Chats Perches / Case of the Grinning Cat (2004, Chris Marker)

A different kind of movie than the other Marker works I’ve seen. Really this is what I’d been waiting for: the politically-engaged street filmmaking of the 60′s and 70′s combined with the travelogue gaze and personal essay style (with distancing commentary) of Sans Soleil. Didn’t fill me with joy like most of Marker’s movies do, however… more contemplative and sadder, takes more time to think about each section and let them all sink in. Uses public artwork of cats to weave from Sept. 11th reactions to political situations in France to the death and imprisonment of friends and entertainers in such a way that, like Sans Soleil, I don’t realize what the film is about until I watch it again. Two versions of the film… first time I played it with English narration, then a couple weeks later I ran the French version with live sound and no narration, just scattered intertitles. Shockingly (since I usually love Marker’s narrations) I liked the second way better. But then, I got more out of it having just seen the English version. So I’d recommend both as a double-feature!
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Quotes below are from the English commentary.

Opens with a flash mob in Paris. People mill around opening and closing umbrellas, to music from Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
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November 2001 Paris. September 2001 New York.
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Cats on a roof, on buildings high and low, hidden in a tree.
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The metro, a bridge, signs of Paris from long ago. Presidential election at the end of year… the left is split, so the far-right candidate Le Pen comes close to challenging the incumbent Chirac, who is defensively re-elected after protests in the streets against Le Pen.
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“Let’s face it: these girls with their war paint are lovely, but the fascist legions are not besieging our gates. And if Le Pen is a dictator, it’s mainly against his own people. Yet what we see here coming onstage is an entire generation that was spoken of as being apolitical.”
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More about the cat, appearing in the evening news and all over the internet.
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March 19th, Bush (backed by Blair) declares war on Iraq, but UN inspectors find no weapons. More street protests in Paris, but as with the American protests of the time, they’ve splintered into hundreds of mini-demonstrations. “Why should the streets of Paris be less chaotic than the rest of the world.”
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The plundering of Iraqi museums in April, a “die-in” for the victims of AIDS in June. “In these times, we the people gathered to watch eleven billionaires kicking a ball. What about the French team? Stalinesque-sized posters, as we had never seen the like of in Paris – and not one goal recorded.” More about street demonstrations with “a certain fuzziness in the symbols.” “It’s a great asset in life, not to know what you’re talking about. Marker follows political and popular developments with great interest but without total enthusiasm, removed from it all. Seems like he’s either saying “it’s nice that they’re trying, but their struggles are shadows of the struggles I lived through” or “this is what I was once like, with the same futility and wasted energy.”
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Sees a personal friend (below) in a street crowd, then records news footage relaying that friend’s death at age 79 soon afterwards. Flashback to 1999, at a concert benefitting a cause that same activist friend had supported, Marker had filmed a young singer, who five years later had become famous for accidentally killing his actress girlfriend. “And you wonder why the Cats abandon us?”
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What if they left us for good?”
‘We were the Freedom Cats. If you didn’t catch the message, just move on!’
And then – comes a sign.
The same unknown hand has painted circles of Cats on the sidewalk, to watch over our sleep.
Thank you, Cats.
We will badly need you…
…wherever we go.

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This film is dedicated to M. Chat and those who, like him, are creating a new culture.
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Three (plus five) by Chris Marker

Embassy, 1973
When I first watched Embassy in February, I didn’t like it very much, and never dreamed I’d be watching it again in three months on a commercial U.S. DVD… but here we are! Nice of First Run/Icarus to release it, but it would’ve been even nicer to provide a translation for the opening titles that claim the film was found in an embassy. Maybe it’s mentioned in the packaging. Anyway, clearer image for this not-clear-at-all film, and after watching The Battle of Chile this one is making more sense, since I know what Marker was reacting to. It’s still never gonna be a favorite film, but it’s a cool idea to make something that immediate as a reaction to current events.

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The Sixth Side of the Pentagon, 1967
Filmed during “World War III: Vietnam, Bolivia, Israel” on October 15-16, 1967, a recording of the anti-war march on the Pentagon in which Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies participated. Marker gets to combine his budding obsession with anti-authoritarian political protest with his love for filming faces of people on the street. One of his most famous images was in here – an angry man shouting, his head covered in blood – I always thought that was from Grin Without a Cat. Co-director François Reichenbach would later act as cinematographer and producer on F For Fake.

