Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Three Ages (Keaton)
2. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
3. The Hurt Locker (Bigelow)
4. A Christmas Tale (Desplechin)
5. A Man Escaped (Bresson)
6. Breathless (Godard)
7. Days of Heaven (Malick)
8. Modern Times (Chaplin)
9. Sex and the City 2 (King)
10. The Night of the Hunter (Laughton)

Bunuel’s First Golden Age

It was 80 years ago tomorrow that Luis Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or received its scandal-plagued world premiere in Paris. During the first screenings, fistfights broke out in the aisles and protesters threw ink at the screen. Surrealist paintings that had been commissioned to adorn the lobby especially for the occasion were vandalized. Within weeks, the film was banned by the French government and would not be seen again for many years. When L’Age d’Or belatedly premiered in the United States in the 1970s, it was still sufficiently shocking for Pauline Kael to label it “pornographically blasphemous,” strong language even if she did mean that as a compliment. When I’ve shown the film to students in Intro to Film classes, I’ve witnessed firsthand the power it still has to provoke and offend. This isn’t so much because of the content; after all, there’s not much in the way of “sex and violence” that kids today haven’t seen. Rather, it’s the ideas behind L’Age d’Or that are still shocking (and I suspect they always will be).

L’Age d’Or represents both the full flowering of Surrealist filmmaking as well as the artistic peak of Bunuel’s very own first golden age as a director. As a budding Surrealist, Bunuel had already made a mark on the cinema with his debut, the notorious, Salvador Dali co-scripted short film, Un Chien Andalou, in 1929. The end of this first phase of Bunuel’s career came all too soon, only three years later with the hilarious made-in-Spain pseudo-documentary, Land Without Bread. Unfortunately, it would then be another 15 years before Bunuel would direct under his own name again, when he emerged as an unlikely master of subversive Mexican melodramas. But luckily for lovers of the avante-garde, for one brief moment in Paris of 1930, the stars aligned, Bunuel found patronage in a wealthy Count and seized a narrow window of opportunity to make a deathless masterpiece for which the world wasn’t quite ready.

I often define a Surrealist film for my students as “a film that subverts the conventions of narrative continuity filmmaking through bizarre, dreamlike imagery and the destruction of narrative causality.” (I invented this definition because I couldn’t find another one that I found as useful.) Although L’Age d’Or fits the definition well, it also comes very close at times to imitating the kind of Hollywood narrative continuity conventions it is ultimately mocking, much more so than the nonsensically accessible Un Chien Andalou. I believe it is precisely this sense of familiarity, a feeling of being simultaneously so close to — and yet paradoxically so far away from — comprehending L’Age d’Or, that many viewers find unnerving.

L’Age d’Or does have a plot, of sorts; it’s about a man and a woman who are trying to make love and, for one reason or another, are continually prevented from doing so. The use of “interruption” as a narrative device would recur throughout Bunuel’s career, perhaps utilized most spectacularly in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. (In that sublime comedy, a group of people are, for various reasons, repeatedly prevented from eating dinner together.) But the narrative proper of L’Age d’Or is preceded by a prologue that many viewers find confusing; it begins as a documentary about scorpions. The narration of this crude-looking but real documentary footage tells us that the scorpion’s tail has five prismatic joints culminating in a final, poisonous stinger. The function of this prologue, aside from the fact that it’s bat-shit crazy in the best Surrealist tradition, is that it serves as a commentary on the structure of L’Age d’Or: Bunuel’s film also has five parts — the prologue, three “narrative segments” and an unexpected epilogue that serves as the director’s own poisonous stinger.

