A blog formerly known as Bookishness
By Charles Matthews"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Saturday, October 31, 2015
Friday, October 30, 2015
|Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange|
Dim: Warren Clarke
Georgie: James Marcus
Pete: Michael Tarn
Mr. Alexander: Patrick Magee
Mrs. Alexander: Adrienne Corri
Deltoid: Aubrey Morris
Catlady: Miriam Karlin
Minister: Anthony Sharp
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick
Based on a novel by Anthony Burgess
Cinematography: John Alcott
Production design: John Barry
Costume design: Milena Canonero
Film editing: Bill Butler
Any movie that was panned by Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and Roger Ebert can't be all bad, can it? A Clockwork Orange remains one of Stanley Kubrick's most popular films, with an 8.4 rating on IMDb and a 90% fresh rating (93% audience score) on Rotten Tomatoes. I think it's a tribute to Kubrick that the movie can elicit such widely divergent responses. I can see what Kael, Sarris, and Ebert are complaining about while at the same time admitting that the film is undeniably entertaining in a "horrorshow" way: that being both novelist Anthony Burgess's Nadsat coinage from the Russian word "khorosho," meaning "good," and the English literal sense. For it is a kind of horror movie, with Alex as the monster spawned by modern society -- implacable, controlled only by the most drastic and abhorrent means, in this case a kind of behavioral conditioning. Watching it this time I was struck by how much the aversion therapy to which Alex is subjected reminds me of the attempts to convert gay people to heterosexuality. Which is not to say that Kubrick's film isn't exploitative in the extreme, relying on images of violence and sexuality that almost justify Kael's suggestion that Kubrick is a kind of failed pornographer. It is not the kind of movie that should go without what today are called "trigger warnings." What's good about A Clockwork Orange is certainly Malcolm McDowell's performance as Alex, one of the few really complex human beings in Kubrick's caricature-infested films. Some of his most memorable scenes in the movie were partly improvised, as when he sings "Singin' in the Rain" during his attack on the Alexanders, and when he opens his mouth like a bird when the minister of the interior is feeding him. Kubrick received three Oscar nominations, as producer, director, and screenwriter, and film editor Bill Butler was also nominated, but the movie won none, losing in all four categories to The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971). It deserved nominations not only for McDowell, but also for John Alcott's cinematography and John Barry's production design.
Thursday, October 29, 2015
D.W. Griffith, Victor Sjöstrom, and King Vidor is, to say the least, instructive. All four of these movies are romantic melodramas (though The Scarlet Letter is lightly touched by the greatness of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel), but Griffith, Sjöstrom, and Vidor each possessed a degree of genius, whereas King will never be regarded as anything more than a director of solid competence. Despite his long career, which ranged from 1915 to 1962, amassing credits on IMDb for directing 116 films, his movies are not particularly memorable. Who, today, seeks out The Song of Bernadette (1943) or Wilson (1944), two of the "prestige" films he directed for 20th Century-Fox? In his great auteurist survey The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, the best Andrew Sarris has to say about these and other movies directed by King is that they display a "plodding intensity." King was, in Sarris's words, "turgid and rhetorical in his narrative style," and that certainly holds true for The White Sister. Griffith, Sjöstrom, and Vidor all made use of Gish's rapport with the camera, her ability to suggest an entire range of emotions with her eyes alone -- hence the many close-ups she is given in their films. But King, filming on location in Italy and Algeria, is more interested in the settings than in the people inhabiting them. (Roy Overbaugh's cinematography is one of the film's virtues.) Nor does he seem interested in moving the story along, dragging it out to a wearisome 143 minutes. When Prince Chiaromonte (Charles Lane), the father of Angela (Gish) and her wicked half-sister, the Marchesa di Mola (Gail Kane), goes out fox-hunting, we're pretty sure that disaster is about to happen. But King stretches out the hunt so long that when Chiaromonte is killed the accident has no great emotional impact. And when Angela takes her vows as a nun, effectively preventing her from marrying Captain Severini (Ronald Colman), the man she loves but thinks is dead, King gives us every moment of the ceremony, trying to generate suspense by occasional cuts to Severini's ship steaming homeward. There's also an erupting volcano at the picture's end, but King fails to stage or cut it for real suspense. Gish is perfectly fine, though she's not called on to do much but look pious and to go cataleptic when Angela receives the news of Severini's supposed death. Colman is handsome but not much else, and Kane's villainy seems to be signaled by her talking out of the side of her mouth, as if channeling Dick Cheney many years in advance.
