront the outsiders. Fingers are dismembered before our very eyes. Innocent men are lynched. This is nor a horror movie, but a historical drama recounting the horrifying events that took place almost fifty years ago.

Canoa: A Shameful Memory is an absolute juggernaut. It is a 360 snapshot of a particular time and place, muddled by socio-economic, religious, political, and regional tensions of the late 1960s. We observe the events of an awful tragedy like a fly on the wall: a reporter gets a call that a group of university workers has been attacked, and several killed. After glimpses of the aftermath, we are pulled away from the immediate matter at hand, and meet the faces of Mexico, 1968.

A poor farmer who must give away 10% of his crop to corrupt officials. A priest whose influence over his parish extends past religion into politics and beyond. A wealthy bureaucrat, who is grateful for the public goods and thinks the poor should quit complaining. And an omnipresent narrator, arguably the most reliable, who insists we can trust him and provides commentary on all the action.

After this first act, during which director Felipe Cazals provides an admirably rich portrait of the time and place, we dive into the main narrative: a group of young university employees from the city Puebla decide to go mountain climbing at La Malinche. Knowing the tragic fate awaiting them, each decision and delay brings an extra layer of dread for us, the viewers, as we approach what we already know will be a horrifying end.

Canoa is an incredibly troubling film, of a mistaken conflict between a small town and (perceived) radicals from the city, hauntingly ringing true in today’s hostile and occasionally violent political climate. Cazals never turns away, forcing us to witness and grapple with an unstable and untrustworthy society.

This razor-sharp work is punctuated by a fascinating shot at the end: our narrator atop a staircase, facing another camera, walking down stairs, scurrying up and doing the take again, then speaking to us once he’s down. The pseudo-documentary feel breaks its own wall, from cameras capturing life and people in real-time, to rehearsed and scripted action. Is he such a reliable narrator? Can he be trusted as the voice of Canoa, or a more rational citizen, or even Cazals himself? The overlapping and contradicting nature of history is a subtly recurring theme throughout the story, and the double take within a “documentary” adds a sinister layer to an already-disturbing tale.

Canoa: A Shameful Memory is certainly not for everyone, but those who can stomach the intense violence will be taken on a culturally insightful, intellectually challenging, and wholly unforgettable journey.

Criterion Book Club: “Making a Film” by Federico Fellini

Much like the films he directs, Federico Fellini’s book Making a Film is a fluid, stream-of-consciousness work that ebbs and flows across time, places, and subjects. And like his films, it casts an undeniable spell and is completely enchanting.

I name it as a general “book,” as it is part memoir, film theory, and sociological study all at once. What initially drew me to it, besides Fellini’s name, was the potential of new insight into his films, and Making a Film certainly delivers as expected: he shares the juvenile experiences that inspired Roma and Amarcord, outlines the the larger-than-life iconography of 8 1/2, and provides perspective on nearly all his films. (I would have liked more on La dolce vita, one of my favorites!)

Beyond its insights on filmmaking, however, Fellini’s text most impressed me with its thoughtful perspective society. His recurring theme of clowns throughout his film is certainly discussed here, and he offers a thought-provoking world view from this lens. He argues everyone is one kind of clown: the White Clown, authoritative, cruel, foreboding; and the auguste, primitive, playful, childlike, and naive. The two exist as foils, and can be defined negatively when paired against each other. He goes so far as to list off who he considers to be which kind of clown.

In my very favorite passage, he reflects on how the struggle of making a film runs parallel to everyday life and struggling to get by. Even when entering a situation with set expectations, it’s important to stay flexible and adapt to what life has to offer. In Fellini’s words:

Making a film isn’t about obstinately attempting to adapt reality to preconceived notions; making a film also means knowing how to recognize, accept, and utilize the progressive changes that preexisting ideas are subjected to by the continuous, parallel coming into being of what happens.

Making a Film is an enriching read, both for devotees of Fellini’s filmography, casual students or film, or even someone who knows nothing of his works. It is a meditation on the creative process and finding inspiration and motivation in the most unlikely places. Like his films, he humanizes and romanticizes the everyday, transforming the mundane into something miraculous and beautiful.

