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Monthly Archives: June 2018

Bresson on Blu x 2

Q: Here (in Mouchette) and in Balthazar one senses a new fascination with pain.

A: Perhaps because I feel that pain must be acknowledged no less than happiness.

— Robert Bresson interviewed by Charles Thomas Samuels in 1970

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Newly released on Blu-ray — by Artificial Eye and the Criterion Collection, respectively — are two of French director Robert Bresson’s greatest achievements: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967). Perhaps strangely, I had never thought of these ascetic masterpieces as being companion pieces, in spite of the short timespan in which they were made, until watching these Blu-rays in quick succession. Indeed, they represent the only time in Bresson’s 50-year career that he ever made two movies in consecutive years. Taken together, they show the filmmaker at a crucial transitional point in his evolution as an artist — more specifically, at the tail end of his middle period and just before the beginning of his great late period. Au Hasard Balthasar and Mouchette mark the last times Bresson would shoot on black-and-white film stock (to the chagrin of some of his admirers) as well as the last time he would use non-diegetic music on his soundtracks — a Schubert piano sonata in the former, Monteverdi’s Magnificat in the latter. (When Bresson transitioned into making films in color, his already-minimalist aesthetic would become even further refined to include only the barest essentials of what he needed in terms of image and sound.) The two movies even share a screen presence, Jean-Claude Guilbert, the only time Bresson ever cast the same “model” in a substantial role more than once. But Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette have deeper affinities in their approach to characterization and theme: both center on the plight of innocent “holy-fool” characters (a donkey and a 14-year-old girl, respectively) in worlds otherwise distinguished by an overwhelming human evil.

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Many of Bresson’s admirers cite Au Hasard Balthazar as his single greatest achievement and it’s not hard to see why. In many ways it’s the most ambitious and expansive movie he ever made (Jean-Luc Godard called it, with little hyperbole, “the world in an hour-and-a-half”). Based on an original screenplay, as opposed to a short story or a novel like most of his other work, Balthazar tells the story of the life and death of the title character, a donkey, in provincial France. As the animal — Bresson’s ultimate “non-actor” — is passed from one owner to the next over a span of many years, he becomes a kind of blank slate upon which the sins of mankind are imprinted: his owners inflict physical abuse on him and exhibit such unsavory characteristics as avarice, lust, drunkenness, etc. All the while, Balthazar looks on, silently and without judgement. But Bresson intriguingly expands the scope of this narrative by telling the parallel story of Marie (Anne Wiazemsky in her screen debut), a teenage girl and the daughter of one of Balthazar’s owners, who is led astray by local bad-boy/Satan-figure Gerard (François Lafarge). As the story progresses in a fashion unusually elliptical even for this director, the poetic use of parallel editing makes it seem as if the fates of the girl and the donkey are inextricably intertwined. The final scene, which depicts a kind of miracle, is arguably the most moving scene in Bresson’s oeuvre, a feat that is all the more impressive given that it does not involve human actors.

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Mouchette is an adaptation of a novel by Georges Bernanos (who also provided the source material for Bresson’s breakthrough feature, The Diary of a Country Priest, in 1951). When asked why he chose to adapt Bernanos a second time, he claimed “they” had been asking him to do it for 10 years and that, more importantly, he felt like making another movie but didn’t want to take the time to write an original script. While these comments might indicate that the end result is somehow slighter or less personal than Au Hasard Balthazar, this follow-up freature, which won the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival, is major Bresson. I would also argue it is a more lucid, pure and emotionally affecting work than his more celebrated previous Bernanos adaptation. Nadine Nortier, in her only film role to date, is an extraordinary screen presence as the title heroine, a poor, rural teenage girl who is consistently let down or betrayed by the adults around her: her alcoholic father, her bedridden mother, her unfairly strict teacher and a local poacher who repays the girl’s kindness by raping her. Solace comes only in fleeting moments: walking alone through the woods, riding the bumper cars at a traveling carnival, the chance to comfort her infant sister, etc. As in Balthazar, the film’s impact is shattering because of Bresson’s unique ability to elicit empathy for a marginalized protagonist while also ruthlessly avoiding sentimentality. And, while equating his protagonist with hunted animals suggests the influence of Jean Renoir and The Rules of the Game, Mouchette would itself prove to be a major influence on other filmmakers, most notably the Dardenne brothers in their 1999 film Rosetta.

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The Mouchette Blu-ray can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk here. The Au Hazard Balthazar Blu-ray can be purchased from Amazon here.

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. 3 Idiots (Hirani)
2. The Awful Truth (McCarey)
3. Legend of the Mountain (Hu)
4. Mouchette (Bresson)
5. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
6. The Lost City of Z (Gray)
7. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
8. Hereditary (Aster)
9. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene)
10. Savage Youth (Johnson)


The RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO Official Soundtrack Album

Below are the liner notes I wrote to accompany the brilliant score that Anaphylaxis (aka Jason Coffman) provided for my new film RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO. The film will not premiere until this fall but you can listen to the entire soundtrack by streaming it (or, for a measly $3, downloading it!) at Bandcamp now. Enjoy!

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The music cues I wrote into the script for RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO describe the soundtrack as containing “dreamy and ethereal electronic pop.” As late as the film’s pre-production stage, in March of 2018, I still had no clue who I was going to approach about composing the original score when a funny thing happened: I heard the sensational new Anaphylaxis album DARK LOVE, DARK MAGIC. I instantly knew that it was the exact sound I had been looking for. The driving rhythm and shimmering synthesizer of “Blue Devil Suite” sounded custom-made for my planned opening-credits sequence featuring abstract shots of the guardrail on Lake Shore Drive. “To Burgundy and Back” — and its accompanying eerie “brushed bell” stem track — possessed a dark majesty that I knew would provide the necessary counterpoint to the rapid-fire screwball-comedy dialogue of my first scene between Clare Cooney and Kevin Wehby. I soon realized that I wouldn’t need a composer after all; digging through the Anaphylaxis back catalogue gave me such riches as “Lin Minmei,” a full-on house jam that proved the perfect accompaniment to our “strip literary trivia” sequence, and “Dr. Nera Vivaldi,” a minimalist, acoustic guitar-driven song that underscored the poignancy of the extended scene where Rashaad Hall and Matt Sherbach’s characters walk from their Rogers Park home to the lakeshore nearby.

There was only one problem: we had one day left to lock picture before the movie was due to move on to color correction and post-sound mixing when my editor, Eric Marsh, informed me that we needed an additional song — one that could play under a scene in which Nina Ganet’s character finds her boyfriend in bed with another woman. As if right on cue, I received an email from Jason Coffman, mastermind behind Anaphylaxis for the past quarter century, informing me he had just composed a new track for the film entitled “Midsummer Masque.” Although Jason had yet to watch any of the footage and I had not spoken with him about the kind of music we needed for the film’s third part, “Midsummer Masque” began with an ominous burst of electronica that seemed to emphasize Nina’s righteous anger with sublime aptness; it was as if Jason and I had been in telepathic communication when he composed the track. When I saw how Eric married this song to the galvanic moment of Nina slamming the front door to her character’s apartment I nearly wept with gratitude at the cosmic coincidence of what Jason had done. Then again I remembered an old saying about how there are no coincidences. The soundtrack album for RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO consists of the aforementioned tracks plus a 1923 recording of blues legend Eva Taylor singing “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,” a then-new composition co-written by her husband Clarence Williams. The resulting compilation offers something old and something new, and serves as an ideal introduction to the wonderful sonic world of Anaphylaxis.

— Michael Glover Smith, June 2, 2018


Filmmaker Interview: Michael Curtis Johnson


The 25th Annual Chicago Underground Film Festival

The following piece on my best bets for this year’s Chicago Underground Film Festival, which kicked off last night and runs through this Sunday, was posted at Time Out Chicago today.

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The Chicago Underground Film Festival reaches a significant milestone with this year’s 25th-anniversary edition, which runs from Wednesday, June 6 through Sunday, June 10. CUFF’s notion of what constitutes an “underground” film has always been admirably expansive and this year’s program is typically eclectic in its offering of narrative, documentary and experimental works. We picked one movie to see from each category.

Savage Youth is a fact-based crime drama set in Joliet that features half-a-dozen phenomenal performances by a cast of young adult actors. Will Brittain (Everybody Wants Some!!!) and Grace Victoria Cox (Twin Peaks) stand out as a budding horror-core rapper and a visual artist, respectively, whose lives veer inexorably into tragedy after they begin dabbling in drugs and petty crime. The film’s depiction of an economically depressed and racially divided small town milieu looks especially trenchant and disturbing in light of the current political climate (although it was shot before the 2016 election), but writer and director Michael Curtis Johnson allows his characters moments of tenderness worthy of early Nicholas Ray.

Lori Felker’s Future Language: The Dimensions of Von LMO is a fascinating documentary about an eccentric subject: a cult figure and pioneer of the No Wave music scene in New York City in the late 1970s who claims to be a “hybrid alien” from the “planet Strazar.” Felker’s film, eight years in the making, is an impressive work of both archaeology and craftsmanship that uses every stylistic trick in the book—from archival footage to animation—to chronicle Von LMO’s many rises and falls; but the director’s masterstroke was allowing the true subject of the movie to become her complicated friendship with this weirdo. Future Language is as much a thorny love letter from one eccentric artist to another as it is a warts-and-all portrait of a gifted musician haunted by demons of his own making.

DANCER is a wordless 8-minute experimental short that repurposes footage from Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66 to exhilarating effect, taking a well-known scene of Christina Ricci tap dancing and “making it strange” by chopping it up, adding split screen and heavily distorting it all with a video synthesizer so that the fragmented and fuzzy images that result become a treatise on female beauty as well as the objectification of said beauty. Director Haley McCormick’s analog-painterly aesthetic is perfectly complemented by a gorgeous original score composed and performed by Heart of Palm (a side project of No Coast / No Hope operator Shea Hardacre).

For more information on the 25th Chicago Underground Film Festival, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the CUFF website.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
2. Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson)
3. Future Language: The Dimensions of Von LMO (Felker)
4. The Green Fog (Maddin/Johnson/Johnson)
5. Union Station (Mate)
6. Call Northside 777 (Hathaway)
7. Moonrise (Borzage)
8. Annihilation (Garland)
9. First Reformed (Schrader)
10. Frontwards (Marsh)


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