Saturday, December 31, 2011

Year's End Reflections #3

Another year, another 100 movie reviews posted by me, either here or over on CriterionCast.com. That's my short take on what my third year of dedicated work in studying the films of the Criterion Collection (and their spin-off lines) has produced, though it would be a mistake to just boil the experience down to numbers. I've learned a lot, interacted with quite a few people who share my interests in these great cinematic achievements and carved out a little niche for myself in what turned out to be a much bigger and more complex world of movie-blogging than I ever suspected. Writing for this blog has taken me through a short but pivotal stretch in film history, 1958-1960. TV came of age in that era, pushing studios to challenge old taboos and censorship practices in order to give paying customers something they couldn't see in their living rooms. With The 400 Blows and Breathless, the Nouvelle Vague began to break open new territory for not only what cinema could address but also how stories were told. The increasing use of widescreen compositions in films like Spartacus, The Hidden Fortress and L'avventura broadened perspectives, literally and perceptively. At the same time, B-movies like The Blob, Fiend Without a Face and First Man into Space brought garish thrills and campy humor, as well as a love of the craft expressed through shoestring budgets, into the conversation. Ingmar Bergman parted ways with Gunnar Fischer and began his celebrated partnership with Sven Nykvist, neither perhaps suspecting the fruits that working collaboration would bear over the next two decades.

As for myself, reading over my thoughts from a year ago, at the end of 2010, much of what I expressed there carries over without any needed alterations. I'm still working regularly for Criterion Cast, cranking out my weekly Journey Through the Eclipse Series, though not quite as punctually over the past few months as that Monday afternoon deadline I tried to maintain ate into my weekend time, producing tensions that are best avoided when one has the option. As things stand, I count around 43 Eclipse films (including the upcoming Jean-Pierre Gorin set) that I have yet to review, which, combined with some new releases, should give me at least one more full year of weekly Eclipse columns to publish there. After that, I imagine I'll stay connected with the site in some way; we'll see what happens a year from now!

Ryan Gallagher, editor of CriterionCast.com, has been very accommodating and I really appreciate his work there, along with the invitation to become a regular contributor to both the site and, less frequently, their fantastic podcast where I've enjoyed a few guest appearances, discussing films like Paths of Glory, The Burmese Harp and in a trio of year-ending episodes, quite a few other titles as we listed our favorite Criterion releases of 2011, a summary of this year's Eclipse Series offerings, and our wish lists for blu-ray upgrades for existing titles in the year ahead. I figure on spending a few more Friday evenings skyping with the guys as the program continues following various arcs, themed months that link otherwise disparate films into a thought-provoking conversational context. Let me also mention another online program, The AuteurCast, hosted by Rudie Obias and West Anthony. They requested my input to discuss Rainer Werner Fassbinders The Marriage of Maria Braun, and I had a great time conversing with them. Here's hoping we can do it again in 2012!

As I peek at what's ahead for me here, I'm excited to keep moving forward into the amazing decade's worth of films from the Sixties. 1961 beckons, the year I was born, as it turns out, so now I'm finally getting into films that were released within my lifetime. Yojimbo/Sanjuro, Last Year at Marienbad, Viridiana are right around the corner. I'll soon be wrapping up The Human Condition trilogy and, sadly, only two more Ozu films remain for me to review. After that, lots of Godard, further New Wave explorations from France, Japan, eastern Europe, Bergman's "Silence of God" trilogy, and so many more classics I'm eager to revisit or discover. In this timeline, cinema is just on the verge of leaping into ever more radical and innovative forms of expression! And of course, Stan Brakhage will be there quietly doing his silent, visual thing to wrap it up as I reach the conclusion of each calendar year.

Just yesterday I finished up the films of 1960, including Brakhage's The Dead, plus a few titles that I normally wouldn't have covered here from the Essential Art House and Hulu Plus subsidiaries that Criterion utilizes in different ways. Going forward, I intend to make the Criterion films on their Hulu Plus channel part of my viewing discipline, though I'm not going to promise a review of each film here. I just don't see myself having enough time to dedicate to all those installments of the Zatoichi series as they come up in my timeline!

