Hail the Conquering Hero (1944, Preston Sturges)

This was the Sturges movie I’d watched long ago and was starting to forget. Our latest screening was accompanied by squeals of delight whenever we noticed a Sturges regular, or someone from Sullivan’s Travels anyway. The butlers and Snowflake were disappointingly absent, but we got Jimmy Conlin (little guy, glasses) as a judge, the vaguely-familiar Harry Hayden (I thought for a minute that he was Charles Coburn) as an upright politician, TWO women from Remember the Night playing best friends, and the vertically-stretched Franklin Pangborn as a fussy master of ceremonies. But best of all, this movie features St. Paul’s own William Muggsy Bildocker Ale-and-Quail Kockenlocker Demarest in his largest role yet, as the Marine sergeant who helps our hapless hero concoct his big lie.

foreground L-R: Sarge, Woodrow, Woodrow’s mother, a mother-obsessed marine:

And oh, just thinking of Franklin Pangborn’s attempt to control four different brass bands for Eddie Bracken’s homecoming ceremony reminds me, this is certainly Sturges’s loudest-ever film, as talky and noisy and shouty as they come. All the excitement gets poor Eddie so nervous – and he’s so good at acting nervous – I kept wanting to comment that he’s seeing THE SPOTS, but Katy doesn’t remember The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek well enough to get the reference. Even if we didn’t see the spots, the movie makes a more direct reference by outright showing us the poster for Morgan’s Creek as the Marines’ train pulls away during the final scene.

L-R: Mayor Noble, his wife, Libby, and Forrest (Bill Edwards):

The Mayor is Raymond Walburn – see also his Christmas In July screenshot standing alongside Franklin Pangborn, whose character in this movie wouldn’t settle down long enough for me to snap a picture of him – with wife Esther Howard (also wife to the Weenie King). Lead girl Ella Raines (no relation to Claude) seemed like a big nobody – but she starred in Siodmak’s Phantom Lady and appeared in Dassin’s Brute Force, so I guess she’s somebody. Edwards was cast because he’s a stiff, uninteresting fellow, something that didn’t help his film career elsewhere.

Eddie Bracken’s Woodrow has a family history in the Marines but was personally discharged for having hay fever (a less funny premise than THE SPOTS), so he’s sulking in a bar, too ashamed to come home, when he buys Sgt. Muggsy’s group some drinks and they coerce him into returning to his home town as a war hero. It all gets immediately out of hand, and a few days later Woodrow is about to be elected mayor – and about to be exposed as a fraud by his opponent – when he confesses all to the townsfolk… and… gets elected mayor anyway! I would elect Eddie Bracken mayor, no question. Also Woodrow’s girl before the war is now the fiancee of the new mayor’s son Forrest, but she delays telling Woodrow for so long that she finally just leaves Forrest.

The heroine’s aunt, Elizabeth Patterson below at right, appeared in Remember The Night, also as a kindly aunt. The hero’s mother, Georgia Caine below at left, also appeared in Remember the Night – but as Stanwyck’s bitter, terrible mother.

Buy from Amazon:
Preston Sturges, The Filmmaker Collection DVD

Nostalghia (1983, Andrei Tarkovsky)

“You want to be happy. There are more important things.”

A woman (Domiziana Giordano of Godard’s Nouvelle Vague) is a faithless tourist in an italian church, cluttering its ancient traditions with her modern feminist ideas. An interesting, beautiful scene but I knew Tarkovsky wouldn’t have a female protagonist, so it turns out she’s the Italian translator for our Russian poet hero Andrei (Oleg Yankovskiy of The Mirror and The Man Who Cried). He’s visiting some ancient hot baths as research for a book he’ll write on an 18th-century Russian composer who spent some time there.

Andrei becomes fascinated with local madman Domenico (Erland Josephson of The Sacrifice and some eight Bergman films). Visits his rainy, ruined house and listens to his superstitions. Returns to the translator, who is leaving in a rage, says Andrei is so charmless and boring that he may not even exist. She acts like she’s breaking up their love affair, even though they didn’t have one. But later, safely back in Rome with her boyfriend (a humorless-looking businessman) she phones Andrei telling him to meet Domenico in Rome.

Instead, Andrei goes back to the baths and attempts to complete Domenico’s quest to walk from one side of the pool to the other holding a lighted candle, while Domenico himself gives a speech atop a statue then lights himself on fire. Andrei has two failed attempts and a single success in one mobile ten-minute shot, after which Andrei seems to collapse, leading to a long, crazy black-and-white shot of the poet with Domenico’s dog in front of a Russian house within an Italian cathedral.

