Gone too soon: five films by directors who died young | Bleader

Gone too soon: five films by directors who died young

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Jean Vigo's L'Atalante
  • Jean Vigo's L'Atalante
The Music Box Theatre and the Chicago Film Society present the 1930 film City Girl this Saturday at 11:30 AM as part of their monthly silent film series. The film's director, F.W. Murnau, died the year after its release in an automobile accident, cutting short his life and remarkable career. He left behind a substantial body of work, though. The five filmmakers below also died much too young but had only made a handful of movies each, and in one case just a single film. We're spotlighting their work.

L'Atalante
Jean Vigo's only full-length feature (1934), one of the supreme masterpieces of French cinema, was edited and then brutally re-edited while Vigo was dying, so a “definitive” restoration is impossible. (The reassembled version released in France in 1990 is almost certainly the best and most complete we'll ever be able to see—it's wondrous to behold.) The simple love-story plot involves the marriage of a provincial woman (Dita Parlo) to the skipper of a barge (Jean Daste), and the only other characters of consequence are the barge's skeletal crew (Michel Simon and Louis Lefebvre) and a peddler (Gilles Margaritis) who flirts with the wife at a cabaret and describes the wonders of Paris to her. The sensuality of the characters and the settings, indelibly caught in Boris Kaufman's glistening cinematography, are only part of the film's remarkable poetry, the conviction of which goes beyond such categories as realism or surrealism, just as the powerful sexuality in the film ultimately transcends such categories as heterosexuality, homosexuality, and even bisexuality. Shot by shot and moment by moment, the film is so fully alive to the world's possibilities that magic and reality seem to function as opposite sides of the same coin, with neither fully adequate to Vigo's vision. The characters are at once extremely simple and extremely complex (richest of all is Simon's Pere Jules, as beautiful a piece of character acting as one can find anywhere), and while the continuity is choppy in spots—a factor skillfully cloaked by Maurice Jaubert's superb score—the film's aliveness and potency are so constant that this hardly seems to matter. A major inspiration to subsequent generations of filmmakers, yet no one has ever succeeded in matching it. In French with subtitles. 89 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum



The House Is Black
Forugh Farrokhzad's black-and-white documentary (1962, 19 min.) about a leper colony in northern Iran is the most powerful Iranian film I've seen. Farrokhzad (1935-'67) is widely regarded as the greatest Persian poet of the 20th century; her only film seamlessly adapts the techniques of poetry to its framing, editing, sound, and narration. At once lyrical and extremely matter-of-fact, devoid of sentimentality or voyeurism yet profoundly humanist, the film offers a view of everyday life in the colony—people eating, various medical treatments, children at school and at play—that's spiritual, unflinching, and beautiful in ways that have no apparent Western counterparts; to my eyes and ears, it registers like a prayer. 19 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

The Conqueror Worm / The Witchfinder General
An unusually restrained Vincent Price stars as Matthew Hopkins, a 17th-century magistrate who took advantage of the English civil war to conduct a massive witch hunt across East Anglia. This sinister 1968 feature was adapted from a historical tome by Ronald Bassett, though director Michael Reeves (whose life was cut short by a drug overdose the next year) seems equally inspired by the stark visuals in Carl Dreyer's Day of Wrath. Tigon Films, a pretender to the Hammer throne in the late 60s and early 70s, released the movie as The Witchfinder General in Britain; American distributor Roger Corman, hoping to capitalize on his earlier Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, retitled it The Conqueror Worm and slapped on some voice-over of Price reading from Poe's poem. 86 min. —J.R. Jones

Wanda
Perhaps the most depressing film ever made, this 1971 feature by director-actress Barbara Loden tells of a young, ignorant, emotionally deadened, and hopelessly dreary woman from the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania whose life is a succession of dead ends. Doomed from the start to a life of ignorance and boredom, she's victimized by her surroundings, by men hardly less dreary than she, and by her sex. A brilliantly atmospheric film with a superb performance by Loden. 105 min. —Don Druker

Savage Nights
Highly controversial and troubling but undeniably powerful and impossible to dismiss, this French feature cowritten (with critic Jacques Fieschi) directed by and starring the late Cyril Collard follows the last reckless days and nights of a 30-year-old cinematographer and musician who discovers he is HIV-positive but continues to have sex with strangers as well as with his two more regular lovers. Based on Collard's autobiographical novel Les nuits fauves, Savage Nights won Cesars for best picture, best first picture, most promising actress (Romane Bohringer), and best editing a few days after the 35-year-old director himself died of AIDS in March 1993. These honors can't simply be written off as sentimental: stylistically and dramatically, this is an accomplished piece of work. If Collard's driven hero often seems far from admirable—unconsciously misogynistic beneath his apparent bisexual "tolerance," and, as his masochistic behavior often implies, full of self-loathing—the film seems admirably unpropagandistic in permitting spectators to make up their own minds about him. It also gives full voice to the agony of unrequited adolescent love (Bohringer's volcanic performance), and, for better and for worse, offers a treatment of AIDS that's the other side of the moon from Philadelphia—politically incorrect with a vengeance. Whether you like this or not, you'll have a hard time shaking it loose. With Carlos Lopez. 126 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

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