Speaking of my timeline, I'm willing to share it as a Google Doc (read only) if anyone is interested in checking out the spreadsheet I've made to keep track of all the Criterion-related films. Come on, share my obsession, I know you're curious. Just get a message to me if you want to take me up on the offer.

Finally, let me wrap up with a simple word of thanks to those who've interacted with me here via comments, over on Facebook, Twitter, GetGlue, MUBI or (most recently) Letterboxd, through the CriterionCast.com website or private email messages. Your opinions, observations and recommendations mean a lot to me, as does just knowing that we share this connection of appreciating some of the greatest works of art created over the past hundred years or so. Even when I'm just sitting here in my basement watching a DVD or blu-ray by myself, through the online cinephile community we're all a part of, I know I'm not truly alone!

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Dead (1960) - #517

The Dead became my first work in which things that might very easily be taken as symbols were so photographed as to destroy all their symbolic potential. The action of making The Dead kept me alive. - Stan Brakhage


The first recognizable object one sees when watching The Dead, Stan Brakhage's only film produced in 1960, is the marble foot of a statue, that as the camera pans up the figure turns out to belong to a brooding, shrouded sentry, perhaps an angel, a monk, or the Grim Reaper himself, standing atop a grave, seemingly taunting us by presenting a handful of coins that, despite the apparent generosity, we could not remove from his grip without destroying them. The tomb is one of many located in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, the most famous and densely occupied graveyard in Paris. Some individuals buried there with Criterion connections include Max Ophuls, Simone Signoret, Yves Montand and Pierre Brasseur. The remains of Marcel Proust, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, among many others (more than a million actually) are interred there as well. That's interesting background trivia, but none of it mattered at all to Stan Brakhage, of course, he was just there for the visuals (and perhaps some other more personal, spiritual or artistic reasons that I can't begin to speculate on, though his quote above offers a glimmer of insight.)

Commentators more deeply immersed in Brakhage's work and world than I offer some helpful insight, so I'm including a few links about The Dead that readers can follow if they want to learn more. My impressions can be read after the clip, which runs a bit under 11 minutes if you want to watch The Dead yourself.


Immediately after cutting away from the stern, cross-armed statue, we see the face of a living man (maybe Brakhage himself? it wouldn't surprise me) in that characteristic averted glance head tilt reminiscent of the pose of sculpted angels that populate the cemetery and reappear so frequently in The Dead. The juxtaposition of figures, cold dead stone and warm living flesh, sets the film in motion as we careen through the heavily wooded, densely packed graveyard, eerily rendered in negative exposures, superimposed overlays and skewed fragments that undercut the somber serenity such environments generally try to convey. Further disorientation occurs as we're suddenly and inexplicably transported down the course of a river, staring at the pedestrians and bystanders gathered on its banks. The restless camera never stops or gets close enough to any of the objects it captures to provide much in the way of detail, and the people who cross the visual path of its lens are mere ephemeral blurs, not individuals in any meaningful sense. Most of them are just sitting there, passing through time, not doing anything all that remarkable, interesting or worthy of further reflection. One gets the sense that they're just biding their time here on earth, before they too take their place among The Dead

But while I have your attention, and as my thoughts (and presumably yours) are at least for a moment inclined to ponder our destined mortality, let me offer brief capsule reviews of a few other 1960 films I watched recently as I wrap up that year's Criterion-related output here on my blog. Though all were created quite independently of each other, they have in common a theme of survival in the face of extremely hostile conditions.


