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Aki Kaurismaki and the Cinematic Meal

The following piece is based on notes I wrote for a lecture I delivered in my friend Sara Vaux’s “Cinematic Meal” class at Northwestern University. It is the second such lecture I’ve given (following my “John Ford and the Cinematic Meal” talk a few years ago).


Le Havre, a film I first had the pleasure of seeing at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2011, is a sweet and gentle comedy set in the French seaport town of the title. Although Le Havre is a French production, it’s writer and director is the Finnish Aki Kaurismaki, a true “citizen of the world” whose deadpan comedies and road movies have frequently earned him comparisons to Jim Jarmusch and Iceland’s Fridrik Thor Fridriksson. The film is something of a tribute to the history of French cinema: it features cameos by French screen legends Jean-Pierre Leaud and Pierre Etaix, and characters who are pointedly named “Marcel,” “Arletty” and “Becker,” not to mention that the town of Le Havre itself is the destination of the barge in L’atalante. One of the most surprising things about seeing Le Havre for the first time is realizing just how sweet and gentle it is in comparison to the rest of Kaurismaki’s filmography. While the Finn has made many humorous movies going back to the 1980s, when he first established his international reputation, there has frequently been a misanthropic quality to much of his work. His particular brand of comedy is bitter, bleak and what one might term, at the risk of geographical stereotyping, “quintessentially Scandinavian.” (To give but one example, when asked why he rarely moved the camera in his movies, Kaurismaki responded that he was frequently hungover and that moving the camera would make him sick.) Although this trademark deadpan humor is still present in Le Havre, it’s more sweet here than bitter, and there’s a sense that the director, who was 53-years-old when he made it, has mellowed over time.


Something that I didn’t notice until watching Le Havre for a second time, via Criterion’s terrific Blu-ray release, is the prominent role that food plays in the film. Meals have a certain symbolic resonance throughout the narrative as a result of Kaurismaki’s continually associating them with two things: community and matrimony. The main storyline in Le Havre concerns a bohemian shoeshiner named Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms in a reprise of his character from 1992’s La Vie de Boheme) who hides and aids a young illegal immigrant from Africa named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a political refugee trying to make his way to England. (We never learn exactly from where or what Idrissa’s fleeing — characterization here, as in much of Kaurismaki, is archetypal.) The very first time that Marcel meets Idrissa, Marcel asks him, “Are you hungry?” and offers the boy a sandwich. From that point on, not only Marcel but virtually everyone in the neighborhood where he lives will help to hide Idrissa from the French immigration authorities who are trying to capture and deport him. Two of the primary themes of the film then are racism and xenophobia and how they manifest themselves on an institutional level (e.g., through the government and the media). Kaurismaki also shows, with much humor and good cheer, how those bureaucratic institutions can ultimately be triumphed over on a local, neighborhood, human level: the vision of community Kaurismaki presents is a kind of fantasy-tinged utopia. Crucially, two of the people who are instrumental in coming to Marcel’s aid are a woman who owns a local bakery and a man who owns a local grocery store. Both of these characters are explicitly associated with food and are responsible for helping to feed and hide Idrissa.


The grocer and baker characters in Le Havre are essentially the opposite of the unhelpful grocer in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul – a German man who deliberately refuses to help the titular Moroccan immigrant (El Hedi ben Salem) by pretending that he cannot understand his request for margarine. Fassbinder’s message, which was very timely in 1974, was that a lot of contemporary Germans were pretending that the racist attitudes that drove the Nazi ideology of the past were obsolete but, in reality, they had just learned to bury such attitudes beneath the surface of a more superficially polite society. The deliberately contrived love story at the center of Fassbinder’s film — concerning Ali and Emma (Brigitte Mira), the much older German cleaning lady who marries him — was merely a tool that the director used in order to force his characters to reveal prejudices that would have otherwise remained hidden. Kaurismaki’s methodology and message in Le Havre are the opposite. The Finn is saying that, although elements of the contemporary French government and media may be racist — by equating immigrants with terrorists — when ordinary people come together face-to-face on a local level, they can be better than that. One French newspaper in the film idiotically claims that the young Idrissa may be “armed and dangerous” and “have connections to Al Qaeda.”  But Marcel, whose innocuous shoe-shining gets him labeled a “terrorist” by an irate shopkeeper, protects the innocent boy by lying to the police. “I am doing my duty,” Marcel tells the police inspector (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), sincerely adding, “I love society.”


One thing that I’ve learned over the past six years of being married is that the concept of a meal takes on a whole new meaning between a husband and wife. Eating is probably the single activity one spends the most time engaged in with one’s spouse. As a result of both preparing and consuming so many meals together, married couples often end up forging a kind of collective culinary taste. (My wife, for instance, was a vegan and I was a carnivore when we first met. We both eventually compromised and became dairy-and-egg-consuming vegetarians.) In Le Havre, there is a subplot that parallels the main plot involving Marcel’s relationship with his wife, the aforementioned Arletty (Kati Outinen), who is hospitalized early on with an unspecified debilitating illness. Their marriage is old-fashioned in the sense that Marcel works and Arletty is a homemaker. It is significant that both times Kaurismaki shows Arletty at home before she’s taken to the hospital, she is stricken with what look like stomach pains while preparing Marcel’s dinner. Marcel is not present on either occasion because he’s at the corner bar, a kind of “boys will be boys” scenario with which both husband and wife — who are depicted as being deeply and genuinely in love — are more than comfortable. Which brings me to the final point I’d like to make about Le Havre: the rituals of consuming alcohol and tobacco are arguably even more important to Marcel than consuming food. In order to explain this particular proletarian/bohemian mindset, I’d like to quote from the great Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel (who himself directed many of his best movies in France):


To continue this panegyric on earthly delights, let me just say that it’s impossible to drink without smoking. I began to smoke when I was sixteen and have never stopped. My limit is a pack a day. I’ve smoked absolutely everything but am particularly fond of Spanish and French cigarettes (Gitanes and Celtiques especially) because of their black tobacco.

