C What’s Good: What to watch on the Criterion Channel for July 2019


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!

The Skin I Live In (2011) Pedro Almodóvar

Films about struggling with one’s identity aren’t uncommon, but are rarely uninteresting. Ingmar Bergman’s famous Persona is perhaps one of the finest examples of both pure, cinematic experimentation and a struggle for self-discovery and definition. Where that film and others use ambiguity and filmic technique (editing, breaking the fourth wall,etc) to prod at these questions, there’s something equally admirable in blunt storytelling that gets to the questions immediately. Even more so when it involves Antonio Banderas as a mad plastic surgeon.

Long known for his risque dramas, Almodóvar blends his sexual explorations with pulp horror in the same vein as the absolute French treasure Eyes Without a Face (also on the Criterion Channel; necessary viewing!). When Robert Ledgard’s (Banderas) experiments involving artificial skin and gene-swapping are denounced by the medical community, he continues to test, in secret, a young woman (Elena Anaya) serving as his subject. A break-in and shocking acts of violence upset Ledgard’s quiet facility, and spiral into questions of memory and blood relations that would make Freud sit upright. 

Almodóvar’s quiet, matter-of-fact approach downplays any shock or scares that could emerge from a story such as this, and as we often see in some of the more-intense contemporary art films, there’s a willingness to broach subjects of sexual taboo in the bluntest of terms. The Skin I Live In is a cocktail of body horror, Frankenstein, and psycho-sexual angst that zigs when you think it might zag. A warning to not open the door for any tigers that may come knocking.

The Hidden Fortress (1958) Akira Kurosawa

As I’m writing these up, I’m thinking to myself “Is it cheap to just say ‘go watch anything Kurosawa so much as spoke about’? A monkey could tell these fine people that!” But you know what? Go watch anything Kurosawa so much as thought about. The man’s the king for a reason. George Lucas figured that out early on.

The famous template for that galaxy far, far away, The Hidden Fortress came after Kurosawa’s monumental Seven Samurai and before what I believe to be his golden age of ’60s noir and samurai films like Yojimbo. Like Star Wars nearly twenty years later, The Hidden Fortress revolves around a princess operating in hostile territory, guarded by a general and a pair of comic-relief peasants that might recall a certain droid duo. Main man Toshiro Mifune continued to cement himself as the charismatic presence that would anchor some of the best of Kurosawa’s films, though for me there’s one moment in the whole film that I always think about, and will always summarize what makes it special:

It’s not necessarily an iconic moment, but early on our peasants (basically serving as a bottom-up perspective of a greater conflict, in itself a genius angle to take for an adventure/war epic) are tossed about from one camp to another, taken prisoner. It’s during a massive revolt that the two manage to escape, setting up their meeting with Mifune’s general and the princess, but it’s during that uprising and escape that Kurosawa conjures the image of a feudal fortress in utter chaos. A long, wide staircase is seen to be absolutely mobbed by prisoners rushing their captors; bodies hurling like zombies out of World War Z. Except, that’s no CG-effect. Those are real people, being given instruction by production assistants and such off-screen, just before the camera would roll. The scene of the mob serves as a backdrop to our peasants’ escape, which has always enhanced the scenario in my mind, and endeared me towards Kurosawa all the more: This was a man who knew that, sometimes, “epic” is just the mountain in the background. 

Robin and Marian (1976) Richard Lester

Trading feudal Japan for post-Crusades England, Robin and Marian would be the ’70s-era spin on Robin Hood in a time where American films were going “No no no, happy sword-play and Technicolor tights? We need things bleaker!

Sean Connery takes up the mantle as the legendary outlaw, and Audrey Hepburn the dutiful Maid Marian in a depiction of their later years. For a contemporary anecdote, think of how Logan depicts a tired, older Wolverine. Now imagine in 1976 you’ve been raised on Errol Flynn’s smiling visage, or you just saw a revival of the 1973 Disney animation Robin Hood. While Robin and Marian isn’t necessarily a downer, it’s a demystification of a mythic figure, and tinged with the naturally melancholy of an aging outlaw.

Featuring terrific costume and set design, Robin and Marian is a western in more ways than one, singing a funeral dirge for a time passed and an ode for an icon who feels the grinding of his joints. This was a film that I happened to catch totally unexpectedly, a case of “Well I’m here, I’ve got two hours to kill and a movie I’ve never seen before. Might as well?” and it’s one of the happiest cinematic accidents I can think of.

Wings (1966) Larisa Shepitko

The Soviets are always good for a chuckle, right comrade? Wings comes from a time and place that, to me at least, often feels obscured by my American identity. At a time when the Cold War was at its hottest, Soviet art would strike me as being an enigma, which is a real shame when films as phenomenal as this remain obscured.

Director Larisa Shepitko died at the young age of 41, and is perhaps best-known as the wife of director Elem Klimov, whose 1985 war film Come and See is often hailed as a masterpiece, and is one of my personal all-time favorites. Still, it’s sad that such a strong woman-director’s own work is overshadowed by her husband’s more-famous achievements.

Wings depicts Nadezhda Petrukhina (Maya Bulgakova), a woman herself in her early-forties who was an ace pilot in World War II. Existing as a living legend and a Soviet icon for the state’s cultivation of image, Nadezhda spends her days in a cushy position as an instructor and government puppet, to put it crudely. She is not mistreated, far from it, but her likeness is molded to be an inspiration for Soviet youth; a beacon of strength that fought for the great communist ideal and succeeded. Shepitko commits to a dreamlike style of editing for Wings, interspersing Nadezhda’s routine and everyday worries with her fantasies of flight and excitement, longing for her days of danger and “real work.”

It’s an incredibly clever film in that it chides the newer generation as growing soft after their parents suffered through the atrocities of World War II and the chaos of Stalin’s Russia, while also depicting a character who really wants to do something, inspiring action. A brief film at just 85 minutes, Wings is a treasure of a movie; a brilliant character study, a time capsule of a long-gone time, and a dreamy waltz amongst the clouds.

The Criterion Channel is kicking things into overdrive for the summer, with many of these films only just being added to the library for our consumption. It’s a real treat; I can’t think of the last time I thought about Wings, yet here I am remembering its genius all over again. I continually find that the Channel does that for me, where I’ve seen some of these phenomenal films years ago and am able to remember and revisit them because they pop up haphazardly while I browse endlessly, crippled by indecision as to what I should watch because it’s all so good!