Because of the screenings of my film Mercury in Retrograde at the Gene Siskel Film Centerover the next week (Friday, 2/16, Monday, 2/19 and Wednesday, 2/21), the film has been in the press a lot this past week. Among the highlights:
In the Chicago Sun-Times, Richard Roeper calls the film “absolutely beautiful…a smart, funny, quietly effective and authentic slice of older millennial life…Smith has a deft touch for dialogue, creating six distinct characters who look and sound like people we know…the interaction between the uniformly excellent actors feels natural and unforced.” You can read his great, spoiler-free full review here.
Andrea Gronvall of the Chicago Reader has a nice capsule review in which she calls the film an “observant, nuanced indie” and notes the humor in the book-club and disc-golf scenes (an aspect that has been too unremarked upon in other reviews). You can read her notice here.
It was an honor to be interviewed by Donald Liebenson for the mighty RogerEbert.com site. I am proud of the fact that I uttered the sentence “F.W. Murnau is my master” in this interview. Peep it here.
Two fun MiR-related radio interviews also premiered online in the past week: you can listen to me and the fabulous Najarra Townsend talk about the film with Gary Zidek on his show “The Arts Section” here. You can also here me talk about the film on the WGN Radio podcast “No Coast Cinema,” an essential listen for cinephiles, with hosts Tom Hush and Conor Cornelius here.
Yesterday marked the 80th birthday of Leonard Cohen (AKA the second greatest living songwriter in the English language). Since I have been in the habit of composing an annual Bob Dylan birthday post for the past four years, I thought I’d commemorate this occasion by listing my favorite instances of Cohen’s music in the movies. Enjoy.
“The Stranger Song,” “Sisters of Mercy” and “Winter Lady” in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
Robert Altman’s anti-capitalist/anti-western masterpiece stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie — both de-glammed to the point of being almost unrecognizable — as an odd couple who attempt an ill-fated get rich quick scheme of establishing a brothel in the middle of nowhere. The film is essentially a mood piece about the central location, a fledgling mining town named “Presbyterian Church,” rendered by Altman and D.P. Vilmos Zsigmond as a brown, hazy, membranous world of earthy/murky sights and sounds. The glue holding everything together is a suite of Leonard Cohen’s finest songs, all taken from his first album, each of which is associated with a particular character or group of characters: “The Stranger Song” is the theme of Beatty’s McCabe, “Winter Lady” is the theme of Christie’s Mrs. Miller, and “Sisters of Mercy” is associated with the prostitutes. The lyrics of the songs are so fitting, in fact, that it’s almost difficult to believe that they weren’t written expressly for this film, which feels in more ways than one like a precursor to Altman’s cult-classic musical Popeye. For setting tone, there is nothing quite like the opening credits here — with Beatty entering town on horseback while the titles slowly drift across the screen from right to left and Cohen’s monotone baritone intones, “It’s true that all the men you knew were dealers who said they were through with dealing every time you gave them shelter . . .”
“Chelsea Hotel #2” in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder was obsessed with Leonard Cohen. The invaluable Leonard Cohen Files website shows that the great German director featured the Canadian songwriter’s work in no less than six of his movies. I’ll pick the use of “Chelsea Hotel #2” in the final episode of Berlin Alexanderplatz as my favorite simply because that epic miniseries is my favorite of all Fassbinder’s achievements. The song’s presence is, of course, anachronistic because Fassbinder’s adaptation of Alfred Doblin’s novel takes place entirely in the pre-Nazi Weimar era. Nonetheless, Fassbinder’s bugfuck “epilogue,” the final hour of what is essentially a 15-and-a-half-hour movie, is basically the director’s daring, fever-dream meditation on Doblin’s plot, characters and themes (where the story’s psychosexual subtext is more explicitly spelled out — amidst the symbolic images of a boxing match, frolicking angels and nuclear explosions). As a bonus, this episode features Kraftwerk too!