If alchohol is queen, then tobacco is her consort. It’s a fond companion for all occasions, a loyal friend through fair weather and foul. People smoke to celebrate a happy moment, or to hide a bitter regret. Whether you’re alone or with friends, it’s a joy for all the senses. What lovelier sight is there than that double row of white cigarettes, lined up like soldiers on parade and wrapped in silver paper? If I were blindfolded and a lighted cigarette placed between my lips, I’d refuse to smoke it. I love to touch the pack in my pocket, open it, savor the feel of the cigarette between my fingers, the paper on my lips, the taste of tobacco on my tongue. I love to watch the flame spurt up, love to watch it come closer and closer, filling me with its warmth . . .

Finally, dear readers, allow me to end these ramblings on tobacco and alcohol, delicious fathers of abiding friendships and fertile reveries, with some advice: Don’t drink and don’t smoke. It’s bad for your health.

You can watch the trailer for Le Havre via YouTube below:

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
2. Welcome to New York (Ferrara)
3. Asphalt (May)
4. The Last Laugh (Murnau)
5. The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Shub)
6. Starred Up (Mackenzie)
7. Creative Writing (McClellan)
8. Here Comes the Devil (Bogliano)
9. Sunrise (Murnau)
10. The General (Keaton)

My Student Tomato-Meter: 2014 Edition

Longtime readers of this blog know that every year around this time I post an updated “student tomato-meter” showing the aggregated results of the ratings — on a scale from one-to-10 — that my students have given to every movie I’ve shown in my film studies classes. I’ve now taught 58 classes and shown a total of 237 unique movies over the past five-and-a-half years. Incredibly, I recently realized that I’ve shown at least one movie that was originally released during every single calendar year from 1920 through the present (boo-yah!). Below is a list of all the films I have screened to date, presented in chronological order by release date, along with the average ratings given by my students. Below that I’ve also included a list of the top 10 highest rated films. Enjoy!


The list in chronological order:

The Golem (Wegener/Boese, Germany, 1920) – 6.0
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1920) – 6.5
The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Sweden, 1921) – 7.3
Nosferatu (Murnau, Germany, 1922) – 6.5
Our Hospitality (Keaton, USA, 1923) – 8.3
Waxworks (Leni, Germany, 1924) – 5.1
The Hands of Orlac (Wiene, Germany, 1924) – 6.2
Sherlock Jr. (Keaton, USA, 1924) – 7.9
Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Soviet Union, 1925) – 5.1
The Last Laugh (Murnau, Germany, 1925) – 7.3
The Gold Rush (Chaplin, USA, 1925) – 8.0
The Navigator (Keaton, 1925) – 8.1
Seven Chances (Keaton, USA, 1925) – 8.2
The Freshman (Newmeyer/Taylor, USA, 1925) – 8.3
Faust (Murnau, Germany, 1926) – 7.0
The General (Keaton, USA, 1926) – 8.5
The End of St. Petersburg (Pudovkin, Soviet Union, 1927) – 5.0
Metropolis (Lang, Germany, 1927) – 6.6
Sunrise (Murnau, USA, 1927) – 7.0
Lonesome (Fejos, USA, 1928) – 6.7
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, France, 1928) – 7.3
Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, Soviet Union, 1929) – 6.0
A Cottage on Dartmoor (Asquith, UK, 1929) – 8.3
Earth (Dovzhenko, Soviet Union, 1930) – 3.6
City Girl (Murnau, USA, 1930) – 6.5
L’age D’or (Bunuel, France, 1930) – 6.6
M (Lang, Germany, 1931) – 8.1
City Lights (Chaplin, USA, 1931) – 8.4
Vampyr (Dreyer, Denmark/Germany, 1932) – 6.9
Duck Soup (McCarey, USA, 1933) – 6.8
L’atalante (Vigo, France, 1934) – 6.7
Top Hat (Sandrich, USA, 1935) – 8.6
My Man Godfrey (La Cava, USA, 1936) – 8.5
Grand Illusion (Renoir, France, 1937) – 7.0
The Awful Truth (McCarey, USA, 1937) – 8.5
Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks, USA, 1937) – 9.4
Alexander Nevsky (Eisenstein, Soviet Union, 1938) – 5.0
Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, USA, 1938) – 8.3
The Rules of the Game (Renoir, France, 1939) – 7.1
Stagecoach (Ford, USA, 1939) – 7.7
The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, USA, 1939) – 8.4
The Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch, USA, 1940) – 7.4
How Green Was My Valley (Ford, USA, 1941) – 6.8
The Lady Eve (Sturges, USA, 1941) – 8.3
Citizen Kane (Welles, USA, 1941) – 8.3
Cat People (Tourneur, USA, 1942) – 5.0
The Palm Beach Story (Sturges, USA, 1942) – 7.5
Casablanca (Curtiz, USA, 1942) – 7.6
Ossessione (Visconti, Italy, 1943) – 5.2
The More the Merrier (Stevens, USA, 1943) – 8.5
To Have and Have Not (Hawks, USA, 1944) – 7.5
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, USA, 1944) – 8.0
Double Indemnity (Wilder, USA, 1944) – 8.1
Detour (Ulmer, USA, 1945) – 7.2
Rome, Open City (Rossellini, Italy, 1945) – 7.2
Brief Encounter (Lean, England, 1945) – 8.3
The Big Sleep (Hawks, USA, 1946) – 6.0
My Darling Clementine (Ford, USA, 1946) – 7.3
The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, USA, 1946) – 8.4
Pursued (Walsh, USA, 1947) – 7.1
Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947) – 7.6
Body and Soul (Rossen, USA, 1947) – 7.6
The Lady from Shanghai (Welles, USA, 1947) – 7.9
Dead Reckoning (Cromwell, USA, 1947) – 8.2
Germany Year Zero (Rossellini, Italy/Germany, 1948) – 7.4
Fort Apache (Ford, USA, 1948) – 7.5
Bicycle Thieves (de Sica, Italy 1948) – 8.0
The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, UK, 1948) – 8.3
Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, USA, 1948) – 8.8
The Third Man (Reed, UK, 1949) – 8.0
White Heat (Walsh, USA, 1949) – 8.3
A Letter to Three Wives (Mankiewicz, USA, 1949) – 8.4
Devil’s Doorway (Mann, USA, 1950) – 7.3
Los Olvidados (Bunuel, Mexico, 1950) – 7.5
The African Queen (Huston, 1951) – 8.3
Umberto D. (De Sica, Italy, 1952) – 6.8
Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, USA, 1952) – 8.8
Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953) – 6.7
Tokyo Story (Ozu, Japan, 1953) – 6.7
The Naked Spur (Mann, USA, 1953) – 7.0
Strangers on a Train (Strangers on a Train, USA, 1953) – 7.8
The Band Wagon (Minnelli, USA, 1953) – 8.0
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (Tati, France, 1953) – 8.1
Pickup on South Street (Fuller, USA, 1953) – 8.2
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, USA, 1953) – 8.3
Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1954) – 7.0
Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Japan, 1954) – 8.3
Rear Window (Hitchcock, USA, 1954) – 8.9
All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, USA, 1955) – 8.1
Pather Panchali (Ray, India, 1955) – 6.4
Aparajito (Ray, India, 1956) – 6.6
Bigger Than Life (N. Ray, USA, 1956) – 6.8
The Searchers (John Ford, USA, 1956) – 7.4
A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956) – 8.0
An Affair to Remember (McCarey, USA, 1957) – 8.7
Touch of Evil (Welles, USA, 1958) – 7.7
Some Came Running (Minnelli, USA, 1958) – 7.7
Vertigo (Hitchcock, USA, 1958) – 8.9
Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, France, 1959) – 6.8
Pickpocket (Bresson, France, 1959) – 7.3
Rio Bravo (Hawks, USA, 1959) – 8.0
North By Northwest (Hitchcock, USA, 1959) – 8.6
The 400 Blows (Truffaut, France, 1959) – 8.8
Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959) – 9.2
L’avventura (Antonioni, Italy, 1960) – 7.4
Breathless (Godard, France, 1960) – 7.8
Les Bonnes Femmes (Chabrol, France, 1960) – 8.0
Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960) – 8.8
Viridiana (Bunuel, Spain, 1961) – 5.8
Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, France, 1961) – 6.8
Le Doulos (Melville, France, 1962) – 7.1
Vivre sa Vie (Godard, France, 1962) – 7.2
Cleo from 5 to 7 (Varda, France, 1962) – 7.4
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, USA, 1962) – 8.3
8 1/2 (Fellini, Italy, 1963) – 6.5
Black Sabbath (Bava, Italy, 1963) – 7.1
Contempt (Godard, France, 1963) – 8.3