ANNOUNCEMENT: Criterion Book Club

Been brewing on this for a while, and excited to kick off 2017 with the Criterion Book Club.

What is the Criterion Book Club? It’s a monthly digital book club, focused on literature tying back to the films of the Criterion Collection. All are welcome to join the Facebook group here!

These books can include:

  1. Novels/plays that have been adapted into films in the CC.
  2. Biographies/memoirs of key directors, writers, actresses, etc. with films in the CC.
  3. Analysis/criticism of films or individuals who are featured in the CC.

As a digital book club, we can chat about books in the Facebook group, through blogs – the possibilities are endless! (Just be sure to link back so we can find it!)

Here is a calendar for 2017’s reads —

  • Jan: “Making a Film” by Federico Fellini
  • Feb: “Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay
  • March: “Godard on Godard” by Jean-Luc Godard
  • April: “The Last Temptation of Christ” by Nikos Kazantzakis
  • May: “The Graduate” by Charles Webb
  • June: “Something Like an Autobiography” by Akira Kurosawa
  • July: “A Room with a View” by E.M. Forster
  • Aug: “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life” by Sophia Loren
  • Sep: “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris
  • Oct: “Rosemary’s Baby” by Ira Levin
  • Nov: “Hitchcock” by Francois Truffaut
  • Dec: “The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography” by Frank Capra

With over 800 films in the Criterion Collection, there is a wealth of books that go along with them – please feel free to chime in the comments section or in the Facebook group for other reads to check out (either as recommendations or ones you’ve been meaning to pick up)!

Hope this takes off as a fun activity for fans of the Collection – happy reading!

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Someday I’ll get a straight answer from you, and I won’t know what to do with it.

 

Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings is full of individuals lost in underlying turmoil but manage to dig themselves deeper, rather than find a way out. Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) is a pilot and co-owner of a mail air line, who knowingly sends his men and himself in danger, accepting hazardous weather and unsafe working conditions as part of the job. Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) is a former showgirl bound for home, who decides to put her trip on hold and stick around for Geoff, who admits he would never ask a woman for anything. Judy MacPherson (Rita Hayworth), Geoff’s old flame, chooses ignorance over learning the truth about her morally questionable husband Bat.

All of these characters, and more, are swirling around Barranca, South America (no country is given), in a world somewhere between Casablanca and Gilda (though it was made before both landmark films). Barranca is a bustling banana port o’call, and Geoff’s airline carries mail back and forth over the Andes. The large troupe of Americans who call Barranca home are seeking some sort of escape: from responsibility, from home, from their pasts.

This might sound like the perfect recipe for film noir, but Only Angels Have Wings doesn’t fit cleanly into any easy genre. It is part adventure thriller, with well-constructed, often heart-stopping, sequences of flight and their sometimes-tragic aftermaths. It is part romance, as Geoff and Bonnie become acquainted, and the feelings that echo back as Bonnie shows up. It’s even part western, with the standard themes of escape from traditional society, isolating oneself in a “man’s world,” and dropping domestic responsibilities.

To be honest, a lot about this movie is weird. Early on, we get cues that Brooklyn-born Bonnie is right at home in Barranca, engaging with the locals (despite referring to Spanish as “pig Latin”), and wildly playing “Some of These Days” on the piano in a scene that had me giggling nonstop. Later on in the movie she whips out a gun and shoots him in the shoulder. And, in an interesting subversion of gender norms, Geoff never has a lighter on him, and needs Bonnie or Judy to light it for him. The macho fella who wouldn’t ask a woman for anything, still needs them to get through the everyday.

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Would you like Rita Hayworth to light your cigarette?

But a well-rounded, genre-bending (albeit sometimes confounding) film suits Hawks well. The man who later brought us a subversive, challenging western in Red River and the excellent, tongue-in-cheek screwball comedy musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes proves his mastery of and flexibility within genre pieces, so a film that touches so many avenues is a perfect fit for a man of his talents.

