Saturday, October 3, 2015


On the occasion of the Museum of the Moving Image's retrospective of the films of Maurice Pialat from October 16 to November 1, the UK home video distributor Masters of Cinema has granted permission for me to post essays originally written for the DVD booklets of MoC's Pialat releases.  This 2008 essay on Pialat's 1983 film Police (screening Sunday, October 18 at 4 pm) takes a particular interest in the contributions of screenwriter Catherine Breillat.

À Nos Amours

On the occasion of the Museum of the Moving Image's retrospective of the films of Maurice Pialat from October 16 to November 1, the UK home video distributor Masters of Cinema has granted permission for me to post essays originally written for the DVD booklets of MoC's Pialat releases.  This 2010 essay on Pialat's 1983 film À nos amours (screening Friday, October 23 at 7 pm) serves pretty well as a general overview of my thoughts on Pialat.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Frivolous Lists - Canada

The Toronto Film Festival just published its list of the all-time top ten Canadian films. I see at least one favorite film in there, and other directors I admire; but if I were making the list (using the one-film-per-director rule that such surveys tend to enforce, with Cronenberg as the big loser thereby), it would look like this:

1. The Tracey Fragments (Bruce McDonald, 2007)
2. La Face cachée de la lune (Robert Lepage, 2003)
3. Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg, 1991)
4. Blood Relatives (Claude Chabrol, 1977)
5. La Donation (Bernard Émond, 2009)
6. C.R.A.Z.Y. (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2005)
7. Les Bons Débarras (Francis Mankiewicz, 1980)
8. Paper Route (Robert Frank, 2002)
9. Tower (Kasik Radwanski, 2012)
10. Next of Kin (Atom Egoyan, 1984)
Honorable Mention: Last Night (Don McKellar, 1998)     

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Retrospective of my films at Eastman House, June 12-27, 2015

Eastman House in Rochester, NY is hosting a retrospective of my movies in June 2015. I got to choose three movies by other filmmakers to accompany my three screenings; one of these is the U.S. premiere of Paul Negoescu's excellent A Month in Thailand. Screenings are on Fridays and Saturdays over three weeks

Friday, June 12th, 8:00 pm: The Unspeakable Act (2012)

Saturday, June 13th, 8:00 pm: A Month in Thailand  (2012, Paul Negoescu)

Friday, June 19th, 8:00 pm: All the Ships at Sea (2004)

Saturday, June 20th, 7:00 pm: Men in War (1957, Anthony Mann)

Friday,/ June 26th from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm: dinner-and-movie special event (I don't necessarily recommend that people eat before seeing Honeymoon)

Friday, June 26th, 8:00 pm: Honeymoon (1998)

Saturday, June 27th, 8:00 pm: My Night at Maud's (1969, Eric Rohmer)

Thanks to Jurij Meden for programming this retrospective!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

2014 Manhattan One-Week-Run Premieres

Been out of commission for a while, but here's a list of my favorite films that played at least one week in Manhattan for the first time in 2014.  Two of these films are a bit long in the tooth, but my rule is to include any film that seems vaguely contemporary.

In order of preference:

1. Bad Hair (Mariana Rondón)
2. The King of Escape (Alain Guiraudie)
3. Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller)
4. Stand Clear of the Closing Doors (Sam Fleischner)
5. The Monuments Men (George Clooney)
6. Exhibition (Joanna Hogg)
7. A Summer's Tale (Eric Rohmer)
8. Stop the Pounding Heart (Roberto Minervini)
9. Happy Christmas (Joe Swanberg)
10. The Rover (David Michôd)
11. Palo Alto (Gia Coppola)
12. Elle s'en va (On My Way) (Emmanuelle Bercot)
13. Aimer, boire et chanter (Life of Riley) (Alain Resnais)
14. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie)

Somehow I got a little more out of step with others than usual this year.  Oh well.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Jayuui Eondeok (Hill of Freedom), after two viewings

I wish I could find a good discussion group for Hong Sang-soo's Jayuui Eondeok (Hill of Freedom). I've seen the film twice and suspect that there's still a significant amount of resonant detail I haven't seized upon yet.  It's Hong's nature to throw undigested material pell-mell into the crannies of his movies: he's not interested in integrating it into a schema (in fact, the idea would surely repel him), but the impact of his films lies in the wash of dissonance created by this material, a dissonance that belies the light comedy of the films' surface structure.

The first layer of Hill of Freedom is a puzzle, but not a difficult one.  The story of the ill-planned visit to Seoul by Japanese Mori (Ryô Kase) is told via a bundle of letters that he sent to his romantic object Kwon (Seo Young-hwa), who was out of town while Mori was searching for her.  Before she reads the letters, she drops them, assembling them in the wrong order and losing one page.  Thus the story is told with a jumbled chronology that recalls Resnais's Je t'aime, je t'aime.  At film's end, Kwon finishes the letters and finds Mori on the eve of his return to Japan.  Mori's subsequent narration announces a happy ending, with Kwon moving to Japan with him and the couple having two children.

The events of Mori's stay are, typically for Hong, staged as awkward comedy: a series of encounters that are at best failed connections papered over with good will, and at worst open warfare, with the most notable of the encounters being Mori's affair with the friendly waitress Young-sun (Moon So-ri, wonderfully dotty).  We see almost nothing here of Hong's usual device of giving alternate, incompatible versions of the same event.  The only instance of this familiar gambit that I noticed is not very conspicuous: on two occasions, Mori's outings with his landlord's nephew Sang-won (Kim Eui-sung) are narrated in his letters to Kwon with the same language: "Someone took me to..."  There is a bare suggestion in this language that each of these outings might be the first time that Mori and Sang-won went out together, or at least the first time that Mori wrote about it.  Otherwise, however, it seems possible to assemble all Mori's Seoul experiences (including these outings) into a fairly coherent timeline.  On first viewing, I wondered why Hong had abandoned his difficult-to-process penchant for alternate realities and replaced it with the relatively straightforward modernist tactic of jumbled storytelling.

Everything that I've described so far seems to me merely the film's setup.  If this were all we received, Hill of Freedom would be as slight as many reviewers find it.

But the detail that Hong creates underneath the lightly borne surface structure is amorphous and bottomless.  What makes him a great filmmaker is the effortlessness with which he generates this behavioral material: clearly this is a case of the artist living within the act of creation, with no sense of labor in the way he fills his canvas with disorienting details.

Because Hong has no desire to shape this material into a unity, an unordered list of dissonant elements feels like as good an approach as any:

1) The film's happy ending depends on Kwon having recovered her health in the mountains.  She reports having been cured in her conversation with Young-sun at the Hill of Freedom cafe; and Mori repeats this assertion in his closing fairytale narration.  (Both accounts put emphasis on the weird element of the "doctor who is also a preacher" who oversaw Kwon's mountain cure - no other mention of this fellow.)  But Kwon is clearly still sick.  Her fainting spell on the steps of the language center was responsible for the jumbling of the letters; while she is reading the letters at the cafe, she coughs unsettlingly.

2) Mori's affair with Young-sun is not signposted as a transient event or as a substitute for the desired union with Kwon, and therefore unbalances the emotional progression of the story.  Both of Mori and Young-sun's conversations in bed gravitate toward confessions of love and expressions of desire; Mori does experience a "What have I done?" moment after his first night with Young-sun, but this mood seems to have passed by the time of their next meeting.  The affair as a whole feels more like a beginning of a substantial, if questionable, romance than it does like a dalliance.  (The seven or so different scenes chronicling the Mori/Young-sun relationship are particularly easy to reassemble into a timeline, with fairly clear cues to the sequencing.)

2a) And of course the idea that Mori would write about this affair to Kwon, the object of his desire, is very strange, and casts doubt on the extent to which we can regard the body of the film as visualizations of his letters.  In this light, recall that the last-act meeting between Kwon and Young-sun at the cafe plays out without apparent uneasiness or any sign that the two women know they have been drafted into a love triangle.

3) Mori is beset by a mysterious lethargy in Seoul that makes him sleep the days away and suggests a dissolution of character.  The narration refers to his dreams a few times, but, unless I've missed a cue, none of the incident in his Seoul life is clearly marked as being more dreamlike than the rest, or is impossible to piece into a plausible sequence of events.  The image of Mori waking up after the fairytale conclusion of his love story might suggest that the happy ending is a dream; but, given that the subsequent scene fits neatly into an empty slot in the Mori/Young-sun timeline, it's just as likely that Hong is here depicting the content of the letter that Kwon lost on the stairs, or that Hong simply wants to disorient us by resuming the slicing and dicing of the narrative after the temporal juggling is supposed to be over.

4) Though Mori and Young-sun see only progress in their love affair, Hong bizarrely contrives that the final scene of the letter-driven section of the narrative shows Mori accidentally locking himself in Young-sun's bathroom, waiting despondently for help to arrive.  Such moments made me speculate that the film could be Mori's romantic fantasy punctuated by momentary intrusions of the grim reality of his real life, in the manner of Point Blank.

5) The most startling moment in the film is Mori's appearance with a bruised face in the last guest house scene, as Kwon waits in his room for their long-postponed reunion.  The bruise is explained in dialogue - Mori has just had an altercation with Young-sun's boyfriend Gwang-hyeon (Lee Min-woo) - but hangs over the ending as a Buñuelian manifestation of chaos, much like the boar in the window at the end of Night and Day.  Because no other event in the reassembled timeline is as conspicuously absent as this fight, it presents itself as yet another candidate for the content of the lost letter.

In summary, a different film lurks beneath the ragtag fairytale story that we piece together.  And this not-very-hidden under-film speaks to us, obscurely to be sure, of sickness, violence, dissolution, and bad decisions.

Hong is frequently, and I think reasonably, compared to Rohmer, and Mori's sleepiness and its relation to our spectatorship forges an especially strong link between Hill of Freedom and Rohmer's La femme de l'aviateur (The Aviator's Wife).  If one were to synopsize the similarities and differences in the way the two filmmakers use narrative, one might say that Rohmer creates a contrast between his characters' ability to construct clean conceptual frameworks, and the entropic reality that is always too multifarious to support the narratives that the characters create.  Whereas it is Hong himself, not his characters, who sets up the rickety infrastructure of a decipherable world, all the while feeding in a darkness and surrealism that makes modernist art impossible to sustain.

Friday, April 25, 2014

To Have and Have Not

To Have and Have Not feels like the dead center of the Hawksian universe, even more than the other two films that Robin Wood bracketed with it as “the Hawks trilogy,” Only Angels Have Wings and Rio Bravo. Uninflected by either the will to power that seizes control of the Hollywood machinery in Angels or the craftsman’s desire to regain lost prestige with the perfect object of Rio Bravo, To Have and Have Not simply is, much as Bogart simply appears, without provenance, in the film’s elegant first shot. The 1940s were Hawks’ oyster – he had eleven consecutive box-office hits from 1939 to 1951 – and To Have and Have Not was the pearl at the center, a work undertaken in and executed with as much comfort and confidence as an industry director is ever likely to muster.

Which is not to say that the film is beyond reproach. For a masterpiece, it takes an unusual amount of time to hit its stride, as if Hawks needed to put all its elements in place and bang them around a little before getting comfortable enough to use them unselfconsciously. Scavenging in both Hemingway’s source novel and Casablanca, Hawks and his writers Jules Furthman and William Faulkner are obliged to retool the bits and pieces that they salvage in order to fit them into the director’s world view. Rather characteristically for Hawks, the scene that seems most accurately drawn from Hemingway’s novel, in which Harry Morgan (Bogart) takes an unsavory paying customer, Johnson (Walter Sande), on a fishing cruise, isn’t entirely satisfactory: Johnson is too easy to dislike, Morgan gives us too much of the simple pleasure of witty contempt. In general, the film’s establishing scenes rely heavily on the wish-fulfillment of Morgan talking tough to power, with at least one important scene, the interrogation of Morgan and Slim (Lauren Bacall) by Vichy Martinique’s menacing Sûreté, distorted by giving us this pleasure. Perhaps the most interesting problem with the material is Slim’s elephant-in-the room gotta-be prostitution, which is pushed away not only because the times required it, but also because Hawks is more interested in acquiring a hot rebel girl for his band of outsiders than he is in either enforcing or undermining a social norm. On the Casablanca side, the bluntness of Morgan’s refusal to get involved in the Vichy-Free French conflict announces itself as a genre convention and evolves into a wink to the audience, without ever being taken seriously as psychology (“I don’t know…maybe because I like you, maybe because I don’t like them”). The process of adaptation for Hawks often, perhaps always, mandates a breaking-in period, with the author’s vision first imperfectly assimilated, then simply overridden. One detects here a bit of internal conflict between Hawks’ self-image as a Hollywood craftsman whose job is to put an acquired property on screen, and the innate willfulness of an unreconstructed artist.

The most fascinating ambiguity in To Have and Have Not is crystallized when Cricket (Hoagy Carmichael) consoles Slim after Morgan has bid her farewell: “Maybe it's better this way, Slim...You haven't known him very long. He's a funny guy.” The statement is unusual, coming from a friend and ally. Morgan is depicted throughout the film as being outside of society’s jurisdiction, a guy who’s “handled quite a lot of gunshot wounds.” The putative central theme of commitment to The Cause is enacted by Hawks and Bogart as an issue of character extremity rather than moral exigency: a number of sympathetic characters plead with Morgan for his help and are turned away with no social accommodation for friendship, shrugging and shaking their heads. Beyond this, Morgan’s acts of aggression and rebellion against authority could easily be interpreted as a ledger of antisocial behavior, even by the individualist standards of fictional heroism. When Morgan insists that the wounded Free French emissary de Bursac (Walter Molnar) be left lying on the deck of Morgan’s boat (“I don’t want him bleeding over my cushions”), or when he threatens to shoot unarmed Sûreté men (“You’re going to get it anyway” - evoking a protest from his allies), it’s clear that, on some level, the film posits Morgan as trespassing against the inscribed audience’s moral standards.

And yet the case for Morgan as antihero is severely compromised by how consistently Hawks uses the character to fulfill his and our wishes. Morgan’s insolence and rebellion relieves our fear that power will be taken away from our identification figure; and his antisocial instincts are often expressed too wittily and with too much composure for us not to respond favorably. From the beginning, each of Morgan’s potential transgressions is integrated into his appealing sense of power and intelligence, making it difficult for us to claim any distance from him - “He’s a funny guy” may be the only moment where we are invited to contemplate Morgan’s strangeness without sharing in his authority. The inevitable result - that the film itself comes to partake of Morgan’s transgressive spirit - suits Hawks just fine. A rebellion against empathy always bubbles under the surface of his movies, and Morgan’s semi-outlaw status gives Hawks the opportunity to charge To Have and Have Not with the thrill of breaking commandments. Its electrifying climactic image, of Morgan shooting through a wooden table to kill a Sûreté agent, pays us off for the duplicity and hiding that we have had to endure throughout the film, and leads directly to Morgan’s only-theoretically uncomfortable act of torturing the remaining Sûreté men in order to reclaim hostages and gain safe passage. The film’s rush of energy at this casting off of inhibitions (“You're both going to take a beating till someone uses that phone. That means one of you is going to take a beating for nothing”) is a definitive rebuttal to the surface schema of an antisocial figure brought into line with the audience’s values.  

To Have and Have Not has no peer among Hawks’ films in the quantity of its dense, atmospheric settings. Hawks’ way with a studio set is a more diffuse application of the principle that governs his approach to acting: he starts with the attractive artifice of studio recreation, then adds detail and immediacy until the environmental load feels a notch more realistic than the setup. The first images of the film, on the docks of Fort de France, are a fine example: the effect of realism out of artifice is obtained not only with good set design, real water, and clever blocking of extras, but also with the way that Morgan materializes in mid-frame on the fade-in, too busy to give the film time to establish anything. Of course, Hawks always invests heavily in the ambiance of bars and nightclubs: here primarily the hotel club run by Morgan’s pal Frenchy (Marcel Dalio), which first becomes vivid to us as Cricket’s band, the drummer folding his newspaper just in time to come in on brushes, invites Slim to guest on vocals on “Am I Blue,” while Morgan looks on from his table behind a barricade of liquor, coffee and cigarettes. But Hawks has just as much fun with the frenetic drum-driven atmosphere of the crowded little bar where Morgan and Slim stop off to recover their composure after their close call at the hands of the Sûreté. As the plot engages, Hawks strings together imaginative artificial settings with an almost Sternbergian density: the early morning meeting with the remnants of the Free French resistance in a Creole shack, with slanting light through the shades and chickens clucking in the front yard; the tense mission to retrieve the de Bursacs, the relentless hum of the boat motor sustaining the sense of danger in Morgan’s subdued demeanor; the superb bullet-extraction scene, all high-key lighting and surgical process; the morning after the all-nighter, with Slim and Cricket holding the fort in the deserted cafe.

The film’s untrumpable trick is, of course, the legendarily effective love story between Bogart and Bacall. Identifying Slim as an adventuress rather than a prostitute removes the interesting prospect of putting the love alliance definitively outside the bounds of societal acceptance, but Hawks no doubt preferred his time-honored fallback position of erecting a wall of bad reputation between the lovers (“One look and you decided just what you wanted to think about me” - a sentiment reprised in Rio Bravo) and then bringing the wall down with raw sexual attraction. The key Morgan-Slim scenes take place in the enclosures of their shadowy hotel rooms, where even the Production Code seems unable to reach them as they perform mating rituals using a stolen wallet as prop, or linger over the sensuality of Morgan’s all-nighter beard abrading Slim’s cheek. The protracted play between the lovers stretches out the film’s structure daringly, with the two ping-ponging back and forth between rooms and conversation topics as long as they and Hawks feel like it - but Hawks will generally sacrifice a shapely narrative line for one more good scene or bit of business, and not many viewers have minded over the years.

Hoagy Carmichael, launching a nice little side career here as a supporting actor, is the first musician to take a substantial role in a Hawks film (though Gene Krupa had a memorable specialty act a few years earlier in Ball of Fire), and Hawks profits from the authentic casting, letting Carmichael illustrate the songwriting process by performing a discarded (but lovely) early draft of “How Little We Know” with completely different lyrics and mood. Lending his music to the cause of Hawks’ playful reflexivity, Cricket announces his ability to step outside the diegesis early on, scoring the discovery of Johnson’s body with ironically maudlin music: “Cut it out, Cricket,” says Morgan, trying to repress a grin. Morgan will later whistle the “How Little We Know” theme on his boat - a musical-comedy trope at the beginning of one of the film’s darkest scenes - and, when the action is over and Hawks needs an eight-bars-and-out ending, he has Cricket answer Slim’s final interrogatory line of dialogue - “What do you think?” - with a jazzed-up version of the same theme, cueing the audience to reach for their coats.