A process movie, which shows you what is happening, letting you guess about the why. Extremely precise in framing and editing, focusing as much on objects as people. I’m generally sympathetic to Bresson films, having loved A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, and have been underwhelmed or confused by some of his others, so wasn’t sure how this one would hit me… and it’s a masterpiece.

Schoolboy Norbert owes money, so his buddy Martial pulls out some counterfeit cash, which they change at a picture frame store. Later, the frame shop owners get pissed at their employee Lucien for accepting the phony bill, and conspire to pass it off to a workman Yvon Targe (Christian Patey, later of Adieu Bonaparte).

Yvon is caught passing the fake bill at a restaurant, unaware, starts a fight and gets in trouble. The frame shop owners pay off Lucien to lie in court, and Yvon loses his job. Lucien loses his job as well when he’s discovered to be pocketing money, then robs the shop and starts stealing ATM cards, is eventually caught. Norbert is also caught, and his mom pays off the frame shop to hush the scandal.

Yvon takes a darker turn, gets hired as a getaway driver and caught during a bank robbery, his daughter dies while he’s in prison, he attempts suicide, rejects help from Lucien (who is caught trying to escape) and is eventually released. Yvon immediately steals from the hotel where he’s staying, then apparently follows a woman home, is allowed to stay with her and her father, and kills them both with an axe, then turns himself in.

Adrian Martin for Criterion:

Bresson told his stories in astoundingly matter-of-fact ellipses or leaps in time; only the most significant moments of information and sensation counted for him. He fragmented the spatial relations of each location and incident, making the world both a fiercely angular labyrinth and an abiding, disorienting mystery.

Based on a Tolstoy story. Bresson tied with Tarkovsky for best director at Cannes, the palme going to Imamura. Great Cannes interview on the disc – Bresson always gives the best answers. “The question is null and void” … “I can’t explain a film. It explains itself.”

Second weekend afternoon in a row I’ve watched a mid-1950’s true-crime drama. It’s not intentional, they’re just the shortest movies I’ve got. Newsreel-style intro tells us about a wave of riots protesting poor conditions in American prisons, featuring real footage, then cut to cell block 11 (the punishment block) in a California (?) prison where the inmates have decided to join the trend, holding their captors captive and calling for the warden and the press.

A tight, tense little movie which mostly comes down on the side of the prisoners – most of them, anyway. Master negotiator Dunn ends up fighting for control with Crazy Mike. Dunn gets an audience with the press, then Mike throws a knife into a guy outside. The next morning some lower-security cell blocks escape and join in the action. The cops contemplate blasting a hole in the cell block wall, which would also kill the guards held within, but ultimately the governor caves.

Warden (left) with Commissioner:

Politics: the first black guy who opens his mouth gets knocked out by Dunn. One of the ringleaders’ demands is that the young naïve guys be kept away from “certain prisoners” – I assumed they meant the crazy violent ones like Mike, but the commentary says it’s code for The Gays. And the warden basically wants the same things as the prisoners, has wanted it for years, but his hands are tied by tight-fisted state politicians.

Victory! I think that’s Crazy Mike at left, Dunn in center:

Noble Leader Dunn was Neville Brand (Eaten Alive and The Ninth Configuration), Evil Leader Mike was Leo Gordon, who had served time at San Quentin, and played Dillinger in Baby Face Nelson. The Warden: Emile Meyer (the priest in Paths of Glory, corrupt cop in Sweet Smell of Success), Commissioner Haskell (the governor’s stooge who gets knifed): Frank Faylen of 99 River Street and The Lost Weekend, and the injured, sympathetic hostage guard: cartoon voice actor Paul Frees. Written by friendly-witness commie Richard Collins, an early work by Siegel a couple years before his Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

C. Fujiwara:

The film had its origin in Wanger’s own experience as an inmate. After shooting agent Jennings Lang in a jealous rage over Wanger’s wife, Joan Bennett, Wanger was convicted for assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to four months, which he served at a minimum-­security prison north of Los Angeles. He emerged so appalled by the experience that he set out to use his access to mass media to arouse the public in favor of prison reform … With [Siegel] at the reins, Riot becomes not just a social-problem film but a ferocious depiction of human beings pushed past their limits.

A straightforward journey film. Vargas is released from prison, then rides and walks and canoes to deliver a letter to his friend’s wife and to find his own daughter, slaughtering a goat on-camera along the way.

Final moments alive for this goat:

I’d read that Alonso’s first three features were more realistic than the crazy-looking Jauja (also a journey movie where a solitary man looks for his daughter) and was afraid they’d be a drag to watch, but I needn’t have worried. Wish the DVD had looked better, though.

