By Boris Nelepo and Celluloid Liberation Front 9/22/2014: We were saddened to hear of Peter von Bagh’s death on September 17, 2014. In Citizen Peter, More →
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
1. À bout de souffle (1960) and Le mépris (1963).Catching up belatedly on these StudioCanal Blu-rays that are available only in Europe (or from European outlets), I should call attention to some of their extras that aren’t available in these films’ US editions. On the À bout de souffle Blu-ray is Luc Moullet’s witty and exceptionally pithy seven-minute Jean-Luc According to Luc and Luc Lagier’s 50-minute Godard Made in USA (2009). The latter is an excellent and intelligent documentary about Godard’s impact on American filmmakers, including interviews of varying lengths with Robert Benton, Peter Bogdanovich, Brian De Palma, William Friedkin, James Gray, Monte Hellman, Arthur Penn, D.A. Pennebaker, Jerry Schatzberg, and Paul Schrader, as well as some fascinating footage of Godard speaking in New York near the onset of his political self-reinvention. The only thing that rattles here is the ignorance of the subtitler, who translates Les amants de la nuit as Lovers of Midnight (instead of They Live by Night ), and, even worse, when the narrator observes that the scenario for À bout de souffle alludes to a shot from Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957), renders this point as gibberish: “An outline for Breathless refers to an outline for Forty Guns.”
The Le mépris Blu-ray offers two 2009 documentaries about the film: one 52 minutes long and including a recent interview with Godard, the other roughly half as long and focusing more on such spokespeople as critic Alain Bergala and an assistant director and assistant editor on the film. Both Blu-rays, incidentally, also offer introductions by Colin MacCabe, and it’s surely a tribute to the greatness of Le mépris that it can support mutually contradictory interpretations of its plot: MacCabe maintains that we never find out why Camille leaves Paul, which seems absolutely right; yet the editor also convincingly charts, in some detail, the successive steps of her motivation in response to Paul’s treatment of her.
2. La chambre verte (1978). My own copy of this MGM/United Artists DVD—for me, the most beautiful and moving of François Truffaut’s late films, although I realize it’s probably the most scorned and/or neglected for a good many others—is French and Region 2 (albeit equipped with English subtitles), and French Amazon currently charges 9,99 Euros for it, which is substantially less than the $19.98 charged by US Amazon, although I suppose overseas postage might make up the difference. One reason why I cherish this profoundly personal and despairing period film—starring Truffaut himself as a permanently grieving journalist in the aftermath of World War I who lives only for the sake of paying tribute to “his” dead—apart from its slow-burning intensity and its economy of stylistic flourishes (evident in both Nestor Almendros’ lovely lighting and Truffaut’s performance), is that it shows us the less sentimental and more disturbing side of Truffaut, comparable in some ways to what 1941 (1979) shows of Steven Spielberg. I also think it can be read, indirectly and in part, as an autocritique of the writer-director’s own cinephilia, politique des auteurs, and pantheon mindset—a rough equivalent to Godard and Miéville’s tribute to French critics related to cinema (from Diderot to Daney) at the climax of 2 x 50 ans du cinéma français 20 years later, but with a much heavier dose of gloom and irony.
3. Hitler in Hollywood. I already wrote about this enjoyable and provocative 2010 feature by Frédéric Sojcher two columns back, so all I want to add now is that it’s become available on my favourite Belgian label, Cinematek (at cinematek.be), in a sleeker, all-region PAL edition. And at the same site, you can also now order André Delvaux’s 1979 feature Femme entre chien et loup.
4. Hopper’s Silence (1981) and Gerhard Richter Painting (2011). These two absorbing documentaries (by Brian O’Doherty and Corinna Belz, respectively) about two of my favourite mysterious painters couldn’t be less alike, even though both do excellent jobs of keeping their subjects’ mysteries intact. In most respects I prefer the second to the first, not only because it’s more recent, over twice as long, and the Kino Lorber Blu-ray is decked out with many extras (whereas Facets’ DVD of the Hopper film has none), but also because the sound and image quality of the Facets disc is fairly crummy, which means that neither Edward Hopper’s paintings nor O’Doherty’s thoughts and insights about them get what they deserve. There’s also the fact that, apart from his comments on qualities of light, Hopper himself tends to be so tight-lipped about most aspects of his work (in particular their melancholy) that the film might as well be called Hopper’s Reticence. Nevertheless, I learned some significant things from O’Doherty’s 47 minutes—especially the fascinating information that most of Hopper’s later paintings were pure inventions rather than depictions of particular people and places, and that he was a compulsive moviegoer. (Some brief clips from Henry Hathaway’s 1940 Johnny Apollo are included to suggest where some of Hopper’s visual ideas may have derived from.)
