Venice 2019: Thoughts on Restored Classics by Luis Buñuel, Dennis Hopper and Jacques Tourneur
The Classics section at the 2019 Venice Film Festival presented three movies by Luis Buñuel, Dennis Hopper and Jacques Tourneur
The Classics section at the Venice Film Festival aims to present "a selection of the finest recent restorations of classic films, and documentaries about cinema or individual authors of yesteryear or today." One of the first films I caught in this section was a restored version of Ensayo de un Crimen (The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz; Spanish), which Luis Buñuel made in 1955. It's a dark comedy about a man who thinks he's a murderer. As a child, during the Mexican Revolution, Archibald's mother gives him a music box. The child listens to its melody, fascinated by the revolving ballerina. The next instant, his governess is killed by a stray bullet as she peers from the window. She falls, revealing her thighs. The boy is fascinated even more. Sex and death and childhood come together in a wryly perverse stretch.
Is Archibald responsible for the many deaths that follow? While we await the answer, a string of superb, typically Buñuelian set pieces follow. Most memorable is the destruction (the "death", if you will) of a mannequin that looks so amazingly lifelike that watching it go up in flames is like watching a human being melt. In Objects of Desire: Conversations With Luis Buñuel, by José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent, the great director said, "I am attracted to the darkness in a character. If you try to build a character too rationally, he will not become alive. There must be a grey area." Archibald is the very embodiment of this philosophy. He wants to kill. But why? There are no reasons except the ones that keep us guessing. Only Buñuel could make a serial-killer thriller about a serial killer who may only think he’s a serial killer.
When Dennis Hopper's first film as a director, Easy Rider (1969), became a landscape-altering blockbuster, studios sought him out with a vengeance, and with a carte blanche. Make anything, they said, that connects with a similar youth audience. Hopper made The Last Movie (1971), and that title proved prophetic for a decade. The film bombed so badly that it did become his last movie, till Out of the Blue, in 1980. (The latter film won the Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival, and competed for the Palme d'Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival.) Hopper was actually hired as an actor, but he soon took over as the director. He said, "In many ways, it may be my best film. It’s about the society of North America; the family unit falling apart. I’m a social protest painter, I can’t help it. I don’t know much about the past, I’m not really interested in the future, or in space. I like to make things about what I see."
The restored version of Out of the Blue was presented in the Classics section, and it has a super-dramatic start. Don (Hopper, in one of his warmest performances) crashes his truck into a school bus filled with children, and ends up in jail. What follows is a character study typical of the era, when people still went to the theatres to watch movies without explosions and about the lives of unremarkable blue-collar Americans. Don's small family consists of his wife (Kathy, played by Sharon Farrell) and daughter (Cebe aka Cindy, played by Linda Manz). Amidst very ordinary scenes — playing baseball by the lake on a freezing day, or hanging out with classmates — the characters begin to acquire quiet, but distinct, colours. We see that Kathy loves Don, but she also loves drugs and fooling around with other men. Cebe, meanwhile, is into Elvis and punk rock. Actually, she's into a punk sensibility. "Subvert normality!" is her rallying cry.
A decade plus change after Easy Rider, how is Hopper as a filmmaker? Good as ever. I'll present the scene where Kathy and Cebe talk. They just talk. Usually, conversations are edited with shots and reverse shots, or even if there's no editing (i.e. even if it is a single take), there's something done with the camera to keep things visually "interesting". But Hopper keeps the camera stationary. In a sense, it is a single take, but it's not showy. Hopper isn't showing off. He is listening. He hands the focus over to what the writer has written, to how the actors are acting. That is, in its own way, a directorial statement. A powerful one. Hopper captures not just people but the spirit of an era, where the freedoms of the "flower children" of Easy Rider have rendered them unfit for a society that has moved on. The ending, fittingly, involves an explosion. It may well be the blowing-up of a Zeitgeist.
The last film I saw in the Classics section was Jacques Tourneur's Way of a Gaucho (1952). The poster for the film, upon its original release, screamed “Surging with the Fury and Romance of the Argentine Pampas”. Indeed, the film was shot on location, portraying the way of life of a “gaucho” (a South Amercian version of the cowboy). Like in the American Western, the once-borderless pampas are slowly being colonised -- not so much by an oppressive power as that thing called “civilisation”, which is fast replacing the old ways with the new. The old master of a ranch was considered a gaucho, but his son is looked at with suspicion because he wears Western clothes and is against the personal settling of scores. He speaks of police and trials, laws and a uniform code of justice. No wonder a ranch hand, comparing father and son, sneers, “Even the strongest bulls get sickly calves.”
Martín (Rory Calhoun), who considers the young master a brother, challenges this ranch hand to a duel, ends up killing him and goes to jail. Thereon, the film charts Martín’s transformation into an outlaw leader named Valverde, with Gene Tierney beside him as his love interest. Harry Jackson’s cinematography is magnificent (and must have seemed so much more so, at a time when audiences didn’t know much beyond their own world), and the film is sturdy entertainment, “old-fashioned” in the best sense of the word. Still, it feels a curious entry in Tourneur's filmography. The director is known for his great noir, Out of the Past (1947), and the landmark horror film, Cat People (1942). But a deeper look at Tourneur's work reveals swashbucklers like The Flame and the Arrow (1959), which only proves — at least to me — that the learning never stops at a film festival.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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