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Tag Archives: Luis Bunuel

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:


A Silent French Cinema Primer

Following my French cinema primers covering the Nouvelle Vague and the pre-Nouvelle Vague sound era, today’s post covers what I think are the most essential French movies of the silent era. Although I normally only write about feature films in these primers, I’m going to make an exception for this one so that I can cover some of the most influential French films of the era.

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Lumieres, France, 1896)

Bertrand Tavernier has referred to this Lumiere Brothers masterpiece as the “first horror movie” because, as legend has it, early audiences reacted to the image of a train moving towards the camera by fleeing in terror. This is a simple “actuality” that depicts just what the title states in a single shot lasting approximately 42 seconds. But it’s also a good example of how well made the Lumiere Brothers’ films were: the dramatic contrast of the black and white cinematography, coupled with the diagonal perspective of the composition, makes the film an aesthetically pleasing experience even when viewed today. It can be seen in its entirety on YouTube by clicking the image above.

A Trip to the Moon (Melies, France, 1902)

Georges Melies was the polar opposite of the Lumieres; he made narrative films in the fantasy genre that showcased trick photography and special effects. He also shot all of his movies in an ingeniously constructed glass-walled studio in Paris. Melies’ most famous film is A Trip to the Moon, a 14-minute sci-fi adventure about astronomers making a maiden moon voyage, where they do battle with the moon’s alien inhabitants before triumphantly returning to earth. This gained renewed fame when it became a major reference point in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and was subsequently re-released in a splendidly restored color version. I’m including a link to a YouTube video above but please note that the image quality here is far inferior to what you will find on the magnificent Flicker Alley blu-ray released earlier this year.

The Life of Christ (AKA The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ) (Guy, France, 1906)

Alice Guy, a true movie pioneer, began her directing career in 1896 and is sometimes credited as the first person to make a narrative film (as opposed to Lumiere-style actualities). A DVD compilation of her work released by Kino in 2009 is a revelation: it contains stunt comedies, panoramic views of exotic places, and fascinating early experiments with sound and color. My favorite of her films that I’ve seen is The Life of Christ, which recounts “the greatest story ever told” in 25 single-shot tableaux-like scenes that, at 33 minutes, made it relatively epic in 1906. Especially effective is the climactic resurrection, which is bolstered by a beautiful score on Kino’s DVD. This is my second favorite Jesus movie after Pasolini’s.

A Child of Paris (Perret, France, 1913)

Also included in Kino’s “Gaumont Treasures” DVD set is a an entire platter devoted to Leonce Perret, an important director previously unknown in the States. The major revelation of the set is A Child of Paris, a feature film from 1913 that is shockingly sophisticated in terms of its cinematography (including the kind of camera movements and oblique compositions that wouldn’t become commonplace for years to come). The Dickensian story concerns a little girl who becomes an orphan, is sent to a boarding school, runs away and then is kidnapped by a gang of thieves. The acting is surprisingly naturalistic for the time and the use of real locations – in Paris and Nice – is impressive in the extreme.

Les Vampires (Feuillade, 1915-1916)

The brilliant, prolific Louis Feuillade directed over 600 movies, many of them multi-part serials, before his death at 52. Les Vampires, which is not about vampires but rather a gang of nocturnal thieves who call themselves “The Vampires,” is one of the highlights of his career. The leader of the gang is a woman named Irma Vep (played by the ferocious, outrageously sexy actress Musidora) who finds herself matching wits with ace newspaper reporter Philippe Guérande and his comical sidekick Oscar Mazamette. This was much beloved by the Surrealists for its evocation of an elaborate criminal network festering beneath the surface of mainstream bourgeois society as well as, one presumes, a capture-and-escape narrative loop structure that stands in opposition to the typical closure of Hollywood. Nearly a hundred years later, this 10 part mystery serial has lost none of its power to entertain for the entire duration of its nearly 7 hour running time.

Tih Minh (Feuillade, 1918)

Jacques d’Athys, a French adventurer, returns to his home in Nice after an expedition to Indochina where he has picked up a Eurasian fiancee and a book that, unbeknownst to him, contains a coded message revealing the whereabouts of both secret treasures and sensitive government intelligence. This makes him the target of foreign spies, including a Marquise of mysterious Latin origin, a Hindu hypnotist and an evil German doctor, who will stop at nothing to obtain the book. Louis Feuillade’s 12 chapter, 7 hour serial is overflowing with action, thrills, humor and romance, and is a strong contender for the title of the most purely entertaining movie that I have ever seen from any era.

Coeur Fidèle (Epstein, 1923)

My favorite French silent feature is Jean Epstein’s Impressionist masterpiece about a young woman, Marie, whose cruel foster parents force her into a marriage with an unemployed, alcoholic thug ironically named “Petit Paul.” Marie nonetheless continues to pine for her true love, Jean, a local dockworker. This romantic triangle is infused with sublime visuals from beginning to end (including a highly poetic use of superimpositions, rapid-fire cutting and close-ups) that make the film a crushing emotional experience when viewed today. The famous merry-go-round sequence, with its striking imagery and musical rhythms, is one of the glories of the silent cinema.

Ménilmontant (Kirsanoff, 1926)

Dmitri Kirsanoff’s astonishing 38 minute short is arguably the most modern-looking film produced anywhere in the silent era. The story, told without intertitles, revolves around two sisters who, as children living in a small town, tragically witness their parents being murdered. Then, Kirsanoff flashes forward to years later as both sisters are living in Paris and become involved with an evil seducer. But no plot description can do justice to the way Kirsanoff uses his camera like a paintbrush to capture images of incredible beauty and emotional depth. The film’s tempo ranges from fast, Soviet-style montage to a deliberately arty languorousness depending on the mood of the characters, and contributes to an atmosphere of almost unbearable intensity. Finally, there is the brilliantly understated lead performance of Nadia Sibirskaïa (Kirsanoff’s wife) who, in the film’s most celebrated scene, contemplates suicide before changing her mind when a complete stranger offers her bread in a public park. Ménilmontant is on my short list of near-perfect movies.

Napoléon (Gance, 1927)

First, I must confess to having only seen this on VHS tape in a controversial restoration overseen by Francis Ford Coppola that was both incomplete and transferred at the wrong speed. The arguably nationalistic and pro-militaristic content of the film also strikes me as somewhat dubious. But . . . as an insanely gargantuan, impossibly ambitious work of pure cinema, this has few equals. Gance’s film begins with Napoleon as a child engaging in a snowball fight at a military academy and proceeds through many visually astonishing episodes before climaxing, unforgettably, with a three-panelled widescreen sequence that shows Napoleon at the height of his powers invading Italy as the head of the French army. One of my fondest cinephiliac desires is that silent historian Kevin Brownlow’s most recent restoration, which has now swelled to five and a half hours, will make its way to blu-ray soon.