“Avalanche” in Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water (1994)
Maverick French director Olivier Assayas’s filmography can be broken fairly neatly into two categories: daring but not-always-successful genre mash-ups (e.g., Irma Vep, Boarding Gate, Demonlover, etc.) and more conventional, autobiographical character studies (e.g., Cold Water, Summer Hours, Something in the Air, etc.). One of the things that binds all of these disparate films together is Assayas’s always-deft use of pop music (especially from his own formative years of the 60s and early 70s). My favorite Assayas film is 1994’s Cold Water, an unsentimental re-imagining of the director’s own troubled teenaged years centering on his alter-ego “Gilles” (who would return in 2012’s Something in the Air) and his relationship with his girlfriend Christine. The highlight of Cold Water is a climactic party scene in which the protagonists smoke hash and dance around a bonfire to a stellar playlist of tunes including Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Around the Bend,” Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Avalanche,” the haunting track that kicks off Leonard Cohen’s great Songs of Love and Hate album.
“I’m Your Man” in Steve James’s Life Itself (2014)
Although I wasn’t as enamored of Steve James’s adaptation of Roger Ebert’s memoir as a lot of critics, I can find no fault with his almost unbearably poignant use of “I’m Your Man,” the title track of Cohen’s remarkable 1988 comeback album. Ebert explains that the song literally saved his life when he and his wife Chaz lingered for a while in his hospital room to listen to it instead of leaving the hospital following jaw surgery. A blood vessel burst under Ebert’s chin mid-song and, because the Eberts were still in close proximity to doctors (and not, say, in a cab on the way home), the doctors were able to save his life. The fact that the song plays during a scene where Roger and Chaz tell the story allows the lyrics to have a parallel function as a testament to their love for each other: “If you want a boxer,” Cohen sings, “I’ll step into the ring for you / And if you want a doctor, I’ll examine every inch of you / If you want a driver, climb inside / Or if you want to take me for a ride / You know you can / I’m your man.”
“Take This Waltz” in Jean-Luc Godard’s Letter in Motion to Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremaux (2014)
Like Fassbinder, Jean-Luc Godard has used the music of Leonard Cohen in multiple projects: the short Puissance de la parole, the mammoth video series Histoire(s) du Cinema and his most recent project Letter in Motion to Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremaux, the “video letter” he sent to the Cannes Film Festival to explain why he could not be present in person to present his new movie Goodbye to Language. In the manner of much recent Godard, this cryptic short film features clips from the director’s own previous work (notably King Lear, which had scandalized the festival in 1987) intercut with punning title cards and clips of Godard speaking in the present day. The nearly nine-minute film ends with Godard saying: “So, I’m going where the wind blows me, just like autumn leaves as they blow away. Last year for example, I took the tramway, which is a metaphor, the metaphor and . . . to return, to return to pay my dues from 1968 at the Havana Bar . . . and now, I believe that the possibility of explaining things is the only excuse to fight with language . . . as always, I believe it’s not possible . . . this May 21st . . . this is no longer a film but a simple waltz, my president, to find the true balance with one’s near destiny.” Immediately upon saying “a simple waltz, my president,” Cohen’s sublime “Take This Waltz” (also from the I’m Your Man album) can be heard. This is then followed by a clip of Bob Dylan singing, “How long must I listen to the lies of prejudice?” from “When He Returns.” Poetry on top of poetry on top of poetry, folks.