Shock Corridor (Fuller, USA, 1963) – 8.4
Onibaba (Shindo, Japan, 1964) – 8.0
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy, France, 1964) – 8.2
Alphaville (Godard, France, 1965) – 6.0
Pierrot le Fou (Godard, France, 1965) – 8.3
The Pornographers (Imamura, Japan, 1966) – 6.9
Point Blank (Boorman, USA, 1966) – 7.0
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone, Italy, 1966) – 8.8
David Holzman’s Diary (McBride, USA, 1967) – 6.9
Le Samourai (Melville, France, 1967) – 8.0
Play Time (Tati, France, 1967) – 8.2
2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, USA, 1968) – 7.6
My Night at Maud’s (Rohmer, France, 1969) – 7.8
The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, USA, 1969) – 8.1
Le Boucher (Chabrol, France, 1970) – 7.5
Minnie and Moskowitz (Cassavetes, USA, 1971) – 5.2
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman, USA, 1971) – 7.0
Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, USA, 1971) – 7.7
A New Leaf (May, USA, 1971) – 8.0
Solaris (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1972) – 6.9
Love in the Afternoon (Rohmer, France, 1972) – 8.6
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, Germany, 1973) – 7.1
The Mother and the Whore (Eustache, France, 1973) – 7.4
Badlands (Malick, 1973) – 7.6
The Long Goodbye (Altman, USA, 1973) – 7.8
Young Frankenstein (Brooks, USA, 1974) – 7.6
Black Christmas (Clark, Canada, 1974) – 8.2
Chinatown (Polanski, USA, 1974) – 8.2
Blazing Saddles (Brooks, USA, 1974) – 8.4
Night Moves (Penn, USA, 1975) – 8.1
The Irony of Fate: Or Enjoy Your Bath! (Ryazanov, Russia, 1975) – 8.5
Mikey and Nicky (May, USA, 1976) – 6.4
Taxi Driver (Scorsese, USA, 1976) – 8.8
One Way Boogie Woogie (Benning, USA, 1977) – 3.4
Annie Hall (Allen, USA, 1977) – 6.6
Days of Heaven (Malick, USA, 1978) – 7.3
Killer of Sheep (Burnett, USA, 1979) – 7.8
Popeye (Altman, USA, 1980) – 5.2
Raging Bull (Scorsese, USA, 1980) – 8.3
The Road Warrior (Miller, Australia, 1981) – 7.4
Rock in Reykjavik (Fridriksson, Iceland, 1982) – 6.3
The Slumber Party Massacre (Jones, USA, 1982) – 6.8
Blade Runner (Scott, USA, 1982) – 7.6
The Thing (Carpenter, USA, 1982) – 8.3
Sans Soleil (Marker, France, 1983) – 6.2
Stranger Than Paradise (Jarmusch, USA, 1984) – 6.2
After Hours (Scorsese, USA, 1985) – 6.7
Bad Blood (Carax, France, 1986) – 7.1
The Dead (Huston, USA/UK, 1987) – 7.8
The Thin Blue Line (Morris, USA, 1988) – 7.8
A Short Film About Love (Kieslowski, Poland, 1988) – 8.4
Drugstore Cowboy (Van Sant, USA, 1989) – 8.2
Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990) – 9.2
Close-Up (Kiarostami, Iran, 1991) – 7.6
The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax, France, 1991) – 8.0
The Player (Altman, USA, 1992) – 8.1
Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992) – 8.6
Deep Cover (Duke, USA, 1992) – 8.9
The Bride With White Hair (Yu, Hong Kong, 1993) – 5.1
Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993) – 6.3
Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993) – 8.1
Dazed and Confused (Linklater, USA, 1993) – 8.2
Menace II Society (Hughes/Hughes, USA, 1993) – 8.2
The Piano (Campion, New Zealand, 1993) – 8.6
Ed Wood (Burton, USA, 1994) – 6.8
Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994) – 7.9
Dead Man (Jarmsuch, USA, 1995) – 8.1
A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996) – 5.8
The Mirror (Panahi, Iran, 1997) – 5.1
The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, Iran, 1997) – 7.2
L.A. Confidential (Hanson, USA, 1997) – 9.0
The Bird People in China (Miike, Japan, 1998) – 6.6
Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999) – 5.4
Nowhere to Hide (Lee, S. Korea, 1999) – 7.5
Audition (Miike, Japan, 1999) – 7.6
Ravenous (Bird, UK/USA, 1999) – 8.0
Needing You (To/Wai, Hong Kong, 2000) – 7.1
In the Mood for Love (Wong, Hong Kong, 2000) – 7.4
The Day I Became a Woman (Meshkini, Iran, 2000) – 7.5
Failan (Song, S. Korea, 2000) – 8.0
Dancer in the Dark (Von Trier, Denmark/Sweden, 2000) – 8.1
Yi Yi (Yang, Taiwan, 2000) – 8.4
JSA: Joint Security Area (Park, S. Korea, 2000) – 8.4
Avalon (Oshii, Japan/Poland, 2001) 7 .8
Mulholland Dr. (Lynch, USA, 2001) – 8.3
The Devil’s Backbone (Del Toro, Spain/Mexico, 2001) – 8.6
Far From Heaven (Haynes, USA, 2002) – 7.6
Infernal Affairs (Lau/Mak, Hong Kong, 2002) – 7.8
The Tracker (De Heer, Australia, 2002) – 7.9
Save the Green Planet (Jang, S. Korea, 2003) – 7.0
Oldboy (Park, S. Korea, 2003) – 8.6
Memories of Murder (Bong, S. Korea, 2003) – 8.8
Dumplings (Chan, Hong Kong, 2004) – 6.4
The Island of Black Mor (Laguionie, France, 2004) – 8.1
Moolade (Sembene, Senegal, 2004) – 8.2
3-Iron (Kim, S. Korea, 2004) – 8.8
Before Sunset (Linklater, USA/France, 2004) – 9.1
The Proposition (Hillcoat, Australia, 2005) – 8.1
Grizzly Man (Herzog, USA, 2005) – 8.1
A History of Violence (Cronenberg, Canada/USA, 2005) – 9.1
A Scanner Darkly (Linklater, USA, 2006) – 8.0
Offside (Panahi, Iran, 2006) – 8.1
Once (Carney, UK, 2006) – 8.8
The Host (Bong, S. Korea, 2006) 8.9
Zodiac (Fincher, USA, 2007) – 9.1
The Headless Woman (Martel, Argentina, 2008) – 6.1
Me and Orson Welles (Linklater, USA, 2008) – 7.9
The House of the Devil (West, USA, 2009) – 8.1
The Hunter (Pitts, Iran, 2010) – 6.8
The Social Network (Fincher, USA, 2010) – 8.5
Sleeping Sickness (Kohler, Germany, 2011) – 6.6
Drive (Refn, USA, 2011) – 8.1
Holy Motors (Carax, France, 2012) – 8.6
Spring Breakers (Korine, USA, 2012) – 9.4
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch, USA, 2013) – 6.3
Jimmy P. (Desplechin, France/USA, 2013) – 7.7
Before Midnight (Linklater, USA, 2013) – 7.8
Nymphomaniac (Von Trier, Denmark/Germany, 2013) – 9.2
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, USA, 2014) – 8.9
Boyhood (Linklater, USA, 2014) – 9.8