The Little Match Girl (Renoir, 1928)

Although it wasn’t until the sound era that Jean Renoir directed the films that made him immortal (e.g., Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game), I think The Little Match Girl, a 40 minute adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson story, is one of his best and most affecting films. The title character is a waif forced to sell matches on the streets in the dead of winter in order to earn her livelihood. While literally freezing to death, the match girl looks through a toy store window and fantasizes that she is inside and that the toys have magically come to life all around her. The dream-like visuals and fantasy element are atypical for Renoir, the humanism is not.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928)

After a successful run of films in his native Denmark, Carl Dreyer headed to France for his last silent film, a beautiful dramatization of the life of the beloved saint. Instead of showing Joan’s heroism in battle the way you would expect a biopic to do, Dreyer focuses instead only on the last days of her life as she is tried and executed by an English court. The film’s most notable characteristic is its relentless use of extreme close-ups, which capture every wrinkle on the judges’ evil faces and every nuance of Renee Falconetti’s highly emotive performance in the title role, which remains one of the finest ever captured on celluloid.

Un Chien Andalou (Bunuel, 1929)

Luis Bunuel’s directorial debut, based on a script he co-wrote with Salvador Dali, is the most famous Surrealist movie ever – and for good reason. It opens with the shocking image of a man slicing a woman’s eyeball with a straight razor (a shot that is graphically matched with a cutaway image of a cloud drifting in front of the moon) before jumping ahead to “Eight Years Later” and focusing on a new set of characters in scenes that are equally bizarre. But, since Bunuel plays the man with the razor, the function of the prologue is obvious: to announce an all-out assault on the viewer, whose sight, after all, is the most important sense in experiencing a film. Bunuel and Dali’s rule when writing the screenplay was that Un Chien Andalou should be nonsensical to the point of not being interpretable; legions of critics and historians, including me, have ignored their intention ever since.

À propos de Nice (Vigo, 1930)

À propos de Nice is the exceptionally promising debut film of Jean Vigo, whose career was tragically curtailed four years later when he died of tuberculosis at age 29. This begins as a conventional “city symphony”-style travelogue of the title locations before expanding its scope to offer surreal stylistic flourishes and a satirical/critical view of Nice’s wealthy citizens. In 25 minutes, Vigo and his ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman offer up more ideas, visual invention and wit than what you see in most features; the slow-motion, low angled shots of women dancing are particularly memorable for their eroticism.


A Classic Latin American Cinema Primer, Pt. 2

Below is part two of the classic Latin American cinema primer that I began last week.

Black God, White Devil (Rocha, Brazil, 1964)

Glauber Rocha’s international breakthrough begins roughly where Vidas Secas ended: with a poor laborer living in the harsh landscape of northeastern Brazil being cheated out of his wages by an exploitative boss. Unlike his compatriot Nelson Pereira dos Santos however, Rocha is not content to portray this conflict in a simple Neorealist style; instead, he sends Manuel, his protagonist, on a picaresque, occasionally hallucinatory journey where he first falls under the sway of a self-appointed religious prophet named Sebastião (the “black God” of the title) and later a charismatic proletarian bandit named Corisco (who christens our hero “Satan”). Hunting all of these characters is the government-and-church appointed assassin Antonio das Mortes, who gives the film dramatic shape and allows it to build to an awe-inspiring climax. An excellent example of how politically-committed filmmakers used cinema to engage socio-political problems as Marxism swept across Latin American in the mid-twentieth century.

Chronicle of a Boy Alone (Favio, Argentina, 1965)

Like an Argentinian version of Zero de Conduite or The 400 Blows, Leonardo Favio’s first feature uses the microcosmic story of mistreated children rebelling against the adult world (school teachers, parents, police) as an allegory for friction between individuals and society as a whole. As a political statement though, it is arguably more effective than its predecessors because it was actually produced in an “authoritarian-bureaucratic state,” which responded by promptly banning the film. As in Italian Neorealism, this features an incredible child performance by Diego Puente as Polin, an eleven year old boy who escapes from a state-run orphanage and runs away to the city. Once there, he goes skinny dipping, spies on a prostitute, witnesses the accidental death of a friend, smokes countless cigarettes and has an unforgettably poetic interaction with a horse-drawn carriage, all in the course of one long day before being re-captured. Plotless and meandering on the surface, this is actually political filmmaking of the most powerful and vital kind.

Simon of the Desert (Bunuel, Mexico, 1965)

In one of Luis Bunuel’s wackiest tall tales, the title character decides to live atop a giant column in the middle of the desert in order to be nearer to God and to avoid the worldly temptations. Satan repeatedly tempts Simon to come down from his pedestal, including once in the guise of a topless Silvia Pinal (which is worth the price of admission alone). This short feature clocks in at a mere 45 minutes because Bunuel allegedly ran out of money while filming and yet, ironically, the end result is probably all the better for it. Simon of the Desert is like a short, well-told joke with a great punchline (albeit one that involves Bunuel’s heretical attitude towards rock and roll) that provides a fitting conclusion to the director’s great “Mexican period.”

Memories of Underdevelopment (Alea, Cuba, 1968)

The most famous film of Cuba’s most well-known director, Tomas Gutierrez Alea, is this unforgettable chronicle of Sergio, a bourgeois intellectual who chooses to remain in his native Havana from the pre-Revolution era through the rise of Fidel Castro, the Cuban Missile Crisis and beyond. Far from being a work of Communist propaganda like one might expect from a Cuban film of the 1960s, this is instead a deeply ambiguous character study and a brilliantly fragmented work of cinematic modernism. It looks and sounds like a kissing cousin of the contemporaneous French New Wave while also functioning as a vivid portrait of a specific time and place in Cuban history.

Antonio das Mortes (Rocha, Brazil, 1969)

Glauber Rocha’s masterpiece is this semi-sequel to Black God, White Devil in which the earlier film’s villain is converted to the cause of the working class canguaceiros and turns against the vicious capitalist landowners who’ve hired him as an assassin. This socialist fable and visionary western is the midway point between The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and El Topo, a film that succeeds as much for its filmmaking smarts (a beautiful and symbolic use of color, the favoring of Brazilian folk music over dialogue) as it does for its political messages. A singularly hypnotic experience that deservedly won Rocha the Best Director prize at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival.