L’Age d’Or‘s second “segment” is an absurd story about the founding of Rome, where the rest of the movie will take place. When the third segment introduces us to the protagonists, the unnamed Man and Woman played by Gaston Modot and Lya Lys, we see them attempting to make love outside in broad daylight, writhing passionately in the mud. After being forcibly pried apart by members of respectable society, the third segment sees the Man taken away in police custody and the Woman forced to return home to her bourgeois family. While being dragged away, the man kicks a dog, steps on an insect and violently assaults a blind man. The Man and the Woman are reunited at her home in the fourth segment when he shows up at a party hosted by her parents. They venture outside together and attempt to make love in the garden but are again interrupted by a servant who informs the Man he has received a phone call inside. After the Man leaves the Woman to take the call, we see her alone in the garden, sublimating her desire by fellating the toe of a statue. Later, the Man sees the Woman turning her amorous attentions to another man, a much older orchestra conductor, which causes our hero to fly into a fit of rage. The fifth segment culminates with the Man returning inside and throwing things out of a second story window, including a bishop, a burning tree and a giraffe.

The epilogue follows and, even for a film full of dream logic, is a complete non-sequitur. It begins with a title card summarizing the plot of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, in which the depraved acts of a 120 day murderous orgy are described. Bunuel then cuts to the survivors of the orgy emerging from a castle, led by a man who bears a strong resemblance to Jesus Christ. One of the victims of the orgy, a young woman in a great deal of pain, emerges just behind them. The Christ figure turns to console her and leads her back inside the castle. We then hear the young woman scream, presumably for the final time, and see the Christ figure re-emerge from the castle alone. Bunuel then abruptly cuts to the film’s final shocking image, a crucifix with long scalps dangling from it, accompanied by a blast of triumphant, religious-sounding music. We can only assume the scalps belong to the female victims of the 120 day orgy.

Bunuel’s message is plain; we have repeatedly seen the consequences of sexual repression throughout the movie and how the stifling of one’s natural impulses can lead to violent repercussions. With the final scene implying that Jesus Christ is a serial rapist and murderer, Bunuel suggests that the Catholic church is the single most repressive institution of western civilization. Of course, no description of L’Age d’Or can do justice to watching it and luxuriating firsthand in Bunuel’s awesome cinematic poetry. The film may be “about” repression but the written language is incapable of explaining the soul-stirring quality of some of the film’s best moments. One of my favorites: the Woman sits in front of her bedroom mirror, inexplicably sees the reflection of a cloudy sky behind her and feels a gust of wind seemingly blow through the mirror. On the soundtrack, we (logically) hear the sound of the wind as well as (illogically) a cowbell and a dog barking, aural traces of earlier scenes that weave together and unify various threads from Bunuel’s mad anti-narrative.

I’ll end this post with my own non-sequitur, albeit one that’s more delicious than poisonous. From his wonderful memoir My Last Sigh here is Bunuel’s personal martini recipe:

“The day before your guests arrive, put all the ingredients – glasses, gin, and shaker – in the refrigerator. Use a thermometer to make sure the ice is about twenty degrees below zero (centigrade). Don’t take anything out until your friends arrive; then pour a few drops of Noilly Prat and half a demitasse spoon of Angostura bitters over the ice. Shake it, then pour it out, keeping only the ice, which retains a faint sense of both. Then pour straight gin over the ice, shake it again and serve.”

Sacre Blu!

French behemoth Gaumont, a studio that has been around since the dawn of motion pictures and produced some of the greatest movies of all time, has recently begun releasing high-quality Blu-ray discs of their catalogue titles and aiming them squarely at the international market. Their new Blu-ray releases of two masterworks of French cinema, Jean Renoir’s French Cancan from 1954 and Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped from 1956, come with optional English subtitles and are “region-free” discs to boot. This means that you don’t need an obscure multi-region player like mine to enjoy them. (That’s right, American kids can now enjoy Bresson in high-definition on their Playstations!) For cinephiles everywhere, especially Francophile cinephiles like yours truly, this is cause for celebration.

