Friday, December 28, 2007

Otto Preminger: Film Forum, January 2-17, 2007

Film Forum is kicking off 2008 with a far-from-complete but nonetheless welcome retrospective of the formidable Otto Preminger, one of the most distinctive sensibiities in the history of American cinema. Just in case anyone out there is looking for guidance, here are my two cents about which titles in the series are required viewing.

Preminger's career breaks down roughly into five parts.
  • Pre-Auteur, 1931-1944. Preminger's work before Laura has traditionally been ignored by film scholarship. Film Forum is showing three of the early films, all on January 14. In the Meantime, Darling is by far the best of the bunch - but if you're hardcore you're probably seeing the whole triple bill, and if you're not you can probably skip the early work altogether.
  • Fox Film Noir, 1944-1951. Laura made Preminger a name and ushered in his first major period, dominated by atmospheric chamber melodramas. If you see only one of these, make it the superb Daisy Kenyon, as good a film as Preminger or anyone else ever made. It screens with Laura (which never meant that much to me, for some reason) on January 2 and 3. My second choice would be the strikingly abstract Fallen Angel, screening on January 6.
  • Adjusting to Independence, 1952-1957. This grab-bag period sees Preminger experimenting with different genres, exploring widescreen, and generally taking the measure of the shifts in style that were occasioned by the advent of television and the adoption of new codes of realism. The must-see here is Angel Face, screening with Fallen Angel on January 6, and probably the best textbook from which to study the essentials of Premingerian style.
  • Big Subjects, 1958-1967. Preminger grabbed the public's attention, as producer and director, with a series of well-publicized, large-scale projects, often literary adaptations, often pegged to important social issues. I most recommend Anatomy of a Murder, the archetype for Preminger's Big Subject films, screening on January 4 and 5; and the Beltway epic Advise and Consent, screening on January 12.
  • Coping with New Hollywood, 1968-1979. Most people think that Preminger's last decade of work isn't his best - and Film Forum isn't showing any of these movies anyway.

I like other films in the series, but let's leave it at that for the sake of brevity. The Daisy link above contains some of my thoughts about Preminger, and here's a little something I wrote on a_film_by about Preminger's attitude toward characters.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Charlie Wilson's War

Charlie Wilson's War surprised me pleasantly. It contains a fair amount of commercial routine, but the heart of the film, the protagonists' manipulation of the political system, is so pragmatic and literal that it challenges the identification structure that usually propels this kind of drama. The most idealistic of our heroes is a religious right-wing extremist; the most far-sighted are intelligence officers who like to talk about "killing Russians"; the "voice of conscience" role is given to a military dictator. At the center of the operation, liberal congressman Charlie Wilson seems driven less by righteousness than a pleasure in operating large political machinery. His amorality extends beyond his private life to encompass his political relationships, and from certain angles the film can be interpreted as making a case for amorality as a social value.

Aaron Sorkin's remarkable script deserves much of the credit for the film's success, but we are reminded again that Mike Nichols can be a superb director of actors, and he guides Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman away from the commandeering of audience identification that is the acting profession's version of original sin.

One of Charlie Wilson's limitations, however, is instructive. The film is set against the background of real-life, large-scale human suffering: Afghanistan's plight during the Soviet invasion. And yet the film is not, structurally speaking, about this large and important topic. It is in essence a caper film: its appeal is based on the excitement of watching a band of allies mount a complex strategic assault on a system.

This collision of modes is tricky to manage. There is intrinsic black humor in the idea of focusing on small-scale personal triumph in the midst of global suffering, and Nichols and Sorkin occasionally try for black humor, particularly in the film's combat scenes. But Charlie Wilson is not unconventional enough to throw away the commercial benefits of having a Big Subject, nor to steer completely clear of a sentimental "we changed the world" tone at key moments (like the beginning and ending). Inevitably, its substantial virtues are undercut by its confusion about whether the Afghan crisis is its raison d'etre or a MacGuffin.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Scarface: MOMA, December 16, 2007

It's always been hard for me to have an informal relationship with Scarface, because its legend looms so large in my filmgoing life. (I am talking about the original 1932 version. I will never get used to having to make that clear, just as some religious people probably bristle to think that "Madonna" might no longer mean the Virgin Mary to everyone.) When I began reading film literature, commentators often cited it as the greatest work of Howard Hawks, who has always seemed to me the greatest director in cinema history. (These days, I believe that it's more common for critics to give honors to other Hawks movies - Rio Bravo especially.) It was unavailable for screening for decades, like other films owned by Howard Hughes, and could be seen only at clandestine 16mm screenings until the 80s. And, once seen and assimilated into the canon, it became a touchstone, a key test case for what might be termed moralistic criticism. Every time I wonder whether a movie is getting too much pleasure from the exercise of power or violence, my thought process makes an obligatory stop: "But what about Scarface? What does this movie do that Scarface doesn't do?"

All Hawks' films work off of a genre background that creates expectations about how formally, how quickly, how emphatically scenes will play. And then the execution happens more casually and rapidly than expected, creating an illusion of realism, and releasing energy. Depending on the genre, different aspects of Hawks movies can become part of the genre background; and in Scarface I have the feeling that whole chunks of the movie, even scenes with important characters, exist primarily to establish its genre credentials. Despite an amusing reflexive bit in the first shot - in which a janitor bats impatiently at the elaborate Sternberg-like decor, trying to clear the set for Hawksian use - Scarface doesn't truly announce its Hawksian intentions until the violence starts flowing freely. But then the film knocks us back in our seats: not with especially graphic violence, but with the speed and frequency of the mayhem, and also with the directness of its presentation of such frightening material.

The exhilarating effect is hard to deny. What does Hawks do to prevent our celebrating the violence? I'm not really sure that he does anything. Certainly he does not spare us Tony Camonte's cruelty, or hide his crudeness and unattractive qualities. Neither is he much interested in condemning him, despite the studio's many distracting attempts to placate the Hays Office by inserting socially responsible commentary. One feels that Camonte interests Hawks the most as a character in the scenes where he plays parent and teacher to his team of hoodlums, revealing a childlike nature that is comically inadequate to grasping moral issues, and that makes him, if anything, more sympathetic to the audience.

One notes that the thrill of the violence doesn't prevent the film from making an honest account of human suffering. For instance, there is no sense of reversal or contradiction when a brutal shooting scene ends with a barrel of beer rolling into a basement apartment and presumably killing one of its offscreen inhabitants (we hear the wailing of a woman as the scene ends). In general, it doesn't seem that we need to identify with Camonte or his men to appreciate the violent scenes: in fact, the audience probably wouldn't mind much if one of our monster/protagonists met his end amid the sensory overload.

But the joy of combat is represented as well as its human cost. The most exciting and perfectly realized scene in the film, in which Camonte and his minion Rinaldo score a machine gun from the gang who is attacking the restaurant in which they are eating, is very similar in tone to the final shootout with the Burdett gang at the end of Rio Bravo - our excitement at the onscreen violence is intentionally conflated with Camonte and Rinaldo's adrenaline rush from being under fire. The fact that the protagonists are lawmen in Rio Bravo and ruthless gangsters in Scarface does not seem to be a key factor.

The conclusion I draw is that Scarface gets away with giving us enormous pleasure from unspeakable actions because it promotes in us a sense of intellectual and emotional mobility. It does not have to romanticize violence or violent people to get its effects; it does not have to create a narrative that denies us one perspective or another on the violence. In this context, our thrilled response to killing registers simply, a fact among other facts.

You probably won't read this in time, but Scarface screens again at MOMA on Sunday (tomorrow), December 16 at 2 pm.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

La Soledad: Walter Reade, December 13 and 14, 2007

In my previous post on the Walter Reade's Spanish Cinema Now series, I mentioned Jaime Rosales's La Soledad (Solitary Fragments). Turns out I liked it quite a lot: it's playing again this afternoon at 3 pm, and tomorrow (Friday, December 14) at 9:15 pm. In the comments section for the Spanish Cinema Now post, Spanish critic Miguel Marias and I have been talking more about Rosales (who is not one of Miguel's favorites). Along the way, that same comments section wanders into discussion of neo-Bressonianism, depictions of unpleasant family life, and silent movie accompaniment....

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Thinking About Sound

After I posted a few weeks ago about the films of Humphrey Jennings, I started thinking again about sound and what it means to movies. In particular, I often try to put my finger on how sight and sound function in different ways for us, about how they might each have a different function in a sound film. Sometimes I'll hear a critic or filmmaker talk about how sound has barely been explored by filmmakers relative to the image (Godard was talking like that in the early 80s, around the time of Passion; I recently a piece by Andi Engel on early Straub-Huillet that took the same tack), and I always feel that they've got hold of the wrong end of it: surely there are reasons that sound and image have been used in different ways. Bazin had a different, more holistic view of sound: to him, film was not fundamentally a visual art, but rather an art based on the realism of the photograph; and the addition of sound to cinema was simply the filling of a gap, a development in perfect harmony with cinema's primal mission. I'm down with Bazin's sentiment (which was largely prescriptive, a description of the kind of cinema that Bazin valued most), but even in real life sight and sound do not function symmetrically with regard to each other, and I'd like to understand more about it. Does anyone know of literature that takes a stab at distinguishing between the psychological effects of vision and hearing?

