The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear


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Kieślowski’s Three Colors Trilogy

 

(Spoiler alert: but they don’t really matter…as I explain below)

Please get used to me extolling the virtues of The Criterion Channel. It will probably go on for quite a while. It just a few short weeks I have caught up with so many films on my ‘should see’ list.  This is a list of films that I feel I should watch to become as well-rounded a film connoisseur as I can be. This is not a list of things I necessarily want to see, but that I feel I should see.  Unfortunately or fortunately, ‘should’ is a big word in my aesthetic self-education.

More often than not, these ‘shoulds’ have turned into wonderful experiences. I was dreading watching the big films of Tarkovsky, but I was thrilled by both Stalker and The Sacrifice, especially the latter.

I had seen The Double Life of Veronique and Dekalog by Krysztof Kieślowski.  The former left me cold and confused. The latter was often stunning. This told me that I “should” see his last films,  Three Colors Trilogy.

I found two thirds of the Three Colors trilogy to be stunning, as well. Blue and Red I found emotionally, intellectually and formally overwhelming.

When discussing or thinking about films, I am most interested in in them as films.  So many conversations and reviews of films don’t go much further than the plot, and thus are no different from a book discussion.   Of course, there are many films that are only about plot. They are indeed entertaining, and don’t merit deeper technical analysis.  But what gets me interested are films where the plot is the jumping-off point of the discussion.  For example: there are scary bird attacks in The Birds which drive the plot forward,  but how does Hitchcock make them scary? How do they affect the rhythm of the movie. How do the bird attacks lead us to sense what Hitchcock ultimately wants us to think the film is about? Ultimately, is the film even about the bird attacks? (Hint: no). See me after class for that discussion.

To discuss only the stories of The Color Trilogy will miss the greatness of these films.

All three films are organized around their title colors.  They represent the Tricolor of France. Kieślowski and his script collaborator mistakenly understood the colors of the French flag to correspond to the mantra of the French Revolution, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, so right or wrong, these colors and concepts became the templates of the movies.

Blue is the most affecting portrait of grieving that I can think of. The cool blue palate of the film at first seems schematic, but it creates a somewhat motionless world into which our grieving heroine retreats. The wonder of the movie is that the grieving evolves into a depiction of reintegration into life. There are many ‘blue’ motifs. A glass chandelier from her daughters bedroom. The liquid blue of the swimming pool she visits after each step of the (unbeknownst to her) reintegration into the world of the living.  These all evolve throughout the film into totems of hope.  At the end Kieślowski gives us a beautifully shattering montage of all the characters who have helped our heroine out of her isolation and whom, we realize, she has helped transform in many ways.  What is the liberty meant here? Liberty from self-imposed Hell, perhaps?

I’ve seen Juliet Binoche in two films recently and I am beginning to think that she might be the world’s greatest living actress. Her performance is here is one for the ages.

White seems like a failure, but perhaps it seems that way because it comes between the other two masterpieces.  It just doesn’t compare. Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony is wonderful, but can seem inconsequential when listened to next to his Third and Fifth. Of course, this is not the fault of the Fourth Symphony, nor, perhaps, is it the fault of White.  First Matra of Mitchell Brown’s school of criticism: never blame a work of art for not being what it isn’t.

I vaguely remember one of the ‘lighter’ episodes of Dekalog.  It concerned two brothers (I think) and some humorous antics with a valuable stamp collection. I didn’t buy the whimsy, but Kieślowski had created such a powerful tapestry with the other nine episodes that I was able to see this episode with the proper weight it deserved.  This is more or less my reaction to White.

But ah, Red!  I recently reread Pericles by Shakespeare and it struck me that the extended philosophical and emotional discussions Irene Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintingant have throughout the film have the same reforming purpose as Marina’s discussions in the brothel.

It is hard for a writer or actor to portray a character who is ‘only good’. If you don’t have the talent to do this, then the character quickly turns two-dimensional.  No fear of that happening here. The Valentine that Irene Jacob and Kieślowski is delicate and a tower of strength. Valentine is as strong as Athena but as kind and intuitive as Cinderella. As in Blue, the overarching direction is healing and reintegration into the world.

The last few minutes of Red  wrap up all three films in a way that many have found contrived. Not me. When you are dealing with themes like reintegration into the world, freedom from self-inflected damage and finding ‘correct’ love, I think contrivance is perfectly fine.

 

 

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Mädchen in Uniform (Leontine Sagan/Carl Froelich)
  2. Come and See (Elem Klimov)
  3. Three Colors : Blue (Krysztof Kieślowski)
  4. Three Colors : White (Krysztof Kieślowski)
  5. Three Colors : Red (Krysztof Kieślowski)
  6. Seduced and Abandoned (Pietro Germi)
  7. The Nun (Jacques Rivette)
  8. But I’m a Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit)
  9. All or Nothing (Mike Leigh)
  10. Yotsuya Kaidan (Keisuke Kinoshita)

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1- I had little interest in watching Mädchen in Uniform. I had the feeling it would be a campy pre-Nazi Lesbian exploitation film that we were supposed to watch and feel superior to, the way we were supposed to watch and feel superior to Reefer Madness. I humbly submit my apologies to all responsible for this masterpiece.  This early sound film shows a German film style that still had some of its roots in Expressionism but unlike The Blue Angel of the same year, I feel that it is pointing to a new direction.  A blend of super-realism combined with not-too-excessive touches of Expressionism.  What would we have seen if that Nazis and their stifling hold on creativity did not come to power two years later? This film gives a good hint at what it would have been like. What I also find so astounding is that the Prussian dictatorship of the school is shown up for what it is. Something that would never have happened two years later.

