Trafic (1971)

Jacques Tati | 1hr 37min

They say that dogs often look like their owners, but in the modern world of Trafic where automobiles become companions to humans on their endless journeys to nowhere, Jacques Tati cannot help noting the shared characteristics between them. One suited man sits in a black Mercedes-Benz, puffing on a cigar while his windscreen wipers drag themselves in slow, steady motions. Elsewhere, some other wipers on a car driven by a senile old man weakly twitch on the verge of breaking down, another pair clearing the vision of two chattering women match their flappy hand gestures with equal erraticism, and those on a hippy truck seem to groove along in rhythmic unison. In Tati’s magnificently whimsical worlds, characters are not defined by their personal thoughts and feelings, but by the modernist infrastructure around them, acting as extensions of their own idiosyncratic personalities.

Cars used as extensions of people, connecting humanity to their inefficient, idiosyncratic machines.

By that logic, it follows that these new technologies aren’t the faultless solutions to contemporary living that they are cracked up to be – if humans are inherently flawed, then so too are their creations. Therein lies the perfect entrance for the bumbling Monsieur Hulot in his fourth and final film appearance, this time as a car designer with a new model to show off at an auto show in Amsterdam. Quite appropriately, this vehicle is as unorthodox as its owner, being created for the specific purpose of camping with a shaver built into the steering wheel and the front grille transforming into a literal barbeque grill. It is nothing less than the product of a mad inventor, acting on his own creative impulses untethered from conventional notions of what customers think they need, or what businesses think will make them money.

It is quite fortunate that this is the car Hulot and his publicity agent, Maria, are stuck with on their cross-country drive to the auto show, especially as it proves to be a hit with the police officers who impound the vehicle for failing to stop at border control. The reason is simple enough – the wave the custom guards give to stop them is simply taken as a friendly greeting, and this misunderstanding quickly escalates into one of many major delays encountered on their journey. Tati delights in devolving ordered arrangements of road travel into beautiful chaos all through Trafic, expertly choreographing one freeway pile-up like a comical ballet of cars impressively balancing on their front wheels, pirouetting off to the side, and bonnets flapping up and down of their own accord. In the aftermath, about a dozen drivers stumble out of their damaged vehicles in a confused daze, and without any notion of what to do next, silently begin stretching their limbs and cleaning up the minimal debris with a dustpan broom.

An expertly choreographed freeway pile-up plays like a comic ballet of cars performing complex dance moves.

Inane as it is, the rigid order that we impose upon ourselves through car and traffic systems evidently cannot stand to be broken, making virtually every aspect of automobile culture the perfect target for Tati’s satire, from the hardcore fans to the everyday drivers. It goes without saying that his framing of physical gags in wide shots is consistently seamless in playing with our perspective of specific events, such as Hulot stepping into a car at the auto show, before swiftly revealing the punchline we couldn’t see before, like flipping that car upside-down to expose it as a bisected display vehicle.

The silent cinema influence is showing in Tati’s framing of these gags in wide shots, framed perfectly to conceal the full context of the scene until the punchline.

But Tati also does not get enough credit as a skilled montagist, particularly displaying his talent here in matching the rhythms of his cutting to the mechanical routines of cars and humans. In the opening credits, the automobile manufacturing facility chugs its machinery along to consistent, comical beats, and later Tati turns the tedium of rush hour into an amusing sequence that simply observes drivers picking their noses and yawning, as if bound by common ritual. Such arbitrary customs extend into the auto show as well where he plays his mise-en-scène like an orchestra, opening and slamming car boots in syncopated patterns, and swallowing up an entire crowd of enthusiasts collectively sticking their heads under a single bonnet.

The opening montage at the automobile factory setting a rhythm carried through the film in its sound design and editing – Tati plays the mise-en-scène like an orchestra.
Social satire caught in these images with machines literally swallowing up humans.

Trafic may not possess the sheer ambition of Tati’s previous films, least of all the monumental feat of production design that is Playtime, but his resourcefulness remains as remarkable as ever in picking apart humanity’s absurd and futile attempts at progress. Within the mere image of heavy traffic, he uncovers an endlessly rich source of satirical material, recognising that the attempts of those drivers trying to get somewhere while helplessly sitting in stagnant crowds of high-tech metal boxes may be the ultimate paradox of an inept modern society.

The perfect paradox of modern society – these machines designed to push us into the future keep us rooted to the spot.