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Vive la baleine [Long Live The Whale], 1972
A short film about and against industrialized whale-hunting using mostly illustrations with some archive footage, saving the gruesome modern footage for the last few minutes.

Petit bestiare
Cats and owls! In and out of zoos, off and on pianos. Bullfight and the reminder that these animals are behind bars bring a touch of darkness to otherwise straightforward set of nice animal shorts.

Lovers on the Bridge (1991, Leos Carax)

I am pleased to say that the movie never quite dives into gritty, depressing realism. It seems like it will… I mean, the second scene is set in a horrible homeless shelter with our hero lying half dead on the floor, his leg smashed after a car ran over it, being dragged unconscious into the showers by the shelter’s other miserable-looking occupants. But forty minutes later he is motoring down the Seine towing Juliette Binoche on waterskiis, surrounded by fireworks in what must’ve been one of the most exuberant film sequences of the decade. When he’s sick of it, he throws away his crutch and in the next scene his cast is gone too. The movie reminds us of real-world problems but its heroes are above them… homeless, sick, injured, lonely, hungry, fighting with each other, but never so bad that the next scene can’t fix everything.

Guy with the busted leg is Alex, resourceful homeless guy who lives on the under-construction bridge with his scary mentor Hans (who dispenses whatever drug Alex needs to sleep at night). Binoche is heartbroken Michelle who was a painter before she started going blind and ran away from her treatment. After they fall in love, Alex rebels when he hears that a search is on to find and cure Michelle, preferring her to be dependent on his care. But she finds out and gets the cure, while he inadvertently lights a guy on fire and goes to jail for a couple years. Very romantic-comedy-like, they make a date to meet on Christmas on the repaired bridge and end up together. Sounds dreadfully obvious, and it does get a bit indie-film-cutesy, but the love story and the ballsy storytelling pulled me right in… loved the movie.

Binoche was nominated for a best actress Cesar, but running against Emmanuelle Beart for La Belle noiseuse and Irene Jacob for Double Life of Veronique, the “brave young actress in awesome art film” vote was split, and the award went to elder Jeanne Moreau for a comedy I’ve never heard of. But up against a completely different group of actresses, Binoche took the European Film Award that year. Denis Lavant, also star of Carax’s Bad Blood and Denis’s Beau travail, unsurprisingly (because he’s funny-lookin’) later appeared in A Very Long Engagement. Hans was Klaus-Michael Grüber, previously a director for television, who has appeared in nothing else.

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Learned some stuff on other sites. Everyone wants to talk about the movie’s huge spiraling budget as Carax, unable to use the bridge itself, built a new bridge (and the surrounding buildings!) over a lake for a movie set. And everyone wants to talk about the movie being a flop upon release in theaters. And Americans want to gripe about the nine-year-delayed release to theaters here. And everyone makes a point of mentioning that Leos Carax is a made-up name, but I only saw one mention that the character Alex is a stand-in for the director (real name Alex), who was dating Juliette Binoche while this was in production. Also found plenty of comparisons to other films:

Titanic – for the ending (“king of the world” bit on the barge), fact that it’s a super-expensive movie but plot is a simple two-person love story.

One From The Heart – for the romantic tone, but mostly for the huge, awesomely expensive artificial set created for the movie, and the subsequent damage to the director’s career after the movie was not well-received.

City Lights – blind girl, in love with a homeless man, regains her sight at the end. Clearly an influence on the story.

L’Atalante – ahh, there’s the one Carax probably had in mind. Protagonists are poor but resourceful, in love but in a rocky relationship, joined by a moody father-figure old man, end up together on a barge. Perfect.

The Aristocrats (2005, Paul Provenza & Penn Jillette)

Nonstop talking for ninety minutes! Nonstop talking for ninety minutes! Nonstop talking for ninety minutes! If someone pauses to take a breath, they quickly cut to someone else so the talking won’t stop!

For some reason I listened to the commentary for a while. Paul and Penn are very proud of their interviewee picks and of their independent filmmaker status. Big Hollywood never would’ve dreamed of filming The Aristocrats!

