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Tag Archives: Robert Bresson

Filmmaker Interview: Melika Bass

Melika Bass is arguably the most important filmmaker working in Chicago today. Her mesmerizing short and medium-length movies have screened at prominent festivals around the globe over the past decade, although she is probably still best known for directing the music video for Sigur Ros’ “Vardeldur.” This should change now that three of her best films, Songs from the ShedShoals and Waking Things, are available to stream on Fandor. Her work—dark, enigmatic, exquisitely atmospheric—hybridizes experimental and narrative elements to create troubling, mythic worlds in which characters engaged in repetitious behavior seem curiously lost in time. She is also an acclaimed installation artist and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Film, Video, New Media and Animation at the School of the Art Institute. On Thursday, April 6, she will exhibit new work at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of their Conversations at the Edge program. I recently had a lengthy chat with Bass about her work, influences and upbringing.

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MGS: Songs from the Shed, Waking Things and Shoals were all shot in the Midwest, and when you show landscapes in those films, the land looks very flat and Midwestern. But, because I know you’re from the South and because I’m from there too, your films have always struck me as being very Southern in terms of what I’d call their “psychic landscapes” – almost as if you’re transposing a Southern Gothic sensibility onto the Midwest.

MB: I think there’s something about this idea of a landscape or a place having a charge to it, so that the textures, the sort of shadowy potential of a place, what could have happened there – this idea of dread or shame and the tension of those things are all being abstracted. And they come from a kind of layered Southern Gothic sensibility. I’m definitely somebody who has a mixed relationship to natural landscape: Waking Things and Shoals are pretty rural or pastoral but that sense of pastoral with “creepy crawlies” underneath, you know? (laughs) It’s Southern but it’s also a certain kind of Americana.

MGS: It’s haunted. It reminds me of Faulkner who was interested in the ghosts of the past even though they’re not literal ghosts. That’s the way your films are.

MB: Yeah, and I think too this idea of a certain vegetable darkness, which I like. I think of it as like when you turn a rock over: it’s sort of cold and wet and maybe there are worms and surprises underneath. It’s a rock-turning sensibility. That’s in there too.

MGS: That makes me think of David Lynch – the opening of Blue Velvet with the beetles underneath the grass and the idea of “what lies beneath” that that conjures up. “Vegetable darkness” is an incredible phrase!

MB: Yeah, and I actually think cinema and being a filmmaker is a perfect way to play in this too because it’s all about illusion, right? For me, it’s about this relationship to reality and fantasy and this pull between abstraction and something really familiar – and how disorienting that can be. So, for me, the idea is treating things in a really imagistic way that’s not written in dialogue, at least not in these three films, as much as it is by these imagistic situations or stories or worlds that are then charged with a lot of sonic detail and a lot of slowness as a way to say, “Okay, here’s the surface of something but don’t you sense XYZ beneath it?” And then hopefully giving people the framework to kind of spin off in their minds what those things could be.

MGS: Is it fair to say your work is not really concerned with narrative?

MB: I think it is, actually. I mean, not in a conventional way and not in a way that addresses certain kinds of psychological realism and the traditions of certain forms and conventions of theater or literature. But I hope it triggers a kind of cognition or a kind of efforting to create narrative out of fragments. So, in that sense, I think it’s really concerned with narrative because all the ellipses are there. And I spend – and the people that I work with spend – a lot of time and attention to detail so that details are supposed to be holding and speaking a lot in terms of “Where is this place?,” “What could be going on?,” “Why are they there?,” Why are they acting this way?” “World building” is maybe a little much as a phrase but I think there’s a lot of that going on. And these details of place, or the really specific casting I’m doing – certain kinds of archetypal figures or certain kinds of behaviors and energies – these things, for me at least, are connecting to some really specific ideas. They’re just not fleshed out in a way that’s super-causal.

MGS: That’s what I mean when I say “narrative”: cause and effect.

MB: But there’s event and there’s behavior and there’s character.

MGS: And there’s location. You talked about the rural quality of Waking Things and Shoals. In Songs from the Shed, there’s a weird hybrid of rural and urban. It’s like you’re creating a cinematic space that doesn’t exist in reality but that makes perfect sense onscreen.

MB: That was one of the narrative possibilities there; that it was a kind of future and maybe it was post-disaster, so that things were somewhere on the edge of being urban, with nature taking over, or a kind of depletion of resources. So these people are protecting themselves or cocooning. Waking Things is the most explicit, but in all of these films there’s this sort of makeshift family or alternative “found family,” cult, whatever – and I realized I was making the same film over and over at some point – that somehow there’s a kind of xenophobia to that as well. It’s not overt. It’s most overt in Waking Things. But there’s this kind of strange isolationism and self-reliance, etc.

MGS: And sense of imprisonment.

MB: Yeah, but towards an idea of survival or perseverance. I think, for me, it’s almost like there’s this kind of anthropological fiction or fantasy going on with each one of the films – and this is part of breaking the causal chain of narrative too – that it becomes some sort of site where you only have a few relics that remain and you’re like, “How do these go together?,” the sort of narrativizing that I know happens in archaeology. You have very scant elements.

MGS: You have to put the bones together.

MB: Yeah. “What did happen here?” “Who are these people?” I’m often trying to decode, in real life, a lot of things about humans. (laughs) And so I guess it makes sense that the films are coded in fictional ways on a lot of levels.

MGS: The idea of entrapment vs. freedom is present in all your films but it’s something you really elaborate on in Shoals with the asylum-like setting. What attracts you to this theme?

MB: I think dependence and interdependence and co-dependence within support systems, the dynamics of that, whether it’s family or chosen, are often pretty contradictory. There’s something very archetypal in the films about the older male figures and the younger characters who are too big to be children but are sort of being treated like children, who at moments are breaking out of that but then coming back to this role that’s been delineated and that they’ve all chosen to continue perpetuating. In some ways there’s a lot of overt psychologizing in that. And I think there’s also in some ways a fable-like quality to the films that takes that dynamic and links it to a lot of really dark fables that are about the same thing. You could look at some Grimm Fairy Tales and see similar dynamics.

MGS: Do you feel that the world you live in is a dark and sinister place or do you just enjoy creating that world up there on the screen? (laughs)

MB: People that see the films or installations that don’t know me and then meet me are often surprised that I’m wacky or shy and not super-dark and scary. You know, it’s nice to have the privilege to make art and put things elsewhere that may be inside you that don’t dominate you in everyday life. So there’s that. I also actually think that the experience of creating durational tension and an atmosphere of dread is pleasurable to experience. There is something cathartic about it and there is something where, if you go through it in a sort of simulated way and you survive then somehow you feel more… It’s a sort of trial run for actual problems or disasters. It’s also looking at a kind of loose ethics of authority figures. In a larger way, I do wonder about the governing systems behind a lot of things. What are the systems that we create, that are social, what are they doing? What are the systems and values and meaning that we give to our lives? What are these sort of repeated rituals or behaviors? Do those create values? Do those come out of something? What are the things that we just perpetuate without thinking about what they mean? And the darkness or the tension, yeah, it’s there. There’s other stuff there too! I would totally make a rom-com.

MGS: Your films do relate to genre, especially horror movies.

MB: And some melodrama!

MGS: Yeah. Songs from the Shed is also a kind of musical. Where did you discover that incredible song, “Land of Heart’s Desire”?

