Monthly Archives: June 2011

John Ford and the Cinematic Meal

The following essay is based on notes for a lecture I gave in my friend Sara Vaux’s Religion and Film class at Northwestern University in January. The subject of the class was “The Cinematic Meal.” No sex toys were employed during the lecture.

The concept of “the meal” is a prominent and crucial aspect of the John Ford universe. Scenes set around dining room tables are more important in Ford than almost any other director I know. (The stiffest competition would probably come from his contemporary equivalent Clint Eastwood.) But the preponderance of mealtime scenes in Ford is just one facet of the director’s larger obsession with home and the domestic sphere, which is somewhat ironic considering Ford’s association with the western genre. When one thinks of a Ford movie, the first thing to come to mind is probably the spectacular outdoor location photography – in particular scenes shot in Monument Valley, Utah, the central location of thirteen of Ford’s most well known films. I personally associate Ford primarily with the Technicolor imagery of films like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers, where the big majestic rock formations of Monument Valley appear almost orange under a bright blue sky. Yet it’s one of the central paradoxes of Ford’s work that although his movies may be full of outdoor adventure, typically taking place in an “uncivilized” corner of his mythological version of the 19th century American West, the man always juxtaposed those scenes with equally essential interior scenes depicting domestic life.

This dichotomy between exterior/interior is also closely related to another Fordian paradox, which is that Ford can be viewed simultaneously as a “masculine” and a “feminine” director. In Ford’s own lifetime he was perceived critically as a man’s man and someone mainly interested in male worlds and masculine codes of behavior. Following the lead of critic Janey Place, Joseph McBride, author of the indispensable Searching for John Ford, has more recently argued that Ford can also be seen as an essentially feminine artist. McBride points out that the things Ford values the most – home, family and tradition – are typically thought of as feminine concerns. This is an acute insight because in order to fully understand Ford’s movies one has to understand how they show, and even obsessively dwell on, the disintegration of the family unit; in film after film, John Ford is continually mourning the loss of the things he loves the most.

There are a couple of mealtime scenes in Ford that perfectly illustrate the aforementioned paradoxes, albeit in strikingly different ways. Take for instance The Searchers from 1956, considered by many to be Ford’s masterpiece; early on in the film, Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran played by John Wayne, arrives at the home of his brother Aaron’s family after a mysterious three year absence. Almost immediately upon Ethan’s homecoming, a band of Comanche Indians run off with the prize cattle of the Jorgensens, the family who live next door to the Edwardses. In a highly memorable scene set around the Edwards family breakfast table, the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton, the local lawman (who is also a clergyman!), arrives to swear in as deputies the male members of seemingly every family within a hundred mile radius in order to form a posse to reclaim the cattle.

A depiction of community in long take and long shot (The Searchers):

This swearing in scene, which occurs over coffee and doughnuts, is a good example of how Ford depicts a community of people coming together over a meal. It is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite Ford scenes because of what he refers to as the “love” depicted onscreen – not only the love that the characters so obviously have for one another but also the love one feels Ford has for all of them. The feeling of a closely knit community is revealed through the dialogue and the acting, of course, but finds its perfect compliment through the way Ford stages the action. For instance, it is absolutely crucial that this scene unfolds mostly in long takes (i.e., with minimal cutting) and in long shots (i.e., where the camera is at a distance from the characters). This allows Ford to more effectively record the hustle and bustle of people coming and going in the dining room; the togetherness of this fledgling society is highlighted by the fact that we can see all of these characters in relation to one another at all times. There is a little bit of tension in the scene, between Ethan Edwards and Captain Clayton, which is typified by cryptic dialogue about the possibility that Ethan might be wanted for a crime in his recent past. Ford underscores the tension between these characters by having the camera track in to a close shot of the two of them. But because Ford never cuts to separate camera angles that isolate Ethan and Clayton from each other, he also lets us know that the conflict between them is ultimately not that serious. The real conflict, Ford seems to be telling us, will lie elsewhere.

The depiction of community in The Searchers can be fruitfully contrasted with a very different mealtime scene from another one of Ford’s best movies, How Green Was My Valley from 1941. The earlier film depicts life in a Welsh coal mining village around the turn of the twentieth century. Specifically, it deals with intergenerational conflict within a single family, the Morgans. The sons in the Morgan family, mostly in their teens and twenties, want to join a newly formed workers’ union but their father opposes the idea. Gwillym Morgan (Donald Crisp) is an old-fashioned patriarch who grew up without unions and thinks that joining one will only lead to trouble – he dismisses the talk of his sons as “socialist nonsense” even though the mine owners have recently slashed employee wages. This impasse reaches a state of crisis at the Morgan family dining room table when the sons, one by one, stand up, leave the table and walk out of the home for good. Ford stages this tragic scene from How Green Was My Valley with brisker cutting than in The Searchers and by frequently showing the Morgan men in separate close-ups, emphasizing their isolation from each other. It is a perfect example of Ford illustrating how the dining room table can be a place where families break apart as well as come together.

