C What’s Good: What to watch on the Criterion Channel for February 2020


C What’s Good is the monthly follow-up piece to our C What’s On round-up of the Criterion Channel’s monthly programming. Leaping off of the hard work done by our own Hubert Vigilla, I hope to select a few favorites or interesting picks and convince you they’re worth your time!

Le trou (1960) Jacques Becker

Le trou (or “The Hole”) was one that I’d had on my to-do list for awhile now, and am glad to have caught on the Channel. Wasting no time, we’re in jail. Gaspard, a mild-mannered young inmate, is transferred from his cell to another already housing a quartet of tight-knit prisoners… and they’ve got a secret: It’s time to blow this joint.

Le trou is a jailbreak film in the tradition of something like Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped in the sense that Becker takes great lengths to keep the audience hooked with the most minute of details in filming the meticulous nature of such a high-wire task. This might sound like sarcasm, but I was utterly mesmerized by a scene early on — an extended take of the prisoners loudly battering their cell floor for what felt like ages, chipping away at the concrete. We get this sort of real-time moment that is so engaging to watch, channeling the excitement of the men as they inch towards escape as well as the anxiety of every loud crunch of concrete, the fear of a guard sneaking up ever-present.

Far from a slog, the cast animates the proceedings incredibly well, with a slew of French icons (Michel Constantin in a leading role, and the great Raymond Meunier lending a tender toughness to the crew) rounding out the bunch and really investing us in the procedural nature of the film. Le trou is fascinating also for its stylistic flourishes, subtly imbedded in Becker’s dry and almost documentary-like approach.

The Defiant Ones (1958) Stanley Kramer

The Criterion Channel has assembled a great lineup of films celebrating Black History Month (do check out Hubert’s piece for more on that!), but if there’s a single one that I think you need to see, it might just be The Defiant Ones.

Sidney Poitier is a titan, plain and simple; one of the most iconic faces in African American cinema, with The Defiant Ones serving as one of his best films. In the Deep South, two convicts escape after a transport accident; “Joker” Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Poitier), shackled together at the wrist. The animosity between the two is palpable, though the mutual need for survival begrudges the men into a working relationship.

Unlike some films that would shoehorn their race-relations message with trite storytelling and saccharine-sweet resolution, The Defiant Ones is a bit more smoldering than that. Cullen and Jackson never quite reach the buddy-buddy level that we might hope for, and if they do for a period it’s just a matter of time before another hurdle comes their way, breaking out into argument. Kramer’s film isn’t subtle in its iconography–the guys are literally shackled to each other–but in 1958, remember, a film like this went over a whole lot differently with the American public than it would in 2020. Especially considering the attention it drew: Eight Academy Award nominations–one of which was for Poitier’s performance–winning two for Original Screenplay and Cinematography.

I’d implore curious viewers to start with The Defiant Ones, and then venture into other Poitier films highlighted by the Channel. Perhaps known as an actor, he would go on to direct some great films, including the great western Buck and the Preacher. As an actor, he appears in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night alongside Warren Oates, one of my all-time favorites; meanwhile, Paris Blues is a great, jazz-infused Martin Ritt film. Basically, ’60s era Poitier is all excellent, and it’s another point for the Criterion Channel’s commitment to showcasing diverse cinematic voices.

Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018) Bi Gan

One of my top-five favorite films of last year, where it saw release beyond its 2018 festival tour, Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues follow-up took much of what I respected about that film and turned it into something I became fascinated by.

A slow-burn dream of a movie, in which a man (Huang Jue) returns to his hometown of Kaili after the death of a friend, while at the same time searching his memory for an elusive past lover (Tang Wei). 

Bi Gan’s fascination with cinematically featuring his own hometown of Kaili is going to be an interesting lens into his filmography in the long run, I think, with these first two features perhaps setting the stage for a loose trilogy of amnesiac, neon-lit wanderings through the Southern Chinese mainland. 

