There are few constants in life: death and taxes; the swelling and sighing of the tides; and the continual expansion of the Criterion Collection, perhaps the world’s greatest purveyor of boutique cinema releases. On a monthly basis, the Collection exposes the filmgoing populace to classic films both new and old, famous and obscure, promoting the idea of a singular movie canon transcending cultural and linguistic barriers. A noble ideal, to be sure. But for less informed audiences, keeping up with their ever-swelling catalogue can be dizzying. So we here at the Retro Set have dived through a handful of their new releases with a series of short write-ups in this, our first Criterion roundup!
COLD WATER (Spine #944)
When Olivier Assayas was originally approached by French television to make the film that would end up being Cold Water, it was initially envisioned as one part of a French television anthology where a number of filmmakers would make hour-long autobiographical pieces soundtracked with the music that defined their adolescences. As critic Girish Shambu explains in his insert essay for the Criterion release, they were given a Dogme 95-esque set of limitations including a strict budget of one million dollars, a requirement to shoot it all in Super 16 mm in about three weeks, and that they must include a party scene. After completing the requisite hour-long version, Assayas expanded his episode into a 92-minute feature that took the 1994 Cannes Film Festival by storm. Loosely inspired by his own upper middle class upbringing in an artistic household, the film follows Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet), a listless teenager disconnected from the bourgeois tastes of his intellectual father. Along with his working class girlfriend Christine (Virginie Ledoyen), a runaway from an abusive father and an estranged Scientologist mother, they cope with their emotional destitution with American and British rock music. Though Christine’s traumatic background explains her disconnection from society, Gilles seems to have no one specific trigger, instead suffering from the same confusion as James Dean in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), an accumulation of suffocating social pressures and anxieties. The infamous centerpiece is the third act party sequence in the countryside set to different rock songs: Christine despondently cuts her hair with scissors and suddenly attacks a friend while Janis Joplin wails “Me and Bobby McGee”; stoners pass around a weed pipe to the sound of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”; Christine and Gilles slow dance to Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche”; school kids break windows and throw chairs into a bonfire during Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around the Bend.” Though his fifth feature film, it was here in Cold Water that many believe Assayas came into his own as a filmmaker, refreshed by the DIY-limitations of the production and fired by exposure to the Situationist philosophy that would come to define his work. But autobiographical influences aside, the film feels a decidedly minor work, leaving confusion as to why, among all Assayas’ early films, this one would be selected for the main collection while his brilliant meta-textual Irma Vep (1996) remains in limbo.
SHAMPOO (Spine #947)
For what’s ostensibly a sex farce set in Los Angeles in the waning days of the Swinging Sixties, Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975) is curiously measured; unhurried if not slow, it at times feels downright deflated as characters wander ponderously through mansions and backyards or drive down crowded highways and empty hillside roadways. People seem frazzled and confused, and nobody seems to be on time or on schedule. There’s drinking and drugging and sex, but nobody seems to find the time to enjoy much of it. Shampoo might be fondly remembered for many things—Warren Beatty at his smarmiest, sexiest best; a scene-stealing cameo from a young Carrie Fisher; its heartbreaking downer of an ending—but it’s primarily a document of a time and place, specifically the moment when America began shedding the tie-dye and bellbottoms of the counterculture for the suits and slacks of Nixonian conservatism. Trapped in the middle is Beatty as genius hairdresser and irrepressible lothario George Roundy who, during the roughly 24 hours of Election Day 1968, will fall in and out of bed with several women, make and miss several appointments, attend several parties, dodge several commitments, get the funding for a new business, and lose the love of his life to a man he cuckolded. Though directed by Ashby, the film was mostly Beatty’s: a dream project for several years, he starred in it, produced it, and wrote it alongside Chinatown scribe Robert Towne. The George Roundy character is, naturally, a thinly veiled version of himself—the two lead actresses Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn were even both former flames. George’s quest to secure funding for his own salon can be read as a commentary on Beatty’s own struggles fighting against the Hollywood grain to make highly personal projects like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Reds (1981), and Dick Tracy (1990). Yet the film rumbles with precious little momentum, drowned in a super-seriousness at odds with the occasional laugh-out-loud line or screwball scenario such as Beatty running into several past amours at a Republican election night shindig while muzak covers of Beatles tunes warble in the background. Since its release over forty years ago, it’s been heralded as a classic of the era. But personally, if they wanted a more appropriate—and entertaining—capsule of the Seventies, I think Criterion should have released Greydon Clark’s blaxploitation rip-off Black Shampoo (1976).