The scenes outlined above have another fundamental thing in common; they both succeed brilliantly as primarily visual storytelling (which should not be surprising given Ford’s origins in the silent cinema). In both instances, if you were to watch the scene with the sound turned off you would still be able to understand everything you need to know about the relationships between the characters because of the framing, the camera movement, the cutting and the lack of cutting. Daryl Zanuck, the longtime head of Twentieth Century Fox (with whom Ford frequently butted heads), said late in his life that he came to realize Ford was the greatest of all directors because of his uncanny ability to shoot scenes in such a way that made “even good dialogue secondary or unnecessary.” There is no higher compliment that a movie director can be paid.

Isolating characters in separate close-ups (How Green Was My Valley):


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. L’atalante (Vigo)
2. Le Doulos (Melville)
3. No Blood Relation (Naruse)
4. L’age d’or (Bunuel)
5. M (Lang)
6. Touch of Evil (Welles)
7. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
8. Twenty-Four Eyes (Kinoshita)
9. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
10. The Tracker (de Heer)

A French New Wave Primer

In the entire history of cinema, the single movement to have exerted the biggest influence over contemporary movies is probably the eternally cool French New Wave, which began in earnest in 1959 with the release of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour and lasted for all of the turbulent 1960s. Today, the New Wave is thought of as being synonymous with the early revolutionary films of the young film critics of Cahiers du Cinema who turned into directors (Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette) but, as with most historical movements, it can be more fruitfully approached by casting one’s net a little wider. I do so here by including films by their “Left Banke” comrades (Resnais, Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy and Chris Marker) as well as more left-field entries like Jacques Rozier’s Adieu Philippine.

The 400 Blows (Truffaut, 1959)

The film that Francois Truffaut was born to make: a semi-autobiographical tale of juvenile delinquency in which social criticism, a love for the medium of cinema and a poetic but ruthlessly unsentimental depiction of childhood combine for a uniquely poignant and unforgettable experience. The fact that a young, first time director like Truffaut could win Best Director at Cannes for such a highly personal, low-budget and freewheeling movie signaled that a sea change had occurred in the French film industry.

Hiroshima, Mon Amour (Resnais, 1959)

Alain Resnais’ first feature takes an impeccable, highly literary script by Marguerite Duras and turns it into a radical, intensely cinematic movie: two lovers, an unnamed Japanese architect and a French actress, have a lengthy conversation on the subject of memory. The present day scenes are continually peppered with flashbacks to the woman’s harrowing experiences as the persecuted lover of a German soldier during the Second World War. Resnais’ groundbreaking, nonlinear editing style, used to suggest “flashes of memory,” has had an incalculable effect on subsequent filmmakers.

Les Bonnes Femmes (Chabrol, 1960)

The masterpiece of Claude Chabrol’s early career dissects the hopes, dreams and romantic entanglements of four young, attractive Parisian shopgirls. Characteristic of the New Wave is Chabrol’s use of documentary-style location shooting, the performances of a charming, youthful cast and an intelligent, deliberate mixture of disparate genres: comedy, melodrama, tragedy and, most unforgettably, the Hitchcockian thriller.

Breathless (Godard, 1960)

Jean-Luc Godard would go on to make many better films than this, his first, yet it is doubtful that any can be regarded as coming anywhere close to approaching its importance. The tale of a Parisian car-thief (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who kills a cop and then attempts to convince his American girlfriend (Jean Seberg) to flee the country with him, this is the definitive movie-as-love-letter-to-the-movies. With its charming amorality, off-the-wall humor, “anything goes” spirit and plethora of film references, Breathless is the definitive French New Wave movie, without which movies as we know them today would look very different.

Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, 1961)

Alain Resnais followed up Hiroshima, Mon Amour by expanding on its innovative formal structure to create this audacious, intellectual “puzzle film.” A man and a woman (again unnamed) meet at the title resort where he attempts to convince her, against her protests, they had met and had an affair the previous year. As Marienbad progresses, we can never be sure if we are watching flashbacks, false memories or fantasies – or even which character might own them. Don’t let its reputation as a “cold,” “impenetrable” film deter you; there are many points of entry into this masterpiece, including the extraordinarily beautiful black-and-white cinematography, the sly humor of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s script and a great lead performance by the regal Delphine Seyrig.