Trafic is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Peter Bogdanovich | 2hr 6min

Perhaps in the days of the Old West, the tiny Texan town of Anarene may have been a bustling hub of oil mining and transportation. By the time The Last Picture Show picks up the story of teenagers Duane, Sonny, and Jacy in 1951 though, that landscape of idealistic prosperity is nothing but a sad, faded memory, whistling in the wind down the empty main road and faintly recalled in the crumbling facades of old storefronts. The adults who keep it running are an assortment of disillusioned schoolteachers, small business owners, and blue-collar workers, parenting a generation of children who have no frame of reference for anything greater. Whatever the American Dream looks like for them, it is not going to happen here.

Bogdanovich’s creative and thoughtful uses of his deep focus lens to capture compositions like these, making full use of both the background and foreground to build out the small town of Anarene.

As a film historian, Peter Bogdanovich does not so much pioneer cinema in The Last Picture Show as he does reflect on its past and the cultures it has represented. It should be no surprised that Orson Welles acted as his mentor during production, and the influence there extends far beyond the mere fact that he encouraged him to shoot in black-and-white. The deep focus photography that so beautifully captures Bogdanovich’s ensemble layered through frames in strikingly staged compositions directly calls back to Welles’ own distinct visual style, and the thick air of melancholic nostalgia that has settled over this once-glorious town at times even feels like a post-war Southern transposition of The Magnificent Ambersons. Car doors and diner blinds become frames through which we watch characters haunt these streets like wandering ghosts, drifting down lonely roads or otherwise congregating with peers to pass the time, waiting for the day they either escape this town or die in it.

The town’s infrastructure becoming frames trapping its inhabitants within its own boundaries, whether through a set of blinds or a car door.

For the teenagers living here, that is essentially the choice they are presented with, and the end of high school is the deadline for it to be made. Accordingly, anyone over the age of eighteen is part of the population that decided to stay, whether out of some sentimental loyalty or lack of prospects. As wonderful as the younger cast is here with Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, and Cybill Shepherd each affectingly capturing the ennui of youth, there is an even deeper poignancy to the performances from Bogdanovich’s older actors, with Cloris Leachman and Ellen Burstyn both stealing scenes as disillusioned housewives, Ruth Popper and Lois Farrow, each living inert existences. “Everything gets old if you do it long enough,” laments Lois to her daughter, Jacy, actively trying to corrupt her naïve idealism into the same tired discontent that has taken over her generation, and it is only a matter of time before she is successful.

Ben Johnson similarly has a world-weariness about him as Sam the Lion, though as the small businessman keeping the local pool, movie theatre, and café alive, he also carries a spark of the town’s old pride about him. He is stern but kind towards the local teenagers, evidently caring more about their growth than anyone else, and even spending time with them out at the “tank”, a bleak fishing spot depleted of fish. It is the flat, bleak Texan scenery which entices him there, and as he sits rolling cigarettes with Sonny and Billy, a mentally disabled neighbourhood boy, he wistfully reminisces the “old times” just twenty years ago when he took a past lover out to this same pond. Bogdanovich slowly dollies his camera in on his face, inviting us into his story of how they skinny dipped and rode horses across the water, and telling of the bright zeal for life he saw in that woman. “You wouldn’t believe how this country’s changed,” he wistfully ruminates, and given the later reveal that this woman was in fact Lois, we can infer that he is mourning the cultural shift in its people just as much as he is the physical landscape.

Flat, rural Texan scenery on the outskirts of Anarene, with dead trees and overcast skies making up Bogdanovich’s mise-en-scène.
Dollying in on Ben Johnson’s affecting monologue, reminiscing a long-gone past.

Cynical as she is, it isn’t hard to imagine a younger version of Lois behaving much like her coquettish daughter. Back then she might have flirted with men she wasn’t supposed to, but by the time we meet her here she is more or less representative of the adults in town, neglecting the widening emotional gap between her and her child. With little guidance from their elders, the teens of Anarene meander from one social gathering to the next, hoping to lose their virginity just for the sake of saying they have done it. All across the town, through cars and diners, Hank Williams’ twanging country vocals provides the diegetic soundtrack to their lives, matching their own lonesome struggles with bluesy musings over lovesickness and longing. Breaking this monotony does not prove to be easy though, with even sex proving to be dissatisfying and attempts to stir up controversy brewing nothing but shame.

Superb blocking of both actors and set dressing across layers of the frame, bring visual depth to the town and its community.

