opening salvo

By way of introduction and some minor proselytism for the things I love….

Eleven Obscure Films You Ought To See

Underground: Emir Kusturica’s masterpiece. Marko falls in love with best friend Blackie’s wife, Natalija, and contrives to keep Blackie, a communist partisan and fugitive from the Nazis, in a
cellar for 40 years, ignorant of the end of the war. Blackie and a gang of diehard believers manufacture weapons for the “war effort,” which Marko of course sells on the black market while sleeping with Blackie’s wife in their comfortable, above-ground mansion and using his “dead war hero” friend as a ladder to political office. Got all that? Kusturica never lets the convoluted war allegory dilute either the power of the tragic love triangle, which he allows himself considerable time to build in the first hour, or the dizzying energy of the schticky, Marx-ish comedy.

F for Fake: In many ways Orson Welles’ most interesting film, this… er… “documentary” is constructed from discarded footage from another filmmaker’s doc about notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory and his nemesis/doppleganger Clifford Irving, a writer who claimed to want to expose de Hory’s fakery, but who had himself committed a similar fraud. A film about forgery, fraud, the fallacy of “auteurism,” magic, trickery, and the big con that is documentary filmmaking.

To Sleep With Anger*: Charles Burnett’s fable about African-Americans transplanted from the Deep South to LA creates a special milieu that has literally never been seen on film before, a strange and fascinating tapestry of faith and superstition, families, churches and individual desires. The film makes no reference whatever to whites or racism, yet illuminates brilliantly some very dark corners of the American race crisis. Danny Glover is hypnotizing, charming, and oddly vulnerable as the scruffy, affable visitor from “back home” who insinuates himself into a family’s home and exposes its faultlines.

The Hole: Fine work from Tsai Ming-liang, and probably the best of the 2000 As Seen By…. series produced for French television. Trapped in their apartments by a plague sweeping Taiwan on the eve of the millenium, but connected by a hole in the floor/ceiling, two neighbors creep their way toward intimacy, largely through a series of fantasies constructed around the musical numbers of 1950’s Hong Kong chanteuse Grace Chang. Slow, but fascinating. Also good in this series: Life on Earth, by Abderrahmane Sissako, a ravishing pictorial and light comedy about a small village in Mali. The narration consists of politically aware poetry by Aime Cesaire, but the narrative and the gags, as in Tati, revolve around people’s interactions with technology.

The Passion of Joan of Arc: Maybe not Carl Dreyer’s greatest work, but certainly his most compelling and accessible, partly because the familiarity of the story frees him to take some daring liberties with narrative without ever confusing the viewer or losing emotional intensity. Maria Falconetti (Joan) is radiant, challenging, and a species to herself, while the camerawork features some of the most dramatically successful special effects of all time, including a camera on a swinging crane over a rioting crowd. This is also the original “overlooked” film — according to Jonathan Rosenbaum, “[l]ost for half a century, the 1928 original was rediscovered in a Norwegian mental asylum in the 80s (other prints had perished in a warehouse fire, and the two versions subsequently circulated consisted of outtakes).”

Trans: Julian Goldberger’s lovely, funny, experimental film about a young man who escapes from a juvenile offender “boot camp” and disappears into Central Florida. His journey through trailer-park semi-suburbia is beautiful and strange; Goldberger perfectly captures Florida’s orange groves and chain-link backyards. The narrative peters out somewhat at the end, but the overall experience never stops being amazing, weird, and totally engrossing. A haunting sound design strategy, often incorporating loud, inarticulate shouting layered multiple times, is counterpointed with a trippy ambient soundtrack for an almost hallucinogenic sound experience, one of many interesting and distinguished things about this little-known independent film.

Chunhyang: There are several competing threads in the best of contemporary Korean cinema: genuine, sincere family films (The Way Home), art film introspection meets Buddhist introspection (the films of Kim Ki-duk), faux art-film genre thrillers inspired by Seven and Tarantino (Oldboy, Memories of Murder), and Im Kwon-Taek’s genre, the period drama rethought. Chunhyang is based an ancient Korean folk tale usually delivered in a mesmerizing performance of stops, starts, and screams, the Korean two-man operatic form known as pansori. Im weaves pieces of a pansori performed by Sang-hyun Cho with his own version of the story, breathtakingly realized, of a courtesan’s daughter who marries a prince in secret, then suffers for her fidelity to him while he’s away. You’ve never seen anything like the heroine’s improvisation of a poem as she is being beaten for refusing to sleep with the local governor — she counts off the lashes, and each number reminds her of a Confucian principle the governor has violated.

The Singing Detective: Keith Gordon has been swimming in the waters of the almost-greats for so long that it’s easy to forget what a tremendously talented and sensitive director he is. Yet he’s not, apparently, a writer — at least, he’s never been credited — and the weakness of his films has always seemed to reside in the scripts. This is his first collaboration with a truly great writer (British television legend Dennis Potter), and his powers are finally unleashed. Both the “real” narrative of a dime novelist forced to live in his fantasies when he’s hospitalized with a crippling skin disease and the imagined detective story have full lives and well-defined worlds. The former is largely anchored in an astonishing performance by Robert Downey, Jr. as the venomous and terrified writer, while the latter lives in a peculiar kind of lighting design that simply eliminates large portions of the frame, making darkness (or, occasionally, white light) a kind of meditative, imaginative space. Watch out for a loony and almost unrecognizable Mel Gibson.

Iron Monkey: Before he handed the Wachowski Bros. their career (as the fight choreographer on The Matrix) Yuen Woo Ping directed this spectacular martial-arts comedy that is a great deal more dignified, as well as more fun, than a late-comer like Crouching Tiger. Its title hero is a doctor by day and ass-kicking vigilante by night, but the film is also a childhood tale of famous folk hero Wong Fei-hung, here shown as a talented but impetuous boy learning discipline and kung-fu from his ass-kicking herbalist father. Jackie Chan’s films (including another Wong Fei-Hung story, Drunken Master 2) may have more impressive large-scale fights, but for sheer wit and inventiveness in one-on-one combat, this is hard to beat.

The Moderns: Still my favorite Alan Rudolph film. Just one of the incredible things about this film is how terrifying and loathsome Linda Fiorentino’s husband can be as played by the underrated John Lone. Call it a thinking man’s Raging Bull, set in the art world of Paris in the ’20s. Keith Carradine plays an artist who can’t sell his own work but periodically stoops to forgery for the money. Lone is the coldhearted art dealer who can make him rich; Fiorentino is the old flame who, well, you can probably guess…. The basic love triangle plot is a setup for Rudolph’s meditations on art, authorship, and the commerce of dealing in names. Lots of fun walk-ons by well-impersonated literary figures as well as the always exciting Genevieve Bujold. Good companion piece to F for Fake.

Junebug: Not technically “obscure”; Amy Adams has received an Oscar nomination for her performance as a pregnant young woman who fabricates a happy life for herself in nonstop monologue. But I was perfectly transported by the whole thing: its pitch-perfect evocation of Southern family life, church life, and “outsider art” made me homesick for Georgia and also gave me more to chew on than any of the “big” art films on everyone’s Top Ten list. Adams’ performance is one of several amazing ones in this film, not the least of which is Benjamin McKenzie as her trapped husband. The meerkat scene is priceless.

*Note: All of these films are available on DVD (or soon will be) except To Sleep with Anger, which has been criminally neglected. Write your congressman.

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