2- Back when everyone was congratulating themselves for making or going to see films like Schindler’s List and Life Is Beautiful, I realized the fatal flaw here: Unless you were going to follow the hero or heroine into the gas chamber and actually watch them die, you are trivializing war and the Holocaust. Of course, I realize no one would go to see such a film and I doubted that one would ever be made. Therefore, I was stunned by Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come And See. The title is a refrain from the Book of Revelations as one horror after the other of the Apocalypse is introduced. We follow a 16 year old boy Flyora as he becomes a partisan fighter against the Nazi invaders in Belarus. His idealism leaves him totally unprepared for what he (and we) encounter.  I feel it would be an injustice to describe what transpires here in any kind of detail.  It is the hardest film I ever sat through. Remarkably, it was the only film Klimov made. It may be one of the greatest films I have ever seen.

3- See my review of Three Colors Trilogy   And, of course, see the Three Colors Trilogy

4- Seduced and Abandoned dates from a time when post-Neorealism in Italian film was gradually being replaced by ‘lusty’ domestic sex comedies like this one and Divorce Italian Style.  At the time they were seen as sophisticated and more liberated than comparable movies being made in the US. They make me cringe.  This movie, which I read was supposed to be made as a satire on Italian laws that allowed a man who impregnates and abandons a woman to be exonerated, if he comes back and marries her. Sexist at best, misogynistic at worst. It is hard to imagine what women of the time were feeling, if they were not feeling outrage.

5- If you know me personally, doubtless I have foisted on you one of my favorite films, Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating.  Despite all the happiness this film has given me (and hopefully others!), I have never been able to penetrate any of Rivette’s other films.  I am glad to say that I found The Nun mesmerizing. It is an adaptation of (of all things!) La Religieuse by Denis Diderot. It was serendipitous to watch it in the same week as Mädchen in Uniform. The two depictions of the brutalization of women play off each other powerfully. It is completely consonant with the anger and outrage of the #metoo movement. Unfortunately, Soeur Saint-Suzanne, the nun of the title, doesn’t make out as well as the Prussian school girls. Her story is horrifying  The lead role is taken by the luminous Anna Karina, muse of Jean-Luc Godard.  I am actually looking forward to watching this again very soon.

6- I am sure that the creators of But I am a Cheerleader were very proud of themselves in the late 90s for making a wacky teen comedy about a gay conversion camp. Unfortunately it is little more than a cartoon about a topic that just isn’t funny.  Not only is the topic not funny, and the film’s handling of it ham-handed, but it is so poorly and sloppily researched and executing.  Here is a case in point (go ahead and accuse me of picking nits). There is a young Jewish man in the group to be converted. Both he and his father are shown throughout the film wearing that classic Jewish signifier, the yarmulke. BUT! These Jews are wearing wearing the ones on the right, not the left:

  

If anyone making the film had bothered to do any research and talk to an actual Jew, they would have found out that for day-to-day wear, the ones on the right are worn and the ones on the left are for special occasion, often given out as souvenirs of wedding or bar/bat mitzvahs. You would never see an observant Jew wearing them during their day-to-day life.  It is as if someone said, “We’ll make these guys Jewish and we’ll let everyone know by putting one of those beanies on their heads”.  Look, I know this is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things but it just shows you how sloppy this movie is. To see a film that treats this topic with the gravity it deserves, please see Boy Erased

7- I don’t have any idea how to write about Mike Leigh’s movies. He is a master. He is Michelangelo, Beethoven and Springsteen all rolled into one. His films are rich, profoundly moving, deeply resonant.  All Or Nothing is as good a place to start as any.

8- So many of Japanese films from the golden era take their stories from Kabuki and Bunraku.  I had seen a later version of The Yotsuya Ghost story, but that was more like slasher-porn Kabuki.  Yotsuya Kaidan is the real deal.  Not sure why it is in two parts.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Joe Pera Talks With You

Joe Pera is hypnotized by th

Joe Pera in deep reverie on the wonders of      the cake carousel

We interrupt this film blog to talk to you about an astounding television show.

The New York Times has a regular column (also available as an email) called Watching, in which they make suggestions for shows and movies that are a little out of the mainstream but are of interest. They recommended Joe Pera Talks With You.   At first I was doubtful, since it was on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. That channel usually features snarky, cynical and gross animated shows that have little appeal for me. I was not prepared for this show.

