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Thursday, February 22, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Saluting the legacies of Luis Buñuel, Béla...

Screen Grabs: Saluting the legacies of Luis Buñuel, Béla Tarr, and… Lindsey Lohan

'Viridiana' still scathes, 'Satantango' still mesmerizes, and 'Mean Girls' still delights.

This week brings retrospective tributes to three celluloid legacies—one ended by mortality 40 years ago, another by personal choice, a third severely curtailed by scandal. Admittedly, there isn’t a lot otherwise connecting late Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel, retired Hungarian “slow cinema” maestro Béla Tarr, and erstwhile Disney starlet turned tabloid target Lindsay Lohan. But they’re all afforded an opportunity for local viewers to recall and/or reevaluate their contributions to the medium in events taking place (or kicking off) later this week.

Among the in-vogue international filmmakers of the 1960s, when the whole art form seemed in a state of sped-up evolution, Luis Buñuel was an outlier—age-wise, a member of the widely rejected old guard, yet accepted as a peer of sorts to such postwar giants as Bergman and Fellini, as well as the still-younger Nouvelle Vague directors and their equivalents throughout Europe. He’d made his first movies 30 years before this decade even began, yet 1928’s Un Chien Andalou and 1930’s L’age d’Or still seemed “modern,” even radical. Despite the hard-hitting impact of Los Olvidados (1950), a portrait of juvenile delinquency much indebted to neo-realism, he did not again seem to fully become himself—and/or get the required artistic freedom—until the Sixties were ready to happen, so he seemed both established master and trend-setter throughout their course.

BAMPFA’s expansive series Luis Buñuel’s Magnificent Weapon, which runs though November 19, starts at that turning point. Later programs will limn his early European work, as well as the more prolific results of 18 years spent in the mainstream Mexican industry. (He continued primarily living in Mexico even after his production funding and shoots shifted back to Europe, passing away in Mexico City at age 83 in 1983.) But the films being shown during July and August chart the Buñuel of the 1960s and ’70s, when he was held in wide admiration as a great screen sage—albeit one very much still kicking against the pricks, aiming poisonous darts at institutions (most notably the Catholic Church) and notions of bourgeoise “good taste.”

The series, and that phase in general, both commence with 1961’s Mexican and Spanish co-production Viridiana (playing this Fri/7), which had the unique honor of winning the Cannes Palme d’Or and being condemned by the Vatican. A recent critics’ poll pronounced it the greatest Spanish film ever. But at the time, it was considered so appalling that affiliated government officials were fired, production companies disbanded, and the film itself banned from its maker’s country of origin for nearly two decades.

The Sade-ian story has a novice nun (Silvia Pinal) reluctantly visiting a wealthy uncle (Fernando Rey) before taking her final vows, as he’s reportedly ill. But her virtue is under constant assault there, until she feels too compromised to return to the convent. Instead, she opens the estate to the area’s poor and disabled vagrants, despite disapproval from the servants and a newly arrived younger relative (Francisco Rabal).

But these subjects of charity are not docile lambs who can be easily herded towards Jesus. Accustomed to hardship and conflict, they’re argumentative, randy, covetous, drunken, and destructive when given the chance—Viridiana culminates in a Bacchanalian dinner-slash-orgy that at one point parodies The Last Supper, and is duly accompanied by the Hallelujah Chorus. Our heroine’s piety is no match for the world of flesh that keeps intruding, until finally she seems resigned to its corrupting influence.

Cruel, grotesque, blasphemous, and bemused, Viridiana is still rather shocking. So one can only imagine the impact it had on original viewers—premiering in a year when the biggest worldwide hits included three Disney features and a starring vehicle for Jesus Himself (King of Kings). Buñuel followed up this succes de scandale with The Exterminating Angel (playing Sat/8), a Twilight Zone-ish concept—socialites at an after-opera party find themselves mysteriously trapped in their hosts’ drawing room—turned microcosm of a decadent society’s collapse. This was an entirely Mexican production, but it was obvious to many that Buñuel this time was indicting the ossifying Franco regime back “home.”

The rest of the summer series (its remainder in the fall will be announced later) encompasses all Buñuel’s succeeding directorial features. They steadily grew lighter—while his scurrilous satire remained needle-sharp, his means became more overtly comedic. Even irreligious allegory Simon of the Desert (1965) is something of a prank; the shock value of Belle de Jour (1967) and Tristana (1970), in which Catherine Deneuve respectively seeks out and resists innocence-debauching trajectories a la Viridiana, is muffled by their tone of dispassionate gamesmanship.

The marvelous 1972 Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise and 1974’s The Phantom of Liberty (with its famous sequence in which the social roles of dining room and bathroom get reversed) are episodic assemblies of absurdist jokes. As is 1969’s somewhat lesser-seen The Milky Way, a pilgrimage narrative whose impudent humor doesn’t hide more humanistic warmth than usual. Finally, the joke seemed to be on Buñuel himself: Often casting Rey as an old rake lusting after youth, he parodied such lechery further in 1977’s That Obscure Object of Desire, in which the actor’s protagonist haplessly chases after a beauty (played by both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina) who makes it her life’s work to leave him utterly frustrated. She may be a maddening sphinx—but Buñuel seems to suggest that his alter ego does, indeed, deserve just such treatment.