While O’Doherty does include some samplings of the sketches that preceded Hopper’s paintings, it’s clear that what allowed Belz to be more materialist in approach was Richter’s cooperation in exposing some of the various processes—physical as well as autocritical—that have yielded some of his own canvases, even though at one point he directly expresses his discomfort and at least temporary inhibition arising from this sort of exposure. I do wish this film had more to say about Richter’s early years in Dresden, first as a member of the Hitler Youth and then as an East German communist, before he defected to the West. But of course the range of Richter’s work is also far greater than Hopper’s, and what the film has to say and show is still considerable.
5. Lonesome (1928). Now that I have Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of Paul Fejos’ masterpiece, I should go on record as declaring it my favourite Blu-ray to date of any silent film, both in terms of sound and image quality and extras. (Admittedly, the same extras are available in Criterion’s two-disc DVD version of Lonesome, but I derived even more pleasure from perusing them in this form—above all, Richard Koszarski’s astute and impressively well-researched audio commentary.) Even after confessing that I find the two 1929 Fejos features included as extras, The Last Performance and Broadway, relatively lacklustre additions, I can only record my fervent hope that someone somewhere will get around to releasing a restored digital version of Fejos’ 1932 Spring Shower (also known as Tavaszi zápor, Marie, légende hongroise, and Prima dragoste in its Hungarian-, French-, and Romanian-language versions, respectively), the only other surviving masterpiece of Fejos that I’ve seen that I consider worthy to stand alongside Lonesome, with the possible exception of his 1933 Austrian film Sonnenstrahl. (It seems that out of the almost 40 features credited to Fejos as director, roughly only half have survived, and I estimate I’ve seen only about half of these. I’m still hoping to catch up with his recently rediscovered 1933 Austrian musical Frühlingsstimmen, but having seen at least one of the Danish features he made in the mid-’30s before his shift to ethnographic filmmaking—a truly dreadful comedy—I can testify that his output was spectacularly uneven.)
6. Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962).I assume that there’s a near-consensus by now that The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night are Eugene O’Neill’s two greatest works, and that the latter is the greater of the two. Sidney Lumet directed productions of both that are still available—a 1960 TV version of The Iceman Cometh and a film of Long Day’s Journey two years later—and I suspect that these remain the best available versions of each. For all its virtues, John Frankenheimer’s 1974 film of Iceman is seriously marred by the miscasting of Lee Marvin as Hickey, and though I haven’t seen the TV versions of Long Day’s Journey directed by Peter Wood and Jonathan Miller, I did see Laurence Olivier, who starred as James Tyrone in the Wood version, play the same part on the London stage; his American accent with a twinge of Irish was impeccable, but for my money, that production still didn’t hold a candle to the Lumet film.
This isn’t to argue, however, that Lumet’s film (now out on Blu-ray from Olive Films) is flawless. I think the two biggest flaws—both of them pointed out, if memory serves, by Dwight Macdonald in Esquire at the time (although his review isn’t included in Dwight Macdonald on Movies, for me a rather slipshod and unsatisfactory selection by Macdonald of his own film criticism)—are just as problematic now as they were half a century ago, and they’re equally relevant as illustrations of how theatrical strategies and cinematic strategies can remain fundamentally at odds with one another. The first and lesser of the flaws is the staging of the extended first-act dialogue between James Tyrone, Sr. (Ralph Richardson) and James Tyrone, Jr. (Jason Robards, Jr.) inside a tool shed, with both men awkwardly and rather gratuitously handling various props in order to justify the setting. The second comes at the very end of the film, when the slow, mesmerizing retreat of Boris Kaufman’s camera into limitless darkness—leaving the four Tyrones seated around a table in an isolated pool of light—is jarringly interrupted by cuts to huge close-ups of first Katherine Hepburn and then the other three actors (including Dean Stockwell) before eventually returning to the same retreating camera movement. What this does to the mood and music of Mary Tyrone’s final monologue is close to disastrous, although one can also easily understand why Lumet didn’t want to abandon the faces of his actors at this climactic moment. On the stage, of course, he wouldn’t have had this problem, but he couldn’t have had that amazing camera movement either.
