“Don’t waste your time in the so-called real life.”

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One of my new favorite movies! Rivette must’ve dug this one, being about theatrical performances bleeding into real life, with characters and camera always behind and in front of screens and fences, sheets and curtains.

An Italian theater company arrives “in a Spanish colony of Latin America” in the early 1700’s and attempt to build a theater and make a living amongst locals who care more about bullfighting. Camilla, the lead actress of the group (Anna Magnani in an amazing, vibrant performance) entertains the affections of three fans: the local star bullfighter, the viceroy (who offers her the titular coach) and troupe member Felipe, who wants to settle down in the wilds of America. With the threat of duels, revolution, prison and worse, Camilla contrives a way out, donating her coach to the church and retreating back behind the curtain, letting all three men off the hook. Movie (this version of it, anyway) is in English, with a wild mix of accents.

In interview, Renoir says he was highly concerned with color (it is brilliant – see shot above), with Anna’s wonderful acting, with being able to change the script and with playing around with the nature of acting, on the stage and in real life.

Renoir: “My principal collaborator on this film was the late Antonio Vivaldi. I wrote the script while listening to records of his music, and his wit and sense of drama led me on to developments in the best tradition of the Italian theater.”

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Andrew Sarris: “To claim, as reviewers at the time did, that Renoir had failed to produce a convincing narrative, is to scorn Matisse and Picasso for not painting plausible pictures.”

Andre Bazin: “Renoir directs his actors as if he liked them more than the scenes they are acting and preferred the scenes which they interpret to the scenario from which they come. This approach accounts for the disparity between his dramatic goals and the style of acting, which tends to turn our attention from his aims. The style is added to the script like rich paint liberally added to a line drawing…”

J. Rosenbaum: “As Bazin suggests, the actors are employed as if they were different kinds of paint, freely spilling over the initial designs, but it’s worth adding that the colors are employed on occasion as if they were actors – a splash of yellow or blue in an incidental decor carrying all the allure of a memorable extra.”

Rosenbaum again:

All three films are comic period fantasies in dazzling color, offering a kind of continuous, bustling choreography in which shifting power relations between upper and lower classes and between spectators and performers literally turn the world into a kind of theater. In this respect, they might be said to offer more abstract and less politically anchored versions of the films Renoir made during the thirties. Unlike their predecessors, they’re deliberately removed from real life. And given the sense of political as well as the personal defeat that came with the war and his departure from France, followed by a lengthy period of living in exile, they’re unable to hide a subtle aftertaste of regret lurking behind all that gaiety – a sense that utopia can only be found, if at all, on a soundstage, not in the Popular Front that once meant so much to Renoir. This sadness only occasionally rises to the surface, as in the memorable exchanges between actors Camilla and Don Antonio at the very end: “Felipe, Ramon, the viceroy… disappeared.” “Now they are part of the audience. Do you miss them?” “A little.”

Scorsese says there were versions in Italian and French, and that the ending (which looks like it came from a degraded print) was newly restored in the 90’s.

Don Antonio, leader of the actors group, played by Odoardo Spadaro of Divorce, Italian Style:
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Rome’s Cinecitta studio was equipped for sync sound recording in the 50’s? You wouldn’t know it from the Italian movies I’ve seen.

A few comic reminders that we’re in the 18th century: “Tomorrow papa is being bled with leeches, the day after I have my purge.”

Cameo by French actor Jean Debucourt as the bishop, of Epstein’s silent Fall of the House of Usher, Cocteau’s Eagle With Two Heads and Max Ophüls’ Madame de…

The three men, below from left to right:
– Ramon the bullfighter – Riccardo Rioli, whose film acting career began the year before, and ended the year after with a small part in a Mankiewicz picture.
– The Viceroy – Scottish Duncan Lamont, charming in this, later in Mutiny on the Bounty and Quatermass and the Pit.
– Felipe: American Paul Campbell, who was a beef-and-cheesy enough actor to get himself cast in The Deadly Mantis. He lived long enough to have seen the MST3K version – here’s hoping he did.

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The great Anna Magnani plays Camilla. Star of Mamma Roma, Bellissima and Rome, Open City, she also beat out Kate Hepburn and three other Americans for the 1955 Oscar for The Rose Tattoo.
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“Where is truth? Where does the theater end and life begin?”

This will be one to watch again when I know more French, or just when I’ve lived longer.


