2022 is the year in which the sci-fi thriller Soylent Green is set. Released in the spring of 1973, that Richard Fleischer-directed popcorn flick had Charlton Heston as an NYC cop shouldering his manly way through a dystopian present in which ecological calamity, overpopulation and extreme economic disparity have resulted in a sort of corporate police state.
Not a terribly good movie, it’s nonetheless not a bad guess at a future we thankfully still haven’t arrived at—but which no longer seems quite so fanciful as a prospect. It’s playing the Alamo Drafthouse this Wed/12 at 6:30pm, and while we can’t tell you what will be on the venue’s food menu, we are probably safe in saying any Soylent Green (the supposedly plankton-based food proles have to survive on in this tale) being offered will be made by people, but not, you know… of people.
The same night the Alamo brings a much more fringe-y recent action fantasia, and indeed everything else worth highlighting at the moment is very much of an out-there nature, all oddities of the arthouse and beyond.
Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway
A dementedly inspired mashup of ’60s superspy and ’70s exploitation cheapies, plus a whole lot else, this Spanish-Estonian-Ethiopian-Latvian-Romanian coproduction from 2019 is indeed (as billed) a “WTF thriller.” Miguel Llanso’s crowdfunded feature follows two CIA agents through the perils of a government virtual-reality experiment in which no terra is firma enough to not be revealed as a Deep State conspiracy, a dream, a drugged hallucination, or something else. They mostly traverse these adventures while wearing Robert Redford and Richard Pryor face masks, because why not.
This is the sort of anarchic goof that by all rights ought to run out of steam sooner than later. Yet miraculously, invention remains high for nearly 90 minutes, with every retro device from Cold War politics to vintage film/camera formats thrown in. It plays the Alamo Drafthouse Wed/12 at 9:30pm (more info here), and will also be available in home formats later this month from Arrow Video.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched
Making its debut on genre-focused streaming platform Shudder this Mon/10 is film scholar and programmer Kier-La Janisse’s survey of folk-horror cinema, a category loosely defined as being primarily rural, and rooted in old superstitions. That can cover terrain that sprawls from obscure old BBC ghost-story specials to recent features by the American Robert Eggers (The Witch) and Laotian Mattie Do (Dearest Sister). But Janisse spends the most time digging into three key big-screen British horrors from about a half-century ago, Michael Reeves’ highly regarded 1968 Inquisition horror Witchfinder General, Robin Hardy’s ’73 cult favorite The Wicker Man (definitely not to be confused with the unfortunate 2006 remake), and Piers Haggard’s lesser-known 1971 Blood on Satan’s Claw. All exhibit a cynicism towards the kind of authoritarian power that finds women’s “witchy” power (whether real or imagined) both erotic and terrifying, among other shared characteristics.
At over three hours, Woodlands Dark might easily have seemed too much of a good thing. But the high-quality excerpt clips make these films interesting anew, the latterday interviewees are insightful, and the overall package is further diversified by animation (including collage segments by Guy Maddin) as well as other original elements. There’s also the valid speculation that the reason folk horror has been making a comeback of late is because the old something-weird-in-the-woods fears are oddly comforting…in an era where it’s ever more urgently clear that mankind’s possibly-terminal worst enemy is itself.
“Miklos Jancso x 6“
Many consider slow-cinema maestro Bela Tarr (who hasn’t directed a feature since 2011) the greatest Hungarian filmmaker of all time. But he himself bestowed that title on the late Jancso, who died in 2014 at age 92, and remained active until very close to that end. While never a truly popular arthouse figure like Fellini or Bergman, he was nonetheless a major figure worldwide during what now looks like the medium’s period of greatest creative upheaval and adventurousness, about 1966 to 1972—and he falls into the category of talents one can’t imagine being allowed to base a career on going so far out on a limb at any other time. His international exposure drastically shrank soon afterward. Still, this retrospective of six features from that brief high-profile heyday underlines the uniqueness of a contribution that should not have been forgotten so quickly by most cineastes.
