Prior to traveling to Brussels, Belgium this past November, I put some serious research time into identifying the key sights and activities I wanted to see and do while visiting. Apart from the essentials like a walk through “The Grand Place” and a visit to the Magritte Museum, there are plenty of offbeat detours like the incredibly cluttered but charming Musee de Jouet (a vast collection of toys from the past) and the Musee des Instruments de Musique, housed in a former 1899 department store in the art nouveau style. If you are a fan of Belgium beers, you will be in heaven here (visit A La Morte Subite and Delirium Tremens Cafe for starters) and your choices of various cuisines will be endless though you may be tempted to try the local specialty – mussels & frites – at least once unless you have an aversion to shellfish and french fries. And if you a film lover, particularly one interested in repertory programming, you will be amazed at what you find for Brussels has a thriving movie culture with even more “classic cinema” viewing options than nearby Amsterdam (less than 3 hours by train), another mecca for cinephiles which we visited a few days before.
Foremost among the screening venues – and the one we visited three times during our brief stay – is the CINEMATEK (aka Musee de Cinema) which is located at rue Baron Horta 9 and is accessible by a side street entrance or through the main lobby of the Bozar, Brussels’ Center for Fine Arts (pictured above), during normal operating hours. Recently renovated and redesigned by architects Robbrecht and Daem, this archive, which holds one of the largest and richest film collections in the world, features a permanent exhibition space, two screening rooms (the Plateau and the Ledoux) equipped to project most common formats, a reading area stocked with film periodicals, terminals to watch films on demand and more. I was overwhelmed by the width and breath of the programming and the ambitious daily calendar of screening events. It is not uncommon to have five to seven film showings a day at the Cinematek with up to 25 or more thematic or special exhibitions scheduled monthly.
To give you an idea of the daily offerings, consider this past line-up for November 7 (2012): a program of newsreels and animation entitled “Astronauts, Robots and Aliens,” George Lacombe’s 1941 mystery thriller Le Dernier Des Six (with a screenplay by Henri-Georges Clouzot), Jane Campion’s 1990 film biography of New Zealand novelist Janet Frame – An Angel at My Table, Cecil B. DeMille’s silent melodrama The Cheat (1915) with a piano score performed live, Richard Brooks’ Blackboard Jungle (1955), Les Mille et Une Mains (A Thousand and One Hands, 1972) by Morocco-based filmmaker Souheil Ben-Barka, and Olivier Assayas’ Une Nouvelle Vie (A New Life, 1993). Quite a feast for one day of programming but with two screening rooms and overlapping run times you can’t see everything and most of the selections are not repeated.
Thematic programming is interwoven throughout the schedule, sometimes as a one time spotlight (director Michel Ciment and film critic Hubert Niogret introduced a personal favorite, Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-Bi) but more often as a series slotted for specific days and times throughout the month and beyond. A perfect example of some recent retrospectives that often ran parallel to each other are Le Cinema Francais Sous L’Occupation (French films made under Germany rule in WWII including Le Corbeau, Remorques and Children of Paradise), Estonian Cinema (a much needed survey course of this small republic’s film culture that included such intriguing titles as Bear Hunting in Parnumaal and Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel); a series of movies set in train stations with Vittorio De Sica’s Stazione Termini (1953), released in the U.S. in a truncated version entitled Indiscretion of an American Wife, and Samy Szlingerbaum’s Brussels Transit (1980) among the fare; a program dedicated to the French film magazine Positif which presented key works championed by the periodical including Elia Kazan’s much maligned The Arrangement (1969); Jerzy Skolimowski’s Moonlighting (1982), Nagisa Oshima’s The Ceremony (1971) and Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960), and African-American Hollywood, a sprawling historic retrospective from the silent era (Edwin S. Porter’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1903) to Sidney Meyer’s The Quiet One (1948) to Jamie Foxx in Ray (2004) with a sidebar tribute to Sidney Poitier, showcasing such seldom seen films as the Western, Duel at Diablo (1966), and A Warm December (1973), a romance directed by and starring Poitier.
