Thursday, May 19, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Fellini's 8-1/2 (1963) 2h18m

On Saturday, 21 May at 6:31pm, The Phnom Penh Film Club enters the far turn of its Big Movie May with a screening of one of the most iconic touchstones of Euopean cinematic excellence, Federico Fellini's *8-1/2*, starring Marcello Mastroiani and Claudia Cardinale. 

I've heard it said that most of the cachet of this film is dependent on having seen a significant portion of director Federico Fellini's other works, in general, and on appreciating the title as a self-directed jab at the creative drought that descended over him after completion of his previous -- and eighth -- film, La Dolce Vita in particular. And I'm here to tell you that it doesn't matter. Just as Airplane works without having first seen Zero Hour, this film works regardless of one's familiarity with Fellini the director, or with the angst-ridden impetus that went into this particular project, either one.

In a move that must have been the inspiration for Charlie Kauffman's often ham-fisted metacraft, Fellini wrote and directed this story of Guido (Marcello Mastroiani), himself a famous but suddenly uninspired director. When we meet him Guido is struggling to complete a picture in a town not quite remote enough to spare him from the demands of paparazzi, would-be crew, long-estranged friends, or assorted female lovers, either. Already doubtful as to his facility to complete the project, Guido careens from one preposterous request being placed upon him to the next -- eventually retreating into a blurred simulacrum in which the best fever-dream vignettes infect his waking life, and ultimately his plans for how to change the direction of the picture.

As a young child in the extreme exurbs of New York in the 1970s, I grew up with neither home video rentals nor 250-channel television. I saw many, many movies -- but they were the movies that happened to be showing on one of the two channels I could consistently watch. Thus it was that I ended up taking this particular Fellini film before any other, and over the decades since, the approach has had both an up- and down-side. On the one hand, it has rendered all other Fellini films far too accessible and linear for me to place them on the same tier of greatness that they enjoy in the eyes and hearts of so many other film buffs. But it also rarefies the experience of 8-1/2 itself, which commands a special place in my heart as one of those "I'll always know where I was the first time" sorts of films.

I hope everyone will plan to join us Saturday, 21 May, at 6:31pm for one of the truely iconic specimens of the modern canon. We owe it to Guido, to Fellini, and ultimately to ourselves -- to find out whether the crippling impostor syndrome, scrambled priorities and last-minute re-writes of this world can be counted on to build us something truly great. 
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Thursday, May 12, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Apocalypse Now (1979) 3h 1m -- Starts 6:00pm

On Saturday, 14 May at a special start time of 6:00pm, The Phnom Penh Film Club dives almost literally into the inky-black inscrutability and psychedelic pathos of Francis Ford Coppola’s sprawling Vietnam-war arabesque: *Apocalypse Now*, starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford, Laurence Fishburne, Frederic Forest, Sam Bottoms and Robert Duvall.

Frequent attendees of our post-film discussions will have noticed our proclivity to invoke the concept of “story circle.” There is, it happens, a reductive metric for narrative storytelling, from which almost any familiar and/or successful tale can be confidently strung. A reluctant hero is forced to leave a comfortable situation, entering a new aspect in which he or she will lose all prior ego-crutches, reach a deep point of crisis, summon the strength necessary to make the bigger choice, pay a heavy price for it, vanquish the antagonist, and return to his or her tribe as a conquering master of both worlds. 

This metric works equally whether one is describing Oscar Schindler or Ellen Ripley, but the success of the model’s adaptability is also a trap: Yes, it’s an axiomatic law of superlative storycraft, but only because it doesn’t—once we slow down enough to really think about it—really prescribe all that much specificity regarding how to navigate the specific stations along the way. 

If one wishes to tell a story about the grim absurdity of American imperialist folly in Southeast Asia, the mere fact of knowing that our hero must face a deep crisis and pull himself together is tautological to the ragged edge of useless. Will he find the courage to rescue a stricken buddy? Will he frag his C-O instead of burning a village? Will he testify before Congress? If he can’t do all three, then how does the storyteller rely on best practices to recount such a grim and pointless episode in history, where any one of those choices would and does feel manifestly unjust as a favoured vehicle? 