Paris Belongs to Us (Rivette, 1961)

Anne, a literature student in late 1950s Paris, agrees to take part in a no-budget production of Shakespeare’s Pericles in order to get to the bottom of the mysterious suicide of an acquaintance and, in the process, uncovers a conspiracy that may or may not exist. Jacques Rivette’s first film contains all of the hallmarks of his more famous later work: extended running time, paranoid conspiracy theory plot, scenes of characters rehearsing a classic play and an almost inexplicably sinister tone.

Adieu Philippine (Rozier, 1962)

Unjustly unknown outside of France, Jacques Rozier’s uproarious comedy tells the story of a low-level T.V. technician who romances two aspiring actresses (who also happen to be best friends) while waiting to begin his mandatory military service. This satire of television, consumerism and “cold-hearted modern youth” effortlessly conjures up a spirit of youthfulness, spontaneity and fun that Truffaut’s more famous and similarly themed Jules and Jim has to labor mightily to try and equal.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (Varda, 1962)

Agnes Varda was the lone female member of the French New Wave and Cleo from 5 to 7 is, in the apt words of Pauline Kael, “one of the few films directed by a woman in which the viewer can sense a difference.” The plot details the adventures of the title heroine between the hours of 5:00 and 7:00 pm as she awaits the results of medical tests that will determine if she has cancer. Clocking in at 90 minutes, this beautiful, astute character study also very nearly takes place in “real time.”

Jules and Jim (Truffaut, 1962)

Francois Truffaut’s comedy/drama about a menage-a-trois in World War I-era France was long considered a New Wave benchmark but, writing as someone who is not a Truffaut man, I don’t think it has aged particularly well; the filmmaking “playfulness” seems forced, the attempts at humanism and the shifts between comedy and tragedy too derivative of Truffaut’s idol Jean Renoir. Still, everyone should see this if only to understand how Truffaut represented the “mainstream face” of the New Wave, without which some of the movement’s less commercial prospects could never have been made.

Le Joli Mai (Marker, 1963)

Cinema vérité, French-style! The great cinematic essayist Chris Marker (who named himself after, you guessed it, the Magic Marker pen) spent the Spring of 1962 interviewing a diverse cross-section of the French public about the concept of “happiness”; incredibly, it was the first Spring of peace in France since 1939. The epic running time (two hours and 45 minutes) allows Marker to probe deep into the hopes and fears of an entire society.

Le Mepris (Contempt) (Godard, 1963)

The best movie ever made about making a movie (and no, I’m not forgetting 8 1/2), Jean-Luc Godard’s colorful, Italian-shot fantasia stars Michel Piccoli as a beleaguered screenwriter, Brigitte Bardot as his trophy wife, Jack Palance as a blowhard American producer and the great director Fritz Lang as himself, all of whom collide on an unlikely film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. Add in a magisterial score by George Delerue, one of the greatest ever written, and the end result is Godard’s finest early work.

Muriel (Resnais, 1963)

Two weeks in Boulogne with four characters – an antiques dealer (Delphine Seyrig again) and her stepson who are visited by her former lover and his alleged “niece” – all of whom are haunted by memories of the past. The culmination of Alain Resnais’ long running obsession with nonlinear editing and the difficulty of integrating the past into the present, this challenging film (arguably Resnais’ best) demands and handsomely rewards multiple viewings.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy, 1964)

Jacques Demy’s delightful but freakish musical in which there is no dancing but every line of dialogue is sung. Teenage Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) must make tough decisions after being knocked up by her boyfriend who must deploy for a tour of duty in Algeria. The candy-box colors and attractive star cast consistently dazzle but this is a much darker and more serious film than its detractors would have you believe.

Pierrot le Fou (Godard, 1965)

A clear advance for Jean-Luc Godard as an artist, this mostly improvised romp follows an unhappily married man (Jean Paul Belmondo) who flees his bourgeois Parisian life and heads to the Riviera with a beautiful, mysterious stranger (Anna Karina) on the run from Algerian gangsters. Massively influential as a lovers-on-the-lam crime/road movie and a work of postmodern Pop Art.

La Collectionneuse (Rohmer, 1967)

A man intending to “do nothing” while vacationing in St. Tropez is tempted by a promiscuous stranger, the “collector” of the title in this witty, intellectual comedy. A milestone for Eric Rohmer for several reasons: it was his first commercial success, his first film shot in color (courtesy of genius cinematographer Nestor Almendros) and the first of his Six Moral Tales to attain feature-length status.