Co-written with Antonioni/Fellini screenwriter Tonino Guerra, won three awards at Cannes. Can’t say I understood the movie’s intentions, but I enjoyed it for being a gorgeous bit of cinema. Some fun trick photography and lots of very long takes, plus imagery I recognized from other Tarkovsky movies, though it’s been a while since I’ve seen one – ruined houses in My Name Is Ivan and Stalker, plants waving underwater in Solaris.

Acquarello says he filmed it “in exile,” calls it a “symbolically obscure … cinematic abstract of spiritual hunger” that “mourns an irretrievable past and an uncertain future.”

Tarkovsky: “I do not harbor any particularly deep or profound thoughts about my own work. I simply have no idea what my symbols represent. The only thing I am after is for them to give birth to certain emotions.”

“I want to give expression to the impossibility of living in a divided world, a world torn to pieces.” In interviews, Tarkovsky says that his lead character is an architecture professor and Domenico a former math teacher. “Let us say that what I like the most in them is the confidence with which the madman acts and the tenacity of the traveler in his attempts at achieving a greater level of understanding. That tenacity could also be called hope.”

One more: Tarkovsky says he most values in this film “its almost unbearable sadness, which, however, reflects very well my need to immerse myself in spirituality. In any case, I can’t stand mirth. Cheerful people seem guilty to me, because they can’t comprehend the mournful value of existence. I accept happiness only in children and the elderly, with all others I am intolerant.” And when asked about his pessimism: “The true pessimists are those who continue to seek happiness. Wait for two or three years and then go and ask them what they have attained.”

Thanks very much to nostalghia.com for their collection of translated interviews and articles.

Rome, Open City (1945, Roberto Rossellini)

I get conflicting messages on Rossellini: either he can do no wrong or he did only wrong, either his early stuff was groundbreaking then he dried up or he did his best work late in his career, either he told the ultimate truths in cinema or he was a deceitful opportunist. Fortunately, the exhaustive Criterion box of his early “war trilogy” went on sale, so now I shall see for myself. I watched Germany Year Zero on Turner Classic a decade ago, and it stands out as one of the most affecting (depressing) movies I have ever seen, so I’m inclined to think I’ll like the trilogy – and so far, so good.

Not an incredibly “neorealistic” movie – as the DVD commentary ceaselessly points out, it’s “far closer to the traditional melodrama or suspense film than to any realistic documentary.” But RR shot (partially) on the streets and at real locations, with (some) non-actors, using borrowed and stolen film stock for a (somewhat) newsreel-like texture, and so a movement was born. Visconti’s Ossessione was shot earlier, but wasn’t distributed outside Italy and its story didn’t have Open City’s sense of post-war rebirth.

Pina (the great Anna Magnani of The Golden Coach) is to marry Francesco. After F’s friend Manfredi goes on the run, the resistance descends on Pina’s apartment. The sympathetic, somewhat comic priest who is to marry her, Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi, later in Flowers of St. Francis) volunteers to help. But the nazis are hot on Manfredi’s trail, with help from his poorly-chosen girlfriend, a drug-addicted dancer named Marina who betrays him. They round up Francesco before his wedding, leading to the famous scene where Magnani is gunned down chasing after the truck that holds him.

I’ve seen that scene a bunch of times out of context, never realized it’s not the end of the movie, just of the first half. In the second half, Francesco is immediately freed from the prison truck by resistance fighters (making his fiancee’s death that much more pointless, as the commentary points out), but in a subsequent raid the priest and Manfredi are arrested, along with an Austrian deserter who Don Pietro was helping. There’s some scripty business among the nazis to point out the general weakness of their cause. After the deserter kills himself in his cell and Manfredi dies under torture, having never revealed the resistance secrets, Don Pietro is shot in front of the children he used to play with, little resistance fighters themselves, who will survive the nazi occupation that had just barely ended when this movie went into production.

When the movie’s lead nazis invite the weak, drugged-up Marina to their palace, show off her tortured-to-death boyfriend then steal back the fur coat they’d given for her cooperation, I realized the nazis’ names are Ingrid and Bergman – crazy, since a few years later Rossellini would fall for Ingrid Bergman. Bergman (stage actor Harry Feist) is effeminate and Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti, later in Last Tango in Paris) is butch, lounging on a sofa with Marina in a sinful opium haze, say the commentary, “underline how closely audiences of Rossellini’s time associated sexual deviancy with evildoing.”

Bergman:

Written with veteran screenwriter Sergio Amidei and young Federico Fellini, this wasn’t Rossellini’s first movie, just the earliest one that anyone pays attention to. Earlier he’d worked directly with Vittorio Mussolini, son of the country’s dictator, who describes Rossellini in the DVD extras (he lived through the 1990′s) as neither fascist nor anti-fascist at the time, just an energetic filmmaker.