For details on the BAMPFA series, go here.

Though certainly accomplished, Buñuel’s movies were seldom considered very demonstrative in terms of conspicuous cinematic style—indeed, he went on record as saying he was not greatly concerned with “aesthetics.” No filmmaker could be farther from that than Béla Tarr, whose signature is composing scenes in very long takes of painstaking composition, camera movement, and actor blocking. Some have been so elaborate they purported took up to a month to execute…yes, a single shot.

This maxi-minimalism is in service of an existentially bleak yet questing personal cinema that (after several prior films that worked towards his mature style) first came to international attention with 1994’s Sátántangó. An adaptation of frequent collaborator Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s experimental novel, it was originally planned as a conventional feature…that gradually expanded into a nearly eight-hour one, consuming seven years’ labor. (When the COVID quarantine was new and everybody seemed to have all the viewing time in the world, we wrote about it here.)

With those stupendous and/or stupefying shots not-infrequently running 7-10 minutes in exquisite monochrome, Tarr is unquestionably an acquired taste—you practically need your pulse slowed to hibernation mode in order to grok its desolate majesty. Nonetheless, it’s a mountain worth climbing, or at least making the attempt. The Roxie provides means to scratch that itch with Three in the Key of Tarr, a series starting this Fri/7 with a new 4K restoration of 2000’s Werckmeister Harmonies, a mystery play in which a naif (Lars Rudolph) living in a provincial town during the Communist regime finds himself caught between warring relatives (Peter Fitz, Hanna Schygulla). Meanwhile, the somehow ominous arrival of a puzzling “circus” triggers violent unrest amongst average citizens unaware they’re simply deflecting their hostility towards the government infrastructure that has abandoned them.

I’m not sure if I even sat through all of Werckmeister when it was first released—it seemed then the definition of “watching paint dry.” But go figure: Watching it again now, it seemed hypnotic, and even relatively tight in (admittedly ambiguous) narrative terms. Maybe you need to be in the mood to find Tarr’s art galvanizing rather than simply pretentious. Or maybe there’s a very fine line between those two qualities, one he arguably crossed in the wrong direction with subsequent features The Man From London and The Turin Horse, before “retiring” over a decade ago. (Still in his mid-60s, he’s remained moderately active since, mostly as a producer.)

The day after loving Werckmeister I had the flipside reaction to Twilight, a 1990 film on which Tarr is billed as “consultant,” written and directed by frequent collaborator Gyorgy Feher. Hitherto little-seen abroad, shot in the same stunning gamut of grays by that later film’s cinematographer Miklos Gurban, it is almost “more Tarr than Tarr”—or at least more so than any prior Béla joint save 1988’s Damnation.

But this cryptic murder mystery involving a child’s death in a remote mountain area wears its mannerisms so heavily, it’s like a somnambulant horror movie crafted by the world’s most self-important grad student. Its beauty rings hollow, because the existential dread it means to conjure feels like fussy affectation. It plays the Roxie Sat/15. You might want to save your energy instead for the return of the Big Kahuna itself, Satantango, whose full 439 minutes are currently scheduled (more shows may be added) for Sun/22 and Sun/Aug. 6. For info on the whole series, go here.

Halfway across the world and light-years away in general sensibility, there was the short-lived phenomenon of Lindsay Lohan, a child actor who ascended quickly to teenage fame in Disney movies (filling the shoes of Hayley Mills and Jodie Foster in remakes of The Parent Trap and Freaky Friday), had a promising parallel singing career, and looked set for major stardom after the success of 2004’s Mean Girls.

Then… stuff happened. Her partying apparently became a significant professional liability; her divorced parents’ own attention-needy antics only exacerbated the bad publicity. Those factors combined with a streak of dud movie choices (Georgia Rules, Chapter 27, I Know Who Killed Me) turned her status almost overnight from Hollywood’s Next Superstar to “unemployable,” as seemingly the entire world gloated over the celebrity trainwreck.

It’s never a particularly good time to have a scandal or three, but Lohan arguably encountered the worst time: She was aging out of juvenile roles but hadn’t yet acquired credibility as an adult performer. Since then, she’s been in the unlucky position of a performer whose hiring to any project means it won’t be taken seriously—so she only gets offered those lowbrow enough to benefit from the fatigued name value and notoriety she brings them. Now nearing 40, she hasn’t yet managed to get her acting career back on track, let alone to where it was 20 years ago. Still, the fact that she never quite realized that much-ballyhooed potential gives one hope it might yet happen. (There’s talk of a Freaky Friday reunion/sequel with Jamie Lee Curtis.)

And there’s also the fact that for a while there, she was indeed very good, as will be demonstrated by Movies for Maniacs’ double-bill of Freaky Friday and Mean Girls this Fri/7 at the Castro (more info here). Both directed by Mark Waters, those hits have held up pretty well: The more cartoonish Friday finds Lohan ably handling the generation-gap body switch gimmick derived from a prior film and YA novel, while she’s a graceful comedienne in the Tina Fey-written Girls, which didn’t revolutionize the teen comedy but gave it a smart new makeover. (One that was kinda like Heathers, but nice.) Everybody still loves that movie, and Lohan in it—so someday, let’s hope, the world will be ready for her long-delayed second act.

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