Golden Year: TRANS-EUROP-EXPRESS (Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1966)


Trans-Europ-Express owes its origins to two phenomenon: the recently inaugurated international rail line from which it takes its title—with its modernist design (described by Robbe-Grillet in the supplementary interview as travelling in “glass cages”)—and the sight of prostitutes advertising their wares in the windows of Antwerp’s red light district. Self-reflexive in a playful sort of way, as evidenced in the many word- and picture-games on display throughout, the film primarily concerns itself with the matter of its own construction. It’s the sort of formal preoccupation that will become even more fundamental to Robbe-Grillet’s next film, The Man Who Lies. Trans-Europ-Express further develops the filmmaker’s fetishistic obsession with chains and bondage, where the staging of such fantasies becomes an integral factor in narrative’s unfolding.


The film opens in Paris’s Gare du Nord railroad station with a film director (Robbe-Grillet “playing” himself), his producer (Paul Louyet), and script supervisor (Catherine Robbe-Grillet) boarding the Trans Europ Express bound for Antwerp. While on board, they brainstorm the director’s latest production, which they promptly decide to set on board a train. What follows is a parodic riff on the conventional detective story, with frequent allusions to the films of Hitchcock and the “trench-coat tales” of Jean-Pierre Melville, as well as an amusingly Godardian swipe at From Russia with Love (set, like Robbe-Grilet’s earlier L’Immortelle, in a tourist-friendly Istanbul). Where later Robbe-Grillet films (especially those shot in color) take their visual cues from modernist paintings, Trans-Europ-Express invokes the Pop Art stylization of comic strips.


The story concocted by the trio centers on a low-level drug mule named Elias (Jean-Louis Trintignant)—or is that Alias?—en route to Belgium on a trial run for his new employers. While their plotline unspools like the portable reel-to-reel tape it’s being recorded on, we return to the filmmakers’ compartment for a series of narrative tweaks and emendations. And so the film operates on at least two levels: the “reality” of the tellers and the “fiction” of their tale. Lest all this strike viewers as far too straightforward, Trintignant also plays a fictionalized version of himself, even though Robbe-Grillet appears not to recognize him when he attempts to share their compartment.


Deceptions of this sort are endemic to Robbe-Grillet’s storytelling: The hollowed-out book Elias uses to hide a gun serves as the film’s operative metaphor. The book, incidentally, is entitled TRANSES, which, taken alongside the other two magazines Elias brings onboard with him, makes a visual pun on the film’s title. (Another witticism: Elias uses the reputable news magazine to hide a BDSM porno mag.) Further confounding the twin registers of the story and its tellers is Elias’s perverse fantasy life, focused rather obsessively on some light bondage with ropes and chains, and acted out with the cooperation of a gorgeous streetwalker named Eva (Marie-France Pisier). When Elias later comes to believe she’s acting as a double agent for the police, he uses this erotic roleplaying to commit a “real” murder.


Like nearly all of Robbe-Grillet’s works, Trans-Europ-Express advances by way of duplicity: repetition with variation, the inexplicable appearance of uncanny doppelgangers, and variations on the aforementioned wordplay. The film’s climax (pardon the pun) welds together all three characteristics. The gendarmes finally corner Elias by luring him to a nightclub called the Cabaret Eve, where he takes in a provocative striptease advertised as the “Slave Girl,” a routine that spotlights a nude woman being enwrapped in chains.


True to form, the film concludes with a double ending whose ostensible purpose is to reinforce in the minds of viewers the idea that what they’ve just seen was never anything other than a fiction. “Characters” who have been killed off show up again unscathed to greet each other at journey’s end. And Robbe-Grillet gets to deliver the taunting punchline: “The trouble with true stories is that they’re so boring.” Such, however, cannot be said of Trans-Europ-Express; it’s one of Robbe-Grillet’s most enjoyable (not to mention accessible) endeavors.


[This article first appeared in Video Watchdog #180.]


