Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep is a great film – and yet it exposes so many potential problems with the Hawksian process. As a rule, genre is a painted backdrop in Hawks' films, a set of comfortable signifiers that create audience expectations with which Hawks and his actors can then play. The detective genre is a good candidate for the Hawks treatment, based as it is on the perceptual divide between the protagonist and the environment that he or she must navigate and interpret. It's easy to translate this perceptual divide into a Hawksian map of the project: the world that Philip Marlowe explores will become so many genre trappings, and Marlowe himself will move against that cinema-bound world with a lightness and informality that will make him seem more real by contrast.

In fact, the genre is so appropriate for Hawks that it pushes him to a posture that almost resembles parody at times. With so much of the film universe marked off as genre signification, and the protagonist left alone on stage center, the Hawksian urge to have fun can sometimes seem frivolous and even contemptuous. Rarely have the goofy scenes in Hawks films seemed so purely goofy: Marlowe playing a prissy book collector in Geiger's bookstore, or Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood bedeviling a policeman over the telephone, strike me as too strenuous and inorganic a form of reflexive fun. The running theme of Marlowe being irresistible to a stream of beautiful female supporting characters and bit players, likely a send-up of the male fantasy associated with the genre, doesn't come across as much less of a fantasy than what it's sending up. Even the film's opening scenes in the Sternwood mansion play a little too much like a trip to the funhouse: the general's monologue is too literary and scene-setting to let the character breathe; and each of the Sternwood daughters is little more at this point than a genre exhibit that gives Marlowe a chance to show his wit and detachment. (This is not to deny the Hawksian beauties of this opening section: not just the appealing underplaying of Marlowe sweating in the general's hothouse, but also the wonderful reverse tracking shot of Marlowe entering the mansion, framed in that ineffable Hawksian style that conveys both a movie set and an intelligence sizing it up.)

I think the best way to understand the film's greatness is to ask the question, "What causes Marlowe to get personally involved in the case?" For his early detachment gives way to fierce emotionality by the last act. Marlowe forcing Eddie Mars out to face his own gunmen is a driven man; and just before that is the startling concept of Marlowe's hands trembling in fear as he loads his gun in preparation for Mars' arrival.

I don't believe there is a single sufficient answer to that question. Here are some of the components of Marlowe's response.

1) To a large extent, Marlowe is motivated by a spirit of inquiry. This is a reflexive motivation, one that belongs primarily to the film audience, and for which Marlowe acts as our agent. But Hawks is adept at blurring the line between the fictional impulse and character motivation. The film really takes off with the long scene of Marlowe arriving just too late at the Geiger house and finding an array of clues: a corpse, a hopped-up Carmen Sternwood, a concealed camera. Marlowe moves freely about the set like a video game avatar, laying out the available facts for our inspection; Hawks enjoys his time in the house, declines to compress the time it takes for Marlowe to wander the room or search for evidence. The scene is about Marlowe investigating more than it is about the results of the investigation.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is, on the face of it, purely informational: detective Bernie Ohls stops by Marlowe's apartment at 2 am to tell him that Owen Taylor's car was found in the ocean. Marlowe volunteers to accompany Ohls to the crime scene; and asks Ohls a few factual questions as he retrieves his hat and coat: "How's the weather?…What time did that call come in?…What kind of a car did you say that was?" It would have been commonplace for a genre film to fade out as soon as Marlowe's departure was established. The ten or fifteen seconds that Hawks tacks onto the end of the scene are quite relaxed, with Marlowe moving off microphone as he walks to an adjoining room. On the one hand, it's as if Marlowe is using the few moments before "Cut!" to strengthen our grasp on the plot; on the other hand, the rhythm of the scene is peculiarly independent of the story's momentum. Hawks is playing in the space between the fascination of the fiction and the process of creating it.

By the time we get to the familiar pause at the middle of the traditional detective story – then the case is completely closed, I hope this amount is satisfactory, we're very grateful to you. Mr. Marlowe– Hawks feels no need to show Marlowe hesitating over the too-pat solution. Having exposed Marlowe's role as master of the fictional process, Hawks isn't tempted to play a game that he has already tipped us off to. Marlowe goes forward because we want him to, or because he wants to – the difference is hard for us to make out.

2) The Big Sleep is, among other things, a love story, and a rather good one. And Marlowe's object of desire, Vivian Sternwood, is somehow beholden to Eddie Mars, and can't escape his clutches without Marlowe's intervention. Marlowe cites this motivation on a few occasions: "I'm beginning to like another one of the Sternwoods."

From a plot point of view, this motivation is sufficient to explain Marlowe's emotional involvement. But Hawks and his writers are canny enough to know that the love story is not important enough to dominate the film, that the general tone of genre awareness militates against Marlowe falling too hard. Characteristically, Hawks turns this structural prohibition to his advantage, letting Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood drift together calmly and inevitably, dialing down the destabilizing aspects of the relationship (including Vivian's repeated acts on Eddie Mars' behalf) and emphasizing the lovers' quiet, mutual pleasure. The film's final, gentle joke – "What's wrong with you?"- is another way of saying "You may have looked like a plot problem on paper, but you never really were."

3) Interestingly, a much less important character – Jonesy, the penny-ante hood who sacrifices himself for his unworthy lover Agnes – is also cited in the script several times as a reason that Marlowe is determined to take Eddie Mars out of action. Jonesy is treated much more brutally by Mars than is Vivian; and yet it's an indication of how much the love story is muted that this minor character can compete with Vivian on Marlowe's hierarchy of motivations.

There is a reflexive angle here that boosts Jonesy's importance. He didn't just die: he died with Marlowe standing helplessly by in the next room. Marlowe's powerlessness during this incident is clearly a goad to him, as Marlowe himself states. It's a motivation that we, the audience, understand well: the hero is our power, our vehicle to traverse the narrative; any check on his power has dire consequences for our pleasure. So Marlowe's desire for revenge doesn't have to be explained too carefully in terms of his character, as we feel the slight along with him. The subject comes up again as Marlowe loads his gun with trembling hands in the film's penultimate scene: he tells Vivian, "Mars has been ahead of me all the way, way ahead." The pleasure of the genre depends on Marlowe reversing that trend.

Marlowe's various motivations are skillfully meshed. There is enough character-based motivation to let us parse the film on purely internal evidence. And yet the energy that drives Marlowe to ever greater levels of involvement doesn't completely feel like a result of the characterization. In Hawks' films, the balance between the pleasure of fiction – the direct bond between the filmmakers and the audience – and the internal imperatives of the depicted world is a carefully managed trick, almost a matter of sleight of hand. You could call this blend inorganic; and perhaps it can be justified only as an acknowledgement, and a gentle underlining, of the intrinsically inorganic nature of art.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

2008 Lists

The lists of my favorite New York one-week theatrical releases of 2008, and of my favorite 2008 international premieres, are up at the Auteurs' Notebook. Sometime in January, after I've seen all the 2008 theatrical premieres I'm likely to see, I'll post a more detailed breakdown of my year's theatrical experience. The international premiere list will change a lot over the course of the next year or 18 months; I'll post updates periodically on my running list of favorite films.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Je veux voir

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige's 2008 film Je veux voir (I Want to See), which had a one-off NYC screening as part of MOMA's "The Contenders" series, didn't get nearly as much critical attention as it deserves when it premiered at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section. Some unkind reviewers took it for a sort of UNICEF documentary on post-war Lebanon, with Catherine Deneuve lending her prestige to a worthy cause. This wouldn't be a completely inaccurate appraisal if it were stripped of its negative connotations, and if the film's extraordinary formal intelligence were acknowledged.

At Toronto 2005, I made note of Hadjithomas and Joreige's A Perfect Day, writing the following in my Senses of Cinema Toronto wrap-up:

"The Lebanese film A Perfect Day (2005) (which won the FIPRESCI prize at Locarno) is an interesting combination of lucid, intelligent direction and evanescent material. The film follows a recessive young man (Ziad Saad) over the course of a single day in Beirut, during which he attempts to have his missing father declared dead, is diagnosed with apnea, dodges the phone calls of his needy mother (Julia Kassar), and pursues a beautiful girlfriend (Alexandra Kahwagi) who has decided to end their relationship. Far from action-packed, the film dawdles over random sensory input and everyday social detail, and the various plot threads seem either too dramatic or too inconclusive, depending on which direction one wants to push the film in. Directors Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige seem quite confident about their strategy: they have a strong sense of location and sound, and their subjective rendering of the protagonist's perceptions is so precise and abstract that they sometimes seem to be making a conceptual movie about the nature of experience. Can Hadjithomas and Joreige apply their considerable skills to a more classical story structure? Or will their future films reveal that such drifting, attenuated material is a necessary condition for their art?"

Perhaps it was my prejudice that led me to contemplate Hadjithomas and Joreige's potential as old-fashioned narrative filmmakers in my little thought experiment. In any case, Je veux voir finds them in a more postmodernist stance, and they wear it well.

Je veux voir blatantly, wittily asks us to imagine its origins as a production. One supposes that Deneuve offered her services to the Lebanese couple, who then had to come up with a project that could contain her. And so, in the film's first scene, the directors and unseen production staff argue in an office about whether or not to take Deneuve on an improvised day-long shoot to the south of Lebanon, though she has come to the country only to attend a gala in Beirut that night. A bemused Deneuve stares out the window as the staff worry that they cannot ensure her safety. Finally she interjects, "I want to see" – the film's title. The directors, playing themselves, load Deneuve into the shotgun seat of a car driven by Lebanese actor Rabih Mroue, whose IMDb credits consist entirely of films by Hadjithomas/Joreige and by Ghassan Salhab (Terra Incognita), the other major figure of today's Lebanese cinema. The filmmakers and their cinematographer train their camera on the stars from another car, and the convoy is off, with the actors left alone to transmit the initial stages of their acquaintance over radio microphones.