Each episode is about fifteen very quiet minutes long, narrated by Joe Pera, a high school choir director at a high school on the upper peninsula of Michigan. In each of these episodes, he talks with you about mundane topics, such as iron or dancing.  Note that the show is called Joe Pera Talks With You and not Joe Pera Talks to You.  The subtle difference in prepositions underscores the whole atmosphere of this show. For fifteen minutes or so, Joe riffs on the topic of the day, as if he is sharing things that have just popped into his mind.  He is quiet, slightly hunched over more from a sense of self-effacement than from any physical reason.  He speaks with a soft U.P. accent.

His friends, neighbors and relatives are a diverse group of mostly sweet people, just like Joe.  I keep waiting for the show to turn on Joe and have people mock him for all his quirks, but as the show goes on he is as much a part of the community as anyone. Not a whiff of condescension anywhere.  It is as if we are watching Green Acres and there is no Oliver Douglas to upset the delicate balance of kindness and whimsy.

Each episode starts with Joe presenting his mundane topic of the week, but by they end the theme is developed into an extraordinarily moving climax.  Perhaps it is overdoing it to compare this show to the films of Yasujiro Ozu, but the same emotional climaxes in this show come out of a long gestation (even though only 15 minutes long), just like they do in Ozu’s films.  The result is the same kind of emotional catharsis, but writ small.

The episode on dancing begins with Joe explaining what it takes to be a good dancer, which he admits he is not. It then blossoms into his admiration for a local live-wire who Joe admires for his fearless sociability, even though most of us would find the fellow somewhat grating.  All this takes place at wedding of one of his teacher colleagues.  There is an awkward moment when the wedding couple make the rounds of the tables at the reception and when they get to Joe’s table, where he happens to be sitting with the bride’s recently bereaved great-uncle.  It becomes clear that Joe and the wedding couple don’t really know each other and so when Joe launches into a wedding tribute you cringe, fearing that it will be filled with the type of platitudes one says at wedding. But no.  Joe says that he knows they will be a great couple because of how they were dancing together. He was able to sense something we couldn’t see.  And then you really Joe is a holy fool of sorts. The final part of the episode features Joe improvising dance steps with an equally awkward colleague, who, no surprise here, becomes his girlfriend in subsequent episodes.

You will also learn how to pack a lunch, how to order the perfect breakfast at his favorite diner and he takes you on a trip to a grocery store.

It is a remarkable show.  Take it for what it gives you, and not what you expect it to be.

 


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The Last Ten Film I’ve Seen

  1. The Bakery Girl of Monceau (Eric Rohmer)
  2. The Color of Pomegranate (Sergei Paradjanov)
  3. Carmen Comes Home (Keisuke Kinoshita)
  4. Tampopo (Juzo Itami)
  5. The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky)
  6. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)
  7. La Captive (Chantal Akerman)
  8. Toni (Jean Renoir)
  9. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)
  10. The Small Back Room (Powell/Pressburger)

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I continue my feast with the incredible Criterion Channel. So much cinematic catching-up!  Loving it.

1- The Bakery Girl of Monceau is a breezy (a la Nouvelle Vague) short which is the first of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Slight, kind of sexist but fun to watch. It begs the question that if the writers and director show the protagonist as awful to women does that endorse the behavior or hold it up for criticism.  I think, in this film at least, the later.

2- One of the great features of the Criterion Channel is that you often have the choice of watching the films with or without commentary.  I have seen The Color Of Pomegranates many times and have loved it each time, but I would be hard pressed to tell you what was going on.  Watching it with the commentary shed a light on all the Armenian symbolism which I would never have understood.  Also, Paradjanov’s oblique way of introducing elements from the life of the protagonist Sayat Nova is beautifully explained.  Do you need all this to enjoy the film? No, it is always stunningly beautiful and loopy.  But I feel like all these years, I have only appreciated 10% of its greatness.

3- After examining the masterpieces of Japanese movies all these years, it was fun to catch up with lighter fare.  Carmen Comes Home was always on my radar because it stars the amazing Hideko Takemine and it is the first color film made in Japan. It is also incredibly dopey. Fun enough for 80 minutes, though.  Tampopo is also lighter than the great works I have been studying all these years, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and perhaps even loved it. What appealed to me was that though this film is ostensibly about making the perfect bowl of ramen, it borrows all kinds of tropes from American Westerns and Japanese Samurai films to adorable effect. The genre bending is great fun. At the time it was referred to as a ramen Western. Very apt.

4- Tarkovsky has always been a forbidding experience for me.  I loved Andrei Rublev when I saw it in the theater years ago.  But subsequent viewings of his films have been daunting experiences.  The early Steamroller and the Violin and Ivan’s Childhood I found to be accessible and thrilling. Solaris and The Mirror shut me out completely.  But that was years ago, before I had been exposed to all kinds of demanding films. I figured, ‘It’s now or never for Tarkovsky”. Having access to the Criterion Channel gave me no excuse. So, I buckled down and watched two of his films that are supposed to be among his most ‘difficult’: Stalker and his last film The Sacrifice.  The Sacrifice affected me much more than Stalker, but I must say that I found both less daunting than I had been led to believe.  Could it be that The Sacrifice felt more comfortable to me because of the heavy Ingmar Bergman connection and I am so familiar with Bergman? Erland Josephson starred, the cinematography was by legendary Sven Nyquist, it was shot on a Swedish island and most of the dialogue was in Swedish (although it did look like some of the actors were speaking English and were post-dubbed).  I have read that Tarkovsky revered both Bergman and Bresson, but ultimately this is far from a Bergman wannabe the way that the ghastly Interiors is. Like Bresson, it wrestles with ethical and religious questions in a way that is more comforting that Bergman’s approach.

