An exclusive program of filmmakers’ late-in-life films seems counterintuitive at first. Conventional wisdom says that in careers not streamlined by early death, the most an artist can hope for in declining years is not to publish anti-Semitic essays (Hamsun), have projects greenlit through Alzheimer’s (Preminger), or be exhumed to cover Depeche Mode (Cash).
Few who’ve experienced catabolism recommend the experience, but BAMcinématek’s killer 23-film series “The Late Film” gives ample evidence of Shock of the Old. Of course, there’s work that only auteurists blinded by superfandom could justify: Billy Wilder’s bloaty, stiff-jointed The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes epitomizes his downhill slide. But there are last works that are also greatest works: Expiring at the nigh–Old Testament age of 99, Robert Bresson’s proposed film of the Book of Genesis went unmade, but testaments come no better than his Revelations, 1983’s L’argent, whose fragmentary compositions reflect a used-up world in which humans are harassed into extinction by ledgers, ATMs, forged francs, and entrapping doorframes. For his last act, Stanley Kubrick ended the millennium with a death-rattle-heard-around-the-world: starring über-celebrities in a sex odyssey, Eyes Wide Shut, whose Robitussin timing and polar tone of comic dread sent disappointed dim-bulbs streaming from the multiplex, but hit a few of us like “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Also here: a contingent of Old Hollywood survivors blinking out on a post-studio world. It’s Mongols vs. Pent-up Missionary Ladies in John Ford’s 1966 outro Seven Women, which, though cliché-packed (“For maybe the first time in my life, I’m not afraid”), has his first real heroine in Anne Bancroft. The very idea of Ford, health failing, in his soundstage “China,” reversing habit to make a woman’s picture, is deeply touching. There’s also peer Howard Hawks’s ’65 Red Line 7000, a tacky NASCAR drama, which plays like a parody of Hawksian themes edited while blindfolded, but manages a dizzying spectrum of emotions.
Marnie has some janky process shots as well, but is prime Hitchcock otherwise. The naughty envelope-pusher kept going as deep into criminal-sexual neurosis as contemporary mores would allow, a mission that dead-ended a decade later with the overt ugliness of Frenzy—which, released in 1972, belongs on this bill.
Age tends to lower inhibitions, here in tandem with relaxed censorship boards. Did any director bask in the new permissiveness like visionary Briton Michael Powell? Exiled, he slaked his thirst for beauty in Australia’s Barrier Reef islands with 1969’s discordant Age of Consent, where little-clothed naiad muse Helen Mirren is serenaded by a pederastic title song. In 1981’s . . . All the Marbles, Robert Aldrich kicks back and gives posterity a ridiculously enjoyable boob-flopping roadtrip from the Rust Belt to Reno, with hemorrhoidal Peter Falk chaperoning female wrestlers between bouts and fast food. And in Yasujiro Ozu’s 1959 Good Morning, the man famed for serenely observed domestic drama lets rip a heretofore-unexplored penchant for fart jokes.
This suggests the relativity of a “Late Film.” Ozu died at 60; Kenji Mizoguchi, 56, passed within months of his devastating diagram of economic manipulation in a Yoshiwara brothel, Street of Shame. Cerebral Euros, fed on a steady diet of state sponsorships, tend to tortoise-like life spans; still kicking are Jacques Rivette (81), Éric Rohmer (89), and Manoel de Oliveira (a cool century). Hollywood today remains little more a country for old men than when the iris closed on D.W. Griffith at the Brown Derby, waiting on a contract; the only living American present in BAM’s lineup is the unsinkable Jerry Lewis, with 1983’s elusive straight-to-video Cracking Up.
Films really about old age are scant. In 1998’s A Tale of Autumn, Rohmer again sets insecurity to lyric form—here, the consciousness of raised stakes on the precipice of middle age. Maurice Pialat, with his autobiographical itch, would’ve got to grumbling about his own aches on celluloid with better health and funding—instead, they’ll screen his fatherhood film, 1995’s Le garçu (merely great). Never-egoless Federico Fellini steers his own ornate catafalque with 1984’s And the Ship Sails On, following the burial-at-sea of a nonpareil artist (on the eve of World War I, no less—”After me, the flood”). And, of course, there’s King Lear, that especial favorite of fading Great Men. Septuagenarian Kurosawa did his version (Ran) two years before Godard’s, playing here, a left-of-the-dial baffler whose decoupage cast includes Burgess Meredith and Molly Ringwald. Hardly ancient circa ’87, JLG was already playing the cinema’s Grand Old Cuss.