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Fall Films to Stream

William Greaves’s documentary about the 1972 National Black Political Convention, Werner Schroeter’s Malina, and a caper by King Hu.

Kino Lorber

Jesse Jackson in Nationtime, 1972

Nationtime, streaming now on KinoMarquee, by the independent director William Greaves (1926–2014), is a double rediscovery. The movie is a newly excavated and restored artifact documenting a largely forgotten event in American history, the National Black Political Convention held in Gary, Indiana, in mid-March 1972.

Called by Gary’s mayor, Richard Hatcher, one of the first two African-Americans elected to administer a large American city, the convention—which attracted some 10,000 attendees—was an exuberantly defiant expression of Black Power. It’s intriguing that Hatcher not only facilitated the event but, later that same year, also made possible the riotous location scenes—Gary standing in for Chicago—included in The Spook Who Sat By the Door, one of the most militant movies ever produced in the United States.

Amiri Baraka was one of the convention’s chairmen. Introduced by Jesse Jackson, the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale was a featured speaker, declaring that everyone there was, by their presence, a “revolutionary.” The mood is all-embracing. The widows of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King, can be seen chatting on the dais.

Greaves’s film is both nostalgic and timely. There is praise for the armed struggle against Portuguese colonists in Mozambique and talk of reparations for slavery. Although fundamentally serious, it does not lack entertainment value: stand-up comedian Dick Gregory (who ran for Chicago mayor in 1967 and as a write-in candidate for president in 1968) and singer-composer Isaac Hayes are among the performers (the Shaft theme percolating on the film’s soundtrack). Harry Belafonte does a stint as emcee and, heard but not seen, Sidney Poitier provides the narration. The star performance, however, belongs to Jesse Jackson.

In his opening remarks, Hatcher envisioned the sort of rainbow coalition that Jesse Jackson would represent twelve years later; seen here, for perhaps fifteen minutes, Jackson, not yet thirty-one, auditions for the movement’s leadership, electrifying the crowd with a call-and-response speech—“What time is it?” “NATIONTIME!”—that also incorporates the title of a recent Impressions song: “Check out your mind.” After three days, the convention issued a declaration calling for independent Black politics outside of the two major parties. However, unity is fractured when a part of the Michigan delegation, presumably joined, if not led, led by Representative John Conyers, walks out.

As fascinating as it is, Nationtime cries out for footnotes, framing, and further illumination. By some accounts, Muhammad Ali, Louis Farrakhan, and Shirley Chisholm were also present—Jackson namechecks both Ali and Farrakhan, but none of the three is seen. Chisholm, who was just then running for the Democratic presidential nomination, is the most baffling omission. Surely, she had something to say—both to the convention and to us, nearly half a century later?

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Newly up on MUBI, Malina is a superbly crafted, thoroughly disturbing psychological thriller with a remarkable pedigree—adapted by Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek from the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann’s only finished novel and directed by a chronically undervalued, world-class director, Werner Schroeter (1945–2010). It was also shot by Elfi Mikesch, a noted independent filmmaker in her own right. Most significantly, the movie is a vehicle for the greatest film actress of her generation, Isabelle Huppert.

Simply described, Malina is the story of a celebrated writer’s nervous breakdown and descent into madness. An extremely high maintenance writer (Huppert), purposeful yet disorganized, and identified in the credits only as The Woman, does emotional battle with her apparent lover, Malina (Mathieu Carrière), and initiates a tortuous affair with a young Hungarian (Can Togay).

The movie begins with a nightmare that never exactly ends but continues to inform the subjectivity of The Woman’s domestic space and workaday reality. The first half of the film is a posh romantic melodrama, full of high angles, that suggests a deranged gloss on one of Otto Preminger’s florid Forties noirs, Laura or Whirlpool. Hallucinations and dreams proliferate. By the second half, The Woman’s symptoms have grown worse. Once it becomes apparent that Malina is not her lover but something like a Jungian animus, Malina pivots to a mode that might be described as the Teutonic Fellini-esque. Albeit more stately, the pitch of overwrought hysteria that Schroeter achieves is unmatched by any director save the Polish wild man Andrzej Żuławski.

© Leopold AB

Isabelle Huppert as The Woman in Malina, 1991

Obsessed by the memory of her Nazi father, Bachmann had numerous points of contact with her protagonist, whose father is also a Nazi, and who similarly suffers writer’s block and lectures on Wittgenstein. (Bachmann referred to the novel as an “imaginary autobiography.”) Schroeter ups the ante by visually quoting photographs of Bachmann and, by staging the movie’s final half hour in a fiery apartment, referring to Bachmann’s own tragic death. For this reason, Malina may strike Bachmann’s devotees as crass.

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But the artist Schroeter prized above all others was Maria Callas, and one watches Huppert as one would a diva at the Met. Present in every scene, if not quite every shot, Huppert does not give a performance so much as she sustains a two-hour aria of anguish. (In a way, the movie is a dry run for her even more amazing role as the central figure in Michael Haneke’s 2001 adaptation of Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher.)                                        

Malina is set in Vienna; MUBI is screening the film’s international version with Huppert and Carrière undubbed, speaking in their native French (though the German dub is also available) and thus creating an additional undercurrent of displacement.

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One of the most scholarly and cerebral of action directors, Beijing-born King Hu (1932–1997) made athletic, cerebral wuxia films in both Hong Kong and Taiwan—most famously, A Touch of Zen (1971)—and spent his last years in Hollywood, hoping in vain to make a movie about mid-nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush.

Newly available via Film Movement, Raining in the Mountain is one of two films that Hu made in South Korea in 1979. Visually gorgeous and notably abstract—there is no actual rain; the Chinese title can be translated as “the spirit of rain on the hollow mountain”—it’s a caper film (or maybe a chess game), involving a supposedly priceless scroll and the struggle for succession to the abbacy of a Ming Dynasty monastery. The splendid location is an eighth-century Buddhist temple, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Egged on by Ng Tai Kong’s percussive score, Hu’s camera and actors—including Hsu Feng, frequently leading lady for him and here a professional thief posing as a concubine—vault onto rooftops and dart through a maze of corridors, in and out of sliding doors. The fights, when they occur, are properly balletic, but what’s truly exhilarating is the editing, for which Hu credited himself. The movie, one of his best, was sadly his last commercial hit.

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