The simple plot concept sets up a confusion that the filmmakers use productively. The outer movie, which we are watching in a theater, and the inner movie, shot while the cars traverse broken roads on their way to the Lebanon-Israel border, share the same stars and crew. They also share the same subject, and very often the same compositions and soundtrack. The effects of this confusion can flow in both directions. Events in the inner movie are written large by our awareness that they also pertain to the outer movie and its mythological star. Every glitch in the filmmaking process or awkwardness among the cast members bounces back and forth in our minds between fiction and reality. Conversely, the practical difficulties that disrupt the inner movie register as wild narrative discontinuities in the outer movie. For instance, an unseen official who physically harasses the cinematographer when the car makes an unplanned stop is simply one more obstacle for the guerrilla inner movie, but he punches a sudden and unexpected hole into the story line. Hadjithomas and Joreige play with these levels, finding new ways to lull us into forgetting the inner movie, then to refocus us. It's their way of driving home the age-old question – is there room for art in the face of real-world crisis? – with wit and flair, and yet to preserve a tentative justification for the stubborn persistence of fiction during hard times.

But what really gives emotional solidity to this postmodernist concept is the precision and beauty of the filmmakers' visual-aural plan. Hadjithomas and Joreige give the impression of having premeditated every shot, and their particular interest is in point-of-view decoupage: the separation between a character who watches and the world that is being watched. Deneuve looking through the car windows at the passing beauty and wreckage of Lebanon is filmed with such Hitchcockian intentionality that the film becomes about looking: not just a celebrity looking at an experience she has been shielded from (the inner movie), but beyond that, the gap between direct sensory experience and the state of mind that it engenders (the outer movie). Often the filmmakers cut to a reverse shot in such a way that it barely seems to belong to the same space as what came before – and this anti-Bazinian system is exactly what is called for in a movie about the distance between the protagonists (and us) and the physical/political/phenomenological world. On occasion Hadjithomas and Joreige relax into a more spatially unified mode of shooting – as in the scene where Mroue gets lost amid the ruins of his own childhood village, and Deneuve in turn is separated from him. Whenever this spatial unification of viewer and viewed, mind and matter, occurs, we can be sure that the filmmakers will use it to render us vulnerable to another dislocation. In this case, the visual and emotional bond forged between Deneuve and Mroue is extended into an intimate conversation, in which the younger actor reveals that he can quote Deneuve's dialogue from Belle de jour. As distracted by this overture as we are, Mroue drives the car off the approved route into an area that has not been checked for landmines….

My only reservation about Je veux voir is with the endpoint of the journey through Lebanon: feeling the need for an emotional event that will cap the expedition and turn the car around, Hadjithomas and Joreige resort to a verbal and visual lyricism that feels to me more conventional than the formal play that took us south. But the film recovers with a superb ending, as Deneuve makes it back in time for her gala, where she searches for the disconnected reverse shot that will preserve the experience of the film in her mind. Je veux voir is not only a major-filmmaker alert, but also the last bit of evidence needed to proclaim Lebanon as a hot spot in today's increasingly decentralized cinematic culture.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Bazin on Documentaries, Real and Imaginary

The welcome recent revival of interest in the writings of André Bazin is already beginning to expand the range of Bazin resources available to English-language readers. Last month saw two fascinating Bazin articles translated into English for the first time and published in well-read magazines.

The more unusual of the two pieces is "Every Film Is a Social Documentary," a relatively early (5 July 1947), short article originally published in Les Lettres françaises, and translated by Paul Fileri in the November-December 2008 issue of Film Comment as part of a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Bazin's death. Lying somewhat outside the major currents of Bazinian thought (at least as these currents have been defined for English readers), the piece makes a quick nod to "the realist destiny of cinema – innate in photographic objectivity" that has been the tentpole of Bazinian thought at least as far back as 1944's "The Ontology of the Photographic Image." Then Bazin shifts to a contemplation of the dreamlike quality of cinema on the cultural level, a quality that requires the realism of the image, but perhaps only as a vehicle, a carrier. Bazin's description of the resemblance between cinema and dream recalls the principles of surrealism (a word not mentioned by Bazin here), which embraced the cinema precisely because it could give the stamp of realism to the most fantastic and disconcerting images. Surprisingly, however, Bazin's interest here is the cinema's ability to embody the mythologies of the mass audience, an enterprise of which "the sole objective criterion is success." Pivoting again in his long final paragraph, Bazin reveals his optimism that the ciné-club movement and the mainstreaming of film culture will help audiences resist social agencies who would use the oneiric aspect of cinema to manipulate them. Certainly an odd little item for Bazin, but among other things a reminder that cinema's intrinsic realism was less the endpoint of his thinking than a tool that he deployed to other ends.

Much closer to our conception of Bazinian thought is "The Evolution of the Film of Exploration," a piece published in Monde nouveau sometime in the 50s. Cahiers du cinema, which has been reprinting a Bazin piece in each issue for nearly a year, published the first half of this article in its November 2008 issue (failing to give its original date of publication, unless I'm missing it); the second half will be published next month to conclude the Bazin series. Bill Krohn translated for the English version of Cahiers.

This article is nearly a duplicate of the familiar "Cinema and Exploration," a composite of two France-Observateur pieces that Hugh Gray translated in What Is Cinema? But "Evolution" is perhaps more focused and instructive, and introduces one particularly interesting example of cinema gone wrong.

In "Cinema and Exploration" Bazin cites Charles Frend's 1948 Scott of the Antarctic as an example of a poorly conceived hybrid of fiction and documentary; in "Evolution," he uses as his negative example Howard Hill's 1952 Tembo (without citing it by name), and this time his objections could not be stated more clearly. I quote Bill's translation:

"Here's a typical sequence: Our champion is supposedly advancing at the head of a line of porters in search of big game. In the foreground an enormous python coiled around a limb lets its little triangular head hang over a water hole, while three hundred feet away, upright in a canoe, the unconscious hunter heads straight for him. Happily a negro sees and points the hideous beast out to him. In an instant the monster's head is pierced by an arrow. Another sequence, even more significant. We arrive in the forest village of the Pygmies. The little men, frightened, first flee at the approach of the Whites. The camera shows us their flight – better still, it shows us two or three shots of fearful Pygmies hiding in the brush. I'll pass over the shameful murders of a panther, a lion and an elephant with arrows. The poor animals, captured in advance, were visibly tied up and struggling at the end of their leashes, Saint Sebastians of the animal kingdom. I am still astonished by the absence of any protest from critics of the period against a film that presupposed a contempt for animals and for the honor of the hunt equaled only by its contempt for the audience, but after all, the audiences that accepted it deserved no better. In any case, it's easy to see how this presentation implicitly destroyed its own purpose. Each of these scenes that pretended to be raw documents was in fact elaborated and prepared by the mise en scene, and the trick could be deduced from precisely the elements in the mise en scene that were supposed to prove the spontaneity of the event. It is obvious, for example, that in order to place the camera several feet behind the serpent, so that it would appear huge and menacing to the spectator, it was necessary not only to know of its existence but also, in all likelihood, to carry the poor animal, condemned to death, to the ideal spot for a composition with lots of depth of field. But even if we admit that the obviousness of the fakery partly justifies it in this case, because it is in some sense a documentary reenactment, that could in no way be the case with the Pygmies, because if, as the commentary says, they are frightened of the Whites, they should first of all be frightened by the camera so that it couldn't be there to film their fright, much less to move closer to film (with what lights?) the fear on their faces. These images not only prove that the Pygmies in question did not flee, but that they were so unafraid of the Whites and the cinema that they let themselves be directed for this mise en scene, to the point of simulating fear."

I note in passing the deadpan wit of the writing, largely a function of the ease with which Bazin combines multiple grievances into short phrases; and also the persistence of Bazin's suppressed but angry response to the plight of animals. But what interests me primarily about this passage is that it is the most basic statement that I can recall of Bazin's objection to certain kinds of "fictionalizing" film technique, and that the objection here is couched in terms of the integrity of the documentary format. The techniques that are called on the carpet here include expressionist camera placement, editing, and even lighting; and Bazin's point is that these techniques, as used, betray the spirit as well as the letter of the contract between documentarian and audience.

Especially when placed in the context of the entire piece, the above passage bears a strong resemblance to Bazin's famous argument in support of Albert Lamorisse's refusal to use cutting to show the balloon following the child in Le Ballon rouge. This argument, from "The Virtues and Limitations of Montage" (another composite article from What Is Cinema?) also cites a negative example – Jean Tourane's Une Fée pas comme les autres – which Bazin believes makes inappropriate use of technique to portray spatial relations. And in this case neither of this films under discussion are documentaries: on the contrary, they are both highly fanciful children's films. I quote a key passage from "Virtues and Limitations":

"It is very easy to imagine Ballon Rouge as a literary tale. But no matter how delightfully written, the book could never come up to the film, the charm of which is of another kind. Nevertheless, the same story no matter how well filmed might not have had a greater measure of reality on the screen than in the book, supposing that Lamorisse had had recourse either to the illusions of montage or, failing that, to process work. The film would then be a tale told image by image – as is the story, word by word – instead of being what it is, namely the picture of a story or, if you prefer, an imaginary documentary.