Still, what else is there to do? We get the sense that Sonny’s affair with Ruth, the wife of his school coach, has little to do with any genuine romantic feelings, and more to do with a desire to rebel, though even when word about it gets out into the community the reaction is disappointing. Meanwhile, Jacy is on a fruitless quest for attention, strip teasing at a pool party and choosing to date whoever she thinks might make for a good story. Shepherd is simply luminous in this role, naturally drawing the eye even in crowds, and challenging our sympathies when she so thoughtlessly discards the emotions of others in favour of her own self-centredness. Much like virtually everything she does, her elopement with Sonny is nothing more than an attempt to win the attention of her parents. When she catches sight of a police car on the road to Oklahoma, a little smile appears in the corner of her mouth, grateful that she is being stopped before following through on her small rebellion.

Cybill Shepherd is luminous as Jacy, always the centre of attention in Bogdanovich’s framing and lighting.
Sam’s funeral is a sombre affair, sunk low in the frame in this wide shot with Jacy once again standing out in her white dress.

With the death of Sam and the closing of his movie theatre, there is little hope left that this town will ever return to the glory of its old days again. Red River is the last film to play there, projecting a vision of the Old West up on the screen for the tiny audience of Duane and Sonny witnessing this part of the town’s history die out. Not long after, the two friends part ways, their decisions made regarding whether they will continue to haunt this limbo or make their way into the larger world beyond its borders. Given that the Korean War is Duane’s destination, it is tough to say whether he will find the meaning in his life that he is searching for. Still, at least it is a change of pace from Anarene’s dreariness, growing even more mundane with each passing generation.

In the end, Bogdanovich leaves us exactly where he picked us up at the start – stranded on the dusty, windy streets, panning across its desolate infrastructure as if searching for some lingering sign of life. It might be a barren beauty which infests The Last Picture Show, but as we grow to understand the small lives and histories dotted through its community, Bogdanovich also sensitively paints it out as a tactile landscape of feeble dreams and disappointments.

The deteriorating architecture of Anarene photographed beautifully in these wides, turning the town into its own crumbling character.

The Last Picture Show is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Video.

The French Connection (1971)

William Friedkin | 1hr 41min

There is a lot resting on the detective instincts of Popeye Doyle in The French Connection. If we had any less faith in his assumptions, he might come off as a far more incompetent character than he is. Even though he proves his resourcefulness right from the very first scene in getting the information he seeks from a suspect, we still harbour some reservations around his methods and the extreme lengths he will often go to. At his loudest and most persistent, he will speed down a busy highway, destroying several cars and risking his own life to hunt down a dangerous assassin, though he is also just as willingly to stand patiently outside in the freezing cold for hours on end, waiting to catch sight of a suspect. There is no spectrum of possibility or effort in his work – everything is either a lead worth following to its bitter end, or not worth his time at all. 

All it takes is one of those hunches for Popeye to latch onto a $32 million shipment of heroin arriving in New York in a few weeks’ times, and then he’s off, spinning himself up in a cat-and-mouse chase with a drug syndicate led by French mobster Alain Charnier. Around them is a vision of America’s most populous city grounded in raw cinematic realism, flooded with stagnant puddles of muddy water and coated in at least a few layers of grime. Working in the same vein as the French auteurs of the 1960s who moved their films beyond artificial studio sets to shoot on location, William Friedkin takes to the streets of New York to capture a level of authenticity that cannot be replicated anywhere else, right down to the steam billowing out from underground vents. Its instantly recognisable cityscape looms tall in backgrounds, and he often washes it in a natural blue light which, while certainly beautiful at times in its softness, more frequently works to encase these detectives and criminals in the harsh frigidity of the New York winter. 

Inspired by the Italian neo-realists, Friedkin uses his shooting location as a derelict character unto itself, often washing it in this blue natural light that emphasises its cold, gritty authenticity.

It is also a city of remarkable disparity though, and we can gage a lot about where these cops and criminals stand in how Friedkin works to contrast them in his editing. While Charnier is fine dining with associates in a high-end restaurant, Popeye is staking out the building with his partner, Cloudy, standing outside for hours on end, eating nothing but greasy pizza and coffee. At another point while Charnier stands atop skyscrapers overlooking magnificent views, Popeye remains down on ground level, barely allowing himself any time off the job to relax. Where Charnier’s dialogue is refined and mannered, Popeye proves himself to be a true New Yorker in his fast-talking mix of shouts and mumbles, offering a magnificent Gene Hackman the chance to improvise entire sequences with extraordinary vigour and naturalism.

Magnificent form in how Friedkin shoots Popeye on the ground versus how he shoots Charnier against the towering New York cityscape.

