Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Return of the Prodigal Son (1967) - ES 32

Your professional kindness is the worst form of cynicism.

I hope readers here don't mind if I take the quick and easy way out of reviewing Evald Schorm's existential character study Return of the Prodigal Son by primarily linking this post to the first review I wrote about the film back in 2012. It was a few months or so after Eclipse Series 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave had been released and I was covering the film as part of a weekly column I wrote for Criterion Cast. I just watched the film again tonight, and after reading what I wrote three summers ago, which I think sums up my thoughts quite adequately, I feel like I don't have a whole lot more to add in writing at this time, even if I give it another day or two of consideration. Not only that, I'm also planning to discuss this film, along with two other titles (Capricious Summer and The Joke) included in the same box, this coming weekend as the latest episode for my Eclipse Viewer podcast. Given this unusual coincidence of scheduling, I'd much rather preserve my fresh takes on the film for that conversation, than to spill it out here and then deal with the pressure of coming up with even more new material in just a few days.

I'm telling you, the pressure to produce... to perform... to constantly reapply myself to the creative process over and over again... and for what purpose? Yes, I have a good job... a nice family... an enjoyable hobby and creative outlet that seems pleasant and respectable enough. But I mean, who really cares, anyway? This blog... those recordings of Skype conversations that we post online for the amusement of a few isolated souls out there in the whole wide big bleak desolate world, as if our opinions on such matters amounts to anything important or of lasting significance. What difference does it all make? Why bother? What's the point? Why even feign interest in carrying on? Is it really worth it? Sometimes I wonder, more often lately, I get sick of even asking the question, when I know... I recognize the staggering, empty, appalling truth. No. No, it's not. There's no point. I give up. Ugh.

(and before any of you start to worry about my interior resolve or mental well being, just watch the film and you'll understand...)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Colt is My Passport (1967) - ES 17

If you want to stay alive, don't get too attached to your guns.

Last night's revisit of the 1967 yakuza action flick A Colt is My Passport turned out to be a refreshing cinematic palate cleanser for me after several intellectually turbulent days spent contemplating my response to Robert Bresson's Mouchette. The two films were released just a few days apart back in March 1967, but beyond that they don't have much else in common, other than the emotional flatness of both Kamimura, the assassin under contract to a Japanese crime syndicate, and the eponymous girl who was directed to respond that way according to the aesthetic demands of Bresson's representational methods. While I found Mouchette's dour countenance and eventual suicide in response to her sufferings to be ultimately problematic, Joe Shishido's steely focus and impassive cool-under-pressure proved to be quite entertaining and appropriate for the character he portrayed.

Indeed, that's really the appeal of a movie like A Colt is My Passport; the vicarious enjoyment and role-modeling of a tough guy who knows that he's signed on to do some dirty work, in a line of business where he can instantly turn from predator into prey according to the whims of the bosses. His shrewd preparations to survive the inevitable hostilities, and his implacable resolve once he realizes that the tables have turned against him, are the unifying ties that bind together the most memorable episodes of this crime-based adventure.

Overall, it's a relatively simple, straightforward saga of a hit man assigned by his boss to take out the leader of a rival gang, only to find himself on the run once those in power decide that his services are no longer needed, nor is his continued existence in the yakuza underworld. The first act of the film consists of Kamimura taking the job, demonstrating his marksmanship, planning the assassination and then executing the task with impeccable efficiency and palpable suspense. It establishes the protagonist as an anti-hero who's a great asset to have on one's side, but who makes it clear that he charts his own course, maintaining loyalty more as a matter of principle than of need-driven dependency.

The middle section is a bit muddled as Kamimura and his sidekick go on the lam after their planned exit from Japan to a safe haven overseas is cut off at the airport. Knowing that all of their usual hideouts are going to be covered by their newly acquired adversaries, the pair find a truck stop off the beaten path and lay low in a well-concealed attic apartment. The set-up serves as a basis to introduce a character who turns out to be not so much a noirish femme fatale but instead, a young damsel in distress. Mina is a barmaid whose boyfriend was bumped off by the same criminal enterprise that now seeks to take Kamimura out of commission, and she sees in the rugged but honorable sniper a possible ticket that will help her escape the dreary dead end that she's been stuck in ever since.

We're also treated to a song performed by Jerry Fujio, a handsome square-jawed pop singer of the era presumably included as some kind of box office attraction. He plays Kamimura's driver who winds up getting used as leverage to force the hit man to give up his clear shot at freedom in order to do the right thing. The plot twists are rudimentary and not terribly compelling, but they do support the premise that Kamimura, though a merciless killer when so employed, does have a personal code of honor that leads him to brave deeds of self-sacrifice on behalf of others when the cause is just. His noble disregard for his own safety and somber determination to level his revenge against the jackals who betrayed him. along with a soundtrack infused with highly infectious earworm theme music, actually calls to mind the protagonist of Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter, released the previous year. The monochromatic A Colt is My Passport lacks the wild color palette and hallucinatory, abstracted set designs that Suzuki employed, eschewing all that flamboyance in favor of dockside grit and a gruff industrial working-class sensibility in its locations, but otherwise can be regarded as a worthwhile "poor man's version" follow-up for those who want more of this sort of thing.