7. Thanks to filmmaker Jem Cohen for directing me to the 2007 Moon Sun Flower Game (available at denkmal-film.com/abstracts/MoonSun.html), a feature-length German documentary by Claus Strigel about Hossein Mansouri, a child of two lepers who was adopted by the great Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad in 1962, immediately after the shooting of Forough’s first (and only) film The House Is Black (in which Mansouri features prominently) at the leper colony where he lived. By now, I’ve seen several documentaries about Forough, but this is the only one that I regard as essential viewing; all the others have been Iranian and basically hamstrung and tongue-tied by the intimidating force of her mythology, rendering her a sort of goddess combing diverse aspects of Joan of Arc, Marilyn Monroe, Bessie Smith, and Sylvia Plath, while remaining quintessentially Iranian. Strigel’s film is also under the sway of that mythology, but in a far more meaningful way than the others, because it’s clear throughout that Mansouri (who lives today in Munich) is both ennobled and tragically crippled by the burden of Forough’s legacy. Strigel also appears to have interviewed all the right people, including Farzaneh Milani, the American academic who has been preparing a biography of Forough for many years, and Ebrahim Golestan, a major (if problematic) filmmaker in his own right, who produced The House Is Black after hiring Forough as a secretary. (We also get to see a few silent glimpses of her in The Sea, a never-completed film by Golestan, who gives us a brief account of why it was never finished.)
8. Peace, Love & Misunderstanding (2011). I wouldn’t dream of comparing Bruce Beresford either seriously or unseriously with Ernst Lubitsch. But I have to admit that his latest feature (now out on Blu-ray from IFC Films) seriously reminded me of one of my least favourite Lubitsch comedies, the rather glib Ninotchka (1939), with Woodstock substituted for Paris, sweet and bubbly Jane Fonda in the Melvyn Douglas part, sour and unsmiling Catherine Keener taking over for Greta Garbo, and Elizabeth Olsen and Nat Wolff as the latter’s teenage kids more or less filling the niche provided by Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, and Alexander Granach in the earlier picture. One of the more significant differences, quite apart from Beresford’s style versus the Lubitsch touch, is the fact that hedonistic-romantic hippie values in 2011 aren’t quite as universally accepted by this film’s target audience as the hedonistic-romantic virtues of Free World capitalism in 1939 would have been for its own addressees.
9. The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006). I’m a big fan of Sophie Fiennes’ ingenious 150-minute presentation of Slavoj Žižek’s punchy film criticism (much of it seemingly offered from inside the films he’s discussing), so at the Toronto International Film Festival I made a beeline for its follow-up The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, which I found disappointing only at the very end, when Žižek inexplicably appears to start buying into the wishful fantasies he’s been unpacking for over two hours. (If this was intended as a joke, it doesn’t work as such.) But in the meantime, I was delighted to find and purchase its predecessor at an affordable price at the bookstore inside the TIFF Lightbox, where much of the festival is held. If you want to order your own copy, go to thepervertsguide.com/dvd.php.
10. The Secret Society of Fine Arts (2011). This experimental English-language feature by Anders Rønnow Klarlund (filmed in Berlin with German actors) has premiered on DVD as a supplement to the 58th issue of the Danish film magazine Ekko, a swank and glossy coffee-table-size publication that has reportedly included a DVD with each new issue for the past four years. The only reason why I know about this film (and about Ekko) is because the magazine’s co-editor emailed me asking if I wanted to see and write about it, also mentioning the online pressbook (at thessofa.com/uk) and that the film will be available soon “on video on demand.” To tell the truth, I’ve been racing so many deadlines lately that so far I’ve only had time to sample this film. A handsome object with S-F trimmings, it does look like an eyeful and a knockout, even if I don’t yet have any clear take on its ruminations (if that’s what they are) about “art and terror.”
At Toronto, I was struck by how the three most interesting films I saw there—João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata’s The Last Time I Saw Macao, Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, and the multi-authored Far from Afghanistan—were all deeply indebted in different ways to the recently departed Chris Marker. I guess the same could be said—and, in fact, is being said—about The Secret Society of Fine Arts, which notonly purports to be a kind of spinoff of La Jetée (1962) by virtue of consisting of nothing but still photographs, butevenbrandishes and institutionalizes this relationship by including La Jetée as a bonus on the same DVD.
Any effort to make La Jetée still more available is welcome, but I hope I can be forgiven for expressing some skepticism about this apparent kinship. It isn’t only because Lars von Trier’s Zentropa company is one of the production sources of this film that I’m reminded of how von Trier’s so-called tributes to Dreyer—the 1988 Medea (which reportedly “realizes” Dreyer’s unfilmed Medea script—unless, that is, you happen to read that script) and the 1996 Breaking the Waves (which absurdly uses both Dreyer’s Falconetti and Fellini’s Giulietta Masina as the “models” for Emily Watson’s lead performance, assuming that the two could be compatible)—aren’t Dreyeresque at all. Because part of what’s so striking about The Secret Society of Fine Arts is not only its totally un-Markeresque employments of widescreen, colour, and deep focus (which the film’s promotion semi-plausibly describes as “3D space”), but also by the equally un-Markeresque fact that there’s actually something in motion in every shot, whether this is camera movement, smoke, flicker, focus change, or flotsam breezing past the still portions of the images. All this is very arresting, even mesmerizing, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it, but relating it so directly to La Jetée seems equally unfair both to Marker and to itself. Marker is highly literary as well as journalistic, uses images of the future that mainly seem grounded in the past, and is preoccupied by memory, all of which seems completely irrelevant to this film. Stripping Marker (or Dreyer) of virtually every formal and thematic nuance doesn’t add up to a tribute, even if one begins with a superficially similar methodology.
11. Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971). It’s hard for me to think of any film that could live up to a title this perfect, especially for the way it captures (at least for me) the sadness and loneliness that can sometimes seep into life in London. (Penelope Gilliatt’s preface to her published screenplay, helpfully reprinted in the accompanying booklet with this Criterion DVD, goes into some detail about how much she had to actually fight for her title, or at least for some version of it.) But this does a surprisingly good job nevertheless, and it’s certainly better than it looked to me back in 1971, and probably better (as well as more personal) than anything else John Schlesinger ever directed. Maybe I still wasn’t old enough when it came out to understand its middle-aged wistfulness about living with “half a loaf”—though I already appreciated the sweet maturity of its handling of a gay relationship, which was virtually unprecedented for the period (and perhaps also Schlesinger’s way of making some amends for the self-hating homophobic under- and overtones in Midnight Cowboy )—but now I can better appreciate the subtlety of many of its inflections, even if it’s still far from a perfect film. Schlesinger always goes too far with some of his easier effects—e.g., essentially putting all the behaviour of the spoiled and precocious kids of a “progressive couple” in hectoring italics—but otherwise he manages to keep much of his usual stridency firmly under wraps.
For all the distinction of Gilliatt’s screenplay, I’ve never been a fan of her film criticism, which has always struck me as chatty and woolly to a fault. Reviewing her very sketchy and miniscule books (both derived from New Yorker profiles aimed at know-nothing readers) about Jacques Tati and Jean Renoir on separate occasions during the mid-’70s, I was pretty unforgiving about their middlebrow simplifications, as well as her passing plagiarisms of André Bazin in the latter. During the same period, I was working for the British Film Institute, and when she phoned their information department one day in a clearly drunken stupour to request some help in her “research” on Godard for a New Yorker piece, they forwarded her call to me. I was more than a little bemused by her questions; for starters, she asked me without a trace of irony to recount what the “15 Precise Facts” in Masculin féminin (1966) were. (As I wrote years later in the Chicago Reader, “The film’s segmented structure reflects its subtitle, ‘15 Precise Facts,’ which describes things that turn out to be neither precise nor facts and which may not even add up to 15.”) But her wise and sensitive script for Sunday Bloody Sunday is something else again, and the performances of both Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson that bring even greater nuance to it are exquisite.
(I should note that Pauline Kael’s review of Sunday Bloody Sunday in Deeper into Movies is for me one of her best, even though—or mainly even because—it oscillates repeatedly between contradictory pro-and-con positions, rather like Manny Farber did in some of his more provocative pieces. Maybe this is why she decided against including that review in For Keeps and why Sanford Schwartz recently followed suit in The Age of Movies—or maybe either or both of them concluded that Kael’s position of alternating with Gilliatt as film reviewer at The New Yorker somehow invalidated her responses; but I think they were both wrong.)
12. This Is Cinerama (1952) and Windjammer (1958). I requested review copies of Flicker Alley’s two-disc packages of these Cinerama features because I kept wondering how well they would “translate” to Blu-ray. The answer is, better than you probably think they would, thanks to the employments of a Simulated Smilebox Curved Screen and superb sound reproduction, so that the giddy frissons I recall at age nine from the roller coaster ride near the beginning of This Is Cinerama are still there to some degree. The only drawback is that much of the remainder of This Is Cinerama and practically all of Windjammer are just as dull as they used to be—apart from all the period ideology, which nowadays carries an interesting aftertaste. (I should add that in their accompanying booklets to the two films, the Flicker Alley people do an even more impressive job of suggestive historiography than usual.)
Indeed, the lingering value of these films is clearly their status as historical artifacts, and I’d like to conclude this column with a recent text from David Bordwell (who’s often relatively quiet on such matters) that speaks eloquently to this aspect:
“In an essay for Cahiers du cinéma, the late Chris Marker pointed out that [This Is Cinerama] amounts to a religious-popular spectacle. For all the globe-trotting of the first part, the last half is a paean to the splendor that is the postwar USA. The last word spoken, or rather sung, in the film is “America.” Indeed, as many have pointed out, the word Cinerama is an anagram for American. I’ve sometimes wondered about the logo, that peculiarly zigzagged string of letters. It suggests a crumpled snippet of film, with squarish frames like our vertical panels, and its bumpiness evokes the ups and downs of a roller coaster. But there’s no mistaking the logo’s recurring color scheme of red, white, and blue.”