MB: I went to undergrad at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana and at one point they were having a library sale downtown at the local municipal branch and I was trying to be cool – about ’95 or so – with the vinyl records. So I bought three that day including this box set, with limp string tied around it to keep it closed, it was of this woman named Dame Maggie Teyte singing light operetta and opera and folk songs. I remember knowing immediately the vocal treatment through all of those musical genres was going to be super-weird. Maybe I should say I grew up singing in choirs. I started at four-years-old, went to choir camp, singing lessons. I grew up with both my parents in singing groups that performed. There was a lot of religious and folk singing in my family. Even when I moved here in my early 20s, I was in choirs, which I didn’t tell anyone about because it’s not cool. But I missed it as an experience. So I’ve always been interested in music. I encountered that song in that box set. And then there’s this whole niche-y thing with opera and divas where they have their day, like ballerinas. They have this really slim couple of years where they can rule and then after that they’re really lucky if they can…

MGS: It’s like being an athlete.

MB: Yeah, exactly. So she was a British opera singer who made her reputation in light operetta, mostly. And she had this kind of stylized way of singing that was not fully trained out of her. So the song that she’s singing, “Land of Heart’s Desire,” is not super-famous. But the song is about nostalgia and longing for the land of your family, which in this case would’ve been Ireland. I love the distortion on the record, when she hit those high notes, it sort of breaks, almost. I love that in texture sometimes where it’s pushing against the edge of legibility. It’s really expressive. But I liked this idea of someone who’s an overgrown child who seems to be at home but it’s obviously a set; through the repetition of certain behaviors, or light, or material, it’s a simulated environment. And he’s obviously trying to break away but he’s coming back, so adding in the song makes him a kind of science experiment, responding in this Pavlovian way. That’s what the use of the song is about. But it actually connects to this whole other idea around who people are and what culture they belong to. There’s this feeling of – back to this idea of xenophobia or the making of your own culture and Americana – there is something about maybe having family from Appalachia and being Southern, maybe shooting a film in Wisconsin (Shoals) that actually, as it turns out, was shot in a place where there historically were a lot of cults because people bought land and did whatever they wanted there and made their own rules. There is something quintessentially American about having a lot of romantic nostalgia for “your homeland,” which is a very contradictory cultural thing, identifying yourself with something, in this case, very Irish sounding.

MGS: I’m glad you mentioned repetition. In Shoals, you have women being instructed to do tasks that seem meaningless. In the other films we see people obsessively peeling and chopping potatoes, which makes me think of Jeanne Dielman, the ultimate cinematic statement about repetition.

MB: Yeah, and gender.

MGS: Is Akerman an influence?

MB: Yeah, I find her films really honest.

MGS: I also see a lot of Bresson in your work, especially the close-ups of hands working. Your sense of fragmented composition reminds me of A Man Escaped and Mouchette.

MB: Yeah, the Nanty character in Shed is partially based on Mouchette. In the new films I’m working on she’s evolving from that.

MGS: Her hair color is evolving!

MB: Her hair color is evolving. A lot is going on with her. Time is passing. But my shorthand joke is that she’s moving from Mouchette to Vagabond in the course of a decade, which seems right. Those two poles are nice – and realistic.

MGS: What kind of relationship do you have with Sarah Stambaugh as an actress? Do you have a pact that she’s going to play this Nanty character forever?

MB: Sarah is amazing. She’s just a natural performer for the camera. She’s interesting and compelling in every day life but she’s also one of these people that, when you put her in front of the camera, something becomes atomized that is only in the image. I talked her into it the first time in 2006 and then, in 2010 or ’11, I warned her I was thinking of doing more. There’s a feature script actually, that this character is the protagonist of that’s set primarily in North Carolina. It starts here and then goes there. So I was talking to her about that over the years and I saved her costume from Shed. Leone Reeves did this amazing distressing work for that film; the white jacket and jeans, she cooked on her stovetop with different spices, so it smelled really gross. It had food in it but it looked amazing. So I saved all of that in my basement and then had to air it out (years later) for Sarah. And she put it on, which was nice. So, she’s been up for it. Every chapter of the project (The Latest Sun is Sinking Fast), things have changed for the character. With the last shoot, this past summer, the character is talking in conversation with other humans. She would play multiple roles in the feature, some of which would talk and some of which wouldn’t. So there’s this kaleidoscopic character that’s split in different ways but in the same body.

MGS: You’ve introduced dialogue gradually into your work over time. In Songs from the Shed, you represent dialogue with title cards, as in a silent film.

MB: And part of that is because I love sound work. I love doing really detailed sound work and the three films all have, with the exception of the monologuing patriarch scenes or the singing scenes, those were shot synch, but everything else was done by hand. That’s constructed soundtrack. There’s tons of detail and foley and field recordings and stuff and I worked really closely with Mat Jinks and Lou Mallozzi on all three of these films, to build the sound.

MGS: Let’s talk about this monologuing patriarch character. (laughs)

MB: How many of them are there?

MGS: He’s bald regardless of who’s playing him!

MB: True. The bald thing is not required…but it happened.

MGS: Matthew Goulish has a great voice. I think, between Waking Things and your installation The Latest Sun is Sinking Fast, he talks more than all your other characters combined. He’s part of Every house has a door, the performing arts group you collaborated with on Waking Things. Was that your first time working with professional actors?

MB: I think so, yeah. Waking Things was a commission from Every house has a door to work with their performers to make a film that was in response to a live show they were doing called Let us think of these things always. Let us speak of them never. It was two Croation performers: Selma Banich, who I did the Sigur Ros music video (Vardeldur) with, who’s primarily a movement-based performance artist, and Mislav Cavajda, who’s a renowned theater actor; and Stephen Fiehn, who’s an American performance artist now in New York, Matthew, and Lin Hixson, the director of the group. Matthew is a writer and performer. He’s wonderful to work with because he’s very theatrical but he understands his relationship with the camera really well and he’s capable of so much nuance. So, in addition to things being “theatrical,” he can also do really small, beautiful things. So he’s just really inspiring to work with.

MGS: Is he the reason why you started using more dialogue in your films?

MB: One of the things about how I’m working with language has to do with my family. I have a lot of ministers and teachers in the family. So there’s a lot of talking and a lot of writing and a lot of discussion. For whatever reason I’ve always been really attuned to it as something really performative and also something that, even though it’s often about clarity or persuasion – again the surface level of things – there are often lots of layers of meaning or suggestion. So I think about, “Oh, I think I want my characters to speak,” or “Oh, if I’m interested in human behavior, people actually do talk – to each other and to a public.” And because there’s this observational/behavioral thing then in working with other humans – the fascination sort of drives you to make something – I then want to have characters whose M.O. is a certain verbosity, right? And a kind of contrast between their physicality and their speaking – not necessarily in a cynical way, in a complicating way, in part because that seems realistic to me. Those are “public servant” jobs. So there is this sense of “We go to work and we do this for people.” Then there’s a sense of another kind of behavior, something much more private. And there is an interesting divide there.

