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Jean-Luc Godard’s THE IMAGE BOOK

My review of Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book was published at Cine-File today. The film, which opens at the Siskel Center today for a three-week run, is almost certainly the best new film I will see all year. Here’s the review in its entirety:

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Jean-Luc Godard’s THE IMAGE BOOK (New French)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for show times

When I screened A MAN ESCAPED in an Intro to Film class a few years ago, one particularly bright student seemed riveted by Bresson’s radical and extensive use of first-person voice-over narration, close-ups of hands at work, and the unusual way these elements interacted with each other. In a post-screening discussion, he made the salient point that “It was as if Lieutenant Fontaine’s hands were doing the thinking and the talking.” I was reminded of this remark at the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard’s THE IMAGE BOOK when a close-up depicts a man’s hands splicing together two shots of 35mm film at an editing table. On the soundtrack, Godard’s 87-year-old voice, now a sepulchral whisper, informs us that “man’s true condition” is to “think with hands.” This is shortly followed by what appears to be a documentary image of a concentration-camp victim’s emaciated fingers. Hand imagery from a variety of sources – from a shot of Bunuel wielding a straight razor in the opening of UN CHIEN ANDALOU to the detail of an index finger pointing upwards in Da Vinci’s painting John the Baptist – proliferates in the early stages of THE IMAGE BOOK. This serves to introduce the film’s structure (“five chapters like the five fingers of a hand”) and overall aesthetic strategy (mixing excerpts of narrative films with documentaries, high art, cell-phone videos, etc.); but, more importantly, it reminds us of Godard’s belief that a filmmaker is ideally someone who works with his or her hands, operating “small instruments” like the analog equipment on which Godard begins the process of slicing and dicing the contents of his vast image data bank before he passes that footage on to his cinematographer/co-editor Fabrice Aragno for a digital upgrade. After this brief prologue, THE IMAGE BOOK proper begins: The first four “chapters” feature Godard’s associative montage at its most rigorous – he traces various images, ideas and motifs throughout film history (water, trains, war, the concept of “the law,” etc.) in a manner not unlike that of his mammoth video essay HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA. But, even when it feels most familiar, these passages in THE IMAGE BOOK still show Godard to be a restless experimenter: The famous scene in Nicholas Ray’s JOHNNY GUITAR where Sterling Hayden implores Joan Crawford to “lie” by professing her love for him (a scene Godard has already quoted in several other films) gets a new look by the introduction of a black screen during what should be a shot of Hayden, so that viewers only see the corresponding reverse-angle shot of Crawford in their charged dialogue exchange. Another new trick up the director’s sleeve is the way he presents shots in a deliberately incorrect aspect ratio (i.e., the images appear horizontally stretched) before having them “pop” into the proper ratio, an amusing and oddly satisfying poetic effect. The film’s darker and more disturbing elements, on the other hand, have caused some critics to categorize it as a “horror movie.” In one instance, Godard provocatively juxtaposes an execution scene from Rossellini’s PAISAN, in which Italian partisans are drowned by their Nazi captors, with eerily similar, recent non-fiction footage of ISIS executions. Elsewhere, he juxtaposes images of exploited performers – intercutting shots of a grinning “pinhead” from Tod Browning’s FREAKS with someone performing anilingus in a pornographic film of unknown origin (the latter is identified only as “PORNO” in the lengthy bibliography that makes up most of the closing credits). But it’s the fifth and final chapter, taking up almost the entire second half of the film, that sees Godard boldly striking out into truly new territory: This section examines how Western artists frequently misrepresent the Arab world by depicting it in simplistic and reductive terms (i.e., as either “joyful” or “barbaric”). Godard quotes extensively from authors I haven’t read (e.g., Edward Saïd and Albert Cossery) but the overall meaning is clear in an extended scene that focuses on a fictional Arabic country named Dofa whose “underground has no oil” but whose Prime Minister nonetheless dreams of submitting all Gulf countries to his rule. What’s incredible about this sequence is the startling way Godard conveys the “story” solely through his narration while the image track is comprised of a cornucopia of found footage from movies by both Western and Arabic filmmakers (not to mention some hyper-saturated shots apparently captured by Godard and Aragno on location in Tunisia that are the most visually ravishing in the film). That it’s often difficult to determine where these shots came from is, of course, part of the point. In an otherwise war-and-death-obsessed work that feels even more despairing than usual for this gnomic artist, Godard does, however, express hope for the possibility of a new poetics of cinema, one in which Middle-Eastern and African filmmakers might discover new ways of seeing and hearing themselves. The wild sound design, always a highlight in late Godard, reaches new levels of expressiveness here as voices, sounds and snippets of music aggressively ping-pong back and forth between multiple stereo channels – essentially doing for the ears what the groundbreaking 3D of GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE did for the eyes. In a lengthy post-credits sequence, Godard’s voice-over eventually devolves into a coughing fit while a rhapsodic dance sequence from Max Ophuls’ LE PLAISIR gets the final word on the image track. In spite of what some of his detractors think, Godard still believes in the elemental power of cinema, which is why the mesmerizing IMAGE BOOK is a more accessible work than even many of its champions would have you believe. Spotting references and decoding meanings is ultimately less important than the sensorial experience of simply vibing with the uniquely romantic/pessimistic tone engendered by this giant of the medium’s total mastery of “image et parole.”

Note: The Siskel Center has installed a 7.1 surround-system solely for the purpose of accommodating Godard’s ambitious 7.1 stereo soundtrack. (2018, 90 min, DCP Digital) MGS

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
2. Nothing Sacred (Wellman)
3. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene)
4. Mikey and Nicky (May)
5. Call Northside 777 (Hathaway)
6. Rendezvous in Chicago (Smith)
7. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
8. The Image Book (Godard)
9. Cluny Brown (Lubitsch)
10. Eighth Hours Don’t Make a Day (Fassbinder)


RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO on WGN Radio’s Patti Vasquez Show

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My fearless producer Layne Marie Williams and I were on WGN Radio’s Patti Vasquez Show last night to talk all about the Chicago Premiere of RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO at the Gene Siskel Film Center! The interview segment begins at the 38:40 mark and runs all the way until the end of the program. This is a fun, freewheeling listen. Check it out here.

If you haven’t bought tickets yet, they are selling like hotcakes! The Friday and Saturday shows, in particular, should sell out in advance so please get ’em while you still can at the Siskel’s website here.


BOYCOTT ’63 and F*** YOUR HAIR at the Siskel Center

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Kartemquin Films is still going strong after half a century (see last year’s impressive one-two punch of Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap and Steve James’ America to Me) but the short-form works of Chicago’s documentary production-company powerhouse tend to receive less exposure than its features. That should change with the release of ’63 Boycott, a provocative new short directed by Kartemquin co-founder Gordon Quinn that was recently shortlisted for an Oscar (but alas failed to receive a nomination).

Quinn’s 30-minute documentary primarily details the remarkable but strangely forgotten true story of how 250,000 Chicago students boycotted the public schools in which they were enrolled to protest segregation during the height of the Civil Rights movement. The filmmakers combine archival 16mm footage, much of it previously unseen, with present-day interviews with the original boycott participants to paint a compelling portrait of one of the largest civil rights demonstrations to take place outside of the South. But ’63 Boycott is no dusty museum piece: The filmmakers also draw parallels between the segregationist policies of Mayor Daley in the 1960s and the similarly racist policies of Rahm Emmanuel’s contemporary administration—particularly in regards to the mass closure of public schools in minority communities.

’63 Boycott is well paired with the world premiere of Jason Polevoi’s F*** Your Hair—a more light-hearted though no-less polemical non-fiction short—when both films screen together at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s annual Stranger Than Fiction Series beginning this Friday. The latter movie follows the strange odyssey of Andres Araya and Mila Ramirez, Latin American immigrants who founded Chicago’s 5 Rabbit Cerveceria and unwittingly found themselves at the center of a social protest movement after being commissioned to brew the house beer for Trump Tower.

After Trump’s disturbing campaign-trail pronouncements about Mexican immigrants, the owners of 5 Rabbit Cerveceria found themselves with little recourse but to pull their beer from the tower—a blonde ale that they promptly rebranded “Chinga Tu Pelo” (or “F*** Your Hair”). The relabeled brew catapulted 5 Rabbit to new heights of popularity as local restaurants, watering holes and individual consumers began purchasing the beer in mass quantities, making an anti-Trump statement in the process. Polevoi’s witty and engaging 38-minute shaggy-dog story, which features interviews with Hopleaf owner Michael Roper andThe Matrix co-director Lily Wachowski, should hold equal appeal for political obsessives and craft-beer aficionados alike.

The Stranger Than Fiction screenings of ’63 Boycott and F*** Your Hair will take place on Friday, January 25, Saturday, January 26 and Wednesday, January 30. Filmmakers representing both films will attend all screenings. More information, including ticket info and showtimes, can be found on the  Siskel Center’s website.


RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO at the Gene Siskel Film Center

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Tickets for the four RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO screenings at the Gene Siskel Film Center next month are on sale NOW. I anticipate sell-out crowds (w/ the Friday and Saturday shows selling out first) and strongly advise buying advance tickets at the Siskel Center box office or online here. I will appear for audience discussion at all screenings, along with these special guests:

Fri, 2/8, 8pm – Intro: Conor Cornelius/Moderator: Tom Hush (WGN’s No Coast Cinema). Panelists: Actors Clare Cooney, Nina Ganet, David McNulty, Matt Sherbach

Sat, 2/9, 4:30pm – Moderator: Pamela Kammer Powell (FF2 Media). Panelists: Women of the Now (producer Layne Marie Williams, associate producer Jill Sandmire, colorist Grace Pisula and script supervisor Hannah Butler)

Mon, 2/11, 7:45pm – Moderator: Pat McDonald (Hollywood Chicago). Panelists: Actor Rashaad Hall, producer Layne Marie Williams, cinematographer Alex Halstead, editor Eric Marsh, production designer Haley McCormick. Note: On Monday only, the feature will be followed by McCormick’s short film DANCER (7 min)

Wed, 2/13, 7:45pm – Moderator: Matt Fagerholm (RogerEbert.com). Panelists: Actors Clare Cooney, Nina Ganet, Matt Sherbach, Shane Simmons

Please also RSVP to our delightful Facebook Event Page.

 


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Overwhelm the Sky (Kremer)
2. Skippers (Wertheimer)
3. The Mule (Eastwood)
4. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (Ross)
5. The Image Book (Godard)
6. Mercy’s Girl (Lape)
7. The Song of Love (Marion/Franklin)
8. Back to God’s Country (Hartford/Shipman)
9. Broadway Love (Park)
10. The Call of the Cumberlands (Ivers)


My Top 25 Films of 2018

All of these films first screened theatrically in Chicago for the first time in 2018. I’ve linked to my original reviews and podcast appearances where applicable and offer new thoughts on a few films I haven’t written about elsewhere. Enjoy.

10. The Woman Who Left (Lav Diaz, Philippines)
A companion piece to Diaz’s earlier Norte: The End of History, this nearly 4-hour epic  — about a woman being released from prison after 30 years and searching for the man who framed her — has more intelligent things to say about “revenge” than all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies put together.

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9. First Reformed (Paul Schrader, USA)
Schrader’s howl of despair about the fucked-up state of our planet risks becoming ridiculous in order to reach the sublime.

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8. Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke, China)
Jia again examines recent Chinese history, this time in a gangster movie/perverse love story about a couple whose tumultuous fortunes mirror those of their country.

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7. Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker, USA)
This wild and beautiful film, a quantum leap beyond Decker’s first two movies, cuts deep into the heart of the dubious emotional exploitation inherent in almost all director/actor relationships.

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6. 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran)
Kiarostami’s final film — and final masterpiece — contains the most innovative use of CGI I’ve ever seen. My capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

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5. Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, S. Korea)
S. Korea’s greatest living filmmaker adapts a Haruki Murakami story and whips up a bizarre love triangle/murder mystery/class-conflict exposé/art film as only he could.

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4. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA/UK)
Anderson’s cinematic feast is equivalent to a breakfast of Welsh rabbit with a poached egg, bacon, scones, butter, cream, jam, a pot of Lapsang souchong tea, and some sausages. Capsule here.

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3. The Mule (Clint Eastwood, USA)
88-year-old Eastwood turns out a work of infinite moral complexity, as deeply moving as it is wacky, told with a visual economy worthy of comparison to late John Ford.

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2. Zama (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina)
Martel confronts colonialism in 18th-century Argentina by focusing on an unexceptional man, and turns viewers into aliens in the process. My interview with the director at Time Out Chicago here.

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1. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles, USA)
In the same paradoxical way that the famous breakfast scene in Citizen Kane is both depressing (because it charts the dissolution of a marriage) and hilarious (because of the cleverness of the montage), The Other Side of the Wind is a profound meditation on death — the death of the old Hollywood studio system, the death of Orson Welles and, ultimately, the death of everything — that feels more thrillingly alive than any movie I saw in 2018.

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The Runners-Up:

11. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont, France) – Dumont’s batshit-crazy electronic/metal musical about the childhood of Joan of Arc. My capsule review for Cine-File here and a discussion of it on the inaugural episode of Cine-Cast, the Cine-File podcast, here.

12. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, USA) – Lee’s best in a long time. Capsule review on this blog here.

13. Claire’s Camera (Hong Sang-Soo, S. Korea/France) – Hong in (deceptively) light comedy mode. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

14. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, UK/USA) – Gripping neo-noir that offers further proof Joaquin Phoenix is the finest actor working in American movies today.

15. Good Manners 
(Juliana Rojas/Marco Dutra, Brazil) – A lesbian love story that mutates into a werewolf movie and has a lot to say about class, race, sexuality and gender in contemporary Brazil besides.

16. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA) – A darkly clever anthology film all about death and storytelling.

17. John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (Julien Faraut, France) – This idiosyncratic doc is as much about cinema as it is about John McEnroe’s nearly perfect 1984 season. Capsule review for Cine-File here.

18. Blaze (Ethan Hawke, USA) – A star isn’t born.

19. Support the Girls (Andrew Bujalski, USA) – A great movie about work, friendship and America.

20. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Koreeda, Japan) – A film that shows, in great unclichéd detail, what it’s like to be poor.

21. Bisbee ’17 (Robert Greene, USA) The best kind of political film, one that encompasses the past and the present and shows how they’re inextricably tied. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

22. Happy as Lazzaro (Alicia Rohrwacher, Italy) – You think it’s a work of neorealism then it shifts, unexpectedly and delightfully, into magical realism.

23. Minding the Gap (Bing Liu, USA) – The most harrowing movie moment of 2018: “You can’t beat up women but some bitches need to get slapped sometimes.”

24. Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas, France) – Assayas at his wittiest, Juliette Binoche at her most radiant. Capsule review at Cine-File Chicago here.

25. A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper, USA) – A good old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama.


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