Mainly though, the first hour of the film functions as a set-up for the final conflict between Kamimura and his would-be killers. That's the same conclusion I drew when I first wrote about A Colt is My Passport back in early 2012, and last night's viewing did nothing to change my opinion. It's a fun sequence, as phenomenally executed as it is implausibly absurd that such a showdown would ever be staged that way by the gangsters looking to take down an especially troublesome rogue operator. But there is too much entertainment value to be had here to bother spoiling it all with meticulous analysis. I was just glad to watch a movie that I didn't have to think all that strenuously about, or worry who I might irritate if I wasn't able to regard it with sufficient reverence.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Mouchette (1967) - #363

People used to worship the dead. They were gods. That must have been true religion.

This post has been on my mind for most of the past week, but circumstances have prevented me from sitting down to write it until now. Let me state from the outset that I don't have a proper review in mind. What I've been contemplating is how to balance the pros and cons of what will undoubtedly be a more negative appraisal of Robert Bresson's Mouchette than I am accustomed to giving films in this space. My tendency has always been to emphasize the positive in my experience of watching movies, since I'm not the kind of reader who particularly enjoys harsh criticism of other people's work, especially when it's obvious that they've put a lot of time and effort into crafting a film. For those movies that do appear to be sloppy, overly formulaic or poorly executed for any number of reasons, I'm usually content to just let them pass without giving them the benefit of my prolonged consideration or an articulation of reasons as to why I think their project sucks. There are plenty of bloggers and podcasters out there who enjoy that kind of thing, and who are much better (i.e. more entertaining) in delivering their snarky, scathing takedowns than I will ever be. (And if you want to read a more substantive critical analysis of Mouchette, there's no shortage of that sort of thing. Here's an paper that extends to 23 pages in .pdf format, with footnotes.)

But the fact remains, I was deeply disturbed after revisiting Mouchette earlier this week, and that uneasiness has not subsided even after viewing all the supplements, listening to the commentary track and giving the film another look just to make sure that my reaction was justified. I also just revisited my own review of Au hasard Balthazar written this past January, where I leveled some of the same criticisms of Bresson's method there that I could easily expound upon here. I will do my best to avoid repetition of that critique, just in the interests of saving time and getting to the main point I want to make here: that Mouchette appears to me to be the product of a marvelously gifted artist who also happened to be, at least in this stage of his life, a dirty old man.

The impulses that propelled me toward this conclusion were found in a few key shots early on in the film: one was that seemingly gratuitous scene where a group of what looked like five year old girls twirled backwards on an iron bar while wearing skirts, exposing their panties and rear ends for several seconds, for what purpose? Understanding Bresson's filmmaking techniques, I can't help but wonder how many retakes did he demand from the girls to capture that bit? To me, that just felt wrong. There were also a few other segments where my "creeper" radar was triggered, as Mouchette adjusted her stockings or was positioned in front of the camera in order to get a bit more of the upskirt effect than the narrative progress of the plot seemed to call for. Finally, there was this article I found after doing just a bit of internet searching to learn more about Bresson's personal life and sexual proclivities, an interview with Au hasard Balthazar's lead female "model" (following Bresson's terminology) Anne Wiazemsky, which confirmed at least a few of my darker suspicions regarding Bresson's personal ethos and the sense of entitlement he may have felt as one of cinema's most highly regarded creative talents.

Let me back up that assertion by just doing some simple math. Robert Bresson was born in 1901, so that put him squarely in his mid-60s when he made both Mouchette and Au hasard Balthazar. Each story has as a main component the  sexual maturation of a teenage girl, even though the earlier film has the travails and sufferings of a donkey as its purported central focus. While there's a legitimate artistic objective, as well as ample cultural justification, in drawing attention to the difficulties that young women face in a patriarchal society that too often objectifies and exploits them to the point of inflicting long term damage (or even prematurely ending their lives), I got a distinct vibe from both films that Bresson's interest in the topic also had a more prurient angle. In Mouchette, my sensitivities were provoked on several occasions. I'll spell them out in more detail very shortly, but first, let me explain my credentials on the topic. I've worked in the field of residential treatment for over 25 years, with a dozen of those years spent as supervisor of a home for teenage girls. This experience has made me acutely aware of the cruel judgments and burdens placed upon them, especially when they come from backgrounds of poverty and broken homes, with reputedly loose morals, according to the dictates of respectable bourgeois society.

