The Discreet Bourgeois

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


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Rest In Peace, Pierre Étaix

pierre-etaix

This past Friday we lost Pierre Étaix, one of the great comic filmmakers, and up until recently, was in danger of being completely forgotten.  His entire film catalog, consisting of both short and feature length films made in the 1960s, were barred from distribution for decades due to legal problems.  Luckily, Criterion issued his complete works in a lovely Blu-Ray package three years ago.  It’s hard to think of a similar rescue from the abyss!

Many of the most famous film comedians are referred to as clowns, but Pierre Étaix actually had his comic apprenticeship in circuses.  His elegant physical comedy must have its roots in the circus much as Buster Keaton’s does from the vaudeville circuit. Étaix worked as an apprentice to Jacques Tati.  Pretty impressive comedy credentials.  He even appeared in a small role in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, amazingly enough.

But it is his handful of feature-length and short films that will ensure his place next to Keaton and Chaplin in the comedy Pantheon. Like those two masters from the silent era, Étaix’s genius is all visual.  The deadpan reactions are direct descendants of Keaton, the sweetness and kindness are direct descendants of Chaplin.  His greatest works were created in collaboration with Jean-Claude Carrière, the screen writer/producer who went to to collaborate with Luis Buñuel on his late masterpieces.

I would suggest you start with the lovely, heartwarming Yoyo. This practically silent gem celebrates being yourself (in this case a circus performer) instead of being who you are forced to be (in this case, a phenomenally rich but lonely young man in a lovely mansion).  The deus-ex-machina of a circus elephant is one of the memorable sight coups (I don’t want to demean it by calling it a sight-gag).

His last film, Land of Milk and Honey, did to his career what Peeping Tom did for the career of Michael Powell: put him on the outs with the money men by seemingly thumbing his nose at the bourgeois tastes of the audiences of 1971.  This is a great shame, because judging from the genius of the few works we have, we can only lament what else we might have had over the forty-plus years since that film’s disastrous release.

So, please, do yourself and the late, great Pierre a favor and see as many of these delightful works as you can.  Here follows a filmography swiped from Wikipedia:

  • Insomnia (1961) Short unreleased
  • Happy Anniversary (1962) Short
  • The Suitor (1962)
  • Yoyo (1965)
  • As Long As You Have Your Health (1966)
  • Le Grand Amour (1969)
  • Land of Milk and Honey (1971) Documentary

 

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
  2. Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper)
  3. A Lesson in Love (Ingmar Bergman)
  4. Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel/Salvador Dali)
  5. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel)
  6. Yoyo (Pierre Étaix)
  7. Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman)
  8. I Was Born But….. (Yasujiro Ozu)
  9. As Long As You Have Your Health (Pierre Étaix)
  10. Baby Face Herrington (Raoul Walsh)
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1- It is almost a cliché now to hear the films of Douglas Sirk referred to as feminist and subversive.  I agree they are. However, I need to stress that Now Voyager got there before Sirk did.  This film, depicting an unloved and abused child triumphing over adversity by her own inner strength, is astounding for the period.  Sure, Charlotte Vale does get great insight from the psychiatrist played by Claude Raines, but he merely puts her on the right track and gives her the shove she needs.  From then on, it is all her own doing. Yes, there is a love interest, but amazingly, as Charlotte Vane reintegrates her damaged psyche into her life, she finds that she has moved beyond the need for a man to save her. Of course, only Bette Davis could have played this.

2- In the early 50s it would have been hard to predict that Ingmar Bergman would turn into the profound artist of the later 50s and beyond.  So many of his early films are light, slightly risqué comedies of manners.  It is interesting to watch an early film like A Lesson In Love and then compare it to Smiles of a Summer Night. Both star the magnificent Eva Dahlbeck and dapper Gunnar Bjornstrand.  Both deal winkingly with the notion of sexual attraction and fidelity.  The early film is nice but very slight.  The latter is light but profound, evidence that Bergman is broadening his scope.

3- Do I change or do films age badly?  I used to adore The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. I even named this blog after it.  Rewatching it proved a bit tedious.  The shaggy-doggedness of it wore thin way before the film ended.  I noticed the same feeling when I rewatched The Exterminating Angel. However, Un Chien Andalou holds up in all its insane and anarchic glory.  Could its short length work in its favor?  Just how long should a shaggy dog run for?What about it, David Lynch?

