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APRIL 12, 1999: 

La Jetée

D: Chris Marker (1963)

with Hélène Chatelain, Davos Hanich.

A young boy is taken for a Sunday visit to watch the planes take off from a jetty at the Paris Airport. He sees a man die. He never forgets it. Years later, after a devastating world war, the scientists of the future, using this anchoring memory, try to send him out in time. They succeed, sending him first to the past and then the future to seek help for the desolate present. Shot by one of the French New Wave's most eccentric talents (think of the implications of that), Chris Marker, La Jetée is a 30-minute black-and-white short that is easily one of the most influential science fiction films of the last 50 years. A cited source for 12 Monkeys, the short is also a clear influence on the Terminator films. La Jetée, rather than boasting elaborate special effects, is a story told entirely with stills and narration (there are only a few seconds of motion in the whole film and they are startlingly effective). The mysterious Marker, known both for his reluctance to give interviews and, if he did, to alter considerably the facts of his life, began as a journalist before turning to film. Marker is mostly known for personal documentaries such as Lettre de Sibérie (Letter From Siberia, 1958), ¡Cuba Sí! (1961), and Le Joli Mai (1963). Working in a variety of styles, Marker is a very political filmmaker, the driving force behind Loin du Viètnam (1967), an anti-war film on which Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard, William Klein, and Joris Ivens collaborated. Some regard Marker as an inspired cinema essayist, others as a didactic bore. La Jetée is really his only fiction film. The story goes that they originally shot this as a live action film but thought it didn't work. Marker sat down and by using static photographs created this lovely film. I first saw it in 1967 as the last of a collection of shorts at a New York City museum. The lulling narration accompanied by the narrative procession of stills was hypnotizing. The story packed the biggest punch, the ending a real kicker. Thirty years later, having its narrative so imitated, I doubt this black-and-white short (and most videos I've rented are unfortunately muddy) can muster the same magic, but it just might. --Louis Black

The Girl Can't Help It

D: Frank Tashlin (1956)

with Jayne Mansfield, Edmond O'Brien, Tom Ewell, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, the Platters, Little Richard, Julie London, Abby Lincoln.

Starting out as a cartoon director at Warner Bros., Tashlin's later live action films bristled with the imagination of an animator. This larger-than-life Mad magazine-esqe satire on Fifties popular culture practically spills off the screen. Bursting with vivid colors, this is a Hollywood rock & roll musical in Technicolor, Cinemascope, and stereophonic sound. Gangster O'Brien wants his girlfriend Mansfield to become a singing star so she will be an important somebody and a proper wife for him. He hires down-and-out Ewell to build her career. Ewell starts falling for her as he also discovers she can't sing. Mansfield is great; the tinnier Monroe, she ripples through this live action cartoon. There is one over-the-top sequence as Mansfield walks down a street that includes an ice delivery man melting a block of ice and a man's eyeglasses shattering. As the scene ends, she enters Ewell's apartment with a glass quart of milk over each breast. Tashlin uses her as he would Porky Pig, Jerry Lewis, or any actor he worked with: as a slightly unreal cartoon character muddling through an even more unreal world. Besides Mansfield, with whom he also made the classic Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Tashlin worked with Bob Hope, Bob Cummings, Doris Day, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, and Dean Martin. An impressive array of great rock acts are featured in the film, and their performances really rip. Tashlin, however, stages them like jazz or lounge acts, and the most inspired lunatic musical moment is more a takeoff on show tune imagery than anything else. Tashlin just didn't get rock & roll, but it didn't stop him from making a great rock & roll movie. --Louis Black

Terminal Island

D: Stephanie Rothman (1973)

with Phyllis Davis, Roger Mosley, James Whitworth, Sean Kenney, Ena Hartman, Tom Selleck.

On the trailers, a voice that sounds suspiciously like the narrator from Rocky and Bullwinkle intones: "Terminal Island -- where we dump our human garbage!!" In the not-so-distant future, capital punishment is outlawed, and the worst, most ruthless killers are sent to permanent exile on a penal colony off the California coast called Terminal Island (which looks suspiciously like Hollywood's Bronson Canyon). The government supplies the basics for inmates to eke out an existence, but without guards or supervision, they are free to make their own rules and create their own society (or simply kill each other off). Carmen (Hartman) is dropped off there by boat and soon gets a brutal introduction to the ways of the island, delivered by enforcer Monk (Mosley). The self-appointed king of the island is Bobby (Kenney, looking like an evil cross between David Cassidy and Steve Earle). Bobby rules with an iron fist, as women cook the food, tend the crops, even pull the plows, and of course are required to submit to every sexual whim. Before long, though, the women find out about a group of rogue men who have escaped and are at large on the island. The men take the women with them, and soon they are waging guerrilla war on the main population. Every time they get a chance to relax, their rustic tranquility is broken up by a skirmish with the ass-kicking squad, until the final showdown.

The fairly simple plot comes across like a Murderous Seventies Cavemen on Gilligan's Island as both sides use their ingenuity to come up with various ways to do each other in. Despite a fair amount of breasts, blood, bullets, and bravado, though, Terminal Island never rises to the inspired level of something like Caged Heat. Instead, it plods along in a rather workmanlike fashion, with neither much directorial flair nor obvious gaffes. Still, there's the curvaceous Davis (gracious!), plus a scruffy Selleck turning in a particle-board, gimme-my-check performance and The Hills Have Eyes' Whitworth. Also, you won't want to miss the theme song, "Too Damn Bad," croaked out by a third-rate Johnny Cash imposter. One of the few women directors of the Seventies, Rothman, another one-time associate of Roger Corman, independently produced this film with her husband, Charles S. Swartz. --Jerry Renshaw

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