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Tuesday, October 27, 2015
La Bohème, and it suggests that her talents were better suited to a contemplative director like Victor Sjöström -- or Seastrom, as MGM insisted on anglicizing his name -- than to King Vidor's more action-oriented style. If her Mimi in La Bohème was disturbingly hyperactive, her Hester Prynne is a marvel of understated acting. She uses her eyes and mouth and the tilt of her chin to convey a miraculous range of emotions, from stubbornness to fear, from strength to frailty. It's a pity that her Dimmesdale, Lars Hanson, doesn't match her in subtlety. He's more successful in this regard in their 1928 collaboration The Wind, which was also directed by Sjöström.
Monday, October 26, 2015
Sunday, October 25, 2015
|Top: Ettore Garofalo in Mamma Roma. Below: Andrea Mantegna, Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, c. 1475-78|
Saturday, October 24, 2015
Friday, October 23, 2015
Thursday, October 22, 2015
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
|Bradley Cooper in American Sniper|
Taya Kyle: Sienna Miller
Marc Lee: Luke Grimes
Ryan "Biggles" Job: Jake McDorman
Dandridge: Cory Hardricht
Dauber: Kevin Lacz
Sheikh Al-Obodi: Navid Negahban
Jeff Kyle: Keir O'Donnell
Goat-Winston: Kyle Gallner
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Jason Hall
Based on a book by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, and Jim DeFelice
Cinematography: Tom Stern
Film editing: Joel Cox, Gary Roach
I think American Sniper is not going to come into focus for us until 20 or 30 years have passed, and we have fully assessed the damage done by the American invasion of Iraq -- if, in fact, we ever do. Now, the only thing everyone seems to be able to agree on is that Bradley Cooper's powerful performance holds the film together. Otherwise, opinions about the movie range from those who see it as a reprehensible portrait of American arrogance to those who see it as a laudable portrait of American heroism. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, trying to decide whether it presents Chris Kyle as a victim of the Iraq incursion, as a misguided embodiment of false and outdated values, or as an archetype of the dutiful American military man. What it really seems to me is a muddle of all of these things because screenwriter Jason Hall and director Clint Eastwood can't bring the movie together into a satisfactory whole. It's wrong to review a movie that wasn't made, but I think American Sniper would have made a more coherent film if Chris Kyle's murder hadn't been relegated to a caption and shots of his funeral at the film's end. If the convergence of murderer and victim had been dealt with from the beginning, we might have had a more cohesive narrative about the effects of war on both those who can "handle it" and those who can't. As it is, we have only glances at large issues like simplistic world-view (Kyle's father's division of humankind into sheep, wolves, and shepherds), the American gun culture, the testosterone poisoning of machismo, the stereotyping of the enemy as "savages," and the inability of the United States to come to terms with the hidden problems of returning veterans. What we have instead are often exciting combat scenes mixed with rather clichéd domestic interludes. Sienna Miller does what she can with the underwritten and over-familiar role of the wife back home, but the script doesn't give her enough to work with. I admire Eastwood's restraint as a filmmaker, but I think it does him a disservice here. We are too close to the events of the first decade of the 21st century to have anything but our individual emotional reactions to them, and American Sniper is bound to ring false in some way to each of us. I kept thinking of Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, 1941) as I watched American Sniper. Made on the cusp of World War II, that unabashedly flag-waving movie about another American hero sharpshooter seems naive by contrast, even though the World War I in which Alvin York fought was at least as colossal an international fuck-up as the Iraq invasion, but it's also a better film. Maybe American Sniper will seem like a better film 74 years from now, but somehow I doubt it.