Weekend (Godard, 1967)

Jean-Luc Godard’s apocalyptic black comedy in which a bourgeois married couple’s weekend trip to the country begins with a traffic jam and ends in cannibalism. This provocative and angry satire of the barbarism lurking beneath the facade of Western civilization appropriately ends with the title “End of Cinema.” A cinematic equivalent of the novels of James Joyce.

The Young Girls of Rochefort (Demy, 1967)

My personal favorite Jacques Demy film is this wonderful musical, a sort of follow-up to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in which twin sisters (real life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac) search for their ideal romantic partners in the colorful title town. Michel Legrand’s jazzy score is phenomenal and the tribute to golden age Hollywood musicals is made complete by an appearance from the legendary Gene Kelly.

The Smugglers (Moullet, 1968)

Luc Moullet’s delightfully amateurish slapstick comedy follows the misadventures of the title trio, an unnamed protagonist (Johnny Monteilhet) and the two girlfriends (Françoise Vatel and Monique Thiriet) he recruits to help him illegally transport packages (including Kodak film stock and LSD) and people (identified as artists and Jews) between two unnamed countries at war. There are a lot of deliberately fake-looking Godardian fight scenes as well as Tati-style gags involving sight and sound among the spectacularly beautiful mountain scenery. I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much I identify with this film — not on a personal level but as a director. More so than any other New Wave movie, seeing this made me feel that my own modest filmmaking efforts were justified.

La Femme Infidele (Chabrol, 1969)

A man suspects his wife of infidelity and has her followed by a private eye, setting off a suspenseful chain of events in which the lead characters find themselves “exchanging guilt” in the best Hitchcock tradition. Released in the midst of Claude Chabrol’s richest period (1968 – 1973), this simple, gripping thriller is perhaps the director’s most perfectly realized film.

L’amour Fou (Rivette, 1969)

A highpoint of both the French New Wave and the history of improvisational filmmaking, Jacques Rivette’s four hour plus opus charts the construction of a play (Racine’s Andromaque) as well as the disintegration of a marriage (that of the play’s director), alternating between 35mm and 16mm film stocks. As the film progresses and the cross-cutting slowly, inexorably achieves a terrifying velocity, L’amour Fou fully justifies Pauline Kael’s description as an “intellectual horror film.” The climactic orgy of sex and destruction has to be seen to be believed.

My Night at Maud’s (Rohmer, 1969)

A film that dramatizes Pascal’s “Wager theory” as Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Tritignant), a devout Catholic moves to a small town during Christmastime and decides to marry a beautiful blonde woman he spies while at mass. Later, he is introduced to Maud, a brunette divorcee who causes him to question his earlier resolve. Eric Rohmer was the king of intelligent, literate dialogue and this film, so profitably rooted in a specific time and place, is his finest hour. Also a great Christmas movie.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik)
2. Basic Instinct (Verhoeven)
3. Dark Star (Carpenter)
4. Japanese Girls at the Harbor (Shimizu)
5. Black Christmas (Clark)
6. Metropolis (Lang)
7. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman)
8. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
9. The Terrorizers (Yang)
10. Rio Bravo (Hawks)

Now Playing: Film Socialisme

Film Socialisme
dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 2010, Switzerland/France

Rating: 9.3

The bottom line: The “film” event of the year.

Now playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center is Film Socialisme, Jean-Luc Godard’s latest state-of-the-planet address and arguably his most brilliant feature-length motion picture in decades. Not that this latest cinematic essay isn’t as thorny or difficult as his other recent work (it’s arguably more difficult), but it is also finally, satisfyingly, a movie marked by old-fashioned cinematic virtues; it is as interesting, for instance, for its cinematography as it is for its editing and sound design, the first time this can be said about a Godard film in some time. Aside from a few interpolated shots of classic movies, most of its head-spinning hour and forty one minute running time consists of scenes that Godard has effectively staged or captured documentary-style for his wide variety of digital cameras, the juxtaposition of which feels genuinely groundbreaking. More importantly, Film Socialisme is also notably imbued with a startling humanity. While watching it one can practically feel the close working relationship the now-80 year old Godard has with his collaborators behind the camera, a skeleton crew of what appear to be technicians without much prior experience on feature films, as well as the respect he extends to all of the “characters” who appear in front of it — including singer Patti Smith and guitarist Lenny Kaye, philosopher Alain Badiou and a little girl watching a YouTube video of talking cats.

