The Discreet Bourgeois

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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Broadway Danny Rose (Woody Allen)
  2. L’Atalante (Jean Vigo)
  3. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
  4. Lenny (Bob Fosse)
  5. The Tenant (Roman Polanski)
  6. The Traveler (Abbas Kiarostami)
  7. The Coward (Satyajit Ray)
  8. Sunset Song (Terence Davies)
  9. Dos Monjes (Juan Bustillo Oro)
  10. Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami)

1- If there is such a thing as a Thanksgiving movie, Broadway Danny Rose is it.  I think it might be Woody Allen’s most successful comedy, and that is because it is mostly kind.  Danny Rose is almost a holy fool. His goodness radiates out, and even though he is mistreated worst by those who owe him the most, eventually his kindness makes a difference in the world. There is none of the smarminess that we find in later Allen films, although the scene where he and Mia Farrow are tied up together seems pretty icky.   There are still the Italian caricatures that he is so fond of, but in all fairness he has a lot of Jewish caricatures as well. The jokes are wonderful.  The world of seedy New York is lovingly drawn.  Is it the 60s? The 70s? The 80s? I can’t tell.  The Greek Chorus of old Jewish Standup comics in the Deli that are narrating and commenting on ‘the best Danny Rose story’ are the heart of this movie.  The way they describe how hard it is to get a gig now is heartbreaking but they take it with a joke.  There is only one comic line that falls flat.  Let me know if you know which line I mean.

2- I am done with Jean Vigo.  I watched all his works again on the Criterion Channel. It only amounts to about 200 minutes, since he died so young, but they all bore the life out of me.  I find them tedious and pretentious.  Much noise is made about how revolutionary L’atalante is. I don’t see it.  It bores me. It may be my fault, but I have watched it four times, so the blame can’t entirely lie with me.  I think it is a bit of the James Dean syndrome.  Vigo died at the age of 29, with only one feature and a few shorts to his name.  Like James Dean, perhaps his talent has been overappreciated because there is so little of it available and what exists is flashy. Please tell me why you think I may be wrong.

3- My one great truth about Hitchcock is that his movies are not about what you think they are about.  The Birds is not about a series of unexplained bird attacks.  It is about the unresolved tension in the relationships between Melanie Daniels, Mitch Brenner and his mother, Lydia Brenner, with his sister Cathy thrown in the mix for fun.  Vertigo is not about Madeline Elster’s real identity. It is about the power of erotic self-destruction.  Rear Window is not about what happened to Mrs. Thorvald. It is about the struggle for the upper hand in the relationship between Jeff and Lisa (spoiler alert: it ends in a temporary draw).  And so, Psycho is not about the shower scene and what leads up to it. I am not really sure what it is about, but I have a feeling it is, in a perverse way, about the empowerment of women.  Marion steals the money to fix a situation that her lover seems incapable of fixing.  Lila ‘solves’ the mystery when all the men around her bungle it.  Even Mrs. Bates wins out at the end.   There is an extraordinary amount to male objectivizing for a movie of this time.   When we first see John Gavin in the hotel room, he is present as a sex object, even more  than Marion is.  Anthony Perkins is stunningly beautiful and so endearing as Norman Bates, that the end should always come as a shock even though, sixty years later, we know what it is.  The cliché is that Hitchcock was awful for women.  I think Psycho should make us reassess that thinking.

4- I missed seeing Lenny when it first came out and I was glad to watch it now.  I don’t know if Fosse was being more objective than the normal assessment vis-a-vis Lenny Bruce, but the comic comes off more as a dangerous and self-destructive figure than the shining exemplar of First Amendment rights. It is hard to pity his downward spiral, because as brilliant as he is, he is just MEAN. Dustin Hoffman is spectacular, yes, but Valerie Perrine. Wow.

5- Man, I LOVED The Tenant when it first came out.  I dragged all my friends to see it. I don’t think it has aged as well as the film it seems most closely linked to: Rosemary’s Baby. Apparently these two films plus Repulsion are a loose trilogy.  Rosemary’s Baby wins hands down.

6- The Traveler is Abbas Kiarostami’s first full-length feature, and as such it is solid.  I love movies that show kids to be rotten and not living in some kind of Edenic childhood paradise.  This boy is absolutely amoral and selfish.  Nowhere close to Kiarostami’s later works of genius, but worth a watch for sure.

7- I watched The Coward the day after the great Soumitra Chatterjee died.  He starred in a ton of Satyajit Ray, most famously making his film debut as Apu in the last film of the trilogy.  The Coward is a small film, but like every other Ray film I have seen, it is deeply satisfying. 

8- I am not sure what drew the great Terence Davies to Sunset Song. It is gorgeous to look at and involving, but it doesn’t have the overwhelming emotional impact of his masterpieces. The next film he made, A Quiet Passion about Emily Dickinson, has all the hallmarks of a Davies masterpiece.

9- If The Cabinet of Doctor Calegari and Rashomon got married, moved to 1930s Mexico and had a baby, it would be Dos Monjes. Expressionism and Mexican Romanticism.  The scenes in the monastery remind me of Ivan The Terrible weirdness.  And the multivalent story telling must have seems so fresh coming some 20 years before  Rashomon.  It thrills me that such sui-generis films exist that I never heard of. What else is out there to discover?

10- After watching a ton of Kiarostami films, I went back to The Taste of Cherry, often cited as his masterpiece. I didn’t get it when I saw it 15 years ago.  Having much more context now, I get it but I still don’t love it the way I love The Koker Trilogy and Close-up. It’s probably more my fault that Kiarostami’s.  This time around, I totally got the pacing and the extreme long takes, things which bored me before.  




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


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)


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?


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, as it is for the little girl in The White Balloon. The little boy in this film has accidentally taken his deskmate’s notebook home with him after class. His deskmate 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, playing a fictional version of the director of Where is the Friend’s Home, 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