The major sell of Journey, while it played in theaters, was its unique shift of gears, wherein the final 59 minutes make use of 3D technology and a single, uninterrupted take. And not quite a clever-editing “one take” a la 1917. This was the real deal. Truth be told, though it all made for a tremendously unique filmgoing experience, my allegiance to Long Days Journey into Night doesn’t necessarily stem from its technical achievements in its final half. Bi Gan isn’t simply a brilliant technician, but a filmmaker who’s proven that he can tap into the subconscious with truly dreamlike, hazy storytelling that isn’t necessarily a subterfuge for “deeper meaning” or thematic resonance. The way the aforementioned 1917 might be taken as an adrenaline spectacle, Long Day’s Journey into Night is sort of the chill-out spectacle alternative. And personally, that’s my kind of wild ride.

Playtime (1967) Jacques Tati

Our second Jacques for the list this month, Playtime is the 1967 evolution in director and star Tati’s iconic Monsieur Hulot series of films; think of a comic character developed across films the way Chaplin honed his Tramp across films like The Gold Rush and City Lights

Tati brings a similar brand of physicality to his comedy, though if Chaplin is thought to waddle and stare, ponderously, Hulot in my mind is a lanky, bumbling Magoo whose caricature works as a critique of contemporary culture, in some way or another. How best to approach tragedy but with comedy? Playtime in particular sees Hulot, through a series of episodes, explore Paris in all of its high-tech, cutting-edge bureaucracy, with the urban sprawl of airports and downtown playing host to all manner of shenanigans. 

Mon Oncle and Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot are also great displays of Tati’s style, and perhaps serve as great context for what he achieves with Playtime. That said, you could drop yourself down in front of his 1967 masterpiece without a lick of forewarning, bowl of popcorn cradled in arm, and have a great time. In fact, as someone who doesn’t particularly love those earlier films but had a blast with Playtime, I’d almost advise watching them in reverse! They’re all available to stream on the Channel.

Stalker (1979) Andrei Tarkovsky

I’m hot off of playing Hideo Kojima’s masterpiece Death Stranding for what’s been about the past two-and-a-half months, and all I want to do is rewatch Stalker. Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky’s late-’70s sci-fi opus is a clear influence on Kojima’s game, in which a barren, rocky apocalypse has left the navigation of the terrain that once made up America a daunting and atmospheric task.

Stalker focuses on a mysterious future in which titular Stalkers guide prospective travelers through the “Zone,” an elusive space cordoned off by officials for its wish-granting powers and fatal snares. Tarkovsky’s film, based on a script by renowned sci-fi authors Boris and Arkady Strugatsky (whose novel, Roadside Picnic, serves as the basis for the film), is about as vague as that. Stalker revels in its hazy visuals and philosophical ambiguity as the Stalker leads a writer and a professor through the Zone, navigating the otherworldly forces only visible to the Stalker. 

Treading the realm of fantasy and speculative science-fiction, Stalker might be a movie you’ve heard of and thought “Yeah, I’ll get to it one day!” Get to it today. Kojima’s game, if you were at all interested (and if you weren’t, what’s wrong with you?) serves as a perfect platform for the curious. Tarkovsky’s vision of the apocalypse isn’t one of smoldering ruins and violence (though there’s some of that, for good measure), but rather one of humankind lost in their ways, disconnected and disaffected, yet still persevering through strange tribulations to find some shred of truth.

As I type this I’m psyching myself up to sit down for Wim Wenders’ nearly-five hour long road movie Until the End of the World. Long movies can be tough to sit through, so I always opt for a theatrical experience rather than one at home, where distractions like adorable animals and whatever crap I can find on my phone run rampant. I’m sure I’ll survive! But the fact that the Criterion Channel provides me such an easy avenue for catching such a unique film is in itself a triumph for a service still riding high, almost a year after its premiere. As a source of my own filmgoing joy and education, the Criterion Channel is unmatched!