Our protagonist—a brooding, distractingly handsome, always anonymous young artist—sits at an outdoor cafe in Strasbourg, sets his sketch pad on a table and begins to look around with barely contained, completely unfocused longing. It is surely no accident that this most pivotal sequence in José Luis Guerín’s masterpiece In the City of Sylvia—entirely wordless and lasting more than twenty minutes—takes place just outside a drama school. We are in the vicinity of some kind of performance, but, like the young man, we can’t decide whose act deserves our attention. We don’t even know, at any given moment, whether we’re sharing the perspective of the young man or of the filmmaker. So we keep looking. If the difference between an actor and an extra involves a photogenic aura, then we’re out of luck; every face the camera lights upon is gorgeous and distinct. A movie this committed to sensual pleasure can hardly be called didactic, but in this sequence we might intuit that we’re being taught something crucial about narrative construction, pattern formation and how to look.
It’s also a stalker movie—which is to say, the story of a spectator who gets greedy. Eventually, our artist picks his prey, his Sylvia, who may or may not be a woman he met briefly several years earlier, and follows her through the city streets at close range. Guerín’s formal dexterity creates a palpable suspense: Does he really recognize her? Does she really not sense her stalker’s presence? In the City of Sylvia, recently released on DVD by Cinema Guild ($29.95), experiments with projection and reflection, with the concordance of sound and image, sign and meaning. Guerín’s aesthetic is both make-it-new Modernist and building-block classical, intending nothing less than to reactivate the senses. The movie treats spectatorship as a skill that requires practice—and for good citizens, a modicum of restraint. No wonder cinephiles have fetishized it since it first appeared on the festival circuit in 2007.
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The parade of black power iconography that overlays the opening credits of Night Catches Us doesn’t last long enough to build to a triumph, quickly yielding to the bromides of Jimmy Carter’s inauguration speech. Welcome to the era of malaise, North Philadelphia, 1976. The subject of Tanya Hamilton’s striking, underappreciated 2010 debut—available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Magnolia ($26.98; $29.98)—is the varieties of resistance, but she eschews the alluring saga of gun-toting revolutionaries to chronicle the indeterminate aftermath of a short-lived ecstasy. Anthony Mackie plays an exiled former Black Panther—believed to have informed on one of his comrades—who returns to the old neighborhood after his father’s death, and renews ties with a former romantic and revolutionary partner (Kerry Washington), now a lawyer, mother and a pillar of the community.
There’s been no shortage of cultural reflections on ’60s radicalism, many of them implicitly reactionary, but Hamilton’s anguished, structurally elliptical film stands out for its patience and subtlety. Night Catches Us is sober enough to lament Black Power’s historical shift into violence and factionalism, and uncompromising enough to suggest that the resulting absence of a shared politics is the real tragedy. The details of Hamilton’s urban western-movie plot are forgettable, but that seems part of the fabric; petty disagreements and imagined betrayals stand as testaments to misdirected energy. A broken home signals a larger vacuum of leadership. The revolution lives on in archival footage, old photographs and pamphlets, shelved away but awaiting rediscovery. Hamilton knows her way around a montage, and the Roots, providing the musical accompaniment, add ballast. Even on a low budget, the period detail is impeccable, and necessarily so: this is a chapter of the American experience rarely seen onscreen. Despite the title, this purgatorial drama takes place mostly during the day, its camera equipped to capture any lingering shadows.
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One way to escape the mantra of fiscal austerity is to visit American cinema’s most creatively fruitful era of wasteful spending: the late 1970s. You won’t yet find Heaven’s Gate or 1941 on Blu-Ray, but the new release of Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (MGM/Fox; $19.99) fits the bill, offering the chance to measure the work of a great director by his greatest folly.
Scorsese was the most movie-literate director of the New American Cinema, and New York, New York suffers from an admirable excess of ambition, seeking to fuse the heightened artificiality of postwar movie musicals with the scruffy, partially improvised naturalism of Mean Streets. But Robert De Niro isn’t convincing as a manipulative and insecure saxophone virtuoso, and Liza Minnelli, as the rising star vocalist who somehow falls for him, inches back fearfully toward the stage anytime she’s required to emote. The project was conceived as Minnelli’s take on mother Judy Garland’s iconic role in A Star Is Born, with a little “method” twist—she even used Mom’s old MGM dressing room. Scorsese borrowed much of his aesthetic from her father, Vincente, the great expressionist auteur of the musical and melodrama.
Cut down from 270 minutes, New York, New York is clumsy and shapeless, coming alive only when it turns into a musical. (We eventually hear Kander and Ebb’s immortal title song, but not in Sinatra’s immortal rendition.) When Minnelli does her hall-of-mirrors “Happy Endings” number, most accurately described as a musical within a movie within a movie within a musical within a movie, one begins to relish the wonders of creative overindulgence. That this box-office flop suffered in direct competition with Star Wars gave some indication of where the winds (and studio capital) were headed. The best would have to carve out room for resistance. During Scorsese’s hangover, De Niro kept bugging him to read the memoir of a boxer named Jake La Motta.