Macunaima (de Andrade, Brazil, 1969)

Cinema Novo’s penchant for radical political content and form is pushed to a delirious extreme in Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s adaptation of Mário de Andrade’s quintessential modernist novel. Andrade confronts racism and neo-colonialism head-on in a bat-shit crazy comedy about an old white woman living in the jungle of Brazil who gives birth to the title character, a full-grown black man. After taking a bath in a magical fountain that turns his skin white, Macunaima heads to Sao Paolo where he becomes mixed up with a variety of strange characters including a left-wing female terrorist and a wealthy cannibal who is in possession of a priceless pearl. The cannibalism = capitalism metaphor is a bit too pat and some aspects of this are dated but there is also ferocious and highly original filmmaking: some of the sight gags (such as the goose that lays golden eggs) are hilarious and the use of brilliantly colorful sets and costumes makes this a provocative live action cartoon for adults.

How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (Dos Santos, Brazil, 1971)

Nelson Pereira dos Santos takes his super-realistic style and applies it, fascinatingly, to a 16th century period piece in this incredible account of the European colonization of Brazil. A French explorer is captured by an indigenous Brazilian Indian tribe who make him their guest of honor for eight months prior to killing and eating him. During his captivity, the Frenchman attempts to assimilate to the tribe in hopes of being able to escape but his attempts are all in vain. Once controversial for its near-constant depiction of full frontal nudity (male and female), this feels at times like a documentary made by an ethnographer with a time-machine. Hollywood filmmakers, including Terrence Malick (whose The New World covers similar terrain to lesser effect), could learn a lot from watching this.

Painted Lips (Nilsson, Argentina, 1974)

Argentina’s Leopoldo Torre Nilsson is one of the most unjustly neglected major directors in the history of world cinema. His masterpiece is Painted Lips, also known as Boquitas pintadas or Heartbreak Tango, an adaptation of an equally fine epistolary novel by Manuel Puig (often translated into English under the title Heartbreak Tango). The film is a haunting comic melodrama set primarily in the 1940s about Juan Carlos, a tubercular Don Juan-type, and the four women who are doomed to love him. Since much of the movie’s dialogue consists of the voice-over narration of letters, and the denouement flashes forward thirty years later to a deathbed scene involving one of Juan Carlos’ lovers, Nilsson turns the whole enterprise into a great, innovative “memory film” along the lines of the best of Alain Resnais.

Dialogues of the Exiled (Ruiz, Chile/France, 1975)

Modeled on Brecht’s Conversations in Exile, this wry piece of political cinema was the first film made in exile by the great Chilean director Raul Ruiz following the CIA-backed military coup of Augusto Pinochet. It consists almost entirely of dialogue-based interior scenes (all of which have a semi-improvised feel) of Chilean expatriates attempting to assimilate to their new existence as political refugees in France. One particularly amusing subplot details a rather benign kidnapping of a touring Chilean pop singer named Fabian Luna by exiles attempting to win him over to their cause. Dialogues of the Exiled is a modest, no-budget comedy but a crucial document of the Chilean diaspora and essential viewing for fans of the director.

Diary of the War of Pigs (Nilsson, Argentina, 1975)

Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s penultimate film is a fascinating quasi-sci-fi parable about growing old. Sometimes referred to as taking place in the future, this actually begins with a title crawl stating that it’s based on a diary from the year 1969 (which would make it more of an alternate reality movie rather than a futuristic dystopian one). The premise is that Argentina’s youth have formed marauding gangs who exterminate the country’s elderly after having become fed up with senior citizens who seem to be of no use and are merely living off of social security. The story is seen from the point of view of Isidro, a middle-aged man who dares to take a young lover and thus makes himself a target of the “revolution.” Torre’s unique tone is intriguingly pitched somewhere between the profoundly unsettling and the surprisingly erotic.

The Passion of Berenice (Hermosillo, Mexico, 1976)

The Passion of Berenice is a deft updating of the kind of melodramas that characterized the Mexican cinema’s epoca de oro, not least because the male lead is played by Pedro Armendariz, Jr. (who looks uncannily like his pop, albeit with with long hair and a 1970s mustache). The story concerns Berenice, a young woman with a scarred face and a troubled past who lives with and takes care of her elderly godmother. Berenice is haunted by nightmares involving flames and horses that she can’t quite make sense of and there are rumors that she murdered her first husband. She embarks on an affair with the son of her godmother’s doctor in what starts out as a straightforward romantic drama but grows increasingly mysterious and eventually becomes downright scary. A lot of the credit belongs to Martha Navarro who offers an unforgettable portrait of a woman who always appears chillingly aloof.

Xica (Diegues, Brazil, 1976)

In the 18th century, Joao Fernandes de Oliveira is a contractor sent by the King of Portugal to oversee diamond mining in Brazil and to root out corruption within the local government. Upon arrival, however, he falls in love with Xica da Silva, a black slave who is renowned for her sexual prowess. Soon, Oliveira will stop at nothing to give Xica what she wants, including luxury items from around the world and even has a man-made lake constructed just for her. In spite of the serious subject matter, the tone of the film is kept light and amusing throughout. Xica is essentially a trickster figure, similar to the protagonists of other slave narratives, who pretends to be a subservient fool in order to get what she wants. I’ve heard it said that she is supposed to represent the spirit of Brazil and, when viewed in that light, this weirdly touching love story becomes even more complex and provocative. The funky, anachronistic score is also a delight.

The Place Without Limits (Ripstein, Mexico, 1977)

Arturo Ripstein, considered by some to be Mexico’s greatest living filmmaker, is probably best known in the States for his superb 1996 serial killer melodrama Deep Crimson but his lengthy film career extends back to the early 1960s when he began as an assistant to Luis Bunuel. The influence of Bunuel can be strongly felt on The Place Without Limits, a 1978 drama that offers a fascinating, colorful portrait of small town Mexican life while also subtly critiquing Latin machismo and homophobia. Robert Cobo (who, as a child, played the worst of the delinquents in Los Olvidados) stars as “La Manuela,” a gay brothel owner who is torn between selling his business to local bigwig Don Alejo or capitulating to the wishes of his daughter, who manages the brothel, and keeping things status quo. Complicating the scenario is the return of Pancho, a hotheaded truck driver who had violently attacked Manuela the year before but who appears to be equally attracted to both father and daughter alike. Like many of Ripstein’s films, this is a literary adaptation, but the film’s chief pleasures (including Cobo’s unforgettable flamenco dance) are those that could only come alive on the screen.


A Classic Latin American Cinema Primer, Pt. 1

I’ve heard it said that the best way to learn about something is to teach it and, after teaching film studies classes for three and a half years now, I have to concur. Sometimes I feel as though I learn almost as much from my students as they learn from me. A case in point is the subject of Latin American cinema, which I was only marginally familiar with prior to teaching. Because so many of my students are first or second generation immigrants from various Latin American countries, I have made a concerted effort to learn more about movies from Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Cuba in order to better connect with them. (I’d like to give a special shout out to Fernando and Evelyn here for hipping me to Cantinflas.) Similarly, one of the great things about running a film studies blog like this one is that it provides me with a great excuse to constantly be studying different aspects of film history for the sole purpose of writing new blog posts.

My classic Latin American Cinema Primer is split into two posts of thirteen titles apiece. Part one concerns films made from the beginning of the early sound era through 1963. Part two, to be published next week, will span the years 1964 – 1979.

Tango Bar (Reinhardt, Argentina/USA, 1935)

Carlos Gardel is considered one of the greatest tango singers of all time. He was also a movie star and this delightful Spanish language musical, directed in the U.S. by the Hungarian John Reinhardt but written and performed by Argentinians, was the last film he made before he tragically died in a plane crash at age 44. The story has something to do with Gardel’s character, Ricardo, leaving Buenos Aires for Barcelona on a boat after a streak of bad gambling luck. En route, he meets Laura (Rosita Morena), a beautiful woman whom he romances and saves from the clutches of gangsters. But the slender plot of this one hour feature is really just an excuse for the elegant Gardel to sing a bunch of songs including the rousing “Por Una Cabeza,” which both opens and closes the film.

Let’s Go with Pancho Villa (De Fuentes, Mexico, 1936)

Considered by some to be the greatest Mexican movie ever and the one that single-handedly inaugurated the Mexican film industry’s “golden age,” this astonishing wartime drama follows six peasants known as “Los Leones de San Pablo” who join Pancho Villa’s army during the Mexican revolution. Director Fernando de Fuentes takes care to paint each character distinctly, showing the warm camaraderie that exists between each individual and the rest of the bunch, which makes the film genuinely tragic when their numbers start to gradually dwindle. But what really impresses about this film is Fuentes’ jaundiced view of Villa and the revolution itself, which the director sees as complex and messy and marked by a terrible human cost, the exact opposite of the hagiographic approach one might expect.

Dona Barbara (De Fuentes/Delgado, Mexico, 1943)

Written by Venezuelan author Romulo Gallegos (adapting his own novel), this epic melodrama made a screen goddess of lead actress Maria Felix in the title role. Beautifully photographed in high contrast black and white, the story concerns a kind of love triangle between the vicious, eponymous ranch owner Barbara, her illegitimate daughter and the civilized doctor who attracts them both. This movie belongs to the incredible Felix, a force of nature whom I’ve described elsewhere on this blog as combining the fierceness of Joan Crawford with the sexiness of Ava Gardner. She practically burns up the screen when she says “I use men at my convenience. I spit them out when I’m done.”

Maria Candelaria (Fernandez, Mexico, 1944)

Before Luis Bunuel migrated over from Europe, the most important director of Mexico’s golden age was Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez. Maria Candelaria, a melodrama set among the indigenous people of Xochimilco, is one of his masterpieces. A journalist visits a famous, elderly artist in his studio and asks him about the painting of a naked Indian woman. The artist tells the story of the painting’s subject, which is then seen in flashback: the good-hearted title character (Dolores del Rio) is shunned by her fellow villagers because she is the daughter of a prostitute, which dooms her relationship with her fiance Lorenzo (Pedro Armendariz), the honest and hard-working peasant who loves her. This powerful tale of love and intolerance is similar to (and in my opinion infinitely preferable to) Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves from a half century later.

The Pearl (Fernandez, Mexico, 1947)

Emilio Fernandez’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel about Quino, a Mexican diver who discovers a priceless pearl at the bottom of the ocean. Unfortunately, what should be his family’s ticket to a better life inspires jealousy in the surrounding community and Quino soon finds himself a wanted man on the lam. Fernandez and his great regular cinematographer Gabriela Figueroa were heavily influenced by Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico and here they’ve captured comparable images of silvery, spellbinding beauty: low-angle close-ups of the protagonists lend the characters and story a resonant, near-mythological power while longer shots juxtapose them against the beautiful landscapes of rural coastal Mexico. Fernandez is also notable for being the only film director to ever shoot a film critic.

Los Olvidados (Bunuel, Mexico, 1950)

The first masterpiece of Luis Bunuel’s Mexican period is this unforgettable tale of juvenile delinquents living in the slums of Mexico City. The main characters are Jaibo, the leader of a gang, and Pedro, an impressionable boy who wants to do good but becomes enmeshed in gang activity after being repeatedly rejected by his own mother. There are many aspects to this film that are similar to Italian Neorealism, including the documentary-like visuals and incredibly naturalistic child performances, but Bunuel, being true to his roots, continually pushes the material in a more dream-like and surreal direction. An uncompromising film that was way ahead of its time, Los Olivdados feels like it could have been made yesterday.

El Bolero de Raquel (Delgado, Mexico, 1957)

Mario Moreno Cantinflas is known as “Mexico’s Charlie Chaplin” because he was a genius comedian who specialized in playing working class underdogs while also sporting baggy pants and a distinctive mustache. El Bolero de Raquel is a great vehicle for the actor’s comedic chops; here, he plays a shoeshiner who finds himself, much like Chaplin in The Kid, unwittingly playing foster father to a young boy following the death of a close friend. Cantinflas is primarily known for his intricate wordplay (specifically for his tendency to ramble on while essentially saying nothing) but this non-Spanish speaking viewer will most remember El Bolero for a couple sequences of primarily visual humor: one involving the application of suntan lotion and one where our hero ruins the dance routine of a beautiful nightclub performer by attempting to dance with her against her will. Both scenes had me laughing like an animal.

Tizoc (Rodriguez, Mexico, 1957)

Tizoc (Pedro Infante) is a poor Indian laborer who falls in love at first sight with a wealthy Mexican woman named Maria (Maria Felix), initially mistaking her for the virgin Mary. Infante, the most famous Mexican actor ever, is at his best as the simple but noble title character. His mistaken belief that Maria wants to marry him, and his subsequent realization that he is wrong, lead to a series of tragic events in this beautiful Technicolor musical melodrama from Infante’s favorite director Ismael Rodriguez. The most memorable scene features Tizoc singing to Maria that he loves her “more than his eyes,” which causes her to weep. Angry at himself for making her cry, Tizoc hits himself in the mouth with a rock. Released after Infante’s untimely death in a plane crash at the age of 42, this is a great love story.

Black Orpheus (Camus, Brazil/France, 1959)

Prior to the rise of Brazil’s celebrated “Cinema Novo” in the 1960s, the most significant movie produced in Brazil was this contemporary musical adaptation of the Orpheus myth directed by the Frenchman Marcel Camus. Charges of racism and colonialism have occasionally been levied against it (including by some Brazilians who have objected to their culture being portrayed as a non-stop party) but I think that’s an overreaction. For one thing, Camus’ film, which expresses a genuine love and respect for Brazilian culture and music, never claims to be anything approaching a definitive statement about the soul of a people. For another, it’s an adaptation of a play by Brazilian writer Vinicius de Moraes that already views Brazil through the lens of another culture (ancient Greece). The music, widely credited with popularizing bossa nova outside of Brazil, is incredible, the cast of local performers is infectiously energetic, and the Eastmancolor cinematography employs color more purposefully than 99% of all other color films.

