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Death and Other Strangers

The Daily — Jul 31, 2020
Dirk Bogarde in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971)

Depending on your outlook, the rollout of so many film festival lineups this week during a global pandemic is either encouraging or worrying, maybe even a bit of both. Following announcements from Venice and Il Cinema Ritrovato, Toronto has unveiled a program of fifty features, and nearly half of them have been directed or codirected by women. Again, this will be a mix of indoor, outdoor, and virtual screenings, and again, we should mention that some of the heavy hitters we’ve been looking forward to since January are holding out for better times.

Toronto’s forty-fifth edition will open on September 10 with David Byrne’s American Utopia, a documentation of the hit Broadway show directed by Spike Lee, and will close on September 19 with A Suitable Boy, a six-part limited series adaptation of Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel directed by Mira Nair. The lineup includes the directorial debuts of actors Regina King, Halle Berry, and Viggo Mortensen as well as new work from Werner Herzog, Nicolás Pereda, Francis Lee, Jasmila Žbanić, François Ozon, and Gianfranco Rosi.

In other festival news, Locarno will open this coming Wednesday with Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow and close on August 15 with a collection of short films led by Jean-Marie Straub’s La France contre les robots. Ten films from Cannes’ 2020 official selection will screen in Normandy at the Deauville American Film Festival, which runs from September 4 through 13. And Hong Kong, originally scheduled for March and then rescheduled for August before being cancelled altogether, has gone ahead and presented the lineup for the forty-fourth edition that would have been. The festival also intends to award prizes.

Before we turn to the highlights of the past seven days, we should note that we not only lost Olivia de Havilland this week but also John Saxon, who appeared in more than two hundred films and television shows. He was very, very rarely the lead, but he got around. He played a gambling martial artist alongside Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon (1973), and as Gina Telaroli notes on Twitter, he managed to work with Vincente Minnelli, Blake Edwards, Frank Borzage, John Huston, Mario Bava, Otto Preminger, Edgar Ulmer, Curtis Harrington, David Cronenberg, and Dario Argento. “His face—and those eyebrows!—are burnt into five decades of genre film,” writes William Hughes at the A.V. Club. And “seeing him pop up—even with just a winking cameo, as in From Dusk Till Dawn or Wes Craven’s New Nightmare—was often like having an old friend pop buy to reminisce about the good, old, bloody days.”

  • The editors of Senses of Cinema have outdone themselves with a new bumper issue. Nearly every contributor to the walloping dossier on The Shining, which turns forty this year, opens his or her essay by noting that Stanley Kubrick’s most-memed film has inspired more far-flung readings than perhaps any other work in cinema. Rodney Ascher’s 2012 documentary on some of the most out-there conspiracy theories to have sprung from The Shining, Room 237, is just the beginning; the dossier gives us nearly twenty fresh and rich approaches. A second dossier gathers reflections on the state of cinema during the pandemic, and in a pair of features from Michael Witt and Raymond Vouillamoz, we learn about the rediscovery of Voyage à travers un film (1981), Jean-Luc Godard’s reworking of his 1980 return to commercial cinema, Every Man for Himself (1980). Witt calls Voyage “a significant work in relation to Godard’s oeuvre, television history, and the history of the relationship between cinema and television.”

  • When Axel Madsen profiled Fritz Lang for the summer 1967 issue of Sight & Sound, it had been seven years since the director had made his final feature, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, and four since he appeared in Godard’s Contempt. “Ask him cold his opinion of Le mépris and he will come up with a neat and lofty defense of Jean-Luc Godard’s integrity; but put the same question to him some time later in a flow of pleasant after-dinner chatter and he will make a plea for creators’ right to failures,” wrote Madsen. Lang, seventy-six at the time, was in a mood, dismissive of Brecht and Antonioni but also of some of his own work. He comes down pretty hard on Metropolis (1927), for example. “Tell him you think a new era is dawning in American cinema,” wrote Madsen, “and he will shut you up with a blunt ‘Name one great American film in the last twenty years.’”

  • In a moving personal essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, film critic and scholar D. A. Miller admits that his decision to revisit Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971) during the lockdown is “an obvious morbid choice.” Dirk Bogarde’s Gustav von Aschenbach, who arrives in early twentieth-century, plague-stricken Venice and finds himself drawn to a fourteen-year-old boy, has “grown on me during our interminable ordeal,” writes Miller. “For several weeks, I’ve been shadowing him as assiduously as a caregiver. I stick close enough to observe the desperate petition in his eyes; I pull back, often, to give him space. And always, I follow his avoidant gaze as it drifts over the crowd or zeros in on the object of his desire. I mirror, in other words, the close-ups, wide shots, pans, and zooms of Visconti’s film, which is—‘now more than ever’—a film about watching, about watching out, about wanting a stranger.”

  • In “Pretty Little Cults,” an essay for Another Gaze, Katherine Connell writes that films such as Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019), Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke! (1999), Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling’s Sound of My Voice (2011), and any number of stories inspired by the women of the Manson Family are “about microcosms of power, and even when they attempt to deconstruct misogyny on an allegorical level, they often end up reifying it through aesthetics and normative beauty ideals. Where is the breaking point between the cult as meaningful allegory and visually alluring cinematic product? More bluntly, when does the attempted deconstruction of patriarchal structures slip into patriarchal fetishization?”


  • Yesterday we rolled out the Criterion Channel lineup for August, and we’re especially pleased to include Sun Don’t Shine (2012), the first feature directed by Amy Seimetz, who has acted in films by Ridley Scott, Megan Griffiths, and Joe Swanberg, and cowrote and codirected the anthology series The Girlfriend Experience with Lodge Kerrigan. Seimetz’s second feature, She Dies Tomorrow, begins rolling out today. For the Austin Chronicle, Jenny Nulf talks with Seimetz about the impulse to write a story about a woman whose belief that today is her last day. Making the film, says Seimetz, “both alleviated anxieties” about death, but also “created this atmosphere where [I felt like death] could come from anywhere . . . at any moment. It can be therapy, but also you sometimes don't know why you make something in the moment either.” For Sam Adams at Slate, the film’s “aura of free-floating fear, passed on at close range between intimates or through chance encounters, has uncanny resonance in the COVID era, but the movie shouldn’t be limited to that. It’s too eerie, too protean to be tied to a specific reading. Seimetz isn’t transcribing experience or an environment. She’s capturing a state of being.”

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