The Discreet Bourgeois

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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. High Hopes (Mike Leigh)
  2. The Short and Curlies (Mike Leigh)
  3. The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda)
  4. Merrily We Go To Hell (Dorothy Arzner)
  5. Lured (Douglas Sirk)
  6. Newsfront (Phillip Noyce)
  7. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock)
  8. The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)
  9. High Heels (Pedro Almodóvar)
  10. Peggy Sue Got Married (Francis Ford Coppola)

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1-  Mike Leigh’s films seems to be some combination of life-affirming, bleak, cynical and joyous, sometimes in equal measure. But all are works of genius. High Hopes tends toward life-affirming with generous dashes of bleak. The marvelous Ruth Sheen is on hand to provide yet another one of the indomitable figures that are sprinkled across Leigh’s works.

2- I don’t think that I had watched an entire Agnes Varda film before I watched The Gleaners and I.  It is a lovely, odd documentary of people in France who would better be described as scavengers. Although seldom on screen, the personality of Varda permeates the film.  It is a personality that I look forward to spending more time with.

3- Merrily We Go To Hell was shown on TCM as a complement to the Mark Cousins’ multi-part documentary Women Make Film. The documentary is really a film class explaining all aspects of creating a film (framing, script, track shots, characterization, etc.)  After each of the weekly episodes, films that were used as examples are shown in their entirety.  This film was by Dorothy Arzner, the only active woman director besides Ida Lupino in Hollywood.   I had hoped that  it would be pretty raw, since that this was a pre-code film about a society women who marries as seriously alcoholic newspaperman. It is mostly raw, but their is an unfortunate ‘happy end’ tacked on.  I guess even in pre-code days this was to be expected.

4- It was lovely to see Newsfront again. I saw it back in the late 70s as the Australian New Wave was hitting the US. I didn’t remember a thing about it except that it was about newsreel makers in the days just before television.  It is a great combination of fiction and archival footage, with a nicely affecting story to boot.

5- I always had fun watching Rear Window, but this time around I realized that it might very well be greater than Vertigo.  More on this in a later post.

6- Sometimes too much knowledge is too much.  I always knew that The Magnificent Ambersons was a mangled masterpiece, but I thought the mutilation by RKO was on the end of the film, which always seems abrupt and sloppy. I watched it again on the Criterion Collection with the full-length commentary. It seems that the mutilation was far more extensive, hitting about every part of the film. Apparently something like 50 minutes were cut and are now lost.  With the commentary it became apparent that the film is a mess, with moments of brilliance (Fanny’s breakdown, the last party at the Amberson’s mansion).   What was unfortunate about watching with the commentary is that it planted the seed in my mind that even with the deleted holy-grail scenes, it might still be a mess.

7- Pedro Almodóvar has gone from being a campy director of loco shock comedies to one of the great humanists working in film today. High Heels dates from his epater le bourgeois period, so a little of it, for me at least, goes a long way.  There is no denying that the film is stunning-looking.  He was a master of the art form even then, but he hadn’t yet found the great themes that his technical genius was begging for.   He has found them now. Watch Pain and Glory to see way I mean.  It is overwhelming in every sense, but first and foremost, it is overwhelming because you are watching a genius who is at the top of his game.

8- I hadn’t seen Peggy Sue Got Married since it was first realeased.  I remembered being disappointed with it at the time, and it still is disappointing.  It has great ideas, but it is too timid to do anything with them.  It’s fun to see a 12-year-old Sofia Coppola as an annoying younger sister, though.

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. A Separation (Asghar Farhad)
  2. Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock)
  3. Nostalghia (Andrei Tarkovsky)
  4. Varieté (Ewald André Dupont)
  5. The Living Skeleton (Hiroshi Matsuno)
  6. Walpurgis Night (Gustaf Edgren)
  7. Swing Shift (Jonathan Demme)
  8. Meantime (Mike Leigh)
  9. Flunky, Work Hard (Mikio Naruse)
  10. A Scandal in Paris (Douglas Sirk)

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1- One of the great benefits of having the Criterion Channel is that it has opened up various national cinemas that I never really knew. The cinema of Iran is a case in point. I had only seen The Taste of Cherry by Abbas Kiarostami.  I found it quite austere and was deterred from seeing other Iranian films for an unforgivably long time.   I have watched many more Kiarostami films and I revere him.  Panahi also is amazing.  I had heard about A Separation when it won the Best Foreign Film Oscar. What a splendidly rich, nuances film that observes relationship dynamics, class distinctions and religious differences. Superbly moving, with an end that kind of took my breath away.

2- Hitchcock is regarded as the auteur par excellence. But not for Rebecca.  Here I would have to say the auteurs are David O. Selznick as well as the MGM tradition of quality.  Hitchcock was loaned out to MGM for his first American picture and it has Selznick all over it. The novel was an enormous success, just as Gone With The Wind was.  Selznick gives this production  the same lavish and slavish treatment he gave to GWTW. It doesn’t make for a bad movie, but it doesn’t make for a great Hitchcock movie. We would have to wait for  Shadow of A Doubt for that.

In the discussion after watching the film, Martin Seay contrasted the difference between the acting styles of Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.   What you were seeing, he said, was a consummate stage actor (Olivier) and a consummate film actor (Fontaine).   What Olivier was doing might have been superb on the stage, but here on film it was too big.  Made me realize that all the Olivier performances seem to be very theatrical.

3- With The Criterion Collection, I have been able to watch or rewatch the films of Andrei Tarkovsky.  While I loved Stalker and The SacrificeI must admit that I was totally baffled by Nostalghia.  It was beautiful to look at.  I duly appreciated the eight-minute long take at the end of the film, but it mostly went over my head.  I would appreciate any insights you might have.

4- Watching Swing Shift again was a triste experience. I loved it so, when it came out in the 80s and had not seen it since.  It is a mess.  Heartbreaking for me, because I remember it with a warm, nostalgic glow.

5- Meantime is the most downbeat of the Mike Leigh films I have watched.   Perhaps too downbeat.  I have begun to realize that  Mike Leigh films have much in common with the films of Yasujiro Ozu.  Lower middle-class lives of quiet desperation, but always depicted in such a way as to leave you with an overwhelming sense of life.  While watching Meantime I thought it would almost turn into a  parody of itself, but at the end Mike Leigh delivered and there is a gorgeous epiphany of love and forgiveness and hope. Quite overwhelming even if you do have to go through a bit of hell to get to it.

6- You have my permission to skip the The Living Skeleton.  Japanese horror can be cheesy. This was absolute Limburger .

7- Varieté  is a good example of what we lost when silents became sound films.  The camera work here is so thrilling and baffling.  It has Emil Jannings and all the Weimar Republic depravity you could hope for.   It wouldn’t be until that we see such thrilling German film.

8- Just because it is by Douglas Sirk doesn’t guarantee that a film won’t be a turkey. Thanksgiving came early for me with A Scandal in Paris

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Happy Tenth Anniversary

Ten years ago, I was leading a wonderful monthly film group. I had the idea of writing little articles that the people in the group could read before we met in order to spark conversation.  The first post was on The Blue Angel.  Subsequent posts were on other films we were discussing, like King Kong and the James Whale Show Boat.

Over time the focus of the posts shifted from what we were going to discuss, to what I was watching on my own and thinking about.

The group still meets, but less frequently.  It seems in this COVID time I am watching more movies than ever, especially since I subscribed to the Criterion Channel (I know, Mitchell shut up about the Criterion Channel already!).

My posts on THE LAST TEN FILMS seem to be coming out more often than I thought possible. I have also posted special topics like Introductions To Japanese Films and ‘Have You Tried….’ which spotlight a less popular directors work.

While the blog does give me a chance to focus my thoughts on films, I had also hoped that it would also accomplish its original intent: fostering conversation/debate about films.

I can always depend on the friendly and insightful comments of John Charet, blogger extraordinaire as well as comments from Fern of the original film group.

But I hope that in the next ten years (God willing) I will hear from more of you.  I realize that what I have been watching lately is not what could be considered main-stream, so you might not have direct comments on it. But I would love to hear from more of you.

Is there anything you would like to read about?

Happy Anniversary!