To get back to your question: I saw Matthew Goulish and Bryan Saner, who are both in the Latest Sun project, in Goat Island’s piece, The Lastmaker, at the MCA in 2007; there were these monologues given by both Matthew and Bryan. And I just remember realizing, “Oh, there’s something oratory here. It’s not conversational.” With Bryan especially, it had a kind of religious reverence to the language and the cadence. It felt really familiar. And with Matthew, there was a wry wordplay and love of contradiction. So, I just wrote in the program “Minister Film with…” and I just wrote their names and put it away. As I got to know them over the years, I realized that they both have very different religious backgrounds. So I thought it was going to be a really autobiographical project about my religious family but I realized I was more interested in this process of rehearsal that’s super-collaborative where I have really specific ideas about things I want but I’m also, as an extension of being into behavior – and doing these portraits and installations – I actually want people to bring something from their lives. So it ends up being this biographical fiction where the material that’s generated is this hybrid of anecdotes, memories from all of us, staged in a very constructed fictional context.

MGS: I’m glad you brought up your family without me even asking! You talked about the divide between hearing sermons in church vs. hearing those same voices at home. What was that like for you as a kid, growing up in that culture?

MB: At different points I had about 12 ministers in the family – so grandparents, parents, stepparents, uncles, aunts, and first cousins now. If you go beyond the first-cousin layer, the numbers go up. It’s my mother’s family, my father’s family, my stepfather’s family, my stepmother’s family.

MGS: Different denominations or the same?

MB: They’re all Southern Presbyterian except for one really awesome Methodist, who we love, of course. Because my parents divorced when I was a kid, and they both remarried, I didn’t grow up with my Dad every day though I saw him often, so I didn’t grow up going to church every Sunday. But my mother is also a preacher’s kid and my Dad married my stepmother at the time, who was a minister. So, at one point, that was two ministers who I would go visit. My mother married my stepdad who wasn’t a minister but who had been to seminary and had briefly been a minister and then he went on to teach political science. And his mother was a Presbyterian missionary in China. And two of his siblings and two of their spouses went to seminary. My dad’s brother became a minister. And then my mother’s parents: her dad, my granddad who was a minister, was a huge part of my childhood so I was around them a lot. So, even though it wasn’t a daily or weekly thing, whenever I saw family it was, and is, there. It’s interesting: it’s family culture more than my individual experience as a preacher’s kid exactly. One of my jokes is: you should see what it was like at Christmas dinner and Thanksgiving dinner because it’s like, “Who’s going to do the prayer before we eat? Who’s going to bless the meal?” I remember distinctly, I don’t know how young I was, but I was aware immediately when I was a kid that it was like, “This is not just a prayer. It’s a bit of a performance because we’re all experts in this particular sacred art.” It’s a very unusual job and it’s a very lonely job, I think. It’s hard to be a part of a social community if you’re a minister because people might not feel totally comfortable…

MGS: Kind of like being a cop, in a way?

MB: Or a shrink or something. Can you relax around them? Can they relax around you? It was something that I noticed. It’s also about writing a paper every week and the anxiety of that. Even though the text you’re working with is very set, there is this challenge of the job where “you have to make something relevant and meaningful of this.”

MGS: Did you ever consider going into the family business?

MB: Yeah. There’s a joke that it’s my fallback career. You can go at any age or at an advanced age. And I’ve done a fair amount over the years of, you know, liturgical dancing, reading the liturgy, starting at 12 and then into my 20s. I was a philosophy major as an undergrad and that was another way for me to process all that stuff.

MGS: And then you shifted to cinema (laughs)?

MB: Yeah, I did. There’s also this kind of devotional slowness that goes on in the films. And I think, for me, making installations is maybe the most direct relationship with that: how to stage a space so that it invites people to devote their attention in this very frontal way.

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Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2014

My top 10 favorite new home video releases of 2014 (and 20 runners up):

10. Ravenous (Bird, UK/USA, 1999, Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)

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Director Antonia Bird tragically passed away last year at the too-young age of 62. While she is known primarily for the television and theater work she did in her native England, genre movie aficionados have a place in their hearts for her because of her extraordinary work on Ravenous, a cult classic about cannibalism at an American army post in California in the mid-19th century. Incredibly, Bird was brought in at the 11th hour to replace another director but managed to infuse this horror-western hybrid with a unique, darkly comedic tone and bring a welcome female perspective besides (she changed one crucial supporting part from male to female). A film of enormous political and philosophical interest masquerading as a B-movie, Ravenous is one of the key movies of the 1990s and one that looks better with each passing year. In terms of A/V quality, Shout! Factory’s release does the best it can with source materials that appear to not be in ideal shape but I would never want to be without this on Blu-ray.

9. Faust (Murnau, Germany, 1926, Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

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F.W. Murnau’s greatest German movie makes the leap to 1080p with the staggering results one would expect from the Masters of Cinema label. In adapting the old German folk tale about the wager between an archangel and a demon over whether the latter can corrupt the titular alchemist’s soul, the legendary UFA studios gave Murnau a bigger budget and access to greater technical resources than he ever had before. The stylistic virtuosity that resulted — nowhere better evidenced than in a magic-carpet ride through an mind-bogglingly elaborate miniature set — trumped even the masterful mise-en-scene of Murnau’s own The Last Laugh. This Blu-ray edition bundles together the inferior international cut of the film (long thought to be the only one in existence) with Luciano Berriatua’s meticulous restoration of the definitive German domestic version. There is also a great, enthusiastic commentary track by critics David Ehrenstein and Bill Krohn, both of whom are especially good at tracking Faust‘s considerable influence on subsequent filmmakers and films.

8. Mouchette (Bresson, France, 1967, Artificial Eye Blu-ray)

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A very welcome addition to the growing number of Robert Bresson titles on Blu-ray (Criterion has already released A Man Escaped and Pickpocket) is UK distributor Artificial Eye’s exemplary Mouchette disc. Nadine Nortier, in her only film role to date, is an extraordinary screen presence as the title heroine, a poor, rural teenaged girl who is consistently let down or betrayed by the adults around her: her alcoholic father, her bedridden mother, her unfairly strict teacher and a local poacher who repays the girl’s kindness by raping her. Solace comes only in fleeting moments: walking alone through the woods, riding the bumper cars at a traveling carnival, the chance to comfort her infant sister, etc. Jean-Luc Godard once remarked that Bresson’s previous film, Au Hasard Balthazar, was “the world in an hour-and-a-half,” a remark that seems equally true of Mouchette. Both films have a shattering impact because of the director’s unique ability to elicit empathy for a marginalized protagonist while also ruthlessly avoiding sentimentality. The film-like textures of Artificial Eye’s transfer make this the version that you need to own.

7. The Epic of Everest (Noel, UK, 1924, BFI Blu-ray)

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“Since the beginning of the world men have battled with Nature for the mastery of their physical surroundings. Such is their birthright, and such is their destiny.” So reads a quintessentially British — and vaguely imperialist — opening title card in this mesmerizing documentary from explorer/filmmaker Captain J.B.L. Noel. Newly restored and released on Blu-ray by the British Film Institute, this masterpiece is the official record of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine’s ill-fated 1924 attempt to scale the world’s highest mountain. The film’s focus, refreshingly, is not on the personalities of the men involved but on the arduous task of mountain-climbing itself; most of its power stems from shots of wee man, often not more than a black speck on the horizon, crawling all over the overwhelmingly indifferent, ice-capped peaks of Mount Everest. Some of Noel’s astonishing montage sequences feature shots where the most dramatic thing happening is the way drifting clouds cast shadows over mountaintops, images that resemble moving paintings in their abstract beauty. The best such scene is arguably the last, after the two men spearheading the trek have perished; the final images of Everest, tinted blood-red, conjure up the futility of their mission with an almost unbearable poignance.

6. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1920, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)

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As someone who first discovered many classics of world cinema via VHS tapes of poor quality public-domain prints in the early 1990s, it has been a great joy to see the image and sound quality of certain titles improve over the years — courtesy of new restorations and new advancements in home-video technology. The most impressive instance of an absolutely jaw-dropping upgrade in a movie’s quality over time might be Robert Wiene’s masterpiece of psychological horror The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Long seen in faded, scratchy and often incomplete prints, the F.W. Murnau Foundation’s new restoration — based on the original camera negative — renders a ridiculous amount of never-before-seen detail in the film’s striking visual design, including the Expressionist makeup on the actors’ faces and even paint-brush strokes on the intentionally artificial-looking sets around them. I’m also a big fan of the new techno-ish score by DJ Spooky though Kino/Lorber also thankfully offer a more “traditional” soundtrack option for silent-film purists. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari‘s influence is still very much alive (Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, John Carpenter’s The Ward and Tim Burton’s entire career would be unthinkable without it). It was the big bang of both German Expressionist and horror moviemaking and if you care at all about cinema, you need to own this.

5. Hail Mary (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1984, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)

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Cohen Media Group did the world a big favor by releasing Blu-rays of two of the best films from Jean-Luc Godard’s thorny post-1967 career: 1984’s sublime religious allegory Hail Mary and 1996’s ambitious and political For Ever Mozart. While For Ever Mozart has the better audio commentary track (film critic James Quandt’s invaluable insights into Godard in general and this film in particular, delivered in a conversational style, constitute the best such commentary track I’ve ever heard), I’m ultimately going with Hail Mary as the more significant release simply because the film itself is more significant. Controversial upon its initial release, Hail Mary re-imagines the story of the birth of Christ in a modern setting where Mary plays high-school basketball and works at her father’s gas station, Joseph drives a taxi and “Uncle Gabriel” arrives via jet plane to deliver the annunciation. While this may sound irreverent — and the film does indeed feature Godard’s characteristic absurdist humor — the end result is as serious and deeply spiritual as anything Robert Bresson or Carl Dreyer ever did. The best of the special features here is Anne-Marie Mieville’s, The Book of Mary, a terrific companion short about a young girl grappling with her parents’ divorce.

4. The Nutty Professor: 50th Anniversary (Lewis, USA, 1963, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)

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Warner Brothers finally gave Jerry Lewis the respect he deserves with this lavish box set commemorating the 50th anniversary, albeit one year late, of the master’s most enduring creation. The Nutty Professor, a surreal/comedic take on the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde legend in which Lewis transforms from the title nebbish into a satire of his own real life ladies-man persona named “Buddy Love,” looks better and funnier than ever. Lewis’s bold use of color in particular (dig that crazy purple!) benefits from the Blu-ray upgrade. Among the treasure trove of extras are DVDs of Frank Tashlin’s minor Lewis-starring comedy Cinderfella (1960), Lewis’s second film as a director, the self-reflexive masterpiece The Errand Boy (1961), as well as a CD of hilarious prank phone calls, “Phoney Phone Calls 1959-1972,” that puts the Jerky Boys to shame. I was also grateful for the new documentary short Jerry Lewis: No Apologies, which offers a snapshot of the still-sharp 87-year-old comedian in concert and in conversation with family and friends. If you do not think this live-action cartoon is hilarious, then I do not want to be your friend.

3. The Essential Jacques Demy (Demy, France, 1961-1982, Criterion Blu-ray)

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Jacques Demy has always been the most underrated of the major French New Wave directors; the Criterion Collection’s essential new box set devoted to six of his best features (plus the usual welcome smattering of bonus material) will hopefully go a long way towards correcting that. Included are Demy’s seminal debut Lola (1961), his doomed romance about gamblers Bay of Angels (1963), a dazzling restoration of his best-known film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), my personal favorite The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), the subversive fairy tale Donkey Skin (1970), and the darkly beautiful, scandalously unknown movie opera A Room in Town (1982). To watch these films together is to realize how unfair it is that Demy has somehow accrued the reputation of being both lightweight and a sentimentalist. His penchant for the musical genre (even when directing non-musicals) and his love of candy-box colors mask what often amounts to a bittersweet if not outright tragic worldview. Among the extras are two excellent feature-length docs by Demy’s wife Agnes Varda (a major director in her own right): The Young Girls Turn 25 (1993) and The World of Jacques Demy (1995).

2. Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery (Lynch, USA, 1990-1992, Paramount Blu-ray)

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This extravagant box set is phenomenal for so many reasons: it contains all 30 episodes of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s beloved cult-classic television show from 1990-1991, plus Lynch’s 1992 feature film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (much derided at the time but clearly one of his greatest achievements when viewed today), plus the legendary “deleted scenes” from Fire Walk with Me, which have been a holy grail for Peaks aficionados for over 20 years. Best of all: because Twin Peaks was originally shot on 35mm film stock, this Blu-ray sports an impeccable 1080p transfer that perfectly captures the show’s buttery-warm color palette while revealing way more visual detail than anyone ever saw when the series first aired. Lynch and Frost’s daring “Blue Velvet crossed with a soap opera” formula was ahead of its time in the early 90s — the weirdest thing to ever play on network television — doomed to end prematurely but paving the way for today’s current “golden age of T.V.” (David Chase has acknowledged its influence on his own game-changing Sopranos). Fortunately, this box is not quite the entire mystery; Twin Peaks will be rebooted on Showtime in 2016 — where Lynch and Frost can take advantage of television freedoms they never dreamed possible 25 years ago.

1. Intégral Jacques Tati (Tati, France, 1949-1974, StudioCanal Blu-ray)

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A lot of film writers on this side of the Atlantic have anointed the Criterion Collection’s “Complete Jacques Tati” Blu-ray set as the home video release of the year but I’m going to give the nod to Studio Canal France’s similar release instead. Criterion’s set dropped in late October but Studio Canal had already put out an almost identical (albeit “Region B-locked) set back in February, more than eight months previously. As great as Criterion’s “visual essays” and other supplements undoubtedly are, the most important aspect in a box set of this magnitude is its “completeness” in terms of the films themselves and in this regard there is no difference between the Studio Canal and the Criterion: both of them bundle together all of the Gallic comedic giant’s short and feature-length films, most of the latter of which are available in multiple versions. What a joy it was to revisit Tati’s entire filmography in such superb quality and to witness the evolution of his artistry in chronological order — beginning with the uproariously funny (and still underrated) Jour de Fete, climaxing with the staggeringly ambitious Play Time (one of the greatest movies ever made by anyone) and ending with the poignant, made-for-TV Parade (which saw the actor/director returning to his music-hall roots). Let’s hope Criterion doesn’t wait so long to announce their new titles in the future. Full review here.

Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Title):

11. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, Germany, 1974, Criterion Blu-ray)
12. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, USA, 1955, Criterion Blu-ray)
13. L’avventura (Antonioni, Italy, 1960, Criterion Blu-ray)
14. Double Indemnity (Wilder, USA, 1944, Universal Blu-ray)
15. F for Fake (Welles, USA, 1973, Criterion Blu-ray)
16. For Ever Mozart (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1997, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)
17. The Freshman (Newmeyer/Taylor, 1925, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. The Long Goodbye (Altman, USA, 1973, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
19. Los Angeles Plays Itself (Anderson, USA, 2003/2014, Cinema Guild Blu-ray)
20. Love Streams (Cassavetes, USA, 1984, Criterion Blu-ray)
21. Master of the House (Dreyer, Denmark, 1925, Criterion Blu-ray)
22. Mauvais Sang (Carax, France, 1986, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
23. My Darling Clementine (Ford, USA, 1946, Criterion Blu-ray). More here.
24. Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks, USA, 1939, TCM/Columbia Blu-ray)
25. Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)
26. Pickpocket (Bresson, France, 1959, Criterion Blu-ray)
27. Spies (Lang, Germany, 1928, Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
28. Touch of Evil (Welles, USA, 1958, Universal Blu-ray)
29. A Touch of Sin (Jia, China, 2013, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
30. The Wind Will Carry Us (Kiarostami, Iran, 1999, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)


My Top 10 Favorite Notes in Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer

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About two-and-a-half years ago I posted a short article on this blog about how I came to receive a personally inscribed copy of the great book Notes on the Cinematographer (Notes sur le cinematographe) by Robert Bresson, my favorite director of all time. For those who haven’t read it, the book is a series of brief notes — some of them only sentence fragments — that Bresson wrote while making films over the course of many decades. These notes, which range from cryptic aphorisms to bits of practical, commonsense advice directed by the author to himself, have been compared by critics to everything from the pensees of Bresson’s hero Blaise Pascal to the messages contained in Chinese fortune cookies. Regardless of how you describe it, one thing’s for certain: the book is so chock-full of wisdom and genuine insight into the creative process that I think it should be considered essential reading for not just filmmakers but artists of any stripe. As I am in the process of writing a new feature-length script that I hope to produce next year (50+ pages down and counting — huzzah!), I find myself returning to Notes on the Cinematographer yet again for inspiration. Among the hundreds of notes contained therein, here are my top 10 favorites:

10. Not to use two violins when one is enough.

9. A whole made of good images can be detestable.

8. Let the cause follow the effect, not accompany it or precede it.

7. A too-expected image (cliche) will never seem right, even if it is.

6. When a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralize it. The ear goes more towards the within, the eye towards the outer.

5. No psychology (of the kind which discovers only what it can explain).

4. Hide the ideas, but so that people find them. The most important will be the most hidden.

3. Empty the pond to get the fish.

2. Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.

1. My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.

Notes on the Cinematographer can be purchased from amazon.com here.


The Difference Between Robert Bresson in 1934 and 1956

Having finally caught up with Robert Bresson’s deeply obscure and uncharacteristically slapstick first film Les Affaires Publiques, I decided to throw this together just for fun – two screencaps I made that illustrate the difference between the director in 1934 and 1956.

A sentry box, manned and decorated with polka-dots, in Les Affaires Publiques (1934):

A sentry box, unmanned and unadorned, in A Man Escaped (1956):


A Classic French Cinema Primer, Pt. 2

A continuation of the list of essential pre-Nouvelle Vague French sound era movie titles that I began earlier this week. This part of the list encompasses films released from 1946 – 1959.

La Belle et la Bete (Cocteau, 1946)

Jean Cocteau, with an uncredited assist from Rene Clement, directed this beautiful and poetic adaptation of the well-known fairy tale about a young woman, Belle, who sacrifices herself to a grotesque half-man/half-beast creature in order to save her father’s life. But the more she gets to know the beast, the more she realizes his hideous exterior conceals a sensitive soul . . . This was a belated follow-up to Cocteau’s Surrealist classic debut, The Blood of a Poet, and it was worth the wait. A million miles from the Disney-fication of such material, Cocteau’s film begins with the unforgettable title card “…and now, we begin our story with a phrase that is like a time machine for children: Once Upon a Time…” and then proceeds to capture the true essence of fairy tales, with all of the darkness that implies.

Jour de Fete (Tati, 1949)

Jacques Tati’s underrated first feature is a delightful slapstick comedy about Francois (Tati himself as a forerunner to his beloved M. Hulot character), a rural postman who becomes obsessed with delivering mail efficiently after viewing a documentary on the high-tech U.S. Postal Service. Although there is dialogue in the film, it remains secondary to Tati’s incredible sight gags, which rival the best of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in their sheer ingenuity (the runaway bicycle scene is a standout). This was shot in a primitive color process known as Thomson Color though not seen that way until 1995 when Tati’s daughter oversaw the development of a new version that restored the film as closely as possible to her father’s original vision. A revelation.

Le Silence de la Mer (Melville, 1949)

Jean-Pierre Melville was a spiritual godfather to the Nouvelle Vague not only because his work expressed such an obvious love of cinema but also due to the fierce independence evidenced by the low-budget/shot-on-location/documentary-style aesthetic of his early films. This self-financed World War II drama concerns a German soldier (Howard Vernon) who takes up residence with an elderly Frenchman and his niece while convalescing from a wound. Neither of the French characters speak a word as the German regales them with verbose monologues but the niece eventually falls in love with the soldier, a feeling on which she will never be able to act. This austere and intimate chamber drama is played out as a series of carefully orchestrated glances aided by a use of voice-over narration that would clearly influence not just the New Wave but Robert Bresson as well.

Casque d’Or (Becker, 1952)

Jacques Becker’s magnificent recreation of La Belle Epoque is an exquisite romantic melodrama about a gangster’s moll (a terrific Simone Signoret) who also becomes the object of affection of two other men – with predictably tragic results. But Casque d’Or (the film takes its title from the nickname of Signoret’s character) is less about plot than atmosphere. All of the period details feel correct but it is the beautiful cinematography of Robert Lefebvre that elevates this to the front rank of the best French movies ever; the almost overly-bright, poetic, Impressionistic images lend the movie a nostalgic tone even when, or perhaps especially when, the story is at its darkest.

The Earrings of Madame de . . . (Ophuls, 1953)

Austrian-born director Max Ophuls made what are arguably the most elegant movies of the classic French cinema; his much beloved tracking shots find their perfect complement in narrative structures that continually circle back on themselves, like a waltz, before resolving in a typically tragic denouement. Letter from an Unknown Woman, from Ophuls’ brief stint in Hollywood, is my favorite of his films but I think Madame de . . . is the masterpiece of his lengthier French career. The unnamed title character is the wife of a general in the French Army who sells her most expensive pair of earrings to pay off a debt, an act that becomes a catalyst for a chain of events bringing about her ruin. Apart from the aforementioned formal grace, the lead performances (from Daniel Darrieux, Charles Boyer and the very suave and refined-looking Italian director Vittorio de Sica) are sublime.

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (Tati, 1953)

Jacques Tati’s classic comedy, the first outing for his legendary M. Hulot character, opens with a sly title card asking the viewer not to expect a plot since the movie is about a holiday and holidays are meant to be fun. From there we follow the bumbling title character as he arrives at a beach-side resort hotel and, in a series of plotless and near wordless scenes, proceeds to comically wreak havoc everywhere he goes. (Especially memorable is Hulot’s riotous visit to the tennis court.) Not only a very funny film but, thanks to Tati’s eye for the geometry of the frame, a very beautiful one as well.

The Wages of Fear (Clouzot, 1953)

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece of machismo details the harrowing adventures of four down-on-their-luck European expatriates in Venezuela who agree to the extremely dangerous job of transporting truckloads of nitroglycerine across South American mountain roads in exchange for a large sum of money. This is a gritty, tense, brutal and undeniably exciting adventure movie that also offers, in the character of an anti-union American oil company boss, an intriguing critique of capitalism besides. The Wages of Fear deservedly made Yves Montand an international star and went on to exert a big influence on Sam Peckinpah who tipped his hat to the opening of this film with a similar children-torturing-insects scene at the beginning of The Wild Bunch many years later.

French Cancan (Renoir, 1954)

After a 15 year exile, in part due to the Nazi occupation of France, Jean Renoir’s homecoming saw him reunite with actor Jean Gabin to create the most distinctly Gallic film of his famed career. French Cancan tells the story of Henri Danglard (Gabin at his most charismatic), the womanizing impresario who founds the Moulin Rouge and helps to inaugurate the Cancan dance craze while staying just a half-step ahead of his creditors. Françoise Arnoul and Maria Felix play Danglard’s rival romantic interests, both of whom realize that they will have to take a back seat to the scoundrel’s true love: his career. Renoir’s gorgeous visual style takes its cues from the lithographs of Toulouse-Lautrec, most impressively in the Cancan climax, which I’ve described elsewhere on this site as a “near orgiastic riot of form and color.”

Touchez Pas au Grisbi (Becker, 1954)

Jacques Becker segues from the underworld of La Belle Epoque in Casque d’Or to the gangsters of the modern world in Touchez Pas au Grisbi, a massively influential crime/noir film that laid down a template for Jean-Pierre Melville and many others to follow. The plot centers on Max (Gabin again, this time in world-weary mode), an aging gangster whose retirement after a last big score proves short-lived when his former partner is kidnapped and he is asked to put up their loot as ransom. Marvelous black and white cinematography compliments what is essentially a love story between two men, plus Gabin gets to slap a lot of people around. Look sharp for future stars Lino Ventura and Jeanne Moreau in minor roles.

Lola Montes (Ophuls, 1955)

The true story of the infamous slut of the title (Martine Carol) whose sexual appetite was so voracious that she wound up becoming a 19th century circus attraction. As Rafael Nadal once said, “How crazy is the life?” Max Ophuls’ great final film features an ambitiously non-chronological structure, a la Citizen Kane, that alternates between present day scenes where the circus ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) recounts Lola’s exploits with flashback scenes to her youth, beginning with a tryst with Franz Liszt and continuing through many other men. Ophuls’ trademark bravura visual style is taken to an almost freakish extreme with the addition of Eastmancolor but Carol’s performance is the key here; she and Ophuls conspire to make Lola a figure of intense sympathy and identification throughout. Unfortunately, Lola Montes was a commercial disaster upon release and was soon heavily recut from its original 140 minute version. The recent restoration, which can be seen on Criterion’s magnificent 115 minute blu-ray, is the most complete the film is ever likely to be.

Bob le Flambeur (Melville, 1956)

The film where Melville became Melville. With a tip of his fedora to The Asphalt Jungle, the brilliant French writer/director tells an irresistible shaggy dog heist story about one Bob Montagne, an aging gangster/gambler who dutifully maintains an impeccable sense of personal style even when on a losing streak. Eventually, Bob’s bad luck causes him to hatch a scheme to rob the casino in Deauville, a journey to the end of night that leads to one of the wittiest punch lines in cinema. Melville’s depiction of the Montmartre demimonde is so pungent you can smell it and his mise-en-scene, with its chiaroscuro lighting and emphasis on black and white checkerboard patterns, set a new standard for cinematic cool.

A Man Escaped (Bresson, 1956)

Robert Bresson’s minimalist drama, based on the memoir of a real life French Lieutenant’s escape from a Gestapo prison, unforgettably conveys one man’s relentless desire to regain his freedom. Eschewing the easy thrills so common to the Hollywood treatment of this type of subject matter, Bresson instead zeroes in on the specific process of how Lieutenant Fontaine acquires, creates and utilizes the tools that enable his escape plan to work. The stringent use of close-ups of hands at work, accompanied by a use of heightened sound effects and an extensive employment of first person voice-over narration, draws the viewer into Fontaine’s world to an almost unbearably intense degree. This is on my short list of near-perfect movies.

Pickpocket (Bresson, 1959)

Robert Bresson’s loose adaptation of Crime and Punishment transposes Dostoevsky’s novel to contemporary Paris, replacing Raskolnikov’s senseless murder of an old woman with the story of a young man who drifts into a life of crime for which he was not made. What remains the same are the hero’s confused Nietzschean beliefs, the cat-and-mouse game he plays with the local police inspector and the hint of spiritual rehabilitation that is triggered by the love of a young woman. The actual pickpocketing sequences are virtuoso pieces of camera choreography but, as in all of Bresson’s movies, the sum is greater than its individual parts, resulting in a deeply moving, spiritually exultant work of art.


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.


My Top 200 Films of All Time

In the past week, this blog has reached the milestone of having been viewed 100,000 times. To celebrate, I am posting a list of my favorite films of all time, one that I have been working on for what feels like forever. A wise man once said that favorite movies were always the hardest to write about and, after compiling the list, I heartily concur. I worked mighty hard to write the capsule reviews of my ten favorite movies that you’ll find below, attempting to nail down exactly what qualities they possess that has made them so impactful to me from points of view both personal (as an “ordinary” movie lover) and professional (as a film studies instructor and blogger). Below the list of my ten favorites you will also find a list of 200 runners-up that has been divided into eight groups of 25 in descending order of preference.

This highly personal list, which is actually a list of my 210 favorite movies, has literally been a lifetime in the making. I hope you enjoy it.

The Top Ten:

10. City Girl (Murnau, USA, 1930)

In F.W. Murnau’s lyrical, late-silent masterpiece, a farm boy from Minnesota travels to Chicago to sell his family’s wheat crop. He unexpectedly returns home with a new bride, an event that threatens to fracture his relationship with his skeptical parents who regard his big city wife as a shameless gold digger. This begins as an unforgettable portrait of urban loneliness (Mary Duncan’s title character keeps a fake bird in a cage as a pet) before moving to the wheat fields of Minnesota for some of the most gorgeous pastoral imagery ever captured on celluloid. Murnau knew how to put emotion into camera movement, something that is very difficult to do, and that skill is more evident in City Girl than any of his other considerably estimable films.

9. Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s austere, epic biopic of the famed 15th century icon painter is for my money the greatest movie ever made about the life of an artist. Told in vignette fashion, Tarkovsky depicts Rublev’s story against the turbulent backdrop of medieval Russia during the Tatar invasions. The highlight is the climactic sequence where Rublev, who has sworn a vow of silence in protest of the horrors he has seen, witnesses a mere boy overseeing the arduous process of the casting of a giant bell. The boy saves himself from government execution by successfully casting the bell in spite of the fact that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. At the conclusion of this awe-inspiring 30 minute scene, the depiction of a miracle that feels like a miracle of filmmaking, Rublev is inspired not only to speak again but to continue painting and to create his greatest works.

8. Out 1 (Rivette/Schiffman, France, 1971)

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Jacques Rivette and Suzanne Schiffman’s legendary 12-and-a-half-hour serial is Feuillade made modern, where the directors use an expansive running time to tell various mystery stories, most of them unresolved, which also serves as a psychic x-ray of the 1960s French counterculture and the apotheosis of the entire Nouvelle Vague. Rivette and Schiffman intercut between four different plots: two seemingly unrelated theater troupes rehearse different Aeschylus plays while two seemingly unrelated con artists (Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto) ply their trades in the cafes and streets of Paris. The con artists each receive information about “the 13,” a secret society with its origin in Balzac that may or may not currently exist. Their investigations lead them to interact with various members of the theater troupes as Rivette and Schiffman slowly bring their narrative threads together and reminds us why paranoid conspiracy theories not only exist but are paradoxically comforting: they make us feel that disparate, unconnected events may be related and therefore part of a meaningful design. An intellectually vigorous, terrifying, funny, challenging and life-altering work.