This time around, I started by thinking about a commonplace idea that rings true for most of us: that a deaf person feels cut off from other people in a way that a blind person does not, and that, though we think of vision as the most useful sense, we might be happier to lose it than to lose our hearing. At least part of the force of this idea is connected to our emotions about spoken language. The content of language can be conveyed visually; and so can the enormous complexity of human personality; but perhaps only spoken language delivers both these payloads simultaneously, so that the two seem inextricable from each other. When we imagine what we would lose by being deaf, we think first of voices.

But one can leave voices aside in this consideration. Imagine being Robinson Crusoe on an island and having to sacrifice one sense or the other (a bad deal, admittedly). I, for one, would still feel more connected to my environment listening to its noises than looking around it. More helpless, without a doubt; but more present, less distant.

Is this because sound is panoramic (coming from all directions, not just one) and continuous (never turned off by anything analogous to an eyelid)? If we could see in every direction, and if images came to us even as we were sleeping, would that be enough to make vision as intimate and oceanic a sense as hearing? I can't decide. Maybe it would.

Anyway, the word "helpless" that I used above is suggestive to me. It's often been observed that vision is associated with power: we select what we see, manipulate our sensory apparatus to our advantage. And the visual aspect of cinema is easy to imbue with the urge to dominance: editing or camera movement that is executed with energy often connotes an assault, a campaign of control. Sound can, of course, become just as obtrusive as the image. But a noisy sound track suggests to me chaos more than strategy. And a fairly straightforward sound track often has something of the passivity of that blind Crusoe crouching in the bush: it absorbs and registers everything around it, makes no sudden moves.

Even if one credits this impressionistic attempt to associate visuals with the active principle and the soundtrack with the passive, it's certainly possible to use images to suggest passivity (e.g., the "master shot" style of so much of today's art cinema) or sound to suggest activity (e.g., Hollywood trailers). In both cases, though, I'm aware of the work required. Whereas if I consider basic, Griffith-inspired, Gunsmoke-editing-project film language, I get a sense of the image imposing itself on reality, and reality imposing itself on the sound track.

A possible corollary: I wrote recently about a connection between auteurist tastes in cinema and the passive principle. And it also seems to be true that contemporary French art cinema, which still shows the influence of Nouvelle Vague technique, is the school of filmmaking most dedicated to the importance of natural sound.

Anyway, this is off-the-cuff speculation, probably subject to revision in the coming minutes.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Spanish Cinema Now: Walter Reade, December 7-27, 2007

I haven't seen any of the films in the Walter Reade's upcoming Spanish Cinema Now series (none of the new films, anyway - I saw Pilar Miró's The Cuenca Crime long ago, and wrote a short review at the time), but I thought I'd share my pre-fest notes.

  • The item I'm most anticipating is Jaime Rosales' La Soledad (Solitary Fragments), which screened in Cannes' Un Certain Regard section this year. Rosales made an impressive debut in 2003 with La Horas del dia (The Hours of the Day), a deadpan account of a Barcelona shopkeeper whose occasional murders seem unmotivated.
  • Iciar Bollain (the teenage actress in Erice's El Sur), whose film Mataharis is screening, did a very nice, character-driven drama in 1999, Flores de otro mundo (Flowers from Another World). Her 2003 followup, Te doy mis ojos (Take My Eyes), disappointed me, but I'm still keeping tabs on her.
  • Among the unknown quantities, Miguel Hermoso's Lola, la pelicula looks like a totally unpromising biopic of a famous flamenco dancer - except that the trailer reveals a really cool, old-fashioned widescreen compositional style, and even a nice action moment. I'm very curious.
  • Santi Amodeo's Cabeza de perro (Doghead) has a more interesting subject, but the trailer has a flashier, more suspect visual style. I'm rooting harder for Lola, la pelicula, but this looks like the most interesting of the series' unknown art films.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Romanian Film Festival: Tribeca Cinemas, through December 2, 2007

This is the second year that the Romanian Cultural Institute has sponsored a Romanian film festival at the Tribeca Cinemas, and both times I didn't find out about it until it was right on top of me. So maybe you don't know about it either.

There's a very juicy item in this program: Lucian Pintilie's first feature Reconstruction (or Reenactment) (1968), screening Sunday at 7:30 pm. I've never had an opportunity to see any of Pintilie's work before The Oak (1992) - and actually there wasn't that much work from him before that, as he sat out most of the Ceaucescu regime in Paris. I consider Pintilie a major dude - I'm an especially big fan of his An Unforgettable Summer (1994) - and I'll be there Sunday night with bells on.

If you're feeling adventurous, you might also check out Mircea Daneliuc's Jacob (1988) on Saturday at 12:30 pm. Daneliuc has talent, but I'm not sure yet how much: I rather liked his Mike Test (1980), was less excited about The Conjugal Bed (1993).

We've already missed the festival screening of Cristian Mungiu's Palme d'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, but IFC has picked that up for American theatrical distribution. However, the program includes Mungiu's previous feature Occident (2002), screening on Sunday at 1 pm, and a collection of his short films, screening on Friday at 6 pm and Saturday at 8 pm. I had both good and bad feelings about 4 Months, but I'm curious to learn more about the guy.

The festival is also an opportunity to catch the late Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin', which won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes this year, on Friday at 8 pm and Saturday at 3 pm. The festival is screening the "Endless" (a mistranslation of "unfinished") 155-minute version, with Nemescu did not live to finish editing; word on the street is that the film will eventually circulate in a version shortened by Nemescu's collaborators, but purists may want to grab this opportunity. Here's what I wrote about the film in my Toronto wrapup at Senses of Cinema:

"Twenty nine-year-old Romanian director Cristian Nemescu was killed in a car accident during the editing of his feature debut California Dreamin'. His post-production team finished his rough cut, titled California Dreamin' (Nesfarsit), and screened it at Cannes, where it won the Un Certain Regard award. An ambitious farce about an American captain (Armand Assante) and his troops stranded in a small Romanian town by a stubborn, corrupt railway chief (Razvan Vasilescu) during the Kosovo conflict, Dreamin’ is practically an homage to Billy Wilder’s sprawling comedies, with the bewildered Americans at the mercy of the Romanians’ criss-crossing objectives, including the political maneuvering of the mayor (Ion Sapdaru) and the romantic schemes of the railway chief’s daughter (Maria Dinulescu). Nemescu and his co-writers Catherine Linstrum and Tudor Voican successfully mimic Wilder’s flair for topical reference and his vision of a world driven by self-interest. And, truth be told, Nemescu’s filmmaking skills are considerably more supple than Wilder’s: he’s a confident action director, has a great eye, handles erotic scenes with enthusiasm and, above all, has an instinct for how to use naturalism as a counterbalance to farce. Dreamin’ should have been, and probably would have been, much shorter than 155 minutes: as it stands, it assembles so much digressive material that the story’s momentum is weakened. While less than a complete success, the existing cut is an amazing calling card for a director who might have been more than a footnote to film history had he lived a few more months."

Monday, November 26, 2007

No Country for Old Men

The Coen brothers' admirable new film is oddly transparent: the filmmakers do not wish to obscure the audience's view of the subject matter. Previously, I would have said that a certain reflectivity identified their style. But here we see the same abstraction as always, the same Lang-like transformation of images into ideas, the same quantization of effects - and yet no sense, or almost none, of the filmmakers using abstraction to open a humorous gap between themselves and the drama. (I don't mean to denigrate that humorous distance, which the Coens have exploited well on occasion.)

The film's daring is out in the open: it starts as a Charley Varrick-like, suspenseful conflict between powerful opposing forces, undermines and then destroys the force that most represents the audience, and empties out into a dark plain of irresolution.

As much as I appreciate this bold storytelling gesture, I wonder if it doesn't expose a contradiction in the film's means. Certainly a great deal of the pleasure that the film gives the audience is the joy of being vicariously threatened by an almost omnipotent villain, upon whose predations the film lingers lovingly. It seems clear to me that only part of us feels assaulted by such monsters, that another part of us thrills to their strength, their freedom to destroy. (If the Javier Bardem character were purely a source of suffering for audiences, then No Country's ratio of pain to pleasure would be too steep for most to endure.)

I don't object to this kind of appeal to our atavism: good films can do interesting things with our dark responses, and the Coens do not have an entirely simple attitude toward this psychopath/philosopher. But when No Country obsoleted its action story and left the audience to meditate on the untenability of civilization in the face of pervasive evil, I couldn't help feeling that it was failing to acknowledge how much it had divided our energies.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Toronto 2007

My coverage of the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival is now online at the Senses of Cinema site.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Humphrey Jennings: Anthology Film Archives, November 23-25

For those who are spending a lonely Thanksgiving in New York (I don't mean to presume that all of us film buffs are socially damaged; perhaps you are simply getting away from your extremely close-knit families for a few hours), think about seeing some of the Humphrey Jennings documentaries that Anthology Film Archives has programmed this Friday through Sunday. Jennings's best films - which I take to be the short Listen to Britain (1942) and the feature Fires Were Started (1943) - are records of the home front in World War II England. (He died in an accidental fall in 1950, at age 43, before fully coming to grips with peacetime.) Following the principle of counterpoint, Jennings used the intrinsic import of his subject matter to justify his concentration on delicate formal issues, and his films are a series of quiet collisions of self-sufficient audiovisual environments. (Listen to Britain is explicitly introduced as a film about sounds, in case the viewer needs help in identifying Jennings' hyperaware pursuit of the poetry of reality.) It sometimes seems to me that pre-Bazinian critics lacked the language to get at what Jennings was up to, so that the literature on him is heavy on slightly misleading references to montage and surrealism.