Jancso had already made some newsreels, documentary shorts, and a handful of lesser-noticed initial features when The Round-Up caused a stir at Cannes in 1966. Though not yet stylized to the extremes he would soon embrace, it established his particular voice: Applying an aesthetic at once wildly cinematic and austere to a historical back-chapter. In this case, it was a brutal government crackdown in the 1860s on former rebels against the Austro-Hungarian empire—one of many cases in which the director’s choice of subject veiled his intent sufficient to pass muster with the censors. But as he later noted, “everyone knew” he was really making films about Hungary’s repressive modern-day politics under Soviet control. (One wonders how he would portray the ostensibly democratic nation’s current swing towards fascism.)
That success sent him exploring similar themes in other films like The Red and the Black and Winter Wind, some encompassing foreign production funds and “name” actors. Yet all (even the more blatantly topical, youth-protest-oriented ones like 1969’s The Confrontation or the next year’s The Pacifist) were increasingly abstracted as ritual/pageantry, eschewing conventional character or narrative focus for incredibly elaborate choreography of camera and ensemble. By 1974’s Elektra, My Love, which opens with an astonishing shot nearly 10 minutes long, he was capable of making a film in just 12 very long but fluid “takes.”
Arresting as this approach was, it also started striking critics as something of a dead end, sacrificing meaning and involvement for formalist concerns. A film like Red Psalm, which won him a top prize at Cannes in 1972, is almost unwatchably dry agitprop now, for all its self-conscious brilliance of blocking. Still, if Jancso is a singular flavor you wouldn’t want to have for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—even watching more than one film in a row is ill-advised—his idiosyncratic rigor remains bracing as an occasional change of pace.
Living in Italy for a spell, he made his most commercial film with 1976’s Private Vices, Public Pleasures, which turned history’s infamous “Mayerling” scandal into an exquisitely gauzy softcore confection for the Emmanuelle crowd. Subsequent films like The Tyrant’s Heart and Season of Monsters were as interesting as ever, but no longer attracted overseas attention, and by the time he’d shifted gears to reclaim popularity within Hungary (notably with 1998’s comedy The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest), the rest of the world had ceased noticing. It was our loss.
“Miklos Jancso x 6,” comprised of 4K restorations of the films in boldface above, runs Fri/14-Mon/17 at the Metrograph Theatre in NYC—but also streams on their “Metrograph at Home” platform through that period, more or less till the end of the month. More info here.
Though he didn’t really establish himself as a significant French director until 1995’s A Single Girl, Benoit Jacquot had made his first feature a full two decades earlier, when literary lion Marguerite Duras was smack amidst her own more experimental sorties into film as scenarist and director. Her work in the medium remains important if sometimes a tough slog, while his is as uneven as ever. Why he’s chosen to adapt her 1968 stage play for the screen a quarter-century after the author’s demise is a puzzle that the end result does nothing to clarify.
Charlotte Gainsbourg’s titular figure is an aging trophy wife in the late 1960s, as amply evidenced by her miniskirted Mary Quant-type dress, go-go boots, and leopard coat. She’s touring a lavish villa on the French Riviera, thinking to rent it for the summer. But who for, exactly?
Her millionaire husband is almost always “away,” and their marriage has been loveless for some time. A child factors into it, but not so very much, in the inimitable manner of this period and economic class. Both spouses have lovers, not for the first time, and she spends time here yakking earnestly with hers (Niels Schneider), then his (Julia Roy), then hers again. Exasperated by her failure to commit to anything, whether divorce or a road trip, the boyfriend sighs that she’s “Always on the verge of dying or falling asleep.” Which pretty well sums things up.
This is a very old-school, windy, existentially glam, and extremely French talkfest, a series of two-hander dialogues in which the gist is that familiar Eurotrash-y pose “Maybe I’ll kill myself, oh never mind it was just a thought, back to simply being jaded now.” On stage, a dazzling star turn might well have made it come alive. But good as Gainsbourg is, and hard as Jacquot tries to liven things up cinematically, this kind of codswallop in which everyone is sulky and needy and rebuffs each other just cuz (while saying things like “I’m the French Riviera’s most-cheated-upon wife”) is an antique that should’ve been left on the dusty shelf. Currently streaming on OVID.TV, the film is being released to DVD and Digital stores including Amazon Prime, iTunes and Vimeo on Tues/11.