7. Journey to Italy (Rossellini, Italy, 1954)

The Joyces (the incredible duo of Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders) are a married couple from England who travel to Naples to settle the estate of a recently deceased uncle. With the precision of a surgeon, director Roberto Rossellini shows how the romance has gone out of their marriage due to petty jealousies, mutual misunderstandings and a breakdown in communication. As the characters wander alone through Naples and nearby Pompeii, the viewer comes to realize that they do still love one another but are merely incapable of expressing it. Can a miracle save their relationship? This is the best movie ever made about marriage, a subtle, elegant, deeply spiritual film that uses the Italian landscape, both urban and rural, and the inexorable pull of ancient history to comment on the possibility of love in the modern world.

6. Tokyo Story (Ozu, Japan, 1953)

Yasujiro Ozu’s supreme masterpiece tells the story of an elderly Japanese couple who travel from their rural hometown to visit their grown children in the title city, only to find that their children don’t have much time to spend with them and even treat them as a nuisance. Rather than condemn any of his characters the way you would expect a Hollywood melodrama to do, Ozu’s patient, observant, non-judgemental eye sees the disintegration of the family as the sad but natural order of the universe. The heart of the film is the performance of Ozu’s favorite actress Setsuko Hara as Noriko, the elderly couple’s daughter-in-law, whose smiling countenance seems to radiate an almost overwhelming warmth and humanity. When one embittered character tells her that life is disappointing, Noriko’s resigned, smiling response is “Yes, I’m afraid it is.” Sublime.

5. L’argent (Bresson, France, 1983)

Robert Bresson’s swan song, as tight and compressed as a Ramones song, is a masterful update of Tolstoy’s short story The Forged Note. Bresson’s ingenious narrative follows a counterfeit bill, initially passed off in a shop as a schoolboy prank, which sets off a chain of events (an “avalanche of evil” in the director’s own indelible words) that ends with a young man murdering an entire family with an axe. This vital, rigorous movie, made when the director was 81 but seeming like the work of a much younger man, is the ultimate artistic statement about the potentially destructive power of money.

4. Gertrud (Dreyer, Denmark, 1964)

Carl Dreyer’s final film is an adaptation of Hjalmar Soderberg’s 1906 play of the same title and its deceptively theatrical character is also reminiscent of Ibsen (a protoypical feminist heroine) and Strindberg (the eternal conflict between men and women). But there are few films as truly and wonderfully cinematic as Gertrud, whose unique combination of stillness, slowness and whiteness is perfectly suited to capturing the title character’s near-religious view of romantic love as an uncompromising ideal. A lot of men seem to love Gertrud but none love her as much as she requires and so she chooses to live alone – without regrets. Unforgettable for its use of long takes (one of which clocks in at 10 minutes) and Nina Pens Rode’s luminous lead performance.

3. The Searchers (Ford, USA, 1956)

The greatest western ever made is also the greatest American movie ever made. Before filming began, John Ford described The Searchers as “a kind of psychological epic” and indeed this complex take on the settling of the West, with its head-on examination of racism, finds an appropriately tragic hero in the character of the mysterious Ethan Edwards (John Wayne in his best and most nuanced performance). Spurred on by an unrequited love for his deceased sister-in-law, the maniacal, Indian-hating Edwards will stop at nothing to recapture his nieces who have been kidnapped by Comanche Indians. “We’ll find ’em,” Ethan says in a line of dialogue worthy of Melville, “just as sure as the turning of the earth.” The dialectic between civilization and barbarism posited by Ford, with Ethan standing in a metaphorical doorway between them, would have an incalculable effect on subsequent generations of filmmakers.

2. Tih Minh (Feuillade, France, 1918)

Louis Feuillade’s ridiculously entertaining 7-hour mystery serial features kidnappings, daring escapes, slapstick fistfights, secret messages coded in an ancient Hindu dialect, “forgetfulness potions,” various forms of mind control, a mountaintop cliffhanging climax, and many, many badass disguises. It also uses an international espionage plot to reflect on World War I and allegorize contemporary French fears about the insidious nature of Bolshevism; the hero is a French explorer and his chief rival is an evil German doctor named Marx. The hero’s maid turns out to be a villainess who is secretly in Marx’s employ and one of the key title cards is another character’s incredulous exclamation that “Marx is here!” The entire espionage genre, including Fritz Lang’s Mabuse cycle and the James Bond films, have their origins here but Feuillade’s masterpiece remains the best movie of its kind.

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 future adult star 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.

First 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

1. L’avventura (Antonioni, Italy, 1960)
2. A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956)
3. Viridiana (Bunuel, Spain, 1961)
4. A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes, USA, 1974)
5. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, Italy, 1948)
6. Coeur Fidele (Epstein, France, 1923)
7. How Green Was My Valley (Ford, USA, 1941)
8. Contempt (Godard, France/Italy, 1963)
9. Vertigo (Hitchcock, USA, 1958)
10. Three Times (Hou, Taiwan, 2005)
11. A Touch of Zen (Hu, Taiwan, 1971)
12. Our Hospitality (Keaton, USA, 1923)
13. The Decalogue (Kieslowski, Poland, 1988)
14. M (Lang, Germany, 1931)
15. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone, Italy, 1966)
16. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953)
17. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau, USA, 1927)
18. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, USA, 1948)
19. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, France, 1939)
20. Play Time (Tati, France, 1967)
21. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, Russia, 1929)
22. L’atalante (Vigo, France, 1934)
23. The Leopard (Visconti, Italy, 1963)
24. Greed (Von Stroheim, USA, 1924)
25. Chimes at Midnight (Welles, Spain/Italy, 1965)

Second 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

26. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Bunuel, France, 1972)
27. City Lights (Chaplin, USA, 1931)
28. Casablanca (Curtiz, USA, 1942)
29. Earth (Dovzhenko, Ukraine, 1930)
30. The Mother and the Whore (Eustache, France, 1974)
31. Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder, Germany, 1980)
32. 8 1/2 (Fellini, Italy, 1963)
33. Les Vampires (Feuillade, France, 1915-1916)
34. Goodbye to Language (Godard, Switzerland/France, 2014)
35. The Ballad of Narayama (Imamura, Japan, 1983)
36. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Japan, 1954)
37. The Band Wagon (Minnelli, USA, 1953)
38. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1939)
39. Pandora’s Box (Pabst, Germany, 1929)
40. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini, Italy, 1964)
41. Chinatown (Polanski, USA, 1974)
42. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, UK, 1948)
43. Bigger Than Life (N. Ray, USA, 1956)
44. Charulata (S. Ray, India, 1964)
45. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Sweden, 1921)
46. The Arch (Tang, Hong Kong, 1969)
47. The Crowd (Vidor, USA, 1928)
48. Citizen Kane (Welles, USA, 1941)
49. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959)
50. Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka, Japan, 1937)