Fortunately for us, every now and again in the history of stories, someone comes along with just the right genius, just the right fervor, and just the right dash of tortured madman to seize the vertiginous challenge of such a structure-free tragedy. To brandish it as his liberating summons for carrying us coolly and just-about-perfectly in directions that we never thought we’d ever want to go. It would seem, in other words, that to tell the tale of a genocidal farce that had no purpose, no allegiances and seemingly no end, you first need to get yourself a screenwriter/director who will look at all that pointlessness, and see it as the point.    

Adapted very loosely from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now pairs us with the slowly self-consuming Army yes-man Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen). An utter failure at civilian life back home, Willard has volunteered to return to Vietnam, a semi-freelancer in the special forces whose prowess at bagging the tough assignments wins him the job of traveling upriver into Cambodia to find and cope with one Col. Walter Kurtz (Brando), apparently gone rogue. To fulfill this mission, Willard will need to cajole an unwilling swiftboat crew, stare down its openly hostile captain, and avoid persuading himself that carrying out the mission will make him officially no better than the man he’s been sent to neutralize. And that isn’t even the half of it.

What follows can only be described as history’s most terrifying zoo—with vignettes featuring bizarre characters holding positions of unacceptably high responsibility, slammed hard against competing scenes where terrified nobodies do whatever they can to stay alive in the absence of leadership. In other words, the movie brilliantly captures precisely what America’s presence in the Vietnam War must have felt like for the soldiers on the ground: rudderless, savage, incomprehensible. Horrific.

Confronted with the simultaneous micro- and macro-absurdity of his bosses’ collective lack of rationale or plan, Willard improvises a clay-footed spread of coping skills, intended as much for his own continued sanity as for the fulfillment of his charge. His motivation is pointless. The objective is pointless. His path is pointless. The death that happens all around him—when it isn’t objectively his fault—is pointless. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we in the audience come to understand. We get it. 

As a thought-provoking and subversive message, Apocalypse Now is a triumph. As a film, it is a literal masterpiece. By the time it was even finished the movie had taken on near-mythic levels of word-of-mouth cachet. The Director had gone preposterously over his already mammoth budget. A Philippine general in the vicinity of the shoot had demanded ever more lavish considerations to continue withholding his considerable and inventive wrath. Marlon Brando had showed up overweight, obstinate, and lacking the most basic awareness of his character or lines, and then refused to be directed. A typhoon had torn the host city to rubble. Martin Sheen had had a serious heart attack. He'd spent the next day sitting on a fallen tree bare-chested, defibrillating himself. Against reasonable expectations, he just-about survived, exactly as we did.

It is impossible to ignore, if also difficult not to celebrate, the perfect coincidence that all this mayhem presented for enhancing the immediacy of this specific story. At some indeterminate point in the creative process, fairly early on, the notion of “method” no longer applied to an individual actor or his performance as much as it applied to the literal existence of the entire effort. These people didn’t make a movie about the absurdity of Vietnam; they lived it. Little wonder that the finished film instantly became an iconic runaway commercial and critical success.

Over the years literally hundreds of lines of dialogue from this film have forced their way into the pop-culture vernacular (“I love the smell of napalm in the mornin’”), with almost everyone harboring his or her own favorites, and I am no exception. Honorable mention in my own quotable-line award ceremony goes to, “Charging someone with murder around here is like handing-out speeding tickets at the Indianapolis 500.” But the cake-taker, the line that still raises the skin on my forearms, has to be the snippet of v/o that we receive when Capt. Willard is released from captivity by Col. Kurtz and simply left to roam Kurtz’ compound un-escorted. “On the river, I thought that the minute I looked at him I’d know what to do, but it didn’t happen,” Sheen tells us in that trademark drowsy voice-over for which the film has become so widely emulated. “I was there with him for days, not under guard, I was free, but he knew I wasn’t going anywhere. He knew more about what I was going to do than I did.”