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Monday, October 19, 2015
Sunday, October 18, 2015
|Louis Calhern and Claire Windsor in The Blot (Lois Weber, 1921)|
Saturday, October 17, 2015
Friday, October 16, 2015
Thursday, October 15, 2015
|David Niven and Marius Goring in A Matter of Life and Death|
Peter D. Carter: David Niven
June: Kim Hunter
Bob Trubshaw: Robert Coote
An Angel: Kathleen Byron
An English Pilot: Richard Attenborough
An American Pilot: Bonar Colleano
Chief Recorder: Joan Maude
Conductor 71: Marius Goring
Dr. Frank Reeves: Roger Livesey
Abraham Farlan: Raymond Massey
Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Screenplay: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff
Production design: Alfred Junge
Fantasy, especially in British hands, can easily go twee, and though Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had surer hands than most, A Matter of Life and Death (released in the United States as Stairway to Heaven, long before Led Zeppelin) still manages occasionally to tip over toward whimsy. There is, for example, the symbolism-freighted naked boy playing a flute while herding goats, the doctor's rooftop camera obscura from which he spies on the villagers, and the production of A Midsummer Night's Dream being rehearsed by recovering British airmen. And there's Marius Goring's simpering Frenchman, carrying on as no French aristocrat, even one guillotined during the Reign of Terror, ever did. Many find this hodgepodge delicious, and A Matter of Life and Death is still one of the most beloved of British movies, at least in Britain. I happen to be among those who find it a bit too much, but I can readily appreciate many things about it, including Jack Cardiff's Technicolor cinematography (Earth is color, Heaven black and white, a clever switch on the Kansas/Oz twist in the 1939 The Wizard of Oz) and Alfred Junge's production design. On the whole, it seems to me too heavily freighted with message -- Love Conquers Even Death -- to be successful, but it must have been a soothing message to a world recovering from a war.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Ideologies are only as workable as the people who believe in them, which given the human drive toward power isn't very much. Costa-Gavras's film hasn't really dated much since its release 45 years ago. We are still faced with ideologues whose sole aim is to increase their own power in the name of some group or faction -- witness the current disarray of the Republican Party caused by the recalcitrance of the Tea Party faction in Congress. Which is not to say that the purge of John Boehner is anything as grave as the purges in the communist party in the Soviet Union under Stalin in the 1930s and in Czechoslovakia under Stalinist puppets in the 1950s. Yves Montand plays Gérard, a Czech communist official, based on a real figure, Artur London, who was accused of being a Trotskyite and a Titoist and of collaborating with American spies. He resisted torturous interrogation as long as possible before confessing. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he was released after serving several years in prison. The film ends with Gérard, still a disillusioned but hopeful communist, witnessing the 1968 Soviet crackdown against the "Prague Spring" reformists. It's an overlong but often effective movie, with fine performances by Montand, Simone Signoret as his wife, and Gabriele Ferzetti as the interrogator Kohoutek, a former Gestapo agent recruited by the communists to crack the people they want to purge.
Tuesday, October 13, 2015
The more I see of the young Norma Shearer, the more I like her. I recently watched The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (Ernst Lubitsch, 1927), in which she's paired with Ramon Novarro, and was struck by how fresh and natural she was as an actress, and the same holds true in He Who Gets Slapped, where her love interest is John Gilbert. Both movies are silents, of course. It was only after the advent of sound that her husband, MGM's creative director Irving G. Thalberg, decided to make her into a great lady, the cinematic equivalent of Katharine Cornell, putting her into remakes of Broadway hits like The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Sidney Franklin, 1934), which had starred Cornell, or Strange Interlude (Robert Z. Leonard, 1932), which had featured another theatrical diva, Lynn Fontanne. She was also miscast as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (George Cukor, 1936), a role that, at 34, she was much too old to play. She is barely in her 20s in He Who Gets Slapped, however, and she's delightful. This is not a film for coulrophobes (people with a fear of clowns), however. It's crawling with them, performing antics that are supposed to be, to judge from the hilarity they induce in the audiences shown in the film, side-splittingly funny. The film is based on the highly dubious premise that watching someone get slapped repeatedly is one of the funniest things ever. There may be people who think so -- to judge from the perennial popularity of the Three Stooges -- but I'm not one of them. The whole movie is an artificial concoction, anyway, and only the brilliance of Lon Chaney gives it some grounding in real-life feeling. It was one of the films that launched the MGM studios on the road to Hollywood dominance, and the first one to feature Leo the Lion in the credits.