Where the two sides of this city are bound together is in their incredible intelligence and patience, relying on their wits to outsmart each other in this complex dance of crime and justice. Popeye is methodical in his manipulations, shifting his tactics to either befuddle, intimidate, or give his suspects false confidence depending on what the situation calls for, and though this works for low-level crooks who lack judiciousness and restraint, Charnier makes for a fairly equal match in his crafty machinations. In a sequence of pure tension and visual storytelling, Popeye stalks the mobster through the streets and underground stations of New York, and in Don Ellis’ grumbling staccato underscore of cellos and double basses he accompanies each glimpse of Charnier’s silver umbrella with a metal clang. Friedkin’s editing jumps lightly between both men, matching the movements of their legs as if racing the two against each other, and finally ending this dance when Popeye falls a second behind, letting Charnier make his getaway.

Repetitive rhythms in the editing – Charnier’s legs, Popeye’s legs, Charnier descending the stairs, and the next shot following Popeye right behind him.

A similar juxtaposition is also set out in one of the greatest car chases committed to film, where we see a hitman run onto a train in the chaotic aftermath of a failed assassination, and Popeye defiantly driving after him beneath an elevated railway. It is a great feat of editing, not just in the fast-moving action of his destructive pursuit along the crowded avenue, but also in the intercutting of his target’s actions on the train, growing steadily more desperate until he commits a fatal error in drawing attention to himself. Friedkin achieves a thrillingly tight balance here, once again pitting Popeye against yet another criminal, though one significantly less competent than Charnier.

Smoothly intercutting between Popeye’s car chase and the hitman making his getaway on the train directly above him. A fine piece of editing belonging among the best of the 1970s.
A bullet in the back capping Popeye’s ruthless hunt, and creating perhaps the film’s most recognisable image.

Outside these high-intensity scenes of life and death, Popeye is playing a game of patience. The same patience is asked of us in Friedkin’s meticulous teasing out of this narrative, with the inbuilt promise that there will eventually be some sort of reward for it, whether that be a victory for the police or the drug traffickers. It is certainly the case in each stake out, as well as the meticulously detailed sequence of a suspicious car being dismantled part by part to discover where the bags of heroin might be hidden, though it also one that Friedkin turns on us in the film’s final minutes, when we find ourselves waiting for the biggest pay-off of all. As we approach the denouement, Popeye’s success in busting the drug operation is abruptly soured by his own need for personal vengeance, chasing after Charnier through a dilapidated warehouse where he inadvertently shoots and kills a colleague. This might as well be a footnote to the rest of the scene though, as the detective barely stops to ponder his guilt before moving onto the next room over. Meanwhile, the camera hangs back, as if finally exhausted by his stubborn persistence.

In this moment, there is no resounding climax where Popeye or Charnier finally face off and decide who dies. Instead, a series of title cards simply informs us of their relatively unspectacular futures, both making it out alive though with nothing to gain or celebrate. In any earlier era of Hollywood filmmaking, The French Connection might have once drawn out this bitter feud to a poetically fateful ending, though in this thrilling tense narrative of sharp, biting cynicism, Friedkin chooses to finally separate us from Popeye’s obstinate need for closure, and instead allows us to simply sit in the disappointment of his demoralising personal failure.

This dark, abandoned warehouse makes for a fantastic set piece, and an especially great final shot as Popeye runs away from the camera into the next room.

The French Connection is currently available to stream on Disney Plus, and to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Stanley Kubrick | 2hr 16min

The labels of cynicism and disillusion often stuck to Stanley Kubrick should not be taken to imply misanthropy, as even here in A Clockwork Orange where he expresses perhaps his most scathing condemnation of humanity, there is still a wonder and adoration of that which makes this species so vulnerable and unique. With our right to free will comes our liberty to conduct truly heinous acts, but tied to it is also our potential to create and appreciate works of art, as well as to stand up against other evil. It isn’t just an inalienable right in this film – it is the very source of human life, as crucial to each person’s welfare as it is vulgar and repulsive. To cut that off is essentially a form of castration, or as Alex DeLarge’s victim, Frank Alexander, puts so succinctly:

“When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.”

It is from this philosophical reasoning that Kubrick’s inspired, repulsive aesthetic explodes outwards, marking nearly every corner of this dystopian British society with phallic symbols as overt as explicit paintings, lollipops, and bulging jock straps, or as subtly suggestive as long-nosed masks, canes, and Alex’s snake Basil, who mysteriously dies the moment his masculine assertion of freedom is revoked.

One of the great movie openers – a long, slow tracking shot backwards from a close-up to a wide, revealing the perversity of Alex’s environment.