I hope everyone will plan to join us, Saturday, 14 May, at 6pm, for this astonishing cinematic accomplishment, about which there is simply little more to say. Of the thousand or so movies that a person really ought to see, Apocalypse Now resides comfortably in the top hundred. Of the four-hundred or so movies that a person really ought to view a dozen times, Apocalypse Now resides comfortably in the top twenty. See it again, for the first time; get goosebumps again—for, the, first, time.
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Monday, May 2, 2022

Film Club Featurette: The Princess Bride (1987) 1h 38m

On Saturday, 7 May at 6:31pm, The Phnom Penh Film Club relishes its chance to share the simple joy of one of the simplest and most joyful films we’ve yet seen, Rob Reiner’s *The Princess Bride*, written by William Goldman and starring Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, André René Roussimoff, Fred Savage and Peter Falk. 

Movies were never intended to change the world. They weren’t supposed to awaken you to the outrages of post-modern cultural decay, they didn’t embolden you to tip your life over and shake it by the ankles, and if they kept coming up later in your outlook and your thoughts it was because something somewhere had gone horribly wrong. In the early days, the point of movies was pure escape: A top-of-the-craft cast set its egos aside to plow gamely through shaky concepts and shoestring budgets and hazardous d-i-y stunts, and no one involved ever took him- or herself seriously enough to forget that entertainment was supposed to be the bloody point of the thing. 

This is important for cinephiles like me to remember, especially when struggling to process the universal cachet of a film like The Princess Bride. Yes, it offers a fun evening, spent with a fun story, with a fun structure and a quotable script and the perfect director and cast. But ask me on the sidewalk why this movie is such an abiding worldwide favourite and, to be perfectly honest, I’d have to mostly look at my shoes and mumble. 

Just why, exactly, is “Never bet against a Sicilian when death is on the table” a more memorable line than, say, “...Well, yeah, plus half of all the graft I take in!” [1] ? What is it about the line, “You keep saying this word; I do not think it means what you think it means” which elevates it so completely above, “There’s a foot in your way?!? Well why don’t you just eat it!!!” [2] ? How exactly do we all come to know “My name is Inigo Montoya...” when almost nobody knows, “You ain’t goin’ anywhere until you tell me who shot this guy Rembrandt!” [3] ? I’m genuinely not sure. Truth is, until we scheduled this picture for our club, I wasn’t sure that I even had a theory.  

Let’s be clear: I love this movie. I love it for its basic and unassuming innocence, for its delicate balance of alternating subplots and perfectly unfussy dénouements, for its writing, for its directions, for its cast. For its effervescent joie de vivre. I love it because it knows exactly what it wants to be and how seriously it doesn’t need to take itself if it wants to work. None of which is good enough reason for a picture to amass the sort of cross-cultural iconography as this one has.  

No, it seems to me that in the counter-examples of some other pictures that could have “been” the Princess Bride [1-3], some magic element of an evocative connection to early cinema just isn’t quite as immediate. A struggling used car lot somewhere on the muddy outskirts of Phoenix is a great platform for a story, but the resulting story—even at its funniest—won’t work at all unless there are some real and possibly even ugly stakes.  A murder mystery on a trans-continental train will find plenty of opportunities for laughs (on the train and off, come to that), but to do that story well in the modern era, the resulting movie will require budgets and soundtracks and a self-seriousness that had all been chosen to please the accountants as much as the theater-goers. Meanwhile Joseph Bologna is a fine actor, yes, but nobody is ever going to mistake him for a maestro performer who consciously elected to put his well-earned ego aside in order to play along with a silly romp and just see folks enjoy themselves. 

The Princess Bride, by contrast, is a deft, cagey, impeccably-cast yet deliberately un-serious, great big popcorn box of stakes-free escapist nothing. Indeed it is as close to literally nothing as a person can get out of a movie crew and a completion bond without accidentally making Koyaanisqatsi In Tights instead. 