"This expression seems to me once and for all to be the one that best defines what Lamorisse was attempting, namely something like, yet different from, the film that Cocteau created in Le Sang d'un poète, that is to say, a documentary on the imagination, in other words, on the dream. Here we are then, caught up by our thinking in a series of paradoxes. Montage which we are constantly being told is the essence of cinema is, in this situation, the literary and anticinematic process par excellence. Essential cinema, seen for once in its pure state, on the contrary, is to be found in straightforward photographic respect for the unity of space."

The memorable phrase "imaginary documentary" links the two pieces. Bazin is clearly moved to the same objection by a work of fiction as by a documentary. And I believe that the aesthetic preference that I have chosen to highlight is in no way atypical of either Bazin's tastes or of his legacy. The point that I want to emphasize is that the Bazinian aesthetic sees fiction, at least some of the time or in some cases, as having the same obligations to the audience as does documentary.

Of course, I do not mean to imply that Bazin saw a simple equivalence between fiction and documentary, nor that he rejected montage and other fictionalizing techniques across the board. (It's interesting that Bazin's description of the offending shot of the python in Tembo calls to mind the composition of the shot of Susan's suicide attempt in Citizen Kane, which Bazin greatly admired as a demonstration of the qualities of deep-focus photography, and analyzed in detail in his book on Welles.) Indeed, the next few pages of "Virtues and Limitations" immediately attempt to provide context for the Bazinian injunction against montage and to limit its application.

But I wonder whether it might be accurate to say that the Bazinian aesthetic requires that the cinema document something, and that whatever "something" is chosen should be rendered with appropriate stylistic abnegation. An interesting piece to read in this context is "Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of the Liberation" (collected in What Is Cinema? as "An Aesthetic of Reality: Neorealism"), and particularly the section "From Citizen Kane to Farrebique," which suggests that comprehensive documentation in cinema is impossible, that "one is compelled to choose between one kind of reality and another."

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Moving to a new location

It turns out I made a mistake when I decided to host Thanks for the Use of the Hall at my own web site (where I have to pay for bandwidth) rather than on Blogger's servers. The blog is now being checked about 3000 times a day by aggregators (that could be 3000 subscribers, or one dude checking me 3000 times daily), which is getting expensive. So Thanks for the Use of the Hall has to move:

The old site will remain where it is, as an archive. The new site will contain only posts from December 2008 on - including a piece I just posted on Jean-Gabriel Albicocco's La Fille aux yeuz d'or.

Nothing else will ever be posted here, so you can all help my bank account by unsubscribing from this old site. A browser bookmark will do the job nicely, and won't cost me anything. Neither will subscribing to the new site, of course.

Sorry for the bother.

La Fille aux yeux d'or

Jean-Gabriel Albicocco's 1961 debut feature La Fille aux yeux d'or (The Girl with the Golden Eyes ) had a small residual reputation when I was a youngster, but seems to have dropped off the critical radar in recent decades. Albicocco made five feature films between 1961 and 1971 before taking a job as a Gaumont executive in Brazil, where he passed away in 2001 without further cinematic issue. I finally caught up with La Fille last night at the French Institute, and I would very much like to put Albicocco's name back in circulation.

La Fille is a modern-day adaptation of the same Balzac novella that Catherine Breillat was slated to shoot a few years ago, with Laetitia Casta in the title role, before the project presumably fell through. The material is right up Breillat's alley, and I'm really sorry that she didn't get a shot at it; but Albicocco's version would have been hard to top. As in Jacques Rivette's recent Ne touchez pas la hache, Balzac's cabal "the Thirteen" lurk around the edges of La Fille, establishing an ominous mood in the opening scenes, then reappearing in the last reel to help the dark protagonist Henri Marsay (Paul Guers) pull off an action exploit. But the swagger of Balzac's criminal heroics is muted in Pierre Pelegri and Philippe Dumarçay's intelligent (and seemingly quite free) adaptation, and held at a remove by Albicocco's distinctive pictorial style. What remains of Balzac's tone is mostly embodied in Henri's contemptuous treatment of his mysterious, nameless mistress (Marie Laforêt, Albicocco's wife at the time). This roughness, part of a pervasive aura of sadomasochism, serves as a seasoning to make Albicocco's visual romanticism a bit more astringent.

Aided by his cinematographer father, Albicocco throws off dense, beautiful images effortlessly, often using too much or too little light to give the aestheticized compositions an overtone of modernist realism. Sometimes the imagery flirts with artifice and symbolism – like the flock of birds fluttering around the girl's apartment during the lovers' first tryst. Other times the camera incorporates depth of space and natural sound to stunning effect. Angled rooftop shots of a geometric, traffic-laced Paris cityscape threaten to overwhelm one of the film's key confrontations, much like the aquarium scene in Welles' The Lady from Shanghai; the final act is introduced by a dazzling travelling shot of the Thirteen flying down a highway in a fleet of convertibles, with a real rainstorm pounding the cars and graying out the image.

The reference to Welles isn't completely arbitrary, because Albicocco attains a fable-like tone (too bad "fabulous" was turned into just another superlative by word inflation) that can't completely be attributed to the choice of subject matter, or even to the qualities of the script. I was also reminded of the modern fables of Michel Deville, who shares with Albicocco a tendency to speak the language of romanticism in order to arrive at a more modern and contemplative vantage point. (My earlier post on Deville gives more information.) Like both these directors, Albicocco uses a wide variety of camera and editing techniques, clearly interested in the effect of the variety as well as the effect of the particular devices. He gives the impression of great precision in organizing shots, but the cloud of visual effects that he creates does not seem to be motivated by service to the story.

I'll describe a scene from La Fille by way of example, though it may be hard to follow without visual aids. Trying to gather information about his willfully mysterious lover, Henri explores her apartment with a flashlight, unaware that the girl is lurking and watching him.

  • Albicocco places his camera at the back of a previously unseen room as Henri enters, pushing the door open. The girl is hiding from him inside the room, and the door conceals her as it opens to reveal him. The long shot of the two is stationary and a bit eerie, almost Murnau-like, both because of a certain expressionism in the actors' poses and in the way they appear and disappear in the center of the frame.
  • As Henri enters the room and heads toward the wardrobe, Albicocco cuts to a reverse shot of him, still in as full a shot as the little room allows. While Henri explores, the girl's hand enters the foreground of the frame, holding onto a bedpost. The shot does not clearly signal whether she is approaching Henri or not, or abandoning her cover; it is abstract, in the sense that the gesture is more distinct than its narrative meaning.
  • A few shots later, as Henri finds a vast array of dresses in the wardrobe of the girl (whom he had believed was impoverished), he begins laughing gleefully and cynically. As the laughter mounts, the anguished girl yells out for him to stop, and Albicocco cuts to a big closeup of her. There is no transition from hiding to not hiding; it is not clear when Henri first became aware of the girl's presence. The closeup occurs as if the interaction between the two had already been established.

The scene is shot and cut with care, but with a mixture of effects: a kind of expressionism that evokes suspense, then character-based drama enhanced by closeups. Both categories of effect are not completely rooted in narrative: the story doesn't quite give the visual conventions a familiar home. We are somewhat surprised even by effects that we know well from prevailing cinematic codes. The effects therefore become somewhat reflexive and commentative, and the film's style is partly characterized by the gap that opens between story and technique.

The idea I'm working on is that the fable-like qualities of films by Albicocco, or Deville, or Welles, are related to such freedom in selecting effects. Perhaps what makes a fable feel like a fable is the presence of a storyteller; and perhaps we feel the presence of a storyteller more strongly when technique is not completely subordinated to the needs of story.

I haven't mentioned the excellent performance of Françoise Prévost as the third vertex of the film's love triangle. In general, Albicocco wedges a lot of nuanced, expressive, scaled-down acting into the nooks and crannies of a film that might otherwise feel airy and fantastic.

Another film by Albicocco, Le Grand Meaulnes, will screen at Florence Gould Hall on Tuesday, December 9 at 12:30, 4:00, and 7:30 pm.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Jean-Daniel Pollet

I have a short piece on French director Jean-Daniel Pollet, subject of a recent retrospective at Anthology Film Archives, up at the Auteurs' Notebook.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


This page will become the current site of Thanks for the Use of the Hall at the beginning of Decenber 2008. Until then, I'll continue to post at the blog's original site.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Esther Kahn: Notes on the Beloved Object

Yesterday’s screening of Esther Kahn was of the shorter cut (usually reported as 142 minutes long, though I believe it ran somewhat longer) that Desplechin created after the film’s premiere at Cannes 2000. I’d rather see the longer Cannes version (163 minutes), but the shorter one is no travesty. I don’t know of a comprehensive analysis of the differences between the versions; here are the cuts that I’ve noted.

1) Esther’s dream of a world populated by men with balloons for heads is completely excised from the short version. The dream scene is interesting, but I don’t miss it that much.
2) Philippe’s long tavern monologue about his imprisonment and subsequent mental breakdown is completely excised from the short version. Again, I can handle this loss.
3) The beautiful and mysterious scene of Esther and her father talking while crouching on the river bank is shortened. I quite regret this.
4) Esther’s negotiation with her family to work out a payment plan that will allow her to go on the stage is completely excised. I miss this scene.