This is a grand showcase for Chaney, whose reputation as the man of a thousand faces was somewhat misleading. Chaney had one well-worn face that, no matter how much he distorted or disguised it, shone through. Here he's given an opportunity to perform without disguise through much of the film, and the range of expressions available to him is astonishing. The leading lady is 14-year-old Loretta Young. That she often looks her age is one of the more disturbing things about the film, in which she's supposed to be in love with both Chaney, who was 45, and the improbably pretty Nils Asther, who was 31. The cinematography is by James Wong Howe. Laugh, Clown, Laugh was eligible for Oscar nominations in the first year of the Academy Awards, and Chaney should have received one. The closest the film came to an award was the one that Joseph Farnham received for title writing (the one and only time the award was presented). But Farnham's award was for the body of his work over the nomination period, and not for a particular film.
Monday, October 12, 2015
This manic Japanese horror film has achieved something of a cult status. It was the feature film debut of its director, Obayashi, who began his career as a director of TV commercials, which shows in the film's continued barrage of brightly colored images and in the loud (and banal) pop music soundtrack. The story deals with a gaggle of Japanese schoolgirls (with nicknames that translate as "Gorgeous," "Fantasy," "Kung Fu," "Melody," "Prof," "Sweet," and "Mac") who find themselves trapped in a haunted house. They do a lot of running, yelling, giggling, screaming, and dying -- one of them is literally eaten by a grand piano. Ultimately, the film had a huge impact on music videos, but it remains a one of a kind movie experience -- for which some of us remain thankful while others of us relish yet another instance of the unfettered imagination of a Japanese artist. In this case, the imagination was not just that of the director but also of his pre-teen daughter, whose ideas about things that frighten children were worked into the screenplay. A great deal of credit (or blame, if you will) goes to production designer Kazuo Satsuya and cinematographer Yoshitaka Sakamoto.
Sunday, October 11, 2015
In his book Watching Them Be, James Harvey calls Au Hasard Balthazar "probably the greatest movie I've ever seen," and goes on to quote a number of others, including Jean-Luc Godard, who pretty much agree with him. I can't deny the movie's excellence, though I wouldn't quite go as far as Harvey does. It's a film that will try your patience unless you're willing to take Bresson on his own terms, which means not spelling anything out explicitly about his characters and their relationships. You're left to surmise a great deal about what they're doing and why. In fact, the only character in the film who gets a more or less fully fleshed-out story line is Balthazar himself, and he's a donkey. As usual, the performers are people we've never seen before on screen, and as usual with Bresson, that works out well, especially in the case of Anne Wiazemsky, who plays Marie. Only 19 when she made the film, she brings a freshness and vulnerability to her role that radiates through the deadpan non-acting that Bresson imposed on his performers. (The following year, she made La Chinoise with Godard -- which may help explain the extent of his enthusiasm for Balthazar -- and became his second wife after his divorce from Anna Karina.) I happen to be somewhat averse to films that center on animals, particularly if they carry the symbolic freight that Balthazar (whom one character refers to as "a saint") does, but even I couldn't help being touched by his story. This was Bresson's first film with Ghislain Cloquet as cinematographer, and the contrast with his previous film, The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), shot by his longtime director of photography, Léonce-Henri Burel, is startling. Burel tended to follow Bresson's lead in providing austere images for austere stories, whereas Cloquet brings a romantic edge to his work. I think it only emphasizes the purity of Bresson's intentions.
