The Discreet Bourgeois

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


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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

REVISED 12/17/2020

(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.

UPDATE 12/17/2020

 

I rewatched the entire trilogy in preparation for a discussion with my movie group.  I am happy to say that I was completely wrong about White. This time around I found it quite amusing and I found the main character of Karol Karol incredibly endearing.   Watching it again, I was tickled to see the main couple from White make a super brief appearance in Blue.  The first time I watched it I would have had no reason to notice such periphery characters.  This time it thrilled me to realize what a giant universe Kieślowski and his co-write created with these three films.  Endlessly satisfying movie watching, emotionally, morally and entertainingly.

 

 

 

 

 


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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.