Quick stop-motion pans across photograph backgrounds
Cutouts and objects (paper, flowers) puppeteered across the photos,
some set to dramatic music

Circles/dots, repeating as texture, single circles used as punctuation

Multiple episodes, a series of shorts, made over 13 years.
Dedication at the end of each one, then title of the next.

Some episodes have music, some have audio from a movie or show, some silent.
Halfway in, one uses music in reverse.

Pretty consistent visual approaches, with some surprises.
Round and rectangular chiclets appear in scenes.

Long hypodermic story at the end is the most narrative yet
Word bubbles and actions that tell a story, woman seems to be in afterlife.

Musical in which Jessie Matthews (in one of Hitchcock’s least-known movies the same year) plays a stage star who disappears to have a secret daughter, and years later plays the secret daughter, who gets a job onstage impersonating her mother. Intro music hall scene reminds of the beginning of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, not in a good way, but the movie picks up. Jessie’s love interest Barry MacKay played Fred Scrooge in A Christmas Carol a few years later, and I could tell you more about the movie if I hadn’t let 45 quarantine days pass before trying to write about it.

Local crime boss Bob Hoskins gets back into town, and quickly has to figure out what’s going on when some of his top men start getting killed right when Bob was gonna go legit by signing with real estate developer Eddie Constantine and profit off the 1988 olympics. Turns out some of his guys took a side deal from the IRA, stole from them, and now his whole organization is under attack.

Eddie, Helen, Bob:

Bob’s in his first starring role, Helen Mirren is his unamused sister, their curlhaired partner Jeff is Derek Thompson (just off the rock musical Breaking Glass) and Paul Freeman (villain of next year’s Raiders of the Lost Ark) is Bob’s buddy who gets stabbed to death by none other than Pierce Brosnan (twelve years before his performance in The Lawnmower Man landed him the James Bond role). Bob won’t accept defeat, takes on the IRA at a demolition derby, and it almost looks like his plan’s gonna work. Decent 1980’s movie, does not live up to expectations of being an early Criterion release that I’ve been wanting to watch since it came out… in fact, the DVD release was late 1998, which is closer to the release of the original film than it is to the month I finally watched it.

Ford directed at least 25 movies in the 1930’s – this one was made soon after Judge Priest. We watched this for Jean Arthur (a couple years before Easy Living), and a bonus was the really impressive dual acting by Edward G. Robinson and all manner of effects used to make him into two people: a bland office worker, and a bank robber nicknamed Killer. Robinson is turned into the cops by busybody Donald Meek (Stagecoach, etc), so the cops give him a signed letter saying he’s not the killer but a lookalike – of course this gets into the newspapers, since everything back then got into the newspapers, so Killer comes looking for his lookalike, steals the letter and forces the bland Robinson to cover for him. But Bland Robinson’s secret is that he’s a creepy stalker for his lovely coworker Jean Arthur, so when she’s endangered by all this activity, our man steps up and saves the day. I wouldn’t necessarily have thought crime comedies to be in John Ford’s wheelhouse, but dude’s wheelhouse was extremely large.

A Day in the Country (1936, Jean Renoir)

Set in 1860, a frivolous comedy that becomes a serious romantic drama, all in forty minutes. Watching this now because I just saw a remake in episode five of La Flor. Mr. Dufour, his wife Juliette, daughter Henriette, a deaf elder, and H’s fiancee Anatole take a day vacation, stop at a rural restaurant, picnic under a cherry tree and get wine drunk, then go boating.

Two local men, Henri (played by Renoir’s assistant director) and Rodolphe, are introduced having heavy conversation about the risks of seducing random women. A minute later, they’re interested in the Dufour ladies, so they lend the men fishing poles to get rid of them, and offer themselves as boat guides. Henri scores with the daughter, and years later she’s married to Anatole, an absolute idiot, sees Henri again and says she thinks of him every night.

Katy wasn’t interested, because she cancelled Renoir for being colonialist after watching The River with me thirteen years ago. Abandoned after shooting in 1936, finished and released ten years later, although besides its unusual length, I get no sense of it being incomplete. There are hours of blu extras, but instead I made myself a French shorts feast by watching all my unseen Etaix and Tati shorts from the Criterion sets.


Rupture (1961, Pierre Etaix)

Mostly wordless, with exaggerated sound effects. His girl dumps him via mail, and he attempts to write a letter in reply, but he’s not terribly competent. After a suicide gag (gun-shaped cigarette lighter), he kills himself through idiocy. Etaix’s film debut, also the debut of cowriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who would write six major Buñuel films.