Fires Were Started screens on Friday, November 23 at 9 pm and Saturday, November 24 at 8 pm; Listen to Britain is part of "The Films of Humphrey Jennings: Program 1," which screens on Friday, November 23 at 7 pm and Sunday, November 25 at 5:30 pm; and also screens with Kevin Macdonald's biographical Humphrey Jennings: The Man Who Listened to Britain on Saturday and Sunday, November 24 and 25, at 3:30 pm.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Croatia Rules

I don't know whether Croatia makes high-quality films, or whether the Croatian series at the Walter Reade is unusually well curated, or whether I'm just having good luck. But my nearly random sallies into Croatian film culture keep coming up roses.

The high point so far is Rajko Grlic's terrific 1981 film Samo jednom se ljubi, bearing the English title The Melody Haunts My Reverie, even though the Serbo-Croatian title, taken from a popular postwar song, translates as You Love Only Once. Like the Sternberg of Dishonored or the Renoir of La Chienne, Grlic is such a powerful director that he can tell the story of a man ruined by love and yet create a competing, more alluring and exuberant narrative purely through the manipulation of tone. As original in its mysterious, bemused performance style as in its mastery of light and color, Samo jednom se ljubi will screen no more in this series, but subtitled VHS tapes can be had online for $4 or $5 plus shipping.

Much more casually executed, Tomislav Radic's 2005 Sto je Iva snimila 21. listopada 2003. (What Iva Recorded on October 21, 2003) is ostensibly the video experimentation of a 15-year-old girl playing with her first camcorder. What she documents is the fracturing of her bourgeois family on the occasion of an ill-fated dinner for a prospective business partner. Radic's sharp, undemonstrative observations and the effortless performances are complemented by the organizing idea that filming is an act of revenge upon one's family. It looks as if Iva is available on subtitled DVD.

Very few people are attending this series, which must be endangering Lincoln Center's plan to stage equivalent retrospectives for the other former Yugoslav republics. If you want to get a piece of my lucky streak, the upcoming Croatian films I'm most hoping to catch are Lordan Zafranovic's Occupation in 26 Pictures (1978) on November 6 and 11, Zvonimir Berkovic's Rondo (1966) on November 9 and 10, and Branko Bauer's Face to Face (1963) on November 11 and 13. To whet your appetite, here's a quote from Stojan Pelko's piece on Bauer in Ginette Vincendeau's Encyclopedia of European Cinema: "What Hitchcock and Hawks were for the French politique des auteurs, Bauer was for the young film critics in 1970s Yugoslavia. By discovering him, they rediscovered the notion of auteur and genre."

Outer and Inner Space

There are a lot of ways to look at Warhol's Outer and Inner Space: as time spent with Edie Sedgwick, as a commentary on or exercise of star power, as play with technology, as technology playing with our viewing experience and Edie's performing experience. But, underlying it all, giving excitement to whatever angle we choose to consider, Outer and Inner Space is a vision of paradise. Paradise here is characterized by:

  • an audience with a beautiful woman;
  • strange and beautiful light - gleaming, silvery foreground elements against the pervasive blackness of unexposed emulsion;
  • multiples of everything!

For this reason, I think the Museum of the Moving Image made a mistake when they projected the film on Saturday with only the sound track from the right projector. Agreed, it was possible to hear Edie's words more clearly than when two inferior sound tracks compete for attention. If the screening had been advertised as a special event for scholarly purposes, no one could object. But, in paradise, everything should be capable of everything. Giving unequal weights to the left and right projections just felt so wrong.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Madonnen: MOMA, November 9, 2007

Maria Speth's second feature, Madonnen, premiered at this year's Berlin Film Festival in the Forum section, and will screen on Friday, November 9 at 6 pm in MOMA's valuable annual Kino! series of new German films. Madonnen is less visually striking than Speth's first feature The Days Between (which won a Tiger at Rotterdam 2001, and also played MOMA): the stunning, contained widescreen compositions of the earlier film have become more relaxed and naturalistic, in keeping with Madonnen's more spontaneous ambiance and time jumps. But both films share an interest in the kind of rebellious nature that threatens a character's membership in society. One senses that Speth identifies with this quasi-criminal posture; and yet Madonnen maintains an analytic perspective that transcends issues of sympathy. Try to catch it: I haven't heard anything about a distribution deal for the film, and I don't believe The Days Between returned to NYC after its Kino! screening.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Train Without a Timetable

The Croatian series at the Walter Reade is turning up a lot of interesting work that isn't well known here in the U.S. Most of the films are scheduled for only a few screenings, and by the time you hear about them, they will probably have returned to the vaults for the rest of your lifetimes.

My favorite so far is Veljko Bulajic's Train Without a Timetable, from 1959. I went in expecting a "Tradition of Quality" work: it was Bulajic's first film, was very popular, and gave the director a favored position in the Yugoslav film system. (He went on to a number of big projects, including international productions like The Battle of the River Neretva.) Off the bat, I made the film for a by-the-book socialist inspirational, with its archetypal/stereotypical characters and its subject of a Tito-planned relocation of a poor peasant village to more arable land. But it was hard to resist the film's widescreen visual style for long. Bulajic relied heavily on his crane, but used it with great intelligence; he shot mostly long takes, often from a slightly elevated camera angle that let him keep two or more levels of activity in the same visual field. The look of the film wasn't so much about neat compositions as it was about the drama inherent in the space, about keeping different groups and planes of action in visual opposition to each other. Mizoguchi is probably the closest visual reference, though Bulajic is more immersed in storytelling.

I came around to Bulajic's side entirely when I realized that his sense of visual drama was in harmony with his subject matter, which centered on a long train ride. While he created attractive shots that reinforced our sense of the characters moving through a changing landscape, Bulajic simultaneously did a fine job handling the dramatic needs of a complicated multicharacter story. The beauty of his style is that his image plan is all about drama, and that he was solving his dramatic problems in front of our eyes as he managed his visual planes.

Though the characterizations were simple and the conflicts were elementary, Bulajic and his screenwriters (one of whom was the Italian Elio Petri, who began a fine directorial career two years after this film) maintained a sense of discretion and distance, and even threw in a few arty, off-balance resolutions along the way. In the final reckoning, there was nothing about the film that I wanted to change: it was all of a piece.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Life in These United States: Film School

The Reeler's Vadim Rizov wrote a very nice editorial in the first issue of the Tisch Film Review about the commercial/industry leanings of the NYU film production curriculum. To his credit, Vadim does not lean too hard on the obvious - that film education devolves helplessly into vocational training for big studio filmmaking and its simulacra - and makes a pragmatic effort to propose changes that could inch NYU toward accommodating the concept of cinema as an art.

Vadim's article focuses on the production side of film studies. When I went to film school (UCLA in the late 70s), there was pretty much no connection between the production and critical studies wings of the film department. Critical studies was in the throes of converting over to the semiotic/structuralist/Marxist/feminist/psychoanalytic mindset, and was not especially interested in finding common ground even with traditional art scholarship, much less with filmmakers. And the production kids were pretty much hands-on, practical types - not necessarily a bunch of industry wannabes, but not inclined toward theory in any way. At that time, the production staff at UCLA skewed toward avant-garde, personal filmmaking; but production students, then and now, are driven types who band together and educate themselves on student film crews, and UCLA's loose structure left them to pursue their own agendas.

I'm sure things have changed a lot since then. My distinct impression is that "theory" has become much more flexible, accommodating, and open after those early years when it was preoccupied with infiltrating and taking over university departments. On the production side, I'm pretty sure that UCLA's beatnik vibe is long dissipated, and that the industry looms much larger in that part of academia.

Still, the separation of theory and practice in film education seems to linger. And I think there's something American about that bifurcation. Our culture is unusually suspicious of intellectualism, valuing instead common sense and a get-it-done pragmatism. As a result, our intellectual life is effectively shut up in the ivory tower. An American film student who wants to distribute his or her energies across the thinking/doing continuum is going to feel pressure from both sides of the divide to get off the fence and take sides. Europe doesn't seem to separate mind and body in so violent a fashion, and European filmmakers emerge from film schools with alluring tales of having immersed themselves in film culture.

Does this mean that Vadim and his ilk are wasting their time beating their heads against the wall of American culture? Not necessarily. Film schools talk a good game about being dedicated to art - maybe they can be guilt-tripped into instituting changes. The advocates of cinema art culture should realize that they are a minority trying to bend the majority to their will, rather than a grass-roots movement, and select their political tools accordingly.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Alfredo, Alfredo: Film Forum, November 7, 2007

Pietro Germi's last film, Alfredo, Alfredo, doesn't have a reputation or a cult following as far as I know. But I definitely think it's his best work, both his most sophisticated and the most emotionally revealing. I don't want to talk too much about it until I resee it at Film Forum on November 7. But try to catch it if you're interested in Germi at all - it doesn't screen often.