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Storm Center (Daniel Tarandash)
  2. Blondie of the Follies (Edmund Goulding)
  3. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
  4. Riffraff (J. Walter Ruben)
  5. A Visit From The Incubus (Anna Biller)
  6. Cynara (King Vidor)
  7. Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden)
  8. Lola (Jacques Demy)
  9. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
  10. Destiny (Der Müde Tod) Fritz Lang

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1- What a perfect 1950s paranoia film is Storm Center.  It came out a few years after Joseph McCarthy was toppled but when his lethal reach was still being felt.  Imagine Bette Davis as a voice-of-American-tolerance up against a town terrified of a book on Communism that she wants to keep on the shelf.  She hates Communism herself, but, as the great Liberal she is, she feels that the book must be in the library so people can make up their own minds. The town freaks and it ends in the immolation of the library. Imagine that there was actually a time in America when there was nuanced public discourse.  It  makes this film seem like science fiction.  The ending of this film is insane.  Watch it

2- Blondie of the Follies, Riffraff and Cynara were three films penned by the mighty Frances Marion (with help from the mighty Anita Loos).  Not sure how good these films are.  The first stars Marion Davies, now only remembered as the inspiration for Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane.  When allowed to do comedy, she is charming.  Her dramatic chops are lacking, but she is still fun to watch.  The second stars the (I believe) woefully underappreciated Jean Harlow.  She could do comedy, tragedy, drama, playing dumb, playing smart. You name it. In Riffraff  she is paired with Spencer Tracy as her absolutely repulsive blockhead of a boyfriend and labor leader manque.  It is fashionable now to look at the works of female screenwriters as either overt or crypto-feminism.  It doesn’t really work in any of these films, though I am sure someone could make a valiant attempt.  The resolution of Cynara  particularly made my flesh crawl, watching the compromise that the Kay Francis character makes, for no good reason.  Still, they are interesting relics to watch.

3- First Cow is another film that I am sure that many critics would love to cast in a feminist light since it was written and directed by a woman.  I don’t really see it.  There are some very interesting things done with traditional male roles, but I don’t know that this necessarily indicates a woman at the helm.  What I do know is that it is a really accomplished work, the script is incredible, the performance are superb.

4- There is no reason for A Visit from the Incubus to exist.

5- Born in Flames! I was in New York during the five years it was put together. It really captures the awful seediness of the place and time. That certainly is not the intention of this endlessly fascinating movie. How to describe it? Apocalyptic, Lesbian, Science Fiction, Marxist Paranoia fest? But it is also just delightful. And I don’t mean it in a condescending way.  Even though it was made on a shoe-string over years, there is such a sureness of vision. I wish that Lizzie Borden had made more films. Plus you get to see Flo Kennedy and Eric Bogosian. And for an extra Feminist Easter Egg, Kathryn Bigelow, the only woman to receive a directing Oscar, appears in a small but crucial role.  It was so heady and rich. I want to see it again soon.

6- I am only recently acquainted with the work of the late Abbas Kiarostami. So far everything I have seen has bowled me over.  He creates puzzles in exactly the way that David Lynch does not.  You can get what he is after and often the puzzleness of it is the whole point.  But there is also an incredibly human and often heart-rending element to these films too (see The Koker Trilogy).  Certified Copy was his last feature and I may need to watch it again because I felt like we were entering more into David Lynch ‘try and figure this puzzle out….Ha…I bet you can’t’ territory.  Still, it looks gorgeous and any opportunity to watch Juliet Binoche …..

7- Fritz Lang of the Weimar Republic speaks to me more than Fritz Lang of American Noir of the 40s.  In Germany he had the enormous resources of UFA at his command. This gave the world masterpieces like Metropolis and M.  Destiny ( a poor English title for the much more descriptive German ‘Tired Death’) is the kind of film that could never be made now.  A redemptive, operatic fairy tale that has echos of the Phantom Coach Plus you get to see what Lil Dagover had been up to since she starred as the demented love interest in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.

 

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi)
  2. Night and Fog (Alain Resnais)
  3. Olivia (Jacqueline Audry)
  4. Mishima : A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Shrader)
  5. Where is the Friend’s House? (Abbas Kiarostami)
  6. And Life Goes On (Abbas Kiarostami)
  7. Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami)
  8. Without Lying Down : Frances Marion…. (Bridget Terry)
  9. Homework (Abbas Kiarostami)
  10. Close-up (Abbas Kiarostami)