Having worked with hundreds of young women who've experienced sexual abuse, physical and emotional trauma and chauvinistic oppression that severely surpasses the sufferings that we see endured by Mouchette, there were just too many aspects of her behavior in this film that simply didn't ring true for me. Now I recognize the value and necessity of artistic license, where dialogue and actions become idealized, rarefied and reduced to their essence for the sake of making an impact on a broader audience that has not fully shared in the kinds of situations they see on the screen. I'm sure that I've watched a lot of war movies and other "behind the scenes" scenarios that have gripped me with enormous power, even though people who've lived through similar events could tell me "that's not what it's really like." But I do have an informed working knowledge, based on firsthand reports, of what it's like to be an unfairly ridiculed, judged, condemned and abused teenage girl. And there's something rather perversely idealized about Mouchette's odd combination of active rejection of social norms (her nonconformity in music class, the after-school bombardment, with flawless accuracy, of her schoolmates with dirt clods, and her general stubborn defiance of authority whenever she's told what to do or spoken to with condescension) and her passivity in the presence of her abusers (her father, her teacher, the drunk poacher she claims to love, after he rapes her in response to the tender comfort and support she provides to him after his seizure.)

It's one thing to grapple with the fact that the girl, still in the midst of pubescence, is forced to submit to predatory sexual violence inflicted by a much older man, but the poetic serenity of her final submissive embrace of the man, in the warmth of a crackling fire in a charmingly rustic shack in the woods... Sorry, I just have a difficult time accepting the necessity of how that scene was portrayed. In my reckoning, Bresson lent it more pathos and sublimity than such a horrendous violation deserved, even though I also recognize he could have gone much more explicit with it (and I'm sure many directors have over the subsequent decades. Still, few of them receive the kind of praise as "spiritually transcendent auteurs" that is routinely heaped upon Bresson.)

Please trust me; I'm familiar with the characteristic traits of Stockholm Syndrome, and I've seen numerous instances where young girls have shown unflinching loyalty to men (and women) who have ruthlessly manipulated them into circumstances that would utterly disgust readers if I were to describe them in further detail. So I'm not saying that a situation like what we see in Mouchette could never happen. My reservations are based more on what seems to be a degree of too much romanticizing and even fetishism in regard to what she and other girls in her predicament have had to endure.

And a lot of that uneasiness on my part has to do with the film's conclusion. It's a famous scene, where our protagonist, having basically run away from home, been labeled a slut by one of the women in the town who intuitively recognize what's happened to her (her question - "What's got into you?" - being the same interrogation that Frank Zappa asked of Suzy Creamcheese just a year earlier) and now recognizing her painful isolation from the rest of society, placidly rolls her body down the slope once, twice, three times, until she finally takes that fateful suicidal plunge into the water to end it all. The water splashed, the elegiac music kicks in, and we're all left to comprehend the aesthetic wonderment of it all, almost to the point of obliviousness that a young girl has taken her life in response to the rejection and indifference she encountered over the span of a few brief years on Earth. I'm sorry, there's just something too convenient, too smug in embracing her martyrdom, for me to fully buy into the verdict that Bresson seems intent on delivering. Sure, I can accept that he is presenting this story to us as a tragedy, as a disruptive crisis that we, as members of that respectable bourgeois society, should be concerned enough about to demand change when and wherever we can.

But I'm still made queasy by the impression that Bresson, on some level, seems to be finding a little too much satisfaction in exploring at length this predicament of young girls, hounded, repressed and vilified to the point where they see only one way out - a not-quite-virgin suicide that lends a dignified air of exquisite self-sacrifice, which somehow ennobles those of us who can mournfully bow our heads and lament at the pitiful outcome of a life so tragically wasted. I've seen more of that sort of wastefulness in real life than I care to "celebrate" in the movies, especially if it feels to me like the people in charge of telling the story are milking it for easy pathos, while also taking advantage of their audience's sentiments and emotional vulnerability in a way that seems to be extenuating the problem rather than pointing toward any kind of constructive resolution.

I can't and won't fault Bresson for drawing our attention to the appalling dilemma that the Mouchette's of the world have to somehow navigate; the awareness that films like this raise is ultimately much more positive than it is negative, and so on balance I'm glad that such a work of art exists. I still recall quite vividly my first encounter with the movie many years ago, when I checked out a copy from the library and watched it with my youngest son, just a teenager himself at that time. It's a film watching memory I still treasure. Back then, we were both quite moved and impressed by what we saw and I greatly appreciated Bresson's willingness to advocate on behalf of girls who'd experienced abuse and neglect. Since then, and with repeated exposure and prolonged contemplation, my esteem has become much more equivocal. I hope I've done a fair enough job explaining why. I know it's purely subjective, and I think I've been able to maintain a due level of respect for Bresson the artist, visionary and master of cinema. So I just offer this critique as a counter-balance to what feels to me like the kind of excessive adulation that sometimes develops in the aura of highly revered artistes. Find whatever value in it that you will.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The X From Outer Space (1967) - ES 37

Let's send it back into space. Back where it came from.

I hope that readers are willing to give me a pass here and let me take the easy way out in this latest entry, a quickie review of The X From Outer Space. Compelled by the rules of this blog, I'm required to squeeze this one in, right smack dab between Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson. In other circumstances, I'd consider this a refreshing change of pace between those two heavyweights, but this is twice-plowed turf for me. I have, to my own satisfaction at least, given this film more than enough time, attention and consideration over the past few years to do it justice. First, I subjected it to in-depth critical scrutiny as part of my old column on CriterionCast.com, back at the time of Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku's release back in 2012. Then, last October, Trevor Berrett and I engaged in sustained analytical discourse on the relative merits and shortcomings of this peculiar production in our Eclipse Viewer podcast, where we also examined the three other films accompanying this one in that set. Please rest assured, I have actually given the movie another look (on my smartphone, while working out at the gym.) So I'll offer a few fresh observations here that I don't think are too repetitious from my previous takes on the saga of Guilala, a lonely and badly misunderstood monster who can't really be faulted for simply obeying the weird, instinctive and destructive impulses that are his destiny, dictated by the mysterious whims of his unfathomable extraterrestrial origins.

