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Category Archives: Celluloid Flashbacks

Celluloid Flashback: The Cannibals

One of my favorite living filmmakers, Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira, will celebrate his 106th(!) birthday on December 11th. To commemorate, today’s post is adapted from a lecture I gave about his film The Cannibals as part of Facets Multimedia’s Night School series “The Masters’ Session” last year. The premise of this particular session was that the most regular Night School presenters, including yours truly, were given carte blanche to present whatever films we wanted.

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Thank you all for being here, I know you could be at C2E2 right now. When I was given free reign to pick any movie I wanted to show for this session of Facets Night School, The Cannibals was my first choice because, when I first saw it last year upon illegally downloading it, I said to myself, “This is so strange I don’t even know what to think about it.” So I’d like to start off by talking a little about Manoel de Oliveira’s career in general and about Surrealism, a tradition to which I think The Cannibals belongs. Oliveira is probably best known in the U.S. for having a freakishly long career: he directed his first film in 1931, which was then still the silent era in his native Portugal, and he’s currently making a new movie right now at the age of 104. What I think is especially interesting about Oliveira’s long career, however, is that, while he’s managed to be a very prolific director on the whole, that’s mostly because of the films he’s made in the past 25 years alone. (His career had stalled for decades when he was a young man due to lack of financing and political turmoil in Portugal.) I think that The Cannibals is, in many ways, an ideal introduction to his work because it actually kickstarts the prolific “late phase” of his career: since making it in 1988, he has managed to make an average of one feature film a year for a quarter of a century. The Cannibals can also be seen as inaugurating the most recent phase of Oliveira’s career in that it marks the first of many collaborations between him and his favorite actress, Leonor Silveira, who was only 17-years-old when this was made. When you see her, you may notice she looks a lot like a young Brooke Adams, the lead actress in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.

So how does The Cannibals relate to Surrealism? Whenever we hear the word “surreal,” I think we tend to think of art that is somehow aggressively bizarre and dreamlike in nature. But I think it’s important to remember that the original Surrealists, in the 1920s, represented something of a return to more conventional aesthetics following other, more radical artistic movements. Cubism, for instance, was more radical in the sense that it had destroyed the concept of traditional perspective; think of Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in which you can see different sides of the subjects all at once, and there’s no sense of separation between the foreground, middleground or background. When Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte came along, their idea was to present landscapes that did return to the concept of traditional perspective but they would then put things in the middle of those landscapes that absolutely did not seem to belong. And I think this is what gives Surrealism its power — the feeling that one is experiencing something that is very familiar and yet, at the same time, very strange because there’s usually one element that feels completely out of place. So I think the subversive way in which the Surrealists “defamiliarized the familiar” is what makes their work so funny and unsettling. And this is true not only of Surrealist painters but also of Surrealist films, such as those made by the great Luis Bunuel: a film like Un Chien Andalou (1929), for example, is surprisingly similar to Hollywood filmmaking in terms of how it’s shot and edited. It’s the irrational happenings within Un Chien Andalou‘s conventional film language that make the movie seem so bizarre.

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I mention Bunuel not only because he’s widely considered the greatest Surrealist filmmaker but also because he’s Oliveira’s acknowledged master. Oliveira even made a sequel to Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) entitled Belle toujours, starring Michel Piccoli, in 2006. But I think Bunuel-style Surrealism is also very much the approach Oliveira has taken in a lot of his own work and I think this is more true of The Cannibals than any of his other films that I’ve seen. So how exactly does Oliveira subvert the conventions of traditional narrative cinema here? The first thing you need to know about this movie is that it’s a musical — well, more of a filmed opera really, because there’s no dancing but every single line of dialogue is sung. The first time I saw it I thought, “Wow, this is so conventional as an opera that I can easily imagine seeing this performed onstage,” although it never has been performed onstage because it was created by Oliveira specifically for the screen. Oliveira wrote the screenplay based on a novel by the Portuguese writer Álvaro Carvalhal and then had a contemporary classical composer, João Paes, write the music and the libretto. The plot concerns Marguerite (Silveira), a high-society woman who marries a wealthy Viscount (Luis Miguel Cintra, Oliveira’s favorite leading man) over the objections of her jealous ex-lover, Don Juan (Diogo Doria). On their wedding night, the Viscount reveals to Marguerite his darkest secret, which leads to a devilish, uproariously funny climax that you have to see to believe.

Adding a layer of self-reflexive fun to all of these goings-on is an omniscient, singing narrator (Oliveira Lopes); at one point, the narrator hilariously complains about the protagonists’ use of the “sententious language of poor melodrama” in the previous scene. So, if you can imagine an unholy, self-reflexive mash-up of Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962) and Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), you might have some idea of what is in store for you tonight. I don’t want to say anything more about what happens in this movie on a plot level but I do want to point out that about three-quarters of the way into the film, something happens onscreen involving movie “special effects” that, in the best Surrealist tradition, could never happen onstage; and I think this highlights one of Oliveira’s clever formal strategies — to kind of lull viewers into thinking that we’re seeing something that could be performed onstage before pulling the rug out from under us. In doing so, I think he wants to get us to actively think about the differences between cinema and live theater. The other sneaky thing that I think Oliveira’s up to here is the way that he uses the form of opera specifically, which is the art form most closely identified with wealthy patrons, in order to attack the upper class (in other words, the very people who are most likely to end up seeing this movie).

The last thing I’d like to say about The Cannibals is that when it had its U.S. premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1989, the festival’s director, in his opening remarks, begged the audience to stay for the last 15 minutes, assuring them that those 15 minutes would make the entire experience worthwhile. I would like to echo that sentiment tonight: please stick with this movie until the very end. The last 15 minutes are absolutely worth it. Enjoy the show.

The Cannibals has regrettably never been released on home video in North America. You can, however, see excerpts of it in the very lovely video tribute to Manoel de Oliveira below:

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Aki Kaurismaki and the Cinematic Meal

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

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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):

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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:


Celluloid Flashback: Dance, Girl, Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Celluloid Flashback: Renaldo and Clara

Bob Dylan turns 73-years-old this Saturday. (Can you believe that Charlie Brown was depressed about the guy turning 30?). My Dylan/movie-themed birthday-tribute post this year — the latest in a series of four — is an analysis of the bard’s misunderstood and rarely seen 1978 masterpiece Renaldo and Clara. Happy birthday, Bob!

“(Dylan) has given himself more tight close-ups than any actor can have had in the whole history of the movies.”

— Pauline Kael on Renaldo and Clara

“It’s like a tapestry. What he did was, he shot about 110 hours of film, and he looked at it all. Then he put it all on index cards, according to some preconceptions he had when he was directing the shooting; namely themes; God, rock ‘n’ roll, art, poetry, marriage, women, sex, Bob Dylan, poets, death, maybe 18 or 20 thematic preoccupations. Then he also put on index cards all the different characters, all the scenes, the dominant colours blue or red, and certain other images that go through the movie, like the rose and the hat and American Indians, so that finally he had an index of all of that. And then he went through it all again and began composing it thematically, weaving in and out of these specific compositional references. So it’s compositional, and the idea was not to have a plot but to have a composition of those themes.”

— Allen Ginsberg on the editing of Renaldo and Clara

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Renaldo and Clara, Bob Dylan’s four-hour cinematic magnum opus, is one of the great unseen movies of the 1970s. Shot just prior to and during Dylan’s celebrated Rolling Thunder Revue tour in the fall of 1975, and edited by Dylan and cinematographer Howard Alk throughout 1976 and 1977, this unusually ambitious American art film received a very limited theatrical release in the U.S. beginning on January 25, 1978. Unfortunately, it was not successful critically or commercially and closed after only a few weeks. A re-edited version, only two hours in length, was released later in the year and fared marginally better. Predictably, Renaldo and Clara was more successful in Europe, screening in the Director’s Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978 (where it was generally well received) and winning an award at the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival in Germany. The four-hour cut was eventually shown on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom at some point in the 1980s, perhaps only once, and has never been officially released on home video in any country in any format. All circulating copies, even on DVD, are bootleg versions sourced from VHS recordings of the European television airing and are consequently of poor image and sound quality. Nonetheless, even when viewed under these less than optimal conditions, something of the movie’s greatness still manages to come through. On a formal level, Renaldo and Clara continually cross-cuts between three distinct modes of filmmaking: the concert film, the documentary and the fictional narrative. The rest of this article will focus on each one of these modes and how Dylan interweaves them to create a unique work of cinematic poetry.

The concert sequences are undoubtedly the movie’s most accessible aspect, which is not surprising given that the Rolling Thunder Revue is widely regarded as one of Dylan’s all-time great tours (the two-hour cut supposedly focuses more heavily on this footage). In the long version there are a lot of great scenes of Dylan performing live while wearing white-face make-up (a reference to Marcel Carne’s 1945 film Children of Paradise, a Dylan favorite) — including urgent, occasionally incendiary renditions of then-new songs like “Isis,” “Romance in Durango,” “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Tangled Up In Blue.” The last of these is filmed in a single long-take close-up that probably single-handedly prompted Pauline Kael’s hyperbolic claim that Dylan gave himself more “tight close-ups” than any actor had in the “whole history of the movies.” (I know Kael prided herself on not seeing any movie more than once but surely The Passion of Joan of Arc could not have faded that much from her memory.) Kael’s dismissal of Renaldo and Clara as the ultimate vanity project is contradicted by the communal spirit of the Rolling Thunder Revue, a tour whose epic shows involved a large and diverse gaggle of performers (some of whom were reuniting with Dylan from his Greenwich Village club days, others of whom were more recent recruits), and this spirit is reflected in the film itself: there are terrific live performances by Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Roger McGuinn, Ronee Blakley, and Rob Stoner, among others — pretty magnanimous for a man who, according to Kael, made a four-hour film “about himself.”

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The fictional narrative sequences undoubtedly pose the biggest challenge to viewers. Dylan originally hired playwright Sam Shepard to write dialogue scenes before the tour began and gave him only vague instructions about his intentions for the movie, referring Shepard instead to French art films like Children of Paradise and Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960). Once the tour was underway, however, Shepard realized that Dylan had little interest in working with a screenplay and it appears that only a single scene in the finished film was scripted: Shepard himself, in his screen debut as an actor, appears alongside of Dylan’s wife Sara as a pair of quarreling lovebirds. In this sharply written scene, Shepard plays a rodeo rider and Mrs. Dylan plays his girlfriend or wife. The two argue about the future of their relationship. She tells him he treats her like an “amulet” and says that she would stay with him but only if he asks her the right way. She warns him he will end up living in a mobile home. He responds by saying, “I happen to like mobile homes. I think they’re a true American . . . aw, fuck it.” (Shepard ultimately received an “additional dialogue by” credit for his efforts.) The rest of the fictional scenes appear to be improvised by the performers and were shot in long takes with little or no editing. Nonetheless, a distinct theme does recur throughout these fictional scenes: nearly all of them are centered on a conflict between a man and a woman — where the conflict arises from the man’s being torn between his love for his profession and his love for the woman. Armchair psychologists and Dylanologists, make of that what you will.

In addition to Sam Shepard and Sara Dylan, some of the other musicians and actors who incarnate eternally-battling Man and Woman in the fictional scenes include: Bob Dylan, Harry Dean Stanton, Steven Soles, Rob Stoner, Ronnie Hawkins, Joan Baez, Ruth Tyrangel, Helena Kallianiotes and Ronee Blakley. Not unlike some of the films of Jacques Rivette, these scenes feature a weird but strangely poignant mish-mash of acting styles: some of the performers are naturals while others, including Dylan himself, appear distinctly uncomfortable. In the former category are singer Ronnie Hawkins, cheekily credited as “Bob Dylan” in the end titles, who displays some crack comic timing and figures prominently in three separate fictional scenes (in spite of the fact that he was not a part of the tour), as well as Ronee Blakley, fresh off of her stint in Robert Altman’s Nashville (for which she would soon receive an Oscar nomination). Blakely, emoting her ass off as a woman in a loveless marriage credited as “Mrs. Dylan,” has to share screen space with the guitarist Steven Soles who is clearly out of his depth playing “Ramon,” her husband or lover. Soles, like most inexperienced improvisers (see Mick Ronson elsewhere in this same film) merely repeats the same few lines over and over again. And yet, I would argue that the tension between the performance styles of Blakley and Soles mirrors the tension between their characters and makes this “badly written” and “badly acted” scene more effective than a more polished and professional approach ever could.

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Renaldo and Clara‘s documentary sequences are fascinating and diverse in and of themselves: Dylan and Alk alternate between showing what various Rolling Thunder Revue musicians do during the day while not performing and showing more traditional “journalistic” documentary segments that are nonetheless somehow tangentially related to the tour. In the former category, there are scenes of Allen Ginsberg performing “Kaddish” in a nursing home, Dylan and Ginsberg visiting Jack Kerouac’s grave, Joan Baez being serenaded by an elderly gypsy woman named “Mama Frasca” inside of her “Dream Away Lodge” boarding house, and most of the musicians visiting an Indian reservation. In the latter category, there are scenes of a group of diners talking to a restaurant owner about the legacy of the 1960s, a press conference in which imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (RIP!) talks about his quest for a retrial, some amazing “man on the street” interviews, and musician David Blue playing pinball while reminiscing about the Greenwich Village folk revival of the early 1960s (these sequences, in which Blue proves himself a funny and colorful raconteur, function as a kind Greek-chorus commentary on many of the other scenes). The “Hurricane” section is the film’s most artful and powerful: footage of the shaven-headed Carter delivering kernels of wisdom (“There is no ‘no,’ there is only ‘yes’) — one understands why Dylan called the boxer “Buddha in a 10-foot cell” — are intercut with interviews of the denizens of a black neighborhood talking about Carter’s plight. This sequence frequently utilizes freeze-frames on the interviewees’ sometimes-angry faces while Dylan’s majestic song “Hurricane” fades in and out on the soundtrack.

As the Allen Ginsberg quote at the beginning of this review suggests, the whole of Renaldo and Clara is greater than the sum of its parts because the strength of the film lies in its very careful and clever editing patterns. Unfortunately, it must be noted that much of the negative reaction to the film has come from Dylan’s own fans who, after all, are practically the only ones who have even seen it. What the fans wanted was a conventional concert movie and what Dylan gave them was an art film that applied the same free-association poetic logic to its crazy-quilt editing that Dylan usually brings to his songwriting process (funny how people who have no problem with “abstract” song lyrics find the very same quality in cinema unbearable). Dylan and Alk’s editing of the film progresses not based on temporality then but on the filmmakers’ tracing certain visual and aural motifs like the ones Ginsberg noted. To give one detailed example, take the American Indian motif: early in the film Dylan and his violinist Scarlett Rivera can be seen tuning their instruments backstage before a show. On the soundtrack we hear a non-diegetic version of Dylan running through a rehearsal of Hank Williams’s “Kaw-Liga,” a song about a cigar store Indian. The song continues to play over the next scene in which a truck emblazoned with an Indian-head logo can be seen barreling down the highway (presumably alongside of Dylan’s tour bus). Over this shot, a disc jockey’s voice can be heard announcing that Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue is coming to town. The Rolling Thunder tour was named for a Native American medicine man, we soon learn, when the tour’s performers visit an Indian reservation. The reservation scene is scored to a non-diegetic version of Dylan rehearsing Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” a poignant way for Dylan and Alk to link the plight of Native Americans to the civil rights struggles of African Americans. The train imagery in the lyrics to “People Get Ready” then serves as a bridge to the next scene — of the Rolling Thunder Revue performers riding a passenger train. And so on and so forth.

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It is clear, from interviews he gave to promote the film in 1978, that Bob Dylan was proud of Renaldo and Clara. He was unusually open and honest with reporters when talking about his intentions for it and the process of making it. The negative reviews must have stung (the Village Voice had four different critics review it, all of whom panned it — and one of whom wished in print that Dylan were dead), which no doubt accounts for the film’s unavailability today. There have been rumors in recent years that Dylan’s camp has been preparing a sequel to Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed Dylan-doc No Direction Home (2005) that will focus on the Rolling Thunder tours of 1975 and 1976. Since the release of such a movie would undoubtedly involve all of the extant footage shot for Renaldo and Clara receiving a new HD transfer, one can only hope that Renaldo and Clara will itself soon receive the Blu-ray release that it deserves. It will be easier to appreciate the film’s abundant riches if they can be seen and heard in great quality. But even if the masses who haven’t yet seen it end up thinking it’s a bunch of pretentious nonsense, most of them should at least be able to appreciate the awesome spectacle of Harry Dean Stanton and Joan Baez making out while singing a duet of “Cucurrucucú Paloma.”

There are numerous poor-quality video clips of Renaldo and Clara floating around the internet. Here’s one on YouTube of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez performing a terrific version of Never Let Me Go:


Celluloid Flashback: The Green Ray

100_2611Sippin’ a Rayon Vert while watching Le Rayon Vert.

For my second “Celluloid Flashback” post, I’ve chosen to revisit Eric Rohmer’s 1986 masterpiece The Green Ray, aka Le Rayon Vert, aka Summer. (While the movie is known in the U.K. by its literally translated title, it has regrettably only ever been releaed in the U.S. by the English-language title Summer, perhaps because distributors feared “The Green Ray” would make what is essentially an intimate romantic comedy sound too much like science-fiction. Matters were infinitely complicated with the 1996 release of Rohmer’s Conte d’été, which was distributed in the U.S. as A Summer’s Tale. It’s enough to make you pull your hair out.) I had only seen The Green Ray once previously, on VHS in the 1990s, but a couple of neat coincidences caused me to track it down again recently in order to give it a fresh look. First, I noticed a relatively new craft beer on the market, a Belgian-style pale ale named “Rayon Vert,” which obviously took its name from the same Jules Verne novel that Rohmer’s film did. Because it amuses me to no end to take photographs of myself drinking a movie-related beer while watching the film in question, the idea of renting The Green Ray on DVD was thus planted. Then, I read Gilbert Adair’s delightful 1995 book Flickers in which the late critic celebrated the cinema’s centennial by analyzing one still image from one movie made each year between 1895 and 1994. His entry for the year 1986 was an examination of The Green Ray, and what he had to say about it was so damned intriguing that it sent me fairly racing to my local video store to check it out again.

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The Green Ray is the fifth entry in Rohmer’s six-film cycle known as “Comedies and Proverbs” and many critics regard it as the best although, like all Rohmer’s movies, it’s not without its detractors. It tells the story of a young woman named Delphine (Marie Riviere), a Parisian secretary who decides to go on holiday alone three times over the course of one summer. The film’s true subject is loneliness and Delphine’s journeys are more psychological than physical as she learns, through her encounters with other people, a series of tough lessons that allow her to become less asocial and more engaged with life. Only when she learns to be content with herself is she truly ready to be transformed by the kind of love that has eluded her since the film’s beginning, represented by a climactic “double miracle” that recalls the cathartic ending of Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece Journey to Italy. I believe Rohmer’s special genius as a writer/director was his uncanny ability to show, accurately and without condescension, the elaborate lengths to which human beings will go in order to deceive themselves. Marie Riviere is one of the best actresses Rohmer ever worked with (by my count he directed her a whopping 10 times, which is remarkable given how infrequently he tended to recast actors), and she arguably nails this quality of self-deception better than anyone, including the brilliant Jean-Louis Trintignant in My Night at Maud’s. The effortlessness of her semi-improvised performance was greatly abetted by Rohmer’s decision to shoot the movie with a lightweight 16mm camera, which clearly proved less intrusive than the larger and bulkier 35mm cameras to which the director was accustomed.

greenrayA real green ray photographed in Santa Cruz, California.

The film’s unusual title is a reference to a real optical phenomenon in which a setting or rising sun seems to emit a flash of green light. The observance of this phenomenon provides The Green Ray with its climactic moment (half of the “double miracle” referenced earlier), which, incidentally, is also a sublime reference point in Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. According to Gilbert Adair, Rohmer spent a year attempting to film a real green ray and, only after deciding he was incapable of capturing one, resorted to creating the illusion in a lab with the aid of special effects. Adair calls Rohmer’s green ray “the tiniest and most moving special effect in the history of cinema” and notes that it is impossible to notice on a television screen. I practically smacked my forehead upon reading this, knowing that when I first saw the movie on VHS I literally did not see the green ray and thus did not fully comprehend the meaning of the ending. (Admittedly, I wasn’t quite as unfortunate as the student who told me she had never understood the ending of Citizen Kane until she saw it in my class because the word “Rosebud” hadn’t been legible on her tiny T.V. screen at home.) Because Adair wrote his book during the VHS era (when image resolution was considerably lower than what can be seen today on DVD or Blu-ray), I was eager to see The Green Ray again mainly to find out whether or not Rohmer’s tiny special effect would be visible on DVD. Is it? The following screen capture I created provides the answer:

vlcsnap-2013-08-17-21h25m09s99The cinema’s “tiniest and most moving special effect.”