Chapter 1(a), “Toutes les histoires” (“All the (Hi)stories”)

Dedicated to Mary Meerson (Langlois’s companion who helped run the Cinematheque) and Monica Tegelaar (producer of Raoul Ruiz’s On Top of the Whale).

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IMDB says parts one and two came out in the late 80’s, and the rest followed in the late 90’s. This one seemed more like a 50-minute trailer than an episode. Montage of archive footage, still and moving, edited and faded and superimposed and blended together. The footage includes scenes from films of course (rules of the game, great dictator, day of wrath, germany year zero) but lots of stills (producers, directors, Thalberg, Hughes) and paintings. Lots of focus on World War II, and ending with that Germany Year Zero segment, the whole thing came off as vaguely depressing. Maybe that’s why it took ten years to get the rest of the episodes made?

Three images overlapped: (1) Rita Hayworth dancing, (2) a drawing of Howard Hughes in his final days, (3) the witch-burning scene in Day of Wrath.


Chapter 1(b), “Une Histoire seule” (“A Single (Hi)story”)

Dedicated to John Cassavetes and Glauber Rocha (Brazilian director of Black God, White Devil).

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Surprising number of references to Godard’s own films. Tons and tons of stuff I am not getting because I don’t know much French (I pick up half the film titles and some of the short sayings printed onscreen) or art history, and haven’t seen most of the films. Should’ve known better than to think part two would be more straightforward or make more sense. Even if I don’t know what it’s saying, I still get interesting juxtapositions of images and nice shots from great films seen and unseen, which is enough to keep me watching. Sounded like I heard some Leonard Cohen and Neil Diamond.


Chapter 2(a), “Seule le cinema” (“Only Cinema”)

Dedicated to Armand J. Cauliez (a writer, published a book on Jacques Tati) and Santiago Alvarez (Cuban filmmaker).

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Fast-forward a decade. Same ol’ thing here, but two big changes:

(1) Not just montage of pre-existing footage edited with Godard in his study anymore. An actual actor, Julie Delpy, reading poetry. Also an interview with Godard by another guy (couldn’t be Serge Daney – he died in ’92), 90% untranslated.

(2) Me getting a little tired and pondering making my own historie(s) of cinema instead


Chapter 2(b), “Fatale beauté” (“Deadly Beauty”)

Dedicated to Michele Firk (film writer turned militant radical, killed herself in Guatemala to escape arrest) and Nicole Ladmiral (actress in Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest).

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Sabine Azema (above) recits some poetry, much of it untranslated. Godard types at his typewriter some more. I listened in the headphones and a background noise (JLG’s pet bird?) frightened me. Something about photography being invented in black and white as the colors of mourning to note the death of reality. And something about women, and murder, and Band of Outsiders and Rancho Notorious and Gone With The Wind. Good to see that Godard appreciates Tom Waits.


Chapter 3(a), “La Monnaie de l’absolu” (“The Coin of the Absolute”)

Dedicated to Gianni Amico (Italian filmmaker, assistant director on Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution and Godard’s Le Vent d’est & James Agee (film writer, champion of Chaplin’s Monseiur Verdoux, writer of Night of the Hunter and The African Queen)

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or part 3A, the war and futility episode. WWII talk leads into an appreciation of Italian Neorealism and the most clearly presented introduction to a certain aspect of cinema and history thus far in the series. Says that Italian cinema in the 40’s and 50’s changed film like Manet (the godfather of modern art) changed painting. Closes with a nice montage of Italian film (minus too much onscreen block text and crazed fade transitions) set to a Richard Cocciante song. This episode has a clear point and meaning and narrative arc and supporting arguments… I don’t understand. Maybe the others have too, and I’ve been missing it. Juliette Binoche appears with Alain Cuny (of Les Amants and La Dolce Vita), who died in 1994, four years before this episode aired. Julie Delpy looked mighty young in her segment too – maybe all this footage was shot in the 80’s and not finished editing until ten years later.


Chapter 3(b), “Une Vague Nouvelle” (“A New Wave”)

Dedicated to Frederic C. Froeschel (head of a cine-club in Paris, 1950) and Naum Kleiman (Russian film critic, director of the Moscow Film Museum).

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“Becker, Rossellini, Melville, Franju, Jacques Demy, Truffaut. You knew them.”
“Yes, they were my friends.”

A personal episode, sometimes celebratory but more usually melancholy. Godard himself is the guest speaker this time, but he’s actually into it, not just distractedly reciting behind his typewriter. These things never quite seem to begin, the opening titles still playing when the episode is half over. Some 400 Blows, some Henri Langlois, more goings-on about the death of cinema. What, is video the new art form?