1. A week or so after our scientific horizons were expanded and the popular imagination was once again stirred up by the wonder of space following New Horizon's fly-by of Pluto, I enjoyed this absurd but naively innocent portrayal of how interplanetary exploration was envisioned in the late 1960s. There's a brief glimpse of what the scientists aboard the spaceship AAB-Gamma called "the big green marble" (Earth) that we all live on:

Which immediately brought to mind an image of the since-rechristened "big blue marble" (a nickname popularized by Carl Sagan) that President Obama dropped into his Twitter feed just this morning:

2. The day after I posted my review of the new Criterion release of Hiroshima mon amour, I was fairly stunned to realize that Eiji Okada, who played the male lead in that film, was cast into a supporting role here. (It even says so right in the liner notes, but having just watched the film, the contrast is beyond jarring.) Dr. Kato is the serious lead scientist back at terrestrial headquarters whose main responsibility was apparently to lend the best facsimile of gravitas to the proceedings that he could muster. What an ignominious career trajectory for Okada, who has more than a few Criterion titles to his credit. Hiroshima mon amour and The Woman in the Dunes are two of the most widely revered art house classics in the entire Collection, while Samurai Spy and The Face of Another are substantial and highly regarded titles in their own right. The X from Outer Space is actually Okada's follow up to the latter film. I know it gave him a top billing and didn't require much exertion on his part, but I can only conclude that some form of extortion or other desperate circumstances beyond the allure of a mere paycheck must have compelled Okada to lend his talents to this silly exercise. (Or maybe he wasn't privy to what Guilala and AAB-Gamma were actually going to look like.)

3. Director Kazui Nihonmatsu appears to only have two films to his credit where he's listed as the director (the other one, Genocide, will be covered here eventually) but he did serve as assistant to Keisuke Kinoshita way back in 1951 when they created Japan's first color film Carmen Comes Home (available to watch on Hulu.)  Sixteen years is a long time to hone one's craft, but I can definitely pay my sincere respect to the bright and eye-pleasing color palette that Nihonmatsu put together on The X from Outer Space. Now that I'm thoroughly familiar with Guilala's ridiculous antics and I've had about as many laughs at the hokey/cheap special effects as could be considered still within the realm of respect and decency, I think I can genuinely say this is a lovely parade of images from start to finish. The green walls of the Earth base, the cerulean blue skies that serve as a backdrop of Guilala's rampaging fury, the sleek silvery fabric of the space suits and space age model sets of the moon base and launch pads in the shadow of Mt. Fuji are all quite exquisite in their own way. The less said about the acting and script and basic premise of the story though, the better. Especially since I've probably already said too much.

Please note that the transfer in this trailer is terrible, and trust that the Eclipse DVD looks marvelous by comparison. But it's a nice long highlight reel in English that you don't get on the disc. Because, you know, Eclipse...

All right, enough of that. On to le Bresson.

Next: Mouchette

Sunday, July 12, 2015

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) - #482

Living in modern society is virtually like living in a giant comic strip.

When I first watched Jean-Luc Godard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her a few days ago, I was immediately inclined to align it with another 1967 film I've seen a few times over the past several years and that I'll be reviewing here fairly soon, Jacques Tati's Playtime. It's not an association that seems all that common, though I do note that David Ehrenstein did connect the two films as well, in a comment on Ed Howard's review of Godard's film that turned up in a Google search just now. The common element in both films is the architecture, those cityscapes of the new Paris that was being constructed in the mid-1960s in the outer suburbs that ringed the city and offered a means of expanding the population and tax base without building a bunch of new high rise buildings in the older heart of the French capitol. Both Godard and Tati lamented this inevitable incursion of modern technology, a drive for efficiency and order buttressed by massive boxes of steel, concrete and glass, supposedly designed for human habitation by architects and bureaucrats who probably had little interest in actually living in the structures they had approved. The two films were conceived and executed in dramatically different circumstances. Tati's Playtime was the product of nearly five years of planning and filming, that basically led to his financial ruin even though it remains the artistic capstone to a brilliant career. Godard's film, shot simultaneously with Made in U.S.A., is more like a journal entry from a very critical period in his own artistic development, as he arrived once and for all at the end of his run as a figurehead of the nouvelle vague and prepared to launch into unprecedented territory as the director of overtly politicized essay films that for the most part forsake any concern with traditional narrative storytelling and instead serve as a platform for him to deliver ideas that provoke his viewers, with little in the way of charming entertainment or sentimental appeal to ameliorate the harsh impact.