Kapo, part of the bare-bones Essential Art House series of DVDs, is one of five films that Criterion released exclusively in this format before the line went dormant a couple years ago. The others are Mayerling, Le jour se leve, Gervaise and Last Holiday. All except Kapo are now out of print, though they don't seem too difficult to find, nor are they very expensive, at least the last time I checked. Kapo's most noteworthy attribute is that it was one of the first films that sought to explore life inside a Nazi concentration camp. Though Resnais' Night and Fog predates Kapo by a good five years, that film was a documentary that used archival footage and new material shot at Auschwitz. Kapo gives us a fictional story that begins with a Jewish teenager's removal from her presumably safe home in Paris, after the city had been occupied by the Germans. Her transformation from a culturally refined and innocent schoolgirl who inadvertently escapes her appointment with the gas chamber, only to become a cold and manipulative enforcer within the evil hierarchy of the death camp, is both brave and chilling. Susan Strasberg gives a very compelling performance as she endures depression and the loss of all hope, before capitalizing on the advantages that her youthful beauty and compartmentalized morality can provide in her determination to stay alive at all costs. As stark and surprising as the premise is, especially for such a pioneering work in the "fictionalized Holocaust" sub-genre, Kapo turns back to conventionality for the sake of a more palatable ending, as she becomes the noble martyr figure that we've come to expect from Holocaust and similar war crimes horrors movies. Still, for a film of its era to go as far as it does in portraying the nasty venality that undoubtedly took place within the camps, I have to give my respects to Gillo Pontecorvo, who built on his journalistic experience to make this film, and went on to direct The Battle of Algiers, an even more courageous and innovative work than what he accomplished in Kapo.

Letter Never Sent is currently available on Criterion's Hulu Plus channel, or you can follow this link to see the whole thing, without subtitles, on YouTube. But it was announced as a March release earlier this month, so I look forward to revisiting this visually enthralling film in blu-ray hi-definition next spring. I first discovered it back in August while browsing around on Hulu, happy to see another Soviet film from the "thaw" period following the death of Stalin, when Kruschev decided for whatever reason to lighten up on the censorship and allow filmmakers a little more leeway in their storytelling. I'd seen The Cranes are Flying earlier in the year and was intrigued to see what Mikhail Kalatozov did as a follow-up to that impressive film. Letter Never Sent simply astonished me as it took the modest premise of a geology expedition to Siberia in directions I would have never anticipated. A dramatic opening shot of the exploration party being left behind in the trackless wilderness is just a foretaste of visual splendors to come, but they're mostly of a horrifying nature, at least for those of us who dread the idea of being caught in the midst of a raging forest fire with no easy means of escape. When that conflagration breaks out, the story lines based on budding romance and small rivalries within the group are mostly subsumed as they find their common purpose in banding together and getting through the ordeal intact. An ideological strain of strength-through-collectivism pervades Letter Never Sent (this is, after all, a Mosfilm production,) providing a fascinating contrast to the rank individualism that motivated Edith/Nichole in Kapo. Different adversaries call for different measures, I suppose. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what others have to say about this impressive piece of work when it comes out on disc in a few months. Hopefully I will have a chance to give it a more extensive review on CriterionCast.com, should I be fortunate enough to have an advance copy sent my way.


Finally, another Hulu Plus exclusive (for now, though I really really hope that Criterion finds a way to release it on blu-ray or DVD), Kaneto Shindo's The Naked Island. Though not nearly as kinetically stimulating as Letter Never Sent, it's every bit as visually wondrous as it chronicles the rigorous life of a modern-day peasant family eking out their subsistence on a parched little outcropping in the middle of Japan's Inland Sea. The parents and their two sons have hours of toil to get through each day, as they have to row their boat ashore multiple times a day just to get a few buckets full of water for their crops. Each trip between their island and the harbor shore is punctuated by other tasks: tending to the crops, preparation of meals, bathing, fishing, feeding the goat, laboriously clearing the roots of trees to create a new little patch of arable soil.

The film takes us through the course of seasons, gorgeously capturing the accompanying rituals and duties as they shift over the course of a year. There's no dialog, just music and naturalistic sound effects, the voices of children singing and and adults chanting. You'll either find it unbearably tedious or magnificently enthralling, and your response will largely be predicated on your ability to simply slow yourself down long enough to adjust to The Naked Island's languid rhythms. Though I'm casually lumping it in with Kapo and Letter Never Sent, there's obviously a huge chasm of existential threat between the situations presented in those two films and Shindo's portrayal of a simple rustic existence that is based on his own experience as a child. After all, the family could have relocated and taken on a more ordinary, less arduous type of labor to make ends meet. But it hardly requires narrative explication to make clear to the viewer that these people were born to this way life. Despite the inherent frustrations, the inevitable daydreams of greater comforts and the completely forgivable breakdown that one of the parents succumbs to (briefly) toward the end of the film, The Naked Island is a testimony of honor and an inspiring challenge to all of us to summon up our own courage, look within and fully inhabit the life that we're each called to live in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. It's a perfectly fitting film to wrap up my third full year of blogging through the Criterion Collection (both past and perhaps future entries.)