Since Allemagne 90 neuf zéro in 1991, most of Godard’s best work have been essays created on video; I’m thinking not only of his mammoth video series Histoire(s) du cinema (1988 – 1998) but also shorts like Une catastrophe (2008) and Tribute to Eric Rohmer (2010), as well as the first breathtaking section of 2004’s Notre musique. But it isn’t the medium that ultimately distinguishes these works, it’s the methodology. For me, Godard’s best late works are those made up of footage shot by others and characterized by a curiously private, almost hermetically sealed-off quality, as if one can sense the great director working alone at his home-studio in Switzerland like a mad scientist in a laboratory; Godard’s recent comfort zone seems to be in taking clips from old movies and juxtaposing them with images of other works of art, adding punning intertitles and then overlaying all of it with a dense soundtrack consisting of classical music, snippets of movie soundtracks and the director’s own voice. The end result of these dense, sometimes playful, always provocative texts is to makes viewers feel like they’re banging around inside the intellectual pinball machine of Godard’s mind, a place I’ve always been more than happy to visit.

It’s when Godard has attempted to make something more physically ambitious in the past couple decades that I think he tends to run into problems; whether due to laziness or impatience, it’s been a while since Godard has worked fruitfully with a cast and crew on location to achieve the kind of inspired poetic results of his best movies from the 1980s and early 1990s. (He is now as far away from the stunning, elaborate crane shots and glamorous star performances of 1990’s Nouvelle vague as that film was from the relative narrative coherence of his legendary work of the 1960s.) Whenever Godard has had to actually stage scenes in recent years he often ends up creating either moments of didactic polemicizing (I could do without Notre musique‘s climactic scene where a Palestinian woman is shot down for wielding a “weapon” that turns out to be nothing more than a book, thank you very much) or images that teeter dangerously close to feeling like someone parodying an art film (the protagonist of In Praise of Love thumbing through a book with blank pages — like, crazy, man).

It was all the more surprising to me then to find that Film Socialisme, which premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival to predictable outrage, feels like one of the least hermetic and most engaged-with-contemporary-life films of Godard’s entire career. And contrary to what you may have heard, here is a movie without a cynical bone in its body. Part of the refreshingly open and engaged quality stems from Godard’s surprising choice to quote other recent films instead of just the usual familiar classics from his own youth. Key reference points here include Agnes Varda’s The Beaches of Agnes (an image of trapeze artists performing over the ocean) and Manoel de Oliveira’s A Talking Picture (using a Mediterranean cruise as a metaphor for Western Civilization). But what also impresses is the sheer joy that Godard has clearly taken in the process of making this particular film. That Film Socialisme feels like an elegy is to be expected (virtually every recent Godard work can be viewed as a last testament), but it also feels like a rebirth; the ravishingly beautiful imagery, whether stemming from cell-phone cameras, standard-def video or eye-popping HD, are of the kind that could only be conjured by a restless experimenter who is unafraid of risking appearing like an amateur — and indeed neither of Godard’s two credited cinematographers (Fabrice Aragno and Paul Grivas) has ever before shot a feature-length film. Yet I would argue no feature has ever been more open to the textural possibilities of digital imagery. The sound design likewise features intentionally distorted music and the live sound of wind whipping across location microphones that would be considered “mistakes” in the hands of any other director. Here, they give the film a sense of “being there-ness” that is unparalleled in contemporary cinema. To watch Film Socialisme side by side with The Tree of Life is to understand the difference between genuine risk and calculated risk, between true cinematic beauty and images designed for a screensaver.

As with Notre musique, Film Socialisme is a film in three “movements.” The first, titled “THINGS SUCH AS,” concerns the aforementioned Mediterranean cruise, which functions as an extended metaphor for Europe as a free-floating casino, and offers the film’s most visceral cinematic pleasures. The heavily pixillated images taken from cell phone cameras in this section are so degraded that they dissolve the line between ugliness and astonishing abstract beauty. The second movement is titled “OUR EUROPE” and chronicles the lives of a French family who run a suburban gas station. The allegorical nature of this section, which resembles Godard’s television documentaries of the 1970s, is evident in the interactions between the family (father, mother, two young children, llama) and a documentary film crew. The final movement is titled “OUR HUMANITIES” and offers yet another of Godard’s masterful associative montages, this time focusing on six places (Egypt, Palestine, Hellas, Naples, Barcelona and Odessa) that, according to Godard’s helpful press kit, have been the sites of various “true or false myths.” (Including Odessa also allows Godard to repeatedly reference The Battleship Potemkin, the ultimate associative montage movie). Driving viewers up the wall since the film’s premiere is Godard’s insistence on only having it shown with “Navajo English” subtitles, a ridiculously oversimplified and grammatically incorrect running text that approximates the way Indians speak in classic Hollywood westerns. But even this seemingly perverse aspect of Film Socialisme proves to be part and parcel of Godard’s utopian project of inciting his audience into collaboration; I actually enjoyed trying to fill in the spaces between the subtitled words as if I were doing a crossword puzzle.