Saturday, October 10, 2015
There are two great Joan of Arc films: The other one is Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). But comparing them is tricky: Dreyer's film was made in a different medium. Silent movies are not just movies without sound: They necessitate entirely different narrative techniques. Dreyer let the stunning quality of his images of the suffering Joan and the cruel and often grotesque interrogators and the crowd at her immolation do much of the business of characterizing and story-telling. According to an admirer of Bresson's, screenwriter-director Paul Schrader, Bresson disliked this about Dreyer's film, and it shows in the deliberate blandness of face and image in The Trial of Joan of Arc. The settings and costumes are generic and undistinguished, and they are lighted flatly, giving the film the banal look of the era's television dramas. As usual, Bresson has chosen unknown or non-professional actors, starting with his Joan, Florence Carrez. (Carrez was her mother's surname; she later took her father's surname, becoming Florence Delay, the name under which she became a successful novelist, playwright, and actress.) Compared to Renée Falconetti's magnificently haunting Joan in Dreyer's film, Carrez's performance is almost deadpan: She unemotionally responds to even the most provocative of her judges' questions, which Bresson took verbatim from the transcripts of the trial. On the whole, I think Bresson's austere style serves the material: When Carrez sheds a tear or even slightly raises her voice, it makes an emotional impact. By withholding so much dramatic visual information throughout the film, Bresson makes a few incidental moments the more powerful, as when we see a member of the crowd stick out a foot to trip Joan on the way to the stake, or when, as she is ascending the steps to the pyre, a small dog comes out of the crowd and stares up at her. On the whole, I prefer Dreyer's film, but I'm glad to have Bresson's as a contrast.
Friday, October 9, 2015
Maybe it's Bresson fatigue after watching three of his films in as many days (thanks to TCM's programming them in a block), but I found Pickpocket less satisfying than Diary of a Country Priest or A Man Escaped. What it does have going for it is a compelling central performance by another Bressonian unknown, Martin LaSalle, as Michel, the titular thief. LaSalle has the haunted look of the young Henry Fonda or Montgomery Clift -- a look, incidentally, that Alfred Hitchcock used to great effect by featuring those actors in two of his lesser-known films, Fonda in The Wrong Man (1956) and Clift in I Confess (1953). Pickpocket also contains a justly celebrated sequence demonstrating the team of thieves at work, a showcase for the work of Bresson's editor, Raymond Lamy. I think my mild dissatisfaction lies in Bresson's imposing his material on the structure of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Like Raskolnikov, Michel lives in a cramped little garret room, meditates on the potential for a man of superior intellect to move beyond good and evil, commits a crime (though picking pockets is a good deal less evil than murdering an old woman) from which he refuses to benefit materially, gets caught, and is redeemed by his love for a "fallen woman," Jeanne (Marika Green), the film's equivalent to Dostoevsky's Sonya. The effect of all this is to make me wish that Bresson had simply decided to film Crime and Punishment. Lurking in the background as well are the existentialist novels of Camus and Sartre, which were much in vogue at the time.
Wednesday, October 7, 2015
Of all the celebrated masterworks of film, Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest may be the most uncompromising in making the case for cinema as an artistic medium on the same level as literature and music. In comparison, what is Citizen Kane but a rather blobby melodrama about the rise and fall of a newspaper tycoon? Even the best of Hitchcock's oeuvre -- in which I would include Notorious (1946), Rear Window (1954), and North by Northwest (1959), while others would cite Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960) -- is little more than crafty embroidery on the thriller genre. The highest-praised directors, from Ford, Hawks, and Kurosawa to Godard, Kubrick, and Scorsese, never seem to stray far from the themes and tropes of popular culture. Even a film like Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953) falls back on sentiment as a way of engaging its audience. But Bresson strives for such a purity of character and narrative, down to the refusal to use well-known professional actors, and such a relentless intellectualizing, that you can't help comparing his film favorably to the great works of Flaubert or Dostoevsky. Having said that, I must admit that it's a work much easier to admire than to love, especially if, like me, you have no deep emotional or intellectual connection to religion -- or even an outright hostility to it. Does the suffering of the sickly young priest beautifully played by Claude Laydu really result in the kind of transcendence the film posits? Are the questions of grace and redemption real, or merely the product of an ideology out of tune with actual human experience? What explains the hostility he encounters in the village he tries to serve: the work of the devil or the bleakness of provincial existence? On the other hand, just asking those questions serves to point out how richly condensed is Bresson's drama of ideas. I love the movies I've cited above as somehow lacking in the intellectual seriousness of Bresson's film, but there's room in the pantheon for both kinds of film.
