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Monday, January 31, 2011

Tell Them Ricky Rezzori is Here: Fassbinder's The American Soldier (1970)

Assassin for hire Ricky Rezzori has been surrounded by death for as long as he can remember, even before he was in the business of collecting cash for killing. Returning home to Munich after a stint in America and Vietnam, Ricky can’t escape the shadow of his murderous past for long as a corrupt police unit enlists him to kill 3 specific targets. Depressed and sexually frustrated, Ricky attempts to find solace in porn and prostitutes but he can’t escape the obvious fate that awaits him.

The American Soldier is an effective if fairly little discussed early offering from legendary German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Released in 1970, along with a whopping four other major productions for film and TV including Gods of the Plague and Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, The American Soldier isn’t one of Fassbinder’s finest films but it’s much better than the footnote status many fans have given it.

Shot in black and white by prolific German cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann, who would end his 30 year career behind the camera on such Hollywood offerings as The Peacemaker and Deep Impact before his untimely death in 1997, The American Soldier is a startling looking work clearly inspired by Fassbinder’s love for American Gangster films, Noir and The French New-Wave. It also shows Fassbinder’s obsession with cinematic mavericks like Fuller and Godard and lovers of both will delight in spotting references to such works as Pick-up on South Street and Breathless. Fassbinder would recall a year after the film's release that, "it was larded with quotes from Hollywood films as well as French Gangster films and above all from the films of Raoul Walsh and John Huston." Of course, as with all of Fassbinder’s remarkable films, The American Soldier feels at once similar to the works that inspired it and yet totally unique. Fassbinder clearly loved his influences but, even at this early stage of his career, he already had a totally distinctive voice that was pitched quite unlike any other in cinema.

From its long and relatively static opening focusing on a gamblers playing with a deck of pornographic cards, to its haunting slow-motion closing that stands as one of the strangest moments in all of Fassbinder’s filmography, The American Soldier is never less than compelling even though its hindered by an extremely quick shooting schedule (with typical brevity, Fassbinder shot it in under two weeks) and small budget (which admittedly was the largest Fassbinder had had up to that point). Fassbinder’s astonishing creativity wins out in the end though and ultimately The American Soldier’s technical faults are more endearing than distracting.

While I was watching The American Soldier I noted the connections to the many classic gangster films Fassbinder clearly adored, but my mind kept connecting it to Bob Chinn's Johnny Wadd series that premiered a year later and stretched throughout the seventies. Like Chinn’s work, Fassbinder’s film has the same stagy (yet inventive) feel and the technical limitations (highlighted throughout by the shadows of camera rigs, lighting equipment and even crew members) remind us that this is essentially a very low budget film made by a group of artists with not quite enough time on their hands or funds at their disposal. Professor Thomas Elsaessser would note as well that the actors in Fassbinder's films of this period had, "the exhaggerated gesture of self-conscious make-believe, not unlike the performances in a pornographic movie."
While many will scoff at the connection between someone like Fassbinder and Chinn they had both soaked up the American Gangster film and Noir, and they were attempting to pay homage to those classic genres with their works. The biggest difference though is that the Wadd films were all about sexual release (with John Holmes' title-character ultimately capitalizing on the hinted at sexual-appetites of the characters that Bogart, Cagney and Robinson were known for) while The American Soldier is all about frustration and its title character's inability to perform, outside of killing.
It is that wall of frustration that might prove the most difficult aspect of The American Soldier for many modern audience members to accept. Ricky seems positively obsessed by the prospect of bedding any lady who might be at his disposal, keeping very much with the idealized Hired-Killer, but when we finally find him in bed with someone all he can do is lay there in almost total stillness as if he is waiting to be interrupted, which he finally is. Ricky finally only achieves a truly passionate embrace in death, via the film’s mesmerizing closing shot that has to be seen to be believed.

Fassbinder would call The American Soldier, "a synthesis between Love is Colder than Death and Gods of the Plague", and it remains a key work among his early films. Many Fassbinder regulars pop up in The American Soldier, including Fassbinder himself and future filmmakers Margarethe von Trotta and Ulli Lommell. As the title character, Karl Scheydt is quite compelling, as is Elga Sorbas as the doomed call-girl by force Rosa. The film ultimately belongs though to the haunting score of Peer Raben, the photography of Lohmann and to Fassbinder’s altogether original visual eye.

The American Soldier is available from Wellspring on DVD with a sharp looking print. Sadly no extras, outside of some Fassbinder related liner notes by Elsaessser, are included.

While not one of Fassbinder’s major films, The American Soldier is essential viewing for fans of the legendary director and modern German film in general.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Jean Rollin Tribute in Video Watchdog 161

Just a quick note to remind everyone reading here that the newest issue of Video Watchdog contains a Tribute to Jean Rollin, written by Tim Lucas, as well as reviews of some Rollin DVDs. Issue 161 (with its gorgeous Mimsy Farmer cover) hits newsstands in early March and it is obviously a must buy for all Rollin fans.