In 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, we see Godard bringing to the surface many of his political and sexual hangups that (from where I sit anyway) seem to have prevented him from settling in as a comfortable citizen in his society, and more specifically fom engaging in emotionally satisfying and lasting relationships with the women in his life. It's a difficult film for most viewers to immediately warm up to, with its constant jumping from one topic to another and extended passages of whispered commentary delivered with conspiratorial overtones. The slender thread of a story involves a woman, married and with two children, from one of those newly built suburban apartment projects who turns to prostitution as a way of supplementing her family's meager income. Godard and his lead actor, Marina Vlady, based the film on a pair of magazine articles that documented the phenomenon of bourgeois housewives turning tricks in order to make their materialistic ends meet. They were typically not driven to sell their sexual services due to abject poverty but simply as a means to make quick money to prop up a respectable lifestyle in keeping with the mandates of popular, advertising-driven consumer culture. Vlady portrays Juliette, a bit older than most of her prostitute peers whom Godard introduces us to in a series of short monologues or dialogues, as they each give voice to their own reasons and perspectives on the commerce in which they've chosen to participate. But Vlady is first introduced to viewers as herself as the lead actress, a face and celebrity persona who was already familiar to many in the films original audience. Vlady first became famous in the early 1950s as a teenager, several years before Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol had launched the French New Wave, so there was a bit of a coup involved in him casting her as his new lead, a conspicuous replacement for Anna Karina, with whom Godard had famously divorced a few years earlier and whose collaboration would soon come to a full stop later in 1967 after the release of Anticipation, part of an omnibus film titled The Oldest Profession, consisting of six short segments, all on the topic of prostitution in different phases of human history. (Indeed, Godard's pursuit of Vlady as a substitute for Karina even extended to their off-camera lives, as he proposed marriage to Vlady while 2 or 3 Things... was still in production. After thinking it over for a period of time, she declined his offer. Though the film project went on, the emotional strains between the two definitely impacted its direction from that point forward.)

The consensus on where to rank this film among his work is hard to identify; some critics consider it among his best, none more so than Amy Taubin, who unequivocally calls it "the greatest film by the greatest post 1950s filmmaker" in the liner notes that accompany 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. For my money, the film has more work cut out for it to win my agreement, since several of the titles that precede this one in Godard's oeuvre have made a demonstrably larger impact on popular culture, and on me. Furthermore, there are a number of issues I have with the film, based on my first impressions, that I'll spell out below. But I'm willing to give it some time, further consideration and repeat viewings before I rule out the possibility of its greatness altogether.

One of the primary stumbling blocks that I have to overcome is the sense I get of Godard objectifying the woman Marina Vlady through his unusual technique (also used in earlier films, particularly Masculin Feminin) of speaking his lines into her ear through a hidden speaker for her to repeat or respond to on camera. The effect is uncanny, and somewhat unsettling as we see the method used repeatedly throughout the film, hearing Godard's characteristic interrogative syntax come at us through the eyes and mouth of a beautiful woman who obviously doesn't really see the world the way he does. When she speaks, the words we hear lack any weight of conviction - she becomes too much of a sock puppet, so to speak, and she's visibly distracted on numerous occasions as we see her glance away for a moment, exerting effort to quickly process what she's just heard and feed it back to the audience as quickly as possible, with subtle hints of strain to make it feel as "natural" as she can. Given the challenge of the task, she handles it all impressively and she's a good sport for going along with the experiment. Among the many striking visuals of the film (see this review for a great collection of screencaps), the most lingering memory is of the strikingly pretty, expansive facial features of Marina Vlady. Her limpid gaze that frequently pierces the lens, her knowing pursing of the lips, her barely contained dismay at the dual predicaments she finds herself in (as actor, and as a character in Godard's project - "though she feels as if she's in a play, she is anyway," to quote a popular song lyric of that time.)

But it still feels like at times Godard is trivializing her perspective, juxtaposing her domesticated, womanly preoccupation with fashion and children while the men around work with ham radio technology and discuss weighty matters of global political import like the military crisis in Vietnam. Of course, the men don't come off looking all that brilliant either, as the oblivious husband attributes the recent acquisition of his sharp new sports car to his wife's knack for thriftiness, when she actually works as a whore on the side to make the real money that paid for it.

In projecting his anxieties and opinions into the minds and mouths of his characters, Godard even goes so far as to put his dreams and politics into the mouth of a young boy, who recounts a potential nightmare scenario of twins about to push him off the ledge of a cliff into an awkward allegory of North and South Vietnam somehow reconciling their differences and reuniting into one whole nation again. (Or maybe that's just JLG having a prophetic vision of what would happen after the U.S.A. withdrew in 1974.)

Godard's overriding preoccupation throughout the film is that maintaining a self-respecting identity in modern society pushes citizens to make the most personal and moral sacrifices. Presumably it's a price that we pay unconsciously, even though Godard believes we should be outraged by it and somehow find it within ourselves to refuse to submit. The young housewives prostitute themselves sexually, but in his view (expounded also within the supplements to this disk, in which he engages in sustained debate with a prominent French government official on the topic) we're all prostitutes, we're all giving of our intimate selves for the sake of economic gain and social conformity.