I’ve written about Esther before, and so have only incremental observations to offer. What struck me most on this viewing is the streak of wild comedy that weaves through the film, and which is perhaps more obvious on repeat viewings. Esther’s quasi-autistic emotional detachment from the events of her life, though taken seriously by the filmmakers, means that her actions have a weird, willed fixity that, if you believe Henri Bergson, is intrinsically comic. And the more somber the scene, the more Esther’s automaton-like reactions are set into relief. Last night I chuckled to myself through most of the movie, and became downright mirthful at the film’s more frightening moments. To appreciate the originality of Summer Phoenix’s performance, one need only consider the scene where romantic despair makes her beat her face with her fists until it is swollen: at one unexpectedly fierce blow, her eyebrows go high in surprise, and her scientific detachment continues as she checks her jaw for major damage. A few scenes later, when Esther looks at a broken glass and does a dispassionate, silent analysis of how much damage she can inflict upon herself with it, I broke out in laughter that might reasonably have seemed inappropriate to some audience members.

It goes without saying that Desplechin’s mastery at creating ambience is a big factor in the film’s originality. But it’s interesting to think about what principles Desplechin follows – because there are all kinds of ambience, after all. In the family scenes, here and in other films, Desplechin seems to want to evoke a social paradise of intimacy and accessibility, despite (or rather because of) the film’s content pointing in a different and more uncomfortable direction. As for the evocative theater environments that dominate the last movement of the film, we experience the romance of darkened, quiet rooms (again, in counterpoint to the mounting tension of the story) and the rabbit-hutch feeling of bit players weaving in and out of dressing rooms and antechambers, all serving the purpose of the group mind that must place Esther on the stage at all costs. In Desplechin’s work, there is a backbeat – not a theme, but a vibration – of idyll, of heaven on earth, of the sum total of loved ones gathered in one place.

When one loves a film as much as I love Esther, things get confusing sometimes. My early, giddy feeling about the mystery of Phoenix’s performance - that it was impossible to tell whether she was an actress or just the right person on the right set – has passed. At a minimum, Esther has a Cockney accent, and I now know that Phoenix was raised in Florida and California. And she was compelling in the only other film I've seen her in, Henry Bean's The Believer. But it’s still exciting to watch Summer Phoenix impersonating Esther Kahn impersonating someone who might be able to do a good Hedda Gabler, and never quite to be sure which layer of the object is currently catching the light. Back in the early days of Esthermania, when Gabe Klinger said he was looking for a girlfriend like Esther Kahn, I urged him to reconsider. But I have a habit of wandering past the chic clothing boutique on Ludlow that Phoenix co-owns, hoping to catch a glimpse of her inside, even though I understand she’s in Los Angeles having babies with Casey Affleck.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Teuvo Tulio Retrospective: BAM, through November 24, 2008

On the basis of The Song of the Scarlet Flower (1938), which screened last night, I'm guessing that we should all pay close attention to the Teuvo Tulio retrospective, at BAM every Monday in November. In the film's first minutes, the Finnish director announces itself as a disciple of the Soviet school. using grand and heroic compositions, idealized lighting (the whole film seems to be shot on a beautiful sunny late afternoon), and a way of putting images together that is motivated more by poetic montage than by narrative momentum. The vague resemblance between Tulio's style and Boris Barnet's quickly gives way, though, to a distinctive directorial voice, marked by a solemn melodramatic conviction that inhabits and justifies the stylized grandeur of the imagery. And yet, though Tulio is able to invest love scenes with surprising intensity, and action scenes with a relaxed heroism, he has more on his mind than commercial excellence, and viewers may be surprised to find themselves lured into an ambitious art film that uses established conventions only to examine their ultimate implications.

I can't say I agree with J. Hoberman's position that Tulio is a "found object," not completely in command of his effects. Admittedly, there is something about the way the ellipses fall in Flower's narrative that is so unusual that we are free to wonder whether Tulio simply neglected to give us the obvious cues that his protagonist is a hopeless womanizer in need of correction. But those cues are the stuff of cliche - it's always better if a filmmaker can find a productive way to dodge them. And I think there's a lot of structural evidence in Flower that Tulio knew what he was doing when he started the movie like a love story, and then restarted it a few minutes later with a brand new and even more intense love story, and so on. I think it's fairly clear than he was orchestrating genre cues to guide us through a few surprises and confustions to an ultimately more complex destination. But the rest of the series may shed more light on the extent to which Tulio's art is conscious.

At the same time as the Tulio retro, there's a series of historic Finnish films screening over the next few weeks at Scandinavia House. For better or worse, the Scandinavia House series seems to reflect conventional wisdom about the highlights of Finland's cinema, and so at a minimum should provide a baseline with which to measure Tulio's audacity.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Assorted Screenings in NYC, November 2008

I haven't seen all the films I'm about to mention - this is just a general heads-up for the NYC film buff community about upcoming screenings.
  • In conjunction with its theatrical premiere of Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale), the IFC Center will feature a retrospective of Arnaud Desplechin's earlier work on November 5-13. The big attraction is the 2007 documentary L'Aimée, which hasn't played NYC yet: it screens on November 5 and 6 with Desplechin's wonderful and underacclaimed short feature La Vie des morts. Esther Kahn, which screens on November 12, should basically be seen every time it shows up in a theater. Here's a piece I wrote about Esther a while back; and here's an old blog entry on Comment je me suis disputé... (ma vie sexuelle), which screens on November 8 and 9.
  • Seems as if there are three to five underpublicized national film series playing NYC at any given moment. But the Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council (MIAAC) Film Festival, mostly at the Tribeca Cinemas and Museum of Arts and Design on November 5-9, looks a bit more daring than some. What jumps out at me are recent films by established directors Shyam Benegal, Ketan Mehta, and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, as well as an intriguing-looking Bengali art film called Shadows Formless, which premiered at Locarno last year.
  • BAM's increasingly essential New French Films series on November 12-16 contains a few can't-miss titles, including the latest film by Jacques Doillon, Le Premier venu (Just Anybody), on November 14. For me, Doillon ranks with Pialat, Breillat and Eustache among the great post-nouvelle vague French filmmakers, and I'm hopeful that he'll start to attract more attention soon, as many of his most acclaimed films have gone unscreened in the US. Also in this series is Mia Hansen-Løve's excellent Tout est pardonné (All is Forgiven), which I blogged about briefly a while ago.
  • Probably most of you know that Anthony Mann's Men in War is one of the best movies ever made, in which case I won't have to tell you that it's at MOMA on November 9 at 5 pm. It was interesting to read André Bazin's negative review of the film, reprinted in the current Cahiers du Cinema.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Off Camera Aftermath

Here are a few links to me-related articles that appeared during or after the Off Camera Independent Film Festival.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Good Dick: Sunshine Cinema, Now Playing

I met Marianna Palka at the Off Camera festival in Kraków, where both our movies were screening; but I didn't see her Good Dick until it opened in NYC on October 17 at the Sunshine Cinema. I told Marianna I'd write her with my reactions - but, instead of clicking the send button, I decided it would do no harm to post the email here.

Cześć, Marianna! (I miss Kraków in the worst way.) As promised, here are my reactions to Good Dick; sorry I didn't write earlier, but I imagine you've had enough business to attend to this week.

I enjoyed your film quite a bit. I appreciate films that move into sexual areas that we still find uncomfortable, and still relate the sex to our public, everyday selves. (I'm not talking about the abuse theme, which I think audiences actually know how to relate to; but rather the casual use of sex language and gesture in a mundane, non-eroticized context.) And I like the sense of mystery in the writing, the willingness to bring up material that is never developed, that points to a fuller world outside the world of the movie. One example I really liked is the brief argument about whether the boy is interested in the girl's money: it's resonant and could have been exploited further, but I like it better because it's shown as just one more defense mechanism. Likewise, it's cool that you don't return to the subject of the boy's past drug habits: most filmmakers couldn't have resisted.

I have one reservation about the film, which is more a question at this point than a hardened reservation. I felt as if there were two different emotional currents in the film, two different ways of orienting ourselves to the sexual subject matter. I actually liked both currents - there wasn't any point in the film where I wasn't enjoyably engaged - but I'm not sure whether the two currents work together smoothly.

One current is a contemplation of the mystery of the way sex expresses itself in the characters' personalities. This current easily lends itself to comedy, and in fact a lot of the pleasure that the film gives is in the comedy-tinged strangeness of your character's presentation: she seems so unknowable at times that we throw our hands up. One aspect of this current is that it easily generalizes to a view of the human condition in general: after a while we begin to see ways that we are like the character instead of different from her, and our comic reaction to her is connected to an acknowledgment that all sexual expression is mysterious and potentially disorienting. Another aspect of this current is that it is easy to turn the same light on Josh Ritter's character. His dogged persistence in trying to overcome the girl's extreme reluctance is so unusual that it seems a little pathological; and his love leads him to an unusually passive and subordinate sexual mindset (or perhaps is the result of such a mindset). And of course we note his junkie past, his homelessness, his dysfunctional secrecy among his group of friends. Your character is not the only damaged one in that relationship.

The other current is a therapeutic one, in which the character's sexual difficulties are seen as the result of trauma. The motion of the film in this current is the characters summoning the strength to confront their problems and arriving at a healthier (and presumably less sexually complicated) place. I found the scenes in the last part of the film quite moving: the big confrontation of your character with her father has an admirable compression that is the result of your using tiny details to suggest major emotional themes that could have taken up big chunks of another movie. And the lovers' reunion on Santa Monica Blvd., with its simplicity and lack of demonstration, gets its power, not from big emotionality, but simply from having no precedent in the couple's previous relations.