Third 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

51. Lucky Star (Borzage, USA, 1929)
52. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, USA, 1952)
53. Ordet (Dreyer, Denmark, 1955)
54. Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992)
55. Spring in a Small Town (Fei, China, 1948)
56. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, USA, 1962)
57. Park Row (Fuller, USA, 1952)
58. Nouvelle Vague (Godard, France, 1990)
59. Two Lane Blacktop (Hellman, USA, 1971)
60. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Italy/France, 2010)
61. Boyhood (Linklater, USA, 2014)
62. The Awful Truth (McCarey, USA, 1937)
63. Army of Shadows (Melville, France, 1969)
64. Floating Clouds (Naruse, Japan, 1955)
65. Boy (Oshima, Japan, 1969)
66. Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, USA, 1959)
67. Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, France/Italy, 1961)
68. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (Rossellini, France/Italy, 1966)
69. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, USA, 1955)
70. Stalker (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1979)
71. Satantango (Tarr, Hungary, 1994)
72. A Fugitive from the Past (Uchida, Japan, 1965)
73. The Docks of New York (Von Sternberg, USA, 1928)
74. The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, USA, 1939)
75. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, USA, 1946)

Fourth 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

76. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Akerman, Belgium, 1975)
77. The Long Goodbye (Altman, USA, 1973)
78. Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson, France, 1966)
79. Le Boucher (Chabrol, France, 1970)
80. Brightness (Cisse, Mali, 1987)
81. The Strange Case of Angelica (De Oliveira, Portugal, 2010)
82. Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II (Eisenstein, Russia, 1944-1958)
83. Lonesome (Fejos, USA, 1928)
84. Isn’t Life Wonderful? (Griffith, USA/Germany, 1924)
85. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, USA, 1953)
86. Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou, Taiwan, 1996)
87. Come and See (Klimov, Russia, 1985)
88. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, USA, 1968)
89. Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (Lang, Germany, 1922)
90. Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, USA, 1932)
91. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, USA, 2001)
92. A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996)
93. The Naked Spur (Mann, USA, 1953)
94. My Night at Maud’s (Rohmer, France, 1969)
95. Raging Bull (Scorsese, USA 1980)
96. Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Straub/Huillet, Germany, 1968)
97. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, USA, 1944)
98. Detour (Ulmer, USA, 1945)
99. Vagabond (Varda, France, 1985)
100. In the Mood for Love (Wong, Hong Kong, 2000)

Fifth 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

101. The Passenger (Antonioni, Italy, 1975)
102. The Unknown (Browning, USA, 1927)
103. Los Olvidados (Bunuel, Mexico, 1950)
104. Love Streams (Cassavetes, USA, 1984)
105. Day of Wrath (Dreyer, Denmark, 1943)
106. Hindle Wakes (Elvey, UK, 1927)
107. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, Germany, 1974)
108. Zodiac (Fincher, USA, 2007)
109. Pierrot le Fou (Godard, France, 1965)
110. Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (Hawks, USA, 1932)
111. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960)
112. A City of Sadness (Hou, Taiwan, 1989)
113. Vengeance is Mine (Imamura, Japan, 1979)
114. The Housemaid (Kim, S. Korea, 1960)
115. Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993)
116. The Earrings of Madame de . . . (Ophuls, France, 1953)
117. Late Spring (Ozu, Japan, 1949)
118. The Third Man (Reed, UK, 1949)
119. Mon Oncle d’Amerique (Resnais, France, 1980)
120. L’amour Fou (Rivette, France, 1969)
121. Germany Year Zero (Rossellini, Germany/Italy, 1948)
122. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, USA, 1976)
123. Black Girl (Sembene, Senegal, 1966)
124. Senso (Visconti, Italy, 1954)
125. Touch of Evil (Welles, USA, 1958)

Sixth 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

126. Red Desert (Antonioni, Italy, 1964)
127. Pickpocket (Bresson, France, 1959)
128. L’age d’Or (Bunuel, France, 1930)
129. Anxiety (De Oliveira, Portugal, 1998)
130. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, France/Denmark, 1928)
131. The Quiet Man (Ford, USA/Ireland, 1952)
132. Weekend (Godard, France, 1967)
133. Rio Bravo (Hawks, USA, 1958)
134. Rear Window (Hitchcock, USA, 1954)
135. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (Ingram, USA, 1921)
136. Brief Encounter (Lean, UK, 1945)
137. Once Upon a Time in America (Leone, USA, 1984)
138. Heaven Can Wait (Lubitsch, USA, 1943)
139. Touki Bouki (Mambety, Senegal, 1973)
140. Some Came Running (Minnelli, USA, 1958)
141. The Life of Oharu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1952)
142. Floating Weeds (Ozu, Japan, 1959)
143. A Nos Amours (Pialat, France, 1983)
144. The Music Room (S. Ray, India, 1958)
145. Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, France, 1959)
146. Blade Runner (Scott, USA, 1982)
147. The Ascent (Shepitko, Russia, 1977)
148. Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947)
149. The Emigrants/The New Land (Troell, Sweden, 1971)
150. The Goddess (Wu, China, 1934)

Seventh 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

151. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Demy, France, 1967)
152. Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999)
153. Vampyr (Dreyer, Germany/Denmark, 1932)
154. The Sun Shines Bright (Ford, USA, 1953)
155. Hail Mary (Godard, France, 1984)
156. North By Northwest (Hitchcock, USA, 1959)
157. The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)
158. Peppermint Candy (Lee, S. Korea, 1999)
159. Blue Velvet (Lynch, USA, 1986)
160. Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1954)
161. Early Summer (Ozu, Japan, 1951)
162. Laura (Preminger, USA, 1944)
163. In a Lonely Place (N. Ray, USA, 1950)
164. Stromboli (Rossellini, Italy, 1950)
165. Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990)
166. Mr. Thank You (Shimizu, Japan, 1936)
167. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (Tati, France, 1953)
168. Life Without Principle (To, Hong Kong, 2011)
169. The 400 Blows (Truffaut, France, 1959)
170. Turkish Delight (Verhoeven, Holland, 1973)
171. The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg, Germany, 1930)
172. Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda, Poland, 1958)
173. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1920)
174. Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994)
175. Yi Yi (Yang, Taiwan, 2000)

Eighth 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

176. Killer of Sheep (Burnett, USA, 1977)
177. The Piano (Campion, Australia/New Zealand, 1993)
178. Holy Motors (Carax, France, 2012)
179. Children of Paradise (Carne, France, 1945)
180. Daisies (Chytilova, Czechoslovakia, 1966)
181. The Magic Blade (Chor, Hong Kong, 1976)
182. Distant Voices, Still Lives (Davies, UK, 1988)
183. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy, France, 1964)
184. The Assassin(Hou, Taiwan, 2015)
185. Notorious (Hitchcock, USA, 1946)
186. A Touch of Sin (Jia, China, 2013)
187. A Page of Madness (Kinugasa, Japan, 1926)
188. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1999)
189. Time of the Gypsies (Kusturica, Yugoslavia, 1988)
190. Centre Stage (Kwan, Hong Kong, 1992)
191. Days of Heaven (Malick, USA, 1978)
192. Sans Soleil (Marker, France, 1983)
193. The Headless Woman (Martel, Argentina, 2008)
194. The Road Warrior (Miller, Australia, 1981)
195. Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993)
196. Johnny Guitar (N. Ray, USA, 1952)
197. Antonio das Mortes (Rocha, Brazil, 1969)
198. Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (Shimazu, Japan, 1934)
199. People on Sunday (Siodmak/Ulmer/Zinnemann, Germany, 1930)
200. The House of Mystery (Volkoff, France, 1923)


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