Chapter 4(a), “Le Côntrole de l’univers” (“The Control of the Universe”)

Dedicated to Michel Delahaye (actor in Out 1, Alphaville, plenty more) and Jean Domarchi (1950’s, 60’s Cahiers critic, had a bit part in Breathless).

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Another really good one. Probably not coincidentally, all the voiceover on this one is translated, so I was able to understand it. Lots of voiceover – it’s getting to be more of an essay lately and less of a purely visual slideshow. Still plenty of that dull video text, white-on-black block lettering. The thing always drags a little when JLG decides to move those words around the screen for thirty seconds before returning to the film clips. When there were clips, it seems half of them were by Hitchcock, “our century’s greatest creator of forms.”


Chapter 4(b), “Les Signes parmi nous” (“The Signs Among Us”)

Dedicated to Anne-Marie Miéville (one of Godard’s collaborators since 1976) and to Godard himself.

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I hope nobody stumbles across this entry hoping to learn about the film, because I really doubt I understood most of it. More more more war images in this section (have I mentioned that the film is obsessed with WWII?) and more ponderings on love, death, art, history, man, the state, and Charlie Chaplin. And it seems to me that Godard is terribly depressed. Anyway, here’s a good bit of the voiceover from the last eight minutes:

I need a day to tell the history of a second…
I need an eternity to tell the history of a day.

We can do everything except the history of what we are doing. It is my privilege to film and live in France as an artist. Nothing like a country that every day walks further down the path of its own inexorable decline.

I am the fugitive enemy of our times. The totalitarianism of the present as applied mechanically every day more oppressive on a planetary scale. This faceless tyranny that effaces all faces for the systematic organization of the unified time of the moment. This global, abstract tyranny which I try to oppose from my fleeting point of view. Because I try, because I try in my compositions to show an ear that listens to time. And try to make it heard and to surge into the future.

The only thing that survives from one epoch is the art from it created. No activity can become an art until its proper epoch has ended. Then, this art will disappear. Thus, the art of the 19th century – cinema – made the 20th century exist, which barely existed.

Cinema feared nothing of others or of itself. It wasn’t sheltered from time. It was the shelter of time. Yes, image is happiness. But beside it dwells nothingness. The power of the image is expressed only by invoking nothingness. It is perhaps worth adding: The image, able to negate nothingness, is also the gaze of nothingness on us. The image is light. Nothingness, immensely heavy. The image gleams. Nothingness is that thickness where all is veiled. The most fleeting moments possess an illustrious past. If a man passed through paradise in his dreams and received a flower as proof of passage, and on waking, found this flower in his hand… What is there to say? I was that man.

Thought I’d watch the Cannes 1988 press conference, but after the first three minutes (“video artist” Godard passionately attacking television) it all turns French.

From a belatedly-discovered interview between JLG and J. Rosenbaum:

JR: Yes, but it also isn’t legally acknowledged that films and videos can be criticism.
JLG: It’s the only thing video can be — and should be.

With that strong distinction between film and video, it occurs to me that JLG considers Histoire(s) as being about cinema but not being a work of cinema itself. I watch Breathless on my TV and say I’ve seen one Godard movie, then I watch Histoire(s) on my TV and say I’ve seen two Godard movies. JLG should like to smack me for such a thought.

The first time I watched this, I felt bad for not liking it. Just… nothing ever happened, and it seemed to mostly consist of people standing theatrically far apart from each other and looking away. Bored me to death. Then I embraced my dislike of L’Avventura since I found that more and more Italian films made me feel tired and annoyed. And geez, can those mofos not lip-synch properly. I will never get over that. But watching L’Eclisse and talking to Dawn convinced me to give this one another go, and so I have…

And what a masterpiece it is! Beautiful from start to finish. I guess knowing what I was in for (pace-and-plot-wise) and knowing what to look for (camera compositions, not an engaging story) really helped. Played most of the commentary track afterwards and that helped too.

There is a story here. Gorgeous Claudia (Monica Vitti) vacations with her friends Anna (reconnecting with fiance Sandro after months away) and Giulia (with her drab husband) on a cruise. At a rocky island, Anna disappears and never returns. Claudia and Sandro search everywhere for her, extending the search to the mainland, where they finally fall for each other and give up on Anna.

Story’s not so bad, characters not as horrible as all that, just can’t believe that Antonioni can set up EVERY shot so beautifully.

Here’s my email to Jimmy the next day.
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Time vs. The Leopard (or Burt’s Eyebrows: The Movie)

So it completely slipped my mind that I hate Italian movies, and I went to see The Leopard last night.

An IMDB reviewer says “To anyone interested in serious concerns, cinematically expressed with grace and intelligence, I would urge you to see this splendid film.”

Serious concerns? Concerns about what? About being serious? The movie is serious about being serious. It seems serious about the people of Sicily, about its sense of history and its future, and about our lead man Burt and his serious eyebrows and sideburns.

In the past few weeks I’ve watched movies by Bela Tarr, Wong Kar-Wai, and Luis Bunuel, plus The Double Life of Veronique and The Fountain. Been using all of those to think about how the movies present time, how they stretch time and contract time and enhance it and make it stop and start. It’s one of the main things movies do that other art forms don’t. It’s hard to change your sense of time with a play, with a painting.

The clock in White Hall to the left of the movie screen is stopped dead, and I liked to look over at it during The Leopard as if to confirm that the movie was frozen in a moment, that it was not progressing, that it had barely started and it was nowhere near the end. A great movie seems to fly by… I want to start it right up again after it ends, but then I notice the real time on the VCR clock, and remember that in real time, in my real day, two hours have gone by and I can’t play it again and I probably should be cleaning the office or going to bed. The Leopard left me with no such illusions. I felt the full force of all one hundred and eighty minutes… plus more minutes! The movie was even longer than it actually was! I feared that Visconti was filming new scenes while we watched, that the movie was looping itself, that the elderly couple behind me would not live to see the credits!

Nice restored print with very strong color. Good low-light and natural-light photography. The movie is a painting, with a painting’s sense of time. It wants to be looked at, but it does not propel you forward. Maybe people want this, to be slowed down, frozen in time focusing deeply on Burt Lancaster’s eyebrows and sideburns (an obsession of mine while the film was in progress), but I’m not so sure. I heard heavy sighs from the crowd, a few people left, at least one fell asleep, and some started talking and wandering around when one of them got a leg cramp. On my way out I walked past a couple discussing how the final dance sequence seemed way too long.

Was this done on purpose? As Prince Burt Fabrizio Lancaster is aging, thinking back on his life, thinking about the changes in Italy, watching the old power structure of which he is a part slowly decline, are we supposed to feel his sense of the moment stretching to the breaking point? Did the director know that the final dance sequence is way too long? Was he rudely extending the scene to force us into Burt’s mindset, to show us that from Burt’s age and position, this dressy ball is tiring and meaningless?

Sometimes when I notice that a movie is using longer-than-usual shots, I try counting shots to see just how long they are. At one point in The Leopard, I think they were running around five to six seconds on average, but it’s actually hard to count seconds in Leopard-time, which is more agonizingly slow than real time. When watching Werckmeister Harmonies (which I haven’t finished yet), I counted only eleven shots (plus or minus a couple) in the first forty minutes. And those forty minutes fly by! Bela Tarr expresses time in a mysterious and alluring way. Luchino Visconti (and Fellini, and Pasolini, and possibly Rossellini but probably not De Sica or Leone) expresses time in the most leaden way possible. I’m surprised that Visconti ever built up the energy to start filming. I’m sure, though, that he never stopped filming The Leopard, that the studio took what he’d shot so far and edited it into a movie. IMDB says he died 13 years after the movie’s release. There must be 13 years worth of deleted scenes, of sequel, of continuing ballroom dances and palaces in disrepair and golden harvest fields by moonlight, of candlelit interiors and Sicilian cityscapes at dusk, all sitting in a chest in Casa Visconti, waiting to be discovered by anyone bored enough to venture there. The ten thousand minute director’s cut!

Other notable things about the movie: Frenchman Alain Delon (of Le Samourai and L’Eclisse) as young rebel Tancredi… a DeNiro-looking priest who is omnipresent in the first half of the movie and strangely missing from the second half… all the young soldiers look like Cary Elwes… some pretty women (the prettiest of whom starred in Fellini’s 8 1/2 the same year)… and of course the lousy dubbing and sound design and the interruptive, full-of-itself Nino Rota score (Italians don’t seem to think that sound is an important part of a movie).

At the end of the movie, Burt Lancaster is old, he’s tired and he’s crying. And so am I. I drove straight home and trimmed my eyebrows.