For Reel

Salesman (1969)
December 29, 2016, 3:34 pm
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Director(s): Albert and David Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin
5 Stars
salesmanAmerican documentary films in the late 1960s/early 1970s were often attracted to the rise of counterculture, most spectacularly laid out in the contrast between Michael Wadleigh’s fly-on-the-wall appreciation of Woodstock and the account of the hellish tragedy that unfolded the night that the Rolling Stones packed the Altamont speedway in Gimme Shelter. If Salesman doesn’t document this type of counterculture in such an explicit way, it is undoubtedly a crucial piece of the puzzle: this is exactly the America that certain young people were desperately trying to leave behind. The film argues that the commercialization of the country has dehumanized its citizens—in this case, salesmen like Paul Brennan grow frustrated with their predatory work, and customers are told that their only path to respectable class status and even religious salvation is to buy an expensive Bible. Brennan’s “Badger”, the most sorrowful of the salesman, is one of the great documentary subjects, both giving a hugely empathetic performance and yet still maintaining a certain unknowability—the filmmakers often linger on Brennan’s detached expressions as if searching desperately for the emotional meaning behind the facade. The most powerful aspect about Salesman as a work of political criticism is that it argues that there are few winners in this game of commerce, and that Brennan and his fellow salesmen themselves serve as both the predator and the prey.

Le Grand Amour (1969)
October 4, 2016, 9:08 pm
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Director: Pierre Étaix
4 Stars
le-grand-amourOne of the earliest scenes of Le Grand Amour finds a couple happily at the altar and a voice over protesting that, “It had all started badly.” We have seen this plot before—an older man (Pierre Étaix) finds that his decent wife (Annie Fratellini) isn’t offering him any surprises after a decade of marriage, and so he falls for the secretary (Nicole Calfan) that is young enough to be his daughter. Director Étaix, however, brings an equal sense of exuberance and melancholy to the telling. The film’s greatest setpiece involves a dream wherein beds travel down country roads in place of cars. If it is an image of fantastical delight, there is something about the emptiness of the roads (not to mention the remnants of crashed beds) that carries an uncanny sadness. Étaix masterfully harmonizes his joyful forays into surrealism with an undercurrent of grim reality, so that even at its most playful Le Grand Amour is rooted in palpable desperation. During the scene at the altar, the groom ponders how he might have married any number of women that he dated throughout his lifetime, and Étaix creates an image of an endlessly multiplying bride. The visual wit of the moment is seductive, but what makes it linger is Étaix’s fascination with the stories we tell ourselves and the choices we make. In the film, to marry is not only to abandon freedoms, but to shut the door on the countless lives that could have been.

Medium Cool (1969)
July 20, 2016, 9:25 pm
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Director: Haskell Wexler
3.5 Stars
Medium CoolWhen Medium Cool opened in 1969, Roger Ebert called it a “perfect example of the new movie”, arguing that its form works so spectacularly because it has faith that the audience can infer much from just the images. It does, indeed, serve as a fruitful exploration of this time in American cinema—just as the New Hollywood movement challenged classical norms and demanded the major studios to take note, Medium Cool all but abandons its narrative for an exercise in the nature of truth. Seamlessly blending real and fiction elements, director Haskell Wexler argues that there is little difference between them. After all, the camera’s only function is to document a story, and the “truth” of the image becomes a highly political, challenged experiment when the filmmaker disavows familiar structure. More than its innovative form, Medium Cool is the sort of film that’s value may increase by the year, both serving as a remarkable document of a time in history (both in documenting sociopolitical unrest and late-60s Chicago) and an eerie reflection of just how little some things have changed. Whereas a film like Woodstock shows the era with a sentimentality that contemporary audiences are bound to find alienating, Medium Cool might as well have been shot yesterday.

My Night at Maud’s (1969)
December 31, 2015, 1:03 pm
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Director: Eric Rohmer
5 Stars
My Night at Maud'sThe brunette divorcée (Françoise Fabian) that gives this masterpiece its title serves as a catalyst, what Kent Jones rightly identified as an “agent of transformation.” Perhaps it is paradoxical that a seemingly crucial night in the life of a devout Catholic (Jean-Louis Trintignant) didn’t do much to dispel his long-held romantic notions–at the end of the film, as in the beginning, he pursues an elusive blonde (Marie-Christine Barrault) whom he knows little about. If anything, it could be argued that Maud’s influence is what brings Jean-Louis to finalize this consistency of desire, driven by her assertion that she prefers men who, “know what they want.” And yet, what exactly transpires over the course of this night, and what precisely changes within Jean-Louis? Eric Rohmer is indirect with these answers, but is fascinated in opening up the possibilities for Jean-Louis–that is, his decision ultimately takes on greater weight considering the question of “what could have been.” The film, as in Pascal’s wager, hinges on the dynamic that sets a safe compromise against an elusive reward, only it is not clear which side Jean-Louis’ decision really serves. My Night at Maud’s is Rohmer’s first masterpiece and one of the great films of its decade, it possessing a sort of magic in the way that it not only indulges intelligent, well-argued conversation, but suggests how conversations themselves function in decision-making and developing a worldview. Rohmer uses long takes during the central setpiece, involving very little editing between the two characters so that the actors get to emote not only during what they have said or what they are reacting to, but rather play out a grand drama over the course of minutes. If Rohmer’s films are about talking, My Night at Maud’s is perhaps the purest example.

Une Femme Douce (1969)
January 23, 2012, 2:11 am
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Director: Robert Bresson

In his first foray into color, Robert Bresson adapted Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story “A Gentle Creature” as Une Femme Douce in 1969, which begins when a husband learns of his wife’s suicide and, through flashbacks, attempts to reach an understanding about what led her to the tragedy. The man, who serves as the narrator, is a despicable sadomasochist whose treatment of his wife does not stem merely from his own ignorance, but seemingly out of an impulse to assert dominance over someone that he feels he can easily control. Bresson scholar Tony Pipolo expands, “The very fact that he married such a young, unworldly girl speaks to his need for someone he can mold to conform to his requirements and endorse his delusive self-image.” His intentions of possessing her is alluded to in a number of images  – a caged monkey at the zoo, the bars of the bed’s frame which, even in death, seem to imprison the body of his wife. While the husband believes that he comes to a satisfactory assessment of where he went wrong by the end of the picture, the final line emphasizes that his self-obsession is permanent. The film leaves one breathless, from its opening shots which elliptically illustrate the suicide of the woman through a sequence of images including a slowly falling patio table and a scarf adrift in the wind.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)
April 17, 2011, 9:05 pm
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Director: John Schlesinger

The only X-rated film to ever win Best Picture, Midnight Cowboy is a bleak, upsetting work that memorably depicts urban isolationism and the ignorant, uncaring bourgeois society of the era. Comparing the film with recent Oscar contenders, it’s a depressing reminder of the lack of risk and tenacity in today’s mainstream entertainment. The film, essentially an immigrant tale, hasn’t lost any of its social relevance – the bright-eyed Joe Buck enthusiastically makes his way to the big city only before ending up broke and humiliated. Effective though Voight’s performance may be, as Ratso Rizzo, Hoffman plays the literally-named character too excessively and gives an outlandish performance that doesn’t quite seem appropriate for the otherwise harsh realism that the film presents.