I guess it was good to see some of my favorite people hang out and talk about The Joke and each other and performing and everything. Jon Stewart, Drew Carey, Richard Lewis, Sarah Silverman, Bill Maher and Rip Taylor were all in there. I didn’t realize how much of a big deal they were gonna make about Gilbert Gottfried doing The Joke a couple weeks after 9/11/01. It’s the dramatic climax of a movie that had no drama or story up to that point, and while it’s true that humor was in a sorry state for those few weeks and it’s true that Gilbert is hilarious, they overblow the whole thing.

Anyway I didn’t mean to write so much because this was hardly even a movie, but here are some fun screenshots I took where you can see the cameraman in something reflective:

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The Smiling Lieutenant (1931, Ernst Lubitsch)

Starring a broooadly overacting, hammy but kinda charismatic Maurice Chevalier as an Austrian lieutenant. Movie opens with a tailor knocking on Maurice’s door vainly attempting to collect on his bill (a year later, Maurice would star in Love Me Tonight as a tailor vainly attempting to collect on an aristocrat’s bill). Nobody answers, and immediately after he walks off, a young girl approaches the door, gives the secret knock and is let in. Yes, there’s actual sex in this movie – offscreen, but it’s acknowledged. It’s that Pre-Code Hollywood that TCM always salivates over before showing tame, dull movies like The Divorcee.

Maurice, a naughty lieutenant:
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The movie is, as promised, a musical comedy (two genres which encourage broad acting) as well as a romantic drama, and the late 20′s/early 30′s had their share of hugely broad comedy performances in film, so in context Maurice is pretty alright. And he’s got kind of a charming, roguish smile on nearly all the time… sucked me in after about ten minutes. Katy disagrees, but liked the movie despite Maurice.

Maurice joins his friend Max to act as wingman so nervous, married Max can pick up a hot young violinist at the concert, but Maurice falls for the girl (Franzi) and takes her home himself, with some sexy banter about which meals they’ll enjoy together (ahem, breakfast).

Max, left, is Charles Ruggles, the viscount in Love Me Tonight, also in Trouble In Paradise. Chevalier was a big star from 1929-36 – then IMDB says he was falsely accused of being a nazi collaborator and his acting career was derailed for a buncha years, with a big comeback in Gigi in ’58.
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Claudette Colbert (Franzi) was later Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra, also starred in It Happened One Night, Midnight, and The Palm Beach Story.
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The young lovers have a good thing going, but flirting in public brings disaster, when Austrian soldier Maurice winks at Franzi across a street just as the coach carrying the king and princess of Flausenthurm drives between them. The wink and the princess’s appalled reaction are photographed and published in the paper, causing an international scandal, but everyone settles down when Maurice explains that he was overcome by the princess’s beauty and is bullied into agreeing to marry her. So M. is off to Flausenthurm, but won’t sleep with his royal bride, preferring to step out on the town. The moody king gets over the inferiority complex he had in Austria, is now smitten with Maurice and tells his daughter not to worry, playing checkers with her every night as a sad substitute for marital sex.

Princess Miriam Hopkins = Savannah-born star of Trouble in Paradise, who won an Oscar a few years later then didn’t do a whole lot of movies I’ve heard of. King George Barbier was in a ton of stuff through the 40′s, including The Milky Way and The Merry Widow.
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The movie is a musical, but I don’t remember most of the songs or even where they occur, except climactic number “Jazz Up Your Lingerie.” You see, Maurice still loves the loose, free, totally modern Franzi, and he still has not-too-secret affairs with her since her violin group is on tour in Flausenthurm. So one day Princess Anna sorta kidnaps Franzi to ask her advice… Franzi helps Anna out, giving up on her man with the great line: “You mustn’t worry about me. I knew it all the time. Girls who start with breakfast don’t usually stay for supper.”

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During the music number, Anna’s frumpy clothes all turn magically into hot things, she learns to smoke and play jazz on the piano, and when Maurice comes home he can not believe his eyes. She takes him to the bedroom and wordlessly suggests a game of checkers, but he keeps tossing the board away… finally tosses it onto the bed, and just look at the expressions on their faces:

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Everyone who sees it today comments on the sexual freeness, but the original New York Times review in 1931 didn’t mention any of that, called it a “highly successful production” with “charming” music and “splendid” performances, and spoiled the entire plot.