Tuesday, October 6, 2015
Dave Bowman: Keir Dullea
Frank Poole: Gary Lockwood
HAL 9000: Douglas Rain (voice)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke
Based on a story by Arthur C. Clarke
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Production design: Ernest Archer, Harry Lange, Anthony Masters
Monday, October 5, 2015
Titta: Bruno Zanin
Gradisca: Magali Noël
Miranda: Pupella Maggio
Aurelio: Armando Brancia
Grandfather: Giuseppe Ianigro
Lallo: Nando Orfei
Teo: Ciccio Ingrassia
Oliva: Stefano Proietti
Director: Federico Fellini
Screenplay: Federico Fellini, Tonino Guerra
Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Production design: Danilo Donati
Music: Nino Rota
Nostalgia, Fellini-style, with lots of bawdiness, plenty of grotesques, much comedy, and a little pathos. It was a huge hit, earning the foreign-language film Oscar and nominations for Fellini as director and as co-author (with Tonino Guerra) of the screenplay. It's certainly lively and colorful, thanks to the cinematography of Giuseppe Rotunno, the production and costume design of Danilo Donati, and of course the scoring by Nino Rota -- though it sounds like every other score he did for Fellini. What it lacks for me, though, is the grounding that a central figure like Marcello Mastroianni or Giulietta Masina typically gave Fellini's best films, among which I would name La Strada (1954), The Nights of Cabiria (1957), La Dolce Vita (1960), and 8 1/2 (1963). The presumed center of Amarcord is the adolescent Titta, whose experiences over the course of a year in a village on Italy's east coast serve to link the various episodes together. But Titta is too slight a character to serve that function the way, for example, Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi) did as the Fellini surrogate in I Vitelloni (1953). There are some marvelous moments such as the sailing of the ocean liner SS Rex past the village, which goes out to greet it in a variety of fishing and pleasure boats. But too much of the film is taken up with the noisy squabbling of Titta's family, who soon wear out their welcome -- or at least mine.
Sunday, October 4, 2015
|Jean-Claude Brialy and Anna Karina in A Woman Is a Woman|
Angela: Anna Karina
Alfred Lubitsch: Jean-Paul Belmondo
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Production design: Bernard Evein
Music: Michel Legrand
Orson Welles is often quoted as having said, when he saw the production facilities available to him at RKO, "This is the biggest electric train set any boy ever had!" I imagine Jean-Luc Godard saying something like that when he was told that he could make his second feature film, after the success of Breathless (1960), in color and Franscope (an anamorphic wide-screen process like Cinemascope). But of course Godard and his cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, had no intention of using the wide screen for its conventional purpose, the epic and spectacular. Instead, many of the tricks the director and the cinematographer pulled off in A Woman Is a Woman were playful ones, like filming the tiny, cramped apartment of Angela and Émile in a medium more suited to Versailles. The effect is not only slightly giddy, but it also serves to emphasize the difficulties the couple are having in their relationship. The movie is brightly inconsequential, the kind of colorful musicalized nonsense that Jacques Demy would master a few years later with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), using the same composer Godard does, Michel Legrand. The success of Breathless seems to have gone to Godard's head a bit: He enlists its star, Jean-Paul Belmondo, as the third leg of the movie's romantic triangle, and has him speak a line about not wanting to miss Breathless on TV. Belmondo also encounters Jeanne Moreau in a cameo bit, asking her how Jules and Jim is going -- Godard's fellow New Wave sensation, François Truffaut, was in the midst of filming it with Moreau. The best thing A Woman Is a Woman has going for it is Karina, who was about to become Godard's muse and for a while his wife.
Saturday, October 3, 2015
|Eddie Constantine in Alphaville|
Natacha von Braun: Anna Karina
Henri Dickson: Akim Tamiroff
Professor von Braun: Howard Vernon
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Production design: Pierre Goffroy
Music: Paul Misraki
I think Alphaville may have been responsible for my former distaste for Godard movies: When I saw it on its first American run -- probably at that temple of Harvard hip, the Brattle Theater -- I couldn't figure out why anyone would make a sci-fi movie starring an American-French B-movie actor as a trenchcoated secret agent in a future that looked a lot like contemporary Paris. Or why the beautiful Natacha Von Braun should fall in love with anyone who looks like Eddie Constantine -- the apparent survivor of a close encounter with a cheese grater. But time and experience teach you a lot about what's really witty, and Alphaville is that. Yes, it's a spoof on both sci-fi and spy movies, with Paul Misraki's score providing the familiar dun-dun-DUNN! underscoring of suspenseful moments as Lemmy Caution slugs and shoots his way out of ridiculously staged confrontations. But how many spoofs have we seen that fall flat because they're so self-conscious about their spoofery? Godard's spoof succeeds because Constantine, Karina, and that great slab of Armenian ham Akim Tamiroff take their roles so seriously. Like most Godard movies, it's often absurdly talky, but the talk is provocative. And even though it seems to be designed to make a point about the way contemporary design and architecture have a way of alienating us from the human, it doesn't hammer the point. My one complaint in this recent viewing is that Turner Classic Movies showed a muddy print in which the subtitles had their feet cut off.