Quintín on the opening:

Alonso went on location with a cameraman and shot a scene – actually, one long take – of the main character holding a knife in his hand, leaving behind the bodies of his dead brothers: a mysterious, intriguing sequence with sophisticated camera movements and a sense of tragedy. The blood theme was there, as were the dead of the title. It was a highly remarkable, virtuoso shot. And a shot that made money. Shown to foundations, producers, sales agents and TV buyers, this homeopathic sample allowed the movie to be finished.

“If you’re doing a revolution, you should have the guts to kill a person.”

Theoretically, this kind of thing is right up my alley: four-hour, long-take, wide-shot foreign film-fest fare with an elliptical ending. But I dunno, I feel like it made its point in a few dialogue scenes scattered throughout, and the rest of the movie was either waiting around, or following a relentlessly grim plot to its lack of conclusion.

Crime and Punishment, but Fabian (Sid Lucero of Independencia) is our Raskolnikov who does the crime, and Joaquin is his neighbor who receives the punishment. It’s hard to know if Fabian is tormented by his crime, or if he’s just an asshole – after all, he seems equally tormented in the first hour of the movie before killing the moneylender woman and her daughter as he does at the end. After the homicide, the middle half of the movie follows imprisoned Joaquin, locked up with a bunch of not-bad guys and one violent psychopath named Wakwak, and Joaquin’s family led by Eliza (Angeli Bayani of Ilo Ilo and Lav’s Melancholia).

Prison visit:

I think Eliza’s sister Ading isn’t too bright, so Eliza is caring for her two kids and the sister, barely making ends meet by selling vegetables. We think a turning point has come when washed-up Fabian finally confronts Eliza after four years, guiltily giving her the cash he got from selling his murder-scene loot, then coercing his former law professors to take up her husband’s case. We assume the movie’s heading towards Fabian turning himself in (as did Peter Lorre and Markku Toikka). Instead he takes his war on society to a new level, visiting his family home only to rape his sister and kill his dog. Meanwhile Eliza visits her imprisoned husband for the first time in years then dies in a bus crash on the way home. Then Fabian goes for a boat ride, the end.

Played Cannes UCR with Stranger by the Lake and Bastards and Manuscripts Don’t Burn – semi-comprehensible stories with unpleasant characters were in vogue that year.

Fabian sleeping with his best friend’s girl:

Eliza fails to find sympathy from the doomed moneylender:

B. Nelepo in Cinema Scope:

An angry narrative by any definition, Norte portrays a country accursed, whose curse, by extension, spills over onto its people; around this curse, furthermore, the backstories of two families weave a subplot of marked importance. In order to prove that their family was doomed to fail from the start, Fabian torments his sister at the end of the movie (the girl is also in a cult, which seems to be a common practice among Filipinos: see Century of Birthing). Their parents, as it turns out, had moved to the US, leaving the kids in the care of hired help. Joaquin’s wife blames his subsequent misfortunes on herself for not letting him work abroad. Rejecting those who have left, the country is twice as harsh on those who have stayed, a theme Diaz has developed before, particularly in Butterflies Have No Memories.

M. D’Angelo:

If Fabian and Joaquin are meant to be distinct individuals, the film is “merely” endless and pointless; I very much fear, alas, that Diaz intends them as class representatives, in which case it’s insultingly schematic verging on outright stupid.

V. Rizov:

Diaz is a formidable talent, eliciting flawlessly naturalistic performances and exhibiting casual visual panache. At 250 minutes, Norte is extremely watchable, and there’s the rub: it’s reasonable to expect transcendence at that sustained length, but instead we get a relatively straightforward tract on political abuses, Christian dogma and social inequity in Filipino society.


The Day Before The End (2016, Lav Diaz)

Also watched this short I found online. Not sure that Norte justified its apocalyptic subtitle, and this short is no Last Night either. Nice b/w photography but not too fun – I think I prefer narrative Lav to experimental. People are rehearsing Shakespeare in public, then wading through torrential rain. This has an IMDB entry, and its description is better than the actual movie: “In the year 2050, the Philippines braces for the coming of the fiercest storm ever to hit the country. And as wind and waters start to rage, poets wander the streets.”

yelling Shakespeare in unison:

Malik (Tahar Rahim) goes to prison, seems way out of his league, becomes a lackey for Italian mobsters led by Cesar (Niels Arestrup), eventually gains knowledge and power, turning on his masters and starting his own drug business. Along the way, the movie illustrated some things I would’ve been better off not knowing, like how to slash a guy’s throat using a mouth-concealed razor.