The rest of Film Forum's Germi series is worth your while as well. My overall take on Germi: the early neorealist work doesn't do that much for me; the 50s melodramas are more interesting, with The Railroad Man the best of the bunch; and the cynical comedies that made his international reputation, Divorce Italian Style and Seduced and Abandoned, are a big step forward for him, and his best work until the alleged failure of Alfredo.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

While watching Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited (which I liked a lot), it occurred to me that there's a kind of dialectic working in Anderson's style.

Thesis: Anderson likes to depict the world as a phantasmagoria, a series of sudden, unpredictable, beautiful changes. To this end, he often cuts with no attempt to preserve spatial relations, preferring instead to use time jumps and fantasy to create improbable transitions, even within scenes.

Antithesis: The characterization, and particularly the dialogue, in Anderson's films is concrete, tied to unusual, coherent characterizations. Not that there isn't poetry in his phrasing, but it's a poetry based on the established types he portrays, who are often difficult, mundane, even unsympathetic. Sometimes he reminds me a little of Preston Sturges in the way he gives hardheaded characters graceful forms of expression.

Synthesis: Seems to me that there's a ballet between these two tendencies in Anderson's films, where the coherent and mundane characterizations are used to motivate wild stylistic changes, or to integrate them back into a semblance of the natural.

The relationship between the phantasmagoric and mundane tendencies in Anderson is fairly loose: characterization weaves a transparent web around the fantasy elements, creating an appearance of integration that has a winking, reflexive aspect.

(There are spoilers coming.)

An strong example of characterization motivating fantasy might be the scene where the Owen Wilson character makes his brothers perform a ritual involving the burial of bird feathers: "Let's go up there," he says, pointing to a hill seen in the background; and a cut takes us to the top of the hill instantly, where the scene continues without pause.

A weaker example might be the first encounter of the Jason Schwartzman character and the train hostess, starting with a mini-profile of his sex addiction ("I want that stewardess" - a terrific line), and padded with mundane details of his awkward but effective seduction technique, but paying off with splashes of exciting contrast: the lovely, lyrical shot of the hostess leaning out the train window at nighttime, shot with fast film stock that captures the dusky sky and intensifies colors; and the sudden cuts that move the seduction rapidly toward the sweet-but-detached sex scene in the men's room.

Examples of characterization serving to integrate fantasy abound. The film's high point, and no doubt one of the most thrilling scenes we'll see this year, is the riverside lateral tracking shot that leads to the discovery of the Indian boy's death. The shot, which follows Schwarzman, is spatially disconnected from the action that led to it (the capsizing of the boys' raft) and lacks narrative coding: we don't know what the likely outcome is. But bits of dialogue gently tighten the narrative's tentative grip on the scene: first Schwartman's frightening exclamation that Brody is covered with blood; then Brody's stunned comments as he stands holding the body: "I didn't save mine." Anderson's treatment of death is masterful throughout this section, bleak without sentiment or loss of focus: Brody's mundane, helpless confessions of his ego involvement in the failed rescue do not mitigate our sense of a life lost, but they do help create one layer of the scene's meaning, its acknowledgment of the limits on the sorrow we feel for the death of strangers/bit players.

The Darjeeling Limited is permeated by a sense of mystery and of what it feels like to contemplate mystery. Not all commentators compare it favorably to Anderson's earlier work, but I'm very pleased with the trajectory of his career so far.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Comment je me suis disputé... (ma vie sexuelle)

I like to play the game of taking a single moment from a movie I like, and seeing how many general observations about the film flow naturally from that moment. In this game, though, it's important to pick a favorite moment, not just one that analyzes well.

So here's an early scene from Arnaud Desplechin's Comment je me suis disputé... (ma vie sexuelle) that made me laugh aloud, and that would be really cool even if it weren't funny.

Background: In the middle of an evening-long gathering of the friends of Paul Dedalus, Paul's long-time girlfriend Esther arrives late. She seems not to know Paul's friends that well. We learn during the evening that Paul harbors hopes of breaking up with Esther someday.

Scene: As the crowd is leaving a restaurant, Esther stands by a car, smoking a cigarette, with two other women from the group. Making friendly conversation, the women ask Esther whether Paul is an assistant or associate professor (I think; the actual titles may be different). Embarrassed, but smiling, Esther says she doesn't know. Helpfully, the women tell her how to distinguish between the titles - this is a crowd who know something about academia. Esther still laughs and shrugs her ignorance. The women, always friendly, ask a few easier questions: does Paul teach at the Sorbonne or at Nanterre? What is his thesis about? Esther has to admit she doesn't know the answers; she doesn't talk to him about his work. "Is that terrible?" she asks, still smiling. "No!" say both the women, quickly and in unison, laughing. The scene is filmed in a single medium long shot that tracks gradually in to Esther, so that she is alone in the frame when she asks "Is that terrible?" Desplechin's only conspicuous camera gesture during the scene is to pan quickly over to the two women as they say "No!" in unison. The suddenness of the pan emphasizes the "No!" And the scene ends there.

Item #1: Desplechin cares about being entertaining, about surface tone. The subject matter of this scene is not completely comfortable: the moment is embarrassing, Esther is clearly in danger of losing status in this group...and what kind of relationship does she have with Paul anyway? It's safe to say that most filmmakers would have played up her discomfort a bit more. Characteristically, Desplechin prefers to sugar-coat the pill: Esther keeps her cool pretty well, the girlfriend-y tone of the chat is preserved, everyone smiles and has a good time through the shot, the very funny ending is accompanied by the laughter of the characters. We don't see Esther express mortification later, don't see the other women snipe her behind her back. It's possible that both those things happened, but Desplechin doesn't want to elaborate: he's made his point, we all had fun, let's move on.

Item #2: Desplechin wants characters to have specific, psychologically plausible issues. This kind of film can sometimes get by on character archetypes and pleasant evocations of the vibe of hanging out with pals. But Desplechin goes out of his way to point us to non-general character traits. The scene after this one, of the group walking in the Paris night, is dominated by a lengthy voiceover that describes the nature of Paul's friendship with Nathan - that it is based on admiration, not familiarity - and elaborating on the particular ways that that nature manifests itself.

Item #3: This scene is shot in one continuous take. But this is not typical of Desplechin: in fact, most people probably think of him as a director who edits a lot. And yet the tone of the scene is quite typical of Desplechin. It's probably not a good idea to base one's analysis of his style on his use of particular camera techniques.

Item #4: Whether Desplechin edits or holds a shot, we often get the sense of him redirecting our attention in undisguised ways. Here, the rapid pan that ends the scene is a humorous pointer to the place where the social fabric is tearing. A quick edit might do the same thing: as in the subsequent party scene, where Desplechin cuts in to emphasize that Jean-Jacques, the host of the party, is holding Paul's hand persistently after shaking it. There's no denying the connection between Desplechin's style and Truffaut's, and I think we're near the heart of that connection here: Truffaut and Desplechin are both interested in the small, non-obvious things that might give a new spin to an interaction, and they feel empowered to use any technique at their disposal (including the once-denigrated technique of voiceover) to change our perspective. In both cases, the interventions are bold enough that they suggest direct address by the filmmaker to the audience.

Item #4a: But one observes, without wanting to be too absolute about it, that Desplechin's goal is often analysis, psychological clarity; and that Truffaut's is often lyricism via mystery, details that create psychological opacity. We leave this Desplechin scene knowing more about everyone - and I think this is true of his work in general. We often leave Truffaut scenes with a sense of how difficult it is to know people.

Okay, I have no further thoughts on that scene at the moment. Except that Emmanuelle Devos is awesome in this film.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Career discontinuities, part two: The nosedive

In one of my earliest blog posts, I wrote about a phenomenon that has troubled me all my auteurist life: one discovers a director with an identifiable sensibility that operates over the course of his or her career; and then one sees a film by that director that a) doesn't seem to partake at all of said sensibility, and b) one actively dislikes. Trying to be open-minded, I speculated in that post that perhaps the discontinuity has to do more with the viewer than with the director - that a different viewer might say to me, "What are you talking about? Look, there's the director's typical compositional style, typical acting preference, etc." And I would say to that hypothetical different viewer, weakly, "Yes, but it's just not the same...." Weakly, because the all-important idea of "sensibility" is less quantifiable than the identification of elements of style, and may therefore reflect our subjectivity all too easily.

And I'm officially still open-minded in this way. But the film life is all about what we like and what we don't like, and when a director jumps from one side of that line to the other, you just have to take it seriously. Maybe it's partly about the viewer, but maybe it's about the director too.

If too many discontinuities crop up in one's appreciation of directors, then it's legitimate to wonder whether one is cut out to be an auteurist. And therefore, if even one discontinuity crops up, the seeds of identity crisis have been sown.

Of course, it's possible to be completely into directorial style without being too invested in the continuity among a director's films. The continuity itself isn't what makes the films good; but it provides a confirmation that one is on the right track, that one isn't simply making the director's identity out of whole cloth. Of all the auteurists I know, I'm probably the one who bases his auteurism the most on the content of individual films, rather than on career analysis. And yet I get rattled when that little je-ne-sais-quoi goes missing between projects.

A particular kind of career discontinuity is currently on my mind: the nosedive, the point where a good director becomes bad and stays bad. It would be better for auteurism if this were an unusual case. But I am forced to admit that it happens to me a lot, and has always happened a lot. In fact, the nosedive is so common that I live in fear of it: every time I see a new film by a director I love, I worry.