Leonard Cohen’s new album, Popular Problems, drops on September 23rd. You can check out the video for his superb new song “Almost Like the Blues” via YouTube below:
A Summer’s Tale (Rohmer, France, 1996) – Theatrical Viewing / Rating: 7.9
In much the same way that the Humphrey Bogart-vehicle Dead Reckoning can be seen as the quintessential film noir — by being a virtual checklist of all of the genre’s conventions — in spite of the fact that it’s not very good, so too can A Summer’s Tale be deemed the “ultimate Eric Rohmer movie” in spite of falling far short of the master’s best work. All of the key Rohmer ingredients are here (which might be part of the problem): familiar from La Collectionneuse, Pauline at the Beach and The Green Ray is the beach locale during summertime; from all six of the Moral Tales is the dilemma of a young man (Melvil Poupaud) torn between multiple — and vastly different — women; and from countless other Rohmer films is an academic protagonist (this time a mathematician and musician studying “sea shanties”) sidetracked by l’amour fou. Poupaud, half-way between being the child actor discovered by Raul Ruiz and the mature adult performer in movies by Arnaud Desplechin, Xavier Dolan and others, is appealing, but Amanda Langlet steals the show as his ambiguous love interest/friend Margot. The theme of thwarted desire is as keen and amusing as ever but those familiar with Rohmer’s oeuvre will know that he’s done this kind of thing much better elsewhere. Even within the “Tales of the Four Seasons,” the late film cycle to which it belongs, this isn’t within hailing distance of such masterworks as A Tale of Winter or An Autumn Tale (though it’s infinitely preferable to the dull A Tale of Springtime). Still, diehard Rohmer fans will want to seek out A Summer’s Tale: it never got a proper theatrical release in the U.S. until now and this new HD restoration renders Rohmer’s photography of the sunny Dinard locations as appealing as one could hope for.
Life Itself (Steve James, USA, 2014) – On Demand / Rating: 6.9
I recently and belatedly caught up, via video on demand, to Life Itself, Steve James’s much-lauded bio-doc/adaptation of Roger Ebert’s much-lauded memoir of the same title. While I found much to admire within it (I have too much respect for both Ebert and James not to), I also was not as impressed as I hoped I would be. Life Itself feels almost like two separate documentaries (one about Ebert’s life, the other about his death) that have been mashed together but that never quite cohere into a completely satisfying whole. The film about Ebert’s death is the better of the two: scenes of his final months, with his loving wife Chaz beside him in the hospital, in rehab and at home, while occasionally painful to watch, are the heart of the movie and really reveal director James’s humane and guiding hand. The poignancy of these scenes, which underscore the theme of “dying with dignity,” are where one feels the deepest connection between filmmaker and subject. The rest of Life Itself — consisting of talking-head interviews, archival clips from old episodes of Siskel and Ebert, an Ebert sound-alike narrating from the great critic’s memoir, etc. — is more anonymous and feels like standard made-for-PBS fodder; as enjoyable as much of that stuff is, it never feels like more than an unnecessary reduction of an already fine book. Life Itself begins with Ebert’s now-famous quote about cinema being an empathy-generating machine. While the two hours that follow generate more than their fair share of empathy, and are therefore well worth seeing, prospective viewers also shouldn’t be expecting another Hoop Dreams.
Roger Ebert made a big impression on my life, as he seemingly did with everyone who cared about movies over the past few decades. He was the person who first made me aware of what film criticism was. That would have been at some point in the early-to-mid-1980s when, as a kid, I started watching the popular At the Movies show he co-hosted with Gene Siskel. Later on, in the pre-internet days of the early-1990s, I read and wore out my copy of his “Video Companion.” While there were other critics who would end up exerting a stronger influence on me as a teacher and writer, I still always read and admired Ebert over the years. Just last semester I played the classic At the Movies episode entitled “Women in Danger” in its entirety in order to illustrate to a class what the “slasher movie” subgenre is.
I think Ebert’s greatest contribution to film criticism was the way he proved it could be both intelligent and popular at the same time. While many reviewers lamentably borrowed the basic “thumbs up/thumbs down” conceit — trademarked by Siskel and Ebert — in order to serve as mere “see this/don’t see that” consumer guides, Ebert’s reviews themselves were always insightful. And he commendably used his fame to champion film history — as in his “Great Movies” series — as well as little-known contemporary films that needed more exposure. For instance, he reviewed, in 2010, Chicago Heights, a locally shot/self-distributed indie made on a budget of $1,000 that played for just one week at the Siskel Center. In an age when movie reviews are being systematically replaced in the media with “celebrity news” (as Werner Herzog put it yesterday), it is doubtful that any film critic in the future will have the kind of wide-ranging impact that Ebert did.