The commentary by Peter Bondanella spends much of its time explaining why the movie shouldn’t count as “realism” at all, and does not make a sharp break with fascist cinema styles. But while downplaying the movie’s groundbreaking status, he also praises its story and technique endlessly:
“Much of the dramatic force of Open City resides in the lessons of humanity the main characters learn from each other. As Manfredi the Marxist revolutionary discovers, a priest is not so different from a worker, or even a partisan leader. In Open City we are asked to examine the common humanity that always transcends idiological or confessional labels.”

Don Pietro:

RR: “I’ve always advocated finding this ease of expression and demythologizing the camera and filmmaking, tackling it in a much simpler way, without worrying too much about perfect shots and images. The important thing was to get your point across.”

Hmm, neorealism was said to be a “reaction to the films of the Fascist era dominated by ‘white telephone’ films, which depicted ladies of leisure lounging on satin sofas, telephoning their lovers.” But isn’t that a precise description of Cocteau’s Human Voice, filmed by Rossellini four years later?

Francois Truffaut: “Rohmer once said that Rossellini’s genius lay in his lack of imagination, and it’s true. He didn’t like fabrication or artifice, or flashbacks or any kind of clever trick. He left behind the personal and specific to move ever toward the general. His first postwar film is Rome Open City, about a city. The next is Paisan – six stories about Italy from south to north. After that comes Germany Year Zero and then Europa 51 – at that point he needed an entire continent. … He was a very intelligent man. I’m not saying filmmaking is for idiots, but fiction requires a certain naivete that he didn’t have, so he worked with larger concepts.”

Buy from Amazon:
Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy DVD

Greaser’s Palace (1972, Robert Downey)

“I was swimming with millions of babies in a rainbow, and they was naked, and then all of a sudden I turned into a perfect smile.”

A woman is singing a song about the virtue of virginity at the Palace when head honcho Greaser’s son Lamie Homo freaks out, getting himself shot dead for interrupting the entertainment. Soon “Jessy” parachutes into the Western movie, resurrects Homo, and goes about impressing everyone with his magic tricks such as walking on water and bleeding from his hands. Meanwhile, a woman wakes up finding her husband and son (cameo by six-year-old Robert Downey Jr.) dead, then loses all her worldly possessions and gets shot a bunch of times, crawling through the desert with no water. It all seems like it might be a metaphor for something.

The son and the holy ghost:

I didn’t get all the metaphors, though – Hervé “da plane” Villechaize is married to a bearded guy in a dress, Greaser has a constipation problem, Jessy’s entertainment agent walks around the desert as if underwater, characters are named Cholera, Coo Coo and Seaweedhead. On one hand it seems like a fun bit of anarchy – the movie can have a Monty Python-like comic sensibility – but if you check the web you’ll find articles willing to draw biblical connections to every last detail. Downey himself underplays it: “The idea of the trinity of the father and the son and the holy ghost parachuting into a western to get it right this time is all I went with.”

Jesse and Herve:

I’ve seen my share of mad westerns – Straight to Hell, The Last Movie, The Shooting – but this one played more like El Topo, seemed more desperate and dangerous than your usual movie, but never without a script and a plan. Unfamiliar cast – Allan Arbus (who’d later play director Gregory LaCava in a W.C. Fields bio-pic) as Jesus, Albert Henderson (of Serpico and Big Top Pee Wee) as Greaser, his main gal was Luana Anders, a Corman actress who followed Nicholson to Easy Rider and The Last Detail, and the Agent Morris was Don Calfa of Return of the Living Dead.

D. Carter:

Jessy is a meeker version of Christ, clear in his intentions but unsure how to accomplish them. … He is a showman, not a messiah or prophet. Walking on water and raising the dead are part of his “act,” and he only reluctantly offers the people advice after he is shown a picture of the Last Supper, calling into question whether Downey intended him to literally represent Christ or merely a Christ-like figure—though it’s most likely a cheeky attempt to obscure any deliberate meaning. Inspired by the image, Jessy comes up with the idea to tell the townspeople of a malevolent force called “Bingo Gas Station Motel Cheeseburger With A Side Of Aircraft Noise And You’ll Be Gary Indiana” living outside of the town, while reassuring them that he has interceded on their behalf because he believes them to be good people. It is a humorous analogue to the Christian belief of Christ’s intercession with God to save believers from Hell, but one that implies that belief is nothing but a parable intended to give people comfort.