In addition to the strong directing and crazy choices, we also get great performances, particularly by Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth. Jean Arthur plays what appears to be her usual “type” as the plucky pal, bringing on the gravitas when appropriate. Early on in the film (spoiler alert!) a pilot has a fatal crash, igniting a firestorm of emotions for her: desperate grief at the loss, anger and frustration at the men for (she believes) not caring, then tepid complacency as she learns that’s just the way things are in Barranca. Her complex, layered reaction both highlights her adapting to her new environment, as well as an early sign that she’s not just some fast-talking gal: she has depth and real emotion.

Rita Hayworth, in her too-few minutes onscreen, sets everything ablaze with her piercing eyes and deep, seductive voice. She’s not quite a fully-fledged femme fatale in this one, but she makes some gusty moves, even visiting her former flame in his bedroom. Jean Arthur even pops up at the end of this scene but scurries away, which is unfortunate — I would have loved to see some screen time between two archetypes during this era of film.

Only Angels Have Wings is an exciting, genre-bending film taking us into exotic locales, entrenching us with questionable characters, and dazzling us with complex performances.

There Never was a Woman Like Rita

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is a never-ending two-way street. The action on film has countless sets of onscreen pairs (two cars drag racing, two Castigliane brothers), plus a showstopping double narrative: midway through the film, we enter a new story altogether, with the same actors playing different characters in a hauntingly distorted mirror of what came before.

One of the most exciting match-ups is the dual performance by Laura Elena Harring, with two main roles but ultimately playing no fewer than four characters throughout the film. In the first half, she is an unnamed woman who takes on the persona of Rita, and in the second half, a venomous rising star named Camilla. These are two women existing in two realities, but somehow piece together in this dreamlike puzzle.

The film opens with an unnamed, dark-haired woman in the back of a car driving up in the Hollywood Hills. She is well-dressed and wearing vivid red lipstick, ready for a night out. The car pulls over and stops, and the two men in the front seat turn around with guns pointed at her. The hit is prevented by a sudden crash, as a pair of drag-racing cars on the opposite side of the road hurdles into the stopped car. The woman, suffering from temporary amnesia, stumbles out of the wreckage like a broken doll, and descends into the glowing Los Angeles night below.

She sneaks into an apartment as the tenant (Aunt Ruth) departs for a trip. While alone, she takes a shower but is interrupted by another young woman, Betty – Aunt Ruth’s niece who is staying there while Ruth is away. Betty apologizes and leaves the dark-haired woman alone to dress. The woman looks at herself in the mirror, and notices a poster on the wall behind her.

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gilda-movie-posterThe poster is for the classic film noir Gilda starring Rita Hayworth. The tagline reads, “There never was a woman like Gilda!” As she dries her hair, the dark-haired woman introduces herself to Betty: “My name is Rita.” A fitting choice, as there never was a woman like Rita either. She knows nothing of her past or her true identity, and takes this opportunity to build a new persona for herself. Another connection with Gilda is the notion of rebuilding oneself. The three leads (Johnny Farrell, Ballin Mundson, and Gilda herself), all recent arrivals in Argentina, often reassure themselves they have “no pasts, just futures.” Like Rita, they seize the opportunity to shed their old life (though unlike Rita, their choice is voluntary) and build a new identity.

The first half of the film is driven by Rita and Betty’s quest for what trouble is following Rita: investigating the car crash, following leads, and even climbing into other people’s apartments (paralleling the dark-haired woman’s gutsy hiding spot from earlier). These actions are driven mostly by Betty, a more dominant, proactive personality foiled with Rita’s more timid, passive approach. Rita is fearful of what they might find, and is content to stay in the apartment drinking Coke  Throughout the journey, the two fall in passionate love.

The story soon diffuses into the second parallel reality. The actress playing the sincere, smiling Betty is now a dark, demented woman named Diane, in a less romantic sexual relationship with the same dark-haired woman, now named Camilla, who suddenly breaks things off with Diane. Theirs is not a relationship of equals: Camilla calls the shots, while Diane takes whatever she can get.

Camilla is also a rising star, arguably related to her falling in love with the director Adam Kesher. She does helps Diane by getting her supporting roles in films, but clearly doesn’t reciprocate the romantic feelings Diane has for her. Whether through genuine romance or for getting ahead in Hollywood, Camilla has made her choice in pursuing Adam.