French Cancan original poster art:

As someone who first saw French Cancan in the 1990s on a videotape from the old Interama VHS label, featuring an approximation of the film’s original color scheme that could be charitably described as “badly faded,” Gaumont’s new release comes as a major revelation. Their Blu-ray is based on a 2010 restoration of the original 3-strip Technicolor elements that causes the film’s vivid color cinematography, one of its most crucial aspects, to “pop” in a way that it never has before on home video. Putting to shame even the DVD version released by the normally reliable Criterion Collection from a few years back, I can honestly say I feel as though watching Gaumont’s Blu-ray of French Cancan was the first time I’ve ever truly seen the movie.

As its title implies, French Cancan is one of the most quintessentially French movies ever made. Directed by one of the giants of French cinema (himself the son of one of the giants of French Impressionist painting), the film tells the story of the founding of the legendary Moulin Rouge nightclub in the late 19th century and the concurrent revitalization of the can-can dance craze. Furthermore, Jean Gabin, arguably the most iconic of French actors, gives one of his most charismatic performances as Moulin Rouge founder Henri Danglard, and legendary songstress Edith Piaf even pops up in a cameo. Rounding out the cast are Maria Felix as Lola, Danglard’s belly-dancing mistress, with whom he eventually loses interest in favor of Nina, an ingenue played by the delightful Françoise Arnoul. It is ironic that the most memorable aspect of this French extravaganza might just be the ravishing Felix, an icon of the golden age of Mexican cinema, whose unforgettably hot-blooded star persona combined the fierce independence of a Joan Crawford with the full-bodied sensuality of an Ava Gardner.

Renoir was of course a great visual stylist. Central to appreciating the nostalgic, magisterial portrait of fin-de-siecle Paris he paints in French Cancan is recognizing his recreation of the feel of post-Impressionist painting. Because 3-strip Technicolor featured a more vibrant and “unrealistic” color palette than other color processes and because it featured a greater separation between colors, Technicolor was especially conducive to capturing the look of the broad planes of bright, primary colors seen in the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec. It is this aspect of French Cancan that positively dazzles on Blu-ray; the film’s famous can-can climax, an ecstatic, near-orgiastic riot of form and color that seems to go on forever, resembles nothing so much as a series of Toulouse-Lautrec paintings that have come thrillingly alive.

Marcelle Lender on Stage by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec:

Robert Bresson also knew a thing or two about painting, having worked in that medium before turning his attention to filmmaking in the 1930s. Tantalizingly little is known about this early part of Bresson’s life (intriguingly, he claimed he gave up painting because it made him “nervous”). But if his movies are anything to go by, Bresson probably worked in the minimalist style of 17th century religious painter Georges de la Tour. The flatness and the “nocturnal light” of la Tour’s work, itself influenced by Caravaggio and the Dutch masters, appear to be a visual reference point for the similar qualities that can be found in Bresson’s work of the 1950s.

Gaumont originally signed on to produce A Man Escaped in the wake of the success of Bresson’s previous film, The Diary of a Country Priest in 1951. Based on the memoir of French Resistance member Andre Devigny, A Man Escaped tells the story of Fontaine, a Lieutenant in the French Army who escapes from a Nazi prison after being condemned to death for blowing up a bridge. All of the hallmarks of Bresson’s mature style, which can be seen in embryonic form in Country Priest, are fully realized for the first time in A Man Escaped; these include the use of non-professional actors who have been rigorously trained to recite their lines in flat, neutral tones, a frequent use of close-ups that fragment the human body, and a prominent use of voice-over narration and off-screen sounds. In A Man Escaped, all of these elements combine to create one of the most formally perfect and spiritually uplifting works of art that I know of.

Bresson’s use of sound especially is so creative that it is worth discussing in detail. A Man Escaped contains a fascinating interplay between sounds that are diegetic (coming from within the world of the movie) and non-diegetic (coming from without). Lieutenant Fontaine’s nonsimultaneous diegetic voice-over is crucial in drawing us into the character’s inner world. The past tense character of the narration, along with the film’s title, are also key in making the outcome of the story seem preordained. We know from the get-go that Fontaine will escape; Bresson, an intensely process-oriented director, shifts the suspense away from “what will happen” and onto “how it will happen.”

The Penitent Magdalen by Georges de la Tour:

One of Bresson’s maxims was to “replace an image with a sound whenever possible.” This strategy can be seen many times throughout A Man Escaped and is employed for different reasons. At the film’s beginning, we see a Nazi prison guard dragging his keys along the railing of a stairway. We never see the image again but Bresson has already established a shortcut method of communicating to the audience by allowing us to merely hear the sound throughout the rest of the movie when he wants to indicate the guard is near. Conversely, at the end of the film, Bresson builds suspense by allowing us to hear a squeaking noise several minutes before revealing its origin: another guard riding a bicycle in circles around the prison’s outer walls.

The use of non-diegetic music (i.e., that which cannot be heard by the film’s characters) is also fascinating in A Man Escaped. Bresson repeatedly uses Mozart’s Mass in C Minor to score the action onscreen, although he uses this music in a drastically different way than the typical film director. Bresson never uses music to manipulate the viewer emotionally but for rhythmic and thematic purposes instead; Mass in C Minor, for instance, is played every time Fontaine makes contact with a fellow prisoner for the first time or learns a new piece of information that will help him escape. The viewer therefore becomes aware, even if only on a subconscious level, that all of these scenes are somehow linked thematically. After repeated viewings, it is easy to see that Bresson is underlining how important it is for Fontaine to trust his fellow prisoners in order for his plan of escape to work.

Unlike their release of French Cancan, Gaumont’s Blu-ray of A Man Escaped is not based on newly restored film elements. Consequently, it does not provide as dramatic of an upgrade in terms of sound and image quality over previous DVDs. However, it is definitely still an upgrade, with a wonderful transfer providing much more film-like characteristics such as increased depth and grain. I consider both of these discs essential and am very pleased to have them in my library. I am also intensely curious to see what else Gaumont may have in the pipeline; I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a Louis Feuillade box set.

A Man Escaped original poster art:

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Memories of Murder (Bong)
2. White Material (Denis)
3. Gaumont Treasures: The Films of Leonce Perret (Perret)
4. The Long Goodbye (Altman)
5. Dust in the Wind (Hou)
6. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Demy)
7. Days of Heaven (Malick)
8. Lucky Star (Borzage)
9. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi)
10. Breathless (Godard)

From the Minx Archives: Mia Park/Michael Smith Radio Interview on WLUW

Since the official website of my no-budget, straight-to-video feature The Minx is no longer online, I will periodically be posting text and media files relating to the movie here. Although there are aspects of the movie I find cringe-inducing today (all of which can be traced back to our impoverished budget and resources), the entire process of making The Minx and finding a distributor for it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

First up, a genuine blast from the not-so-distant past: lead actress Mia Park and I discuss making the The Minx on Loyola University’s fabulous WLUW radio station to promote the film’s 2007 DVD release. Check it:

The Minx Radio Interview on WLUW

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Docks of New York (von Sternberg)
2. Iron Man 2 (Favreau)
3. Nowhere to Hide (Lee)
4. Memories of Murder (Bong)
5. The Last Command (von Sternberg)
6. Chicago Heights (Nearing)
7. Shutter Island (Scorsese)
8. Breathless (Godard)
9. North By Northwest (Hitchcock)
10. Rear Window (Hitchcock)

Adventures in Early Movies: Let Me Dream Again

Today’s post is the first in a series about some of the most significant and entertaining films from the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century, an era of which I am quite fond.