Strong acting, kinda complicated plot with murders and trips outside and ghosts. I’m bad with names so I liked the movie’s trick of putting new characters’ names on the screen. Ends with the welcome and unexpected sound of Jimmie Dale Gilmore. The last crime movie I watched had Willie Nelson in it – I guess country music works well in prison settings.

Cannes Month continues. This is the first I’ve seen by Audiard, who has been Cannes-nominated four times. He won best screenplay in 1996 for A Self-Made Hero, second place to The White Ribbon with this movie, and finally won the palme last year with Dheepan. This also won nine Césars and was nominated for everything in the world.

Cowritten with Thomas Bidegain (Les Cowboys), Abdel Raouf Dafri (Mesrine) and Nicolas Peufaillit (Les Revenants remake). Tahar Rahim won a ton of awards for this, later played Samir (Berenice’s fiancee with the wife in the coma) in The Past, starred in Day of the Falcon and The Cut, and will apparently costar with Mathieu Amalric in a Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie but I’ll believe that when I see it. Neils Arestrup also played the father-figure in Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped and played “Il” in Akerman’s Je Tu Il Elle.

R. Porton in Cinema Scope wasn’t a big fan:

Numerous critics have pondered whether the film’s conclusion, which ends with Malik’s release from prison and the promise of life with a new family, is “redemptive.” Yet this prospect ultimately carries little weight in a film that is sabotaged by its own contradictions – contradictions that are the product of authorial sketchiness instead of salutory complexity. Audiard does not have the courage (or the talent) to be either straightforwardly pulpy or an unabashed social realist. Consequently, Un prophète, despite near-universal critical acclaim, languishes in an aesthetic no man’s land.

I’ve been watching Bresson’s earliest films in order, culminating in this extras-packed blu-ray of A Man Escaped. When I first started watching Bresson films (Au Hazard Balthazar, Lancelot of the Lake, The Devil Probably) I couldn’t figure out his style or why he was so acclaimed. Then I saw A Man Escaped and Pickpocket and loved them, but couldn’t say exactly why. Now I’m slowly figuring that out, though I still don’t really get Bresson’s worldview or what he means when he talks about his kind of cinema. He create subtle effects through careful modulation of elements that are usually more expressive: framing, editing and especially acting. This could lead to boredom, but he’s also using high-tension scenarios in A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, and the constant fear of getting caught clashes in interesting ways with the flat affect of the performance, plus this movie’s nonstop (sometimes redundant) narration provides the inner thoughts that the lead character’s blank expression hides. There are only brief bursts of music (I learned in the extras that Bresson plays Mozart whenever the lead character meets with someone who might aid his escape). All the movie’s tension and repression pays off after the final escape as Fontaine and his late-recruited cellmate Jost walk into the freedom of the night fog and the Mozart rises, the transcendence that Bresson was aiming for.

K. Elmore:

Bresson and André Devigny, the real-life former prisoner of war on whose experiences A Man Escaped was based, had differing ideas of what type of actor should be cast in the role of Fontaine. Feeling that the character must look physically capable of making the escape, Devigny presented Bresson with a young paratrooper and military triathlete. Bresson, however, was interested in making a “very psychological, very internal” film, as Devigny puts it, and chose the philosophy student François Leterrier, who, though he didn’t resemble Devigny in build, had very expressive eyes.

T. Pipolo:

The economy, purity, and rigor of Bresson’s aesthetic are directly related to his vision of the world, a complex perspective that carefully balances a belief in free will against the notion of preexistent design. For example, while A Man Escaped seems to be clearly mobilized by the protagonist’s will to be free, at the same time, Bresson said his aim was to “show the miracle [of] an invisible hand over the prison, directing what happens.” Thus, the propulsive trajectory of Bresson’s narratives — a result of the removal of excess and the refinement of technique — serves his overriding theme that human lives follow an implacable course. This is also apparent in such later masterpieces as Au hasard Balthazar (1966), Mouchette (1967), Lancelot of the Lake (1974), and L’argent (1983), despite their widely different subjects and increasingly cynical view of a world in which spiritual redemption seems to have vanished.

Elmore again:

Bresson put [assistant Louis] Malle in charge of Fontaine’s spoons, rope, hooks, and other escape implements, saying “Since you come from documentary, you take care of the props.”

Pipolo again:

Bresson’s method of creating character was not through the actor’s performance but through the actions performed — an approach that emphasized the external world and concrete reality. It is what a fictional figure does that creates character; his inner self is revealed by his outward actions and how he performs them. In short, action is character.

