What to Watch on the Small Screen: June 2019

(NOTE: A version of this article was originally published here.)

At long last, summer-esque weather has finally come to Chicago. If you find yourself bored and in need of something interesting to do, here are some films you can watch during this coming month. Note that they’re listed in alphabetical order, not by how “good” or “bad” they are.

Accattone (1961) 

Image courtesy of Water Bearer Films.

The titular protagonist of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone is a pimp (played by Franco Citti) who lives in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Rome. At the film’s start, the prostitute he relies on for income (Silvana Corsini) is thrown in prison. Broadly speaking, Accattone then spends the rest of the film fighting hunger and making half-hearted attempts to find alternative sources of income.

This plot summary might make you think that Accattone is a neo-realist work in the mold of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. In actuality, however, Accattone differs from Bicycle Thieves in two key respects. First, unlike De Sica, Pasolini isn’t even remotely sentimental. Bicycle Thieves presents its protagonists in a generally positive light – they’re earnest, hardworking people who just want to make a living. By contrast, Accattone doesn’t shy from Accattone’s flaws, portraying him as an abusive, misogynistic bum who treats other people as either objects or mere sources of income.

The other place where Accattone and Bicycle Thieves differ is in their attitudes towards politics. Whereas the latter studiously avoids naked politicism, Accattone isn’t afraid to attack religious and political institutions head-on. Among other things, Pasolini criticizes the Catholic Church; the hegemonic, ineffective, and elite-serving rule of Italy’s Christian Democrats; and the way in which Italian authorities and European society as a whole dealt with the legacy of Nazism and fascism.

When combined, these elements give a film that’s just as passionate as it is demanding. In a sense, Accattone challenges you to resist the temptation to judge Accattone – a difficult task, given his many shortcomings – and it boldly proclaims that he’s a man who’s no more condemnable than the members of supposedly more “respectable” parts of society. Back in the day, this and the film’s numerous other provocations got Pasolini into trouble. But when seen from today, they’re exactly why Accattone ends up being such a powerful and essential viewing experience. 

Where to Watch: YouTube, Amazon

Dead Man (1995) 

Image courtesy of Janus Films.

In Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Johnny Depp plays William Blake, a Cleveland-based accountant who travels west to take up an accounting job in a small town called Machine. After discovering that someone else has already taken the job in question, Blake unintentionally kills a man during a quarrel over a prostitute. Not wanting to face arrest, he subsequently flees into the wilderness, where he befriends a Native American who goes by the name of “Nobody” (Gary Farmer).

When you first watch Dead Man, I guarantee that you’re going to find it strange, even nonsensical. Although both we and Blake quickly learn that he’s being hunted by a group of bounty hunters, for one, this doesn’t shape the plot in the way you’d expect. Rather, Blake spends most of the movie wandering through the woods with no apparent “objective” or sense of urgency. Additionally, many parts of the narrative border on the surreal, featuring scenes where gunslingers eat human meat for dinner and men hunt bison from the inside of a moving train.

When it comes down to it, however, the bizarreness of Dead Man is kind of the point. Frustrating and confusing as it can be, the film constitutes what some critics have taken to calling an “Acid Western.” In other words, Dead Man is unabashedly revisionist: by subverting the narrative and formal conventions of classic Westerns, it attacks and dismantles the white, capitalist worldview that such conventions implicitly uphold.

In this regard, the fact that Blake’s friend goes by “Nobody” – a reference to Homer’s Odyssey – is both revealing and ironic. Like Odysseus, Blake does eventually end up undertaking what you could call a sort of “journey.” (If you watch this movie, you’ll know exactly what I mean.) But while the story of Odysseus has become a cornerstone of Western civilization, Blake’s story is something completely different, a journey that highlights both the folly of white civilization and the neglected virtue of Native American civilization. Ultimately, what Jarmusch has made here is a challenging work that begs to be seen multiple times.

Where to Watch: YouTube, Google Play

Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

Image courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour tells the story of two unnamed people who have a brief but intense affair in postwar Hiroshima. One of them is a Japanese man (Eiji Okada) whose family died as a result of the atomic bomb. The other is a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) who had an affair with a German soldier during Germany’s occupation of France in World War II.

Admittedly, Hiroshima mon amour is a rather difficult film to sell. Its plot isn’t very dramatic – there are no “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” moments – and its structure can be hard to follow. Famously, moreover, the opening sequence is strange if not esoteric, setting shots of intertwined lovers alongside shots of things related to the atomic bomb and its aftermath.

If you’re willing to give Hiroshima mon amour a try, however, you’ll find that it’s a thought-provoking work that deals with several important themes. As illustrated by its title, on the one hand, the film is very interested in the tension between what you could call the “tide of history” (Hiroshima) and individual desire (mon amour). In Resnais’ eyes, the 20th century’s political and ideological tumult – as exemplified by the bombing of Hiroshima – made it impossible for ordinary people to find happiness on their own, apolitical terms.