J. Weinman: “The Smiling Lieutenant is based on Oscar Straus’s Viennese operetta A Waltz Dream, though Lubitsch relegated all the operetta’s songs to background music and had Straus write a few new songs in a more modern style. As he usually did when adapting a play or an operetta, Lubitsch kept the basic outline of the story but changed everything else.”

Iron Man (2008, Jon Favreau)

A good comic superhero movie, completely predictable and without anything special to recommend it over all other decent comic superhero movie except having totally likeable lead actors with lots of light humorous banter. Turns out that’s a pretty big deal, because the movie is being very well received. I certainly wasn’t disappointed… it’s a good time at the movies.

Katy appreciated the bits of Lord of War thrown in, with RD Jr’s weapons company making higher profits by selling arms (with STARK INDUSTRIES proudly stamped across them) to evil foreigners under the table. This is the work of transparently evil company man Jeff Bridges, who’s pretty good as a bad guy, and who eventually builds his own iron suit for a showdown that I don’t remember too well cuz it was 2am on a weeknight by then. Gotta hand it to Gwyneth Paltrow, in her best comic role since Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Don’t necessarily got to hand anything to Terrence Howard, who is very good, but keeps appearing in thankless sidekick roles in big movies.

Jon Favreau gave himself a bit part (think he had a couple lines). Funny, I thought he directed Swingers, but that was done by Doug Liman, who also had a big sequel-spawning sfx-action hit this year with Jumper. That’s something nobody saw coming in 1996!

A Talking Picture (2003, Manoel de Oliveira)

So I’ve shown Katy two post-9/11 movies with downer endings in a row, and now I realize that I was about to show her a third. Unintentional, but can’t be a coincidence. Current theory is that 9/11 hit in the middle of my exploding cinephilia and I was angry that nobody wanted to talk about it in film, so the few films that dared to discuss it stuck in my mind… and it’s been about five years since I’ve seen ‘em, the perfect amount of time to watch them again? Does that make sense?

Malkovich is still deliciously distracting as the captain. I’d forgotten how BUNUELIAN the whole thing seems. From one ancient landmark to another, having slightly unreal meetings and conversations with people along the way, then a huge narrative jump and we’re at dinner with the captain and his famous friends, then another dinner conversation, this time with the mother and child, Malkovich standing the whole time, a song in Greek, then terrorist attack!

A very unusual movie. I kinda love it, but never quite knew what to make of it. I remember this M. Dargis piece:

As the two stop at ports from France to Turkey, the film takes the shape of a genial history lesson, one that grows progressively darker when you realize the message Mr. Oliveira has been delivering alongside all the seemingly benign tourist shots. The film begins, rather prophetically, with the image of people waving goodbye. … As they stand in the shadow of the Acropolis, Maria Joana wonders, “What did people do here?” Her mother replies, “They worshipped their gods.” In a sense, who those gods were and what they meant is at the center of “A Talking Picture,” which takes the measure of Western civilization for good and for ill. Although the mother-and-daughter exchanges purposely recall the discourses that once echoed throughout the Acropolis, their sightseeing also has the flavor of everyday life. … The metaphor of privileged tourists blithely afloat on a luxury ship – and embarked on a circle tour of that crime scene known as Europe and its colonial-era environs, no less – is at once blunt and brilliant. In both its intellectual reach and the elegant simplicity of its form, “A Talking Picture” bears resemblance to Andrei Sokurov’s “Russian Ark.” … this is the only film I can think of that, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, has so directly addressed the war on liberal democracies. Maybe it takes an angry old man who can cede the sins of the West without also sacrificing its ideals.

N. Vera:

On one hand it’s a young girl’s education on the world and its ways; on the other it’s a meditation by three godlike women (godlike for their high status in the film and higher status in world cinema), representing at least two of the most prominent cultures in Europe, holding forth on their views of love, life, and human history.