The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales (Gonzalez, Mexico, 1960)

Luis Alcoriza wrote the script for Rogelio Gonzalez’s wicked black comedy about Dr. Morales (the great Arturo Cordova), a taxidermist who murders his insufferably pious wife. In a scenario reminiscent of Bunuel and Hitchcock (there is a healthy amount of Catholic-bashing to go along with the humor and uxoricide), Dr. Morales informs family and friends that the Mrs. has gone on vacation even as he puts her skeletonized remains on display in his shop. Alcoriza also wrote the screenplay for many of Bunuel’s best Mexican films and if Gonazalez doesn’t push this to quite the surrealist extreme that Don Luis would have, no matter. This is still an essential comedy from the tail end of the golden age of Mexican cinema.

The Exterminating Angel (Bunuel, Mexico, 1962)

One of the best and most vicious satires of Luis Bunuel’s career is this 1962 comedy built on the irresistible premise of a group of upper class friends getting together for a dinner party and then, for no explicable reason, finding themselves unable to leave. After several days, the facade of not only the aristocracy but civilization itself is stripped away as each of the characters ends up revealing a primitive, essentially bestial core. Is this a satire of an entire class of people or of the tragic absurdity of existence itself? Or is it just a bunch of meaningless nonsense? In the best Surrealist tradition, that’s up to each individual viewer to decide.

The Unscrupulous Ones (Guerra, Brazil, 1962)

Criminally unknown (in the U.S. at least), this 1962 feature from first time writer/director Ruy Guerra is one of the best Brazilian films I’ve seen. Clearly inspired by the French New Wave, Guerra’s story follows a couple of amoral petty criminals from Copacabana who hatch a blackmail plot that involves taking nude photographs of a young female acquaintance. Pretty soon she’s helping them to perpetrate the same scheme on her cousin. This film is startling in so many respects (the use of handheld camera, the nihilism, the critique of machismo, the full frontal nudity and casual drug use), it’s hard to believe that someone could have made this movie anywhere in the world as early as 1962. The big bang of Cinema Novo.

Vidas Secas (dos Santos, Brazil, 1963)

A man, his wife, their two children and a dog lead a nomadic existence, constantly in search of work, food and shelter, in the most barren region of northeastern Brazil. The man of the family eventually hires on at the home of a wealthy cattle farmer, where he ends up being grossly exploited, before inevitably moving on. Fueled by a sense of social outrage and inspired by Italian Neorealism, Nelson Pereira dos Santos wrote and directed this bleak, starkly beautiful black and white film (which might be more appropriately referred to as a “white and black film”) that stands as one of the crown jewels of Brazil’s Cinema Novo.


A Classic French Cinema Primer, pt. 1: Beyond the “Tradition of Quality”

The pre-Nouvelle Vague French cinema remains unjustly neglected in a lot of critical and cinephile quarters today, in part due to the contempt shown for it by the Nouvelle Vague directors when they were still critics for Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s. Francois Truffaut’s famous dismissal of the French cinema’s “tradition of quality,” which he contrasted with the more ostensibly personal and cinematic films coming out of Hollywood during the same period, has given an unfortunate and lasting impression that French cinema in the early sound era was a barren field. I would argue that, since the birth of the movies, France has consistently been one of the three greatest film producing nations – along with the United States and Japan. This list, which encompasses the early sound era through the birth of the New Wave (a separate silent French cinema primer will be posted in the future) is meant to spotlight just a few of the most essential and exciting French movies made during this period.

The list will be broken into two parts. Today’s post encompasses the years 1930 – 1945. Part two, to be published later this week, encompasses 1946 – 1959. As a self-imposed, arbitrary rule, each half of the list will contain no more than two films by the same director.

L’age d’Or (Bunuel, 1930)

Luis Bunuel’s first feature-length film is this hilarious Surrealist portrait of a man and a woman who repeatedly attempt to get together and have sex but are continually prevented from doing so by members of respectable bourgeois society. This is full of famously bizarre images, which still retain their awesome, funny, unsettling power today: a woman shoos a full grown cow off of the bed in her upper-class home, a groundskeeper arbitrarily shoots his son, a woman lasciviously sucks on the toe of a statue, a man throws various objects, including a burning tree, a bishop and a giraffe, out of a second story window. Like a lot of great works of Surrealist art, this was deliberately meant to counter the rising tide of fascism that was sweeping across Europe at the time.

Marius (Korda, 1931)

The first and best installment of Marcel Pagnol’s “Fanny Trilogy” (followed by Cesar and Fanny) is a sweet comedy/melodrama about the goings on in a Marseilles port-side bar. Marius is a young man who manages the bar owned by his father Cesar. He has an affair with local girl Fanny who, holding out hope for a marriage proposal, turns down the hand of the older, wealthier Monsieur Panisse. But, alas, like the song says, Marius’ life, love and lady is the sea. Hungarian born director Alexander Korda does a wonderful job of “opening up” Pagnol’s play, making a deft use of real Marseilles locations. Charges that the movie is “filmed theater” are misguided; Pagnol and Korda’s very subject is the theatricality inherent in human nature.

A Nous la Liberte (Clair, 1931)

Mostly known today as the inspiration for Chaplin’s Modern Times, Rene Clair’s classic comedy follows the exploits of two escaped cons, one of whom becomes a factory owner and one of whom becomes a worker in the same factory. Is there any real difference, Clair asks, between a prisoner and a lowly factory worker? The equation between capitalism and criminality is a bit heavy handed but this is never less than a total visual delight, from the slapstick humor to Lazare Meerson’s stunning Expressionist-influenced art direction (which, atypical for a “foreign film” of the time, received an Oscar nomination).

Zero de Conduite (Vigo, 1933)

Jean Vigo’s penultimate film, an unforgettable tribute to the anarchic spirt of youth, documents the rebellion of four pre-adolescent boarding school students and is based on the director’s own childhood memories. Vigo was way ahead of his time in blending experimental filmmaking techniques with narrative storytelling (check out the poetic use of slow motion during the pillow fight scene) and the end result is beautiful, strange, beguiling and unmissable.

L’atalante (Vigo, 1934)

L’atalante tells the story of a newly married couple, a barge captain and his provincial wife, and their tumultuous honeymoon-cum-cargo delivery trip along the Seine river. The simple boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-finds-girl plot is merely an excuse for director Jean Vigo and ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman to serve up an array of rapturously photographed images, all of which correspond to the emotions of his protagonists. In a legendary supporting role, Michel Simon’s portrayal of a tattooed, cat-loving first mate is as endearing as it is hilarious. Vigo’s final film is one of the cinema’s transcendental glories – endlessly rewatchable, always uplifting.

Grand Illusion (Renoir, 1937)

Grand Illusion is a comedy and a drama, a war movie and a prison break film and, finally, thanks to an 11th hour appearance by the lovely Dita Parlo, a very touching love story. There is also a healthy dose of social criticism in the story of an aristocratic German Captain (memorably played by Erich von Stroheim) who shows favoritism to an upper class French captive, indicating that the bonds of class can sometimes be tighter than those of nationality. But this is just one of many examples of Renoir explicating the “arbitrary borders” made by man in one of the few films that deserves to be called a true anti-war movie.

The Pearls of the Crown (Guitry)

In this witty, innovative, trilingual take on the history film, three narrators – an Italian, an Englishman and a Frenchman – each tell the story of how four pear-shaped pearls ended up in the British crown. Writer/director Sacha Guitry manages, in a head-spinning hour and forty one minutes, to trace the pearls from one owner to the next over five hundred years of European history, allowing hilarious cameos by famous figures like Pope Clement VII, Catherine de Medici, Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth, Mary Stuart, Napolean and Queen Victoria. But in a movie whose real subjects are language and storytelling the pearls themselves are nothing more than a MacGuffin. Guitry himself plays the French narrator as well as three other characters in the flashback sequences; as he wryly notes, “We always lend our faces to the heroes of the story.”

Pepe le Moko (Duvivier, 1937)

One reason why French film critics were so quick to identify and appreciate American film noir in the 1940s is because it distinctly resembled, tonally and visually, many of the great French crime films of the late 1930s. One such film is Julien Duvivier’s fatalistic Pepe le Moko, the story of a charismatic Parisian gangster (wonderfully played by Jean Gabin) hiding out in the Algiers’ Casbah, and the police inspector who attempts to reel him in. Algiers, an equally interesting Hollywood remake with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr, followed just one year later.

Le Jour se Leve (Carne, 1939)

One of the high water marks of the movement known as Poetic Realism (under which many of the titles immediately preceding and following it on this list also fall), Le Jour se Leve has it all: working class characters – with Jean Gabin as the doomed hero and Arletty as his love interest, atmospheric locations, a tragic crime plot, poetic dialogue by Jacques Prevert, and taut direction by Marcel Carne. Also like a ton of great French films of the era, this was soon banned by the Vichy government on the grounds that it was “demoralizing.” Maybe so but sometimes hopelessness can be romantic too.

The Rules of the Game (Renoir, 1939)

This is Jean Renoir’s masterpiece and the grandaddy of all films about an assortment of friends and couples getting together for a weekend-long party in the country. The “rules of the game” are the rules one must abide by in order to get along in society, which involves a considerable amount of dishonesty. Fittingly, the one character who is incapable of lying, the earnest, heart-on-his-sleeve aviator Andre, is also the character who dies “like an animal in the hunt.” Like the best works of Shakespeare or Chekhov, this humanist tragicomedy captures timeless truths about the inner workings of the human heart.

Le Corbeau (Clouzot, 1943)

A series of anonymously written poison-pen letters are sent to various prominent citizens of a small French village. Chief among the targets of “The Raven,” the mysterious author’s pseudonym, is a doctor who is accused of adultery and performing illegal abortions. Both rumors and hidden secrets are brought to light by the letters, which threaten to tear the fabric of the community apart. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot made this for a German production company during the Nazi occupation of France. Sensing that the movie in some way allegorized them, the Nazis promptly fired Clouzot and banned the film. When the occupation ended, Clouzot was prohibited from making movies for an additional two years by the French government because he had collaborated with the Nazis! The director would go on to achieve much greater fame for The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques in the 1950s but this refreshingly dark and bitter thriller, a film far nastier than its Hollywood counterparts of the time, remains my personal favorite.

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Bresson, 1945)

Robert Bresson’s second film features star performances (most notably a ferocious turn by Maria Cesares), an original diegetic musical score and relatively ornate dialogue written by none other than Jean Cocteau – all elements the director would soon eschew in the major movies for which he became best known. But Les Dames du Bois de Bolougne is still a terrific and very Bressonian film about a woman who hatches a revenge plot against her ex-lover that involves arranging a marriage between him and a prostitute. The timeless, dream-like atmosphere is alluring (the story takes place in the present but feels as if it could be taking place in the 19th century) and the ambiguously redemptive ending packs a wallop precisely because of Bresson’s de-dramatized treatment.

Les Enfants du Paradis (Carne, 1945)

The pinnacle of the Marcel Carne/Jacques Prevert collaborations is this epic tale of doomed love set in the world of 19th century Parisian theater. Baptiste is a mime who falls in love with aspiring actress Garance. His shyness prevents their affair from being consummated and they go their separate ways until, years later, fate brings them back together for one last shot at romance. Both the behind the scenes look at theater and the depiction of 19th century France are lovingly detailed and passionately executed. This is sometimes referred to as a French Gone with the Wind but it’s actually much better than even that would suggest. One of the all-time great French movies.


The Top Fifty Directors of All Time

As a companion piece to my list of the fifty best living film directors, which I published last year around this time, today’s post concerns my highly subjective list of the top fifty directors of all time. Below you will find a countdown of my top ten (with commentary on each and a citation of three essential works) as well as a list of forty runners-up (for whom I cite two essential works). As any reader of this blog knows, I love making lists and generating debates concerning all things cinematic. So who doesn’t deserve to be here and who did I egregiously omit? Feel free to comment below!

10. Jean Renoir (France)

Today Jean Renoir is thought of as the quintessential director of “classical” French cinema even though the films he made in the 1930s, the lofty high point of his career, are far wilder than this reputation would suggest. In the twin peaks of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, Renoir showed, allegorically but with great generosity of spirit, a Europe that was tragically and inexorably heading towards World War II. His use of long shots and long takes, abetted by an elegantly gliding camera, allow viewers to observe his characters from a critical distance even while the folly of their behavior makes them intensely relatable on a human scale. He left France during the German occupation and became a U.S. citizen long enough to make at least one masterpiece in Hollywood (The Southerner) and another in India (the striking one-off The River). When Renoir returned to France in the 1950s, he embarked on a sublime trilogy of films centered on the relationship between life and performance that, fittingly, gave a trio of international movie stars some of their very best roles: The Golden Coach (with Anna Magnani), French Cancan (with Jean Gabin) and Elena and Her Men (with Ingrid Bergman).

Essential work: Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion) (1937), The Rules of the Game (La Regle de Jeu) (1939), French Cancan (1954)

9. Orson Welles (USA)

Orson Welles was the great synthesizer; in Citizen Kane he self-consciously appropriated techniques from most of the major historical film movements that came before him and wedded them to a revolutionary use of deep focus cinematography. More importantly, he pressed these techniques to the service of an epic story about the life of “one of the biggest” Americans that speaks volumes about the changes undergone by American society from the late nineteenth century to the beginning of the second World War. This monumental achievement, coupled with the fact that it was the only time Welles had complete creative control over a movie, virtually guaranteed that his subsequent films would be seen as not living up to the “early promise” of Kane. Fortunately, Welles’ critical stock has risen considerably since his death in 1985 and masterpieces like The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight (my personal favorite) and F for Fake, not to mention various unfinished projects, are now more easily seen as part of a highly personal continuum stretching from the early-1940s to the mid-1980s, inside and outside of the Hollywood studio system, and from America to Europe and back again. With each passing year, his body of work looks more estimable for what he did achieve instead of deficient for what he didn’t.

Essential work: Citizen Kane (1941), Touch of Evil (1958), Chimes at Midnight (1965)

8. Kenji Mizoguchi (Japan)

Of all the great Japanese directors, Kenji Mizoguchi is the most expressive visual stylist. His hallmarks – elaborate tracking shots (in some films the camera is moving more often than not), chiaroscuro lighting and the subject of the oppression of Japanese women – were already evident as early as the mid-1930s when he made such gems as Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion. His first major masterpiece, 1939’s heartbreaking The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, about a wealthy young actor’s illicit affair with his family’s wet nurse, was enough to ensure his immortality. But the best was yet to come; after a handful of relatively safe films made during and immediately after the war, Mizoguchi’s career peaked in the 1950s with an extraordinary series of movies, including The Life of Oharu, Sansho the Bailiff and the incredibly atmospheric and unusually poetic ghost story Ugetsu. Each of these films is a period drama, in which an earlier era in Japanese history is painstakingly and authentically recreated, that tackles human suffering with a clear-eyed honesty and compassion that is simply unparalleled in cinema.

Essential work: The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953)

7. Roberto Rossellini (Italy)

In the 1940s Roberto Rossellini helped to spearhead the revolutionary Italian Neorealist movement with his socially conscious, documentary-style War Trilogy (consisting of Rome, Open City, Paisan and Germany Year Zero). Then, he shifted gears in the 1950s to make six remarkable melodramas starring his then-wife Ingrid Bergman including Stromboli and Voyage in Italy. These films arguably marked the birth of “cinematic modernism” by eschewing plot in favor of a series of scenes of Bergman wandering a primordial landscape meant to evoke the interior journey of her characters (which would pave the way for both Antonioni’s L’avventura and Godard’s Le Mepris). Finally, in the 1960s and 1970s Rossellini turned to television for a series of de-dramatized, educational films about “great men” throughout history that arguably took the Neorealist aesthetic to its logical extreme. Very few filmmakers have gone through multiple phases as dramatically different as Rossellini. Fewer still have managed to create such groundbreaking work with each distinct chapter in their careers.

Essential work: Stromboli (1950), Voygage in Italy (Viaggio in Italia) (1954), The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV) (1966)

6. Carl Dreyer (Denmark)

Carl Dreyer was nothing if not exacting. The great Dane proclaimed cinema to be his “only” passion and proved it by making only the kind of films that he really wanted to make. His rigorous/perfectionist style is reflected in the fact that his final five features, as astonishing a run of movies as can be found in any filmography, were released in five separate decades: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943) Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964). The evolution of his style over the course of these films is fascinating: from close-ups to long shots, from quick-cutting to long takes, from acting to non-acting, from music to no music. Genre trappings (the melodrama of Joan, the horror of Vampyr) also fade away as Dreyer moves relentlessly inward in pursuit of the capture of various “states of soul.” Equally fascinating is his naturalistic approach to ambiguously supernatural subject matter: a woman who communes with God, vampirism, witchcraft, the resurrection of the flesh and . . . romantic love.

Essential work: Day of Wrath (Vredens dag) (1943), Ordet (1955), Gertrud (1964)

5. F.W. Murnau (Germany/USA)

F.W. Murnau is often referred to as the best director to have only worked in the silent era and for good reason; he was the chief figure of German Expressionism, creating three major masterpieces with Nosferatu (the first and best vampire film), The Last Laugh (a movie with no intertitles but a lot of fluid camerawork) and Faust (a technically virtuosic take on the German folk tale that nearly bankrupted UFA, the studio that produced it), before answering the call of Hollywood where he made three more: Sunrise (a love story about the dichotomy between city and country life featuring highly innovative cinematography), Four Devils (a lost film) and City Girl (an exquisite melodrama that intentionally reverses the iconography of Sunrise). Unhappy with working conditions in both Germany and the U.S., Murnau went to Tahiti for his independently produced final film Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. If Fritz Lang was the Tolstoy of German cinema (going “wide” with his ambitious, third-person societal portraits), then Murnau was its Dostoevsky (going “deep” with his take on the highly subjective psychological impressions of the individual).

Essential work: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), City Girl (1930), Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)

4. Alfred Hitchcock (USA/UK)

Alfred Hitchcock is a rare example of a director who was able to combine a high degree of creative control with a long and prolific career. Beginning in the silent era in England, Hitch successfully adapted to sound, the Hollywood studio system, color, widescreen cinematography and even 3-D. He looked at potential projects as logistical problems that he could utilize the latest technology to solve, frequently breaking new ground along the way. Furthermore, his ostensible “genre pieces” were highly personal in nature, more often than not studies of obsession with an emphasis on the duality of man. The fact that he could make such personal films on such a massive scale, using major stars and the resources of Hollywood, is impressive in the extreme. And his craftsmanship has never been bettered (Andrew Sarris has aptly referred to him as the “supreme technician of the American cinema”); the best of Hitchcock’s suspense sequences (the climactic confrontation between photographer and killer in Rear Window, the crop dusting scene in North By Northwest, the shower murder in Psycho, the final attack in The Birds) are so well planned and executed that they retain their power to thrill, entertain and strike fear in the heart even after many viewings.