A STORY FROM CHIKAMATSU (Spine #949)
By the mid-50s, Kenji Mizoguchi had finally begun to emerge as one of the great masters of Japanese cinema. Though he’d worked constantly since the late 1920s, it was his late-career exposure at Western film festivals that elevated him alongside Akira Kurosawa as one of his home country’s finest talents. Though he’d perfected his main stylistic flourishes and aesthetic preoccupations by the mid-30s—meticulous widescreen mise-en-scène, static long takes, sweeping camera movements imitating unspooling scrolls—it was only in the 50s that he reached the heights of his abilities with a string of immortal works based on classic Japanese folk tales and novels. His 1954 film, known as The Crucified Lovers but released by the Collection under its alternative, more literally translated title A Story from Chikamatsu, is a lesser known drama from this rich period that nonetheless deserves attention. Based on Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s 1715 bunraku drama, it follows a pair of star-crossed lovers doomed by accidental circumstance: after a series of misunderstandings, a Kyoto scroll-maker’s apprentice gets accused of seducing his miserly, skirt-chasing master’s wife. After fleeing the authorities into the countryside, the two decide to commit double-suicide before calling it off when they discover their mutual affection. But right as they devote themselves to each other, they’re betrayed by the apprentice’s father, captured by police, and sentenced to be executed for adultery, a capital offense in feudal Japan. The film is less a story of the two lovers than an examination of the moral rot infecting their society—Mizoguchi spends almost equal time on said lovers as the Machiavellian politics between the scroll-maker and the feudal authorities scheming to remove him from power, seize his assets for the state, and banish him from Kyoto. Here is the rare Japanese period film of its era that also explicitly recognizes the double standards of sexual morality between the sexes, best demonstrated in an early scene where three servant women entreat the apprentice as to why philandering women are killed but philandering men are tolerated. His response? He hums and haws about the “moral code” and wanders away. A Story from Chikamatsu isn’t the only film in the Collection based on Monzaemon’s play—Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide (Spine #104) is in many ways a bolder, more experimental take on the material. But Mizoguchi’s film still satisfies as a tragic melodramatic romance.
TRUE STORIES (Spine #951)
Many artists have celebrated the plain and mundane. But few have explored such anodyne ordinariness in the realm of rock music quite like David Byrne, the singer for art rock/new wave pioneers Talking Heads. As he famously once declared, he liked writing songs about simple, straightforward things—after all, the Talking Heads’ second album was literally called More Songs About Buildings and Food. Byrne brings that big-hearted love of the nakedly quotidian to his first directorial effort, the captivatingly bizarre yet endearing True Stories. Inspired by his love of trashy tabloids, Byrne imagined a small Texas town named Virgil where all the weirdest headlines were real, and wife-hunters, compulsive liars, shut-in weirdos, voodoo neighbors, and conspiracy theorists co-existed side by side. The framing device sees Byrne as a cowboy-hat-wearing version of himself traveling through Virgil as it prepares for a “Celebration of Specialness” to mark the town’s sesquicentennial. But in actuality it’s a concert film, albeit a very different one from their documentary-tinged 1984 classic Stop Making Sense—the vignettes on Virgil’s eccentric populace allow Byrne and a number of guest stars room to pay homage to Texas’ vibrant musical heritage: a heart-sick clean room technician (John Goodman) belts a country-western ballad about sacrificing everything for love; a paranoid Evangelical preacher (John Ingle) leads a gospel choir in a song about companies secretly controlling the world; a Mexican assembly line worker (Tito Larriva) croons a Tejano ballad about picking up hidden transmissions in his head; a kindly Caribbean man beseeches Papa Legba in song while performing a love ritual. Yet Byrne never mocks his subjects—he’s too enamored with them, too fascinated by their ability to indulge their personal idiosyncrasies in defiance of common sense and social etiquette. But he also loves the plainness of Virgil as well. When he gestures towards a freshly built neighborhood of manicured lawns and four-car garages, we find ourselves agreeing when he comments “Look at this! Who could say it isn’t beautiful?” The Collection outdid themselves with this release: much like with Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride (1987), they modeled their packaging on the source material. The liner-notes are presented like a tabloid, being printed on cheap newspaper alongside salacious stories involving the film’s characters. Even better? A CD of the film’s soundtrack, long considered a holy grail among Talking Heads fans.
SHAME (Spine #961)
It’s difficult to take Ingmar Bergman’s claim that his 1968 movie Shame wasn’t a statement on the Vietnam War at face value. On its surface, it seems as explicit an allegory for the war as possible, focusing on a married couple who find themselves trapped between two opposing sides in a vicious civil war. Both sides favor tactics used by both the American forces and the Viet Cong: a mixture of guerrilla warfare, heavy artillery coverage, and air support—it’s a brutal war fought largely by unseen combatants which sees little if any difference between soldiers and civilians. Yet a closer examination proves Bergman’s point, as the film deliberately side-steps any political affiliation between the sides, instead examining its civilian subjects as they struggle to survive in the midst of a conflict between two anonymous forces. It’s the shattering of human niceties born of social contracts in wartime that fascinates Bergman, and in this regard Shame is one of his most unfairly overlooked films of the 1960s. Consider the central married couple, former classical violinists Jan (Max von Sydow) and Eva Rosenberg (Liv Ullmann). They might live on a farm, but their tastes and habits betray bourgeoise origins—the only time we see either of them doing farm work before the soldiers arrive sees Eva feeding a rabbit a cabbage like she’s a schoolgirl at a petting zoo. They think nothing of not having connected phones or a working radio despite looming armed conflict, and when they travel to a nearby village they’re completely nonplussed by the frantic evacuation of the townspeople, concerned only with buying a bottle of wine from a friend. Their blissfully detached existence gets shattered after both sides takes turns raiding their farm like World War One divisions charging futilely back and forth over a contested No Man’s Land. The leader of one side extorts Eva for sexual favors while the other side forces Jan to execute said leader during another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it occupation, all before destroying, looting, and burning their house in search for valuables. There’s a masochistic undercurrent to Shame, almost as if Bergman is interrogating the benignity of his own cultural privilege, pointing the finger towards his own intellectual, artistic decadence while so much of the world burned around him. It’s one of the most visceral films of his entire career, a stomach-churning meat-grinder of existential horror.