Happy Anniversary (1962, Pierre Etaix)

Etaix tries to pick up a few things on his way home for an anniversary meal with his sweetheart, but every stop causes major problems and delays, and she starts getting loaded on wine and appetizers while waiting. Good subplot of a guy in the middle of a shave who gets up to move his car, loses his spot and ends up driving in circles until the barber closes. More sophisticated than last year’s short (and a better traffic movie than Trafic), won an oscar the same year the Hubleys won for The Hole.


Gai Dimanche (1935)

“Fun Sunday” A couple of no-good drunks and thieves borrow a car and act like tour guides. Tall Tati is paired with shorter comic Rhum, and it’s odd to see Jacques as a crook and a motormouth. The sync sound goes in and out, the editing can be dodgy, but like the scene where our two scoundrels underfeed the tourists while distracting them with magic tricks, the movie gets tricked out with star wipes and slide whistles. Written by the two clowns, directed by Jacques Berr, who made some 60 shorts.


School for Postmen (1946)

After a training regimen by high-pitched boss Paul Demange, postman Tati heads out on his neighborhood route then to catch the mail plane. Overall great, a condensed and superior version of Jour de Fete.


Cours du soir (1967)

“Evening Classes” Tati teaches a course on observation, miming smoking as different personalities, demonstrating a specific way of stumbling up some stairs and walking into a wall, remaking some of his own film scenes. A meta-Tati short, showing the care that goes into each action in his features, though not a barrel of laughs on its own. Same year as Playtime with the same DP – director Nicolas Ribowski was Tati’s assistant director on the feature.


Dégustation maison (1977)

“House Specialty” Filmed by Tati’s daughter Sophie Tatischeff (who also edited Trafic) and shot in the Jour de fête town. A real light sketch, in which a chatty bunch of locals eats tarts.


Forza Bastia (1978)

Not really fitting in at all, though credited to Tati, this is a doc about the excitement around a big soccer match. Lots of props and flags – it looks like soccer merch must be France’s main product. Sweeping water off the field into a metal bucket with an ordinary broom looks like a futile endeavor.

Opens with Wallace Shawn in voiceover – he’s a playwright taking acting gigs, doing odd errands, going to dinner tonight with a man he’s been avoiding for years, once a friend and colleague and a celebrated theater director before he disappeared. The voiceover comes back to interrupt even after they start talking, but mostly Andre’s stories begin to take over the film.

“It has something to do with living.” Andre isn’t new age or hippie exactly, but very all-things-are-connected, seeing signs, everything is beautiful, living life for the first time, unusual coincidences, etc. He went to a forest in Poland to teach forty musical women about theater, compares the group’s trance activity to Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies, after which Wallace gives him a great look. Andre had a bad trip to the desert with a Japanese monk, was buried alive in India, compares himself to Albert Speer. When Wallace finally gets a whole line in, Andre mentions nazi death camps, what is it with this guy?

After Andre dominates for the first half, Wallace gets to tell a story of his own, which is about not being able to express himself. Andre says we’re all bored because of capitalism, and volunteers that New York is a concentration camp. References to Brecht, Sense & Sensibility, The Little Prince, Autumn Sonata. This is all leading to a blow-out fight, when Wallace can’t take his friend’s nonsense anymore – but it doesn’t, it leads to a good-natured disagreement. I can’t say I thought this movie was all that special for most of its runtime, or could figure out what it was getting at, but I can say it was a shock to experience good-natured disagreement in the climax of a film, and this should happen more often.

Very promising, opening titles over an auto assembly line, “with the participation of Bert Haanstra,” the factory work bringing to mind his great short Glas. Alas, Tati fell out with Haanstra (and his funders, and somehow Lasse Hallström), and this ended up a fitfully amusing, semi-improvised road-trip film that incidentally features Mr. Hulot as an auto designer helping transport his creation to a trade show.

The joke is that delays and misfortune make them miss the show completely – they get a flat tire, the truck’s clutch goes out, etc. But it’s hard to feel sorry for them (not that the movie asks us to) when they also run out of gas, get arrested for speeding through a border crossing, cause a ten-car rube goldberg car crash, and don’t seem to know what day the show starts – this is all professional incompetence. Anyway they’re a likable crew except for the grating American PR rep Maria.

Besides Hulot’s presence, you can catch glimpses of the style of the guy who made Playtime only a few years earlier, and can also catch his influence on Roy Andersson. Some cute bits: after the second garage stop Tati makes a rock music video out of traffic lines and road marking patterns. Montage of people’s windshield wipers matching their personalities, some good sight gags in the police station, Maria’s constant stylish wardrobe changes. But there’s also this disastrous bit:

Learned from Jonathan Rosenbaum’s article that Haanstra shot the nose-picking montage, and at least some of it is unstaged.