The only contact I had with Roger Ebert came last year. We had been “facebook friends” for some time when I saw that he posted an article about the time he interviewed Charles Bukowski on the set of Barbet Schroeder’s Bukowski-penned movie Barfly in 1987. This reminded me of something I had been wondering about for years: in Bukowski’s highly entertaining 1989 novel Hollywood, a lightly fictionalized account of the making of Barfly, Bukowski’s alter ego Henry Chinaski describes being interviewed by an Ebert stand-in named “Rick Talbot.” Chinaski asks Talbot what he disliked the most about “Kirby Hudson” (read Gene Siskel), the co-host of his movie review show. Talbot’s response was: “His finger. It’s when he points his finger.” For some reason, I always thought this passage was uproariously funny. So I asked Ebert if “Talbot” had indeed said this about “Hudson” in real life, and he was kind enough to respond. His reply: “Michael: In a word, yes.”
Here’s Ebert in a cameo as himself in a 1995 episode of the animated series The Critic. The duet he sings with Siskel at the end is great:
On the latest episode of Roger Ebert’s excellent new television show “Ebert Presents At the Movies” (a reboot of his earlier, long running “At the Movies” show), co-hosts Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky each named five films that made them critics. Among the picks of the Chicago-based Vishnevetsky was Jean-Luc Godard’s massive eight part video opus Histoire(s) du Cinema. Not only did Vishnevetsky speak wisely and well about a work of art that more than one critic has referred to as the Finnegans Wake of the cinema, lucky viewers got to see a few ravishing clips of Godard’s monumentally important but deeply obscure work.
At the end of the segment Vishnevetsky slyly noted that while Histoire(s) du Cinema was not available on home video, it could be found “on the internet.” That a film critic on a nationally syndicated movie review show could recommend a work as formally innovative and intellectually audacious as Histoire(s) du Cinema, which must be illegally downloaded to be seen to boot (not that Godard cares about such things), is a good indication of the sea change that has recently occurred in American movie culture. It also offers further proof (if any more is necessary) that, contrary to all of the premature speculation about the “death” of either cinema or cinephilia, world cinema has actually entered a golden age approaching a realization of the “universal language” that Fritz Lang enthusiastically spoke about in the 1920s.
Coincidentally, only a few days before this episode of “Ebert Presents” aired, I illegally downloaded, for the first time, two movies I have been wanting to see for decades: Jacques Rivette’s legendary improvisational epics L’amour Fou and Out 1: Noli Me Tangere. Neither title has ever been officially released on home video in any format and neither has played theatrically anywhere near where I’ve lived. While the picture and sound quality of both titles is sorely lacking on the digital files on my computer, the greatness of the films somehow still manages to come through (to paraphrase something Godard once said about watching The Searchers on television decades ago). Is it an ideal way to view movies that were originally shot on film and intended for theatrical distribution? Of course not. But I am now able to see at least a facsimile of these films that may have otherwise eluded me indefinitely.
And, contrary to what some believe, the digital downloading of movies will not be the death of theatrical projection any more than home video has been. If given the opportunity, I will still jump at the chance to see Rivette’s movies projected, just as I recently shelled out money to see Polanski’s Repulsion in 35mm even though I already own Criterion’s superb blu-ray. Pronouncements of the death of cinema usually come from older critics who are lamenting the death of the specific means of how movies were distributed and exhibited when they first encountered and fell in love with the medium; in essence, they are lamenting nothing more than the loss of their own youth. As someone who rents movies regularly from two sources (Netflix and Facets), regularly purchases blu-rays and regularly goes to the movie theater, I see downloading as just another means of being able to experience cinema. I doubt that the primal experience of strangers congregating in the dark to see movies on a large screen will ever be completely replaced, even if those movies are eventually no longer seen via celluloid projection.
Another byproduct of cinephilia in the digital age: I have also not been experiencing Rivette’s endurance tests in a single viewing the way they were originally intended to be seen (L’amour Fou is four and a half hours long and Out 1 is more than twice that length). Instead, I’ve been watching them in bite-sized chunks, a few minutes here and there on my laptop during downtime between going to work and, of course, watching other movies.
The “Ebert Presents” segment on Histoire(s) du Cinema can viewed here: