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Tag Archives: Eric Rohmer

Odds and Ends: A Summer’s Tale and Life Itself

A Summer’s Tale (Rohmer, France, 1996) – Theatrical Viewing / Rating: 7.9

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In much the same way that the Humphrey Bogart-vehicle Dead Reckoning can be seen as the quintessential film noir — by being a virtual checklist of all of the genre’s conventions — in spite of the fact that it’s not very good, so too can A Summer’s Tale be deemed the “ultimate Eric Rohmer movie” in spite of falling far short of the master’s best work. All of the key Rohmer ingredients are here (which might be part of the problem): familiar from La Collectionneuse, Pauline at the Beach and The Green Ray is the beach locale during summertime; from all six of the Moral Tales is the dilemma of a young man (Melvil Poupaud) torn between multiple — and vastly different — women; and from countless other Rohmer films is an academic protagonist (this time a mathematician and musician studying “sea shanties”) sidetracked by l’amour fou. Poupaud, half-way between being the child actor discovered by Raul Ruiz and the mature adult performer in movies by Arnaud Desplechin, Xavier Dolan and others, is appealing, but Amanda Langlet steals the show as his ambiguous love interest/friend Margot. The theme of thwarted desire is as keen and amusing as ever but those familiar with Rohmer’s oeuvre will know that he’s done this kind of thing much better elsewhere. Even within the “Tales of the Four Seasons,” the late film cycle to which it belongs, this isn’t within hailing distance of such masterworks as A Tale of Winter or An Autumn Tale (though it’s infinitely preferable to the dull A Tale of Springtime). Still, diehard Rohmer fans will want to seek out A Summer’s Tale: it never got a proper theatrical release in the U.S. until now and this new HD restoration renders Rohmer’s photography of the sunny Dinard locations as appealing as one could hope for.

Life Itself (Steve James, USA, 2014) – On Demand / Rating: 6.9

Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel

I recently and belatedly caught up, via video on demand, to Life Itself, Steve James’s much-lauded bio-doc/adaptation of Roger Ebert’s much-lauded memoir of the same title. While I found much to admire within it (I have too much respect for both Ebert and James not to), I also was not as impressed as I hoped I would be. Life Itself feels almost like two separate documentaries (one about Ebert’s life, the other about his death) that have been mashed together but that never quite cohere into a completely satisfying whole. The film about Ebert’s death is the better of the two: scenes of his final months, with his loving wife Chaz beside him in the hospital, in rehab and at home, while occasionally painful to watch, are the heart of the movie and really reveal director James’s humane and guiding hand. The poignancy of these scenes, which underscore the theme of “dying with dignity,” are where one feels the deepest connection between filmmaker and subject. The rest of Life Itself — consisting of talking-head interviews, archival clips from old episodes of Siskel and Ebert, an Ebert sound-alike narrating from the great critic’s memoir, etc. — is more anonymous and feels like standard made-for-PBS fodder; as enjoyable as much of that stuff is, it never feels like more than an unnecessary reduction of an already fine book. Life Itself begins with Ebert’s now-famous quote about cinema being an empathy-generating machine. While the two hours that follow generate more than their fair share of empathy, and are therefore well worth seeing, prospective viewers also shouldn’t be expecting another Hoop Dreams.

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The Top Home Video Release of 2013: Watching Blu Paint Dry

Below is my continuation of last week’s post concerning the most essential home video releases of 2013:

1. Coffret Eric Rohmer, l’Integrale (Rohmer, France, Potemkine Blu-Ray)

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Last month, French home video distributor Potemkine — in collaboration with everyone’s favorite fashion designer/patron of cinema, Agnes B. — unleashed a gargantuan Blu-ray and DVD box set that not even the most ardent Francophile-cinephile would have ever dreamed possible: a complete career-spanning retrospective of one of the giants of French cinema, influential film critic-turned-master filmmaker Eric Rohmer. The set, entitled Coffret Eric Rohmer, l’intégral (“The Complete Eric Rohmer Box”), includes all 24 of the writer/director’s feature-length movies, plus numerous shorts, made-for-television films and documentaries, nearly all of which have been restored and presented in high-definition, plus many extras, spread across a total of 52 discs (both Blu-ray and DVD). Among the goodies included are a 100-page book (en Francais only), a set of collectible postcards, a poster for Claire’s Knee (1970), and two teabags(?!) thrown in for good measure. The artwork adorning the box and the digipaks that house the discs is colorful, hand-drawn and delightful, making the entire enterprise feel like the precious collector’s item that it is. Although the Blu-ray discs are “Region-B locked,” meaning North American Rohmer fans will need a multi-region Blu-ray player to enjoy them (and, really, what better excuse do you need to buy a multi-region player than this?), all 24 of the features, plus the essential 1962 short The Bakery Girl of Monceau (the first of Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales”), fortunately come with optional English subtitles. This ambitious project is easily the most impressive home-video release ever devoted to a single filmmaker, eclipsing the “Ford at Fox” DVD box set from a few years back, Universal’s “Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection” Blu-ray set from last year and anything else that I own or can even think of.

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Raymond Carver titled one of his most famous short stories “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which could have served as an equally fitting subtitle for this box set. I am prepared to argue that no artist in any medium, not just cinema, explored the subject of romantic love as thoroughly as Rohmer — although it takes a certain amount of life experience to appreciate the depth of his accomplishment. I initially saw most of Rohmer’s films when I was in my early twenties and, save for the Moral Tales (his most well-known work), I hadn’t bothered to revisit his filmography until now — at the age of 38. After recently watching all of his movies in the span of less than a month, I now understand and appreciate his artistry in a way that I never had before. While I always considered myself an admirer of his “official masterpieces” (the later Moral Tales and certain key films in his other two prominent cycles: “Comedies and Proverbs” and “The Tales of the Four Seasons”), some of his films struck me as dull or even annoying, mainly because I found the characters annoying — without realizing that this was fully Rohmer’s intention. See, for example, the last segment of 1995’s Rendezvous in Paris, a hilarious satire of “mansplaining” (before the term even existed). But the most important revelation I’ve had about Rohmer is the realization that his special genius lay in his illustration of how the vast majority of human desires remain unfulfilled — the drama of his scenarios arises from the tension between what his characters want and their refusal/inability to attain it. Rohmer knew that eros has a way of making one talk, act and think differently, and this is what his camera documented with the precision of a microscope. And I’m not just referring to the kind of strong desires that make us want to sleep with person X or try to make person Y our significant other; he showed how eros can make one act just the tiniest degree nicer to a person to whom one is attracted, even when — or perhaps especially when — one feels that nothing may come of it.

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The Coffret Eric Rohmer, l’intégral set feels so right. It makes sense to bundle together the complete works of Eric Rohmer even more than the filmographies of most other major directors. From The Sign of Leo in 1959 to The Romance of Astrea and Celadon nearly a half of a century later, Rohmer showed a remarkable consistency in terms of his stylistic and thematic preoccupations. Sometimes he came in for criticism for it but Rohmer really did tend to make the same movie over and over again, sometimes with only minor — though crucial — variations in the characters and settings (something that can’t really be said about his compatriots in the nouvelle vague). The conventional wisdom, at least in certain mainstream cinephile circles, is that Rohmer was a kind of French Woody Allen: an intellectual who wrote and directed “talky” (i.e., dialogue-heavy and “uncinematic”) romantic comedies about upper class characters for upper class audiences. But far from being the cinematic equivalent of “watching paint dry,” to quote the famous putdown by Gene Hackman’s detective character in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), Rohmer’s films are both more exquisitely cinematic than his detractors give him credit for while also keeping more of a critical distance from their protagonists than many of his supporters are willing to admit. (Having said that, I can’t quite go along with the assertion of critic Gilbert Adair that Rohmer’s characters “are among the most foolish, ineffectual and pathetic milquetoasts ever to have graced a cinema screen, [and] that, on a generous estimate, 90% of the celebrated talk is sheer, unadulterated twaddle” — even if Adair meant that as a compliment!)