Click the links above for more information on this exciting upcoming issue.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dedicated to Catherine Spaak

I want to turn everyone reading here on to an absolutely beautiful new blog entitled La Calda Vita. This entrancing site is dedicated to the legendary French actress and singer Catherine Spaak and it has already become one of my favorite online stops. La Calda Vita's creator Dylan is creating a visually dynamic and moving tribute to the great Spaak and I can't wait to see what else he comes up with.
So, take a moment and visit this fabulous tribute to one of cinema's great beauties and put it on your own blog-list as well if you can.

Vintage Frankfort Postcards: 2 Views of St. Claire Street

Friday, January 21, 2011

Some Jean Rollin Book Covers

I recently came across these terrific Jean Rollin book covers and I wanted to share them here.

Faces and Names: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Devotion to Character

***Back in September for my Paul Thomas Anderson Tribute Month I wrote several pieces that I didn't end up posting, due to the fact that the response to my Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon was much greater than I expected. I didn't want to let these pieces go to waste so I will be presenting them sporadically throughout the year, along with some promotional PTA scans I didn't have back in September. I hope they prove enjoyable and interesting.***

Director Jack Horner and his assistant Kurt Longjohn have been in the editing room for hours creating the title sequence for Jack’s newest opus, Angels Live in my Town. For the first ‘Brock Landers’ film Jack had hoped to creatively go farther than he had before and, as the opening titles play out before him, he realizes he has accomplished his goal. Visibly moved by what he and Kurt and have come up with, Jack exclaims that this is the film he wants to be remembered for.

In any other film outside of Boogie Nights, this little moment would have been played for laughs, or would have played out at the expense of adult maverick Jack Horner, as Angels Live in My Town wouldn’t exactly be the film most would choose as their greatest cinematic legacy. However in the hands of Paul Thomas Anderson, the scene is incredibly moving, sincere and humane. For all of his considerable skills as a screenwriter, and his extraordinary technical skills as a filmmaker, the relationship Anderson has with his characters remains perhaps the most resonate aspect of his career. Anderson has, time and time again, presented us with some of the most flawed and damaged characters imaginable but his love and compassion for them shines through, just like the love Jack Horner had for the flawed little films he created.

From the first frames of Hard Eight, to the final chilling moments of There Will be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson has shown himself as modern film’s greatest humanist. Nearly all of his characters are injured lost souls, but Anderson refuses to pass moral judgment and he asks the same from his audience. He asks for compassion as he recognizes we are all ultimately flawed, which is one reason the characters in Anderson’s films continue to live and breathe long after the final-credits roll.

Strip them down to their barest element and all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are essentially very vivid character studies. While most modern American filmmakers are more comfortable building their films around situations, it is the people in Anderson’s films that guide them. All of them, from Sydney in Hard Eight to Daniel in There Will be Blood, are haunted by Quiz-Kid Donnie Smith’s line in Magnolia concerning the fact that “We may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.” Like the great early seventies character studies by the likes of Rafelson, Altman and Scorsese, Anderson’s films are populated with people looking for something usually just past their grasp, while attempting to escape from something that is always close behind.

Anderson has clearly been fascinated by the idea of character since his very first work, the short film inspiration for Boogie Nights, “The Dirk Diggler Story.” The emphasis is always on the people in Anderson’s films and he clearly loves his characters and embraces their flaws; even when that character is monstrous like Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood.

Because of Anderson’s attention to his characters, and his astonishing ability at writing them, many of them have taken on an iconic stature typically reserved for figures decades old. As far as modern filmmakers go, only Quentin Tarantino has rivaled Anderson’s knack for introducing characters that immediately feel like they are a part of our popular culture. Whether it is Dirk Diggler or Frank T.J. Mackey or Daniel Plainview, Anderson has given us some of the most memorable characters in all of film history, and he has allowed actors as famous as Mark Wahlberg, Tom Cruise and Daniel Day Lewis the opportunity to disappear in the best roles of their careers.

While his most famous characters have entered the popular consciousness, Anderson’s many supporting players also occupy the thoughts and dreams of his many fans. What Anderson devotee hasn’t been occupied by thoughts of what happened to the likes of Roller-Girl, Buck Swop, Claudia Gator and Dean Trumbell? For people who become truly invested in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, these characters finally become a part of us in a way typically reserved for the just the most famous icons of art, literature, and film.

Of course, the many memorable people that have occupied Anderson’s films have taken on an added relevance when one considers his unnerving ability to match the perfect actor with each part, and his braveness at often casting underestimated actors. Who would have thought an often maligned performer like Heather Graham could have delivered such an emotionally devastating turn as Boogie Night’s Roller-Girl, and who else in the mid-nineties would have trusted a then considered past his prime Burt Reynolds for the pivotal character of Jack Horner?

Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are finally transformed from just potent character studies into astonishing works of cinematic art, due to his astounding technical skills as a filmmaker. Anderson has, in the span of the less than half a dozen features, become far and away the most technically accomplished American filmmaker of his generation, and his films are as cinematically dazzling as his characters are damaged.