Jonathan Romney for Criterion:

Tati certainly appears less in control than in the vast coordinated ballet of Playtime. For the most part, the jokes in Trafic drum up a sense of languid, almost apathetic chaos, without there always being conventional payoffs to give the comic business a sense of purpose. Notwithstanding the painstakingly synchronized pileup scene, the film is characterized by slow-burn gags that create an overall comic atmosphere rather than work toward a clearly defined goal … Without a doubt, Trafic contains a hovering tone of despair that makes it a somewhat melancholic pendant to Playtime.

“Cops are pigs / cops eat shit!” You know when your cynical movie opens with a couple of news guys chancing upon a car wreck and filming the dying victims before bothering to call an ambulance, the movie’s gonna end with the death of a main character and the camera looking back at us, accusingly.

Pausing to get a beer halfway in, I looked up the female lead Verna Bloom (paper-mache artist in After Hours, Mary in Last Temptation of Christ) and realized our lead is Robert Forster – I had no idea, never seen him young before. Forster wheels around town with his soundman (Peter Bonerz of Catch-22, later director of Police Academy 6: City Under Siege) in the lead-up to the ill-fated Democratic National Convention. They follow a kid home and Forster falls for his mom Eileen (Verna).

Robert and Verna enjoying some TV:

The movie has character to burn. Playful editing, very mobile camera, and full of Zappa songs. A black community confronts the white camera crew about exploitation in the media, the morals of Mondo Cane are discussed, and in a movie (/city/year) where police are the villains, the reporters discover that their TV bosses have been letting cops study their raw footage. After Forster is fired, and before he’s hired by someone else to cover the convention, he seems like a calm and okay guy, just a good dude who loves shooting film and hanging out with Eileen and her pigeon-loving son Harold – so it’s the profession that’s sick, not him personally.

This would’ve been a vaguely-memorable late’60’s anti-establishment movie, but for the ending. Harold goes missing, Forster’s at the convention, so Eileen walks the city wearing a bright yellow dress in the midst of the real police riots – some of the most intense location shooting I’ve seen.

Wexler shot everything from Burt Reynolds’ film debut in 1961 to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Conversation, to Hal Ashby and John Sayles movies, to concert docs and a Zappa video.

There’s shooting and there’s shooting:

Thomas Beard for Criterion on the movie’s True/Falsey nature:

Wexler has had a kind of double life as an artist, known both for his poetic reportage and for his role as a studio craftsman, and his bifurcated career is mirrored in the dual nature of Medium Cool … To watch a fiction film and subordinate its plot and characterizations to the documentary value of the world it depicts, or, alternatively, to watch a documentary and constantly question its veracity, is to read the work against the grain. Given the design of Medium Cool, a film that explicitly functions as both document and fantasy at once, to view it at all is to read it against the grain. It’s a movie whose very composition not only allows for but demands multiple kinds of perception and visual thinking; it preserves its own disorder.

Bogart is given the porn-star name Dix Steele, a washed-up Hollywood screenwriter who happens to be the last guy to see murdered coat-check girl Martha Stewart (not the rich felon, the actress from Daisy Kenyon) – other than the murderer, of course, which the cops suspect Dix of being, since he gets so fired up about the details of the case.

Dix’s alibi is neighbor Gloria Grahame (The Big Heat). She’s hiding out from her violent ex, and as the pressure mounts, with the murder suspicion and Dix’s new screenplay and his general manic-depression, ex-soldier Dix begins to act paranoid and violent as well. He turns on Gloria at the end, and she leaves him for good. Between this and Bigger Than Life, Ray seems very good at portraying men with manias.

Art and Gloria:

Bogie’s old war buddy Brub (Frank Lovejoy, useless cop in House of Wax) is police, walks the line between friendship and suspicion (as does Gloria). He works for Captain Carl Reid (of the same year’s Fuller Brush Girl – a profession mentioned by Grahame in this movie), who has it in for Dix until the dead girl’s mustachey boyfriend confesses to the crime. Art Smith (of Ride The Pink Horse from the same novelist) is Dix’s agent, at least until he casually fires Dix for slapping him. And speaking of the source novel, it’s fun that this film, reportedly a very loose adaptation of the book, is about a screenwriter writing a very loose adaptation of a book. Also good: the coat-check girl in this black and white movie telling Dix “I do hope it’s gonna be in technicolor.”

Brub and his wife Jeff, re-enacting the murder:

The earliest Ray picture I’ve seen, unless you count my notes saying I watched They Live By Night a couple decades ago on TCM, which I do not recall. Good, dark movie, but most importantly it seems to be the inspiration for lyrics from the Versus song “Morning Glory.”