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Greensboro Filmmakers Win Trip to Cannes Film Festival to Make a Film

Greensboro 48Congratulations to local filmmaker Darren Hummel and The Magic Shop! Not only are they going to Cannes this month with their hilarious, Greensboro 48HFP-winning short “Gotta Go,” they’re also competing in the “Wake Up in Cannes” contest sponsored by HP.

Incidentally, I’ll be judging the Greensboro 48HFP again this year!

Here’s the official press release:

“A worldwide competition is creating a whirlwind of excitement for Darren Hummel and The Magic Shop, a team of local filmmakers with a Cannes-do attitude. As first-level winners in a competition sponsored by Hewlett-Packard, the 48 Hour Film Project, and Le Petit Studio, the team is tasked with creating a bicontinental short film. Part of the film is to be made here, with the other part filmed in Cannes, France.

In order to accomplish this feat, the team has been awarded a prize that includes round-trip airline tickets to France, lodging, meal stipends for up to seven team members, and a €1,000 budget for filming expenses.  As participants in the 2015 Greensboro 48 Hour Film Project, Hummel’s team created the city’s winning film which then seized one of the top 13 spots in the international competition. The film will be screened at the Cannes Film Festival in France in May.

The team’s talents drew the attention of contest coordinators who invited 25 teams to participate in the HP Masters of the Short Film “Wake Up in Cannes” Film Festival. The first level of the competition instructed teams to provide a work sample, introduce their team members and to create a storyline pitch that begins with the character in the team’s hometown and ends in Cannes. The HP ZBook Studio Mobile Workstation is to be incorporated into the story with the theme “Reinventing New Frontiers.”

Judges reviewed the submitted pitches and chose The Magic Shop as one of four finalists. Each of the teams will begin working on their films in their own areas, and will complete the film in Cannes. HP will provide the editing station in France, and the four films will be screened on May 16 to a jury composed of film industry professionals. Each film will be eligible for prizes in the categories Best Film, (an HP ZBook Studio Mobile Workstation), Best Editing, (an HP Z840 Workstation), Best Actor and Best Actress (each receiving an HP Spectre x360 Notebook), Awards will be announced immediately following the screening.”

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Golden Year: TOKYO DRIFTER (Seijun Suzuki, 5/10/1966)

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Over the course of his career at the Nikkatsu studio, brazen B-movie maverick Seijun Suzuki perfected the art of subversion from within, eradicating any vestige of predictability from his freewheeling forays into genre experimentalism. With Tokyo Drifter, studio heads handed the director a pedestrian yakuza film, yet another ode to the honor code espousing unthinking loyalty to one’s superiors (and including multiple musical numbers, no less), with the express intention of turning its baby-faced lead actor, Tetsuya Watari, into an overnight sensation. It didn’t hurt the film’s box-office prospects that its faux-forlorn title song, as performed by Watari, was already in the can.

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Given these typically stringent dictates, Suzuki seems to have decided to turn the entire project on its ear: ruthlessly eliminating whatever connective tissue the dandelion-slight narrative might once have possessed, breaking its action sequences down into virtually unrelated one-offs, disorienting and deconstructive studies in acausality. Revealing a flair for homegrown surrealism, Suzuki brings the defamiliarization effects of “dream work,” condensation and displacement, to bear on Tokyo Drifter, yielding the most termite-like among his works (to invoke Manny Farber’s term), a film that leaves “no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.” Branded to Kill, Suzuki’s final film for Nikkatsu, after which the studio promptly fired him, attempts to escape the prison house of genre entirely, morphing into a fever-dream series of nightmare tableaux, but Tokyo Drifter seems satisfied to beat its head against the walls of its solitary-confinement cell.

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In the washed-out monochrome opening sequence, Tetsu “the Phoenix” (Watari) withstands his first temptation, taking a beat-down in a railroad yard rather than “explode,” as one of the rival gang members believes he will, in order to prove his fealty to former yakuza boss Kurata (Ryuji Kita). When the pummeling’s over, Tetsu picks himself up from the rubble-strewn ground, coming across a shattered plastic toy gun; its shiny red pieces signal Tokyo Drifter’s abrupt shift into neon-bright color photography. Mob boss Kurata has gone legit, deactivated his gang, and sworn its former members against acts of retributive violence. The nonviolence routine doesn’t last very long, though, when rival gang boss Otsuka (Hideaki Esumi), whose presence in early scenes is metonymically signified by glimpses of his dark glasses and flashes of his bright crimson suit, tricks Kurata out of his prize piece of real estate. Kidnappings, car chases, and pitfalls occur almost off-handedly, the plot barreling along like a runaway locomotive, its narrative couplings de-articulated and threatening to derail the film entirely.

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The first act ends in a shootout between gang bosses staged like experimental Kabuki theater; Suzuki shifts the background from nominal naturalist to two-color expressionist, swaths of white and red (perhaps an ironic evocation of the Japanese flag?) fill the windows’ negative spaces; as one character falls down dead, the camera ascends to an omniscient God’s-eye view, and the décor completely alters again, this time begging comparison to a Jackson Pollock action painting. Entirely unmotivated by plot exigencies or character psychology, similarly baroque flourishes establish Suzuki’s WTF approach to action scenes throughout Tokyo Drifter.

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In keeping with its vagabond nature, the entirety of Tokyo Drifter amounts to less than the sum of its charmingly discrete parts, whether a supernumerary montage following the progress of a crushed car, or a snowbound gunfight that emulates John Ford’s Stagecoach. (A saloon brawl late in the film emphasizes this indebtedness to the western genre.) Across the board, redolent imagery trumps all except mood; a world-weary disillusionment creeps into the film’s final act when Tetsu learns that his beloved boss Kurata has betrayed him and forged an alliance with rival Otsuka.

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The film ends with yet another climactic gunfight that takes place against a black-and-red-drenched backdrop that easily could have been ripped straight from “Girl Hunt,” Vincente Minnelli’s noir-baiting The Band Wagon number; it’s a scene that wallows in self-parody, as Tetsu guns down everyone in the room, in increasingly improbable and ultimately ridiculous fashion, except Kurata and Tetsu’s chanteuse gal, Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara), who dutifully throws herself upon Tetsu’s embrace. But the bittersweet drifter lifestyle has its hooks in Tetsu, and he defaults to Existential Loner mode, telling Chiharu there’s no room for a woman in his worldview.

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Replacing a studio-nixed final shot that had a lovelorn Tetsu crooning his “Tokyo Drifter” number at a rising green moon (an outsized WTF finale, if ever there was one), Tokyo Drifter now concludes with a white suited Tetsu, posed atop an all-white staircase, belting away at a montage of neon signs drawn from both the red-light district and the go-go Ginza shopping quarter. Commerce reigns over Tokyo. With no less certitude than JLG, who manifested Masculin Féminin the same year, Seijun Suzuki, keyed into the tenor of his times, realized we’re all the children of Marx and Coca-Cola, the bastard offspring of global capitalism.

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[This article first appeared in Slant Magazine.]

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Golden Year: DJANGO (Sergio Corbucci, 4/6/1966)


Caked in mud and spattered with blood, Sergio Corbucci’s classic spaghetti western, Django, noodles around with cinema of cruelty, surrealistic imagery, and proto-Peckinpahvian carnage—only without all those erupting squibs. Granted, the emblematic plotline, in which a mysterious stranger who pits opposing sides of an embittered feud against each other, owes a clear debt to predecessors like Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars (and that film’s own considerable debt to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo). Yet Corbucci sets Django on its feet by moving away from the epic sprawl that started creeping into Leone’s work with Fistful of Dollars, the very title of which suggests his “more is more” approach, into the sort of rough-hewn storytelling and rough-and-tumble pessimism that characterize subsequent Corbucci films like The Great Silence. Likewise, the political dimension is certainly not lacking in Django; the film readily aligns with more radicalized Zapata westerns like Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General and Giulio Questi’s outlandish in-name-only sequel Django Kill…If You Live, Shoot!

