Every month, A Place for Film brings you a selection of films from our group of regular bloggers. Even though these films aren’t currently being screened at the IU Cinema, this series reflects the varied programming that can be found at the Cinema and demonstrates the eclectic tastes of the bloggers. Each contributor has picked one film that they saw this month that they couldn’t wait to share with others. Keep reading to find out what discoveries these cinephiles have made, as well as some of the old friends they’ve revisited.
Jack Miller, contributor | Arnulf Rainer (1960)
The film I’ve chosen to write about this month is composed of only two images: a solid black frame and a solid white frame. The work, of course, is Peter Kubelka’s epochal flicker film Arnulf Rainer, seven electrifying minutes of structural cinema. P. Adams Sitney, the great chronicler of experimental film, describes Kubelka’s working method here: “He made the film out of two strips of film stock — one transparent and one black — and two strips of magnetic sound — one with no signal and one with continuous white noise.” As such, Kubelka’s metric film alternates radically between both darkness & light and silence & sound; the interplay of these four elements becomes increasingly rapid throughout, which Kubelka structures in 16 sections lasting 24 seconds each. For perhaps the first time in the history of cinema, the basic unit of film language is no longer the shot, but the frame.
Though there’s no action in the figural sense of the term here, Kubelka is able to generate suspense, thrills, and even meaning from the rhythms produced by the alternation of these “pure” elements. At certain points in the work’s duration, the cutting becomes so intense that the viewer begins to perceive strange forms that aren’t present in either of the frames on their own, such as a curious tunneling effect. The results might be reasonably compared to riding a really scary roller coaster or watching an especially visceral horror movie. If 1960, the year that Hitchcock advanced film psychodrama in his Psycho and Godard inaugurated jazzy, associative editing in his Breathless, is often thought of as year one for modern cinema, then Kubelka’s achievement should be mentioned alongside these other landmarks for its fairly mind-blowing update on Soviet montage aesthetics.
A digital version of the film can be watched here, which is how I saw it, though it should be noted that Kubelka would prefer for you to see it on a film print (warning: film does contain flashing imagery).
Michaela Owens, Editor | A Fine Pair (1969)
A couple of years ago for a different Monthly Round-Up, I recommended the spy comedy Blindfold, starring the terrific duo of Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale. At that time, I was bummed to learn that Hudson and Cardinale had made a second film together but it wasn’t available on any kind of home video or streaming service. And then one magical day, there it was: A Fine Pair on DVD through Warner Archive!
While Blindfold definitely emerged from late-’60s Hollywood, A Fine Pair is an Italian production brimming with the stylistic experimentation and overt eroticism that were emblematic of European films and were just starting to flourish in the American mainstream market. The plot follows a stuffy New York police captain (Hudson) who reunites with an old family friend (Cardinale) only to learn that she wants his help in returning a stash of jewels she stole before the owners notice they’re missing. As the twosome plan their reverse heist, Hudson is slowly seduced by Cardinale and her carefree, jet-setting lifestyle — but how long will it last?
I adore Rock Hudson so, so much and A Fine Pair is a wonderful example why. His character’s journey from a bespectacled stick-in-the-mud to a romantic thief is somewhat predictable, but he makes it a pure joy to witness. Some critics have pointed out that while Cardinale, a European star, was obviously right at home in this kind of movie, it’s strange to see Hudson, a textbook example of the glossy Hollywood studio system, in a film as “hip” as A Fine Pair. Although this remark is meant to be a snide one, it really is fascinating to consider — sort of like what we see with Audrey Hepburn and Two for the Road, if you need a comparison.
With a score by Ennio Morricone, cool direction by Francesco Maselli, an unexpectedly great sense of humor, and some truly steamy chemistry between its leads, I’m happy to say that A Fine Pair proved to be more than worth the wait for me.
Note: I couldn’t find a trailer, so instead here is the first scene between Cardinale and Hudson’s characters.
Jesse Pasternack, contributor | DekaDonen 3: Dekalog: Three (1988) and Arabesque (1966)
(Once a month, Jesse will watch a double feature he calls the DekaDonen, which consists of an episode of Krzystztof Kieslowski’s miniseries Dekalog and a film by Stanley Donen. He’ll be watching and writing about these double features until October.)
The key quality that Dekalog: Three and Arabesque share is subversiveness. Kieslowski took the plot of what could have been a mainstream American comedy from the 1980s and transformed it into the type of powerful drama he excelled at creating. Donen, in contrast, used a visually dynamic style to overcome what he saw as the weak story of Arabesque. Their differing approaches to subverting their material reveal a lot about both of them as directors.
Dekalog: Three is my personal favorite of the series, and that is partly because of how close Kieslowski plays it to an American comedy. The central premise — gruff cab driver Janusz reluctantly spending a long Christmas Eve helping his former lover Ewa look for her missing husband — feels like a Polish cousin of After Hours. The characters that Janusz and Ewa encounter could be from a Coen Brothers film, especially a blonde security guard who likes to skateboard while on the job to stay awake. Kieslowski even incorporates a car chase, which is perhaps the only one he filmed in his entire body of work. But Kieslowski continually subverts this material’s potential to be pure entertainment by diving deep into the pain that Janusz’s affair with Ewa caused both of them, as well as Ewa’s loneliness. Kieslowski even subverts the mainstream idea of what a car chase should look like by using few camera set-ups and long shot lengths. Dekalog: Three is a reminder of Kieslowski’s firm commitment to tell stories about complex people dealing with unique ethical conundrums.
While Kieslowski dialed down Dekalog: Three’s comedic potential to strengthen the dramatic side of its plot, Donen went out of his way to sharply accentuate the entertainment value of Arabesque. Donen’s film has a labyrinthine plot that revolves around characters played by Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren going on the type of complicated yet amusing adventure best described as “madcap.” According to one key source, Donen himself had little faith in this film’s story. Cinematographer Christopher Challis, who shot this film, once said that Donen told him “our only hope is to make it so visually exciting the audience will never have time to work out what the hell is going on.” Donen and Challis did this by filling their film with unusual angles and even shooting entire scenes from the reflection of mirrors. This flashy visual style does a wonderful job at distracting you from this film’s threadbare story.
While Dekalog: Three and Arabesque are not their directors’ most famous works, they do reveal a lot about what each thought was important to their style. Kieswloski’s direction is a reminder of his great talent for creating drama out of the lives of ordinary people. The exuberant style that Donen brings to Arabesque is a reminder of his exceptional skill as an entertainer. They were very different as directors, yet in their subversion of popular expectations, they share some common ground.