What Film Socialisme ultimately means will likely be different for every viewer and this is the respect in which it succeeds as a truly “socialist” film. As supreme of an image (and sound) maker as Godard proves himself yet again to be, ownership of this movie finally belongs to anyone adventurous enough to collaborate with Godard in constructing its meaning. For some viewers, being granted this much freedom by a film’s author will lead to an experience they will no doubt find confounding or boring. For others, including myself, Film Socialisme will be seized as a rare opportunity to engage in a joyous spirit of collaboration not only with Godard but with anyone else swept up in the already impressively heated critical debates swirling around the film. Of course, Film Socialisme, which was constructed entirely through the use of digital tools, isn’t really a “film” at all. But as an audio-visual construct it is definitely a one-of-a-kind masterpiece, an experience as fragmentary, terrifying and beautiful as the modern world itself. Perhaps this type of filmmaking is what Godard had in mind when he wrote in 1964 that he awaited “the end of cinema with optimism.” As both a filmmaker and a viewer, I certainly left the theater feeling more optimistic about cinema’s increasingly uncertain post-35mm future. With Film Socialisme Godard has once again pointed out, as he so often has in the past, some of the directions we might take it.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Film Socialisme (Godard)
2. L’age d’or (Bunuel)
3. The Ghost of Yotsuya (Nakagawa)
4. Crazed Fruit (Nakahira)
5. Some Like It Hot (Wilder)
6. The Tree of Life (Malick)
7. A Hen in the Wind (Ozu)
8. Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone)
9. The Gold of Naples (de Sica)
10. An Autumn Afternoon (Ozu)

Adventures in Early Movies: The Golden Beetle

Segundo de Chomon is a little known but major film pioneer whose work appears to be in the process of being rediscovered. Last October a special event at the New York Film Festival, “The Marvelous World of Segundo de Chomon,” drew renewed critical interest in the man sometimes referred to as “the Spanish Melies.” This makes me supremely happy since I consider Senor Chomon’s strange and wonderful 1907 masterpiece The Golden Beetle (Le Scarabee d’or) to be one of my favorite early films and yet have found other movies by its mysterious and shadowy creator (as well as biographical information about him) to be somewhat difficult to come by.

I do know that Chomon got his start as a color tinting specialist for the French studio Pathé in 1901 and directed his first film for them the following year. Like his mentor Georges Melies, Chomon was known primarily for trick cinematography and optical effects. In addition to directing, he is credited with creating the special effects for films as important and far-flung as the Italian epic Cabiria in 1914 and Abel Gance’s Napolean in 1927 (his final credit), which makes him something of a cinematic Zelig. However, as The Golden Beetle makes clear, as a director Chomon was also a cinematic poet whose movies invite sustained reflection and analysis – something that cannot always be said about the one-dimensional illusionism of Melies.

The mysterious Senor Chomon:

The Golden Beetle begins with a shot of a sorcerer wearing stereotypical middle-eastern garb (long beard, turban and baggy clothes) standing in front of a building with an ornate facade. He spies a beetle crawling up the side of the building, plucks it off the wall and casts it into a magic, fiery cauldron. This act transforms the beetle into a beautiful woman wearing a skin-tight gold costume and sporting three pairs of giant wings. Based on the sorcerer’s delighted reaction we can assume he has conjured this beetle-woman for the purposes of his own (sexual?) gratification. However, the creator soon loses all control over his creation; the winged beauty turns the tables on him by turning the cauldron into a colorful exploding fountain, doing a delightful dance and conjuring up two female assistants of her own who plunge the sorcerer into the cauldron and thereby destroy him.

In less than three minutes The Golden Beetle impresses as a kind of prototypical feminist allegory as well as a very beautiful example of an early color-tinted film. Because it was tinted entirely by hand, it must have been an extremely painstaking process for Chomon to create his elaborate psychedelic fountain, which sprays red, purple, pink and yellow colors to all corners of the frame. Indeed it so impressed one of my students in an Intro to Film class that she identified it as the single best film I showed all semester, ranking it ahead of even many feature-length movies with sound.