Friday, December 23, 2011

Zazie dans le Metro (1960) - #570

What's all this mess?

Zazie dans le Metro is a film I wish I'd seen thirty years ago, or maybe even further back, when I was still a teenager. Its wild blend of candy-colored surrealism, cartoon zaniness, playful linguistic twists and rampant unpredictability might have changed my life back then, or at least opened up some lines of inquiry that for various reasons never presented themselves to me in my earlier-in-life experiences. As it was, when I was in my late teens and early twenties, playing punk rock and wrestling with the anarchist impulses that time and experience gradually sublimated into more socially constructive outlets, a film like Zazie might have galvanized my creative focus in a whole new direction, away from music and literature, and more toward cinema in its more experimental and provocative manifestations.

Back then I had become aware of Bunuel's early surrealist films, and I dabbled in the overwrought wordplay of writers like James Joyce and Jack Kerouac in his more manic, unhinged moments. I'd begun to see deeper levels of subversive wit and existential commentary in the brash antics I enjoyed in Looney Tunes and Three Stooges shorts. I'd watched my share of head-trip stoner movies with their pseudo-philosophical banter and self-consciously dream-like sequences, and seen even more films in a stoned condition myself, which may have had more of an adverse effect on my appreciation of cinema than I ever suspected at the time. Zazie dans le Metro takes the best aspects from these occasionally incompatible cultural streams and whips them into a frenzied concoction with a distinctly French flavor to it, creating a film quite singular in my experience, an explosive, joy-inducing romp that I'll just have to watch with some frequency to make up for all that lost time.

When I learned earlier this year that Criterion was going to release Zazie in tandem with another, much later film from Louis Malle (1975's Black Moon,) I didn't look too deeply into the matter. Black Moon intrigued me when I learned of it's quasi-sci-fi attributes and the fact that Malle filmed it on his private estate. A spectacle of vintage mid-70s self-indulgence began to take root in my imagination, and I made a priority of watching Black Moon fairly soon after I brought it home. Knowing that Zazie was coming up soon in my timeline for this blog, I reserved it for watching within its chronological context, so this past week was my first viewing of a film that I vaguely expected would be something akin to Albert Lamorrisse's The Red Balloon, only with more amped-up silliness, owing to hints of its reputation and the undeniably goofy but charming cover illustration by Yann Legendre. You know, a playful tour of Paris from a delightful child's-eye point of view: wistful, innocent, charming, slightly nostalgic, that kind of thing.

But my presumptuous expectations were favorably challenged and raised a couple weeks ago when my colleague Travis George at CriterionCast.com listed Zazie dans le Metro as his second-favorite Criterion release of 2011. (Check out the podcast or visit the website to see all of our picks.) His comments informed me that I was in for something quite a bit more raucous and invigorating than the sweet, slightly cock-eyed kids film that I thought Louis Malle had crafted.

To call Zazie dans le Metro a kids film is neither inaccurate nor misleading, but in order for that to be so, we have to clear our minds of the normal assumptions that accompany that label. Based on a popular, linguistically innovative novel that tweaks the French language in a way that reminds me a bit of Anthony Burgess' neologisms in A Clockwork Orange (just based on what I've read about Raymond Queneu's original text,) Zazie presents us with a foul-mouthed, sarcastic, rambunctious girl around ten years old, who's left in the care of her Uncle Gilbert for a couple of days so that her mother can go have a fling with some loverboy she's meeting in Paris. The uncle has free time during the day to show Zazie around the city because he works as a dancing female impersonator at a Parisian drag club. Zazie is immediately disappointed upon her arrival because, as a girl from the country, her dreams of the big city center around riding on the Metro subway line, which happens to be closed due to a worker's strike. Gilbert's attempt to substitute aimless taxi rides around the city quickly prove to be only annoying futilities to Zazie. Her boredom with adult manners and hypocrisies is easily provoked, even though Uncle Gilbert and Aunt Albertine are hardly the old fuddie-duddies that often push kids in that direction. Still, Zazie becomes restless, runs away from her distracted guardians, and we're swiftly embarked on a crazy excursion through some of the most-filmed sites of Paris and a few of its back alleys too. The pace is one of continual acceleration that doesn't stop until lecherous pedophilic pursuits are thwarted, old Tom & Jerry chase scenes get re-enacted complete with exploding props and blackface collateral damage, characters dangle from the steel girders of the Eiffel Tower spouting pseudo-profundities that still carry meaning despite their airy silliness:


...and a culminating food fight in a restaurant overleaps the usual messy slapstick hijinx of such scenes, devolving into a set-shredding chaos that predates The Who, Jimi Hendrix or any other rock god guitar smashers you'd care to name by a good five or six years at least.


And that's just a surface summary of what goes on in Zazie dans le Metro. Poke a little further into it, as I've only begun to myself, and there's no shortage of disturbing, unsettling matters to consider. Zazie's the product of a broken home, one that was fractured by her father's death at the hands of the mother, for misdeeds that are left unspecified but imply some nasty repulsive drunken conduct on his part, probably involving his daughter. The relationships between adults, be they lovers, friends, adversaries or random strangers on the street, are all tainted by various shades of venality, repression and deceit, to the point that Zazie's willful non-conforming brattiness seems like a perfectly reasonable response to the sordid environment her caretakers have led her into. And through it all, besides her ripping vocal commentary, Zazie's trademark gap-toothed grin beams at us from the screen, taking unmasked and undiluted delight in giving these insane grown-ups the dismissive brush-off and childish taunts they deserve. Even though there's not a single moment in Zazie dans le Metro when the titular protagonist closes her eyes and sticks out her tongue, Legendre's cover art perfectly captures her essence and attitude all the same, in a way that Zazie's middle finger or any other gesture might be too easily misconstrued.



Eclipse Review: Late Autumn

Next: Brakhage '60

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Shoot the Piano Player (1960) - #315

Sometimes it helps to spill your guts to a stranger.

For early viewers of The 400 Blows who were eager to take in Francois Truffaut's follow-up to his impressive and epoch-marking debut, Shoot the Piano Player proved to be just a bit too bleak, puzzling and creatively adventurous for them to conveniently figure out and get on board with. That's what I'm surmising anyway, as I learn of the film's failure to capture the affections of its audience back in 1960 when it opened to muted shades of indifference - quite a contrast to the warm enthusiasm generated by the first installment of what came to be known as The Adventures of Antoine Doinel. Shoot the Piano Player's critical and box office struggles turned out to be quite an unfortunate outcome, since they seem to have exercised an inhibiting effect on Truffaut for the remainder of his career. After scripting the first draft of Breathless and then taking on this film, sourced from an American crime novel, Truffaut basically swore off doing any more pictures featuring gangsters or the criminal underworld. I have a lot to learn about Truffaut's subsequent body of work, so I'll suspend judgement until I'm much better informed, but by my reckoning, he had sufficient grasp of his material, injecting enough humor and unpredictability to keep the genre conventions fresh. But perhaps cranking out this kind of world-weary, verging on the nihilistic product was just a tightrope act that he knew he'd be unable to sustain over the long run.

Shoot the Piano Player tells a story about Charlie Koller, a tentative, inhibited musician doing what he can to put the tragic failure of his former life behind him. Back when he was famed concert pianist Edouard Saroyan, his incessant need for emotional reassurance and excessive absorption in his career drove his charming but fragile wife Theresa over the edge (literally) - especially as she unsuccessfully wrestled with the guilt incurred by her own contributions to his professional advancement. The clip below, about a third of the way into the film, provides some of this back story. Starting around the 4:30 mark, it features one of Truffaut's and cinematographer Raoul Cotard's characteristically eye-catching and memorable sequences: Edouard's hesitant approach to the studio of his prospective employers, with five different frames angling in to catch his moment of dread as he contemplates whether or not to push the doorbell, followed by the wistful retreating tracking shot of the beautiful anonymous violinist whose audition preceded his own.