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1- I couldn’t really tell what The White Balloon was about just looking at the posters and ads. It seemed to be a heart-warming story of a little girl in Iran. Then I read that she is trying to buy a goldfish for the length of the film. OK, I thought. A Farsi version of the heart-warming Red Balloon? It was even recommended on several sites as the perfect ‘family’ film. No. No No NO! This is an engaging but finally deeply upsetting film that causes one to examine notions of ‘cute’, ‘kindness’, ‘strangers’. etc. Panahi uses the camera to evoke character, often in a misleading way. The way he photographs the main character, a six or seven year old who has lost the money she needs to buy a goldfish for the New Year Celebration (look it up), makes us think that she is a charming waif a la Shirley Temple. The soldier who befriends her is shot as a little too friendly perhaps. The creepy snake show players seem predatory. But are they? By the end of the movie, one’s perceptions are all inverted. By the time you get to this last shot of the film, you are devastated:

2- Night and Fog was made in 1955 and was one of the first films to deal head on with the topic of the Holocaust. Being French and being ‘directed’ by the brainy French nouvelle vague director Alain Resnais, its ruminations on the horror take on a cerebral cast. There is a coolness to the whole proceeding, which might come from the inter-cutting of archival footage and footage of the deserted camps ‘today’ in 1955. It made me think of Blood of the Beasts more than anything. As my dear friend Lil says, ‘The French are very Cartesian.’

3- Olivia is being touted as a forgotten, rediscovered gem of Lesbian cinema. I am not so sure about the gem status. The expressions of Sapphic affection don’t have the same power as its depiction in Maedchen in Uniform. I am violating my number one rule of criticism, which is criticizing something for what it is not. It is hard not in this case. Both films were ‘lost’ and then rediscovered during the blossoming of Queer Criticism. Olivia fails not only in comparison to the older German film, but also when considered on its own. The plot is weak. The acting is either too subdued or two overwrought. It is also not much more than an adolescent love story, where the German film uses the love story as a jumping-off point to larger sociopolitical considerations. It is fun to see what Simone Simon was up to a decade after here most famous film role in Cat People. She is a glorious neurotic and none of the scenery is safe from her chewing

4- As much as I admire his intellectual prowess and talent, I am loath to spend too much time in the ghastly world of Paul Schrader. I concede the greatness of Taxi Driver but please don’t make me watch it again. Schrader’s worldview seems to have been shaped by his childhood in Western Michigan and the Calvinist religious tradition that is so strong there. Sin, sin and more sin. Maybe redemption, but probably not. I wondered why he would have chosen the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima as a topic for a film. It seems that Mishima’s worldview, as far as I can tell from the depiction of his works in the Schrader film, is equally as ghastly. It seems that where most philosophies look to beauty as something to be sought, Mishima finds that it is something to be destroyed in order to attain personal freedom. But – I really liked this movie a lot. The main reason is because it satisfies my pleasure of watching a movie that could only be a movie. Schrader’s brilliant script tells the story of Mishima’s fatal last day. Into this overarching story, he places flashbacks of the childhood and early manhood that got him to that day. These flashbacks are in the sepia tones we are used to when a filmmaker is trying to invoke memory. In contrast to these black and white sections there are three gorgeously Technicolor portrayals of three of Mishima’s works. These scenes are shot on abstract, perhaps Kabuki-like, sets . The flashbacks, the scenes from the novels and the depiction of November 25, 1970 are masterfully alternated. By the end we are left with a portrait of the troubling Mishima that we could not have gotten in any other medium but film, mostly because of their visual juxtapositions. The Philip Glass score is perfectly suited for the world we are watching

5- The magnificent Koker Trilogy by Abbas Kiarostami is made up of Where is the Friend’s House?, And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees. Please see my post here.

6- Frances Marion was one of the most powerful people in Hollywood during the Silent and early Sound Eras.  Best known as a screenwriter, she also directed.  Without Lying Down : Frances Marion is a very serviceable documentary that tells Marion’s story.  It is sad to see the modern screenwriters interviewed here lamenting the fact that the first days of Hollywood were more diverse than the present day.

7- Homework is a documentary by Abbas Kiarostami which tacitly critiques the Iranian education system.  Boy after boy is interviewed about his homework habits. The pressure on these kids is palpable.  Corporal punishment is accepted and expected by the boys, and approval and reward are unknown.  One poor kid is obviously suffering from PTSD to the point that he cannot be alone with Kiarostami interviewing him without dissolving into a quivering, crying mess. When Kiarostami asks why he is crying, the boy can only fall deeper into fear. A short but very powerful film.  It is interesting to make the connection between the trauma of ‘homework’ here and the quest of the little boy in Where is the Friend’s House.

