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.