Hopefully, the renewed interest in Segundo de Chomon will result in the release of a new DVD or Blu-ray compilation devoted solely to his work. In the meantime, The Golden Beetle can be viewed on the first volume of Kino’s essential The Movies Begin box set. It can also be viewed on YouTube here (even though it’s misidentified as the work of Ferdinand Zecca):


I am pleased to announced that, following the success of my short film At Last, Okemah! (which has played nine festivals across the U.S. since late 2009 and won 5 awards and counting), I am planning on shooting a more ambitious follow-up short in August. I am re-teaming with a lot of the talent from Okemah! for The Catastrophe, a dark comedy we plan on taking to the next level in terms of getting into prestigious international festivals. It will unquestionably be the biggest and best thing I’ve ever done. I’m therefore in need of your help!

We are presently deep into pre-production and very excited about the movie we are about to make. We plan on shooting it on the RED ONE (the same high-end digital camera used on The Social Network and other Hollywood productions). You can learn all about it on our website. If you could please take a look at the site and think about making a donation we would GREATLY appreciate it. This film’s budget will be raised entirely through “crowd sourced funding” and virtually none of the cast and crew, including me, will be getting paid. Nearly all of the budget will go towards making the film look and sound as good as possible. As most of you probably know, independent filmmaking is very difficult, so every little bit helps. Donations of $25 and up are eligible to receive a host of exciting perks including autographed postcards featuring the poster art for the film, high quality t-shirts, DVDs, original paintings and even credits in the film! Donations can be sent directly through the site but you can also contact me directly if you would like to send a check.

My birthday is coming up on June 14th; if you were EVER thinking about getting me a birthday present, Christmas present, wedding present or whatever, now is the time to do it. Independent filmmaking in Chicago is a VERY worthy cause. Even if you can’t make a donation at this time, please check out the website anyway and learn how you can help us merely by “liking” us on facebook and/or following the making of the movie on Twitter.

Thank you all very much in advance!

Now Playing: The Tree of Life and Midnight in Paris

The Tree of Life
dir. Terrence Malick, 2011, USA

Rating: 6.9

Midnight in Paris
dir. Woody Allen, 2011, USA/France

Rating: 8.5

The bottom line: Movies about guys walking with their hands in their pockets!

Terrence Malick and Woody Allen are both directors who came of age in the 1970s, concurrently with but quite apart from Hollywood’s beloved Film School Generation (Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma, et al). Unlike their more commercially-minded countrymen, neither Allen nor Malick studied film production at a four-year university, both distinguished themselves by writing their own scripts and both showed a greater adherence to classical notions of “high art” in terms of both the great cinema of the past and, more importantly, the other arts – literature in Allen’s case, philosophy and painting in Malick’s. (Also, neither Malick nor Allen sported beards!) In the ensuing decades the two have come to represent polar opposite approaches to how an artistically ambitious American filmmaker can live and work; Malick’s output has been legendarily sparse (only five released movies in as many decades) where Allen’s annual releases (now totaling forty-one) have become as dependable as the turning of the earth. This has led to a problematic categorization of Allen as a businesslike journeyman, a talented comic writer but sloppy visual stylist who is indifferent to actors, someone who works compulsively to stave off a fear of death. By contrast, Malick’s advocates view him as the contemporary cinema’s great Romantic artist, a consummate perfectionist in the technical sense who is nonetheless open to improvisational whims, someone who only works when and if the inspiration strikes.

The sad reality is that since the release of Days of Heaven in 1978, Malick’s work has become increasingly bloated and pretentious, a state of affairs that hits a remarkable, dizzying, frustrating new high with The Tree of Life. Although Malick’s films have always featured de-centered narratives in favor of rapturous imagery, the balance here has shifted beyond all reason; Malick and his great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have captured some of the most magisterial images in contemporary movies (a volcano erupts, CGI dinosaurs wander a primordial landscape, a child chases soap bubbles on a well-manicured lawn) but, after an amazing first hour, the disappointing sense begins to settle in that they will fail to acquire the cumulative power necessary for the kind of transcendental payoff one is expecting. The narrative fragments (a grown man roams the modern world musing on his childhood in rural Texas as well as the creation of the universe) obstinately refuse to become anything more than broken shards and are held together only by the glue of Malick’s copious voice over narration, which by now is approaching self-parody in its new-agey pseudo-profundity: “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”