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As far as Rohmer’s too-little-remarked-upon visual mastery is concerned, its virtues lie in the most discreet aspects of mise-en-scene. Yes, his films are about people talking, oftentimes in a self-deceptive fashion that is humorous for the way it rings of psychological truth, but there is often a poignant discrepancy between what his dialogue tells and what his camera shows. I would argue this is dialogue that would not add up to much on the page or even the stage. It does, however, come spectacularly alive on the cinema screen because of its very specific real-world context. In other words, the things that matter most in Rohmer’s movies are the material facts of where and when his characters do their talking — character and environment are inseparable. The main interest in watching Boyfriends and Girlfriends (1987), for instance, stems not from the romantic musical-chairs plot but rather from the way this plot unfolds against the backdrop of the horrific modern “architecture” of the pre-fabricated Parisian suburb known as Cergy Pontoise. And even more important than locations in Rohmer are the seasons, the time of day and the weather (“My films are slaves to weather,” he pronounced in one interview): has the particular color of summer sunlight ever registered so vividly as in Nestor Almendros’ photography of the French Riviera in La Collectionneuse (1967)? Is it possible to watch Jean-Luis Trintignant attend midnight mass at Christmastime in the black-and-white My Night at Maud’s (1969) and not feel the coldness in one’s bones? In Rohmer’s last masterpiece, 1998’s An Autumn Tale, what sticks with one the most about the beautiful character study is the sense of what it’s like to walk among the vineyards in the Rhone wine-region of France on a perfect fall day. But Rohmer knew a thing or two about interiors too. Check out Claire’s Knee, in which Aurora, a 30-something female novelist, wears matronly dresses with floral patterns that subtly link her to the wallpaper around her (and thus the concept of domesticity), in pointed contrast to the teenaged and bare-kneed Claire (who is repeatedly associated with the outdoors).

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It is precisely because Rohmer was a director who cared about such minute details that his movies — even with their lack of dramatic external “action” — deserve to be seen in high-definition. I can honestly say that I’ve never enjoyed watching movies at home more than I did while poring over the contents of this box set during the past month. Unfortunately, it seems the public has been taught to think of the Blu-ray format as one that is somehow most conducive to showcasing state-of-the-art CGI and bone-crunching sound effects. I am therefore particularly grateful to Potemkine for putting out such a lavish set devoted to this modest master with such loving care. The image and sound quality of all of the films included here are remarkably faithful to their source material, and also remarkably consistent from one film to the next (something that cannot be said about the Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection — where the A/V quality varied wildly). Note that this set consists of 30 DVDs and 22 Blu-rays. Three of the features, which have not been restored, are available on DVD only and not Blu-ray: The Lady and the Duke (2001), Triple Agent (2004) and The Romance of Astrea and Celedon (2007). This means that, ironically, the three most recent titles in the bunch are also the most underwhelming in terms of their tech specs. (Speaking as someone who prefers Rohmer’s contemporary films to his period pieces without exception, this is no big loss as the three most recent titles are also my least favorite movies in the box.) Below are my ratings of all of the individual films. The first letter grade is for the movie itself, the second is for the A/V quality.

1. The Sign of Leo: B+/A
2. The Bakery Girl of Monceau (short): A-/B+
3. Suzanne’s Career: A-/B+
4. La Collectionneuse: A/A+
5. My Night at Maud’s: A+/A
6. Claire’s Knee: A+/A+
7. Love in the Afternoon: A+/A+
8. The Marquise of O: B/A
9. Perceval: B/A+
10. The Aviator’s Wife: A+/A
11. A Good Marriage: A-/A
12. Pauline at the Beach: A/A
13. Full Moon in Paris: A/A+
14. The Green Ray: A+/A-
15. Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle: A+/A
16. Boyfriends and Girlfriends: A-/A
17. A Tale of Springtime: B+/A+
18. A Tale of Winter: A+/A+
19. The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque: A/A
20. Rendezvous in Paris: A/A
21. A Summer’s Tale: B+/A+
22. An Autumn Tale: A+/A+
23. The Lady and the Duke: C+/B-
24. Triple Agent: B-/B+
25. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon: B+/B+

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Coffret Eric Rohmer, l’intégral can be ordered from Amazon in France here: http://tinyurl.com/klppeud


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.