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All films, especially those by David Lynch, are certainly open to interpretation. A common a theory to piecing together Mulholland Drive is that the first half of the film (Rita’s story) is a dream, and the second half (Camilla’s story) is the reality. This is reflected in the different relationships between Rita and Betty, vs Camilla and Diane.

Both worlds feature the duo in a sexual relationship with different power players in each. The “dream world” has Betty in the dominant role, helping and guiding Rita as she struggles to understand her past. Their romance is pure and sincere, in a beautiful love scene where they declare their passion for one another. This is a stark contrast from the “reality” where a desperate Diane tries to keep Camilla for herself, and is left behind and humiliated as Diane pursues love with a man.

Both worlds also place the dark-haired woman in a victim role. She is nearly killed by hit men, and is fearful of pursuit through the “dream world” storyline, clinging to Betty for protection. In the “reality,” her rebuff of Diane’s affections turn violent, as the vengeful Diane takes out a hit on her former flame. The dream version has the blonde woman as protector and savior, the polar opposite of the reality of the blonde as killer.

The stories of Mulholland Drive are as winding as the road itself. It travels in and around the world of Hollywood, taking visitors through turns and twists throughout their journey. The dark-haired woman is at the center of it all, whether the helpless victim of Rita or the cruel heartbreaker Camilla. Like Gilda herself, this femme fatale is victim, antagonist, and atomic bomb all at once – a true force to be reckoned with. There never was a woman like Rita.



This blog post is part of the Dual Roles Blogathon: One Actor ~ Multiple Roles hosted by Christina Wehner. Check out the full lineup here!

Weekly Round-Up: July 10-16, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • Her (2013) – The instant the film ended, my friend asked, “And why isn’t this Criterion?” Her is nothing short of brilliant, exploring universal themes of relationships and connection set in the not-too-distant future. In a similar level to Inside OutHer is a profound and emotional statement on the human experience. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Le Amiche (1955) – I love movies about rich people, but I’m still brewing about how I feel on Le Amiche (I’m always iffy with Antonioni). Five girlfriends, including one newcomer, in postwar Turin share gossip and boyfriends. Each is well defined, and her intentions made clear to the audience. The story felt a little slow and directionless, but was also true to life…. yeah, still out on this one. TBD.
  • Ghostbusters (2016) – I almost liked this one. I really wanted to like it. Kristen Wiig is the standout comedy actress of our time, and the rest of the gang all has done solid work in the past. As the movie went on, certain elements just started chipping away at my overall enjoyment – lines would misfire, we’d revert back to lazy “jump” scares, and worst of all, cameos/throwback moments thrown in for… what exactly?  To elevate the quality of the film? (This Dorkly post on the continuity of ghosts didn’t help either.) NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Armageddon (1998) – This big-budget disaster movie is a bona fide disaster, with director Michael Bay either unaware or unwilling to bring it down. From the opening titles literally exploding to Liv Tyler & Ben Affleck embracing in a NASA rocketship, everything in Armageddon is laughable. I’m amazed this hasn’t become a camp classic a la Mommie Dearest or Valley of the Dolls, but we need to make that happen. NOT RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week? Am I wrong about the new Ghostbusters?

Criterion Collection: Oct. 2016 Titles

I had fully set my expectations for next week, but lo and behold here came the new titles announcement right on (unofficial) schedule, the 15th of the month!

We’ve got a couple that were confirmed plus a few that weren’t even on my radar – excited to check them out!

  • The Executioner
  • The Tree of Wooden Clogs
  • Short Cuts – Blu-ray upgrade
  • Boyhood – This one is the “winner” of the month for me. Loved it when I first saw it in theaters almost two years ago and have been holding off for the long-confirmed Criterion release. My original review is posted here, and can’t wait to revisit this film in October with even more perspective of time and growing up.
  • Pan’s Labyrinth – I liked (but not loved) Guillermo del Toro’s dark fairy tale when it first came out, but I’ll probably rent it again to double-check before its Criterion release.

Which titles are you picking up?