Friday, October 2, 2015
In an intertitle during the film, Godard suggested that his portrait of French (or anyway Parisian) youth in the mid-1960s "could be called The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola." But the movie kept reminding me of Lena Dunham's portrait of American youth in the early 2010s, the TV series Girls, which might be called "The Children of Milton Friedman and Xanax." Godard's young Parisians find themselves in a time bursting with revolutionary energy but no particular channel in which to direct it other than sex and pop culture. The political activity of Godard's protagonist, Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud), largely consists of pranks: distracting the driver of a parked military staff car so an accomplice can write an anti-war slogan along its side, and ordering a staff car on the phone under the guise of "General Doinel" -- a cheeky allusion to the role of Antoine Doinel, which Léaud played in The 400 Blows (1959) and four other films directed by François Truffaut. But most of the young people in the film are as shy of committing themselves to anything political or social as the beauty queen called "Mlle 19" (Elsa Leroy) whom Paul interviews at some length in one of the film's more spot-on satirical moments. This is a movie of fits and starts: moments of great energy interrupted by stretches of talk. As usual, Godard plays with viewers' expectations throughout, staging a sequence near the beginning in which a woman guns down her husband, only to ignore any follow-up action, and having a political protester immolate himself off-screen with only the somewhat indifferent reports of Paul and his girlfriend, Madeleine (Chantal Goya), as reactions to the event. The soundtrack is spiced with what sound like gunshots but turn out to be only billiard balls clashing against each other in a neighboring room. Some people dislike Godard because of his uncompromising resistance to conventional story-telling and scene-framing, and there is some rather self-conscious "movieness" about Masculin Féminin, as when the characters go to a film within the film and Paul has to make a special trip to the projection booth to complain that it's being shown in the wrong aspect ratio. But on the whole I find Godard's movies provide a necessary tonic against complacency.
Thursday, October 1, 2015
Roger Ebert did something critics seldom do: He changed his opinion of a movie. (Think about it: How many of us would like to be held to our original opinions of some films that were fun to watch the first time but haven't held up -- like, say, Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995) or Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994)?) Ebert gave Pierrot le Fou three and a half stars when he reviewed it in 1966, lauding Godard's "virtuoso display of his mastery of Hollywood genres." But in 2007, reviewing a re-release of the film, he reduced the assessment to two and a half stars: "I now see it," he wrote, "as the story of silly characters who have seen too many Hollywood movies." I think my opinion of the film might have been the reverse of Ebert's: If I had seen it 20 or 30 years ago, I might have dismissed it as a pretentious and arty example of the French New Wave at its worst, mixing silly antics with facile social and political satire. Instead, it now strikes me as a brilliant deconstruction of Hollywood film noir, gangster movies, and romantic adventure, almost perverse in its opening up of the traditional claustrophobic black-and-white atmosphere of noir with its bright wide-screen Eastmancolor images. And without Pierrot le Fou, or other Godard films like Breathless (1960) or Bande à Part (1964), would Hollywood have had the inspiration or the nerve to make movies like Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967)? Yes, the characters played by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina are silly, but Godard makes us see through their eyes the absurdity of the commerce-ridden milieu in which they exist. There is no core to their lives, no matter how much Ferdinand (Belmondo) and Marianne (Karina) may try to establish one with art and literature on his part or with a pursuit of fun on hers. The French have always loved to épater le bourgeoisie, and Godard plants himself firmly in that tradition, but the absurdity of Ferdinand's self-immolation (or -detonation), painting his face blue and wrapping his head in explosives, suggests that there is a price to be paid for shaking up the squares. But until we reach that point, Allons-y, Alonso!