Advertisements

Monthly Archives: September 2014

Odds and Ends: Welcome to New York and Bird People

Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara, USA/France, 2014) – Illegal Download / Rating: 8.2

welcome

Welcome to New York, Abel Ferrara’s thinly disguised dramatization of the Dominique Strauss Kahn scandal starring Gerard Depardieu and Jacqueline Bisset, has predictably been a lightning rod for controversy since premiering direct to video-on-demand in France last May. The film begins with a series of debauched sexual encounters (let’s just say that champagne and ice cream are put to creative use) between Depardieu’s “Mr. Devereaux,” an international financial bigwig, and hired prostitutes — before culminating in a recreation of Kahn’s alleged sexual assault of a Guinean hotel maid (for which the IMF chief was exonerated but nonetheless forever sinking his Presidential hopes). If you can make it past the chaos of this opening 30-minute bacchanal, which not only avoids titillation but feels awkward and depressing by design (courtesy of Ken Kelsch’s cool and distanced camerawork), the film then fascinatingly shifts registers for its second and third acts. Next up are lengthy scenes showing Devereaux being arrested, booked and taken from one holding cell to another by real police officers — some of whom were involved in Kahn’s actual booking. This sequence is practically a documentary and contains the only moments in the movie where one is likely to feel sympathy for the monstrous Devereaux (especially when the now-morbidly obese Depardieu is forced to strip naked). The final act sees Devereaux, free on bail, being joined by his wife, Simone (Bisset), in a New York townhouse and engaging in a series of electrifying domestic arguments in which the Gallic thesps are really allowed to let it fly. Many critics have drawn comparisons between Welcome to New York and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street since both films use sexual depravity as a metaphor for the decadence of late capitalism. The differences between the directors’ approaches, however, are probably more instructive: while I find nothing immoral or irresponsible about Scorsese’s making a dark screwball comedy out of a real-life tragedy, I have to confess that Ferrara’s take — an uncompromising “feel bad” venture in the vein of Pasolini’s Salo — is probably more apposite. One measure of its effectiveness? Kahn and his wife are suing the filmmakers.

IFC Films will release Welcome to New York in a censored R-rated version in the U.S. next year. Ferrara’s original version can be illegally downloaded via the usual places.

Bird People (Pascale Ferran, France, 2014) – Video on Demand / Rating: 8.4

birdpeople

Gary Newman (The Good Wife‘s Josh Charles, superbly understated) is a Silicon Valley executive who travels to France on business and, while bivouacking at the Paris Hilton, experiences a panic attack that will alter his destiny forever. His story is intercut with that of Audrey Camuzet (Anaïs Demoustier, dangerously cute), a young, working-class student and hotel maid whose job both pays the bills and affords her the opportunity to improve her English by conversing with the guests. While the parallel editing between these narrative threads serves to clue viewers in that the characters’ lives will eventually cross, exactly how, when and why this happens is in a manner so eccentric that that no first-time viewer will ever see it coming. Pascale Ferran’s whimsical comedy/drama takes such a bizarre left turn at about the one hour mark, in fact, that even many of the viewers who have admired it up to that point are likely to mentally check out. Those who are searching for something delightfully different, however, may find themselves rewarded by an eccentric character study that ends up being less interested in realism than it might first appear. The history of the cinema is in many ways the history of showing how lonely souls connect; I, for one, am grateful to Ferran for presenting her particular version within the context of a broader allegory about the desire for human transcendence. When viewed in this light, much of the film’s first half makes a different kind of retrospective sense — such as the way the filmmakers casually eavesdrop on passengers’ conversations on a commuter train, and the way a child looks up with amazement — of a kind that the mature, “adult” Newman is no longer capable of — at the awe-inspiring sight of a plane taking flight.