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Django opens with the title character (Franco Nero) trudging across a dun brown wasteland, towing a coffin behind him. He emerges like a specter from the middle of nowhere; in the film’s strikingly composed final shot, he staggers disconsolately back into the hazy distance. The world of the film is forbidding terrain, an elemental landscape suffused with an aura of Sisyphean futility, where the closest approximation to an oasis proves to be a rickety wooden bridge suspended above a pit of quicksand. Almost classically constructed, Django will ineluctably return to this selfsame spot, and the yawning chasm of the pit, the gaping maw of the void, stands as an objective correlative for what Friedrich Nietzsche liked to call “the belly of being.”

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Django quickly sketches out its racial politics when Confederate and Mexican troops alternately attempt in vain to execute the prostitute Maria (Loredana Nusciak) on the spot for consorting with the enemy. Rescued by Django’s quick-draw prowess, the two of them descend upon civilization (such as it is) in the guise of a mud-choked town occupied almost exclusively by a gaggle of flea-bitten whores and their saloon-owner pimp, Nathaniel (Ángel Álvarez). The town’s most noticeable ornamental feature is the trunk of a petrified tree, resembling nothing so much as an exposed bone, that sprawls in front of the saloon. The only other resident appears to be a hypocritical Bible-thumper called Brother Jonathan (Gino Pernice).

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In its time, Django raised the bar for graphic film violence, with the result that it was banned for decades in several countries. It’s easy to see what all the fuss was about. This is an unrepentantly ugly movie, despite the striking visual flair Corbucci brings to his blocking and camera movement. Its violence isn’t supposed to be cathartic; it’s meant to be appalling. Corbucci fills the frame with mutilation and slaughter: No fewer than three wholesale massacres are committed over the course of the film, including the hilltop ambush of General Hugo Rodriquez (José Bódalo) and his troops. In another scene, Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo) and his henchmen use Mexican peons for target practice, gunning them down like so many clay pigeons. As if this weren’t explicit enough, Corbucci brings the point home by portraying Jackson’s flunkeys as red-hooded crypto-Klansmen.

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Then again, the film’s most brutal moments are reserved not for death, but disfigurement. Brother Jonathan undergoes aural amputation in a moment that was earmarked for inclusion in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, just as Django itself provides (at least nominally) a major reference point for Tarantino’s latest. Initiating the trend of maimed heroes in Corbucci’s films (Jean-Louis Trintignant in The Great Silence is both mute and maimed), Django has his mitts mangled with a rifle butt by Riccardo (Remo de Angelis), Jackson’s right-hand man. There’s a twinge of sadomasochism in these scenes that recalls Marlon Brando’s perverse psychological western One Eyed Jacks, except Corbucci carries things far beyond the bloody horsewhipping Brando’s Rio receives in that film. In a genre known for endless knock-offs, a trend that includes Django‘s 30-plus sequels, Corbucci’s film is notable not only for the artistry of its construction, but also for the underlying anger that fuels its political agenda.

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[This article first appeared in Slant Magazine.]

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Golden Year: SECONDS (John Frankenheimer, 10/5/1966)

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In the hands of lesser craftsmen, Seconds might have made for a chillingly effective episode of The Twilight Zone padded out to feature length. But the perfect storm of creative talent – director John Frankenheimer, cinematographer James Wong Howe, composer Jerry Goldsmith, and editor David Newhouse, not to mention a uniformly stellar cast – came together to enrich and deepen the material into a hauntingly affective work of art. Seconds signals its off-kilter approach straightaway with a memorable title sequence designed by Saul Bass that superimposes the credits over distorted funhouse-mirror images of a bandage-swathed head. In a striking image that eerily anticipates Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, the director’s credit seems to emerge from the anonymous figure’s wide-open wailing mouth.