I'm currently having a run of bad experiences from good directors. I don't want to get too deeply into particulars at the moment. But:

  • Last night I saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I loved Chopper to death, really thought that Dominik was a distinctive new voice. By the time Coward was over, I thought it likely that I would never enjoy one of his films again. And yet once in a while I saw a framing or a rhythm that I could imagine in Chopper. It didn't matter, because I was having such a hard time with what I perceived as the sensibility behind the film.
  • I know lots of people really like Secret Sunshine, and I've liked every one of Lee Chang-dong's previous films. In this case there was a lot of style continuity with the rest of Lee's career. And yet suddenly I felt a coarse sensibility at work, one going for superficial, hackneyed effects on the small scale. Because the style hadn't shifted that much, I found myself thinking, "Did I ever like any of this guy's films?" Now I'll need to go back and confirm - which is a tricky business in such cases; one really has to clear one's mind.
  • The most horrible black-hole disappearance of directorial personality I can recall is Married Life, which I saw at Toronto. Here I'm less sure that I've seen a nosedive, because the discontinuity is so spookily absolute. Maybe Ira Sachs will return to me.

I do believe that I am really an auteurist, that I have the calling. But the phenomenon I'm discussing is not at all part of the mythology of auteurism, and I see no way of harmonizing it with that mythology. It stands as a qualifier to my auteurism, an asterisk.

P.S. Of course, you can't be sure until later that a bad experience is a nosedive. Sometimes one is pleasantly surprised by the way things turn out. For instance, a few years back I saw Hur Jin-ho's April Snow at Toronto, and diagnosed the submergence of what I then considered a minor talent. But at Toronto 2007, Hur winds up and delivers Happiness, decisively his most exciting and confident film. A good discontinuity is just as perplexing to my auteurism as a bad one - but it's a lot more fun.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon

I've been trying to save the commentary on Toronto Film Fest movies for my upcoming Senses of Cinema wrapup, but HarryTuttle and I were having a polite little disagreement about Eric Rohmer's latest film Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon over on Girish Shambu's blog, and we eventually expended enough words on the subject that I figured I should link to the discussion. For those who've never been chez Girish: it's the most happenin' joint in the blogosphere, and you'll have to wade through about 70 unrelated comments to follow the Rohmer debate.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Not Completely Frivolous Lists: Women's Names

In honor of the upcoming NYC screening of Esther Kahn, here is a list of my ten favorite films whose title consists solely of a woman's full name:

  • Daisy Kenyon
  • Esther Kahn
  • Cluny Brown
  • Vera Drake
  • Sylvia Scarlett
  • Lola Montes
  • Annie Hall
  • Vanina Vanini
  • Effi Briest
  • Nora Helmer

(Given how poorly Woody Allen's films have been faring with me on revisits, I'm hesitant to select Annie Hall...but I'll let it stand for now.)

And, just to be comprehensively silly, here's a list of my ten favorite films whose title consists solely of a woman's first name:

  • Gertrud
  • Christine (Alan Clarke)
  • Petulia
  • Alyonka
  • Raja
  • Marnie
  • Lola (Fassbinder)
  • Camille
  • Eva
  • Muriel

I made these lists because of an undocumented feeling that a disproportionate number of my favorite films are named after women. (I can verify that the list of films with men's names that I like at this level is about half the length of the women's list.) And I don't think this is a purely personal preference: I think that the auteurist tradition, which I absorbed as a novice cinephile, leans gynophilic.

The reasons for this leaning strike me as far from feminist. Certainly one notes that naming a film after a woman is akin to objectification.

To speculate further: tradition has ensured that male-centered films have often been about the exercise of power, about creating or altering destiny; and female-centered films have often been about being acted upon, about being at the mercy of larger forces, about destiny altering the protagonist.

It would follow that male-centered films would be more likely vehicles for the audience's power fantasies. Sometimes these fantasies are individualist: commercial cinema always has a prominent place for action-adventure films with powerful, victorious male heroes. Sometimes they are political - and cinema's political movements, which necessarily are built on power fantasies, have different ways of dealing with gender-based power issues. The Soviet cinema, for instance, made an official effort (I'll leave to historians the question of how successful the effort was) to invest women with a mythology of power rather than passivity; the woman's movement has had a similar tendency. On the other side, it often seems to me that the old American left, which grew as a social and cinematic force in the 30s, embraced the traditional masculine role, and occasionally risked misogyny by equating woman with the temptations of home and security that must be resisted by the politically committed male.

The politique des auteurs was associated in 50s France with a Catholic position, and frequently with a right-wing position. Positif, the magazine that most vigorously opposed the auteurism of Cahiers du Cinema, was committed to the political left, and saw the advocates of the politique as little more than fascists. (English-language readers who are interested in the history of the politique should try to find a copy of Peter Graham's out-of-print collection The New Wave, which translates and reprints articles from Positif, Cahiers and other magazines that illustrate the political issues at stake.)

I've always believed that the Catholic origins of auteurism, obscured over the years by other layers of ideology, had a lot to do with the prominence in the auteurist canon of films in which the world is a vale of tears, and protagonists (often women) are buffeted about by forces outside themselves, finding at best a spiritual victory. And Positif's tastes in American cinema, which reflected their political commitment, strike me as rather male-oriented.

I happen to feel that, in the final analysis, vale-of-tears movies reflect the human condition better than movies about victory over adversity. (As Pialat said in a late interview: "Death - it's not an improvement.") Not that you can't have good movies with active protagonists: the human condition covers a lot of territory. But this leaning of mine is probably the reason that my lists of favorite films contain so many movies with women's names.

Monday, September 24, 2007

More on Le banc de la désolation

I had the impression that the recent MOMA series "The Other Claude Chabrol" was greeted rather coolly, and that in general commentators have acquired the habit of focusing on how uneven Chabrol is, instead of celebrating the many, many superb films he has given us. Myself, I had an excellent time at the MOMA series: in particular, all the TV work from the 70s that MOMA programmed was distinctive and successful. And the series gave me an experience that film buffs yearn for but rarely attain: to discover a great film that is almost unknown. Le banc de la désolation was one of two programs that Chabrol contributed to a series of Henry James adaptations that appeared on French TV between 1974 and 1976; the other, De Grey, remains a tantalizing unknown to most of us. (Among the other directors who did episodes of this series was Luc Beraud, the director of the excellent Plein Sud, who seems to have been forgotten by American film buffs.) Le banc stars Michel Duchaussoy, best known from Chabrol's Que la bête meure, and the excellent Catherine Samie, who showed up this year in Michelange Quay's Eat, for This Is My Body at the Toronto Film Festival.

It's sometimes hard to get a handle on what makes Chabrol such a superb filmmaker, and Le banc is a opportunity to see him divorced from his usual subject matter and themes and functioning purely as a director. So I'll describe a few impressive moments or aspects of the film.
  1. Much of the film's impact depends on the look of a single location: the seaside bench where Duchaussoy goes every day, sometimes to meet a lover, usually just to brood about his unjust fate. Chabrol found a bench at the very end of a dilapidated boardwalk, seemingly the last place to sit at the edge of the civilized world. Low camera angles emphasize the balustrade of the boardwalk against the gray ocean and ceaselessly overcast sky. Staging so many important scenes at this location gives the drama a faint flavor of absurdism.
  2. In general, and certainly in this film, Chabrol generally moves the camera for purely dramatic effect. In other words, the start and end point of the shot does not seem to be important, nor the change in angle or in the content of the shot; the camera moves slowly through space solely to create a sense of narrative expectation.
  3. In the film's most memorable scene, set in a restaurant, Duchaussoy approaches a banker, whom he knows only by them having dined in the same room for years, to ask for advice in borrowing money. In order to establish a relationship, Duchaussoy offers to buy the much richer banker an expensive brandy and cigar. The banker accepts immediately, and proceeds to ignore his supplicant as he goes through all the phases of preparing a fine cigar for smoking: certainly a process I have never seen in the cinema, rendered here in every detail, as we wait along with Duchaussoy for the narrative to resume. The scene pulls in two directions: Chabrol's appreciation of fine food is well known, and the novelty of documenting this process surely appealed to him for its own sake, and is fascinating for the receptive viewer as well. But we are simultaneously made to feel the banker's casual pleasure in asserting power over his social inferior. Our enjoyment of the process is impure.
  4. In the middle of the film, a startling series of jump cuts moves us quickly through Duchaussoy's marriage to his young sweetheart, beginning with the idealized love of the premarital period, passing through stages of enmity and recriminations over money, and ending in the wife's premature, embittered death. The same heavy issues that were easily overcome by love before the marriage return to poison the marital bond after love subsides. The short sequence, which relegates the marriage to a subordinate position in the narrative, recalls the elliptical ending of Rivette's La Religieuse, imparting a morbid tone of inevitability to unhappy developments that fly in the face of the conventions of fiction, but that are too common in life.
  5. In his darkest period, Duchaussoy goes to his accustomed seaside bench, only to find a young romantic couple there. Duchaussoy stares balefully at the couple from a short distance until they withdraw in discomfort, then proudly takes his place on the bench, miserable but entitled. The essentially literary concept is mostly rendered in a single shot - cutting would have given the moment a narrative weight, whereas the scene is pure digression - that exploits the ironic abstraction of sea and sky, then terminates along with the petty power play.
  6. The central relationship of the story, between Duchaussoy and Samie, is cursed by coldness: Duchaussoy's sense of superiority, coupled with his unconscious desire to fail, distances him from our identification and affection; Samie is first depicted as the most calculating and heartless of villains, and the story twist that commends her to our sympathy still leaves her a rather frightening figure, evil devoted to the cause of good. The couple's reconciliation, with Duchaussoy accepting Samie's awkward embrace on the bench of desolation, is his final surrender to passivity. The embrace reverses the movie's visual strategy of distance and isolation; sensitive to this overtone, Chabrol promptly freezes the frame and runs the credits.

Frivolous Lists: TIFF 2007

Vadim Rizov asked me to do a wrapup post for this year's Toronto International Film Festival. I'm actually going to write about the fest for Senses of Cinema, so I don't want to spill my seed on the ground by blogging about it. But here's a list of my favorite films at TIFF 2007.
  1. Bruce McDonald's The Tracey Fragments. Someday I will blog on this.
  2. Hur Jin-Ho's Happiness.
  3. Jacques Nolot's Avant que j'oublie.
  4. Andrei Zyvyagintsev's The Banishment.
  5. Sandra Kogut's Mutum.
  6. Francis Mankiewicz's Les Bons debarras. This is a 1980 film, which I hadn't seen since it got a US release back in the day. Anyone know about the rest of Mankiewicz's career? I doubt very much it's an accident. Marie Tifo and Charlotte Laurier are both amazing.
  7. Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light.
  8. Nanouk Leopold's Wolfsbergen.
  9. Ben Hackworth's Corroboree.
  10. Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin' (Endless). This list naturally wants to stop at nine, but I'll observe tradition.

I'm saving some juicy prospects for NYFF (Une vieille maîtresse, Secret Sunshine, In the City of Sylvia, Useless, La Fille coupée en deux) or for their theatrical releases (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I'm Not There).

Friday, September 21, 2007

Arnaud Desplechin in Focus: Museum of the Moving Image, August 6-14

I can't think of a recent NYC retrospective with a higher concentration of great cinema than this one. For two weekends in early October, Cahiers du Cinema and the Museum of the Moving Image present four films by the extraordinary French director Arnaud Desplechin, each double-billed with a film of Desplechin's choice. For me, the peak of Desplechin's career is Esther Kahn (October 6, 3 pm), an experience that somehow makes other films seem pale in comparison until its spell wears off. (Here's a review of Esther that I wrote for Tone and Groove a few years back.) But not far behind is the better-known, ambitious social study Comment je me suis disputé... (ma vie sexuelle) (October 7, 3 pm). Desplechin did NYC audiences the favor of selecting a set of remarkable companion films that don't screen often, including the best films of Alain Resnais (Je t'aime, je t'aime - October 14, 6 pm) and François Truffaut (Les Deux anglaises et le continent - October 7, 6:30 pm).

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Vanaja: Cinema Village, Now Playing

I caught Vanaja at Toronto last year and liked it a lot. Here's what I wrote in my diary afterwards (cleaned up slightly): "A nice surprise. It starts out with acting that's broad but fast, fun, and interesting, and with a lively, kinetic sense of camera and cutting. The musical numbers are quite good, filmed simply and with attention to the performance. Then the plot darkens, and the film turns into a full-fledged art movie, complicating each character until he or she is no longer an archetype, but a mixture of base and noble elements. Right to the ending, the movie keeps complicating its effect, and leaves itself unresolved. It's like a more mundane (in a good way) Chokher Bali, with a plausible mapping of character onto society."

I'll add that Vanaja somehow reminded me a bit of Michael Powell. Perhaps that's because the characters' physicality is invested with a sense of archetype, even though the story uses the characters in a more intricate way.

Director Rajnesh Domalpalli was an engineer before going back to film school, and Vanaja was his Columbia thesis project. The film was shot in the state of Andhra Pradesh, in the Telugu language.

The film will probably play only this week at Cinema Village, but will move to the Imaginasian in September.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Le Banc de la désolation: MOMA, August 19, 2007

If you're a Chabrol fan and haven't yet disposed of tomorrow afternoon, go to MOMA for the 5 pm screening of Le Banc de la désolation, which is quite good. Even if you can't make it, you might want to budget some time to catch the other 70s TV films that MOMA is screening in its Chabrol series: the other one that I've seen so far, L'Invitation á la chasse, is also quite personal and well worth your while.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Bringing Up Baby

I saw Bringing Up Baby 12 times in my first 15 years of film-buffery, and then let 20 years go by before my13th viewing last week. My first impression this time around is that there are two films in there, fighting with each other.
  1. One film is about play: play with genre, play on the set. The first scene, in the museum, pushes the "screwball" aspect of screwball comedy so far that it becomes almost nightmarish. Characters like Huxley's fiancee exist only to amuse us with how far comic conventions can be pushed; and Huxley himself is at this point no more than a wink that Cary Grant and Hawks are giving to the audience. Every time the film threatens to wind down, Hawks finds some old vaudevillian to strut and fret through some well-honed bit of business; like Huxley, they tend to mix up the names of their own characters and the ones they are addressing, as if the problems of the set and the problems of the fiction were the same. When the plot depends on a coincidence, Hawks has the actors throw it in our faces. The nakedness of the contrivance is a source of humor in itself - as, for instance, when assorted human and animal characters march in single file into the jailhouse for the climax.

  2. The other film is about people. Hawks here introduces us to his distinctive take on the comedy of power and powerlessness: he likes pushing the protagonist's loss of control into the realm of humiliation, and then, in a compensatory gesture of equal force, he shifts the focus to the humbled protagonist's recovery of his dignity and power - sometimes via detachment, sometimes via exasperation. In the other corner, Susan Vance is explictly amoral, in rebellion against every rule society is selling - and extremely feminine, her strategems couched in the language of girlish seduction, her threat coded as the threat of femininity. Somehow Bringing Up Baby seems more explicitly about sex than other screwball comedies: partly because the focus remains squarely on the boy-girl thing, and partly because Hawks pushes Susan's antisocial qualities so far that it's easy to imagine her breaking the Hays Code as well.

The two films seem to fight with each other because they have different agendas for Huxley, who is a complete nincompoop in the genre-play movie, and a plausible, if displaced, Hawksian hero in the character-based one. One feels the pull even in the presentation of supporting characters: for every Catlett or Ruggles who underlines the screwiness of the film's premise, there's a Hawksian delivery boy murmuring "Don't let it throw you" as he makes his exit.

I don't think this conceptual conflict is a particular virtue. But the film is simply dazzling in the scope of its comic inspiration. Hawks' repertoire of comic modes seems unlimited: he gets laughs with shock cuts and by holding on to master shots, with classical cutting and by withholding the classical cut, with well-staged physical humor and with offscreen sound gags. The film seems improvised to a large extent, but not quite in the style of other improvised films: it's as if Hawks shot and cut the film to enhance the actors' efficiency and mental quickness. Hepburn in particular riffs with Robin Williams-like density.

As is his wont, Hawks pushes the project's comic concept to logical extremes, and Susan's feminine energy leads inevitably to apocalypse in the final scene. (It could be noted in passing that Hawks was happy to build his next comedy, His Girl Friday, around runaway masculinity.) The exaggeration of the movie's chaotic tendencies could be seen as another aspect of genre play, but I prefer to see it as Hawks creating a suitably existential setting for the rather poignant dilemma of his displaced hero.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Godard; Bodily Functions

I've been discussing Godard in the comments section of a post on Craig Keller's Cinemasparagus blog. I managed to work Bazin into the discussion, to no one's surprise, I'm sure. And I've also been participating in a discussion on Zach Campbell's Elusive Lucidity blog about scenes where characters eat and perform other bodily functions. (Zach's post was specifically about eating scenes in Cassavetes' films, but I ducked out of that specific topic, as Cassavetes' work isn't fresh in my mind; I've never warmed up to him.)

Thursday, August 9, 2007

A Double Life: Post-War Cukor

A Double Life, the first film George Cukor directed after WWII, seems to signal a change in Cukor's ideas about the plastic aspects of filmmaking. Here are a few of the devices I notice in the film that might be new for Cukor:

  • An interest in long-shot urban compositions that emphazise open space in front of the camera that extends in one or more directions into the urban environment. There is a certain documentary quality to these images, possibly because of the use of natural sound;

  • Art direction for interiors that emphasizes clutter, or a profusion of objects, kept in focus along with the actors;

  • Some rather long takes, sometimes with pans or tracks across a space;

  • An occasional use of extreme long shot in a dramatic scene where one might expect closer shots by default. I don't recall Cukor doing this when the plot is fully engaged, but it happens once or twice early in the film;

  • Lights shining into the camera, producing halation. Here, and also in A Star Is Born, the effect is associated with the experience of being on stage.

One could think of many of these effects as being related to various "realist" influences that were operating at the time. For instance, the increased presence of newsreel footage might have something to do with the acceptability of natural sound, or of technical "imperfections" like lights shining at the camera; neorealist films from Italy may have suggested the more general use of long shots; the deep-focus photography associated with Toland seems to be influencing Cukor's decor decisions. If Cukor is indeed borrowing realist style elements, though, he is determined to make them look very nice. No jittery newsreel-style camera or hurried compositions will be found in his films - all the effects I mention are aestheticized and pleasing to the eye.

Because one tends to think of Cukor as an actor-centered director, it's interesting to contemplate this shift in his style toward a greater exploitation of the spatial properties of the image. His work in the 30s was not at all visually clumsy, but my impression is that he was principally interested at that time in varying shot length for dramatic purposes, to shift our attention between a theater-like sense of ensemble and the interior state of individual performers. But his visuals in the late 40s and early 50s become more evocative of space and time, even as he retains his primary interest in emotional revelation.

The acting style that Cukor encourages uses realist gestures in order to trick us, so to speak, into accepting extreme emotionality as naturalistic. For instance, an actor might interrupt a rapturous moment with a nervous giggle or a quick, embarrassed look at the character he or she is talking to. My sense is that Cukor likes to be big and over the top, and that realism for him is simply a tool to integrate wildness into an ostensibly natural dramatic context.

Do the realist visual gestures of the 40s and 50s serve the same effect, somehow? It's something to think about.

As for A Double Life itself, I can't say I enjoyed it much. I'm always tempted to lay blame at the feet of screenwriters Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, who generally bother me; and the script does occasionally seem to me ham-handed in laying out the interrelations of the characters. But I suspect that the real problem is that Cukor isn't the right director for this kind of material. The story (famous actor Ronald Colman identifies too much with whatever part he's playing, and therefore becomes a menace to womankind when he plays Othello) is potentially silly, and probably needed a cool-headed, analytic, distanced depiction of the theater world, so that the insanity of the protagonist could appear to be nurtured and disguised by his environment. But Cukor characteristically is fascinated by Colman's grandiose inner life, and the social context recedes behind his ecstatic self-projection.

(There were two scenes in A Double Life where I thought Kanin and Gordon wrote some really sharp, knowing dialogue. Maybe I need to make a fairer appraisal of their virtues and vices.)

Monday, August 6, 2007

Ruggles of Red Gap: MOMA, August 15 and 31, 2007

I've always been amazed that Ruggles of Red Gap was adapted twice before Leo McCarey got his hands on it, because his version seems so pure an expression of his sentiments and style that I can't imagine the material predating him (or predating the rolling of the camera by more than a few minutes). Ruggles is not only one of the best films America has produced, but also the most eloquent cinematic valentine that America has ever received. MOMA is screening it on Wednesday, August 15 at 6:30 pm and again on Friday, August 31 at 8:45 pm.

Though they don't deal directly with Ruggles, here are links to two posts on a_film_by (from May 2004 and Feb 2006) in which I discuss McCarey's style.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Carriage Trade

As a young film buff, I used to enjoy Jonas Mekas's rapturous writing about (mostly) non-narrative film for the Village Voice. I remember him expressing an almost physical need to experience chunks of pure, full-bodied cinema. His enthusiasm stuck with me as a model for how non-narrative cinema might work - a model that I've rarely been able to instantiate for actual films. But I felt that Mekas feeling while watching Warren Sonbert's beautiful Carriage Trade last weekend. It occurred to me that my idea of "pure, full-bodied cinema" had been shaped over the years by Bazinian influences that took me far away from the film culture of many non-narrative artists; but that Sonbert was speaking to me from closer to home.

Sonbert's images, which we first see isolated by black leader and fades, and later see in various combinations, have a contained, composed quality that suggests that he is trying to sum something up with each shot: the quality of a place, or of an action, or of a person. When he sets a shot off by fades to and from black, he does an uncanny impersonation of the establishing shots of silent movies, because the shot seems to give us a complete enough account of what it shows that it could be illustrating a title card.

The images in Carriage Trade often have a bit of narrative, a bit of drama attached to them. Sonbert doesn't use that narrative charge to create a bigger story, but he is friendly to the narrative impulse, and begins and ends shots to enhance the import of what happens within them. If the shot portrays an action, Sonbert will often wait to cut until a moment that gives the action a shape; when his camera moves, it often traverses a static or repetitive scene as if to give it directionality, a sense of development. The appeal of the film for me comes, not only from the beauty and serenity of the compositions, but also from the bit of mystery that comes from so many shots having a minute, self-sufficent quality of narrative representation.

After a while Sonbert begins grouping shots together, or intercutting between groupings of shots: not unlike Vertov, though somewhat gentler and more meditative. Inevitably my mind turned to the issue of the film's global structure, and I never found any large patterns that gave me much satisfaction; my appreciation for the film remained on the shot level. Once in a while I would perceive a connection between shots - for instance, a circular pan around a group of people cuts to a circular window in a wall - and I would just let the connection drop. I've trained myself over the years to avoid an interpretive, thematic experience of the image, and without that arrow in my quiver, I didn't know how to profit artistically from whatever connections I detected.

It must be said that every account of Sonbert that I've read has put heavy emphasis on his use of montage; I presume Sonbert started that trend with his self-analyses (which I'd love to read, if anyone knows where to find them). I wonder if my own training in film blocks me from following Sonbert from the shot level to the level of intermediate structure, structure on the sequence level. Now that my interest has been piqued, I need to visit Sonbert again and try on different approaches to that problem. But I do believe that Sonbert's many admirers might perhaps profit from adjusting their focus and considering his shots as entities in themselves, as well as in connection to each other.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Sweet Smell of Success

Sweet Smell of Success is pretty much universally regarded as one of director Alexander Mackendrick's best films - in fact, it's usually regarded as the best. And yet Mackendrick's contribution is hard to detect. The overpowering creative presence here is the powerful dialogue by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman; and it's almost as easy to attribute the film to James Wong Howe's stunning night photography or Elmer Bernstein's signature score. So Mackendrick's is actually the fourth most palpable crew contribution.

And Mackendrick's style is instantly identifiable both before and after this movie. No one who appreciates film direction could miss his presence in The Man in the White Suit or A High Wind in Jamaica.

I certainly don't believe that a director's best films are always the ones in which he or she is the most dominant. But, I dunno, the issue should be raised at least.

Here are a few of the aspects of Mackendrick's style that I can pick up in Sweet Smell:
  • An interest in the external qualities of the performer, especially as these external features create a sense of the uncanny or incongruous. I feel this more in the supporting cast (and the supporting cast often seems unusually important in Mackendrick films for this reason), but I pick it up also in his regard for Burt Lancaster's genteel monster, a quiet, hulking man who holds a teacup delicately in his massive hands, his expression obscured by low-rimmed glasses. (Mackendrick often suppresses facial expression in his actors.)
  • The use of obvious dubbing, which has the effect of lifting passages of dialogue out of the warp and woof of the action, and turning them into a floating, radio-like commentary. Sometimes this effect is enhanced by having the dubbed dialogue bridge a cut.
  • A pleasure in creating an elaborate background environment (with attention to both decor and supporting players), and then inconspicuously shifting our attention back and forth between the lead performers and the background, sometimes with routine cutting, sometimes with gentle camera movements.

And still, Mackendrick's personality is rather ethereal here, like a watermark on paper that can be seen only by holding it up to the light.

The screenwriters' presence is not ethereal. The crazy, inspired stunt dialogue, the quotable lines, nearly all go to Curtis and Lancaster, the villains who rule the film and create and control its melodramatic plot. The embodiments of decent living, especially young lovers Martin Milner and Susan Harrison, seem quite bland in comparison: probably no one watches the film for them. And yet the script's sincere preaching against the evil of unrestrained conservative power and amoral opportunism comes out of the mouths of these non-entities. One concludes that the film is governed by a fascination with the evil that it is condemning, and does not realize that it is bored by the kind of world that it advocates.

This is not a quality I associate with Mackendrick's other films. Yet neither do I detect that Mackendrick is trying to undermine this quality. He knows full well the nature of the project, and he executes it with enthusiasm.

And so I consider Sweet Smell of Success a very interesting failure....

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


There's no doubt that George Ratliff, the director and co-writer of Joshua, has a distinctive and exciting sensibility, and I'm looking forward to his future work. I could quibble with his formal instincts, which I don't find impeccable; but his sense of characterization is extraordinary, and he creates a satisfying psychological model of family life that can be picked up and looked at from any angle. Perhaps he and co-writer David Gilbert started with a script problem: why might parents have difficulty loving their child? Their first step could have been to create a plausible problem child: brilliant, weirdly inexpressive, devoid of spontaneity, always watching. Layer on the parents' issues: the father is an easy-going jock with a devilish streak, by nature an antagonist to the uptight child, forced to mouth ineffective parent-like homilies and to keep his aversion to himself. The mother is edgy, wired, fundamentally unnurturing but driven to succeed in the maternal role. And the child cried a lot as an infant.... Then move on to the supporting family members: the jock's parents are middle America and fiercely Christian, and yet are needed to take up the parenting slack created by the mom's psychological fragility. But the jock is a lapsed Christian, and his wife is a Jew, with a very gay brother. The child's spiritual life therefore becomes a battleground. The mom's brother, seemingly the most disposible character, connects to the weave in ways that become increasingly important: not only is he the mom's best support system, but he is also a musician, and the child is a gifted pianist. Ratliff and Gilbert never betray any of the premises of this complicated family arrangement, and in fact they elaborate the structure in satisfying ways as the film progresses, whereas many commercial filmmakers helplessly jettison characterization when the plot comes calling.

Joshua is not just a character drama, however: it is a suspense film. After a strong first hour, the suspense format becomes dominant in the last forty-five minutes; and, though the characters remain more or less coherent, the movie's back somehow breaks anyway.