8- Close-up is a film that I need to watch again very soon because it is deceptively simple but so rich and dense under the surface. The premise is unlike anything I know.  A poor Iranian man who is smitten with art and film falls into pretending to be an acclaimed director and works his way into the confidence of an upscale family.  This might sound like Six Degrees Of Separation but there is nothing glib about this film.  Metafiction is used to an astounding degree: all the people of the true story play themselves in what looks like a documentary, but is in actuality a reenactment of the hoax and the subsequent trial. The levels of irony are complemented by levels of compassion.  The resolution is simply gorgeous. Kiarostami! Where have you been all my life?


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The Koker Trilogy by Abbas Kiarostami

No less a person than Akira Kurosawa had this to say about the films of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami: “When Satyajit Ray passed on, I was very depressed. But after seeing Kiarostami’s films, I thanked God for giving us just the right person to take his place.”

I had only seen one film by Kiarostami, A Taste of Cherry. It was universally declared a masterpiece, but I just didn’t get it.  I didn’t watch anything else by him for years.  It might have been one of the biggest mistakes of my cinematic life.

Once again, I am going to extol the Criterion Channel, which has allowed me to catch up with many missed masterpieces.  I had watched Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon last week and when reading about it, I learned that Panahi was Kiarostami’s protege, and that his film was greatly influenced by Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home? So, I watched it.

Like The White Balloon, Where is the Friend’s Home tells the story of a child on a quest. This child’s quest is not the self-serving quest to get a goldfish for herself for the New Year celebration.  The little boy in this film has accidentally taken his desk mate’s notebook home with him after class.  His desk mate has been humiliated several times by their teacher, and threatened with punishment, for not doing his homework in his notebook because he had left it at his cousin’s house.  Since our hero has his little friend’s notebook, he fears that the teacher will get angry and expel his hapless desk mate. He has a vague idea where his friend lives in the next village and, despite his mother’s forbidding him to leave, the moral imperative to do right by his friend is so strong that there is no question that he must get the notebook back, despite impossible odds.  The trip from his home town of Koker to the nearby town of Poshteh where he thinks his friend lives comprises the bulk of the film.

This very simple premise spins out into an epic quest. The quiet building of the climax is as subtle and as powerful as anything in the films of Ozu.  The denouement is understated and simply gorgeous. It is unexpected and inevitable.

If it had been a stand-alone film, it would have still been a high point of world cinema. But five years and two films later, Kiarostami made And Life Goes On and that is when things get transcendent.

And Life Goes On opens with a man and his young son on a road trip. We find that they are driving from Tehran to the site of the recent devastating earthquake in the north. The objective of this quest is to see if the two actors who played the little boys in Where is the Friend’s Home survived the disaster. Shot on the site of the earthquake, the pair run into many of the non-professional actors from the first film in their ‘real’ life. Perhaps the man on the quest is a stand-in for Kiarostami himself?

The difficulty of looking for the boys echoes the travails of the little hero of Where is the Friend’s Home. The quest in the first film is constantly thwarted by an adult world that cannot or will not understand the urgency of what he must do.  The quest in the second film is thwarted by nothing less than nature itself, in the form of the earthquake that has made chaos of life.  But both of these conflicts give Kiarostami and his co-writer the opportunity to explore the richness of this almost primitive world that none of us know, perhaps not even people from Tehran.

There are many visual rhymes that connect both films and the meta-textual references to the characters and actors of the previous film expand this cinematic world in a dizzying way.

But wait!  There’s more!

Two years later Kiarostami makes Through The Olive Trees. 

 

The premise of this film is the behind-the-scenes look at the making of And Life Goes On.  The protagonist of that film is now shown as what he is, an actor playing the role of the director of Where is the Friend’s House. An elaborate and heartbreaking back story is given to a short scene from And Life Goes On. We watch the scene being shot, take after take, all the while learning about the life of the ‘characters’ on either side of the fictional camera shooting And Life Goes On.

The denouements of each succeeding film are increasingly ambiguous.  The closer each film gets to ‘real life’ the larger the scope becomes and the less neat its conclusion.

The final shot of Through The Olive Trees is one of the most audacious set-ups I can think of. Its exquisite resolution is just perfect for the ‘real life’ we have arrived at by the end of this trilogy.

 

I can’t wait to see more by this master. I will start by rewatching A Taste of Cherry

 


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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.