A countdown of the top 10 highest ranked films:

10. L.A. Confidential (Hanson, USA, 1997) – 9.0
9. Zodiac (Fincher, USA, 2007) – 9.1
8. Before Sunset (Linklater, USA/France, 2004) – 9.1
7. A History of Violence (Cronenberg, Canada/USA, 2005) – 9.1
6. Nymphomaniac (Von Trier, Denmark/Germany, 2013) – 9.2
5. Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990) – 9.2
4. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959) – 9.2
3. Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks, USA, 1937) – 9.4
2. Spring Breakers (Korine, USA, 2012) – 9.4
1. Boyhood (Linklater, USA, 2014) – 9.8


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Land Ho! (Katz/Stephens)
2. Modern Times (Chaplin)
3. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
4. Advanced Style (Plioplyte)
5. The Piano (Campion)
6. His Girl Friday (Hawks)
7. While the City Sleeps (Lang)
8. Norte, the End of History (Diaz)
9. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
10. Faust (Murnau)

Odds and Ends: Norte, The End of History and Manakamana

Norte, The End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines, 2013) – Gene Siskel Film Center / Rating: 9.7


Chicago movie buffs should make it a point to see Lav Diaz’s monumental Norte, the End of History, which will have its local premiere this Saturday, September 6, as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s ambitious Filipino Cinema series (and then screen only once more, on Saturday, September 27). This 4-hour-plus transposition of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to the contemporary Philippines is easily one of the most important film events of the year. Diaz, a profoundly modern filmmaker, reminds us why Dostoevsky’s 19th-century novel will always be sadly relevant — because pretentious and confused young men will always come up with half-baked philosophical theories to justify their supposed moral superiority. Diaz’s real masterstroke, however, is to essentially split Dostoevsky’s protagonist into three separate characters: Fabian (Sid Lucero) is the chief Raskolnikov figure, a law-school dropout who commits the horrific and senseless double murder of a loan shark and her daughter; Joaquin (Archie Alemania), a family man and laborer, is falsely accused of the crime and sentenced to a lengthy prison term; Eliza (Angeli Bayani), Joaquin’s wife, must consequently roam the countryside and look for odds jobs in order to provide for her and Joaquin’s young children. By having Dostoevsky’s themes of crime, punishment and redemption correspond to three characters instead of one, Diaz retains the Russian author’s trademark first-person psychological intensity while also offering a panoramic view of society that more closely resembles that of Count Tolstoy. Please don’t let the extensive running time scare you: like Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, another favorite work of art that Norte resembles, not a minute of screen time here is wasted.

The complete schedule for the Filipino Cinema: New Directions/New Auteurs series can be found here.

Manakamana (Stephanie Spray/Pacho Velez, USA/Nepal, 2013) – On Demand / Rating: 8.5


Let’s face it: the vast majority of what pass for feature documentaries these days are merely works of video journalism. In these “talking heads”-studded extravaganzas, which are increasingly clogging up precious space in America’s arthouse theaters, content is everything. The best that can be said about their cinematography and sound design is that they are “functional.” I happen to like some such movies but I also know damn well that I am likely to get the same thing out of watching them on an iPhone that I will get out of watching them on a 40-foot cinema screen. That’s why it brings me great pleasure to say that I recently caught up to Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana, a non-fiction film full of remarkable sights and sounds that proves again, if further proof is needed, that Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab is almost single-handedly rescuing the documentary form by producing non-fiction films of real aesthetic value. As in the SEL’s mesmerizing 2012 fishing-boat doc cum horror movie Leviathan, the focus here is more experiential (and experimental) than informational. The premise is that the camera stays inside of a 5×5-foot cable car as it makes 11 journeys, carrying visitors to and from the sacred “Manakamana temple,” through the remote Himalayan mountains in Nepal. Each of the 11 journeys was captured in a single 10-minute take on 16mm film and all of the edits between shots have been cleverly disguised by cover of darkness (a la Hitchcock’s Rope). The result is that viewers get to casually hang out with a wide swath of humanity — cell-phone-wielding teenagers, chatty elderly women, jamming musicians, sacrificial goats and even a couple of American tourists — and are asked to simply observe them against the background of an ever-changing jungle landscape. A fascinating, immersive experience.

Manakamana is now available for rental or purchase on various digital platforms, including iTunes.

CIFF 2014: 12 Most Wanted

Here are a dozen of the titles I’d most like to see turn up at the 50th(!) Chicago International Film Festival in October. Even if you don’t know or care anything about the Chicago International Film Festival, consider this a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-looking-and-sounding movies that should hopefully be turning up soon at a theater near you. All but the Alain Resnais and the Pedro Costa films played this past May at Cannes, which struck me as having an unusually strong lineup, or at least an unusually strong lineup of movies by directors I admire.

Bird People (Pascale Ferran, France)


One of my favorite French films of the 21st century is the adaptation of the second (and more obscure) version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley made by Pascale Ferran, a female director about whom I know virtually nothing. Her latest, Bird People, got high marks from critics when it screened in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes. It’s an intriguing-sounding comedy about an American businessman (The Good Wife’s Josh Charles) on a 24-hour layover in Paris. The entire film apparently takes place in Charles de Gaulle airport and a nearby Hilton Hotel. This is not a prequel to Takashi Miike’s excellent Bird People in China.

Charlie’s Country (Rolf De Heer, Australia)


This is the third part of a trilogy of films by Dutch-born Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer. The first two parts include a folkloric meditation on Aboriginal characters in Australia’s pre-colonial past (Twelve Canoes) and a powerful study of the conflict between European settlers and Aboriginal characters in the outback during the early 20th century (The Tracker). Charlie’s Country, like its predecessors, also stars David Gulpilil (who co-wrote the script and won the best actor award in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes), but tackles issues of racism and the legacy of colonialism from the vantage point of the present.

Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France/USA)


An aging actress (Juliette Binoche) performs in a play that made her a star 20 years previously — only in a part supporting that of the main character who is now incarnated by an up-and-coming actress (Chloe Grace Moretz) reminiscent of her younger self. This sounds an awful lot like All About Eve to me but early critical notices have compared this to meta films like Persona. Writer/director Olivier Assayas has always been good with actors and in addition to the exciting prospect of seeing him reteam with Binoche (after the sublime Summer Hours), this also promises to be something of a breakthrough for Kristen Stewart, who plays a personal assistant to Binoche’s character.

Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland/France)


The single movie I most want to see play at CIFF is Jean-Luc Godard’s latest (and, some have whispered, last) feature — a 3-D essay that has something to do with a talking dog and the conflict between a married couple. Goodbye to Language was given a rock-star’s welcome at Cannes — in spite of the fact that the 83-year-old director didn’t attend — and generated more positive reviews than usual (many of which marveled at Godard’s use of 3-D technology) for one of the world’s most divisive filmmakers. Still, in spite of the praise, in spite of the Cannes Jury Prize, in spite of the fact that 20th Century friggin’ Fox picked up distribution rights, the question arises: will Chicagoans ever have the chance to see this in 3-D, the way it was intended to be seen? None of the Chicago venues that have screened Godard’s latest works in the past 20 years (Facets, the Music Box, the Siskel Center, etc.) are equipped to show movies in 3-D. If CIFF doesn’t scoop this up, it will be a tragedy for local cinephiles.

Horse Money (Pedro Costa, Portugal)


The great Portuguese director Pedro Costa returns to narrative filmmaking (or at least docu-fiction) for the first time in nearly a decade with this continuation of his celebrated Fontainhas trilogy (are you ready to upgrade that box-set, Criterion — preferably to Blu-ray?). This film, which recently snagged Costa the Best Director prize at the Locarno Film Festival, has something to do with Ventura, the elderly Cape Verdean-immigrant protagonist of Costa’s Colossal Youth from 2006, wandering around a hospital and the ruins of the former slum where he used to live (the destruction of which was documented in 2000’s superb In Vanda’s Room). In Colossal Youth, Ventura was a non-actor essentially playing himself but part of what made that film so fascinating was Costa’s insistence on lighting and framing his physiognomy so that he resembled Woody Strode in John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge. I can’t wait to see what Costa does with actor and character here. Intriguingly, Variety said this was “less overtly difficult” and even more “striking” than Costa’s other Fontainhas missives.

Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina)


Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso burst onto the international scene with his formidable 2004 experimental/narrative hybrid film Los Muertos. His penchant for long takes, minimal dialogue and narrative ambiguity made his work destined for the condescending “slow cinema” tag. Yet the fact that his latest stars Viggo Mortensen (a fine actor and a bona fide movie star) also caused some speculation that the result might be some sort of sell-out. Fortunately, advance word from Cannes has pegged this movie — about a father and daughter journeying to an “unknown desert that exists in a realm beyond the confines of civilization” as nothing other than a typically spellbinding Lisandro Alonso film.

Life of Riley (Alain Resnais, France)


Alain Resnais’s final film, another in a series of Alan Ayckbourn adaptations, racked up accolades and a couple of prizes when it premiered in Berlin in February. Less than a month later, its creator — one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers — had passed away at the age of 91. Since this theater-set tale is centered on a protagonist who only has a few months left to live, it will be hard not to view it as something like a last testament, although one should remember that this would have been true of many of Resnais’s films (including such death-haunted masterworks as Love Unto Death and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet). This stars the inevitable Sabine Azema, Resnais’s frizzy-haired wife and muse, who has been his regular leading lady for decades.

Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, Canada/USA)


Like all “late Cronenberg,” Maps to the Stars has typically divided critics, but it has its share of ardent supporters, and the premise (a dark satire of a stereotypical Hollywood family that also marks the first time the director ever set down a tripod on U.S. soil) is irresistible. The impressive cast includes Robert Pattinson, Carrie Fisher, John Cusack, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams and Julianne Moore, the last of whom nabbed the Best Actress trophy at Cannes for playing an unhinged actress. If this turns up at CIFF, it will likely only be as a “special gala presentation.”

Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, UK)


Mike Leigh is England’s greatest living filmmaker and Mr. Turner, his first film since 2010’s superb Another Year, sounds like another winner. A dream project of Leigh’s for many years, this biopic of 19th English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) supposedly investigates the artistic process against a richly detailed historical backdrop in a manner similar to Topsy-Turvy, one of the director’s masterpieces. Spall won Best Actor at Cannes for what has been described as a towering performance. He’s always been a superb character actor and I look forward to seeing what he can do in a leading role.

Mommy (Xavier Dolan, Canada)


A lot of commentators thought this Canadian melodrama had the Palm d’Or sewn up after it premiered at Cannes but, come awards night, writer/director Xavier Dolan found himself “only” sharing third place with Jean-Luc Godard. That’s probably for the best because, at 25-years-old, Dolan’s best work surely lies ahead of him. Dolan makes stylistically and emotionally brash films that have earned him comparisons to everyone from Godard to Pedro Almodovar to Wong Kar-Wai. Many feel that this character study, which focuses on a single mother, her delinquent teenage son and a mousy neighbor, is Dolan’s most assured work to date. As an admirer of the director’s first three films, that makes me eager to check this out.

Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali)


Bamako, Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s previous film, was a complex, heady, experimental, and all-around disturbing indictment of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. This belated follow-up, about jihadists taking over a rural town in norther Mali, didn’t win any awards when it debuted at Cannes but was considered by some to be the very best film in the Official Competition. The Variety review called it “a stunningly shot condemnation of intolerance and its annihilation of diversity, told in a way that clearly denounces without resorting to cardboard perpetrators.” Given the singular brand of political filmmaking on display in Bamako, this sounds, at the very least, like a provocative ride.

Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)


As someone who admired each of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s four previous features but felt that he really made a quantum leap with the last one (2011’s masterful Once Upon a Time in Anatolia), I couldn’t be more excited about this three-hour-plus, Palm d’Or-snatching follow-up. The plot concerns an actor-turned-hotel owner and his tempestuous relationships with his young wife and recently divorced sister. Expect a slow pace, impeccable cinematography (a former photographer, Ceylan has arguably the best compositional eye in contemporary cinema) and lots and lots of psychodrama.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Boyhood (Linklater)
2. Champagne (Hitchcock)
3. Out of the Past (Tourneur)
4. Four Lovers (Cordier)
5. Deep in the Woods (Jacquot)
6. Venus in Fur (Polanski)
7. Manakamana (Spray/Velez)
8. It Felt Like Love (Hittman)
9. Jealousy (Garrell)
10. Melo (Resnais)

Odds and Ends: A Summer’s Tale and Life Itself

A Summer’s Tale (Rohmer, France, 1996) – Theatrical Viewing / Rating: 7.9


In much the same way that the Humphrey Bogart-vehicle Dead Reckoning can be seen as the quintessential film noir — by being a virtual checklist of all of the genre’s conventions — in spite of the fact that it’s not very good, so too can A Summer’s Tale be deemed the “ultimate Eric Rohmer movie” in spite of falling far short of the master’s best work. All of the key Rohmer ingredients are here (which might be part of the problem): familiar from La Collectionneuse, Pauline at the Beach and The Green Ray are the beach locale during summertime; from all six of the Moral Tales is the dilemma of a young man (Melvil Poupaud) torn between multiple — and vastly different — women; and from countless other Rohmer films is an academic protagonist (this time a mathematician and musician studying “sea shanties”) sidetracked by l’amour fou. Poupaud, half-way between being the child actor discovered by Raul Ruiz and the mature adult performer in movies by Arnaud Desplechin, Xavier Dolan and others, is appealing, but Amanda Langlet steals the show as his ambiguous love interest/friend Margot. The theme of thwarted desire is as keen and amusing as ever but those familiar with Rohmer’s oeuvre will know that he’s done this kind of thing much better elsewhere. Even within the “Tales of the Four Seasons,” the late film cycle to which it belongs, this isn’t within hailing distance of such masterworks as A Tale of Winter or An Autumn Tale (though it’s infinitely preferably to the dull A Tale of Springtime). Still, diehard Rohmer fans will want to seek out A Summer’s Tale: it never got a proper theatrical release in the U.S. until now and this new HD restoration renders Rohmer’s photography of the Dinard locations as sunny and as appealing as one could hope for.

Life Itself (Steve James, USA, 2014) – On Demand / Rating: 7.0

Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel

I recently and belatedly caught up, via “video on demand,” to Life Itself, Steve James’s much-lauded bio-doc/adaptation of Roger Ebert’s much-lauded memoir of the same title. While I found much to admire within it (I have too much respect for both Ebert and James not to), I also was not as impressed as I hoped I would be. Life Itself feels almost like two separate documentaries (one about Ebert’s life, the other about his death) that have been mashed together but that never quite cohere into a completely satisfying whole. The film about Ebert’s death is the better of the two: scenes of his final months, with his loving wife Chaz beside him in the hospital, in rehab and at home, while occasionally painful to watch, are the heart of the movie and really reveal director James’s humane and guiding hand. The poignancy of these scenes, which underscore the theme of “dying with dignity,” are where one feels the deepest connection between filmmaker and subject. The rest of Life Itself — consisting of talking-head interviews, archival clips from old episodes of Siskel and Ebert, an Ebert sound-alike narrating from the great critic’s memoir, etc. — is more anonymous and feels like standard made-for-PBS fodder; as enjoyable as much of that stuff is, it never feels like more than an unnecessary reduction of an already fine book. Life Itself begins with Ebert’s now-famous quote about cinema being an empathy-generating machine. While the two hours that follow generate more than their fair share of empathy, and are therefore well worth seeing, prospective viewers also shouldn’t be expecting another Hoop Dreams.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. “I’m Almost Not Crazy…” (Ventura)
2. Love Streams (Cassavetes)
3. Oculus (Flanagan)
4. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Lynch)
5. The World of Jacques Demy (Varda)
6. A Room in Town (Demy)
7. Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (Rappaport)
8. Nailbiter (Rea)
9. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (Nelson)
10. Maniac (Khalfoun)

Celluloid Flashback: Dance, Girl, Dance

The following is a transcript of a lecture I gave about Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance as part of Facets Multimedia’s Night School series “Heroine Addicts” in 2011.


Hello, my name is Michael Smith and I am a “heroine addict.” It is my great pleasure to present to you tonight Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance. When Facets asked me if I was interested in selecting a movie to show for this particular series — with the only stipulation being that it had to be centered on a female protagonist — Dance, Girl, Dance was the first film that came to mind. I think this is an extremely interesting movie for a number of reasons. First of all, it came out in 1940 when the Hollywood studio system was at its peak. Yet, unlike a lot of other classic films from the “golden age of Hollywood,” no critical consensus has solidified around it attesting to its ultimate worth. This is a movie that a lot of critics and historians love while, at the same time, a lot of others do not. For instance, when Dance, Girl, Dance received its belated DVD premiere in 2007, the New York Times DVD critic Dave Kehr (a very knowledgeable historian who usually knows what he’s talking about) stated very bluntly in his review: “It isn’t very good.” However, the very same year that Kehr wrote this, Dance, Girl, Dance was also one of the 25 films chosen for preservation by the Library of Congress for its “historical, cultural or aesthetic significance.”

I think that one of the primary reasons why Dance, Girl, Dance remains divisive today is that instead of appealing to a broad general audience the way that classic movies by, say, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford or Howard Hawks do, Arzner’s film is more likely to appeal instead to different subcultures, each of which appreciates it for vastly different reasons. For instance, in the 1970s, Dance, Girl, Dance was rediscovered by the first wave of feminist film critics in America. They singled out this particular movie as as her masterpiece because it was the one that seemed to function most explicitly as a feminist text. I’ll talk more about what that means in a moment. However, these same feminist critics either ignored or downplayed the fact that Dorothy Arzner was a lesbian. So, in the 1990s when “queer theory” became popular in academic circles, Arzner’s films were reinterpreted as being critical of heterosexual relationships as opposed to just being critical of gender inequality as they had been in the 1970s. In 2007, when the movie came out on DVD for the first time, it was released as part of a five-disc DVD box set of films starring Lucille Ball. So the company that put out the DVD was essentially marketing it squarely towards fans of the T.V. show I Love Lucy and saying, “Here’s your chance to see Lucy in a rare starring role in a motion picture.”