The story (such as it is) is easily told and just as easily forgotten. A doddery grandfather reads a tale of adventure to his sick and jaded grandson, while the tale itself unfolds before our eyes into a sort of Narnia-by-Mel-Brooks—complete with a beautiful princess, a dashing hero-boyfriend, a duplicitous count, and enough needless b-story players to keep us continually guessing about which one will come along next to disgrace himself for our amusement. Eminently quotable lines compete for screen-time with costumed sight-gags and touching chemistries. Music swells and dips and never makes the vaguest real impression. Nothing matters, nothing happens, nothing crystallizes in the minds of any of the main characters, and when it’s over nothing’s changed. 

That, friends, **that** is why we love this film so much. It demands to be watched; it demands to be loved; it demands to be quoted and it demands to be remembered as one of the great movie-watching experiences of our often troubled and complicated lives. And all without striving for the first, tiniest shred of importance or cultural cachet. Its cultural cachet is that it hasn’t any. Its claim to our hearts is that it started from inside them. It is known and loved by everyone because it is simply ours, and always has been.    

I hope everyone will make a very special effort to attend this, perhaps the most widely beloved movie we’ve yet screened, Saturday 7 May at 6:31. To miss it would be inconceivable.   


[1] *Used Cars* (1980) directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Kurt Russell, Jack Warden and Deborah Harmon

[2] *The Big Bus* (1976) directed by James Frawley and starring Joseph Bologna, Stockard Channing and John Beck

[3] *Silver Streak* (1977) directed by Arthur Hiller and starring Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Patrick McGoohan, Clifton James, Ned Beatty and Jill Clayburgh  

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Friday, April 29, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Animal Kingdom (2010) 1h 53m

On Saturday, 30 April at 6:31pm, The Phnom Penh Film Club straps in for one of the most stark and relentless films we’ve tried, *Animal Kingdom* (2010), written and directed by first-timer David Michod, and starring Jacki Weaver, Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, and, in a positively thrilling debut performance, James Frecheville. 

In fairness a tough and gritty narrative isn’t really all *that* unusual an ingredient for successful, or entertaining, or critically acclaimed films. Indeed already in our short time together we have shared some outstanding examples of each. But what’s probably much less common are the films that manage all four things at once. Especially when also offering brilliant first-time directing, elite cinematography, a pitch-perfect score and, above all, an entire cast’s worth of performances so bang-on perfect that at some point, very early along the way, it becomes essentially impossible to remember that we’re all just taking in a movie. 

Adapted loosely from the true-life story of the notorious Pettingill crime family of Melbourne, Animal Kingdom sees Frecheville playing the lead role of “J,” an unnervingly impressionable young man who finds himself bunking up with a gang of vicious bank robbers. Oh, I forgot one small detail: The bank robbers in question just happen to be his own extended family. 

After some uneasy opening notes to set an appropriately uneasy tableau for J’s new place in his new domesticity, the various gang members take their turns showing him in no uncertain terms how they feel about his sudden presence, neither decorum nor basic self-consistency withstanding. Gradually it emerges that neither J nor the others are comfortable with his front-row seat to the family business, nor is anyone prepared to finally take the taboo step of severing that sole remaining hereditary provenance in J’s young life. Nobody ever actually says, “Where else would [he/I] go” but the question is always hanging there among us, the acrid stench of an unforeseen, inescapable, and literally existential Hobson’s Choice. 

Naturally, matters turn in chilling directions for which J is obviously neither prepared nor the least bit pre-adapted. And then they turn again in ways that make J’s situation even more intractable. And then it happens again, and again, and again, and *again*. All while a kaleidoscope of brilliantly drawn supporting characters struggle to recruit, coopt, cajole, turn, ignore, or in some cases even neutralize, this our most reluctant hero. Eventually, when the final twist must surely, surely have come and gone, we allow ourselves to trust the surety of a lifetime’s experience of cinematic denouements—and we exhale. Big mistake, that.   

The film was a smash-hit runaway success in both Australia and the U.S., with Jacki Weaver nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of the coolly psychotic family matriarch, “Grandma Smurf.” Pay special attention to exactly how she casually shows her own sons how happy she is to have them around her home, and then feel about it exactly as you’re tempted to allow yourself to feel. Especially as J takes a mantle that has much less to do with accidental custody and much more to do with steering the entire family’s grim and sordid near-term prospects. 