Still, I haven't recomciled the two currents completely. The pleasure I get from seeing the couple's sexual problems as representative of the human condition, and in a half-comic light, is hard for me to square with the pleasure in seeing those problems as an illness to be healed. And the therapeutic current also focuses pretty much entirely on your character, which left me with questions about whether the boy needed a bit of healing as well. Will he like the girl as much if she sheds some of her psychological symptoms?

I hope my admiration for your film comes across despite my having framed this discussion in terms of these questions. Have you ever seen Hitchcock's Marnie? It's the closest film I can think of to yours, in terms of theme and character structure.

Trzymaj się!
Dan Sallitt

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bam gua nat (Night and Day)

I’m not quite ready to write anything substantial about this wonderful film, but I’d like to get the word out, even though I don’t believe it has an American distributor yet. Hong Sang-soo is the kind of director who, though generally lionized by the critical community, is in danger of being neglected on a film-by-film basis, because none of his films is so different from the others as to constitute an event. This is a risky game for a critic’s director: after two or three “Ho, hum, another excellent Hong film” reviews, the critic feels an irresistible impulse to change the pace with “Lacking Hong’s usual inspiration” or “Stuck in a rut.”

I think that Night and Day is Hong’s best film, and I’m worried that no one is going to notice. There’s been a quiet style shift in Hong’s recent career, and I think the new forms are coming together into something special.

I haven’t revisited many of Hong’s films: I’m looking forward to watching everything again in chronological order when the first Hong retrospective arrives. If my memory is accurate, Hong’s first five works rely largely on a stationary frame, within which events play out without much response from the camera; pans in these films are generally used to reframe the actors. This objective camera posture lent itself to a kind of droll humor: the form of the film was not altered by the characters’ eccentricities and absurdities. This deadpan camera style is not Hong’s alone, of course, and it is not the only sign of his directorial presence, or even the most prominent. At the risk of being fanciful, sometimes it seemed to me that the proliferation of twinned plot threads in Hong’s films, the undercutting of the narrative’s authority by refusing to clarify the relationship between the alternate stories, was a mischievous, surrealist rebellion against the simplicity of the camera’s gaze and the implicit pretense of objectivity.

In A Tale of Cinema, Hong began playing with the zoom lens; the effect seemed odd at first, at odds with the Asian master-shot style that Hong had more or less signed up for. Woman on the Beach continued the zoom experimentation, and its story was less bifurcated than usual for Hong. In Night and Day, Hong takes the zooming one step further, combining it with an interest in mobile pans. Far from simple reframes, the pans and zooms are frequently wedded to a look or an expression of interest on the part of the characters. Hong’s camera suddenly seems strangely liberated and curious, freely taking up the characters’ concerns, which are, as usual for Hong, often slight and transitory, not strongly tied to the spine of the story. The effect is partly subjective and partly objective: the camera briefly follows a character’s gaze (or, more accurately, mimics it) then returns to its pedestrian duties. Because the pans and zooms are usually motivated by the characters, they lack the didactic qualities of Rossellini’s camera play or the gravity of Rohmer’s, and instead have a lightness that easily turns comic.

Night and Day sticks more or less to a single story line, and I feel a connection between Hong’s move away from narrative doubling and his adoption of a looser camera style. It’s almost as if Hong has been feeling the need for a tool that would let him dart in and out of objectivity, and, having found it, no longer needs to use dynamite to destroy classical narrative. (I’m using strong metaphors – but there’s something weirdly unsettling about twinning a narrative, about using “two” where most people use “three or more.” I registered this penchant of Hong’s as a kind of violence.) Now that Hong is goofing on a single narrative line rather than multiplying narratives, his surrealist qualities become more apparent, and the storytelling wanders into blind alleys and generates red herrings with a distinct sense of the absurd. For the first time, I noted a Buñuelian cast to Hong’s humor. And the film’s biggest narrative trick, the rather upsetting, out-of-the blue digression that sets up the ending, makes the comparison to Buñuel unavoidable, not only in the drollness of the exploit, but also in its unusual brutality that the film only pretends to make a joke of.

The reason that I don’t feel ready to do a good analysis of Night and Day is that so much of what makes it exciting has to do with Hong’s choice of material. His inspired digressions deserve to be considered in terms of their content as well as their storytelling function. Just as an example: there’s an amazing scene where the film’s protagonist, a writer, is blocked from walking down a Paris street by two pretty young production assistants with walkie-talkies who are guarding the perimeter of a film shoot. As the protagonist waits, the attention of the threesome is drawn to something on the ground near them, which turns out to be a baby bird, fallen from its nest. Still having the same slight difficulty communicating in French as when they negotiated for use of the street, the PA’s and the writer pick up the baby bird, comfort it, spot its home, contemplate options. The PA’s were not exactly hostile to the writer when they were blocking his way, and they are not exactly his friends when they join forces with him to help the bird – there is only the slightest movement across the line that separates people in public spaces. The scene ends before the baby bird is restored or friendships are formed. Though the protagonist’s general interest in women is a motif, nothing that occurs before or after this scene relates to it. Who else would dream up such an interlude?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Nights and Weekends: IFC Center, through October 16, 2008

The first think I noticed about Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig’s excellent Nights and Weekends is that the ups and downs of the central romantic relationship are presented to the viewer in a somewhat jumbled fashion, and certainly not in an order that illustrates the trajectory of the relationship. After an opening scene full of ambiguous signs – long-distance lovers Mattie (Gerwig) and James (Swanberg) pull each other’s clothes off just inside James’s doorway, but their sexual hunger is qualified by a dozen small practical difficulties that make the coupling anything but zipless – the lovers quickly devolve into a period of edgy quarrelling that acquires a threatening momentum, and then subside into gentleness and affection near the end of Mattie's visit.

I once compared Swanberg's style in Hannah Takes the Stairs to Pialat’s, and we see again in Nights and Weekends the same Pialat-like storytelling gaps and sense of entropy. But Swanberg/Gerwig are much more centered on characterization than Pialat, and the structural gaps in their films are largely generated by their concern with the problem of the actor. Pialat, less drawn to the inner life of his people, has to range more widely to find elements to disrupt the filmmaking process and create the illusion of randomness that both filmmakers arrive at.

By “the problem of the actor,” I refer to an intrinsic paradox in the filmmaking process that all filmmakers must confront in one way or another: films are planned to a greater or lesser extent, and tend to arrive at a state that was foreseen by the filmmaker; and yet actors characteristically conceive of their role in terms of open-ended exploration, and are hindered by having to arrive at a predetermined destination.

We tend not to think of films like Nights and Weekends as actor-centric, because they are part of a wider trend in independent filmmaking to make films with non-professional actors, and to create circumstances in which amateur performances can be effective. Nonetheless, I’m having trouble thinking of any other film where the reactions of the actors to each other are so much the substance of the fiction, where we can see so plainly the actors processing information that they have received from each other. To some extent at least, the unusual front-loading of Mattie and James’ relationship crisis seems to emanate from the actors, who for whatever reason have crisis on their minds and keep steering each other into treacherous waters. The sense of discontinuity in Swanberg/Gerwig’s films comes not only from actual elisions in the story (which are not particularly radical), but also from the way the peaks and valleys of the actors’ interaction fall across the elisions in unexpected ways.

Swanberg/Gerwig’s acting improvisation is striking in the extent to which it evokes intelligence rather than awkwardness. They seem to want to stand clear of a common strategy (used heavily by Andrew Bujalski, to choose a familiar point of comparison) in which the awkwardness of actors working without a script is intended to simulate awkwardness between the characters. Because the actors here are very intelligent people, and no doubt because of careful editing room choices as well, the improvised dialogue in Nights and Weekends creates an unusual sense of awareness and responsiveness between the characters. It’s a pleasure to see a contemporary movie where improvisation is a challenge to the filmmakers to create more complex characters, rather than a way to finesse the need for acting chops.