The Green Ray won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival in 1986 (27 years ago next week). Rayon Vert Ale won Bronze at the San Diego County Fair in 2012. I endorse both.


Celluloid Flashback: Martin Scorsese’s Casino

This may be the first in a semi-regular series of posts in which I briefly describe how I’ve come to re-evaluate a movie over time.

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Out of all the films I used to feel ambivalent about but which I have since positively reappraised due to my immaculate angel of a wife’s having watched them over and over in front of me, none has risen more dramatically in my estimation than Martin Scorsese’s Casino. I first saw it during its original theatrical run in 1995 when I was 20-years-old. I left the theater feeling disappointed — mainly because it failed to live up to Goodfellas, the prior Scorsese movie that it seemed to most closely resemble. They both, after all, featured Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci as mobsters, there were shocking bursts of violence, epic tracking shots, copious amounts of voice-over narration, healthy doses of black humor, eclectic soundtracks on which the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” prominently featured, and so on. Comparisons were always going to be unavoidable. But what really rankled was the way Casino seemed to me like a gaudier, more Hollywood-ized version of Goodfellas — as if Scorsese and co-writer Nicholas Pileggi had taken some of the elements of their successful earlier film and re-shuffled them with the added commercial elements of a Las Vegas setting, a bigger budget and the star power of Sharon Stone (then one of Hollywood’s hottest commodities). While I did admire Casino for its impressive and undeniable cinematic value (it was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between Scorsese and his now-longtime cinematographer Robert Richardson), I largely felt indifferent about it on the whole.

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Almost 20 years later, after revisiting the film many, many times (thanks, Jill!) on television and Blu-ray, all of my previous complaints have been swept aside and I now consider it one of Scorsese’s finest works. When I first saw it, one thing I didn’t quite understand was what Scorsese was up to in regards to the Las Vegas setting. I remember feeling back then that the quintessential “New York filmmaker” seemed out of his element “out west” and that, in spite of a few faux-documentary interludes, he didn’t seem to have much of an affinity for the gambling scene. (This is born out by the fact that, to this day, serious gamblers appear to prefer the 1998 poker film Rounders as their Vegas movie of choice.) I realize now that it was wrong of me to have expected the same kind of lovingly detailed views of Las Vegas as those of New York City that can be seen in Scorsese’s other films. For Scorsese, Las Vegas is primarily a metaphor: it’s a “paradise lost” to his gangster characters from “back East.” The notion that Sam “Ace” Rothstein and Nicky Santoro (the characters played by DeNiro and Pesci, respectively) had it all and then blew it is one of the ways in which the film poignantly shows the influence of one of Scorsese’s favorite movies, Raoul Walsh’s Prohibition-set masterpiece The Roaring Twenties. Both Scorsese and Walsh seem to be saying that no matter how violent, immoral and unconscionable the behavior of their characters might be, they were inextricably part of a colorful and exciting era that has since been replaced by something duller and more sanitized. The tone of each movie is therefore elegiac and bittersweet.

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As far as the “gaudiness” is concerned, I now believe this is actually Casino‘s strongest stylistic virtue: there is much more voice-over than in Goodfellas, the music is nearly wall-to-wall and the song choices are wackier (e.g., Devo’s cover of “Satisfaction”!), while the clothes, the decor, and the use of color are all deliriously over-the-top. In 1995, what I somehow missed was the way Scorsese and his production team’s deliberately outrageous sense of style was taking its cues directly from the Vegas setting, and I was more apt to criticize the film then for what it wasn’t (i.e., another Goodfellas) rather than what it was (the tragedy of a man who was given the keys to the kingdom of a modern-day Babylon and then willingly let them slip through his fingers). In contrast to the eternal coolness of the 1950s and 1960s New York-milieu of Goodfellas — with its great cars, clothes and music — nearly everything about Casino, in terms of content and form, is rooted in the tackiness and excess of the Las Vegas fashions of the 1970s and early 1980s. And what I didn’t see at the time but what has since become abundantly clear in hindsight is how much this tackiness also provides the film with some of its most inspired and humorous touches. This is nowhere more evident than in a poster recently created by Boston-based artist Ibraheem Youssef that depicts every suit worn by Ace Rothstein in the movie:

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My current top five Scorsese films:

5. Casino
4. Shutter Island
3. Taxi Driver
2. Goodfellas
1. Raging Bull


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