If you don’t care anything about feminist or queer film theory, however, and if you don’t care about I Love Lucy, I bet you guys are still going to love this movie for being an outrageously entertaining melodrama that features great dance numbers, juicy performances and a climactic cat fight between the female leads that is absolutely irresistible. In this film, you are going to see two ballet dancers who start off as friends but eventually become bitter rivals — 70 years before Black Swan, mind you! The main character is potrayed by Maureen O’Hara (in one of her earliest movie roles), and she plays the innocent ingenue type. Lucille Ball is her rival —  a ballet dancer who ends up becoming a burlesque dancer because, of course, that’s where the money is. Ball’s character is also older and more of a vamp and a mantrap than O’Hara’s character is. In fact, all you really need to know about these two women can be ascertained from their names: Maureen O’Hara’s character is named Judy O’Brien, Lucille Ball’s character is named “Bubbles.”

Dance, Girl, Dance also has a very interesting pedigree. Like a lot of great Hollywood films from this era, there was a bizarre confluence of talented people who came together to make it happen: the screenplay was based on a story by Vicki Baum who wrote Grand Hotel. It was produced at RKO Pictures by none other than Erich Pommer — the great German producer who got his start in the silent era producing such classic Expressionist movies as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis. (Like a lot of people who worked in the German film industry at that time, Pommer ended up immigrating to the U.S. in the 1930s to escape the rise of Nazism.) The cast of the movie is also great. Ball and O’Hara would, of course, go on to greater success: Ball would have her legendary career in television, and O’Hara would become John Ford’s favorite leading lady. In 1941, the year after Dance, Girl, Dance was released, Ford cast her in How Green Was My Valley and he would use her repeatedly over the next 16 years as his ideal representation of Irish femininity in films like Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Long Gray Line and The Wings of Eagles. The men who play the romantic interests here are very good too. They are Louis Hayward, the suave British actor best known for playing “The Saint” in a series of spy movies from the 1930s, and Ralph Bellamy, who is probably best remembered for playing losers in screwball comedies like The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday. Fortunately, Bellamy didn’t always lose the girl (as you will see tonight).


Finally, I’d like to say a few words about Dorothy Arzner, who I think was a great director. She was the first woman to direct a talkie and she was the first woman to join the Director’s Guild of America. She was not, however, merely a pioneering female director, she was a pioneer period: Arzner invented, for instance, the “boom microphone” when she was directing an early Clara Bow talkie entitled The Wild Party in 1929. Arzner wanted Bow to be able to move freely about the set while delivering her lines instead of having to stand in one place. So Arzner had her sound crew attach a microphone to a fishing pole so that they could follow Bow around with the mic dangling over her head. I think the most remarkable thing about Arzner’s work though is just how she was able to stamp her distinctive personality onto her films — because there is a pronounced stylistic and thematic continuity between them. Her movies very explicitly examine the role of women in society, a quality that is apparent even in their titles: The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, Working Girls, Craig’s Wife, The Bride Wore Red and, of course, Dance, Girl, Dance. These films focus on the struggles of independent women and it is interesting to note that Arzner had a knack for casting great actresses and proto-feminists in their first starring roles (e.g., Katharine Hepburn in Christopher Strong and Rosalind Russell in Craig’s Wife).

The most strong-willed female character Arzner ever created, however, and the one who is probably best defined as a feminist, is Judy O’Brien in Dance, Girl, Dance. There is a scene at the end of this movie that feminist critics love because O’Brien verbally criticizes the male spectators of the dance performances within the film using language that seems quite forward and shocking for 1940. This climactic speech has been interpreted by many as Arzner’s implicit critique of the male spectators of Dance, Girl, Dance as well. The most important concept in feminist film criticism is Laura Mulvey’s formulation of “the male gaze” (i.e., because the vast majority of movies are directed by men, they presuppose a male viewer). What Dance, Girl, Dance does, in a way that I think is not only aggressive and radical but delightful, is to subvert the traditional male gaze of the director and viewer in various ways. This is most obvious in Judy’s astonishing speech, which I’d like to quote for you in its entirety:

Go on, laugh, get your money’s worth. No one’s going to hurt you. I know you want me to tear my clothes off so you can get your 50 cents’ worth. 50 cents for the privilege of staring at a girl the way your wives won’t let you. What do you suppose we think of you up here with your silly smirks your mothers would be ashamed of? We know it’d be the thing of the moment for the dress suits to come and laugh at us too. We’d laugh right back at the lot of you, only we’re paid to let you sit there and roll your eyes and make your screamingly clever remarks. What’s it for? So you can go home when the show’s over, strut before your wives and sweethearts and play at being the stronger sex for a minute? I’m sure they see through you. I’m sure they see through you just like we do!


The last thing I’ll say about Dorothy Arzner is that, towards the end of her life, she was interviewed a lot and she frequently spoke about the compromises she had to make throughout her career. For example, she once said, “When I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.” So Arzner often spoke of Hollywood as the kind of place where she had fought and lost a lot of battles. But, from my perspective (as an independent filmmaker in the 21st century), I’d like to say that I only wish I could lose the kind of battle that would result in a movie like Dance, Girl, Dance being made. Thank you very much. I hope you enjoy the show.

You can watch Dance, Girl, Dance in its entirety via Warner’s Video on Demand program: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=it0xtwy9LKQ


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