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 Film I’ve Seen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sister Ruth

Small Back Room

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Night Train To Munich (Carol Reed)
  2. A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies)
  3. The Color Of Pomegranates (Sergei Paradjanov)
  4. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)
  5. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)
  6. Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)
  7. Ben is Back (Peter Hedges)
  8. Mary Poppins Returns (Rob Marshall)
  9. The Last of Sheila (Herbert Ross)
  10. Christmas in Connecticut (Peter Godfrey)

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1- Terence Davies has created few but miraculous movies, starting with the remarkable mood pieces Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes.  See a scene analysis of the latter here.  His latest film is about Emily Dickinson. A Quiet Passion is aptly titled. You get to ‘know’ Dickinson  as you get to know the working class Liverpudlians in the aforementioned films: obliquely and thoroughly. How does he do it? The same way Mike Leigh works his magic, I guess.

2- Talking about pure cinema, I had a chance to show The Color Of Pomegranates  my brainiest friends, Kathleen Rooney and Martin Seay.  They even brought a kale salad rife with pomegranates for the occasion. Often, when one loves something quirky and gets to know it intimately, one is hesitant to share it for fear a) that people won’t like it and b) maybe they will make you realize it is not as good as you think, no matter how you love it.  Luckily this didn’t happen here. Paradjanov remains as beloved as before.  Watch him if you haven’t. Read my post on him if you haven’t.

3- Lady Bird is a perfect depiction of teenagers in all their exasperating glory. At first, that made me stop watching it because, yuck, teenagers in all their exasperating glory.  But, it is well done, the acting is good, except for a very wrong-headed last act which totally clashes with the rest of the film.

4- I pride myself on being a huge liberal and very open-minded, but The Favourite actually nauseated me.  And not just because this (as well as Mary Queen of Scots) feature cunnilingus luridly in their plots. I don’t mind the act per se, but as a plot device? Is this a new trend?

5- With Ben is Back I continue my Lucas Hedges admiration society. This kid can act and is not a one-trick pony. Four powerful and very varied performance in this Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird and Boy Erased.  Of the four, this film is the least, starting off promisingly as an insightful family analysis, but slowly dissolving into a police procedural.  The nuance of the parents in Boy Erased is not here, but that is not Ben Is Back’s problem.  It’s not that kind of movie.  It was pretty satisfying.   The second of the glammed down performances by Julia Roberts I have seen recently, the other being the Netflix series Homecoming.  Oscar and Golden Globe baiting?

6- No cunnilingus in Mary Poppins Returns. At least none that I have noticed.  Just a splendid, overwhelming good time.  Perhaps it hit me just right because I remember seeing and adoring the original when I was 7 years old. It was at Radio City Music Hall and there was a stage show featuring the Rockettes and others.   The AMC River East 21 is not Radio City, but Emily Blunt is at least as wonderful as Julie Andrews was, with a little more vinegar than her predecessor. The songs and musical numbers are fine, the plot is appropriately sweet. And you even get Angela Lansbury AND Meryl Streep AND David Warner AND Dick Van Dyke (!) and the original Jane Banks (Karen Dotrice) in a sweet cameo, and even the god-of-the-moment Lin-Manuel Miranda. I loved it.

7- Thanks again to the Rooney/Seay connection for getting me finally to make it through The Last of Sheila, and for helping me to unravel the mystery without making me feel like a total moron. Repeated viewing of this will be needed and are looked forward to.

8- Keep your depressing and misunderstood It’s a Wonderful Life. The only Christmas movie you ever need is Christmas in Connecticut.  Not only do you get the super-sexy pairing of Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan in the coziest set Hollywood ever created, but you get S.Z. ‘Cuddles’ Sakall.  But wait there’s more! Una O’Connor! and if that wasn’t enough, what every movie needs: Sidney Greenstreet.  And of course, Macushla.

9- I find it hard to write about Roma I will soon. I worship it.

 


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Have You Tried Parajanov?

Every month in the much lamented Martha Stewart publication Everyday Food, there would be a feature called Have You Tried……,  spotlighting a slightly unusual (but not too unusual) ingredient.  It was Martha’s way of getting Everyday Chefs to expand their repertory into slightly more exotic territory.  In articles like Have You Tried Fennel?, Martha and her team would introduce the ingredient with pretty pictures and tips on how to include it in simple but delicious recipes.
It occurred to me that I might do the same with some of the outlying directors and I thought I would start with Sergei Parajanov (1924 -1990). Born in Tbilisi in then-Soviet Georgia, Parajanov’s films are deeply rooted in the folktales, art and sensibilities of the Caucasus peoples.  Constantly persecuted by the Soviets, Parajanov was constantly in and out of jail on charges ranging from bribery to homosexuality. His tiny handful of masterpieces, four in all, appeared over a 22-year span, punctuated with long periods of cinematic inactivity.  The four films all reflect Parajanov’s style of tableaux vivants featuring the art and culture of various cultures.

forgotten ancestors

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) tells a well-known Ukrainian tale of star-crossed lovers whose love survives beyond the grave.  Apparently influenced by Tarkovsky’s My Name Is Ivan (Ivan’s Childhood), there is a wild dynamism in this film that becomes more reined in in his later work. The camera is in almost constant movement, even though many of the icon-like tableaux that feature in the later works are seen here.

sayat nova

Four years later came Sayat Nova (The Color of Pomegranates)  (1968) depicting scenes from the life of Armenian poet and holy man, Sayat Nova. Hardly a conventional biopic in any sense, the film depicts key scenes from Sayat Nova’s life with several actors and actresses portraying the poet at different ages.  Scenes of the poet’s childhood, life a monk, etc. are depicted with a voice-over of an actor reading from his works. There is no conventional narrative here. The highlights of his life are depicted in static scenes heavy with Armenian art and visual style. In this film we begin to see more deft use of the static compositions that will distinguish his two later films.  By the end of the film we do not have a collection of biographical data. What we do have is a glimpse into a remote and ancient world, the strangeness of which is frightening and seductive at the same time.

surami

The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984) appeared sixteen years later, tells the Georgian tale of the sacrifice need to complete a fortress. The unusually (for Parajanov) linear story arc makes this probably his most accessible film and for what it’s worth, it is the film of his of which I am most fond.

parajanov man 4

Ashik Kerib (1988) is his last completed film and depicts an Azerbaijani fairy tale as told by the Russian poet and great Byronic figure, Mikhail Lermontov.  Ostensibly filmed as a children’s film (really!) it has the feel of the Arabian Nights.

Some tips on encountering Parajanov’s work:

1-       The closest thing to which I can compare watching a Parajanov film is watching an opera. If you are armed with a good synopsis you can watch an opera, ‘getting it’ on its own terms, allowing its story to unfold on its own terms. The actual words being sung are often besides the point. Knowing the tale behind Suram Fortress or Askik Kerib is all you really need to bring to the films. They then unfold like tales portrayed in fabulously illuminated manuscripts. The seemingly arbitrary compositions of fruit, daggers and peacocks become a cinematic counterpart of filigree work.

2-       There is nothing to ‘get’ here in the sense that Parajanov is withholding a secret key to what he is doing.  It is all there on the screen. The more you know about Armenian or Georgian or Azerbaijani culture the better for you, I suppose. But, Parajanov has distilled all you need to know in his magnificent, overwhelming imagery.

I have not made a great study of Parajanov’s life, so I can’t address any of the ‘charges’ of homosexualty, but I  can say that some of the most stunningly beautiful men ever seen in film are featured either as main characters or decoration in his tableaux.  Does this indicate a Gay sensibility? The male figures are definitely more eroticized than any of the female figures, but there does not appear to be any agenda besides the depiction of beauty – a peacock or a beautiful man are of equal value.

parajanov man 1 parajanov man 2 parajanov man 3

As far as placing him in the context of world cinema, even though he himself has confessed an indebtedness to the works of Tarkovsky, it seems to me that his true cinematic progenitor is the static nuttiness of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible.

So, now that you have had this little introduction, please make both me and Martha Stewart proud and try some Parajanov today. I eagerly await your reactions!


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Guilt Trip (Anne  Fletcher)
  2. Silver Lining Playbook (David O. Russell)
  3. Wagner & Me (Patrick McGrady)
  4. One Hundred Years of Japanese Film (Nagisa Oshima)
  5. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
  6. Life Of Pi (Ang Lee)
  7. Sayat Nova (The Color of Pomegranates) (Sergei Paradjanov)
  8. The Great McGinty (Preston Sturges)
  9. The Life Of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi)
  10. Commissar (Aleksandr  Askoldov)

 

(Yes, above viewing reflects run-up to Oscars, but it also reflects research for upcoming post on Sergei Paradjanov. Stay tuned.)