“If ya feel, ya heal”

Buy from Amazon:
Greaser’s Palace DVD

Steak (2007, Quentin Dupieux)

This seems like a good idea. Mr. Oizo (seriously, the guy with the sock puppet music video from like 1997) writes and directs a movie about two maladjusted nitwits in a wacky future, casting a comedy duo who have been in at least three movies together. A good idea, but an especially underwhelming movie. I mean, I’ve seen some underwhelming movies lately, like The GoodTimesKid, but at least that one featured the wacky kitchen dance scene as something memorable to hold onto. I watched Steak last night and it’s already starting to fade. And the trouble is I don’t think that was intentional, to make a lightweight wispy mumblecore film. It’s mostly set seven years in the future, but even its futuristic society details seem stolen from other movies. For instance, plastic surgery has run rampant (Brazil) and schoolkids form exclusive, violent clubs and drink only milk (A Clockwork Orange).

It’s not totally clear how much has changed in the future, since we mainly see one town’s high school, and still more specifically, a five-man gang called Chivers (urban dictionary: “group of people dedicated to alleviating the stress of an otherwise hectic day with daily afternoon randomness”). When Blaise gets out of psychiatric hospital for shooting up some bullies (a crime actually committed by his friend George), George wants nothing to do with him, finally beginning to fit in with the super-cool Chivers. Blaise adjusts to the new social life faster than his now-ex-friend and gets himself into Chivers just as George is kicked out for smoking (a no-no in the future). Then they kill a fellow gang member by sorta-accident and run off together. The whole thing is played for absurd comedy – few laughs, just a low-key sense of weirdness. Pleasant Oizo music runs throughout, naturally. Only technical detail I noticed was the camera’s very shallow depth of field – always some part of the shot that isn’t in focus. A nice enough waste of time, but doesn’t get me too anxious to see Oizo’s new killer-tire movie Rubber.

Buy from Amazon:
Steak DVD

Le Pont du Nord (1981, Jacques Rivette)

Another freewheeling Rivette film, with its 16mm look and protagonists running throughout the city of Paris in the midst of a game with ill-defined rules, seeking to unveil a conspiracy, seeming like a scaled-down Out 1.

Two girls meet on the street, run around a Paris that seems to be populated only by themselves and various conspirators, and get caught in a game, possibly of their own making. There’s more energized music than usual for Rivette, with drums and accordion and strings. Whirling camera, 360-degree pans, many shots of local monuments also recall Out 1, specifically its final shot. But this film has a lighter touch, also bringing to mind Celine & Julie Go Boating, with its playfulness and our heroines’ mysterious bond to each other. The dialogue is a bit new-age, the actions are somewhat improv-theater, it seems to have been shot entirely in real locations, and perhaps in a hurry, since I caught the boom mic a few times.

Films in the film:

Knife-wielding Pascale vs. Kurosawa’s Kagemusha:

The Silent Scream, a spooky mansion flick:

The Big Country with Gregory Peck – in French it’s called “Wide Open Spaces”, as Pascale leads the claustrophobic Bulle into the theater for the night, to sleep close enough to the screen that she can’t see the walls

And on the way out of the theater…

Bulle Ogier stars in her fifth Rivette film along with Pascale Ogier, Bulle’s daughter, who also starred in a Rohmer movie and something called Ghost Dance before dying of a heart attack at age 26. Bulle, just out of prison, has a crippling claustrophobia and cannot step indoors, not even into a glass-enclosed phone booth, without feeling ill. Pascale, apparently homeless, hears Bulle’s story of getting caught up with the wrong crowd and sets out to keep it from happening again, tailing Bulle’s boyfriend Julien (Pierre Clementi of The Conformist, The Inner Scar).

Pascale seems to be on to something – they steal Julien’s briefcase and discover all sorts of newspaper articles about kidnappings and killings, and also a map of Paris that has been sectioned off in a spiral pattern which reminds Bulle of a “very frightening game” she used to play called the Goose game. They find a sort of key to the map on a murdered man in a cemetery and start to identify the “trap squares” in the game, beginning with places they’ve already been: Prison and the Tomb, then they proceed to play Paris like a game, hoping to survive all the trap squares and win the game.

Besides Julien, they keep running into a balding man (Jean-Francois Stevenin, the teacher in Small Change and the man who beats up Juliet Berto in a bar in Out 1), who sometimes seems to be a companion of Julien’s and sometimes schemes with the girls independently of Julien, warning Bulle that the people responsible for sending her to prison are after her again. Pascale calls this man Max, her name for all the city’s conspirators. For example, when Bulle wonders about the explanation for the dead map-carrier in the cemetery, Pascale responds “The Max had a bullet in his guts – that’s the explanation.”