In the earliest days of cinema, each movie consisted of a single unedited shot. The early filmmakers would put a small roll of film inside of a 35mm camera, point the camera at a subject and let it roll until the film simply ran out. The result was a lot of wonderful one minute movies, like the immortal films of the Lumiere brothers, that function today as invaluable documents of what life in the late 19th century was like. It wasn’t until years later that it was discovered that a film could be edited, by literally gluing two or more shots together, to create a more complex and elaborate motion picture experience.

The earliest edited films from around the turn of the 20th century typically consist of only two shots. Fascinatingly, a lot of these movies take dreaming as their subject; having two shots of roughly equal length apparently caused the early filmmakers to think of each shot as a different state of consciousness. Therefore, a typical “two shot” film from this time began with a shot of a character falling asleep and concluded with a second shot of what that person was dreaming about. Or, conversely, the film began with a shot of what the audience assumed was “reality,” only to conclude with a second shot of a character waking up from what turned out to be only a dream. A good example of the latter type of film is George Albert Smith’s Let Me Dream Again from 1900.

Smith, an important English director who unfortunately isn’t well known today, made a series of incredible films around this time that tackled such enduringly popular movie themes as dreaming, voyeurism and the chasm between subjectivity and objectivity. Let Me Dream Again is a short, comical film that begins with an overhead shot of a man in an amorous encounter with an attractive young woman in bed. (In another pioneering move destined to be imitated by countless male filmmakers since, Smith cast his real life wife as the attractive woman.) Then, the camera goes out of focus, partially to mask a forthcoming “straight cut” and partially to signal a shift in the man’s consciousness. When Smith cuts to the second shot, also out of focus, we see two characters lying in bed in a graphic match of the previous shot. Smith then racks focus in the second shot to reveal the man from the first shot lying in bed as before, only this time next to his nagging and less attractive real wife (depicted in the still above).

The use of racking focus in successive shots is a little crude (it’s the prototype of the kind of slow dissolves that would later become the standard in signaling a shift between states of consciousness); but by today’s standards the film is still quite funny and even poignant in terms of what it suggests about the divide between dreams and reality. Buster Keaton would perfect this theme, and the cinematic techniques used to accompany it, in Sherlock Jr. in 1924 (due out in a new Blu-ray edition later this month), but he could have never done so without first looking to the shining example of an earlier classic like Let Me Dream Again.

Let Me Dream Again can be found on the second volume of Kino Video’s essential The Movies Begin DVD box set.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Gaumont Treasures: The Films of Louis Feuillade (Feuillade)
2. JSA: Joint Security Area (Park)
3. Abraham’s Valley (de Oliveira)
4. My Darling Clementine (Ford)
5. Leonard Cohen: Songs from the Road (Sanders)
6. Underworld (Von Sternberg)
7. Christmas Evil (Jackson)
8. A Man Escaped (Bresson)
9. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi)
10. Psycho (Hitchcock)

Filmmaker Interview: Jesse Wheeler

As I mentioned in a previous post, when I made my short film, At Last, Okemah!, one of the roles I needed to cast was that of an ethnomusicologist/videographer. I was stunned to learn that one of the actors who turned up to audition, Jesse Wheeler, was an actual ethnomusicologist – with a PhD to prove it. Jesse ended up getting the part and a fast friendship was born. Since completion on the Okemah shoot Jesse has been hard at work on Delivering Malawi, a documentary film currently in post-production, about the valiant fight of health education workers at Embangweni Hospital in southeast Africa. Jesse’s mother, Salome Chasnoff, directed the film while Jesse performed the crucial roles of sound design, photography, and auxiliary video. More information on the film, including a trailer and many wonderful photos, can be found at the official website:

I recently had a chance to speak with Jesse about the unique experience of making this important film:

MGS: So how do American filmmakers based in Chicago end up making a documentary in Malawi?

JW: Connections, friendships, past projects, favors…

MGS: As “outsiders,” was it difficult to win over the trust of your subjects so that they would speak to you freely? If so, how did you accomplish this?