4- I am rewatching the films of Pierre Étaix in order to write a Have Your Tried  post about him.  Stay tuned. What a delight.

5- TCM continues to be a source of cinematic bounty. No one would accuse Baby Face Herrington of being a classic in any sense of the word, but it gives you a great idea of what a solid B-picture comedy was like in the early 30s.  It was an adaptation of a Broadway play, so you get a glimpse into that world as well. Plus you get an appearance by the always-delightful Una Merkel.  What’s bad about that?

 Una_Merkel_-_still


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Fanny (Marc Allegret)
  2. Lancelot du Lac (Robert Bresson)
  3. 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen)
  4. Persona (Ingmar Bergman)
  5. Yoyo (Pierre Étaix)
  6. Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Robert Bresson)
  7. Rhapsody in August (Akira Kurosawa)
  8. Shame (Ingmar Bergman)
  9. Sword in the Desert (George Sherman)
  10. The Golden Coach (Jean Renoir)

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1- It was interesting to watch Lancelot du Lac and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne so close to each other. Lancelot du Lac is a prime example of what we expect from a Bresson film.  It is an austere (very austere) telling of the Arthurian legend of adultery. I found it extremely moving in its depiction of an ideal world devolving into nothingness.  Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, on the other hand, is very atypical Bresson.  His second feature, made from a script by Jean Cocteau, has more of the sensibility of that writer-filmmaker’s work than of the ‘Catholic Atheist’ Bresson we have come to know and perhaps love.  What is so interesting to me is that all the criticism and articles I found concerning Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne has the writers twisting themselves into pretzels trying to prove that this film has all the elements of his later, more ‘Bressonian’ films.  It doesn’t really.  What we have here is the theory of the auteur exercising its tyranny over any thinking about film.  I suppose I am guilty of it too, since I always list films followed by the name of the director.

Also, I am so taken with the performance of Maria Casares in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne .  Best known as Death in Cocteau’s Orpheus and the unloved wife in Les Enfants du Paradis, she has one of the most impressive faces in cinema and was a hell of an actress.

Maria Casares

Maria Casares

 

2-  By watching Yoyo, I completed watching all the films in the wonderful Criterion box set of the complete films of Pierre Etaix.  A genius, ladies and gentlemen, descended from the line of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati.  I hope to write a Have You Tried….  post about him soon.  But don’t wait for that! Untold delights await you from this comic master!

3- Some artists go from strength to strength as they age,  leaving us undeniable masterpieces at the end of their lives. Otello and Falstaff by Verdi, Parsifal by Wagner, The Dead by John Huston are examples of this.  But there are other genius who seem to fizzle out at the end of their creative life. It is hard to see how the director of Psycho and The Birds would have been content with Topaze. I was thinking about this watching Akira Kurosawa’s  Rhapsody in August.  This film comes shortly after his majestic epics Kagemusha and Ran, and compared to those mighty cinematic brothers, this film is little more that poorly executed cinematic claptrap. The platitudes about the affects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the Japanese and America survivors some 40 years after the fact, are cringe-worthy.  The whole thing is  inept and  annoyingly sentimental. I really wanted to strangle that gaggle of a kids.

All that I have left to watch of the Kurosawa oeuvre is Madadayo, which, from its description, sounds like a bad Japanese version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips. I am nervous.

4- In the introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain writes:

‘In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit:  the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Golden Coach by Jean Renoir. I have no idea why the decision was made to have everyone in the film speak English, but because of this, the film often devolves into an incomprehensible Babel.  Even Anna Magnani, the voracious star of the film, lapses into streams of Italian swearing from time to time and she seems much relieved.