Discovering the murdered, bewigged Max

Each “trap” location presents a new challenge. At one, Pascale, who has a compulsion to carve the eyes out of advertising posters, is faced with a whole wall of those. At another, Pascale is in a fight with a white-haired Max who leaves her in a giant cobweb until rescued by Bulle, and at a third Pascale has to defeat a giant dragon, played by some sort of amusement-park ride with an added flamethrower.

While Pascale lives in this fantasy Paris, Bulle’s adventure seems more real and dangerous – she’s given a gun by Julien and keeps having to figure out whose side she’s on. Of course once a gun is introduced into the movie, someone has to get shot. Pascale kills a Max and seems unrepentant, and then Julien kills Bulle, telling her “I loved you.” But the movie’s sympathies have turned towards the inner life of Pascale – she meets Max on a bridge over the river, and they spar together, appropriately practicing “Katta – a combat against imaginary enemies.”

I was tempted to see the sparring scene above as evidence that Pascale was working alongside the Maxes all along, but no, I think she’s just an erratic character. Anyway, it wouldn’t have taken a city-wide conspiracy including Pascale to defeat the fragile Bulle.

Good one by F. Ziolkowski:

Marie’s belief in a great love with Julien, the real at the end of her quest, will eventually be fatal for her. It is Baptiste’s ability to “roll with the punches” which will perhaps save her, but at what cost? As one of the Maxes puts her through a karate exercise and tells her to fend off “imaginary enemies,” the cross-hairs of a surveillance device (a rifle scope? a camera?) appear on the screen. “They” are now being watched by others, perhaps simply by us. That is, it may be that the answer to the riddle of the labyrinth — its last door — is simply the screen on which the actors’ shadows appear.

The movie got a hateful review in the Times, and was even dismissed by Senses of Cinema. Fortunately it’s not my job to analyze its quality in relation to other Rivette films, or even other films in general – I was just along for the ride, which I enjoyed.

Insight from J. Rosenbaum:

The file of clippings concerns specific scandals of the Giscard d’Estaing regime, and the locations refer to various municipal corruptions associated with that period (e.g., the ruins of slaughterhouses in La Villette which were built and then demolished before they could be used, due to safety hazards). Rivette has indicated that the film was made prior to the French elections and with the pessimistic expectations that the same regime would remain in power; so the unexpected election of Francois Mitterand obscured and blunted part of the film’s intended impact. Rivette conceived of Marie as a continuation of the anarchist character played by Bulle Ogier in Fassbinder’s The Third Generation (1979), after she gets out of prison. Her claustrophobia was occasioned by the film’s cut-rate budget, which led to the decision to shoot the film exclusively in exteriors.

Ziolkowski again:

[Paris] for the Surrealists was not only a magical place, it also became a living organism, a protagonist in its own right, complete with motivations, deaths, rebirths, etc. … The group’s fascination with the myth of the labyrinth led them to name their most prestigious and influential review Le Minotaure. … All the elements of Surrealism are here once again: the double, the lions of the Place Denfert-Rochereau which seem ready to spring to life at any moment, the mysterious stranger who crosses one’s path in the middle of the night.

Follow the gun.

From Julien…

… to Bulle …

… to Pascale

Julien again (different gun)

Rivette: “The idea was to refer to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Passing from the Parisian quartiers outward to the peripheral areas, within those zones that are slightly uncertain, but without ever leaving Paris. We also wanted to show everything that was in the process of being transformed, under construction.”

Bulle and Julien atop the Arc:

-
Paris s’en va (1981)

“Paris Goes Away,” a half-hour movie made from scenes and outtakes from Le Pont du Nord. A narrator tells us about the Goose Game, often repeating as the images also double back on themselves. It’s a mini-Spectre version of the feature, more lightweight, with more lingering shots of monuments and less danger and conspiracy. The narration seems to imply that Bulle’s flask is her game token. Rivette’s only other short that I’ve seen, Le Coup du berger, also referenced games, if that means anything.

Le Lion Volatil:

Pascale:

Bulle:

-
Jacques Rivette, Le Veilleur (1990, Claire Denis)

“Artists have a portion of basic villainy, even the greatest of them.”

Agnes Godard (still Denis’s cinematographer two decades later on 35 Shots of Rum) shoots critic Serge Daney (he took over Cahiers after the Bazin/Rohmer era) in conversation with Rivette, in Parisian cafes and fields. Divided into two parts, “I – Day” and “II – Night.”

“Do we see his painting or not?” Jacques discusses preliminary thoughts on Le Belle Noiseuse before he had worked out the story or approach. Le Pont du Nord gets the most discussion time, strange, since he’d made three movies since then (Love on the Ground doesn’t get a single mention). I wasn’t crazy about the music in Le Pont du Nord so I’m glad to hear that he spent very little time selecting it.

Rivette with Serge Daney:

I wouldn’t call it a great film (sorry, Claire Denis) but it’s a great interview/conversation, worth watching again, not like a throwaway DVD extra. Loooong shots include the silences between questions, perhaps in deference to Rivette’s own long-take style. He tells of his early years, first arriving in Paris, meeting up with Rohmer, Truffaut and Godard and going to work for Cahiers with Bazin. He discusses duration in a “post-Antonioni world,” saying movies used to have pre-determined beginnings and endings and filmmakers were free to fill the middle with events, but now it seems there are fewer rules and everything takes longer to say. When asked what he’s enjoyed lately in theaters he highly recommends a Sandrine Bonnaire film called Peau de Vache.

“I don’t want to separate, to split things up. I know a lot of filmmakers, whether consciously or not, who have this notion of splitting the body into bits. Not just the face, it can be the hand or any part of the body. I always want to see the body in its entirety. I don’t have the temperment, the taste or the talent to make heavily edited films. My films focus more on the continuity of events taken as a whole.”

Time out for an interview with Le Pont du Nord’s Max, Jean-Francois Stévenin, including his entire scene as Marlon in Out 1.

Rivette again: “My feeling is these people who have been affected [by his films], and who have these individual ways of showing that, they constitute a kind of widespread secret society. We’re obviously not talking about lots of people, unfortunately for the film producers!” He talks with his hands, striking wonderful poses.

In part 2, Bulle Ogier is along for the ride, interjecting a word or two, only getting the camera to herself for a few minutes.

Serge: “When you came back to earth with Pont du Nord in the early 80′s, it was with the feeling that we adapt to things as they are, we stop tempting fate or playing Prometheus and we come back to the real world. And we remember that the beginning of the 80′s were roaring, euphoric, entertaining – very explosive, in fact. And your film takes that on board. We can feel something quite intentional in the processes which make up Le Pond du Nord and allow you to tackle the 80′s.”

Rivette’s vogue poses:

Rivette:

It’s a time when we feel such a decision has been taken. Just as Bulle said at the end, ‘I’m alive.’ As far as I’m concerned, and I have the impression that, strangely, it concerns – I won’t say everyone, there are always exceptions – many filmmakers of my generation and subsequent generations. After Out, it seemed impossible in my films to talk about the contemporary world, what we call the real world, and at that time I wanted more than anything to work on fiction, fantasy fiction films. I didn’t shoot them all because the first project was, after Out and Celine & Julie, was a film we wanted to do with Jeanne Moreau [Bulle: "Phoenix."] and Juliet Berto and Michel Lonsdale, which was a story based on the Sarah Bernhardt myth loosely mixed up with Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera. And what came next were stories that were all different with one thing in common: the total refusal of France in the seventies. It was something I suddenly didn’t want to see anymore. And after a series of events, more or less successful films – some were far from being completely successful, unfortunate films, at least Noroit and Merry Go Round were, that were hardly seen anywhere. They were shaky films, it’s true. When I went to see Bulle and said ‘We have to do another film together and I want to do it with you,’ it was the idea that we hadn’t put these bad times behind us, that they may well continue, and we had to come to terms with it but in order to do that we had to turn it into fiction, to put it in a film. And that’s why, in Pont de Nord there’s this insistence – that may appear anecdotal ten years after – on the affairs or scandals at the end of the seventies, such as the Debreuil affair or the suicide or non-suicide of Boulin or the killing of Mesrine, that sort of stuff. As symptoms, but strong symptoms. And we shot the film, at least from my point of view I began the film, not in this atmosphere of eighties euphoria we mentioned but with the impression of being in a country – France – that was stuck. Stuck, because of a lot of things we won’t go into here – everyone remembers. But it so happened that this feeling of being stuck was so strong that it brought about a certain unblocking.

The Return of Snow Day Shorts

It snowed in Atlanta so everything shut down for an entire week. As is now traditional, I celebrated by watching a pile of shorts I’d long been planning to see (some as part of the Auteur Completist Initiative).

The Dreamers (1982, Orson Welles)
Welles as an old man narrates the story of opera singer Pellegrina Leone (Oja Kodar), who lost her singing voice in a fire. It’s all Welles and Kodar doing monologues. Maybe all of Welles’ films come down to monologues. Constructed from fragments, with black screens where footage was missing, narration recorded with the sound of rustling script pages. Ooh look, a Don Quixote reference. Not the most exciting of the many late-career Welles fragment films… personally I’d like to see more of The Deep.