Stalker seems to be a spiritual riff on sci-fi, but I am sure it is more than that.  Just how much more I will try to figure out in a subsequent viewing.  Yes, I am over my Tarkovskyphobia. Subsequent viewings are in my future.

Something that struck me this time: I never felt bored at any point even during long portions of the film when the camera seems to be looking at nothing. ‘Seems’ is the operative word in this sentence. The camera is rarely still. In scenes when it seems to be focused on an object or a person, it is almost imperceptibly zooming in on that object at a snail’s pace. The effect is astounding.  It is almost dizzying in its slowness.  It is what keeps you engaged.   By contrast, Paradjanov’s tableaux are shot by an inert camera. You are engaged by the riot of visual detail in each frame. Here the emptiness comes alive by the imperceptible movement of the camera.

5- I don’t like the idea of a generational divide.  I think it is a lazy way of analyzing differences between people. The majority of my friends are at least a decade younger than me and the friendships are not effected.  I am prepared to concede I might be too simplistic about this after watching France Ha soon after Marriage Story.  Both films seem to be speaking in a generational voice that I don’t get.  Or better put: I might get but I find irrelevant to my life. I wonder if people in their 30s find the the characters in both of these films shallow and solipsistic the way I did.  I would love to hear opinions on this. But still: Greta Gerwig, who wrote and starred in Frances Ha is a tremendous talent at the beginning of what I hope is a great string of creativity.  I’m not so sure about Noah Baumbach.

6- Another benefit of the Criterion Channel is access to the films of Chantal Akerman.  La Captive is a very loose adaptation of the fifth volume of A la recherche du temps perdu. As such, it is not for everyone.  Even though the story is radically changed the central theme, the narrator’s bizarre imprisonment and paranoia about his ‘love’, is very much intact. In fact, I think that this film treatment presents it in a better way than a more ‘faithful’ adaptation would have. If you haven’t read the book, I don’t recommend the film at all. If you have, I would love to hear if you agree that it is a wonderful elucidation of that very strange relationship.

7- With Toni I continued my exploration of all the films of Jean Renoir.  This was shot in Provence, under the auspices of Marcel Pagnol’s film company.  I had to keep reminding myself that it was not a Pagnol film.  It is a fairly brutal story of international immigrants flocking to Provence in the early 30s due to the economic boom happening there.  Of course there is infidelity and murder.

8- I had never heard of The Small Back Room. This was surprising because the films of Powell and Pressburger are so well-known and I love many of them.     This one is in black and white and made shortly after the Technicolor hallucination of The Red Shoes. It felt like I was in the world of Grahame Green, with an afflicted, self-loathing hero.  For me this is a very good thing. Lots of Powell/Pressburger regulars are on hand. Particularly impressive is Kathleen Byron, so memorable as the sex-crazed Sister Ruth of  Black Narcissus, here playing the kind of heroic partner we all would want in a time of personal crisis.

 

Sister Ruth

Small Back Room

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lots of echoes of Spellbound and German Expressionism, with a terrifically nutty dream sequencing with our alcoholic hero being tortured by a demonic whiskey bottle.

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

If the movies I have binged since I subscribed to the Criterion Channel were filled with carbohydrates, you should worry about my waistline. Luckily they are feeding my mind and heart and not my body.

  1. Judex (Georges Franju)
  2. The Five Pennies (Melville Shavelson)
  3. Blood of the Beasts (George’s Franju)
  4. Intimate Lighting (Ivan Passer)
  5. Donkey Skin (Jacques Demy)
  6. The Limey (Steven Soderbergh)
  7. Senso (Luchino Visconti)
  8. House (Nobuhiko Obayashi)
  9. Naked (Mike Leigh)
  10. Devi (Satyajit Ray)

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1- I avoided Judex because I thought it would be a glitzy remake of the 1910s serial film by Louis Feuillade. I have only seen Feuillade’s Les Vampires but that impressed me as being so much of its time that I bypassed the Franju remake of Judex, another of Feuillade’s multipart sensationalist series. I was wrong. The Franju is delightful and is very much in keeping with the time and spirit of Feuillade and, this is the best part, without a tinge of irony or camp. The ludicrous plot twists are there, but presented with such sincerity that you don’t wince at all.

2- One of the beauties of the Criterion Channel is that you can look at films in collections. After watching Judex,I looked at his other films, I realized that I had never seen Franju’s Blood of the Beasts. It is a 25 minute documentary short contrasting the dreamy, romantic river landscapes outside of Paris, with a graphic and brutal depiction of the daily work in the areas abbattoirs. I am pretty sure that the contrast is not meant ironically, which makes me admire this grisly little film even more.