After the contrapuntal emotional rhythms of its first half, Nights and Weekends charts a more emotionally steady course in its second half, which jumps a year to show Mattie and James in post-relationship mode, making tentative connections again during an impromptu, casual reunion. Here the film courts danger by becoming much more emotionally direct, with Mattie wearing on her sleeve her sudden, powerful desire for sexual reunion. Still, I found the second half as compelling in its clarity as the first half was compelling in its contradictions. Gerwig the actress is up front and center here, and she is something of a phenomenon. I think that the naturalistic style of the mumblecore movies, and their well-known reliance on amateur performance, makes it difficult for us to grasp that one of the important actors of the moment has emerged from them. Certainly Gerwig’s expressiveness grows from the documentation of a real-life personality, which seems to combine charm and intelligence with a lurking darkness and solitude. But most great cinema acting is based on such documentation. Gerwig’s ability to jump to high levels of emotionality while rooting her performance in mundane detail makes me wonder what she would have been like in the hands of a director of revelation like Cukor or Bergman. Probably not that much different…

Perhaps the clear emotional vectors of the second half are a setup for the movie’s startling climax, which uses sex as a pathway back into the conflicts and contradictions of the unconscious mind. The discomfort of this messy but authentic sexual encounter hangs in the air, casting its shadow on the couple’s stark farewell scene (which gives a final, unexpected flip to the romantic balance of power), and following us out of the theater. Could it be that the ongoing sexual revolution in international cinema isn’t likely to be a source of pleasure to audiences? Here at last we have an American film that portrays sex without indirection or self-censorship, effortlessly connecting it back to our emotional lives, dodging the usual pitfalls of simplification and sentiment, and we don’t seem to know what to do with it.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Frivolous Lists: Poland

In honor of my recent trip to Kraków for the Off Camera Independent Film Festival, here is a list of my favorite Polish films:

1. Iluminacja (Illumination) (Krzysztof Zanussi, 1973)
2. Wojaczek (Lech Majewski, 1999)
3. Matka Joanna od aniolów (Mother Joan of the Angels) (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961)
4. Czlowiek na torze (Man on the Tracks) (Andrzej Munk, 1957)
5. Smierc prezydenta (Death of a President) (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1978)
6. Walkower (Walkover) (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1965)
7. Gdy spadaja anioly (When Angels Fall) (Roman Polanski, 1959)
8. Nóz w wodzie (Knife in the Water) (Roman Polanski, 1962)
9. Kung-Fu (Janusz Kijowski, 1979)
10. Przypadek (Blind Chance) (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1987)

Of course, I haven’t seen a great many celebrated Polish films, classic and recent. I note that some of the directors I mention above did their best work outside of Poland: I’d probably choose Chinatown (1974) over Polanski’s Polish films, Deep End (1970) over Walkower, The Garden of Earthly Delights (2004) over Wojaczek. (However, my minority opinion is that Kieslowski’s early Polish work is superior to his later international productions.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Another quick self-promotion, and then we're done for a while. My 2004 movie All the Ships at Sea, is now available on DVD in PAL format at CreateSpace. (PAL is the broadcast format used by most of the world, though not the United States, which uses NTSC format. NTSC versions of my films have been available on DVD for over a year now.) All the Ships at Sea was shot on PAL equipment, so this DVD should be somewhat superior to the NTSC one.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Off Camera Independent Film Festival, Kraków

Sorry to interrupt the torrent of critical insights with an advertisement, but my movies All the Ships at Sea and Honeymoon are about to screen in Kraków, Poland in the 1st Off Camera Independent Film Festival. I'll be there, along with my actors Edith Meeks and Strawn Bovee - drop on by if you're in the neighborhood.

Ships screenings: Saturday, October 4 at 7 pm at the Kino Reduta; Sunday, October 5 at 10 am at Pauza; and again October 5 at 7 pm at the Klub Alchemia.

Honeymoon screenings: Friday, October 3 at 7 pm at the Kino Mikro; Saturday, October 4 at 10 pm at the Klub Alchemia; and on Sunday, Octuber 5 at 4 pm at Alchemia.

Readers are invited to submit Kraków tourism tips. Dziękuję!

Notes on David Lean

Vadim Rizov asked me, in the comments for another post, for my reactions to the current David Lean retrospective at Film Forum. I don't consider myself a Lean authority, but here are notes from my journal, cleaned up a bit, on my last three Lean screenings. Unfortunately, I haven't the time right now to give the Film Forum series my full attention.

I've never been a Lean fan, always thought he belonged in "Less Than Meets the Eye" where Sarris put him. But it's not uncommon for directors to start their careers with promise (or more), and then lose the thread when their filmmaking circumstances are upgraded. I finally got interested in Lean when I saw Oliver Twist on television in 2005; and David Thomson's recent Guardian article on Lean make me curious to catch some 40s Lean films that I'd always let go by.

My journal notes:

Oliver Twist

I didn't like it for the first hour or so, but it grew on me. There is a pure expressionism to it that I find limiting, but Lean does all sorts of wacky style things, and some of them work for me: deep-focus effects where movement occurs in all layers of the image; generally a lot of density, lots of people and activity; some beautiful shots of London streets, with action moving from the front to the back of the frame; small touches of naturalism, like the excellent scenes with the dog. Overall, I feel weirdly drawn to the film. Lean seems to have less feeling for the material than Polanski, but one edge he has over Polanski is that he engages with the drama, so that the film gets better instead of worse as the hysteria mounts.


A compelling film, not original in terms of characterization, and not coherent, but full of interesting visual drama, often a result of overcrowded frames, sometimes a result of unexpected motion (like the sudden, glittering rain behind the first Todd/Desny kiss). There is a striking working-class dance-hall scene, used as an almost symbolic illustration of the lovers' state of mind, that is impressive in its density. (Unlike Thomson, I think that Lean has a taste for sex and abandon.) The most interesting aspect of the story, the brutality of the father's and the male lover's dominance, goes pretty much unexamined. At any rate, the plot mechanism in the second half makes nonsense of the first half: it requires an objective limitation of viewpoint that Lean had not tried for earlier, or even seemed to consider. I sense that he's weak on dramaturgy, though he likes drama.

The Passionate Friends

Less ridiculous in concept than Madeleine, but similar in that it doesn't seem to focus on any particular aspect of the love story. (It doesn't have much to do with duty, contrary to Thomson's implication.) The film also seemed less daring than Madeleine - on the whole, I liked it less. Its stylistic high point was a spectacular but rather meaningless ascent by cable car into the Alps. An important theme in the script - that Todd's character is a bit cold, and interested in money and security - is never manifested in characterization.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Wackness: Village East, Now Playing

Jonathan Levine's The Wackness is really good - why aren't people talking about it more? Just for starters, the three sex scenes between Josh Peck and Olivia Thirlby are among the sharpest and most sensitive ever put on film. Levine has a unique sensibility: tough-talking, almost hard-boiled, yet so emotive that his characters flirt with disintegration. How many directors could make a teenage protagonist self-possessed enough to play scenes with armed drug-dealers, and still have him whimper with pleasure in the arms of his far more experienced girlfriend? Certainly Levine is the best American director of actors to come along in a while.

The film has been playing since July 3 and is now down to two screens in one theater, the Village East.

Friday, August 22, 2008

When Tomorrow Comes

John M. Stahl’s 1939 When Tomorrow Comes is handicapped by an undistinguished script and by the structural problems posed by the "other woman" genre. And yet something about the concentrated quality of Stahl’s camera style lifts and unifies the project.

The film divides into three sections of approximately equal length, and only the middle section is completely successful. The opening half-hour, showing the meeting and courtship of concert pianist Charles Boyer and waitress Irene Dunne, looks great – Stahl’s slightly standoffish compositions and fluid reverse tracks have a visual authority that few Hollywood directors can match – but plays a little cute. (Interestingly, the script’s pro-union agitation - Dunne and her coworkers go on strike against a callous employer as Boyer circles her – manages to make the film seem more rather than less frivolous, thanks to the total irrelevance of the politics to the plot.). And the last section is impaired by the movie’s weirdly fictitious conception of insanity, as embodied in Boyer’s invalid yet threatening wife Barbara O’Neil, a black hole of the diegesis who not only sucks away a happy ending, but also reduces the putative leads to second-banana status.

The middle section takes Boyer and Dunne from uneasy courtship to full-blown love, as an unexpected storm first isolates them in Boyer’s Long Island house, then becomes violent enough to endanger their lives. I’ve put up a short clip from the beginning of this section (hopefully a "fair use" of the movie – God knows where the rights reside, or why it has been unavailable for so many years), showing the couple in separate rooms of the mansion as they take a breather from the eventful narrative that has thrown them together. There are two things going on here:

1. The "other woman" genre mandates a certain amount of complexity in the male figure. This complexity is difficult to manage from the point of view of characterization: the film’s pleasure mechanism requires that the man be appealing enough to inspire romantic feelings in the audience, but the genre’s plot structure makes him a bit of a cad. When Tomorrow Comes doesn’t avoid all the confusing side effects of this dramaturgical dilemma, but in this clip we see Stahl and the writers (credit goes to Dwight Taylor; the IMDb lists a host of others) open up a pocket of silence in mid-film, in which both characters confront the narrative problem (by looking at photographs of the absent wife) and hint at a psychological ambiguity that begins to make sense of the tangled subject matter. The entire sequence is shot and edited with a simplicity verging on minimalism, and when the couple come together at the end of the clip, Stahl’s axial tracking shots and the point-of-view decoupage are so precise as to evoke Resnais.

2. One of the first things you notice about Stahl is that there’s a lot of weather in his films. Though his career is heavy on melodramas, and though adverse weather is one of the prime motifs of melodrama, Stahl invariably deploys weather against melodrama: he uses it to create a steady, conspicuous signal that remains more or less constant across dramatic vicissitudes. In the scenes before this clip, a storm whips up as the couple are boating, and the wind and rain drive them to an unexpected pit stop at Boyer’s house. The storm having served the narrative purpose of forcing a sexually charged situation, we might expect the filmmakers to let it lapse – but in this clip we see Stahl beginning to create a secondary focus on the weather, turning its sounds and sights into a continuous background texture. In the impressive thirty minutes that follow this clip, the storm will begin to drive the narrative, all the while serving as a sensory drone that is deployed in counterpoint to the ups and downs of the lovers’ adventure.

Okay, here’s the clip. Apologies for its poor condition: the source material began life as a Garden City, NY television broadcast and was repeatedly dubbed into its current ghostly state before becoming a pirate DVD.

