What to Watch on the Small Screen: April 2019

As we turn from March to April, we can at least be thankful that we no longer have to deal with sub-zero temperatures. Here are some films you can watch to start spring on a good note:

Mon Oncle (1958)

Image courtesy of Janus Films.

Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle features the character of Monsieur Hulot (Tati), an absent-minded, pipe-smoking vagrant who lives in one of Paris’ old neighborhoods. Generally speaking, the film’s plot revolves around Hulot’s tumultuous relationship with his brother-in-law (Jean-Pierre Zola), a rich, decidedly materialist businessman named Monsieur Arpel who lives with his wife (Adrienne Servantie) and son (Alain Bécourt) in a high-tech suburban mansion.

If you’re at all familiar with Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, you’ll find it impossible not to like the character of Hulot. Like the Tramp, Hulot is a bum who wears a shabby outfit, communicates through wordless gestures and expressions, and walks with a distinctive gait. More to the point, however, the two of them also share a knack for causing trouble, chaos, and mix-ups wherever they go – a tendency that in both cases proves painfully funny to watch.

Hulot aside, Mon Oncle also offers biting commentary on postwar France. On the one hand, Tati isn’t exactly a fan of its rampant consumerism, an attitude that becomes manifest in his satirical, mocking depiction of the Arpels. Yet unlike many critiques of capitalism, Tati also attacks those who extol the virtues of a non-technological lifestyle, suggesting that their longing for a preindustrial world is really just short-sighted fetishism. In that sense, the overall film portrays a France that’s at a crossroads – a society, in other words, that needs to alleviate modernization’s downsides without falling into the trap of nostalgia.

Where to Watch: Amazon, iTunes

Jalsaghar (1958)

Image courtesy of Janus Films.

Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar offers a character study of Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), an aging Bengali landowner who likes to throw expensive concerts in his lavishly decorated “music room.” Thanks to his laziness and a series of devastating floods, Roy’s land holdings stopped being fertile a long time ago. But in defiance of this grim reality, Roy continues to put on concerts for his neighbors – even as that all but ensures his financial ruin.

At its heart, Jalsaghar is a Lear-esque portrait of pride and the damage it inflicts on people. With careful manipulations of mise-en-scene and sound, Ray depicts Roy as a narcissist, an out-of-touch elitist who’d rather bury his head in the sand than acknowledge that he’s no longer wealthy. The tragedy of Roy’s situation, moreover, is further underscored by the character of Ganguli (Gangapada Bose), a neighbor and self-made businessman whose naked ambition provides the perfect foil for Roy’s stagnant ostentation.

In addition to offering commentary on human nature, Jalsaghar can also be interpreted as a historical allegory. As a zamindar, Roy represents India’s colonial past, a time when rich Indian noblemen and England consolidated power at ordinary Indians’ expense. Conversely, Ganguli represents independent India – but if his sleaziness is any guide, this version of India is ironically, frustratingly marked by the same kind of backroom dealing and anti-national collusion that characterized British rule. When viewed as a whole, then, Jalsaghar provides an indirect testament to the challenges that India has consistently faced in forming a unique national identity.

Where to Watch: YouTube, Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu

The Naked Kiss (1964)

Image courtesy of Janus Films.

In Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, Kelly (Constance Towers) is a prostitute who wants to become a respectable, contributing member of society. As such, she runs away from her pimp, moves to a small town named Grantville, and becomes a nurse at the local hospital. Unfortunately, her attempts to start a new life are foiled by two men: Griff (Anthony Eisley), a cop who insists on holding her past against her; and J.L. Grant (Michael Dante), a wealthy philanthropist whose outward charm masks a more gruesome reality.

Like Bigger Than Life and All That Heaven Allows, The Naked Kiss is a viciously satirical look at mid-century, suburban America. At first glance, Grantville comes off as a peaceful, close-knit community where everyone lives in total harmony. But over the course of the film, Fuller tears this stereotypical image of small-town America to shreds, exposing the racism, conformism, misogyny, homophobia, and perversions that it neatly covers up.

When it’s not engaging in much-needed historical revisionism, moreover, The Naked Kiss also offers pointed commentary on Hollywood. With things like the background music, for instance, Fuller attacks the way classical cinema turned women into sex objects. And with its implausibly happy ending, the film also ridicules the way classical cinema prioritized cheap, feel-good resolutions over complexity and provocation. Taken as a whole, in short, The Naked Kiss is a scathing exposé of how Hollywood’s “Golden Age” advanced a whitewashed, deeply simplistic view of history, society, and human desire.

Where to Watch: Amazon, iTunes

Solaris (1972)

Image courtesy of Janus Films.

In Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, a space program of unspecified national origin has put a station in orbit around a distant planet called Solaris. After concerns arise over the mental health of the station’s occupants – a pilot who worked there testified that he had seen a 12-foot-tall child on Solaris’ surface – the directors of said program send a psychologist named Kris (Donatas Banionis) to the station to investigate. Put simply, the bulk of the film is devoted to depicting the many mind-bending discoveries that Kris makes during his stay in space.

As anyone who’s familiar with Tarkovsky won’t be surprised to hear, Solaris uses its sci-fi premise as a springboard to discuss weighty – but fascinating – philosophical questions. Central to the film’s preoccupations is the question of just what it means to be human. Tarkovsky ponders the various, frequently opposing ways in which emotions and physicality shape our identities, and he also meditates on the painful but necessary role that suffering plays in the human experience.

Beyond its philosophical ruminations, however, Solaris is also a sociopolitical critique. Kris’ space program is portrayed as depersonalizing, a program in which individual emotions are disregarded in favor of a false ideal of tangible, clinical “objectivity.” And many of the scientists in the film are characterized by an astounding arrogance, a short-sighted belief that humans can control, understand, and manipulate everything in the natural world. When you consider that the Soviet Union had one of the world’s most developed space programs, it’s not hard to see why Tarkovsky left the USSR for exile just a few years after making this film.

Where to Watch: YouTube, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber.

The titular character of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an aging hypnotist (played by Werner Krauss) who travels around Germany with a creepy, Frankenstein-esque somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt). At the start of the film, Caligari arrives in a village named Holstenwall and sets up a booth featuring Cesare at the town fair. Soon after – and, as it happens, not at all coincidentally – Holstenwall finds itself afflicted by a series of ghastly murders.

Nearly a century after its release, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains the quintessential horror film. It introduced techniques – a frame story, a twist ending, tropes like the “mad scientist” and the “innocent female victim” – that films continue to use even now. And its Expressionist mise-en-scene still proves haunting, evoking a twisted, grotesque world where passion, desire, and instinct easily dominate reason and logic.

Look past its scares, moreover, and you’ll find that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari also serves as a striking political allegory. The film’s screenwriters, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, were two men who became disillusioned with authority and German nationalism after serving in World War I. And in keeping with this background, the film paints a portrait of creeping authoritarianism, depicting a corrupt society where a mob mentality conduces to the arbitrary, intrusive rule of megalomaniacs. If you want to understand the conditions that led to the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, look no further than here.

Where to Watch: YouTube, Amazon, Google Play, iTunes