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Pride (Matthew Warchus)
  2. The Immigrant (James Gray)
  3. Time Regained (Raul Ruiz)
  4. Un Cuento Chino (Sebastián Borensztein)
  5. The Marriage Circle (Ernst Lubitsch)
  6. The Land of Milk and Honey (Pierre Étaix)
  7. Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa)
  8. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
  9. The Quiet Duel (Akira Kurosawa)
  10. Through A Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman)

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1- Having finally completed reading the entire À la recherche du temps perdu (shameless bragging freely admitted),  I have been on a quest to read and see everything that can help me relive that wonderful experience.  I wouldn’t let myself watch Raul Ruiz’ Time Regained until I finished reading the whole cycle. I  felt I would never get to see this movie because of this silly rule I imposed on myself.  I’m glad I did. This is a film only for people who have read, loved, obsessed over, shared, hated and lived in Proust’s great work. I can’t imagine who else would get it.  It is magnificent in its compression – the spirit of the work is so well captured in small and big strokes.  Even though the movie ostensibly concentrates on the last volume, there are flashes of earlier, important events and the juxtapositions between past and present would have made Proust proud.  The casting is wonderful. Although John Malkovich is not the right physical type for the wonderfully infuriating and repellant Baron du Charlus, he embodies the character’s quirky sense of self-righteousness and self-torture perfectly, especially in his final scene when he is bowing to the hitherto despised Madame de Sainte Euverte.  Marie-France Pisier is pitch-perfect as the awful Mme. Verdurin and no one else could have played the older Odette than Catherine Deneuve. When Edith Scob appears I said, ‘Yes, that is exactly what the Duchesse de Geurmantes is like’. I loved this film, but can’t really recommend it unless you’ve immersed yourself in the worlds of Swann’s and the Geurmantes’s ways.

2- Un Cuento Chino is a rare delight. A sweet film with just enough vinegar to keep it from cloying.  Endearing characters that are neurotic enough to be believable. Riccardo Darin is a huge star in Argentina who should be better known here. I loved this movie. A pure pleasure.

3- The Immigrant and Two Days, One Night were both up for Oscars and both starred Marion Cottillard. Both also embody certain aesthetics and moralities of contemporary cinema.  For the past twenty years or so, moral relativism seems to be the only lens through which certain filmmakers can address moral issues. There is a great reluctance to identify evil as evil, immorality as immorality, etc.  Clear-cut identification seems uncool.  The Immigrant seems particularly guilty of this. Two Days, One Night looks moral choices and consequences squarely in the eye and comes down on the side of doing ‘the right thing’, even though it might take a while to understand what ‘the right thing’ is. Moral relativism might seem sophisticated and adult to some, but I find it lazy and adolescent. I am not advocating that movies should be like illustrations of The Lives of the Saints, but I do think it does take a certain maturity to make a moral choice in a film and the Dardenne brothers do this admirably.  Plus, I think that The Immigrant was pretty sloppy, ugly and dull. But hey, that’s just me.  You might love it.

4- I first heard about Ernst Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle in one of Donald Richie’s marvelous books on Japanese films.  This silent classic was a sensation when it first played in Japan. The Japanese were dazzled by the economy of Lubitsch’s visual storytelling and you see this subtlety in the films of all the great masters, especially Yasujiro Ozu. The film is a magnificent comedy of manners that holds up beautifully.  I highly recommend it. The version I watched seemed to be taped in front of a live audience, which was a little weird. Any recommendations for a good commercial copy?

5- I have been working my way through the Criterion collection of the complete works of Pierre Étaix and my delight continues to grow. These films should be as well known as the works of Jacques Tati, with whom Etaix apprenticed. The Land Of Milk and Honey was his undoing in France.  This ‘documentary’ of the French bourgeoisie on vacation at a ghastly resort earned the rancor of everyone and effectively ended his career. It is a cruelly critical look at a crass society, but it is so much fun.  I think this film is his Peeping Tom, another unpleasantly wicked film that ended the career of the great Michael Powell I am still toying with the idea of a ‘Have You Tried Pierre Etaix….’ post in the near future.  He is delight.