Bird People is currently available for “rent” on various digital platforms including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Advertisements

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Loved Ones (Byrne)
2. The Iron Ministry (Sniadecki)
3. The Way He Looks (Ribeiro)
4. Bringing Up Baby (Hawks)
5. The More the Merrier (Stevens)
6. The Lady Eve (Sturges)
7. The Awful Truth (McCarey)
8. The Hitch-Hiker (Lupino)
9. Under the Sun of Satan (Pialat)
10. Spring Breakers (Korine)


Global Cinematic Perspectives on WWI in Wilmette

bigparade

Mike at the Movies: Global Perspectives on WWI

On Saturday, October 18, at 2:00 pm I will be giving a special World War I-themed film talk at the Wilmette Public Library to coincide with their series of programs commemorating the 100th anniversary of WWI. Below is a synopsis of the presentation I wrote for the library’s website:

In commemoration of the one-hundredth anniversary of the first World War, film scholar Michael Smith will examine cinematic depictions of the “Great War” from a variety of perspectives. Film clips will include portrayals of the conflict as seen by Hollywood in the silent (The Big Parade) as well as the sound era (Lawrence of Arabia), not to mention responses from France (Grand Illusion), Russia (The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty) and Germany (where the reaction was more “coded” through the bleak movement known as Expressionism).

Anyone interested in attending can find more information in the Wilmette Public Library’s “Off the Shelf” newsletter:

http://www.wilmettelibrary.info/administration/offtheshelf/offtheshelf_sept14.pdf

Hope to see you there!


The Best of Leonard Cohen in the Movies

Yesterday marked the 80th birthday of Leonard Cohen (AKA the second greatest living songwriter in the English language). Since I have been in the habit of composing an annual Bob Dylan birthday post for the past four years, I thought I’d commemorate this occasion by listing my favorite instances of Cohen’s music in the movies. Enjoy.

“The Stranger Song,” “Sisters of Mercy” and “Winter Lady” in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

mccabe

Robert Altman’s anti-capitalist/anti-western masterpiece stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie — both de-glammed to the point of being almost unrecognizable — as an odd couple who attempt an ill-fated get rich quick scheme of establishing a brothel in the middle of nowhere. The film is essentially a mood piece about the central location, a fledgling mining town named “Presbyterian Church,” rendered by Altman and D.P. Vilmos Zsigmond as a brown, hazy, membranous world of earthy/murky sights and sounds. The glue holding everything together is a suite of Leonard Cohen’s finest songs, all taken from his first album, each of which is associated with a particular character or group of characters: “The Stranger Song” is the theme of Beatty’s McCabe, “Winter Lady” is the theme of Christie’s Mrs. Miller, and “Sisters of Mercy” is associated with the prostitutes. The lyrics of the songs are so fitting, in fact, that it’s almost difficult to believe that they weren’t written expressly for this film, which feels in more ways than one like a precursor to Altman’s cult-classic musical Popeye. For setting tone, there is nothing quite like the opening credits here — with Beatty entering town on horseback while the titles slowly drift across the screen from right to left and Cohen’s monotone baritone intones, “It’s true that all the men you knew were dealers who said they were through with dealing every time you gave them shelter . . .”

“Chelsea Hotel #2” in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

vlcsnap-765942

Rainer Werner Fassbinder was obsessed with Leonard Cohen. The invaluable Leonard Cohen Files website shows that the great German director featured the Canadian songwriter’s work in no less than six of his movies. I’ll pick the use of “Chelsea Hotel #2” in the final episode of Berlin Alexanderplatz as my favorite simply because that epic miniseries is my favorite of all Fassbinder’s achievements. The song’s presence is, of course, anachronistic because Fassbinder’s adaptation of Alfred Doblin’s novel takes place entirely in the pre-Nazi Weimar era. Nonetheless, Fassbinder’s bugfuck “epilogue,” the final hour of what is essentially a 15-and-a-half-hour movie, is basically the director’s daring, fever-dream meditation on Doblin’s plot, characters and themes (where the story’s psychosexual subtext is more explicitly spelled out — amidst the symbolic images of a boxing match, frolicking angels and nuclear explosions). As a bonus, this episode features Kraftwerk too!