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The first act cunningly crafts its predominant mood of discontent through visual means: off-center compositions and distorting fisheye lenses keep the viewer off-balance. After an unnerving encounter during rush hour at Grand Central Station, middle-aged banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) receives a phone call from a friend he thought dead, persuading him to keep a mysterious assignation with a shadowy (and nameless) Company, where bushy-browed Mr. Ruby (Jeff Corey) offers him the titular second shot at happiness. By this point, Seconds has given sufficient reason for his acceptance, illustrating the void in Hamilton’s life in one wrenching scene with wife Emily (Frances Reid) that moves inexorably from routine interaction to one last desperate attempt at tenderness before finally settling on cool indifference.

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Of course, the price to be paid for such a radical transformation is rather steep, but then there’s a death to fake, an extensive regimen of plastic surgery and physical rehabilitation to undergo, and an entire new existence to fabricate out of whole cloth. Though it should be said that Hamilton’s decision isn’t entirely voluntary: The Company slips him a mickey, then stages and films a surreal rape sequence whose topography owes a debt to Alice in Wonderland. And then there’s the Old Man (Will Geer), a perverse blend of homey wisdom and smirking contempt, whose ruthless interrogation of Hamilton reduces the experiences of a lifetime to scorched and fallow earth.


Frankenheimer, who has always evinced an interest in the concrete mechanics that govern a situation, takes great delight in tracing out the details of Hamilton’s metamorphosis. The most memorable moments in the sequence involve discomforting footage of a real rhinoplasty and the jovial presence of Khigh Dhiegh (the Chinese brainwasher in Frankenheimer’s equally unsettling The Manchurian Candidate) as a kind of glorified guidance counselor. The man who emerges on the other end is professional painter Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (Rock Hudson). The Company sets Wilson up with a Malibu beach pad and personal assistant, John (Wesley Addy). They also arrange for him to meet Nora Marcus (Salome Jens). When Nora soon tells Tony that she walked out on her marriage and children, we begin to wonder whether she, too, works for the Company. Fears are momentarily allayed during an excursion to a riotous bacchanal – a scene that was heavily edited for the film’s domestic release owing to its copious nudity – only to resurface in Tony’s drunken binge at a cocktail party he’s thrown. To his horror, he learns to what extent his new life has been stage managed by the Company.

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Seconds moves into its increasingly melancholy and ultimately tragic final act as Tony tries in vain to “go back” and discover where his life went wrong in the first place. But, as anyone who’s read Thomas Wolfe knows, you can’t go home again. Although there are still Kafkaesque hells to inhabit in the film’s awfully poetic anticlimax, Seconds’ true epicenter remains Tony’s long conversation with Emily Hamilton about her recently deceased husband, whom she remembers more for his ever-lengthening silences than anything else. Few American films of the period – or any other, for that matter – have so evocatively illuminated the discontent and insufficiency that sap the foundations of misspent lives.

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Generically, Seconds was advertised as another paranoid thriller from the director of The Manchurian Candidate (to which the film is too often compared unfavorably). More than that, though, it’s one of those freewheeling “rough beasts” of the mid-‘60s – Arthur Penn’s Mickey One is another – that assimilates the formal experimentation of various European New Waves, especially the exploration of existential discontent that epitomizes the work of Michelangelo Antonioni. Seconds harnesses those innovative techniques to some distinctly American social satire, with the suburban social elite getting it in the neck. But the film towers head and shoulders above other works in its elegiac sense of desolation and loss. Ultimately, the film stands as a cautionary rebuke to the national myth of self-renewal, the simplicity of starting over. Where our consumer culture extols the virtues of an existential extreme makeover, Seconds draws a line in the sand with Sartre’s maxim: “You are nothing more than the sum of your actions.”

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[This article first appeared in issue #177 of Video Watchdog.]

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Video Watchdog #182

182cover.pmdVideo Watchdog 182, shipping to subscribers mid-February and available in bookstores early March, contains several Blu-ray reviews from me, including George Barry’s mindblowing Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.