Nicola Mazzanti, Cinematek’s coordinator and film curator, and her staff deserve the highest praise for assembling such a stimulating and wildly diverse cinematic smorgasbord, week after week, month after month. If I lived in Brussels, I would probably be camped out here in my spare time. And they have a sister arm – the Flagey Cinematek – in another neighborhood of Brussels, Place Flagey (which I didn’t have time to visit) but their programming is also pure crack for cinephiles. Current offerings have included a tribute to directors Roman Polanski, John Huston, and Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, Alps) and such classic favorites as King Kong, Splendor in the Grass, The Barefoot Contessa and Brief Encounter. Check it out here – http://www.flagey.be/en/program/genre/cinema.
During our whirlwind three-day visit to Brussels, we originally planned to visit the Cinematek on the afternoon of the second day for a screening of EROTIKON (1920), starring Tora Teje and Lars Hanson, directed by Greta Garbo’s muse and favorite director Mauritz Stiller and featuring a live score. But we got sidetracked by the interactive displays, photographs, maps, drawings and artifacts at the BELvue museum, which presents a comprehensive and fascinating history of Brussels beginning with 1830, the year Belgium became an independent state in Europe. We were too late to make the EROTIKON screening but made plans to see the Cinematek’s final film of the evening after dinner – CLEOPATRA JONES (1973).
One of several films being offered in a two-month overview of Blaxploitation cinema, this rowdy, low-down action drama features statuesque 6′ 2″ former model Tamara Dobson as the title heroine, an undercover CIA narcotics agent intent on busting a Los Angeles drug smuggling gang lead by a vicious bull-dyke named “Mommy.” As played by Shelley Winters, the character is a wild cartoon caricature of evil excess and it makes her performance as Ma Barker in Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama look demure in comparison. The somewhat splicey and worn 35mm print (all of the films we saw were projected on film) was still serviceable and the film’s vibrant color palette had not faded. The audience seemed to enjoy the broadly played, camp nature of the film (which inspired the 1975 sequel, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold) and it was fun to see some of the supporting cast try to steal scenes from Ms. Winters, especially Antonio Fargas as Doodlebug Simkins, a manic, jive-talkin’, flamboyantly dressed business rival who delivers some of the funniest dialogue in the film.
Other standouts are Bill McKinney (the rapist from Deliverance) as a corrupt, racist cop and Bernie Casey as a formidable anti-drug activist from the hood and sometimes lover of CJ. Tamara Dobson looks gorgeous in a non-stop parade of implausible but hilariously outré outfits and is better at posing than acting plus her martial arts action scenes are about as convincing as the clumsy kick boxing footwork of Dolemite, Rudy Ray Moore’s alter ego. Still, Dobson has undeniable screen charisma and it’s a shame she is no longer with us (she died at the early age of 59 in 2006 of complications of pneumonia and multiple sclerosis). By the way, CLEOPATRA JONES was co-written by actor/producer Max Julien, the cult star of The Mack (1973), and the film was directed with crude, vigorous style by character actor Jack Starrett, who is a familiar face in biker flicks (Hell’s Angels on Wheels, The Born Losers, Nam’s Angels) and an exploitation legend himself (he helmed Race With the Devil, the Jim Brown crime drama Slaughter, and other drive-in classics.)
On the following day, we returned to the Cinematek for an afternoon program organized for family viewing – “Astronauts, Robots and Aliens,” which opened with the 1963 newsreel John Glenn Orbits the Earth and was followed by five animated shorts, two of them Russian, the other three U.S. releases. Programming films for children and their parents is one of the regular on-going events here and it was fun to experience this Sunday afternoon community gathering. I was particularly surprised at how quiet and attentive most of the small children were while watching the John Glenn newsreel since it was in black and white with voiceover narration and typical of the officious reporting style of most films produced by the United States Information Service. Perhaps part of their interest was due to Glenn’s space suit and helmet (which looks strangely archaic now and closer to something from a fifties sci-fi film) and the odd spectacle of the tiny space capsule he was literally strapped into, allowing him little freedom of movement.
As for the space age cartoons, the two shorts from Russia were new discoveries for me and quite innovative for their era beginning with JAAK JA ROBOT (1965) by Estonian animator Heino Pars and concluding with KHELMARJVE OSTATIS TAVGADASAVALI (Adventures of Samodelkin, 1957) by Republic of Georgia animator Vakhtang Bakhtadze. The three U.S. cartoons featured were MARTIAN RECIPE (1965), a late period Terrytoon short from Paul Terry (of Heckle and Jeckle and Deputy Dawg fame), THE HASTY HARE (1952), the Chuck Jones/Warner Bros. classic in which Bugs Bunny outwits an invader from Mars and his dog-soldier K-9, and THE CAT THAT HATED PEOPLE (1948), a Tex Avery cartoon in which the title character wants to escape the human race and relocates to the Moon where his reception is less than idyllic.
Later than evening, Beth and I returned to the Cinematek for our final film there – THE TAKE (1974), another entry in the Blaxploitation series. This relatively obscure crime drama doesn’t really bear any of the expected cliches, attitudes and distinctive fashion sense of this once popular genre in seventies cinema. Instead, it is an unheralded and underrated film noir that turns a cynical eye toward law enforcement where almost everyone is tainted by corruption to some degree, making them no better than the criminals they pursue. Directed by Robert Hartford-Davis, a British filmmaker better known for such horror titles as The Black Torment and Corruption, THE TAKE could have benefitted from tighter pacing and more dynamic action sequences but the film works well as a gritty character study thanks to a more than capable cast. Billy Dee Williams is perfectly cast as Sneed, a police lieutenant who is playing both sides of the law by taking brides from criminals in exchange for busting their business rivals, using the money to finance his own scams and advancing his career in the police force. Despite his mercenary and deceptive nature, you root for Sneed anyway because he works that lone wolf coolness factor (Jim Brown has it too) yet still has some decency left in him.
In addition to Williams, THE TAKE is also distinguished by its non-urban setting – a small town in sunbaked New Mexico (it was filmed on locations around Santa Fe and Albuquerque) – and a first rate supporting cast that includes Eddie Albert as Sneed’s ineffective, dissatisfied superior, Albert Salmi as Sneed’s crooked partner, a very young A. Martinez as a rising and corruptible cop on the force, the always creepy John Davis Chandler as an ill-fated gangster in an opening shootout, and Frankie Avalon in a surprising dramatic turn (and completely convincing) as a two-hit hood and mob stool pigeon. The real acting honors though go to Vic Morrow as Manso, an ailing but still intimidating crime lord who gets his cronies to do his dirty deeds while taking a sadistic pleasure in the orchestration and viewing of them. Morrow, who has been typecast as villains too many times in his career for obvious reasons, avoids the histrionics of previous performances and goes for something quieter, devious and more psychologically complex than the sort of thugs he played in Blackboard Jungle and King Creole. As the object of Williams’ shakedown, he conveys more danger and menace in his gravelly voice and malevolent smile than a pack of gun-toting hit men. Granted, THE TAKE is no masterpiece but for a movie often lumped into the Blaxploitation category, the focus is on morality, not race, and provides both Morrow and Williams with intriguing characters who have embraced the dark side of life in varying degrees. The 35mm print of THE TAKE shown at Cinematek, despite a few nicks and scratches, was in fine shape which may be due to the fact that the film is rarely screened.
I still can’t figure out why Williams didn’t have a bigger, more high profile career than he did; he certainly had the looks and the talent. The TV movies Brian’s Song and The Glass House (both 1972) brought him visibility and acclaim (he earned an Emmy nomination for the former) and Lady Sings the Blues (also 1972) made him into a bona fide matinee idol. But after that, major films or important roles were few and far between. Was it a matter of Williams – or his agent – not picking the right projects or simply the lack of opportunity in white Hollywood? He did land a few promising assignments – The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings in 1977, the title role in the TV biopic Scott Joplin in 1978 – and secured his legacy in film history by appearing as Lando Calrissian in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back (Stars Wars: Episode V). But overall, Williams has been misused and overlooked. Still, he has worked steadily in television and film ever since he earned his first screen credits in 1959 and he is still in the game.
It would have been fun to linger longer in Brussels and check out the other great repertory and art house cinemas in the city such as the Vendome Cinema, The Actors Studio, The Styx, and the other Cinematek branch at Flagey. But it would be hard to top the Cinematek at the Bozar location for selection and diversity in terms of classic film. It’s a world class operation and deserves to be ranked right up there with MoMA, UCLA, the George Eastman House, the BFI and other renowned film archives. Don’t miss a chance to experience it if you happen to visit Brussels – http://www.cinematek.be/?node=17&description=Programme