From the very first shot in which the camera tracks backwards from Alex’s disturbing gaze and slowly reveals a tableau of young men dressed in white, drinking milk atop tables fashioned out of naked female sculptures, his own character is established by the perversity of the environment. Through his voiceover in a drawling, Russian-tinted dialect we gain a very specific, youth-oriented view of this society that has fallen prey to its pleasure-seeking instincts, and left to rot by weak, materialistic adults who focus more on decorating their homes with garish, mismatching designs than cleaning up the garbage and crime-infested streets outside. They have retreated into their homes out of fear, but even these private spaces are no longer safe as Alex and his droogs make a hobby out of invading and terrorising them, relishing these deeply immoral acts with a wicked sense of humour and a touch of musical irony. At least for the first act of A Clockwork Orange this is well and truly his world, and Kubrick frames him as such in commanding positions that tower over others, or otherwise centres him in shots with wide-angle lenses that seems to radiate his surroundings out from his body. Whether the speed of the film is cranked up to fast-motion in an exhilarating sex scene or slowed right down as he launches a vicious attack on his droogs, everything we see or hear is stylistically in service of Alex’s own dominance and immediate pleasure.

The magnificent slow-motion attack as Beethoven underscores it all – a vicious power play from Alex.
Another excellent tracking shot following Alex around the record store, this wide-angle lens radiating the scenery outwards from him at its centre.

Oftentimes when talking about mise-en-scène it is easy enough to link a film back to its influences, but besides the expressionist impact evident in long, stark shadows and haunting silhouettes, A Clockwork Orange very much stands alone in being a truly original piece of visual art, unbridled in its obsession with depicting sexuality in the most literally objectified manner possible. In rendering such sensitive, personal parts of our bodies in hard, inorganic materials, so too does Kubrick paint out a vision of humanity that has itself become a cheap, manufactured product of its own making, devaluing that which allows us to create life. Even beyond the physical rape that takes place, we watch as Alex weaponises a sculpture of a penis, debasing its artistic purpose by beating a woman to death with it. This is a culture that has slipped over the years into unrestrained hedonism and corruption, and it is only after thoroughly setting up this rotten, futuristic civilisation that Kubrick confronts us with something even more provocative – the notion that physically removing its criminals’ worst impulses will only lead to something far worse.

Gothic expressionism here in the long shadows and chiaroscuro lighting.

Kubrick is sure to indicate that the evils we see unfold here are not contained within this one fictional setting, but are rather ingrained in our own history as seen in Alex’s daydream of being a Roman soldier whipping Jesus, and the archival footage of Nazi Germany used to torture him into submission. Consequently, the scientists’ erasure of any desire to commit sin from his mind also inadvertently cuts him off from the rest of the world which shares his sin. These medical, legal, and government authorities who proclaim sovereignty over the laws of nature are just as prone to their own shortcomings as him even if they don’t admit it, though the truth is evident in our witnessing of furtive affairs going on behind closed curtains in hospitals, and the slimy political manoeuvring with which the Minister of the Interior goes about his work. Although Alex is deemed fit to return to society as a reformed citizen, society continues to thrive off the same evil that he too once prospered under, and as such subjugates him to its own depraved torture.

The human body turned into art and objects – you can’t say Kubrick doesn’t have a sense of humour with decor like this.

In a show of tremendous narrative form, each person who Alex wronged in the first act returns in quick succession in the third, delivering over-corrective punishments against this man-turned-doormat who no longer has the ability to defend himself. Now visually removed from all traces of phallic imagery, Alex is effectively neutered, unable to sin but also equally unable to fight against the sin of others. Furthermore, his sensitive appreciation of classical music, which was once his last remaining connection to the best of humanity’s potential, has disappeared too. In short, Alex becomes the soulless, mechanical contraption fashioned out of an organic entity that is teased by the title – the clockwork orange, which has the basic essence of life stripped from it so that it may tick along to its manufacturer’s forced rhythm.

It is just like Kubrick to omit the source novel’s last chapter to avoid any hint of a potentially bright future in this hauntingly pessimistic ending. “I was cured alright,” Alex teases upon regaining his former glory and finding his new place in society as a political poster boy. The Minister of the Interior feeds him like a servant, as with the return of Alex’s free will comes power, and his connection to a world that has no place for pushovers. These different forms of evil may possess separate objectives, but Kubrick recognises in this finale of A Clockwork Orange how similar it all really is in its origins and, quite cynically, how necessary it is for humanity to have any hope of moral salvation.

Not the most beautiful shot from the film, but probably its most terrifying in its deeply uncomfortable body horror.

A Clockwork Orange is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.