Stahl is an extraordinary director who could use a little more attention. I threw out a few ideas about his style on a_film_by in posts #23893 and #32852.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Of Time and the City: Village East, August 8 through 14, 2008

DocuWeek, at the Village East and IFC Center from Friday, August 8 through Thursday, August 14, qualifies a selection of the year’s documentaries for Academy Award consideration. Without meaning to slight the rest of this year’s roster, I can’t help but note that Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City, which premiered at Cannes to great acclaim, is making a surprise, low-profile appearance at DocuWeek. It screens frequently at the Village East during the festival – check the schedule for details.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Exiles: IFC Center, Now Playing

Kent MacKenzie's 1961 The Exiles, a semifictional account of the lives of American Indians in the rundown Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles in the late 50s, is a beautiful film, and its beauty is not merely a matter of MacKenzie's admirable compositions or his meticulous documentation of a legendary locale that has been destroyed. The beauty of The Exiles is the product of the artist's sensibility, which values the wholeness of observation over the demands of spectacle or drama. It takes a dedicated artist to show both the tribal singing of the exiled Indians, with its appeal to nostalgia and our sense of community, and the drunken violence that is intrinsic to this group's communal gathering, and neither to oppose nor to align our responses to the two elements. Note also how MacKenzie keeps watch over the tough girl who is nearly raped by one of the protagonists, even after her dramatic utility is expended: the care with which he shows her readjusting her clothing in solitude, accepting a wrap from a suddenly sympathetic onlooker, huddling in an open-topped car to wait out the all-night event from which she has excluded herself.

One regrets the film's neglect of natural sound, but the independent filmmaking culture of the time did not place a high value on aural integrity; and at any rate MacKenzie could have only simulated this integrity, as his equipment and circumstances no doubt mitigated against good sync-sound recording. I was not as predisposed to forgive the equally unreal soundtrack of Shirley Clarke's The Cool World, a superficially similar project which I recently caught up with – but Clarke seems to me to labor after the clichés of conventional acting and dramaturgy that MacKenzie instinctively avoids.

The Exiles is now reduced to afternoon screenings at the IFC Center, but it will play again at BAM on Saturday, September 13 at 4:30 and 9:15 pm.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Stellet Licht: Quad, July 25 and 27, 2008

Unless you're more alert than me, you have no idea that the Quad is hosting a Hola Mexico Film Festival, and that Carlos Reygadas's remarkable Stellet Licht (Silent Light) is screening there on Friday, July 25 at 3 pm and Sunday, July 27 at 1 pm. Here are my unusually fragmentary observations on the film, from my Senses of Cinema 2007 Toronto wrapup:

"Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ Stellet licht (Silent Light) is one of the acclaimed Cannes titles that has already received extensive coverage – and yet commentators have had difficulty finding a conceptual framework to integrate such hot-button aspects as its conspicuous borrowings from Dreyer's Ordet (1955), not to mention the seemingly self-sufficient virtuoso tableaux that begin and end the film. It's becoming increasingly clear that Reygadas skews more postmodernist than modernist, and perhaps his suggestions of a unified aesthetic enterprise (like the clock that is stopped early in the film and started again after the climax) are red herrings. The extraordinary physicality of his camera style, and his fascination with large-scale systems (natural, organic and mechanical), serve largely to defamiliarise the world; and his visuals can be seen as an attempt to remove camera movements and compositions from their traditional interpretive role, and to invest them with a weight and a physics that renders them autonomous."

Four from Robert Hamer: BAM, July 28 through 31, 2008

Robert Hamer needs to be rescued from relative obscurity and recognized as a major director. His career trails off into a series of half-realized works in the 50s, but even these later films are worth exploring; and in the postwar 40s he was one of the finest filmmakers in the world. BAM is hosting a four-film Hamer retrospective on July 28 through 31 – the best films in it are not that rare, and the rare films in it are perhaps not Hamer's best, but it's nice to see Hamer get any theater space. Beginners should start with the celebrated 1949 black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets on Tuesday, July 29, and the 1947 sociological drama It Always Rains on Sunday (which I wrote about earlier this year) on Thursday, July 31. The 1954 comedy-thriller Father Brown (aka The Detective), screening on Wednesday, July 30, is to my mind the best of Hamer's 50s films, a bit silly in conception but touched by that stoical gravity that Hamer comes by so naturally – and it manages to use the priest-as-detective format without making a travesty of religious principles. BAM necessarily skewed its programming to capitalize on Alec Guinness's stardom – perhaps someday soon we'll have the opportunity to see the rest of Hamer's work, including the 1949 masterpiece The Spider and the Fly.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The River and The Pilgrim (Borzage)

A very good PAL DVD of Frank Borzage's The River, or as much of it as exists, has been released by Edition Filmmuseum. My article on the film is up at the Auteurs' Notebook.

In the article, I allude to the 1916 two-reeler The Pilgrim, which is one of three early Borzage shorts included as extras on the DVD. I've seen only a handful of Borzage's 1910's films (and I presume that most are lost): until now, I would have said that the 1917 Until They Get Me was the pick of the bunch. But The Pilgrim, little seen and with no reputation that I know of, strikes me as an important work: it gives the impression that Borzage had to move away from the melodrama of the early silents (cf. the 1915 short The Pitch 'O Chance, also on the DVD) before he could later reclaim melodrama on his own terms. Instead, The Pilgrim focuses on expressions, on using cinema to stop time and ponder the feelings that people can only half communicate - one senses here that Griffith was Borzage's first master. The film features the first great moment in Borzage's career, in which the Eastern heroine (Anna Little), momentarily awakened by the good/bad protagonist (Borzage), ponders in closeup the phantasmagoria of life-and-death drama and budding love into which she has stumbled, then drifts back into sleep.

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Jupiter Effect

Ever since widescreen TVs became fixtures in bars and cafes, we've been exposed to countless images that were intended to be displayed in 4:3 ratio but are stretched horizontally to fill a 16:9 screen. My informal survey reveals that nearly everyone would rather see an elongated image than deal with black space to the left and right of a properly projected 4:3 image. Something about wasted space bothers a lot of people.

I've been afraid for years now that the public would become acclimated to stretched images, and there's some evidence to support that fear. This weekend I watched a digital projection of Ryuichi Hiroki's Love on Sunday 2: Last Words at the IFC Center, as part of the New York Asian Film Festival. As near as I can figure, the tape was letterboxed, but the projectionist screened it 16:9 anyway. Anyway, the effect was much like all those widescreen TVs in bars that make everyone look like an endomorph. I ran out to the lobby twice to object, but the management didn't take me seriously, and I had to watch the film that way. I didn't see any other patrons complaining, so I guess they figured I was a lone nut.

So why don't these elongated images drive everyone crazy?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Assorted Screenings in NYC, June-July 2008

There are a few interesting or rare items on the NYC film calendars in the next few weeks. I haven’t seen everything I’m about to mention, so consider this post a heads-up for the adventurous.

  • Japanese director Naomi Kawase, who hasn’t had many NYC screenings, is getting some attention from Japan Society via its Japan Cuts series. Her 2007 feature Mogari no mori (The Mourning Forest) screens there on Wednesday, July 2 at 6:30 pm and Monday, July 7 at 6:30 pm; on the same program is Kawase’s 2006 documentary Tarachime. In addition, Japan Society has scheduled two programs of Kawase’s earlier documentaries: the first program screens on Thursday, July 3 at 6:15 pm and Saturday, July 12 at 3:30 pm; the second screens on Thursday, July 3 at 8 pm and Saturday, July 12 at 5:30 pm. Mogari no mori is the Kawase feature I like the least – I’m more enthusiastic about Sharasojyu (Shara) (2003) and Moe no suzaku (Suzaku) (1998) – but her short films are very hard to see, and my guess is that the dividing line between her fiction and documentary work is fuzzy. There’s a paragraph about Mogari no mori in my 2007 Toronto piece for Senses of Cinema.
  • The Tatsuya Nakadai retro at Film Forum contains two titles that I’ve been planning my life around ever since I saw the schedule. The biggie is the great Mikio Naruse’s 1957 Arakure (Untamed), which has a very good reputation, and which I didn’t think I’d ever get to see with subtitles. The other title is somewhat less promising, but still a must: Shiro Toyoda’s 1969 Jigokuhen (Portrait of Hell). Toyoda, a major director who is particularly good with actors, seems to have a spotty track record in his later part of his career, and this subject matter doesn’t sound as if it’s up his alley. But he followed Jigokuhen with the wonderful Kokotsu no hito (The Twilight Years) (1973), so I have hope.
  • BAM is showing Jacques Nolot’s excellent Avant que j’oublie (Before I Forget) on Sunday, June 29 at 4:30 and 9:15 pm as part of its Directors’ Fortnight series. The film will then have its theatrical premiere at the IFC Center on July 18. See that 2007 Toronto wrapup for a brief review.
  • NYC film buffs no doubt already have their sights on John Ford’s underrated The Horse Soldiers, playing at the Walter Reade on Sunday, July 6 as part of a William Holden retrospective. But they might want to stick around for the other film playing that day, John Sturges’s Escape From Fort Bravo. If my memory serves, it’s a worthwhile Western with nice hard-edged 1.33:1 compositions. Sturges directed a few other good films in the 50s and 60s, but this is my favorite. It screens at 3:30 and 8 pm, and The Horse Soldiers at 1 and 5:30 pm.
  • I’m hoping to poke around a bit in the Walter Reade’s upcoming Slovenian film series: the former Yugoslav republics harbored a number of good filmmakers about whom we know little. The only film in the series that I can recommend in advance is Janez Berger’s 1999 V leru (Idle Running), a smart comedy about indolent bohemian youth. It screens on Sunday, July 20 at 6:45 pm and Monday, July 21 at 3:30 pm.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

La Notte di San Lorenzo: Film or Theater?