This brings us to the movie’s real problem: even more so than The New World, there is an abiding sense of looseness and wastefulness about The Tree of Life. It feels like a film made by a man with an unlimited amount of freedom, as if Malick had all the time, money and resources in the world to shoot all the footage he wanted and then spent years massaging that mountain of footage into its final shape. The best comparison I can make is with Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, another loose, baggy monster created by a secretive, reclusive genius that dazzled in its early stages before painfully spiraling into seemingly endless tedium. And while Malick’s supporters are quick to point out that “loose” working methods have always been his modus operandi, that all of his movies are about poetic feeling more than intellectual understanding and yadda, yadda, yadda, the sense of rigor that characterized Badlands and Days of Heaven is long gone. The idea that Malick will ever again make a film as tight, compressed or short as those earlier hour and a half long masterpieces seems increasingly unlikely, even as Malick’s rate of production dramatically increases (he already has one new movie in the can and has reportedly begun work on at least one after that).

I don’t know or care whether The Tree of Life is an “autobiographical” film as some of its most passionate defenders are claiming, which to them I suppose makes it inherently brave. I do admire it for individual moments of beauty, Brad Pitt’s scary performance as the tough love father and Malick’s overall ambition and foolhardiness, qualities in short supply in today’s Hollywood. But I didn’t feel a sense of cosmic wonder while watching it, the interconnectedness of “all things” that seems Malick’s overarching goal, one that he appears to be laboring awfully hard to achieve. For a more effortlessly cosmic cinematic experience I think I’ll see again Pedro Costa’s lo-fi, black and white Change Nothing, a documentary about a singer that conjures up the wonders of creation without the digital dinosaurs.

Woody Allen has long had his pretentious side (the complaint that his Bergman influenced dramas were inferior to his “earlier, funnier work” became so ubiquitous that he actually worked it into Husbands and Wives in 1992) but his recent attempts to rebrand himself as a European filmmaker have actually produced some of the fleetest movies of his career; 2005’s London-set Match Point and 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona were simultaneously mature without being pretentious, succeeding as both penetrating character studies and nimble storytelling. If critics and fans (including me) have taken Allen’s best recent films for granted, it is likely because they’ve been sandwiched between lesser works that tend to make us judge Woody Allen not by his greatest hits but by his overall batting average. I suspect that will change with the release of Midnight in Paris, a delightful comic valentine to the film’s title city that ranks among the best and most imaginative movies Allen has ever made.

Like the short stories of Allen’s hero S.J. Perelman, the premise of Midnight is Paris is simple and irresistibly clever, and Allen executes the clean narrative arc to perfection: Gil (Owen Wilson) is a successful Hollywood screenwriter vacationing in Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. The city’s romantic aura inspires him to contemplate moving there permanently and finally realize his ambition of becoming a serious novelist. These plans don’t square with the more pragmatic Inez who finds herself spending more and more time with a former college professor, an insufferable know-it-all (in a long line of similar Allen pedants) deliciously played by Michael Sheen. Gil meanwhile finds himself magically transported back to the Golden Age of Paris in the 1920s where he hobnobs with the world’s artistic élite and falls for Adrianna (a very lovely Marion Cotillard), a fashion designer and muse to Picasso and Hemingway. To give away more of the plot would be criminal but suffice to say that the film’s sweetness of tone is perfectly balanced by its cautionary notes about the dangers of idealizing the past. Crucially, one also feels that this latter aspect contains a healthy amount of self-criticism for its writer/director, something that can’t often be said of a Woody Allen film. Also important is that the film’s funniest and most entertaining conceits (like Adrien Brody’s inspired cameo as Salvador Dali) serve to effectively prevent it from becoming the academic exercise it might have in other hands.

The real masterstroke of Midnight in Paris though, and a risky one that could have backfired, is the casting of Owen Wilson as Gil. While it has become increasingly common for the now elderly Allen to cast younger actors to play the part of an “Allen surrogate” in the lead role, this has often been a problematic strategy; most of these actors (from John Cusack to Edward Norton to Kenneth Branagh) end up essentially imitating Allen’s familiar stammering-intellectual-nebbish speech patterns. Wilson, however, slows down Allen’s dialogue to fit his own laid-back Texas persona and the result is both hilarious and refreshing. He captures the typical Allen character’s excitability while softening the misanthropy. Check out Gil’s infectious enthusiasm in the short, wonderful scene where he talks to himself while lying in bed at night, amazed at his good fortune. In the end, it’s hard to say if Gil seems more romantic and naïve than the usual Allen protagonist because Allen wrote him that way or because Wilson’s line deliveries makes it feel that way. Regardless, Allen has allowed Wilson (an actor I have occasionally found grating in the past) to display his innate intelligence, sincerity and optimism in a role that he seems born to play. He is absolutely magical. So is the movie.

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