Click here for more info – and a full-color, 18-page sneak preview.

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Golden Year: OUR MAN FLINT (Daniel Mann, 1/16/1966)

our man flint poster

Our Man Flint came out at the height of the pop cultural “spy craze” that followed in the wake of the Bond films’ phenomenal popularity. By 1966, an apparently endless proliferation of globetrotting and gadget-mongering secret agents seemed to dominate American feature films and television programming alike. This trend can be explained by the convergence of factors impacting the national psyche: ever-present anxieties about the then-brimming Cold War warming up, an unabashed embrace of technological fetishism that came to be called the Space Race, as well as the (relatively) uninhibited lifestyle popularly espoused by Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner. Our Man Flint is also the film that cemented James Coburn’s status as a star. With his lanky frame, thatch of gray hair, and toothy grin, Coburn may not have had the conventional good looks of your average leading man, but he exuded an aura that mixed self-assurance and insubordination. This turned him, along with the likes of Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson, into an embodiment of ’60s anti-establishment cool, a poster boy for what Bonnie and Clyde scribes Robert Benton and David Newman referred to, in their now-famous 1964 Esquire piece, as “the New Sentimentality.”

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Along the spectrum of responses to the Bond films, Our Man Flint is pitched somewhere between dutiful homage and over-the-top parody, with its tongue planted too firmly in cheek to be mistaken for just another carbon copy. At the same time, neither is it the all-out deconstructionist assault that 1967’s Casino Royale aspired to be—at least in theory. Our Man Flint has an investment in character that sets it apart. Producer Saul David and star Coburn saw it as an opportunity to put across their version of a philosophy that idealizes the rugged individualism of the frontier type, even a sort of Ayn Rand-inflected Objectivist Übermensch. Either way, Derek Flint (Coburn) is no organization man. Faced with immanent environmental catastrophe at the hands of a shadowy secret society, representatives of Z.O.W.I.E. (the Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage, natch) are forced to beseech the reluctant Flint for assistance. Even the personal intercession of agency head Lloyd Cramden (Lee J. Cobb), with whom Flint has considerable history, is fruitless, until an attempt on Flint’s life convinces him, more out of self-preservation than altruism or patriotism, to lend a hand.

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An expert in nearly everything, Flint flatly rejects the espionage equipment Cramden offers to outfit him with: a standard-issue Walther PPK and suitcase laden with gadgets. Flint dismisses them as crude, holding up instead a gold-plated lighter. “This has 82 uses,” he deadpans. “Eighty three, if you wish to light a cigar.” Elsewhere, Flint exhibits his prowess in myriad disciplines: boxing, fencing, the proper discernment of a bouillabaisse recipe, even surgery. After Flint confesses to having paid a visit to the Moscow Ballet, Cramden incredulously asks, “You went all the way to Moscow to watch a ballet?” Flint shoots back: “No, to dance.” The film’s funniest sight gag shows him laying stiff as a board between two chairs, having suspended his heartbeat in quasi-yogic meditation.

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As resolute as Our Man Flint can be in its unapologetic individualism, it often swerves rather recklessly into chauvinism. And it’s never quite clear whether the film accepts its rampant sexism as par for the course, or wants to poke fun at it as an element intrinsic to the genre’s lexicon. Certainly, Flint’s conversion of villainess Gila (Gila Golan) to his enthralled amour with a single kiss is evident mockery of a Bond-film staple. And Flint’s motivation for tracking down the Galaxy group to their island redoubt has more than anything to do with rescuing his quartet of leggy “playmates” from their clutches. That they’re being brainwashed and conditioned as “Pleasure Units” amounts to a solidly amusing critique. But, of course, they are freed from abuse in Galaxy’s pleasure dome—amusingly rendered as an erotic sampler combining Roman orgy, swinging ’60s go-go club, and 1950s drive-in—only to return to sensual service in Flint’s phalanx.

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[This article first appeared in Slant Magazine.]

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