I hope everyone will plan on joining us, Saturday 30 April at 6:31pm, for this very special event. If I can promise anything, it’s that our usual policy of respectful silence for the end titles will require absolutely no policing whatsoever for this one—as we all sit thunderstruck and unsure how to even process its very final moments. Never mind the stunning performances, the improbably confident directing, and the story that grabs us from page one and never once lets go. For all these reasons, Animal Kingdom is a film that I can promise that none of us will soon forget.
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Friday, April 22, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Bandit Queen (1994) 1h 59m

On Sunday, 24 April at 6:30pm, Film Club Phnom Penh plunges headlong into an arresting world of contemptible authority and sympathetic law-breakers, *Bandit Queen*, starring Seema Biswas and written and directed by Sakhbar Kapur.

Among aspiring fiction writers it is very often said that ‘heroes have motivations, while villains have backstories’. And it’s a sneaky-impactful aphorism, insofar as the implied distinction so clearly comes down to whether the character in question can bring him- or herself to let the past be the past and just move on. Those who can, go on to the channel their ugly pasts into a constructive impetus for the betterment of all—their “character-building” experience as literal as anything in literature. 

Cue the entrance of one of the most driven and iconoclastic characters in modern history, Phoolan Devi: the real-life woman who really did just about single-handedly kick over one of the most brutally misogynistic patriarchies on the planet, that of rural India in the 1970s and 80s. A figure of pluck, vengeance, audacity, all but unbearable pathos, and ultimately of one of the least probable redemptions of all time. Cue the rule-defying movie about her harrowing path to that redemption, Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. 

Regardless of medium or adaptive license, Phoolan Devi is not a figure whose story would suit the little kids at bedtime, to be sure. From forced betrothal at age eleven (and from exactly the sort of treatment one may imagine with only that much news to go on), Devi’s journey proceeds through a withering chronicle of false flight, violent reversals, shocking police misconduct, caste-based humiliation, banishment, bloody double-crosses, and extra-legal justice. 

In time her unique combination of self-galvanizing purpose and ever-higher-profile escape will come to earn her the legendary status of heroic outlaws, particularly among a cohort of impoverished rural women whose own heartbreaking backstories had robbed them of similar empowerment. Indeed in watching the film for the first time not long ago, I was reminded of what David Sedaris once wrote about a comically over-distressed cashmere sweater in his closet: “Because it is destroyed, it is indestructible.” So too the stunning life of Phoolan Devi. 

The challenge that this simple reality presented for domestic movie-adaptation was so basic as to be almost deal-breaking, with Indian cinematic tradition so deeply antithetical to the unflinching and relentless grit that Phoolan Devi’s tale demands. There are no sappy song-and-dance numbers to chase the gunplay from the screen. There is only a life, here and now, set before us on the rails of an unsinkable ideologue’s ferocity in fighting City Hall. 

We take our seats expecting the typical Indian film experience—a saffron Andrew Lloyd Webber—and what we get is a saffron Lars Von Trier. Complete with that same peculiar gift for folding our judgements about visceral gratuity back in our own laps for the sociopolitical accusation that they are. Make no mistake, Bandit Queen is not a happy-go-lucky romp through fields of brightly-clad backup singers and star-crossed romantic entanglements. But it just might be, indeed probably is, the most important movie we’ve yet seen. 

I hope everyone will make a special point of joining us at 6:30pm on Sunday 24 April for this stunningly impactful motion picture. We really and truly have taken in nothing remotely like it in our filmography thus far. 

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Thursday, April 21, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Arrival (2016) 1h 56m

On Saturday, 23 April at 6:30pm, Film Club Phnom Penh will screen Denis Villeneuve’s touchstone of contemporary storytelling excellence, *Arrival*, starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg. 