JW: We did not find it difficult, and I would attribute this to a few things. 1) we both are seasoned interviewers and ethnographers, and we are able to connect with people relatively easily, which comes down to being present, disarming, listening, showing that what you have to offer is of mutual interest, spending time with the person, returning to the person and place, establishing a rapport that goes beyond the moment of the interview, and something that the other person feels in/for you. 2) We had the backing of the doctor, and others respect her. 3) Our mother-son relationship made certain interactions easier, as people were able to define us in that way, as opposed to only “outsiders,” “white people,” “filmmakers,” etc. 4) I have experience in Africa — I lived in Kenya in the 90s and travelled to Malawi in 91, so I have a “knowledge” of cultural mores and habits and am able to interact in ways that put people at ease, or at least keep us from being culturally offensive.

MGS: One striking aspect of the footage from your film that I’ve seen is that you acknowledge your own presence as filmmakers and your interactions with the people you are documenting. According to some documentary schools of thought, it’s better to strive for a greater sense of “objectivity.” What was the rationale behind your decision?

JW: It became at a certain point also a story of our interaction with people, not just the issues of health, etc. The mother-son team doing a documentary on maternal-child health made us feel at some point like characters in the narrative. In the trailer titled “2 Things Involved,” you see and hear us — that was a decision also based on the fact that the two subjects, the UMOZA theater group and the Sinda Jazz Band, stage events, are themselves creations of people who represent life for and to others. So our acknowledgement of our own role in that seemed appropriate. The choice to include my voice saying, “You can improvise” turns out to be quite funny, given how much trouble everyone is having in telling their own joke. If the camera makes people uncomfortable, let’s acknowledge it!

MGS: You spoke to me before about what you see as “the prominent role of music in community health strategies.” Could you clarify for me the relationship you see between the two?

JW: I see music as one of the most important vehicles in health education in that region. You have singing at the outreach clinics, where the lyrics remind women about the importance of antenatal and postnatal care, encourage men to participate in the mother and child’s health, etc. You also have groups like Sinda jazz Band who sing about health issues, encourage people to get tested, etc. You have the theater groups who use singing as part of the spectacle. There is community dancing (always accompanied by singing) to affirm community values and the like.

MGS: As an American with very little knowledge of Malawi, I was really surprised and impressed by the performance footage you’re talking about. It seems like Americans are a little more jaded about believing in the power of art to educate and affect social change. Is there a long tradition of this kind of art in Malawi?

JW: It seems to us that yes, there is. It would be quite unusual in this and other regions of Africa if there weren’t this history. Given the long-standing importance placed on the oral transmission of knowledge, as well as the enjoyability of spectacles, music and dancing, art is one of the most commonly used and most effective means of conveying a message. Other factors are uneven literacy, different languages in use, and the expense and vulnerability of electronic and print communication in rural areas.

MGS: During the years you’ve worked on this project, what impact have you seen places like Embangweni Hospital have on HIV/AIDS awareness in Malawi? Do you feel more or less hopeful than before?

JW: According to the health care professionals, HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns are having an effect, seen in the declining numbers of new cases and the number of people getting testing and seeking treatment. I feel hopeful, far more so than a decade ago.

MGS: What avenues of distribution are you pursuing? Who is your ideal audience?

JW: The ideal audience is one who cares — they can be young, old, Malawian, non-Malawian, ill, healthy, health care professionals or not, documentary buffs or not, etc. I want an audience that sees the movie, cares, is moved by it, and tells others about it. If they get engaged in this or some other social cause, ALL THE BETTER, but that portion will be small, I know.

MGS: Best of luck, Jesse.

JW: Thanks, bro!

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Hannibal (Scott)
2. Halloween (Carpenter)
3. Failan (Song)
4. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa)
5. Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey)
6. Directed by John Ford (Bogdanovich)
7. Paranoiac (Francis)
8. Black Sunday (Bava)
9. Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Bresson)
10. Rear Window (Hitchcock)

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