Richard Linklater and the VHS Generation

“He sort of won the race, didn’t he? Through sheer persistence, consistency and focus. And longevity. He’s a poet who just kept going. When people would say of Before Sunrise that it reminded them of an English-language Rohmer film, I’d go, ‘Well, that’s very flattering, but I don’t think he’d ever make a film that simple.’ My work is so much simpler than his. I give him more credit than that.”

— Richard Linklater, on the death of Eric Rohmer in 2010

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What most intrigues me about the genuinely humble tribute from one master to another I’ve cited above is the notion that Richard Linklater thinks Eric Rohmer “won” a “race” without elaborating on exactly which race that might be. I can only imagine that the director of Before Midnight had the story of the tortoise and the hare in mind when he made that remark and that he saw Rohmer as being analogous to the slow-but-steady turtle and most of his compatriots in the French New Wave as being frenetic rabbits: Rohmer may have in many ways been the “slowest starter” (i.e., the least commercial or intellectually fashionable) of the major nouvelle vague filmmakers during the 1960s but his body of work as a whole arguably ended up being more impressive in the long run. It’s also hard for me to imagine that Linklater isn’t revealing something about his own career in that remark — even if only subconsciously. Critics, after all, often lump Linklater in with Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith as constituting a “VHS Generation” — a group of American filmmakers who never graduated from college (in pointed contrast to the celebrated “Film School Generation” of the 1970s) but who educated themselves about film history via home video in the 1980s before directing their first independently made breakthrough features in the early-to-mid 1990s. While Linklater may indeed have been the least flashy of that particular group during the Nineties (Dazed and Confused developed an almost-instant cult following but it didn’t make its writer/director a “star” in the manner of a Tarantino or a Smith), it seems inarguable to me that he has the most impressive filmography from the vantage point of the year 2013. He and Anderson are the only directors of the bunch who I would cite as actually having significantly improved in the 21st century.

So here’s why I consider Richard Linklater the most important filmmaker of his generation:

1. His work is more profitably rooted in a specific sense of place.

Unlike most contemporary American directors, whose movies either might as well be taking place anywhere or are set in pop culture-infused Neverlands of their own imaginations, Linklater’s work stems, culturally as well as geographically, from deep in the heart of his home state of Texas (he’s a native Houstonian). As Martin Scorsese is to New York, as Alain Guiraudie is to the southwest of France, so too is Richard Linklater to Texas: Slacker, Dazed and Confused, SubUrbia, The Newton Boys, Waking Life, Fast Food Nation, A Scanner Darkly and Bernie are all mostly set in — or were shot in — and are ultimately about communities and subcultures within the Lone Star state. It even seems significant that in the director’s beloved, European-set Before trilogy, Ethan Hawke’s Jesse hails from Austin, and thus his character can be seen as offering a kind of “Texan’s-eye-view” of cosmopolitan Austria, France and Greece, respectively. More importantly, Linklater’s films profoundly reflect the iconoclastic, often-contradictory character of Texas, which is nowhere more apparent than in Bernie, the story of a horrific real life murder that nonetheless manages to be both darkly comic and surprisingly warmhearted. Watch this hilarious clip in which Sonny Carl Davis, a native of rural Carthage (where the film is set), describes how Texas could actually be five different states:

2. He is the most knowledgable about film history while simultaneously the least likely to show off his cinephile cred.

Richard Linklater is a hardcore cinephile, which is evident throughout his life and work — from the clip of Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud included in his obscure first feature It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books in 1988 to his recent passionate defense of Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running in the book The Best Films You’ve Never Seen. And yet Linklater’s films are about “real life” (which, of course, includes cinephilia) more than simply being about other movies. In other words, in contrast to Tarantino and Rodriguez — who seem increasingly content to merely mash-up moments from their favorite grindhouse movies of their adolescence — Linklater has fully absorbed the lessons of his masters and applies them to the modern world in a way that results in something entirely fresh and new. Consider the way Julie Delpy’s Celine references Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy in Before Midnight: her lines about watching Italy‘s Pompeii scene allow Linklater to engage in a meaningful critical dialogue with Rossellini’s masterpiece (both are ultimately about the salvation of long-term relationships between couples vacationing in a foreign country); but her lines are written and performed in such an offhanded and naturalistic “I once saw this old movie on television” kind of way that the scene doesn’t alienate anyone who hasn’t scene Italy. More profoundly, when asked if he in any way emulated the visual style of Orson Welles when making his underrated 2008 biopic Me and Orson Welles, Linklater wisely replied that he hadn’t because his film was about Welles’ pre-Citizen Kane theatrical career. He then added that he was more influenced by John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln since the scenario of both movies hinges on a sophisticated manipulation of the viewers’ knowledge of the “future greatness” of their subjects. Contrast this with the way Quentin Tarantino used his Django Unchained World Domination Tour to denigrate the career of John Ford (and showed a startling ignorance of Ford’s work in the process). One should also note that Linklater’s education in film history came mostly on film instead of VHS — his interest in moviemaking was spurred by repeated visits to a Houston repertory theater and he founded the Austin Film Society in 1985 in order to bring more diverse cinema fare to Austin.

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3. He is the most formally innovative director of his generation.

Linklater is a formal innovator who has impressively managed to make his innovations accessible to a wide variety of audiences. Slacker, which borrowed its narrative-relay structure from Luis Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, was shot on a budget of just over $20,000 and almost single-handedly spearheaded an independent filmmaking renaissance in America when it was released in 1991. Tape (2001), a gripping adaptation of Stephen Belber’s single-setting play, was shot on miniDV tape — thus adding another layer of meaning to the title (in addition to its referencing an audio-recording that prominently features in the plot); in an era when everyone else wanted to make video seem like film, Linklater intriguingly chose to emphasize Tape‘s video origins, incorporating the graininess of the digital-to-film transfer into his sleazy motel-room visual design. Both Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006) pioneered “rotoscoping” animation (with its trippy, undulating textures), which can now be seen in television commercials for large corporations. But Linklater’s greatest formal innovations probably result from his experiments in structuring narratives around real-time sequences. Because he has always favored philosophical dialogue over physical action, Linklater typically also favors long takes to fast cutting, and many of his movies consequently take place over the course of a single day: Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, SubUrbia, Tape, Waking Life, Before Sunset and Before Midnight all take place in a span of less than 24 hours. Additionally, Tape and Before Sunset are among the few feature films in the history of cinema that take place entirely in real time. The apotheosis of Linklater’s style can be found in Before Midnight, in which the lack of cutting and the choreography between the camera and the performers seem so organic to the material and achieve such a perfect sense of harmony that the film’s ostensible European-style “art-film” aesthetic has deservedly found success among general audiences — as if it were a more typical American-style rom-com.

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And all of this is to say nothing of Linklater’s skills as a writer (the progress of which can be charted from the way his characters have evolved from charming-but-irresponsible adolescent autodidacts to charming-but-mature and sensitive adults) and as a director of actors (he is particularly good at directing children and non-actors — see again the extraordinary School of Rock — and his seven-films-and-counting collaboration with Ethan Hawke must surely rank as one of the most fruitful director-actor partnerships of modern times).

Below is my subjective countdown, from worst to best, of all of Richard Linklater’s feature films. In case it isn’t obvious from the rankings, I believe Linklater’s art underwent a quantum leap in terms of quality between the 1998 release of The Newton Boys and the 2001 releases of Waking Life and Tape (both of which premiered at that year’s Sundance Film Festival):

17. It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988)
16. SubUrbia (1996)
15. Bad News Bears (2005)
14. The Newton Boys (1998)
13. Fast Food Nation (2006)
12. Tape (2001)
11. Me and Orson Welles (2008)
10. Slacker (1991)
9. Before Sunrise (1995)
8. Waking Life (2001)
7. School of Rock (2003)
6. Dazed and Confused (1993)
5. Bernie (2011)
4. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
3. Before Midnight (2013)
2. Before Sunset (2004)
1. Boyhood (2014)


Ma Nuit Chez Gretchen?

“At the height of his career, Murnau was able to mobilize all those forces which guaranteed him complete control of the film’s space. Every formal element – the faces and bodies of the actors, objects, landscapes, and such natural phenomena as snow, light, fire, and clouds – have been created or recreated with an exact knowledge of their visual effect. Never has a film left so little to chance.”

– Eric Rohmer, The Ogranization of Space in Murnau’s Faust, 1972

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I recently screened F.W. Murnau’s Faust in a class for the first time and found myself enjoying it so much that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t shown it earlier. In the past 3+ years that I’ve been teaching film history, I’ve mostly alternated between screening The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu and M in order to illustrate the German Expressionist movement. (I’ve shown Metropolis only once due to its length.) Watching Faust with a group of students for the first time has convinced me it’s not only one of the greatest of the Expressionist films but also the masterpiece of Murnau’s German period. As much as I love Nosferatu and The Last Laugh, Faust is more visually astonishing and elaborately conceived than either.

Anyway, it just so happened that I screened Faust shortly after having watched Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales for the first time in many years. I was absolutely astonished to realize that the church scene in Faust (where Faust spies for the first time, and falls in love with, the “innocent girl” Gretchen) was the clear inspiration for the opening scene of My Night at Maud‘s. Then I remembered that Rohmer had written his doctoral dissertation on Murnau. The title of the dissertation is The Organization of Space in Murnau’s Faust and concerns Murnau’s extreme formal precision, a quality that the two otherwise dissimilar directors share. I love Rohmer’s claim, in the quote above, that no film has left as “little to chance” as Faust not only because Rohmer also left so little to chance as a filmmaker but also because chance is the explicit subject of My Night at Maud’s.

The more I think about it, the more tempted I am to call My Night at Maud’s a remake of Faust. Both films feature tormented men who fall in love with women in church before ever meeting them because the women seem to correspond to their ideals: innocent, blonde and virtuous. Both films tackle the subjects of moral choice, sin and the redemptive power of love. And although the opening of My Night at Maud‘s isn’t a shot-for-shot remake of the church scene in Faust, Rohmer is clearly going for a similar “feel.” Check it out:

Faust looking in on Gretchen at the beginning of the church scene in Faust:

Jean-Louis looking in on Francoise in My Night at Maud‘s:

3/4 rear view of Gretchen, the blonde ideal in Faust:

Side view of Francoise, the blonde ideal in My Night at Maud‘s:

You can feel Murnau’s love for the pageantry of church service in this long shot (note also the similarity between the diagonal slashes of light in this scene and the wedding scene in Sunrise):

You can feel Rohmer’s love for the pageantry of Catholicism in this long shot:

Finding secret correspondences like this between films made in different countries and different eras is one of the most gratifying aspects of cinephilia. I haven’t been this excited by such a discovery since I realized John Ford visually quoted a shot from The Last Laugh in Four Sons.


A French New Wave Primer

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

The 400 Blows (Truffaut, 1959)

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

Hiroshima, Mon Amour (Resnais, 1959)

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

Les Bonnes Femmes (Chabrol, 1960)

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

Breathless (Godard, 1960)

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

Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, 1961)

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

Paris Belongs to Us (Rivette, 1961)

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

Adieu Philippine (Rozier, 1962)

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

Cleo from 5 to 7 (Varda, 1962)

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

Jules and Jim (Truffaut, 1962)

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

Le Joli Mai (Marker, 1963)

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

Le Mepris (Contempt) (Godard, 1963)

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

Muriel (Resnais, 1963)

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

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy, 1964)

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

Pierrot le Fou (Godard, 1965)

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

La Collectionneuse (Rohmer, 1967)

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

Weekend (Godard, 1967)

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

The Young Girls of Rochefort (Demy, 1967)

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

The Smugglers (Moullet, 1968)

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

La Femme Infidele (Chabrol, 1969)

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

L’amour Fou (Rivette, 1969)

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

My Night at Maud’s (Rohmer, 1969)

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


Top 25 Films of the 1990s

25. The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax, France, 1991)

24. Audition (Miike, Japan, 1999)

23. An Autumn Tale (Rohmer, France, 1998)

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22. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Lynch, USA, 1992)

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21. Taboo (Oshima, Japan, 1999)

20. To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, USA, 1990)

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19. The Mission (To, Hong Kong, 1999)

I’m fond of calling Johnnie To the world’s greatest genre director and this film, the coolest gangster movie since the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville, is the best place to start exploring his work. After an attempt is made on his life, a triad boss hires five professional killers (a who’s who of Hong Kong’s best male actors of the ’90s) to serve as his personal bodyguards while trying to unravel the mystery of who ordered the hit. Plot however takes a serious back seat to character development as scene after scene depicts our quintet of heroes bonding and playing practical jokes on each other. (A personal highlight is the brilliant sequence where the five co-leads engage in an impromptu paper ball soccer match.) When the action does come, it arrives in minimalist, tableaux-like images of meticulously posed characters whose staccato gunfire disrupts the silence, stillness and monochromatic color scheme on which the entire film is based.

18. La Ceremonie (Chabrol, France, 1995)

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17. Centre Stage (Kwan, Hong Kong, 1992)

Prior to the rise of Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan was Hong Kong’s most prominent art film director. Often distributed under the English title Centre Stage (an ill fit since that connotes theatrical performance), Actress is Kwan’s masterpiece and one of the all-time great Hong Kong films – a biopic of silent Chinese film star Ruan Ling-Yu (Maggie Cheung in her first great performance) who committed suicide at the age of 24. Shuttling back and forth in time, set against a backdrop of political tumult and audaciously including clips from Ruan’s classic films as well as documentary segments featuring director Stanley Kwan and the cast of Actress, this is essential viewing for anyone who cares about cinema.

16. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1999)

15. Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993)

14. The Piano (Campion, Australia, 1993)

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Jane Campion’s international breakthrough was this tough and beautiful feminist love story, set in the mid-19th century, about Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute Scottish woman and single mother whose father “arranges” her marriage to an English expatriate farmer (Sam Neill) on the western coast of New Zealand. Shortly after arriving at her new home, however, Ada embarks on an unlikely romance with George (Harvey Keitel), another Scottish emigre and an oddball who has “gone native” by tattooing his face and living among the Maori. The melodramatic plot twists that ensues will whip your emotions into a frenzy as expertly as the finest gothic novels of the 19th century, aided in no small part by Campion’s gorgeous mise-en-scene, a quartet of excellent performances (the three mentioned above plus Anna Paquin’s turn as Ada’s daughter) and Michael Nyman’s rhapsodic, piano-driven score. One of the best films of the Nineties.

13. Peppermint Candy (Lee, S. Korea, 1999)

Forget Memento and Irreversible, here’s the original “edited in reverse” movie – a tour de force of filmmaking that begins with the suicide of a thirty-something businessman, then skips backwards over the previous twenty years of his life to show the personal tragedy of one man’s loss of innocence and corruption set against the sweeping backdrop of S. Korea’s tumultuous recent history.

12. Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990)

11. Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994)

One of the definitive films of the ’90s, Wong Kar-Wai’s refreshingly original spin on the romantic comedy tells two parallel but unrelated stories involving heartbroken cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung) who attempt to get over recent break-ups by becoming involved with strange new women – a counter girl at a fast food restaurant (Faye Wong in her first screen performance) and an international drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin in her last). Wong’s innovative visual style, predicated on handheld cinematography and optical effects that turn nocturnal Hong Kong into an impressionistic blur of colorful neon, ideally compliment the film’s alternately sweet, funny and melancholy tone. The cinematic equivalent of a perfect pop song.

10. Anxiety (de Oliveira, Portugal, 1998)

9. Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993)

8. Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999)

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7. The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)

Abbas Kiarostami deservedly won the Palm d’Or at Cannes for this great film about a middle-class, middle-aged man who traverses the Iranian countryside in a Range Rover trying to find someone who will assist him in committing suicide. Each of the three prospects he “interviews” for the job are far apart in age and profession (a young soldier, a middle-aged seminarian and an elderly taxidermist), a set-up that allows Kiarostami to offer a wide-ranging philosophical treatise on the meaning of life and death in the modern world. The film’s unexpected and controversial coda, shot on video and scored to Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary Blues,” is hauntingly, ineffably right.

6. Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou, Taiwan, 1996)

5. A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996)

My favorite Makhmalbaf film is this (pseudo?) documentary in which the director re-interprets a notorious event from his own youth – the stabbing of a police officer during an anti-Shah protest in the 1970s, a crime for which he was sentenced to five years in prison. Twenty years later, both Makhmalbaf and the police officer who was his victim cast and train two actors to play themselves as younger men in a recreation of the event. The very real anxiety the young actor portraying Makhmalbaf shows about having to stab the young actor playing the cop (with a fake, retractable blade) leads to a suspenseful, surprisingly gripping climax. A fascinating meditation on memory, history, politics and the cinema.

4. Nouvelle Vague (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1990)

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Jean-Luc Godard’s late masterpiece features fading matinee-idol Alain Delon and the beautiful, enormously talented Domiziana Giordano as archetypal Man and Woman at the end of the twentieth century. The image track tells one story (a narrative involving characters who gradually swap dominant and submissive relationship roles) and the sound track another (the dialogue consists almost entirely of literary quotations from Dante to Proust to Rimbaud to Raymond Chandler, etc.) yet both frequently intersect to create a rich tapestry of sight and sound. Godard uses dialectics involving man and woman, Europe and America, art and commerce, sound and image, and upper and lower class to create a supremely beautiful work of art that functions as an affirmation of the possibility of love in the modern world (and a new poetics of cinema) and that also serves as a curiously optimistic farewell to socialism. Unusual for late-Godard is the constantly tracking and craning camera courtesy of the peerless cinematographer William Lubtchansky.

3. Satantango (Tarr, Hungary, 1994)

Based on László Krasznahorkai’s famed novel, which I haven’t read but which has been favorably compared to the works of William Faulkner, my favorite American author, this seven-and-a-half hour Hungarian epic is one of the defining — and most purely cinematic — movies of recent decades (unlike The Decalogue, director Bela Tarr wants you to see this on the big screen in a single sitting). The plot has something to do with a pair of con artists, Irimias (Mihály Vig, who also scored) and Petrina (Putyi Horváth), arriving at a farm-commune and swindling its members out of their money, but story seems like a mere pretext for Tarr’s despairing allegorical portrait of life in post-Communist Hungary. Krasznahorkai’s ingenious structure, said to be based on the tango (i.e., six steps forward and six steps back), shows the same narrative events multiple times from the perspectives of different characters and is perfectly complemented by Tarr’s utterly singular visual style, which combines epic long takes with elaborate camera movements. But don’t let anyone’s description, including mine, or the running time fool you: this eye-filling black-and-white epic is a much easier watch than its reputation suggests — there is plenty of dark humor to go around and even a fart joke for good measure.

2. Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992)

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Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece about aging cowboys shows the end of the West as historical reality and the beginning of the West as myth. This aspect of the film is most obviously embodied in the character of dime store novelist W.W. Beauchamp, which allows Eastwood, like John Ford before him, to print both the fact and the legend. In some ways Unforgiven represents the end of an era (one could argue it is the last great classical western) but it can also be seen as the beginning of Eastwood’s own great late period as director, a prolific stretch that continues to this day.

1. A Brighter Summer Day (Yang, Taiwan, 1991)

Edward Yang’s four hour epic about juvenile delinquents in 1950s Taipei marries the ambitious societal portraits of the 19th century Russian novel (one gang leader even references War and Peace, memorably calling its characters “swordsmen”) with the romanticism, iconography and intense identification with outsiders characteristic of a Nicholas Ray picture. In other words, the personal story (involving a troubled fourteen year old kid played by Chang Chen) can be seen as an allegory for the identity crisis of an entire nation struggling to define itself in the aftermath of World War II. I saw a 35 millimeter print of this over a decade ago and I emerged from the theater unable to speak. No moviegoing experience has shaken me more profoundly to the core than that one.


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