I recently revisited La Notte di San Lorenzo (Night of the Shooting Stars), which is probably Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s most celebrated film. It’s certainly one of their best, but it’s not a lonely eminence: the Tavianis, little talked about today, have made artistically daring and successful films throughout their long career, though they didn’t draw much international attention until 1977’s Padre Padrone, and then fell off the critical radar after 1987’s Good Morning, Babylon.

The first shot of La Notte di San Lorenzo is an artificially lit view of a domestic interior, dominated by a window that opens onto a painting of the night sky. Under a voiceover, the camera tracks into the window; at the end of the voiceover, a fake meteor streaks across the fake sky, and the title of the movie is suddenly printed on screen, synchronized with a music cue. As I watched, I thought to myself: this already feels completely like a Taviani Brothers film, and we’ve barely even seen any photography. The surprise of the title text, unleashed on the heels of the meteor and amplified with music, was enough to inscribe the Tavianis’ signature. The Taviani experience is a series of dramatic coups that do not grow from story, but rather disrupt it to create a direct communication from the filmmakers to the audience.

After watching ten minutes of the movie, I came to the conclusion that the Tavianis are really theater directors! Not an insult, to my mind…but theirs is not a very pure form of cinema.

Here’s an example. Fairly early in the film, the gentle patriarch Galvano (Omero Antonutti) stands on a crate in a shelter and announces to the gathered townspeople that he is going to flee the German-occupied village by night, inviting everyone to join him. The scene is done in a single camera setup: a low-angle of Galvano, isolated in the frame. Near the end of the speech, a dog in the room barks, and a shadow passes over Galvano’s face; he interpolates into the set of rules he is laying down, "And no dogs. They make noise." The Tavianis choose to keep the focus on the man’s pain rather than his message, on his gentleness rather than his leadership qualities: he adds, with a sad little smile, "I hadn’t thought it through."

We see in this moving scene many of the Tavianis’ human qualities: their exclusive interest in the personal view of large events, their swoops into subjectivity, their tendency to show the unexpected and the contradictory sides of people, their willingness to court the ridiculous. If, however, we consider the scene from a formal perspective, everything exciting and distinctive in it – Galvano’s isolation, the unexpected bark of the dog that changes his demeanor, the odd accumulation of sorrow at the end of the speech – is a coup de théâtre, a sudden, surprising gesture that changes the scene’s emotive qualities.

Imagine the same scene staged for the theater. Galvano stands alone on his crate, illuminated against a dark background. All other actors deliver their dialogue off stage; the dog is a sound effect. After Galvano falters and says, "I hadn’t thought it through," the lights fade and the scene ends.

My opinion is that we lose nothing in passing from the cinematic to the theatrical version. Every emotion, every surprise, is preserved in the translation. The use of space and the realism of the photographic record do not seem to be important to the scene’s effect.

Is it cinema? Yes and no, I suppose. Consider another powerful scene: after the exodus from the village, the townspeople camp on a hillside and wait to hear the explosions that will destroy their homes. A young woman who has previously expressed indifference to the loss of her childhood house is suddenly overtaken with sadness: she wonders aloud how she could possibly have wished for the destruction of her past. The Tavianis plunge into her thoughts with a fast tracking shot through the imagined house, ending on a presumed childhood memory: the girl, as a child, dances on a table in the living room with her family cheering her. Two more childhood memories appear: the girl sits on a sofa in the house with a young man; then, she stands in front of a bedroom mirror in her nightdress, pulling it up and staring at her own sex. After this daring (and typical for the Tavianis) psychic journey, the camera returns to the present.

In a sense, this example is not qualitatively different from the earlier scene: its power is due to a sudden and dramatic juxtaposition of different perspectives, a creative bravado that I would say is theatrical in essence. The movie images have beauty and kinesis, but their impact is dramatic, not textural. With some effort, we can imagine an expensive theater production in which a rotating stage brings the girl’s memories before our eyes: once again the film and theater implementations of the idea would be comparable in their emotional effect. But the film version looks better and is less labored.

Some scenes in the film could never be staged in a theater, and yet have elements in common with the above examples. For instance: as the villagers huddle in the shelter, a teenaged girl goes to a dark, abandoned room to urinate. The Tavianis cut from a long shot of the girl to closeups of a number of young boys who have apparently followed her: they watch avidly, and one of them masturbates. A closeup of the girl at the end of the sequence reveals that she is aware of the voyeurs and not displeased. The scene is too dependent upon silence and closeups to be called theatrical; and yet it is predicated on a series of coups, surprising revelations. Like the earlier scenes cited, it plays nearly as well in the imagination as in the moment of watching it.

If the Tavianis are really theater directors in sheep’s clothing, if their style is indeed an exploration of the cinema’s ability to express the theatrical impulse in new ways, this seems to me a perfectly worthy and productive endeavor. And tagging them with the label “theater” is certainly not the last word in describing their complicated, audacious artistic personality.

In addition to La Notte di San Lorenzo, I’d nominate Il Prato (The Meadow) (1979), Kaos (1984), and Le Affinità elettive (Elective Affinities) (1996) as the Tavianis’ peak achievements. But they’ve turned out impressive work at least as early as 1973’s Allonsanfan and as late as 2001’s Resurrezione (Resurrection).

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Last Mistress: IFC Center, Starting June 27, 2008

Catherine Breillat's most recent movie, curiously titled The Last Mistress in English (its French title, Une vieille maîtresse, would probably be best translated as "an ex-mistress"), opens at the IFC Center on Friday, June 27. I think it's Breillat's best work since Fat Girl. Here's what I wrote about it for my 2007 Toronto piece in Senses of Cinema:

"Catherine Breillat’s Une vieille maîtresse was reasonably well-received at Cannes, but not well enough for my taste: typed as a niche provocatrice, Breillat is never granted centre stage in the world film arena, even with her critically successful projects. An adaptation of a 19th-century novel by Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly, Une vieille maîtresse steps back from the grandiloquent philosophising of Romance (1999) and Anatomie de l'enfer (2004) and picks up the more multivalent discourse of earlier Breillat films like Parfait amour! (1996) and 36 fillette (1988). Of course, Breillat would not choose source material that did not challenge our conception of what a period film is supposed to be. At times, the movie seems to be about the attempt of a disreputable playboy (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) to find love and respectability with a young bride (Roxane Mesquida) and her surprisingly sympathetic grandmother (Claude Sarraute); more substantially, it depicts the long-term, intimate but unstable relationship between the playboy and a temperamental Spanish courtesan (Asia Argento); and, in passing, it documents society’s effort to understand and assimilate these difficult citizens. Breillat changes narrative gears several times, forcing us to plunge into an uncomfortable intimacy with the characters after an emotionally distant first act, and then letting our hard-won identification die away in a final section whose bleak ellipses reminded me of Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (1974). Wrestling with the iconography and the mores of two separated centuries, Breillat throws out unexpected character and social observations like a Roman candle. Her vision of cruelty and empathy operating hand in hand in human nature gives her enormous freedom to inflect dramatic conventions, and she passes back and forth with assurance across the invisible barrier that separates sexuality from the rest of our lives."

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Happiness: IFC Center, June 23 and 28, 2008

One of my favorite films at last year's Toronto Film Festival, Hur Jin-ho's Happiness, screens at the IFC Center on Monday, June 23 at 2 pm and Saturday, June 28 at 5:20 pm as part of this year's New York Asian Film Festival. In my Toronto wrapup for Senses of Cinema, I wrote:

"My favorite Toronto premiere was the South Korean film Happiness, a jump up in quality from the previous work of the talented Hur Jin-ho (Palwolui Christmas [Christmas in August, 1998]; Bomnaleun ganda [One Fine Spring Day, 2001]). The story, about the love between a barely recovered playboy alcoholic (Hwang Jeong-min) and a fellow clinic patient with an incurable lung disease (Lim Su-jeong), is tinged with the sentimentality favoured by Korean melodramas. After only a few minutes, however, it becomes clear that Hur has achieved a quiet virtuosity in the rhythm and alternation of scenes, playing intelligently with the balance of intimacy and solitude, hope and despair, self-preserving and self-destructive impulses. Scenes are connected with unemphatic jump cuts that often end the action before its expected point of rest. The narrative is fatalistic on the large scale, but individual moments play with our expectations of how the emotional payload will be delivered, finding not only a calm that is not native to melodrama, but also an existential anguish that exceeds the requirements of the tearjerker. Beneath the emotive surface of Happiness, its melodrama is inflected with stoical detachment, right up to the beautiful desolation of the final crane shot.

"Happiness is a particularly nice surprise after Hur’s last film Oechul [April Snow, 2005], which seemed to show him being absorbed by the mainstream."

I'm also looking forward to two as-yet-unseen films by the excellent Ryuichi Hiroki (Vibrator, It's Only Talk) at the Asian Film Festival. Love on Sunday screens on Thursday, June 26 at 1 pm and on Sunday, June 29 at 1 pm; Love on Sunday 2: Last Words screens on Sunday, June 29 at 3 pm and on Wednesday, July 2 at 12:30 pm. All screenings of the Hiroki films are at the IFC Center.