Essential work: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960)

3. Luis Bunuel (France/Mexico)

Like Hitchcock, Luis Bunuel was one of the most Catholic of all directors. But the theme of guilt that was present in so much of the Englishman’s work was not allowed to so thoroughly infuse the movies of his Spanish counterpart. Instead, Bunuel violently reacted against his upbringing (and against the rising tide of fascism of late 20s/early 30s Europe) with the wildest and most transgressive films of the French Surrealist movement (Un Chien Andalou and L’age d’Or). Following a lengthy stint of not being able to direct, Bunuel resurfaced in the late 1940s as a master of the subversive Mexican melodrama, dropping bombs like Los Olvidados, El and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz. After a brief sojourn in his native Spain in the early Sixties, where he made the scandalous, blasphemous masterpiece Viridiana, Bunuel returned to France for what is arguably the greatest last chapter of any director’s career; it was there that he married his distinctive Surrealist sensibility to more polished cinematography and glamorous movie stars, resulting in a series of droll comedies, full of hilarious non-sequiturs and bizarre, dreamlike imagery, that constitute his very best work: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire.

Essential work: Los Olvidados (1950), Viridiana (1961), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie) (1972)

2. Robert Bresson (France)

The relationship between spirit and flesh has never been dramatized on screen as effectively as it has in the work of Robert Bresson because no other filmmaker has used sound and image so precisely to focus on material reality (and therefore, perhaps paradoxically, on the spiritual conditions underlying it). The great French director hit his stride early on with a “prison cycle” of films consisting of The Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped (the best prison break movie ever), Pickpocket and The Trial of Joan of Arc (a film so austere it makes Dreyer’s Joan look like a soap opera). Then came Au Hasard, Balthazar, a soul-enchanting masterpiece about the life of a donkey, in which the title character is seen as a barometer for the sins of mankind. In the late 1960s Bresson began working with color, expanding his palette while refining his overall style to an increasingly “essentialist” extreme. Some observers find his late work pessimistic (virtually all of his last movies end in suicide and/or murder). Bresson himself rejected this view, opting for the word “lucid” instead. The redemption is still there if you’re willing to look for it; it’s just buried a little deeper beneath the surface. Robert Bresson more consistently made near-perfect films than any other director with whose work I am familiar.

Essential work: A Man Escaped (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut) (1956), Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), L’argent (1983)

1. John Ford (USA)

Simply put, John Ford is the American cinema. A few indelible moments: Shirley Temple singing “Auld Lang Syne” to Victor McLaglen as he lies on his deathbed in Wee Willie Winkie (while an exquisite camera movement slowly eliminates him from the frame). Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, awkwardly dancing with and serenading his Ma to the tune of “Red River Valley” in The Grapes of Wrath. Walter Pidgeon in How Green Was My Valley, looking on from a cemetery in long shot while the love of his life, Maureen O’Hara, exits the church after marrying another man. Fonda again as Marshall Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine, leaning back in his chair on a hotel veranda, balancing himself on a post with his boots. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, standing in the doorway between civilization and wilderness, unsure of whether to enter, in The Searchers. Anne Bancroft’s resignation while committing the ultimate self-sacrifice at the end of 7 Women: “So long, ya bastard.” And, as Johnny Cash once said, lots of other things.

Essential work: How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Runners-Up (listed alphabetically by family name):

11. Michelangelo Antonioni (Italy)
Essential work: L’avventura (1960), Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso) (1964)

12. John Cassavetes (USA)
Essential work: A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Love Streams (1984)

13. Charlie Chaplin (USA)
Essential work: City Lights (1931), A King in New York (1958)

14. Manoel de Oliveira (Portugal)
Essential work: Anxiety (Inquietude) (1998), The Strange Case of Angelica (O Estranho Caso de Angélica) (2010)

15. Aleksandr Dovzhenko (Ukraine)
Essential work: Arsenal (1929), Earth (1930)

16. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Germany)
Essential work: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf) (1974), Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

17. Federico Fellini (Italy)
Essential work: La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 1/2 (1963)

18. Louis Feuillade (France)
Essential work: Les Vampires (1915), Tih Minh (1919)

19. Sam Fuller (USA)
Essential work: Park Row (1952), Shock Corridor (1963)

20. Jean-Luc Godard (France/Switzerland)
Essential work: Contempt (Le Mepris) (1963), Histoire(s) du Cinema (1989-1998)

21. D.W. Griffith (USA)
Essential work: Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916), Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924)

22. Howard Hawks (USA)
Essential work: Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932), Rio Bravo (1959)

23. Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Taiwan)
Essential work: Goodbye South Goodbye (1996), Three Times (2005)

24. King Hu (Hong Kong/Taiwan)
Essential work: Dragon Inn (1967), A Touch of Zen (1971)

25. Shohei Imamura (Japan)
Essential work: Profound Desires of the Gods (1968), The Ballad of Narayama (1983)

26. Buster Keaton (USA)
Essential work: Our Hospitality (1923), The General (1926)

27. Abbas Kiarostami (Iran)
Essential work: The Taste of Cherry (1997), Certified Copy (Copie conforme) (2010)

28. Stanley Kubrick (USA)
Essential work: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

29. Akira Kurosawa (Japan)
Essential work: Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954)

30. Fritz Lang (Germany/USA)
Essential work: M (1931), The Big Heat (1953)

31. Sergio Leone (Italy/USA)
Essential work: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

32. Ernst Lubitsch (Germany/USA)
Essential work: Trouble in Paradise (1932), Heaven Can Wait (1943)

33. Vincente Minnelli (USA)
Essential work: The Band Wagon (1953), Some Came Running (1958)

34. Mikio Naruse (Japan)
Essential work: Floating Clouds (1955), When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

35. Max Ophuls (France/USA)
Essential work: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953)

36. Yasujiro Ozu (Japan)
Essential work: Late Spring (1949), Tokyo Story (1953)

37. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger (UK)
Essential work: Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948)

38. Nicholas Ray (USA)
Essential work: In a Lonely Place (1950), Bigger Than Life (1956)

39. Satyajit Ray (India)
Essential work: Pather Panchali (1955), Charulata (1964)

40. Alain Resnais (France)
Essential work: Last Year at Marienbad (L’annee dernier a Marienbad) (1961), Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980)

41. Ousmane Sembene (Senegal)
Essential work: Black Girl (La noire de…) (1966), Moolaade (2004)

42. Douglas Sirk (USA)
Essential work: All That Heaven Allows (1956), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958)

43. Preston Sturges (USA)
Essential work: The Lady Eve (1941), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

44. Andrei Tarkovsky (Russia)
Essential work: Andrei Rublev (1966), Stalker (1979)

45. Jacques Tati (France)
Essential work: Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), Play Time (1967)

46. Dziga Vertov (Russia)
Essential work: Kino-Eye (1924), Man with the Movie Camera (1929)

47. Jean Vigo (France)
Essential work: Zero de Conduite (1933), L’atalante 1934)

48. Luchino Visconti (Italy)
Essential work: Senso (1954), The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) (1963)

49. Josef von Sternberg (USA)
Essential work: The Docks of New York (1928), Shanghai Express (1932)

50. Erich von Stroheim (USA)
Essential work: Foolish Wives (1922), Greed (1924)


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