 

The collapse of Edouard's world following the end of his marriage magnified his tendencies toward over-analyzing his emotional impulses to the point of paralysis, and it's that all too human characteristic, as much as it is his musical talent, that connects the lives of the classical artist he was and the barroom dance floor tinkler known as Charlie Koller that he's become. Charlie doesn't have a whole lot going for him - no commitments, just enough money to scratch by and no more expectations resting upon him than to show up at the local cafe the next evening and lively up the place with his boogie woogie piano stylings. Though he's underachieving badly, as we first get to know him while the story opens, that seems to be just the way he likes it.

But his momentary tranquility is just a mirage, unable to hold its illusory power as circumstances change around him. Chico, his long estranged brother who's caught up in petty crime, barges in on Charlie, blowing his cover and complicating matters as he evades the pursuit of two thugs he gypped out of their share of loot from a robbery. His no-strings liaisons with the pretty hooker Clarisse, who works the cafe crowd every bit as expertly as her musician friends at their respective professions, are disrupted when Charlie develops sincere feelings for Lena, a virginal, earnest waitress who knows his history and reconnects him to the still tender, barely suppressed wounds of his past. It's an emotionally risky and rigorous process for him to go through as he reverses all the efforts he's taken to construct a new identity, a less vulnerable concept of himself. But when Lena's honor is offended and her life threatened, the meek pianist springs into action, at least temporarily, before his double-mindedness reasserts itself and leads to a nearly fatal moment of hesitation. And when his little brother Fido gets ensnared in a hostage scheme cooked up by Chico's gangster adversaries, Charlie finally realizes that he can no longer retreat into the passive detachment that's been his primary coping mechanism to deal with an unbearable load of pain and regrets.

From that point, the action transfers out of Paris to a pleasantly surprising snowy rural locale as Charlie/Edouard reunites with his brothers, ostensibly to let the heat die down as he's now a wanted man, but also to unconsciously await the beautifully tragic denouement of his interlude with Lena. Truffaut wraps up the story, and Charlie's futile effort to reconstruct his life, with bittersweet resignation instead of the open-ended menu of possibilities that present themselves in Antoine Doinel's piercing gaze at the end of The 400 Blows, where viewers could (for awhile anyway) script their own sequel, as optimistic or pessimistic as they'd like. The moments of Shoot the Piano Player that stick with me most though are Charlie's numerous voice-over monologues, taking me into the consciousness of a man I can relate to myself as a guy who's prone at times to over-thinking a situation until the moment of spontaneous ignition has passed and all that's left is a sad impotent fizzle. Charlie's dilemmas run the range from comic to catastrophic, with far higher (though fictional) stakes in the long term than anything I've had to deal with in real life for quite a few years. Still, he's a convincingly rendered, ultimately sympathetic character despite his frequent failures to launch. And as a man prone to withdraw into the anonymity and social indifference that an exploitable talent like his musical ability makes possible, he sounds a note of caution to creative-obsessive types to stay accessible and attuned to the important people in our lives.

Truffaut himself saw this film as verging on parody, going by comments he made in a pair of interviews featured on the Disc 2 supplements. However he might want to categorize it, Shoot the Piano Player abounds in cinematic adventurousness and humor as Truffaut reaches into his bag of tricks at random moments, as much to the delight of modern viewers as it was to the consternation of those who may have preferred a softer, more predictable palette back in 1960. As it turned out, his inherent sincerity and an unresolved disdain for criminality in general apparently created too much internal discomfort for him to continue venturing down the path of glamorizing that way of life over the course of his artistic career, despite the deep admiration and inspiration that crime-based noir films generated in Truffaut and his Nouvelle Vague peers. Perhaps because it stands as such a distinctive entry in his filmography, Shoot the Piano Player has a contingent that considers it their favorite among his works. I have way too much to discover to draw that conclusion, but there's plenty to enjoy here on its own terms, whatever reservations Truffaut himself may have had looking back.