While such claims are bold, memorable and clearly intended to generate a response from any viewer who's paying attention and takes seriously what Godard is saying, I'm still led to wonder if he could ever point to a time or culture when the basic point he was making didn't equally apply. Perhaps an imagined primitive humanity, living in roving bands of more-or-less self-sufficient hunter-gatherers, would be immune from such accusations. But his protest against the basic underpinnings of 20th century economies in developed nations is so broad, in labeling us all "prostitutes" as to become nearly meaningless. Yes, there's an overtone of exploitation and compromise of something sacred in just about every money- or power-based transaction, if one thinks it through rigorously enough. But how are we realistically supposed to escape such a conundrum?

From there, Godard turns his attention in countless different directions as he begins to reflect on the significance of choices he makes as a director in pointing his camera this way, or that. "Where is the truth, in full face or in profile?" he asks. This simple contemplation of the basic decision that an artist faces every step of the way in the creative process sets him on a path of spiraling, continuously escalating self-consciousness that deposits him on that razor's edge where subjectivity and objectivity collide with sufficient violence to shatter old worlds and give birth to new ones. The moment of realization is achieved by staring into the now-infinite depths of an espresso cup:
Where is the beginning? But what beginning? God created heaven and earth. But one should be able to put it better. To say that the limits of language, of my language, are those of the world, of my world, and that in speaking, I limit the world, I end it. And when mysterious, logical death abolishes those limits, there will be no question, no answer, just vagueness.
Behold, the Godardian cosmology.

For deeper analysis of this passage, here's another fine essay I just discovered.

And here's a wonderful fan-made video, mashing up clips from 2 or 3 Things... with "Repetition," a David Bowie song covered by the British post-punk band The Au Pairs.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) - #717

"What texture, originality, passion! What force! What lyricism!"

"I like it a lot too."

For two films released less than a week apart in March 1967, in the same country and with their marketing eyes presumably fixed on an overlapping segment of the cinema audiences of their time, it's hard to imagine that the contrasts in style and method could be any more stark than they are in Eric Rohmer's La collectionneuse (the previous title reviewed on this blog) and Jacques Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort. The former, a dour dissection of hedonistic narcissism and cruel sexual manipulation in a trio of unlikable, excessively privileged young people, was filmed on such a tight budget that the director would call "Action!" before he started the cameras rolling to save money on film. The latter, an expensive, exuberant, irrepressibly cheerful celebration of love and infatuation among beautiful working class people more adorable than they have the right to be, even as their relationships are shot through with poignant longing and a melancholy lack of resolution.

La collectionneuse is, in keeping with Rohmer's trademark style, a first-person narrative suffused with endless dialogues that consistently veer between articulate philosophizing on matters worthy of reflective consideration and preening self-absorbed justification of rank selfishness. After experiencing the global success of 1964's musical sensation The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy built upon that film's formula with brilliant innovations in crafting his follow-up. The Young Girls of Rochefort aims to seduce us in a flourish of bouncy, jazz-inflected show tunes, bright pastel fabrics, splashy sunshine, supple dancers twirling around indoors and out, and romantic flirtations simultaneously tantalizing and wistful.

Both directors were associated to some extent with the French nouvelle vague, even though that wave was definitely receding at the time, and some would argue that it had already long since pulled away from the shore. But Rohmer came from that Cahiers du cinema group, characterized by a more militant and critical approach to filmmaking, more famously championed by directors like Godard, Chabrol and Truffaut. For them, the movies were a life-consuming, ego-defining commitment to be contended for with fervent, quasi-religious zeal. Demy associated with the Left Bank wing of the French New Wave, which took a softer stance and had fewer qualms with stylistic choices that appealed to the masses, while also offering enough intrigue to please viewers with a more intellectualized appreciation of cinema. They regarded film as a relatively young medium, still establishing its place among the other respectable arts, which they sought to incorporate graciously into their own craft. I'm speaking in broad generalizations here, but I think the argument holds up well enough, if subjected to critical scrutiny. (Let me know if you think I'm off base!)

As far as a review of the film goes, this is a tough one for me to write about, because writing anything resembling a plot synopsis mostly has the effect of deflating the sense of euphoric enthusiasm I have coming off of yet another rewatch, my third in the past four days. And in between I've been listening to the soundtrack via my phone and its Bluetooth technology, where I just stream it on Hulu and let it play through my speakers at work and in my car. Even when the audio is just people talking to each other, the effect is irrepressibly musical.

But there is a story here to tie so many vibrant elements together, a tale of passionate hearts seeking their satisfaction in lovers idealized, imagined or remembered from long ago, wondering when or if their yearning will ever cease, pulled forward in time to pursue their dreams by an intuition that fulfillment is not all that far away, but all too humanly distracted by the mundane to remain attentive to just how proximate the end of their wandering could be. The sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac are indelibly charming, thoroughly delightful to look at, even if they're really not singing. Their on-screen mother Danielle Darrieux was such an unexpected pleasure for me to see again after I fell into such a deep infatuation with her five years ago after watching The Earrings of Madame de...