Above all else, moreover, Hiroshima mon amour addresses what it views as amnesia about nuclear weapons. Through its main characters, both of whom suffer from war trauma, the film reminds us of the magnitude of everything that occurred during World War II. And through its depiction of postwar Hiroshima – a city that no longer bears any physical trace of the horrors it underwent – the film implicitly denounces the efforts of Western powers to downplay the atom bomb’s significance. Seen in this light, then, Hiroshima mon amour stands as both an impassioned political document and a snapshot of the feverish atmosphere of the Cold War era.

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

Out of the Past (1947)

Image courtesy of Turner Home Entertainment.

In Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, Robert Mitchum plays Jeff, a gas station owner who lives in eastern California. Initially, Jeff’s life seems idyllic: he spends his days fishing in the mountains, and he’s also happily in love with a local townswoman named Ann (Virginia Huston). But everything in his life unravels when he’s suddenly summoned to see Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), a rich businessman who carries a long-standing grudge over the way Jeff double-crossed him in the past.

On the whole, Out of the Past will appeal to anyone who loves film noir – and, for that matter, anyone who’s looking for a place to start with the genre. Everything that we associate with film noir – shadowy cinematography, a femme fatale, plot twists – can be found here in abundant supply. In particular, moreover, the film’s outlook on society is very much representative of its genre, establishing a striking contrast between the purity of rural life and the seediness of urban environments.

In the end, however, this film wouldn’t be what it is without its actors. With his smug and confident bearing, Douglas effortlessly captures his character’s arrogant, stubbornly vengeful nature. And Mitchum is pitch-perfect in his role, depicting the world-weariness of a man who seems to already know that his attempts at finding true love and happiness are doomed to fail. Together, the two men make clear why some critics have deemed this “the ne plus ultra of forties film noir.”

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

Western (2017)

Image courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

Valeska Grisebach’s Western follows a group of German blue-collar workers who are sent to rural Bulgaria to construct a hydroelectric plant. Given their total ignorance of Bulgarian culture and the Bulgarian language, these workers soon find themselves clashing with the local community, which sees them as arrogant intruders. The one person who tries to bridge this cultural gap is Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), a taciturn member of the German crew who rejects his colleagues’ aggressive and violent manner.

As its title suggests, Western shares many similarities with classic Western films. For instance, the film takes place in a remote, mountainous region where people ride horses to get around. Moreover, the German and Bulgarian characters will remind you of the unequal relationship between white American pioneers and Indians. To put it another way, you could say that the Germans are power-wielding invaders, while the Bulgarians are analogous to indigenous people who seem both “primitive” and “backward.”

For a hint as to what Grisebach is getting at with all of this, it should be noted that one of the producers of this film is Maren Ade, the director of Toni Erdmann. Among many other things, Toni Erdmann was a denunciation of unfettered neoliberalism. Through its apparently simple story of a strained father-daughter relationship, it indirectly offered a portrait of cultural and economic inequality, and it thereby called into question the influence that Germany wields within the European Union.

Overall, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Western channels Ade. Similarly to Toni Erdmann, in other words, Western presents a critical portrait of modern-day Germany. By creatively re-appropriating the tropes of classic Westerns, it casts Germany as a quasi-imperialist country that remains out of touch with the particular needs and mores of its less well-off neighbors. Thanks to Grisebach’s efforts, in sum, you’ll walk away from this film with a better understanding of the many kinds of divides – social, political, historical, and more – that characterize modern-day Europe.

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

Written on the Wind (1956)

Image courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind offers a collective portrait of the Hadleys, an oil family that’s the very definition of messed up. Eldest son Kyle (Robert Stack) is an alcoholic playboy who harbors insecurities about his ability to produce offspring. His best friend, a geologist and unofficial brother named Mitch (Rock Hudson), is a man whose stoic façade masks repressed sexual frustration. And to complete this depiction of sexual and emotional dysfunction, Kyle’s sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone) is a nymphomaniac who frequently gets arrested by the police.

As with all of Sirk’s films (e.g. All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life), Written on the Wind’s melodramatic and soppy appearance is deeply ironic, belying its unsparing critique of the racism, patriarchical insecurity, and sexual repression that undergirded 1950s middle-class America. In comparison to Sirk’s other works, however, what’s relishing about this film in particular is its takedown of the American Dream – or, more specifically, the idea of the “self-made man” and the way it’s been fetishized throughout American history. Ultimately, it doesn’t hurt, either, that Hudson is also absolutely marvelous in his role.

Where to Watch: YouTube