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Disfluencies, Syncopation, and Cocaine Noir

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul (2021)

After yesterday’s big roundup of festival news, we have just a few items to make note of before moving on to this week’s highlights. Cannes has announced its final screening: OSS 117, Alerte rouge en Afrique noire (From Africa With Love). For this third film in a series of spy movie parodies, Nicolas Bedos (La Belle Époque) takes the directorial reins from Michel Hazanavicius, but Jean Dujardin will once again portray the special agent that the Austin Chronicle’s Marc Savlov has called “a fatuous, self-involved, debonair jerk who attracts the leggiest ladies and trouble of every sort.”

The National Film Preservation Foundation has announced a round of twenty-nine grants to help save a total of sixty-four films, including The Oath of the Sword (1914), which is “likely the earliest Asian American production.” And on January 15, the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will present honorary Oscars to Samuel L. Jackson, Elaine May, and Liv Ullmann as well as the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to Danny Glover.

  • Based on the assertion that cinema was born in 1891, the new issue of Cinema Year Zero gathers breezy and mostly terrific essays on films made in years that end with a one, beginning with Joseph Owen on three silent shorts from 1901 and running through each decade up to Ultra Dogme editor Maximilien Luc Proctor’s introduction to his new film, Srećan Put (Happy Trails). Highlights along the way include Cathy Brennan on Asta Nielsen as the angst-ridden Dane in Hamlet (1921), Patrick Preziosi on Raoul Walsh’s The Strawberry Blonde (1941), and Ren Scateni on Seijun Suzuki’s Yumeji (1991).

  • Artist and filmmaker Sky Hopinka has shown his work at MoMA, the Whitney Biennial, and the New York Film Festival. In the independent quarterly Three Fold, he offers a dossier, Disfluencies. The title refers to the “stutters, the ahs and ums in speech that signal both trouble with cohesion in language but can also signal fluency. I’ve thought about that word while putting these materials together, as these are the errata and the leftovers, the parts of films that I didn’t think could exist on their own or better served the greater whole. Yet each has its own significance in helping me get from one piece to another, from transitioning from video to film, to photography, to writing, to work that leans into language and my relationship to English as a Ho-Chunk and Pechanga person.”

  • At RogerEbert.com, Jessica Ritchey has come up with a fantastic name for the sort of thrillers that were made after the neonoir classics of the 1970s, such as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), but before the rise in the 1990s of the “erotic thriller as a recognizable genre.” She proposes that “‘Cocaine Noir’ might be the best descriptor” for such films as Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion (1984), and Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me (1987). “These films soaked up all the excesses of the 1980s and threw them right back in the face of the cheerful Reaganism that was breaking the middle class and poor with the folksiest of smiles. It might have been morning in America, but it was permanently midnight in these films.”

  • John Sayles’s Lone Star, a murder mystery set in a small town near the Mexican border, opened twenty-five years ago this week, and it remains “the director’s best film and the most wide-ranging and sophisticated drama ever set in Texas,” argues Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com. At the Ringer, Adam Nayman, too, revisits this “fluid, literate, and politically complex (as opposed to programmatic) independent American movie that respects its audience’s intelligence and fulfills an appetite for moral, intellectual, and ideological ambiguity.” Sayles hasn’t directed a film since Go for Sisters (2013), but for much of his career, his “output was uncanny in the way it simultaneously reflected and repudiated industry trends, one cheapjack, antiestablishment riff at a time.”

  • When Summer of Soul (. . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) premiered at Sundance in January, it won both an audience award and a grand jury prize. In his first film as a director, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the drummer and joint frontman of the Roots, shapes footage that Hal Tulchin shot at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of free concerts featuring Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, and the list goes on. Every reviewer so far agrees that the film peaks with a duet between Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson. At 4Columns, Melissa Anderson finds that too many “exhilarating moments” are “interrupted by talking heads from the present weighing in on the past, montages, or other distractions.” In the New York Times, Wesley Morris disagrees. He argues that “there’s something about the way that the editing keeps time with the music, the way the talking is enhancing what’s onstage rather than upstaging it.” In a word, it’s “syncopation.”

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