“Avalanche” in Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water (1994)

cold-water

Maverick French director Olivier Assayas’s filmography can be broken fairly neatly into two categories: daring but not-always-successful genre mash-ups (e.g., Irma Vep, Boarding Gate, Demonlover, etc.) and more conventional, autobiographical character studies (e.g., Cold Water, Summer Hours, Something in the Air, etc.). One of the things that binds all of these disparate films together is Assayas’s always-deft use of pop music (especially from his own formative years of the 60s and early 70s). My favorite Assayas film is 1994’s Cold Water, an unsentimental re-imagining of the director’s own troubled teenaged years centering on his alter-ego “Gilles” (who would return in 2012’s Something in the Air) and his relationship with his girlfriend Christine. The highlight of Cold Water is a climactic party scene in which the protagonists smoke hash and dance around a bonfire to a stellar playlist of tunes including Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Around the Bend,” Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Avalanche,” the haunting track that kicks off Leonard Cohen’s great Songs of Love and Hate album.

“I’m Your Man” in Steve James’s Life Itself (2014)

Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel

Although I wasn’t as enamored of Steve James’s adaptation of Roger Ebert’s memoir as a lot of critics, I can find no fault with his almost unbearably poignant use of “I’m Your Man,” the title track of Cohen’s remarkable 1988 comeback album. Ebert explains that the song literally saved his life when he and his wife Chaz lingered for a while in his hospital room to listen to it instead of leaving the hospital following jaw surgery. A blood vessel burst under Ebert’s chin mid-song and, because the Eberts were still in close proximity to doctors (and not, say, in a cab on the way home), the doctors were able to save his life. The fact that the song plays during a scene where Roger and Chaz tell the story allows the lyrics to have a parallel function as a testament to their love for each other: “If you want a boxer,” Cohen sings, “I’ll step into the ring for you / And if you want a doctor, I’ll examine every inch of you / If you want a driver, climb inside / Or if you want to take me for a ride / You know you can / I’m your man.”

“Take This Waltz” in Jean-Luc Godard’s Letter in Motion to Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremaux (2014)

thumb.php

Like Fassbinder, Jean-Luc Godard has used the music of Leonard Cohen in multiple projects: the short Puissance de la parole, the mammoth video series Histoire(s) du Cinema and his most recent project Letter in Motion to Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremaux, the “video letter” he sent to the Cannes Film Festival to explain why he could not be present in person to present his new movie Goodbye to Language. In the manner of much recent Godard, this cryptic short film features clips from the director’s own previous work (notably King Lear, which had scandalized the festival in 1987) intercut with punning title cards and clips of Godard speaking in the present day. The nearly nine-minute film ends with Godard saying: “So, I’m going where the wind blows me, just like autumn leaves as they blow away. Last year for example, I took the tramway, which is a metaphor, the metaphor and . . . to return, to return to pay my dues from 1968 at the Havana Bar . . . and now, I believe that the possibility of explaining things is the only excuse to fight with language . . . as always, I believe it’s not possible . . . this May 21st . . . this is no longer a film but a simple waltz, my president, to find the true balance with one’s near destiny.” Immediately upon saying “a simple waltz, my president,” Cohen’s sublime “Take This Waltz” (also from the I’m Your Man album) can be heard. This is then followed by a clip of Bob Dylan singing, “How long must I listen to the lies of prejudice?” from “When He Returns.” Poetry on top of poetry on top of poetry, folks.

Leonard Cohen’s new album, Popular Problems, drops on September 23rd. You can check out the video for his superb new song “Almost Like the Blues” via YouTube below:


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Tom at the Farm (Dolan)
2. M (Lang)
3. Bird People (Ferran)
4. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
5. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
6. Madchen in Uniform (Sagan)
7. Margaret (Lonergan)
8. The Wind Rises (Miyazaki)
9. Twenty Cigarettes (Benning)
10. Notorious (Hitchcock)


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).

havre

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, its 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. The most surprising thing about Le Havre, however, might be 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.

havre

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.

ali

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.”

havre

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):

quote-if-the-devil-were-to-offer-me-a-resurgence-of-what-is-commonly-called-virility-i-d-decline-just-luis-bunuel-339366

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:


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)


%d bloggers like this: