400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
This week I was thinking of two very different movies, both in need of a boost. One of my favorites of 2009 so far is Fados (1 screen), which I saw last year, but has happily received a theatrical release this year. Director Carlos Saura generally makes movies with music and dancing as a main theme, such as in his Oscar nominated films Carmen (1983) and Tango (1998). He's not mentioned very often with the names of the world's greatest filmmakers, but his films have recently earned the distinction of a Criterion DVD release (Cría cuervos) and a Criterion Eclipse DVD box set. Fados is more or less a collection of music videos, all performed in the Portuguese fado style. The music is very sentimental, passionate and sad, very often about poverty and lost loves.
Saura starts out with a brief history and description of fado, but then shuts up and lets the music speak for itself. He films each segment with different backdrops, sometimes in nightclubs, and sometimes in front of colored screens. Sometimes dancers accompany the music and sometimes not. Most times the music is performed traditionally, but sometimes we get a modern interpretation, like a hip-hop number. I was already familiar with the genre, and though I had never heard of any of the specific performers in the film, I was enthralled and quite moved. It's amazing how the segments form a kind of emotional throughline, despite all the different styles, settings and faces. The film plays well on video, but should be seen on the big screen, if at all possible.
Then, on the other side of the coin, we have Paul McGuigan's Push (162 screens), which was widely distributed and widely seen, yet almost universally loathed. It's a sci-fi thriller with a plot that was probably either too convoluted or too nonsensical. The characters and performances weren't exactly what you'd call deep. But I gave the film a good review, mainly because of its rich atmosphere, and the endlessly fascinating way it used the city of Hong Kong as part of its fabric. The characters moved through the city as if they belonged to it, and had actually lived there and knew its corners and crannies.
This was the type of personality that old-time B-movie directors like Edgar G. Ulmer or Jacques Tourneur injected into the tired, wretched scripts they were assigned to. Even if there was nothing to be done with the story or the cast, they could still do something around the edges of the film, something to make it seem a little less like a factory reject and a bit more human. To my eyes, McGuigan has done at least that much on all his films so far, including Gangster No. 1 (2000), The Reckoning (2003) and Lucky Number Slevin (2006).So what do these two films have in common, other than the fact that they were dancing around my cranium at the same time? To answer that, I'll leave off with something Samuel Fuller said onscreen in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou: "Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word . . . emotion."