3- When I was young, like 8 or 9, I went to day camp during the summer. One year they showed us The Five Pennies, a biopic about Red Nichols, legendary cornet player from the early jazz age. I remember that we were all crazy for it, often saying it was our favorite film ever. I caught up with it again after 50 years or so. I wonder what it was we were all seeing back in day camp. It was a kind of dull biopic with no great musical numbers. The story is kind of a downer (Nichol’s daughter contracts polio, thus stopping his music career for a spell). You do get to see some wonderful cameos with Louis Armstrong, but I don’t think we would have appreciated that at the time. We always say that we change in relation to the art we love, in this case film. I am convinced that someone did something to The Five Pennies since I saw it all those decades ago. It just can’t be the same movie.

4- Intimate Lighting is a perfect example of the whimsical, delicate comedies from Czechoslovakia. Like Lady Bracknell says about ignorance, whimsy is a delicate exotic fruit. Touch it and it is destroyed. I must have touched Intimate Lighting while I was watching it. It just evanesced in front of me!

5- I though Donkey Skin was being a late 60s/early 70s Technicolor hip film of a fairy tale, and therefore not really appealing to me. I was kind of right. But I have to say I enjoyed it. There is the weird incestuous relationship between Catherine Deneuve and her father, Jean Marais, that no one seems to be particularly fazed by. There are amazing, overwrought costumes and sets. There is the liberal homage (ripping off?) of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. But still, I rather enjoyed it. It is wonderful to see Delphine Seyrig in anything, but it is really wonderful to see here as the helicopter-flying Lilac Fairy. ‘Nuff said.

6- I will see anything Steven Soderbergh. Such a mastery of film direction, such an imagination. His films are so varied and so satisfying. The Limey seems to me like a ‘can we do this?’ kind of film. Fractured narrative, overlapping dialogue from different scenes, archival footage of the beautiful Terence Stamp from his days as a 60s heartthrob compared to his more weathered contemporary self. I was engaged the whole time. It is like a good crossword puzzle. Fun while it lasts, but you wouldn’t go back and do it again. I would go back and see his Contagion or Side Effects in a second, though.

7- I am a huge opera lover. Perhaps even more than I am a film lover. But I am not carried away by ‘operatic’ films. I am not talking about film versions of opera, like Bergman’s The Magic Flute, but narrative films that present themselves in an operatic fashion, i.e. overwrought emotion, sumptuous sets, beautiful actors. Senso is such a film. Everything else I have seen by Visconti seems to be in this style. I enjoyed watching it. The film was engaging. Alida Valli chews up more scenery than Maria Callas ever did. Farley Granger looks appropriately dreamy. But when it was over, I felt like I overate.

8- As readers of the blog know, I am crazy for Japanese film. I have mostly confined my viewing to the golden age 1930 – 1960. In the spirit of being a completist I have ventured into later works with varying levels of enjoyment. But House! What can one say about House? A Japanese fever dream of a slasher film where 7 extremely grating kawai types are brutally and graphically mutilated in what seems to be intend as comic fashion. I think? It is the weirdest thing I have ever seen, without being the least bit engaging. Approach at your own risk.

But seriously, to hear the commentators talk about it on the extras included on the Criterion Channel, House is the most innovative and influential film since Citizen Kane. I am willing to listen if anyone wants to make that case.

9- Mike Leigh, I love you. I worship your mastery. I love your humanity. Naked was his breakout film. It won big prizes at Cannes the year it came out for Leigh and his amazing star, David Thewlis. It has all the hallmarks of Leigh’s best stuff: amazing performances, fascinating dialogue, deliberate pacing. But it is a brutal watch. Not for the faint of heart or the spiritually insecure. Mike Leigh, I love you.

10- Satyajit Ray is another master that I revere. Every film of his is perfectly crafted, emotionally powerful, often heart-breaking but always life-affirming, even when everything falls apart. I had seen Devi many years ago and loved it then and still love it now. Unfortunately the print on the Criterion Channel is not pristine at all. And that tells me that this is probably the best print that exists. Never mind. Watch it. At 90 minutes it makes you ruminate on the big issues: the validity and danger of religion, the validity and danger of filial piety, religion as a tool in class division. Magnificent. But I could say this about any film by Satyajit Ray.


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Elena and the Men (Jean Renoir)
  2. Zéro de Conduite (Jean Vigo)
  3. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
  4. The Holy Man (Satyajit Ray)
  5. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong  Weerasethak)
  6. Of Time and the City (Terence Davies)
  7. My Dinner with Andre (Louis Malle)
  8. David Holzman’s Diary (Jim McBride)
  9. Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette)
  10. The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Karel Zeman)

I recently subscribed to the Criterion Channel and I cannot believe what an incredible streaming service it is. I have watched 13 movies in 5 days and am ready for more!

1- I have watched all three of Jean Renoir’s ‘trilogy’ including The Golden Coach, French Can-Can and now Elena and The Men. I find them all quite amateurish and dull.  This is especially in light of having just rewatched the earth-shattering Rules of the Game.  Is this like Citizen Kanethe one work of genius in a director’s oeuvre? Although hearing Ingrid Bergman speak French for an entire film was entertaining

2- Clouds of Sils Maria is a film that I have been wanting to see for a while and having the Criterion Channel made it possible.  A beautiful and mysterious film. The performances are magnificent especially Kristen Stewart.  I had tucked away in my head a snippet from a review which said that it was a riff on All About Eve and I spent the first half-hour waiting for that to come to light. This turns out not to be the case at all.  It is an examination of how a work of art changes as we change. In this case, an actress who became famous creating the younger of two lead roles in a now-famous play  20 years before, is approached to play the older lead. Her view of the play is in fascinating contrast to the new actress who is taking the role she originally created.  Heady stuff and very moving.

3- I loved the magic realism Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Apparently the director is very influenced by the culture and religion of the area near the border of Laos where much of the film was shot. The depictions of life after death, or death in life, (or perhaps reincarnation) were moving and very puzzling to me.  I wish I knew more about it. The film is stunning to look at.  I love the monkey ghosts.  I need to watch this again very soon.

4- Watching My Dinner with Andre and David Holzman’s Diary was a little too much New York for me.  The 1967 New York of the latter film was something I lived through.  Grimy, bleak, dangerous…all these feeling came back and made it hard to concentrate on what this very clever and witty meta-fictional film was doing.  I think I got it but I don’t want to go back to find out for sure.

 5- I know that I will love any film that I watch by Satyajit Ray.  The Holy Man is more of a divertissement compared to his other more profound film, but I found it delightful and very funny.  Thank you Criterion.

6- I wonder if someone of my age who grew up in Liverpool would have had the same reaction to Of Time and the City that I had watching David Holzman’s Diary. I would think not, because Terence Davies is a certifiable poet and the grime of the past in his film is so rich and emotional.  Also, the Davies film is a memory piece where as the McBride is more cinema-verite, albeit a funny send-up.

 If you haven’t seen anything by Terence Davies, this might not be the place to start. I heartily suggest the magnificent The Long Day Closes.  

7- I spent a lot of my birthday watching Celine and Julie Go Boating. I had a very happy birthday.

8- This post seems to be a lot about memory and The Fabulous Baron Munchause was something I am sure I had seen on local New York television when I was seven or eight.  The combination of cut-out and live action had a madeleine-like effect on me. Funny, beautiful and extremely weird. 

The Baron and friends on the moon

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Silver Cord (John Cromwell)
  2. Elevator to the Gallows (Louis Malle)
  3. Brewster Mccloud (Robert Altman)
  4. Deep in my Heart (Stanley Donen)
  5. Shoot the Piano Player (François Truffaut)
  6. La Règle du Jeu (Jean Renoir)
  7. Coming Home (Hal Ashby)
  8. Mother (Mikio Naruse)
  9. Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard)
  10. Ballad of Narayama (Keisuke Kinoshita)

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1- Much has been written about how camera movement was suddenly restricted in the beginning of the talkies due to the restraints of the technology. Early sound films often look like filmed stage plays, and that is because they were often just that. The Silver Cord was a Broadway hit. It is a very odd story of a mother’s sick and controlling hold over her two sons. She breaks up one son’s engagement and nearly destroys the other’s marriage. Pretty potent stuff. And to think that this gorgon of a mother was played by Laura Hope Crewes, the dotty Aunt Pittypat from Gone With The Wind.

2- Both Elevator to the Gallows and Shoot The Piano Player are examples of what happens when French New Wave directors make their homage to film noir. It is clear to me that Louis Malle is by far the more accomplished filmmaker of the two. I believe this might have been his first feature. It is masterful and fascinating. Shoot The Piano Player is ok but the whole time I would just saying to myself, “Oh. I see. Truffaut is making hommage to film noir. It is the more artificial of the two.

3- It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I consider Nashville perhaps the greatest film of all times….at least the greatest American film. Yes, I am giving into hyperbole and I am not forgetting about Citizen Kane, The Godfather and All About Eve, but Nashville, even after 45 years, still thrills and satisfies. This preamble is to emphasize how disappointed I am with just about every other Altman film I’ve seen and yes, that includes everyone’s favorite, McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Brewster McCloud is weird and fun but I just couldn’t get a handle on what it was trying to do. It made me laugh a lot, and it was creepy, too. It is the first film to feature Shelley Duval doing her kooky Shelley Duvall thing, so that is fun. But when it was over, I said ‘Huh’?

4- Watching Deep In My Heart made me realize what a weird, stylized subgenre MGM musical biographies of the great song writers is. They always seem to have the same weird features:

a- a weirdly intrusive voice-over narrating the story

b- a completely fictionalized love story

c- cameos of the composer’s greatest hits sung by the big MGM musical stars of the day.

Deep in my Heart is a particularly demented version of the above mostly because it is about a mostly forgotten songwriter and it stars the totally uncharismatic and unmusical Jose Ferrer. You have not lived until you see Ferrer do a soft shoe routine with Metropolitan Opera Wagnerian soprano Helen Traubel. She steals the movie, by the way.

5- Coming Home was a satisfying surprise. I had never seen it and I felt it would be too dated to watch it now. No way. It is a wonderfully adult depiction of a very complicated set of relationships. Jane Fonda is subdued and powerful. Jon Voight is heart-wrenching. For once there is a sex scene that is not smarmy/gratuitous but which really underscores the bond between the two lovers. I remember at the time people were rejoicing that Hollywood was finally dealing with Vietnam. It was the year that The Deer Hunter won the best picture Oscar. Coming Home was robbed.

** I am happy to have finally subscribed to the Criterion Channel. What a treasure it is! The next three films were the first three I watched**

6- I love Mikio Naruse, but the problem is that only one of his sound films is available in Region 1 DVD format, the stupendous When A Woman Ascends The Stairs. The Criterion Channel has many of his sound films available to watch. The first film I watched on the Criterion Channel was Mother. It completely validated my opinion that he is one of the masters.

7- Readers of this blog will know about my humiliating struggles with the films of Jean-Luc Godard. For some reason though, I keep trying. I always think if I watched one more, it would all click. I must have seen at least 15 of his films so far. Is this bordering on masochism? My latest foray into the world of JLG was Contempt. I had great hopes for this one because it is universally praised and since it stars Brigitte Bardot, I thought the chances of accessibility would be high. I was right. I was quite taken by the whole thing. The supersaturated Technicolor and the Cinemascope look stunning. The music by Georges DeLerue was as overpowering as anything Max Steiner cooked up for MGM. I even think I have a good idea about what the film was trying to accomplish, which is no little feat for me watching a JLG film. It is such a nice feeling to come away from a film and not feel like you have just been kicked in the head.

8- After tempting fate with Contempt, I went back to safer stuff with The Ballad Of Narayama. This is the first filming of this brutal story and I found it very affecting. It uses many Kabuki tropes (music, costuming, sets), and that is always a plus for me. Looks like the Criterion Channel is already turning out to be a great investment.


The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. One Hour With You (Ernst Lubitsch)
  2. Night Nurse (William Wellman)
  3. Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock)
  4. Emma (Autumn de Wilde)
  5. The Cabin in the Woods (Joss Wheedon)
  6. It’s Love Again (Victor Saville)
  7. The Big City (Satyajit Ray)
  8. Tel Aviv on Fire (Sameh Zoabi)
  9. Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (Kenji Misumi)
  10. The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

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1- I always found the winky, smarm-filled sex comedies of Mitteleuropa very off-putting. Sex is legal, even adultery, despite the biblical injunction, is legal.  Why the winkiness? For me it is the same as when people make nudge-nudge wink-wink noise about needing a cocktail after a trying incident. Have a cocktail. Prohibition has been over for ninety years. Shut up.

But the sex farces really leave me baffled and somewhat disgusted.  All these people having adulterous or not-adulterous affairs, and talking about it incessantly, telling us about why it is OK because we are all sophisticated adults…well.. I just don’t understand it.  I think of things like Die Fledermaus or Feydeau farces.  You want to have sex, go ahead. Why talk about it like you think it is bad, but you are going to do it anyway. I find it tiresome. As marvelous as Lubitsch can be, I find One Hour With You, a sound remake of his influential The Marriage Circle, to invoke the same kind of tedium. Now, I think the sex-farce aspects of Trouble In Paradise are just fine because they are coupled with a mercenary cynicism that makes the smarm tolerable.

2- I had seen Suspicion decades ago and all I remembered about it was Cary Grant mounting the stairs ominously, with a possibly poisoned glass of milk. I guess I know this so well because it is always shown in compilations of Hitchcock’s greatest hits.  The film  seems like a rush job. The resolution is very unsatisfying and suddenly the film is over.  Was it an attempt to duplicate his wild success with Rebecca? Maybe.  Joan Fontaine is on hand to do her distressed heroine thing and Cary Grant doing his poor man’s Laurence Olivier.

3- I was really pleased with the latest incarnation of EmmaI feel that of all the film versions so far, it really got the book down.  And how great to see Miranda Hart as the ridiculous and tragic Miss Bates.

4- Buffy The Vampire Killer was a surprising delight for me when I binge watched it a few years ago.  I loved Wheedon’s Much Ado About Nothing.  I had looked forward to The Cabin in the Woods because I had heard much about a surprising and satisfying plot twist. Well, not so much. It was fun to watch. Lots of pretty people in classic horror film tropes. In fact, I was hoping that it would be telling us that these horror tropes keep the world spinning, which is what it seemed to be heading for. But, about three quarters of the way through it kind of falls apart, into fun, Buffy-like sci-fi supernatural high-jinks.  I was entertained but not satisfied.

5- It’s Love Again demonstrates why TCM is essential for lovers of film and the performing arts.  This is not a great movie by any means. It is kind of a filmed play with lots of musical numbers. What is invaluable is it gives us a chance to see Jessie Matthews in action.  She was the singing and dancing sweetheart of the West End in the 1930s.  Is she wonderful? Hard to tell.  Her dancing is coltish, her singing is warbly, but still it is wonderful and instructive to see a beloved performer from a distant time.

6- I know when I watch a film by Satyajit Ray I know that I will be deeply satisfied and profoundly moved. The Big City did not disappoint. I need to see everything this genius did, twice!

7- Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance is an example of manga-inspired action films that the Japanese adore.  A genre that is just not for me.  It all seems so silly without being entertaining.

8- Tel Aviv on Fire gives a view of everyday Palestinian life through the eyes of people creating the eponymous soap opera for Palestinian television.  It was so refreshing to see day-to-day Palestinian life. People going to work, going to restaurants, etc. In fact, except for the fact that everyone speaks Arabic, one could imagine that one were watching a film about Israelis.  Yes, the ‘troubles’ are present in the dialogue.  Yes, there are difficult interactions with Israeli authorities but it is presented in a non-sensation, non-polemic way. And it is funny.

9- I love and I hate the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  At his best he is a master creating fascinating characters who seem to grow out of the Germany of his time. At his worst, the films are sloppy and very much like a kid trying to provoke adults by being shocking, but who winds up just being annoying. The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant was dazzling to me. It is slow, claustrophobic and very stylized. It was German Kabuki.

 

 

 

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
  2. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)
  3. 1917 (Sam Mendes)
  4. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)
  5. Ford v Ferrari (James Mangold)
  6. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
  7. Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir)
  8. Interiors (Woody Allen)
  9. Atlantic City (Louis Malle)
  10. Gretel & Hansel (Oz Perkins)

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1- The cliche you hear now about The Irishman is that if you see it in the theater you will be enthralled and if you watch it on Netflix, you will be bored.  I watched it on Netflix

2- I loved and admired Little Women so much that I saw it again in the theater about a week after the first viewing. It was an even richer experience.

3- Interiors.  Oy vey.  Read this.

4- After the extremely disappointing revisit to Interiors, I am happy to report that I found Atlantic City even more poetic and moving than I remembered it.  A film for the ages.

5- I had a rip-roaring time watching 1917. They also serve who only entertain.  Thank you Sam Mendes.

6- I watched Gretel & Hansel in a state of confusion. I didn’t have a clue what it was trying to do. Creepy atmosphere was successfully achieved but what was it about?  Still, I had fun watching it and it was less than 90 minutes long, so no harm done. Look at this picture of the witch. Ripping off the innkeeper in Isle Of The Dead?

 


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When is Bergman Not Bergman?

 

There are a lot of movies that I rewatch constantly.  There are others about which I think ‘Well, I’ve seen that once, no urgency to watch it again any time soon.” But then times goes by and I have either completely forgotten what the film was like or I have a vague positive memory and want to explore it again.  Over 40 years have gone by since the one and only time I saw Woody Allen’s InteriorsI thought it would be fun to watch it again.

I remember that when it came out, Woody Allen’s reputation was soaring. He was previously only considered a creator of wacky, somewhat slapstick comedies.  Then Annie Hall came out of nowhere. The emotional depth of this ‘comedy’ was profound. The wacky comedy was there, but so was a self-awareness of the narrator.  Multiple watchings reveal that Alvy Singer is casting himself as the reason why the romance dies.  Annie is generously and lovingly portrayed.

What would Woody Allen follow up this game-changer with?

When Interiors appeared many critics took great pains to portray it as the fulfillment of the promise of Annie Hall. The comic genius had given us a dark, Bergmanian family drama.  Critics were pulling their own heads off in rapture. His follow-up, Manhattansolidified his reputation as a master for the next 30 years or so, until his reputation was forever tarnished by disgusting personal behavior.

So, back at its premiere, it was regarded as a turning point.  How does it read now?

Not so great. In fact, truly bad and embarrassing.  His canon was still so new that the comparison to Ingmar Bergman was a badge of honor, as comparison to Fellini would be in later films like Stardust MemoriesViewed historically it is hard to see the ‘homage’ to these two giants as anything but pretension.

The cinematography is icy in the way Bergman’s is. The acting is quiet and internal the way Bergman’s is.  The problem is that neither are good.

I usually will applaud the effort of a ‘lighter’ artist to bring depth to his work, but this just evokes disbelief and laughter.

At one point, one of the daughters (don’t worry, I will not recap the plot!) expresses her dislike of her rich WASP father’s new girlfriend by shouting, “She is a vulgarian!”.  Really, this was uttered in all seriousness.

The symbolism is so heavy-handed as to indicate that the creator was not in command of what he was trying to show, perhaps didn’t even know what he was trying to show.  Case in point: the Hampton beach house where much of the action takes place is in muted earth tones, as are the costumes of the entire cast. Get it? They are repressing their emotions. Get it?  When the new girlfriend shows up, of course she is in a blood red dress. She is brimming with life. Get it?

It was like watching a high-school version of Eugene O’Neill.

Yes, Bergman had his howlers throughout his career. Some of his work suffers from the same kind of pretense. The difference is that he always had an agenda.  He was trying to show the impact of ‘God’s silence’ on our lives, he was trying to show the difficulty (Impossibilty?) of human connection. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but more often than not, it does.

Woody Allen here is just trying to show that he could make a movie that is as ‘serious’ and ‘artistic’ as Bergman.

It doesn’t work…..at all.

Do watch it though. You won’t believe how bad it is.