What to Watch on the Small Screen: June 2018

(Note: this article originally appeared here.)

June marks the beginning of summer—a perfect excuse, in other words, to put off work and catch up on some good movies. Here are our recommendations for what to stream this month:

Walkabout (1971)

Walkabout
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Forty-four years before Leonardo DiCaprio crawled and moaned his way to an Oscar in The Revenant, Nicolas Roeg offered his own take on the survival genre in Walkabout. The film’s protagonists, an English-born teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Luc Roeg), are abandoned by their mentally deranged father (John Meillon) in the Australian outback. And as you might expect, they prove wholly incapable of getting by in the wild–until they meet an Aborigine (David Gulpilil) who’s engaging in the titular rite of passage.

If you can brave Walkabout’s disorienting structure—suffice to say that Roeg doesn’t care a whit about narrative norms—you’ll find a film that mesmerizes, provokes, and edifies at every turn. Roeg’s anempathetic score, for one, provides a blistering indictment of the protagonists’ privilege-induced racism. And even if it is disorienting, Roeg’s disjointed editing scheme ultimately serves the movie well, mixing critiques of Western industrialization with an immersive rendering of the Aborigines’ non-linear conception of time. All in all, you couldn’t ask for a better corrective to the many romanticized notions we Americans have of the Land Down Under.

Where to Watch: Amazon (rent), Kanopy, FilmStruck

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

Petra von Kant
Image courtesy of Janus Films.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant features a protagonist, the titular Petra (Margit Carstensen), whose life is the very definition of messed up. As we learn at the film’s start, she’s not only been through several failed marriages, but she’s also a ruthless sadist who shamelessly abuses her mute, masochistic servant (Irm Hermann). Petra’s situation only grows bleaker, moreover, when she becomes obsessed with Karin (Hanna Schygulla), a young model who ends up completely frustrating Petra’s desire for total control.

As a film, Bitter Tears is hardly flawless. It’s more interested in pointing out problems than in proposing solutions to them—and Fassbinder’s attitude towards his characters occasionally borders on the clinical. Yet as difficult as they may be to swallow, you simply can’t dismiss Fassbinder’s insights into human relationships: his depiction of our contradictory needs for autonomy and companionship remains scarily spot-on. And if nothing else, the film’s austere cinematography and multiplanar mise-en-scene both perfectly speak to the oppressive rigidity of Petra’s lifestyle.

Where to Watch: Amazon (rent), Kanopy, FilmStruck

Late Spring (1949)

Late Spring
In Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring, Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) is an aging widower who faces a pressing domestic dilemma. His loving daughter Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is too old not to be married…but whenever he broaches the subject with her, she shuts him down, claiming that he needs her to look after him. So in a desperate attempt to make her leave the nest, Shukichi falsely claims that he’s getting remarried—a declaration he later calls the “biggest lie I ever told.”

For most films, choppy dialogue and outdated gender roles would be nothing short of a death knell. In Late Spring’s case, however, these apparent deficiencies belie its moving, quietly profound meditation on the tensions between tradition and modernity. Even now, nobody can match Ozu’s ability to capture the repressive aspects of traditional Asian culture—and in the process, few other movies prove so refreshingly unbeholden to classical Hollywood style (be it in editing, cinematography, or mise-en-scene). Add in Hara and Ryu’s touchingly understated performances, and you’ve got a masterpiece that might just leave you in tears.

Where to Watch: YouTube, Amazon (rent), Kanopy, FilmStruck

The Conversation (1974)

Conversation
Image courtesy of Paramount.

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation follows the story of Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a reclusive, San Francisco-based saxophonist who wiretaps people for a living. Despite his apparent religiosity—this is the kind of guy who flips out when someone says “Oh my God”—Caul has never questioned the morality of his work. But that all changes when he’s asked to surveil a young couple (Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest)…and realizes that he might end up becoming an unwitting accomplice to their murder.

There are several good reasons why some critics have deemed The Conversation Coppola’s best work. (Yes, even better than The Godfather.) For starters, its subject matter carries eerie parallels with real-life scandals both past and present. Beyond that, the film also hugely benefits from Hackman, who dispenses with his usual exuberance to give a poignant depiction of loneliness. And Bill Butler’s detached cinematography remains exquisite, offering a powerful statement on both the subjectivity of perception and the underlying (im)morality of the cinematic medium.

Where to Watch: Amazon Prime, Starz

Underworld (1927)

Underworld
At the start of Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld, “Rolls Royce” Wensel (Clive Brook) is an unemployed lawyer who spends his free time getting drunk. Out of a combination of magnanimity and conceit, a local gangster named “Bull” Weed (George Bancroft) offers Wensel money, shelter, and a chance to get his life back together. Wensel quickly accepts—only to find himself in trouble when he and Bull’s girlfriend (Evelyn Brent) start falling in love.

Today, Underworld is perhaps best known as “the first gangster movie.” While that title is certainly well-deserved—so many of Underworld’s successors, after all, are indebted to its depiction of prideful men and ineffective cops—it’s easy to forget that Underworld is also a good movie in its own right. The final shoot-out sequence, for instance, remains a masterful exercise in suspense, while Bancroft’s acting has lost none of its expressive splendor. And on the whole, thanks to von Sternberg’s penchant for long shots, the film still provides a damning representation of the excesses and ephemerality of worldly power.

Where to Watch: YouTube