I think that Ratliff and Gilbert overestimate the flexibility of genre. Plot comes with a lot of artistic concomitants, and the plot mandated by the suspense genre - mysterious child becomes a mysterious and powerful threat - comes with an identification structure that is at odds with the shifting dimensionality of the character web. In its final movement, Joshua necessarily becomes a movie about the fear and distrust that parents might feel for a child, and necessarily throws us into a position of identification with the beleaguered parents: the multiple perspectives of the first section shrink to a single perspective. (And even that perspective becomes suspect as the child's powers grow more superhuman, in accordance with genre demands.) It's not as if we lose the ability to study the parents' foibles, nor that we lose our suspicion that the stunted child is somehow the most sensitive member of the family. It's just that those ideas can find no expression via the plot, and therefore are overwhelmed by other, plot-amplified perspectives.

Noir et blanc (Claire Devers)

Claire Devers' first feature, Noir et blanc, won the Camera d'Or in 1986 and attracted the attention of cinephiles. Since then, she has kept a low profile on the international film scene, though she has made several features and TV films; and even her debut is little remembered today.

For years, I would do a double-take every time I'd hear about a Claire Denis screening, hoping for a film from the other Claire D. I'm starting to make my peace with the talented Mlle. Denis, after years of not appreciating her at all - but, having revisited Noir et blanc on VHS last night (thanks to Zach Campbell for the loan of the tape), I'm still baffled at how a filmmaker as assured and expressive as Devers could have vanished from our collective consciousness.

Noir et blanc is not only about the relationship between a black and a white, but it is also shot in black and white (by one Daniel Desbois, with Christopher Doyle also receiving a camera credit). Under cover of the retro choice of film stock, the filmmakers create an odd, dusky lighting plan, starting with washed-out grays on grays, and gradually moving to more abstract images that look as if they were shot in some eternal twilight. Devers' visual style is predominantly calm and naturalistic in the Nouvelle Vague tradition, but she has a taste for crowding the foreground of her frames, Fritz Lang-style, so that space seems to open up behind a foreground figure who is presented with a hint of visual urgency. Her editing is elliptical almost to the point of comedy, and the droll fragmentation of her storytelling goes hand in hand with the reserved, withholding acting around which the movie is constructed.

Though Devers films with attention to ambience, her story (adapted from Tennessee Williams, without credit) is a dark fable, like the subjects that Marco Ferreri favored. The movie starts in digression and slow accumulation, eventually focuses on a sexual obsession that might give pause even to the most libertarian viewers, and follows the concept by logical steps to an unthinkable conclusion.

All the elements of Noir et blanc that I have discussed in isolation are integrated from the first frame with relaxed confidence. Surely a filmmaker of such authority must have done other interesting work - why is her career so submerged?

Noir et blanc was released on videotape in several countries, but not on DVD as far as I can tell; and it looks as if the video is out of print. You can find copies by poking around the Internet, but some of them are expensive.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Drama/Mex: IFC Center, Now Playing

I wish that Drama/Mex, which I saw last year at Toronto, were a little bit more about something. But Gerardo Naranjo is a natural filmmaker: he writes very funny dialogue, still manages to keep his characters plausible and human, and above all has a great eye. The trailer deceptively makes the film look like a slam-bang action fest, but even there you can get a glimpse of Naranjo's beautiful hand-held widescreen tracking shots, which maintain a closeup-based visual plan while giving equal attention to the city and beachscapes of Acapulco.

Rohmer, Rossellini, etc.

One of the odd things about the blogging life is that interesting material gets buried in comments sections for aging posts. Anyway, Daniel Kasman and I have been writing about possible connections between Rohmer and Rossellini, as well as some abstract ideas about narrative cinema, in the comments to his recent post about Le Rayon Vert. The discussion touches on ideas about storytelling that came up in my post on Lady Chatterley last week.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Pietrangeli Revisited

Now that I've had a chance to refresh my memory of Antonio Pietrangeli's Io la conoscevo bene (I Knew Her Well) at BAM's Friday screening, I'd like to upgrade my formerly tentative recommendation and urge you to catch the director's equally rare La Visita (The Visitor) at BAM on July 26.

The subject matter of Io la conoscevo bene is a bit reminiscent of Chabrol's Les Bonnes Femmes, with the childlike, winsome Stefania Sandrelli bearing all the hardships that Chabrol distributed among his ensemble. Though the material is thoroughly pessimistic, Pietrangeli's filming is ecstatic: each moment of the protagonist's disoriented and disorienting life is a glittering mosaic tile, a graceful movement through a visually inviting space. While the script connects data points and comes up with a descending line, the direction harmonizes the gliding camera with the character's hopefulness and capacity for joy.

I do wish that Pietrangeli had been more willing to capitalize on the essential artiness of his style, that the film had been less overt in pointing us to themes and less determined to fit its heroine's Brownian motion to a story arc. Still, we need to make a place for Pietrangeli in the history of 60s European cinema.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Ivan's Childhood

Ivan's Childhood is built around the contrast between Ivan's idyllic dreams of his pre-war past and his grim wartime existence, and I wondered if maybe this structure would be a problem for Tarkovsky, whose visual style could be said to be all dream all the time. His shots are generally designed to feature some uncanny and beautiful element, while still maintaining the integrity of space and the legibility of the image.

But the effect is in fact quite beautiful. Working in an old-fashioned storytelling mode that he seemed eager to leave behind after this project, Tarkovsky is knowing enough to emphasize the surface divisions between fantasy and reality that make the conceit work, even if he remains committed at a deep level to the fantastic. For Tarkovsky, war is lights falling out of the sky.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Lady Chatterley: Cinema Village and Lincoln Plaza, Now Playing

If you haven't seen Lady Chatterley yet, you should get a move on: it lost two of its five US theaters in its second week. And, to my surprise (because I was so-so on director Pascale Ferran's first two features), it's amazing. In a way, it's got the typical structure of a character-based movie, in which a character begins at state of mind A and winds up at state of mind B after experiencing a series of events. And it's also got the typical M.O. that accompanies that structure, where the audience is expected to project its direct experience of those events onto the character, as an aid to understanding how the character might plausibly change. What's not typical is that the events are sex scenes, and that the sex scenes are paced and graded accordingly, as if they were the battle scenes in a war movie or the heist scenes in a caper movie. The film's 168 minutes go by quickly, thanks to what I think of as the Rio Bravo principle of construction: the running time is covered by only a few scenes, each of which is concise in conception but contains a number of small elaborations that protract the scene without losing narrative focus.

Lady Chatterley is an idealized vision of sex so good that it transforms life, and it could easily have insulted our intelligence. But Ferran's depiction of sex is remarkably devoid of prurience, and it's exciting to see characters who are at the same time shy about carnal matters and yet direct in their expression of desire. And Marina Hands gives one of those astonishing performances that are so ingenuous that one can't imagine the actor apart from the character.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Traces of Love (Gaeulro)

Once in a while I see a film and think, "Boy, I wish there was a functioning auteurist movement these days, because here's a film that could use that perspective." The last time I thought this was yesterday, at the New York Asian Film Festival at the IFC Center, apropos the Korean tearjerker Traces of Love. Perhaps the auteurist connection is in my mind because contemporary Korean tearjerkers bear considerable resemblance to the ones that Hollywood used to turn out in the 50s, right down to the liberal use of classical piano music.

The title Traces of Love is for English-language audiences; the Korean title is Gaeulro, which, I read, translates roughly as Towards Autumn. The director is Kim Dae-Seung, whose bizarre but interesting Bungee Jumping of Their Own caught my attention a few years back. (I missed Kim's second film, the historical drama Blood Rain, which played at last year's Asian Film Fest.) Somehow the wacky aspect of Bungee Jumping had obscured its style in my memory, and I wasn't expecting much out of Traces of Love. But Kim must now be taken seriously.

Traces of Love is a poor title, because the love that is cruelly extinguished in the film's first act lives on, not in trace quantities, but as a tidal wave that overwhelms all other psychic activity in the present. (Whereas the film does indeed contain a lot of autumn scenery.) There is nothing restrained about the film's sentiment: the characters exist only as vehicles of their passion; all other components of their psychology are excluded from consideration. The unthoughtful and maudlin aspects of the melodrama are real, not just apparent. That's why Traces needs auteurist support.

If Kim's limitations are obvious, so are his virtues. Traces of Love is visually stunning from beginning to end: not just when it photographs its characters against the vistas of the scenic island that is the film's capital, but even when one of them descends a flight of stairs in an urban walkway or crosses a cafeteria. Inseparable from the serenity of the widescreen compositions is Kim's love of stillness, his willingness to suspend the film in lengthy, contemplative passages that simply register the characters walking through air and light, the landscape shifting quietly behind them, a murmur of natural sound the only thing on the soundtrack. What makes Traces more than a stylistic exercise applied to inadequate material is that the eerie calm of the direction envelops the universal sentimentality of love and loss, turning the movie into a strange, heightened vision of afterlife rather than any kind of depiction of everyday psychology.

There are a number of short clips of Traces of Love on YouTube that manage to convey the film's weird and pellucid mood. Unfortunately, the clips cut off the edges of Kim's 2.35:1 compositions. A Korean DVD of the film with English subtitles is available, and is supposed to contain a 2.35:1 widescreen version.