We’ve gotten a lot of mileage in these pages from the linkage between the ugly real-world circumstances befalling the planet in the early to mid-1970s, and the unprecedented wave of superlative films that graced the planet’s theaters at that time. Perfectly sensible, this bit: If one couldn’t bear to face the era of Watergate transcripts and Kent State shootings and Sinai offensives, the natural vector of escape was a plush-velvet theater seat and all the suspension of reality that it promised to confer. 

Except I wouldn’t have to tell anyone reading these words that 2016 was no picnic, either. From Brexit to Aleppo, from the rise of Donald Trump to the death of Princess Leia, hiding from the real world in that fateful year took on a mantle of gallows-chic that hadn’t been so prominent in popular culture since ... well, since the early to mid-1970s. And the world’s filmmakers delivered again, too—with Risen and Perfect Strangers and Nocturnal Animals and How to Be Single. 

And then there’s Denis Villeneuve and his jewel of throwback cinematic escapism, Arrival. A film that defies not just genres and conventions, but the far more sacred taxonomy of commercially- vs. critically important work. 

Amy Adams is Dr Louise Banks, the cracker-jack linguist who finds herself visited in her academic office by a shadowy military detachment (led by Forest Whitaker), seemingly out of the blue. After some appropriately uneasy back-and-forth, it develops that the military folk want Dr Banks to come with them to interrogate a group of uninvited guests. If I told you why they need a math expert (played by Jeremy Renner) along for the ride, I’d spoil the movie. But they do. And a CIA observer (Michael Stuhlbarg), too.  

The four of them must work together, and to say this spoils nothing. And none of them know what they're doing, or what the consequences of what they're doing might be, good or otherwise. The whole of the story is a deep-dive into the samurai arts of professionally faking it and hoping for the best. There are turns of a sort we might expect under high-pressure, high-stakes, without-a-net circumstances such as these, and then, just when we think we're clear on where we're being taken, the entire flow of the movie and the story that we thought we were being told, is dumped all but literally on its head. Everything about this picture is a feint, and everything about it is a reminder that feints don't have to end with travel bans and slatted border walls in Arizona. They can be beautiful, and thrilling, even as they are dangerous and difficult to comprehend. Yes, Arrival is a science fiction movie. But in the end it hardly matters.   

Many great films have enjoyed box-office prosperity, and many successful movies have attracted the eye of the world’s critics and awards, to be sure. Most of the films we’ve shared in our screenings straddle this boundary to at least some degree. But far, far fewer films have ever dared to actually be both of these things, with conscious intent, from the moment they were green-lit at the studio’s top-floor offices. That Arrival succeeds so completely in both aspirations—as a commercially entertaining movie, and as a work of cultural durability—is little short of miraculous, especially for its time. A bonbon of mall-cineplex escapism, just when we needed it most, which manages to be genuine art at the same time.

But to succeed as well as it did, Arrival had to match its moment into the bargain. Had Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi been released in 1971 it would still have evoked spirited intellectual discussion and deep reservoirs of fan loyalty, but it wouldn’t have broken the freaking world. (Indeed it would have been Werner Herzog’s *Fata Morgana*, which ... didn’t.) Coppola’s The Conversation is a fantastic picture, sure, but part of the reason it works so well is because it was screened over a summer when tape-recorded conversations were all anyone could think about. The lesson is clear. To make that kind of impact, a film must lay its hands in just the right folds of our collective consciousness at that particular time. 

In 2016, those folds wouldn't have been much fun to think about. They would have prominently included fear of outsiders, an even greater fear of those who were afraid of outsiders, and existential geopolitical uncertainty. But they also would have included breakneck technological progress and an almost foolish-feeling reach for optimism and self-betterment. Villeneuve would have needed to resonate with all of these disparate cultural overtones, and, in that last extra little challenge, he would have needed to at least nod in the direction of society's desire for cinematic escapism itself. Somehow. Perhaps by featuring some venue or shooting aspect that happened to be of a sixteen-by-nine dimension. I dunno, maybe have it look white when there’s nothing to see on it, just to be nutty.   