Orson in his magician hat:

Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969, Kenneth Anger)
Good camerawork, but ridiculous movie. I think with his images Anger is trying to say that the military is a death-obsessed homosexual cult. I think with his audio Mick Jagger is trying to declare the death of interesting music. I think with his performance, Anton LaVey is trying to expose himself as a silly clown.

That is a nazi flag, but what is he burning?

Le Lion Volatil (2003, Agnes Varda)
Julie Depardieu (Guillaume’s younger sister) works for a psychic, while an aspiring magician named Lazarus Combes (Anton LaVey would be pleased) works at a tourist-trap dungeon around the corner. Every day on their lunch breaks they meet in front of the Lion of Belfort memorial – the same one featured in Rivette’s Pont du Nord and Paris s’en va. Their brief almost-romance doesn’t pan out, but more interestingly, Julie starts hallucinating variations on the lion – first it has a giant bone in its mouth (as supposedly suggested by Andre Breton), then it vanishes and is replaced by a giant housecat. Special effects + Vardaian whimsy = happiness.

Les Dites Cariatides (1984, Agnes Varda)
A tour of caryatids – human statues used as building columns or ornamental facades – throughout Paris, with poems by Baudelaire. “The Peloponesian city of Karyate aided Persia in a war against other Greeks, but Persia lost. The Greeks took revenge on Karyatian collaborators, slaying all the men and enslaving the women. They were paraded as spoils of war. The noble women were triumphantly shown in their lovely gowns and finery. To illustrate their punishment, architects used these statues on public buildings instead of columns.”

The Calligrapher (1991, Bros. Quay)
Three short (15-sec?) segments rejected as BBC2 ident bumps. My favorite kind of Quay film – awesome stop-motion with no human actors, repetition or long-winded confusing mythological story.

Storytime (1968, Terry Gilliam)
This came out while the show Do Not Adjust Your Set (a precursor to Flying Circus) was in production. Opens as a poorly-animated (in Gilliam’s magazine-cutout style) story of a cockroach named Don, who is then stomped on by a man called Jeremy Trousercrease… and so on, each minute-long concept leading into another. Even features a “we apologize for the previous cartoon – the animator responsible has been sacked” disclaimer, which would be reused in Monty Python. Not exactly a lost masterpiece, but a fun little series of cartoon gags.

Pandoora (2002, Takashi Miike)
Just a cheesy samurai music video – does not count as a Miike movie. It ends with our hero about to face off against a giant mantis. What, were they expecting a sequel?

Male (1962, Osamu Tezuka)
Lots of play with frame sizes and positions as a male cat narrates, talking to the man of the house, about how sex should be simple and private and should not end in stabbing your partner to death.

The London Story (1986, Sally Potter)
A woman conspires with a door opener and a retired photocopy machine operator, takes a government minister out to the theater and while he sleeps, replaces his speech about the future of Britain with a new one, causing panic in the media the next day as the conspirators enjoy a choreographed dance on a bridge. Delightful.

Reasons To Be Glad (1980, Jeff Scher)
More of Scher’s fanciful drawing and incredible editing based on rotoscoped (?) images and set to a Dinah Shore song.

The Bum Bandit (1931, Dave Fleischer)
Oh my. A Popeye-muttering train robber gets out-toughed by a passenger in the form of Proto-Betty Boop (still with the dog ears), the robber’s abandoned wife, who steals the locomotive and the bandit, closes the shades and makes with the sweet pre-code lovin’.

Betty and the Bum:

Negro passenger with stolen chickens:

Russian Rhapsody (1944, Robert Clampett)
Watched this recently on the big screen but it never gets old. Hitler’s plane is taken out by gremlins from the kremlin. Why don’t we have wartime cartoons anymore? I want to see the Penguins of Madagascar take on Osama Bin Laden.

Vinyl (1965, Andy Warhol)
In the 60′s it was revolutionary to make slow, cheap movies with bad gay actors, but not anymore. There are probably three filming as I type this. This isn’t technically a short film, but I gave up after thirty minutes, having dozed for the previous ten. A dude recites Burgess and dances to pop music – and it’s all one shot. Wikipedia says it was filmed unrehearsed, which I don’t doubt, and says it’s one of the “1000 films to see before you die,” which I do.