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Suitor (Pierre Étaix)
  2. Good Health (Pierre Étaix)
  3. Sitting Pretty (Walter Lang)
  4. Satan Met A Lady (William Dieterle)
  5. Mr. Thank You (Hiroshi Shimizu)
  6. The V.I.P.s (Anthony Asquith)
  7. Days Of Being Wild (Wong Kar Wai)
  8. Out Of The Past (Jacques Tourneur)
  9. The Maltese Falcon (John Huston)
  10. The School of Babel (Julie Bertuccelli)

 

1- What fun to have the opportunity to watch two versions of Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon so soon after one another. Made by Warner Brothers, the studio that made the more famous and undeniably greater John Huston version, Satan Met A Lady stars Bette Davis ostensibly in the Brigid O’Shaughnessy role and Warren Williams not at all reminiscent of Bogart’s Sam Spade. I can’t speak with authority as I have not read the novel, but my guess is the John Huston classic is probably closer to the feel of the book.  Satan Met A Lady seems to be a rush-job, B-picture, something that would fill out the bottom half of a double-bill.  The story is somewhat confused (as, I guess, the story of The Maltese Falcon should be), but the tone is what’s off.  Is this a light-hearted murder mystery romp? A proto-noir affair?  Hard to tell what the intentions were.  The results are not satisfactory.  The John Huston film remains sublime and gets sublimer and sublimer with each viewing.  The humor is there, but so is the great themes of greed, trust and integrity – something Satan Met A Lady was not very interested in.

2- I need to write a little piece on Pierre Étaix and his brilliant use of what I would term ‘slow comedy’.  Much of comedy, either verbal or physical, comes at you in a torrent, and part of the thrill of it is the sheer sensory overload.  Not here. The situations cook slowly and boil over into an inevitable climax.  Wonderful stuff.

3- Does anyone read what I write here?

4- Watching Mr. Thank You (Arigato-san) made me realize how rare and difficult it is to portray a truly good person without the whole thing becoming cloying and self righteous.  A lovely and very innovative film, with what must have been a pioneering use of location filming.

5- Film Noir is one of those things that people feel they are supposed to revere out of all proportion.  I’ve always found the nihilism and cynicism to have an air of posturing about it. Nowadays, all you need is dark lighting, a betraying woman and death of the hero and voila! you have yourself a noir film.  These films have as little to do with the films originally identified by the French critics as noir, as most films labeled ‘Hitchcockian’ have to do with an actual Hitchcock film. Even Hitchcock didn’t always make a successfully ‘Hitchcockian’ film. That said, I was happy to review Out Of The Past, the noir that nowadays is viewed as the noirest of noirs. The relentlessly downbeat tone gets to me. I know that it is strictly a matter of taste and there are those that revel in this film and the genre itself, but I remain skeptical.

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Spring is Here (John Francis Dillon)
  2. Le Grand Amour (Pierre Étaix)
  3. Rupture (Pierre Étaix)
  4. As Long As You Have Your Health (Tant qu’on a la santé) (Pierre Étaix)
  5. My Darling Clementine  (John Ford)
  6. The Machine that Kills Bad People (La macchina ammazzacattivi) (Roberto Rossellini)
  7. Au Hasard, Balthazar  (Robert Bresson)
  8. Seven Chances (Buster Keaton)
  9. Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi)
  10. Rome, Open City (Roma, città aperta) – Roberto Rosselini

 

1- When is a ‘bad’ film a great film viewing experience?

Turner Classics recently showed a 1930 film version of Rodgers and Hart’s 1929 musical Spring Is Here. The movie is nothing more that a staged play and a pretty silly one at that, but for those of us who are fascinated by the Great American Songbook and early Broadway Musicals it is an invaluable glimpse into what these plays must have been like in the theater.  Other films of contemporary musicals usually give them the Hollywood touch, bloating them out into elephantine productions (think Hello Dolly or South Pacific). This is as if the director set up a camera 5th row center and let it run. Not much cinematically, but historically priceless! The vaudeville delivery of the jokes, the warbling tones of the leads are priceless in understanding what the theater-going experience was in the 20s and 30s.  The only well-known song is With A Song In My Heart.

2- Pierre Étaix

One of the joys of watching an insane amount of films is to discover a director you never heard of and recognize what an integral part he was in what came before and after him. Pierre Étaix began as an assistant to Jacques Tati and went on to direct his own mind-boggling comedies in the 50s and 60s. These films where often scripted with Jean-Claude Carrière who went on to script the great absurdist masterpieces of Buñuel such as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.  The three films above are pure insane delight from start to finish and provide a link between Tati and Buñuel that you hadn’t realized existed, but not seems indispensible.

You can bet that I was the first kid on my block to get the new Criterion box set that was released this month.