With his next project The Master sadly on hold, let us take a moment and recall the many faces and names that have populated Paul Thomas Anderson’s first five features. To quote Lou Reed recalling the films of Andy Warhol, “Images are worth repeating”, and the films of Paul Thomas Anderson continue to become richer and richer with each viewing. Like the sharply drawn characters he has presented to us, Anderson’s works are very much alive in a way reserved for only the greatest of cinematic achievements.

-Jeremy Richey, 2011-

Sunday, January 16, 2011

My Personal Favorites from 2010

I have been hesitant about making any sort of top-ten list for 2010 for the simple reason that there are so many key films from the year I still haven’t seen, including A Prophet, Carlos, Somewhere, Blue Valentine, Mother, Trash Humpers, Biutiful and Mesrine, as most have still yet to come around my area and some I still just haven’t gotten around to. I did want to go ahead and construct a list of my favorite films from 2010, if just to close my book on the year. My complete list of films I saw from this past year can be viewed at this post for those interested. These were my absolute favorites:

1. The Fighter: David O. Russell has been one of my favorite filmmakers since I first saw his glorious Flirting With Disaster back in the mid-nineties and he has yet to let me down. The Fighter is as good as anything he has ever delivered and is, to my eyes, THE great film of 2010. Featuring Oscar worthy performances by Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams and Christina Bale, The Fighter moved me more than I can possibly express. With three masterful films now under the belts, Russell and Wahlberg have become my favorite director and actor team in modern film. I can't wait to see what they do next.

2. Let Me In: Few American remakes of classic foreign films are as good as the original and even less manage to top them, but Matt Reeves’ haunting Let Me In manages to do both. Featuring superlative turns from child-actors Chloe Grace Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee, Let Me In is an absolutely mesmerizing work that I think tops Reeves acclaimed Cloverfield in every way and establishes him as one of the major voices in modern American film. Of all the films on my list, I believe Let Me In might end up being viewed as the essential work of 2010 in the years to come.

3. The Social Network: I’m not sure what I can say about David Fincher’s masterful The Social Network that hasn’t already been said. Fincher continues to create masterpiece after masterpiece and The Social Network is an absolutely stunning achievement worthy of all of the attention and praise it has been getting.

4. Black Swan: Darren Aronofsky’s stunning companion piece to The Wrestler is an unforgettable head-trip that recalls works like Polanski’s Repulsion and Zulawski’s Possession and yet it feels totally unique. More award worthy performances from the likes of Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis (WOW) and Winona Ryder are on hand and, with Black Swan, Aronofsky again reminds us as to why he is one of the most necessary young American voices in all of modern cinema.

5. Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World: Edgar Wright is now three for three with a film destined to become one of the major classics of 2010. It's such a pity that so many chose to ignore it during its brief theatrical run. On an additional note, this film has my vote for the Blu-Ray of the year as the extras are incredible.

6. The Promise: The Making of The Darkness on the Edge of Town: Thom Zimny’s exhaustive look at Bruce Springsteen’s greatest album (in my opinion) is not only one of the best documentaries of the year but also one of the best films. Mixing remarkable home movies shot during the creation of the album and new interviews with Bruce and all involved, The Promise is a stirring work and one of the best films of its kind I have ever seen.

7. The Town: Proving that Gone Baby Gone was no fluke, Ben Affleck shows himself off as a major director with this exceptionally realized work that stands as one of the best acted, directed and scripted crime-dramas in years. Absolutely marvelous...

8. The Girl Who Played with Fire: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo might have gotten all the acclaim but I was more taken with Daniel Alfredson’s searing follow-up film which, to my eyes, was one of the most perfect films released in American theaters in 2010. I suspect Fincher’s American versions are going to be quite masterful but he has a lot to live up to.

9. Malice in Lalaland: Imagine if David Lynch, Terry Gilliam and Alex Cox got together to make an adult version of Alice in Wonderland and you would have Lew Xypher’s off the wall and surreal Malice in Lalaland. Produced by the ambitious Miss Lucifer Productions, shot on 35mm and starring Sasha Grey, Malice in Lalaland is, simply put, one of the best and most imaginative adult films since the golden era of the seventies. Featuring a fantastic score, startling animation and a wickedly delicious turn from Grey, Malice in Lalaland is an essential work for more adventurous and open-minded film-watchers. Keep a look-out especially from scene-stealing Andy San Dimas as the beautiful and brutal Black Queen.

10. Resident Evil Afterlife: I have already written on my great admiration for Paul W.S. Anderson's audacious and extremely underrated film so I will just let my article stand for my thoughts on it.

And the ten films that would round out the top twenty in Alphabetical Order:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Kick Ass
Knight and Day
Piranha 3D
The Killer Inside Me
The Next Three Days
The Other Guys
The Runaways
True Grit

Moon in the Gutter (Month By Month)

BLOG CREATED, EDITED and WRITTEN BY JEREMY RICHEY: Began in DEC 2006. The written content of all posts (excepting quotes from reviews, books, other publications) COPYRIGHT JEREMY RICHEY.