Bigger Than Life (1956, Nicholas Ray)

I enjoyed the crazily over-the-top performances of Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and Johnny Guitar but didn’t get much of a sense for his filmmaking – unless his thing was casting unhinged actors and letting them loose within overly melodramatic stories. I suppose he also made extreme/sly comments on society with Johnny’s crusading zealot McCarthy figure and Rebel’s mixed messages on masculinity and family units. Well, this one brings it all together, with an extreme (but less “method”) performance by James Mason and a brutal attack on society and family and everything else. I don’t know if it’s that tying-together of the Ray threads or the movie itself, but I’m currently loving it more than the other two.

Good mirror:

Bad mirror:

Scary mirror:

Mason is a schoolteacher who starts experiencing massive pain. Doctor says the pain will get worse and he’ll be dead in months unless he takes miracle-drug cortisone (wikipedia: “a steroid hormone … suppresses the immune system, thus reducing inflammation and attendant pain”). So Mason pops some pills and all is well – he and loving wife Lou (!) and son Richie carry on with their movie-perfect 50′s lifestyle. But it’s not as perfect as all that… schoolteacher salaries were low even back then, so Mason holds a secret after-school job as a taxi dispatcher in order to keep up those perfect middle-class appearances. The cortisone is expensive, and worse, Mason is forgetful – misses some doses and doubles some others, until he’s taking twice the proper dosage and starting to go completely manic from the side-effects. He quits his cab job, tries to get fired from the school, berates everyone he comes across and finally, in a state of biblical delusion, conspires to kill his son. Last-minute rescue (in the form of a stairway fistfight with buddy Walter Matthau, which alone is worth the price of admission) returns Mason to the hospital, where the doctor straightens out his dosage and brings him back to his senses. Hoorah for modern medicine!

Pain chart:

Walter Matthau!

I guess this was the American Beauty of its time, allowing a white suburban dad to rebel against his status and say things that nice people should not say, attracting the attention of the neighbors, to the horror of his wife. Only this was so much better. The wife (as already contrasted with the wife in Close Encounters) is understanding and recognizably human, there’s a reason given for Mason’s outbursts (drug effects, vs. Spacey’s midlife crisis) and a more reasonable ending (it’s too easy to end your movie by having a sexually-frustrated neighbor shoot your lead character to death).

Good praying:

Bad praying:

One writer worked on three decades’ worth of James Bond movies and the other scripted Forbidden Planet which also came out in ’56 – sounds more like the kind of team that would’ve come up with Star Wars than this. Suppose I’ve seen James Mason in Lolita but he made more of an impression here, with his unexplained foreign accent in the California suburbs, his mad energy shaped (if not subdued) by his British schoolteacher’s intelligence. Barbara Rush (who had appropriately just appeared in a Douglas Sirk movie, as Jane Wyman’s meddling daughter in Magnificent Obsession) was just as good, and it’s always nice to see Walter Matthau, here in one of his first roles.

Cover shot:

Barbara Rush, one more time:

Buy from Amazon:
Bigger Than Life [Criterion Blu-ray]

Standard Operating Procedure (2008, Errol Morris)

It’s Political Documentary Month! We will see how long that lasts. Katy asked if all Errol Morris’s films are about death (as far as I know they are) and commented that the square photos within a widescreen strip within our square TV across the room made her feel blind, so I brought up stylistic differences between Morris and Ken Burns, figuring we’re being punished for watching a theatrical feature in the same way we’d watch a television program. Afterwards, I showed her In The Loop, which I thought worked much better than S.O.P. on the TV screen. I was psyched to revisit it but she didn’t like at all, since it doesn’t count as satire on government if it’s exactly the way she imagines government works, and anyway it’s not funny.

S.O.P. was surprisingly tame. As one of the former prison guards points out, it’s not like they were beating prisoners or killing them, although that happens when the CIA bring in their own prisoner, a guy who they’re told “was never here.” Unfortunately for the CIA, photos of that incident leaked along with the rest – the ones with prisoners tied up in “stress positions” with panties on their heads, handcuffed into simulated sex scenarios and stacked in naked pyramids, all with Lynndie England flashing a thumbs-up in front. The prison holds a confusing number of military and government groups and private organizations – it would’ve taken a whole other movie to get it all straight. The guards certainly weren’t clear about it themselves. A side-effect of Morris’s technique here is that he’s made the opposite of The Road to Guantanamo, which was told from the prisoners’ point of view. This movie is an analysis of the photographs, of the circumstances behind them, but only from the guards’ points of view. The nameless prisoners, degraded and objectified in those photographs, remain anonymously dehumanized in the film, enigmatic vessels of suspicion (they are, after all, “enemy combatants”) and sympathy (for the torture/s.o.p. depicted).

Buy from Amazon:
Standard Operating Procedure [Blu-ray]