Gene Kelly also provides a serendipitous surprise. I had no idea he was going to be in this film until he just popped up, flashing his trademark toothy grin, gliding his limbs in all directions with immaculatly smooth agility. The freshly scrubbed and painted city, captured in saturated colors, is immortalized, along with its inhabitants as extras, by swooping cameras in a ravishing widescreen sprawl. There's that guy from West Side Story, one of the irrepressible carnies trying to keep their shimmy girls content and part of the crew, and all the rest of that splendid supporting cast, each one an epitome of sorts for some vital aspect of how we humans cope with the promises and disappointments of love. But mostly it's a movie that really moves itself along, physically and emotionally at a pace so brisk and playful that I hardly feel like sitting back and analyzing the motion all that deeply. Getting caught up in the swirl of sensations is more fitting with the film's intentions, and doing so preserves the element of surprise that will yield new delights and discoveries even after watching it several times through, as all great musicals are meant to be experienced - over and over again.

Given the amount of money (a lot) that was spent to realize Demy's and composer Michel LeGrand's vision in The Young Girls of Rochefort, it's fair to say that they and the talent assembled to make this film were all intent on crafting another hugely successful crowd pleaser that would reach well beyond the scope of the art house contingent. And while the original box office take apparently didn't quite live up to the studio's expectations, I can only conclude that their ambitions were brilliantly realized, at least in artistic terms. Maybe audiences that turned out to be a bit indifferent or unimpressed in its original run had already been over-exposed to big budget musical spectacles of this sort back when those types of films were released much more frequently than they are today.  To my eyes, The Young Girls of Rochefort looks like a miracle, and I'm happy to live in a world where such a marvel as this film exists. I only got around to watching it for the first time this week, and I immediately bonded with it. My biggest, and only, regret about it is that I've lived this many years without having the music and imagery and irrepressible spirit of this amazing production in my mind and heart. But it's there now, and the joy makes up for that lost time.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

La collectionneuse (1967) - #346

...a courtship of equal parts insolence and devotion.

Due to some quirks in his production schedule and the availability of the actors he chose, Eric Rohmer released the 3rd and 4th installments in his series of Six Moral Tales out of sequence. So since I'm going through the films in chronological order, I'm going to review Tale #4, La collectionneuse, ahead of Tale #3, My Night at Maud's, which didn't make it to the screen until two years later. Maybe his unintended schedule adjustment was all for the best, since both films were regarded in their time as rather successful, with the former serving as a strong artistic advance over the first two "episodes" (The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne's Career) and the latter went on to earn two Academy Award nominations and was also in the running for the Palme d'Or in 1969. I wonder if My Night at Maud's would have met with such acclaim if it had been made earlier in Rohmer's career, or if La collectionneuse would have made the same impact if it had been his final release of the Sixties instead?

In any case, the film that Rohmer debuted in March 1967 seems to be an ideal fit for its time, from the vibrant multi-colored rainbow text of the title card to its unblinking examination of the implications of the sexual revolution's "free love" ethos that swept through Western societies, especially the more affluent and younger segments of the population. Its title, translated into English simply as The Collector (though it's the only one of the Tales to retain its French original in the Criterion set), refers to a derogatory term attached to Haydée, an enticing young woman who's very bold in satisfying her sexual desires with numerous men, at a pace where "a new one every night" is perhaps only a slight exaggeration. The men who view her with such disdainful contempt are Daniel and Adrien, two unintended housemates who have agreed to share a rental for a few weeks in a friend's villa on the French Riviera. Haydée, an ex-lover of the man who owns the place, still has just as much right to be there as they do, and she's not at all reluctant to use it as her home base when she goes out on the town to pick up a new bed mate for the evening. Her cavorting brings more disruption into the scene than either the artist Daniel or the antiques broker Adrien were expecting during their sought after idyll.

Circumstances threw them together, and even though nobody is exactly happy with the arrangement, none are determined enough to force the issue. What develops over the course of time they spend together is a tantalizing and unpredictable erotic power struggle, with each of the men addressing Haydée with searingly blunt, highly intellectualized cruelty. For her part, Haydée is unfazed and shows no signs of feeling vulnerable or intimidated by their insults or mockery. Neither does she show much interest in seducing either of them, perhaps preferring to take a more adventurous route in adding new specimens to her trophy case than simply netting the proverbial fish in a barrel. She's more than willing to verbally joust and engage in activities that might in other situations lead up to sexual intimacies with them (early morning swims, sunbathing on isolated patches of the seashore, one on one picnics in the tall grassy meadow, and so on.) But the gamesmanship takes on multi-dimensional complexities with each new encounter, the stakes continually raised with each passing day. Whatever physical pleasures might be derived from the process of settling this conflict, the prize of victory being awarded not to the one whose advances are yielded to, but to the one who can succeed in forcing the the other to reverse their earlier vow of disinterest in hooking up with the other. In short, who can make who "want it" more than their adversary does.

So there's all that going on, the sexual politics, the psychological tensions and a deeper explorations of those values that are implied in the series being named Six Moral Tales. But what's very fascinating to me about this film, and the series in general, is how Eric Rohmer tells the story. All these films are famously told from the first person point of view, so there's a lot of voice over that happens in them. It's not a cheap cover up for flawed filmmaking. Rohmer's intentions are very clear, and it's especially helpful to see this from reading the literary adaptation of the film (translated into English from his own short story, and included as a bound paperback book in the gorgeous Criterion box set.) In each of these tales, he's trying to put us in the mind of a particular individual whose perspective has relevance and application to a broad number of viewers who might identify with, or conversely distance themselves from, that narrator, who is in any case a personality worth examining.

Here, the eyes through which we see the story of La collectionneuse play out belong to Adrien, the antiques dealer. He's a very proud individual, enormously egotistical and seemingly unaware of just how overbearing he is - or if not oblivious, so convinced of his own intelligence and superiority that he feels entitled to such a lofty self-esteem. The extent of his conceit is quite remarkable, and he seems to have met his match in Haydée, the very desirable young woman, who is in her own way a perfect antagonist to Adrien. They're each quite aware of their talents and gifts, neither of them burdened by a sense modesty or empathetic concern for the feelings of others, so there's this mutual attraction that almost instantly turns into competitive rivalry.

Rohmer also puts them (and us) in a very sensual location, a quiet and unspoiled bit of coastline on the French Riviera at the height of summer. This was his first color film and it was brilliantly shot by a gifted young cinematographer, Nestor Almendros who established himself here as a top talent. We'll be seeing a lot more of his work on this blog - with ten more films currently included in the Criterion Collection and quite a few more that could conceivably be added down the road. The atmosphere of La collectionneuse is hypnotic and seductive - the tranquility of the seaside, languid seaweed brushing over rounded pebbles under transparent rippling waves, the dappled sunshine and generally sumptuous living conditions, even if the villa itself is a bit weathered and basic in its accommodations. Haydée is comfortable in the skimpiest of bikinis while Adrien and Daniel lounge about in briefs, bare-chested in their bathrobes, fairly exulting in their trim and handsome bodies. All of these physical elements add up to a paradisaical atmosphere, with almost a petri dish quality to it, everything is so ideally perfect to run this experiment in modern ethics.

For the viewer, it's quite alluring to just bask in this environment that Rohmer and Almendros put on the screen.  The sensuality is so free and so candid that even those whose love lives aren't as unpredictable or multi-partnered can enjoy the experience of vicariously entering into this world and posing to ourselves the questions that Rohmer confronts us with. Is such untethered sexual availability something that we would that take advantage of, if given the opportunity? It's clear that Haydée and Adrien (and Daniel too) are capable of getting their egos stroked in multiple ways by simply displaying their personal charisma without having to exert themselves all that strenuously. But is there a point where they should begin to consider the damage that their pursuits are inflicting on others? What would our response be if such people became part of our life? Are we ourselves in some way (not necessarily sexual) "such people?" Rohmer, who was in his mid-30s when he made the film, also appears to be asking what's happening with this generation of young adults. Is it simply the availability of the birth control pill that accounts for all this casual, almost compulsive, sleeping around? Are the criticisms from Adrien and Daniel directed toward Haydée valid, or are they symptoms of a brutal and hypocritical male chauvinism that can't stand for seeing a woman conduct herself the way that some men might, if it were within their power to effortlessly recruit new sexual partners simply by making themselves available?

In denying that she's merely a "collector," Haydée alludes to a deeper psychic connection that she has in mind, in a discussion early on as the characters are getting to know each other. She's searching for something, she doesn't exactly know what, but to her at least, her promiscuity is not simply a lapse of values or a crude fixation on lusty appetites that many of us have been taught to be ashamed of. She's been led to believe that her course of action could lead to something important and vital in understanding her own humanity. Perhaps this is just a glossy, self-justifying rationalization for inherently selfish and exploitative behavior, perhaps she's truly embarked on a path to some kind of enlightenment. We never really know, and Rohmer makes no effort to let us see the situation from her perspective. Haydée remains an enigma to us, and especially to Adrien, who lingers in her presence, gets to know her even more closely than we can just watching it all on the screen but still can't crack the code.

As it turns out, Haydée is not the only collector so identified in La collectionneuse. We also meet Sam, a wealthy American bent on adding a rare and expensive Chinese vase to his hoard of precious objects. For the moment, he desires to purchase the item that Adrien has made available through his own connections. And while the commission is presumably substantial enough in itself, Adrien hopes that the transaction will lead to a financial partnership between him and Sam as he seeks funding for a gallery that he'd like to open. In the process of furthering this working relationship, Adrien recognizes Haydée's potential as a bargaining chip that he can toss into the mix. Her appeal to the salacious old man quickly made apparent, Adrien wastes no time in using her for leverage, and it was at this point that he went from being merely annoying to reprehensibly loathsome and hopelessly lost in his own vanity. Haydée is presumably confident and secure enough to go along with the proposition, which leads to a climactic moment in the relationship more shattering than any of the three had anticipated. And when Haydée and Adrien finally go their own ways in the films final moments, it's with a whole lot more of a whimper than a bang.