For those who know his work, it will come as no surprise that Villeneuve hit every single note with this gorgeous picture. Writing for The London Telegraph, Robbie Collin called it “introspective, philosophical and existentially inclined—yet [it] unfolds in an unwavering tenor of chest-tightening excitement. And there is a mid-film revelation—less a sudden twist than sleek unwinding of everything you think you know—that feels, when it hits you, like your seat is tipping back.” Across town, The Guardian was busy deciding it had been the third-best movie of the year, and the nineteenth-best scifi movie. Ever. 

I hope everyone will plan to join us Saturday, 23 April at 6:30pm for this stately and breathtaking puzzle of overlapping narratives, nuclear statecraft, and the sometimes, but not always, reckless-seeming currency of hope. 

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Monday, April 18, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Rope (1948) 1h 20m

On Wednesday, 20 April at 6:30pm, Film Club Phnom Penh kicks off its outdoor shoes and cozies up with one of the most audacious and criminally underrated pictures we’ve yet seen, *Rope* (1948), directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring John Dall, Farley Granger, and the incomparable Jimmy Stewart. It was Hitchcock's first film shot in colour, and few of his efforts more richly deserved the added dimensionality and depth of field that colour offers, afterward. 

We don’t think of him this way now, but in his heyday as an A-list Hollywood actor and script-adapter, Hume Cronyn bore a well-earned reputation for being a ripe miserable bastard—particularly toward anyone who dared to tell him no. Thus it was that, on an improbably rainy spring afternoon in Los Angeles in 1947, Cronyn barged in on a studio meeting to present Alfred Hitchcock with one of the less circumscribed and deferential movie pitches ever to that time: He wanted Hitchcock to make a murder mystery, adapted from a one-act, one-room play, and filmed so as to suggest that everything we witness is unfolding in real time. 

The story of the narrative is easily told and almost impossible to spoil. Dall and Granger play two well-polished collegiate aesthetes, bored and lonely after having just completed a mesmerizing course from a philosophy professor obsessed with Nietzsche’s Superman. After a brief conversation in which the philosophical underpinnings of their thinking are revealed to have been suitably and explicitly misunderstood by them, the two young men decide to exhibit their self-appointed superiority. And to do this, it follows (-?), they will commit an act of unspeakable private barbarism—and then confidently host a cocktail party immediately thereafter in the same space. Apparently without so much as washing up first. 

The guest of honour is naturally their would-be mentor, the prim and tweedy Professor Cadell (Stewart), invited by the pair with a clear intent of showing off, without actually revealing to him what they’ve done. No stranger to overzealous college-boy idolatry, Cadell’s simmering discomfiture is at first mistaken for a professor’s natural remorse at seeing enthusiastic converts get it wrong. But gradually, as innuendos find lubrication through the force of drink, Cadell comes to realize that the discomfiture in this case very possibly, indeed probably, counts for so much more than mis-quotation ever could. 

More than anything, this is what makes Rope such a brilliant work of cinema: It’s not how the boys change over the course of this claustrophobic little evening of boat-house protocol and WASPy badinage; it’s how Stewart changes. He knows something is up from the moment he hits that door, of course—but like a man struggling to process the news of a fatal accident, he must drag himself through the stations on a passion-play of self aggrievement and denial. If it’s as bad as it starts to sound, he is indirectly responsible for an act from which he will never quite release himself. If it’s worse, he might not get the chance.  

You may have seen Aleksandr Sokurov’s *Russian Ark* with us a few months ago, and you may have seen Alejandro Inarritu’s *Birdman* without us, a few years before that. If either is the case, then you know how difficult it is just to make a movie look like it was filmed continuously, even in contemporary times. For its era, then, Rope is nothing short of norm-shattering. No one but the 1948 version of Hume Cronyn could have marshaled the Superman’s private conviction of his craft, to devise such a comfortably subversive concept for a film. And no one but A. J. Hitchcock could have carried it off with such riveting aplomb. 

I hope everyone will join us, Wednesday 20 April at 6:30pm, for this spellbinding little keepsake-box of macabre suspense and relentlessly onrushing dread. It’s not true that movies don’t get made like this anymore, but it may as well be.

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