France and Italy are, if not the most prominent, easily the most graceful of European powers (odd–or maybe not–that Germany, Britain, and Spain are not mentioned); both countries owe much of what they are to Greece, a fact Helena points out, lamenting at the same time the subsequent loss of status of her country (French, Italian and especially English are spoken everywhere; Greek is spoken mostly in Greece, and at most as borrowed words in other languages). America, the single biggest Western power in the 20th and 21st centuries, is represented by a fawning buffoon of a captain (played with selfless enthusiasm by Malkovich)–who is, it must be noted, Polish (all Americans except the natives are, of course, immigrants). Portugal as represented by mother and child is invited to the table, but the invitation is politely refused (the mother capitulates on the second offer, which included a gift of a lovely little Muslim doll to the child). France, Italy, Greece together at a table with the party hosted by America, and Portugal a reluctant but desired guest.

What’s missing from the table and from much of the picture, of course, is the true (truer, anyway) cradle of humanity, basis of much of even Greek civilization, the Middle East. Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt among others are not represented, and while Egypt’s monuments are shown and discussed, they’re discussed not by an Egyptian but by a Portugese. The silence is overwhelming; we hear secondhand about Muslim civilizations, usually as it relates to and clashes with Western civilizations (the Hagia Sophia, Napoleon visiting the pyramids, the Arabs burning the library at Alexandria (a historically disputed event)). Suddenly the Middle East speaks out (or at least we assume it’s from the Mid-East–Oliveira leaves even this ambiguous), in the form of a ship’s officer with an urgent message, and the entire ship is forced to react to a neglected culture’s startling response.

In an article by Z. Campbell, he says the film “is often if not exclusively interpreted as a conservative lament,” but he praises Oliveira’s other works and says “This is an artist concerned with, among other things, the representation of unrepresentable experiences the source of which exists in some unspoken spaces of social structure (hospitality, companionship, family ties, tradition).”

The mother, Leonor Silveira, has appeared in just about every Oliveira film I’ve heard of. Captain Malkovich will be in the next movies by the Coens and Clint Eastwood and also a thriller about vampire mutants. French entrepreneur Catherine Deneuve was in a few Raoul Ruiz movies I’ve gotta see. Greek singer/actress Irene Papas starred in Costa-Gavras’ Z and previously The Guns of Navarone. Italian model Stefania Sandrelli was in a bunch of Bertolucci movies including a starring role in The Conformist.

The box art takes the one looking-into-camera close-up of Leonor Silveira and nests it inside the one shot where she is dwarfed by the monuments she visits. A nice idea, but then of course it’s cluttered up with titles and floating heads of the other stars.

Lars and the Real Girl (2007, Craig Gillespie)

As Katy says, just because it has a comic premise doesn’t mean it’s a comedy. No real jokes or laughs, at least not at our house. Pretty good movie, light entertainment with better acting than anything else (writing, camera work, etc). Blends a mental-illness drama with a small-town feel-good movie. Very little conflict… two times someone makes fun of the “real girl” or tells Lars it’s just a doll, and he pretends not to hear them. Brother and brother’s wife play along, whole town and psychologist play along, finally Lars has the girl get “sick” and “die” and then he meets an actual real girl and they go for a walk.

Producer John Cameron (no Mitchell) has worked on most Coen movies since Fargo, and also Rushmore. Oscar-nom writer Nancy Oliver worked on Six Feet Under. And our director also made the Billy Bob Thornton movie Mr. Woodcock, which I’m starting to suspect is also not a comedy. Cinematographer (also did Capote and Jesus’ Son) gives us basic, uncluttered compositions and moves subtly to handheld camera whenever there’s tension in a scene.

I liked the line when someone gives flowers to “Bianca” and Lars leans over and tells her it’s nice that they’re fake because they’ll never die. But one great line does not a best-writing oscar-nom make.

Lars: Ryan Gosling from the Half-Nelson movie I didn’t see. His brother: Paul Schneider from the Assassination of Jesse James movie I didn’t see. Brother’s wife: Emily Mortimer played Rufus Sewell’s girlfriend in the worst segment of Paris je t’aime (the one at Oscar Wilde’s grave). Lars’s co-worker and living love interest: Kelli Garner from starmaker film Bully, also in The Aviator. And the psychologist: Patricia Clarkson played leads in The Pledge and Station Agent, also in Far From Heaven and Dogville.

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