C What’s Good: What to watch on the Criterion Channel for November 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!

Kagerô (1991) Hideo Gosha

Hideo Gosha’s penultimate film is a stylish translation of the work he’d been doing tirelessly for some 30 years before Kagerô or Heat Wave released in the early ’90s. And while I think there are ups and downs to Gosha’s filmmaking in general, Kagerô ends up being such a badass and interesting slice of melodrama it’s totally worth your while.

Set in the early years of the Showa Era, Japan is embracing its imperialism abroad in 1928 when the daughter of a slain gambler ventures to the city to take revenge on the gangster who killed her father, entering an underbelly of the blossoming wealthy class that would emerge in modernizing-Japan. 

Heat Wave was incredibly interesting for me as someone who is so used to seeing Japanese films set during the Edo Period (17th-19th century), with samurai and warring daimyo taking center stage. Heat Wave presents the wandering gamblers we might be familiar with from classic chanbara films, but pushes them ever-closer to modernity, in itself creating a film about the ways in which the Japanese were and continue to be at a crossroads of tradition and cutting-edge modernity.

Featuring the legendary Tatsuya Nakadai as a skilled gambler, some great sets and interesting cultural insights, and a climactic action set piece featuring the dual-wielding of a pistol and a katanaHeat Wave might not be a perfect film, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one steamier.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) Bob Rafelson

What the heck’s a “New Hollywood?” The King of Marvin Gardens, that’s what. Bob Rafelson and that maverick Jack Nicholson might have really hit the history books with Five Easy Pieces in 1970, but they hit my heart with their follow-up movie.

Hosting a somber, memoirish radio show out of Philadelphia, David Staebler (Nicholson) gets word from his brother Jason (Bruce Dern) up in Atlantic City, where David meets him to help bail him out of jail. A classic misunderstanding, the extroverted Jason insists. He also ropes David into his vision for enterprising real estate and casino ventures based off of the Jersey boardwalk, eventually sitting for lobster dinners with Japanese businessmen and rubbing shoulders with Atlantic City mobsters.

The King of Marvin Gardens is, maybe, a weird movie. Its role in the aforementioned New Hollywood, that era of American filmmaking where creators were taking to the streets with their cameras, leaving the studio sets behind, and watching all sorts of crazy foreign films. Who knew some guy looking for his bicycle could be so goshdarn compelling? Its narrative is vague, dots connecting in ways we might not be meant to understand or really concern ourselves with. Marvin Gardens is all about feeling. David’s depressive quiet, with Nicholson’s trademark deadpan is a fitting opposite to the fast-talking and grinning con game Bruce Dern plays as Jason.

With Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson rounding out the group, The King of Marvin Gardens ends up a downbeat, quirky meditation on hopeless optimism in a stagnating American wasteland.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) Carl Theodor Dreyer

Like many of you, I hope, I saw The Lighthouse not long ago. I loved it, Anthony Marzano loved it, and maybe you loved it! Well that wild and salty A24 story struck me as very similar to an old, old favorite of mine, Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Now you’re thinking this guy’s got a screw loose and rust setting in if he thinks some French historical film has anything in common with Willem Dafoe cooking lobster. But wait! The Lighthouse struck me with its stark photography and tight framing of Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, recalling some of the most powerful close-ups to ever be committed to film: Those of Renée Falconetti as the titular Maid of Orléans.

Passion is a silent film, but Falconetti needs only her face to tell you a thousand words, at times wrought with sorrow and others committed to her transcendent fate. Joan of Arc tells a bottle story, much like The Lighthouse, where we’re made audience to the trial of the now-canonized hero. With the film’s script adhering largely to the transcripts preserved from the actual trial, there’s an aura of authenticity to the proceedings, supported by the subdued-yet-effective costumes, and minimal sets. 

Black Girl (1966) Ousmane Sembène

Martin Scorsese’s been in the news a bit lately, and it isn’t just because of The Irishman. To disagree with some of his opinions is fine, but we should never forget that this is a man who has given more to cinema than most could possibly imagine, not the least being his World Cinema Project, featuring one of the best films to come out of Africa, the French-Senegalese production Black Girl.

A short film, under an hour in runtime, Black Girl follows Diouana, a Senegalese woman who’s moved to France, where she works as a housekeeper. Overworked and overlooked, the film quickly becomes a study on the cultural appropriation anglo cultures are often guilty of; Diouana’s employers would seem to display her foreignness as an exotic trinket, flaunting her in front of dinner guests and finding amusement in her cultural artifacts. 

Director Ousmane Sembène was very much a student of the French New Wave, his filmmaking taking off in the ’60s when the likes of Godard and Truffaut were at their prime. Though while the strictly-French films of the era concerned themselves with the plight of many foreign countries, subjugated under the will of American and European interests, Sembène and his colleagues were making films from the perspective of those affected directly by globalization and cultural diffusion, perhaps inherently making films like Black Girl speak volumes louder than any made by an outsider.

I got in the mail the other day a narrow envelope with a slight heft to it, and was delighted to find my very own Criterion Channel card, indicating my early support as a “Charter Member” of the service. Obviously I pay for the Channel, but this was a freebie, requiring only a confirmation on my part that my last name is, in fact, three separate words (the fun I’ve had at the DMV with that one, let me tell you). It’s a token of appreciation, and a sign of respect; the Criterion Channel continues to be a sophisticated, though-often relaxed and good-humored place for movie-lovers to stream the highest grades of cinematic art (as well as some of the lowest forms of trash cinema; read: Blood Feast) for an affordable yearly rate. 

In a time where there might be some tension between what some consider cinema or “amusement park” level entertainment, it seems to me the answer is simply give it all a shot. Never seen Bergman? You might scratch your head and go “well this is just slow and boring,” and that’s more than fine. Alternatively, maybe you fire up some KieÅ›lowski and be taken aback by the somber tone and dreamy visuals. And maybe you go right back to rewatching your favorite Star Wars film (for reference, the other day I watched Rogue One for the fourth time; my favorite non-Original Trilogy film) or catching up on whatever Marvel’s got cooking. The thing that I think is important is at least giving new things a try, and the Criterion Channel continues to make a broad stretch of film history available for the casual masses and devoted cinephiles, and I couldn’t be happier about it.