The Cineastes episode opens with long, uncommented section of Bresson films, then bursts of quickly-edited Bresson speaking philosophically, hating on filmed theater and escapism, finally settling down on an interview where he is hoping that filmmakers younger than himself can create the poetic “cinematograph” that he dreams of. It’s all very quotable, but he needs to use more examples so we’ll understand what he’s on about. Bresson also discusses his ideas for a cancelled film on Genesis. Listening to his theories, I started to wonder if Straub/Huillet were up to the same thing, but research (including my own post on Class Relations) says not exactly.

Bresson: “People say I was Rene Clair’s assistant. I never was. If I had been, I wouldn’t mind saying so.”

Functions of Film Sound is only about the sound of A Man Escaped. I’m amazed that he required 50 takes of some shots and still post-synched the whole thing – you’d think all the takes are required to get the vocal delivery just right, but that was just for the visual delivery – dialogue took another pile of takes a few weeks or months later.

Elmore:

All of the dialogue in the film was rerecorded in a studio. Bresson would say the line to the actor, and he would repeat it back to him, usually no fewer than forty to sixty times. Then Bresson edited together the best take of each word to re-create the line of dialogue.

The Essence of Forms opens with lead actor Francois Leterrier’s disclaimer that Bresson would not approve of any of this, then he gives stories and analysis of Bresson and his methods. “He never gave directions about interiority.”

Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme: “We saw several films together. He never liked them. He’d quiver in his seat, muttering ‘How can they do such things?’ It didn’t seem bad to me.”

The Road to Bresson: The filmmakers use the Story of Film technique of shooting their documentary footage in the style that their subject might use. This one quotes Bresson’s book and redundantly (in blu-ray terms) excerpts the Cineastes episode (however it also makes the point that Bresson used redundancy in his films). Good feature, and it was made after L’Argent so it covers a wider range of work than the others. I liked Paul Schrader’s explanation of transcendental film style, summarizing the book he wrote on Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer. Happy ending: for his final film, Bresson received a Cannes award alongside Tarkovsky, presented by Orson Welles.

Bresson gets a laugh at the press conference.
Q: “Why do you make films that frustrate viewers?”
RB: “What viewer are you talking about?”

Cute comedy, doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that’d be nominated for seven oscars, but there you have it. Town malcontent Cary Grant is arrested for a trumped-up charge. Everyone knows he’ll be killed by the town mob, so he escapes and hides out in old schoolmate Jean Arthur’s house. But she’s fixing it up for visiting law professor Ronald Colman, and when he arrives early, she arranges to stay in the house as his secretary so she can take care of Grant, keeping him hidden away from Colman in the attic. Colman is a self-important Good Man who refuses to deal with real people in real situations, preferring to stay apolitical and theoretical as he’s about to be appointed to the Supreme Court, so Arthur and Grant arrange run-ins between him and the corrupt town officials that are rigging Grant’s case, convincing him to bring his great influence into play.

Jean Arthur would be in Stevens’s The More The Merrier the following year, which I thought about while watching this – Jean and two guys in a single living space trying not to run into each other. Grant was between Suspicion and Once Upon a Honeymoon, and Colman played amnesiac in Random Harvest the same year. “This is a great country is it not?” I was happy to recognize the commie from Trouble In Paradise ten years later as a borscht peddler.

Like Rivette, Bresson started his feature career with a nun movie. This is an interesting one in light of his later movies about crime and punishment. On prison trips, young nun Anne-Marie (Renee Faure, lovestruck globemaker’s daughter in L’assassinat du Père Noël) becomes obsessed with Therese (Jany Holt, the prostitute in Renoir’s Lower Depths), trying to get her to join the convent – which she does after her release, but not before shooting a man to death as revenge for her imprisonment.

So, Anne-Marie gets ever more intense towards the woman she thinks she has saved, and Therese is extremely moody, never fitting in at the convent since she’s really using it to hide from her latest crime.

Senses:

For her disruption of convent life Anne-Marie is expelled, but secretly returns nightly to pray at the tomb of her order’s founder. When she becomes deathly ill, she is discovered and readmitted to the fold; and, upon her death, Thérèse undergoes a change of heart, delivering herself to the police and to her just punishment. .. This route to Anne-Marie’s saintly fulfilment and Thérèse’s transformation passes through continually ambiguous terrain, in which will, destiny, and chance become indistinguishable, and in which saintliness and criminality not only work side by side but mingle.

Head nun Sylvie was in Le Corbeau the same year, and one of the others – I get them confused – was Marie-Hélène Dasté, Jean Dasté’s wife and a stage actress for playwright/novelist Giraudoux, who adapted the story for this film.

Public Affairs (1934)

Princess defies king, flies to nearby Crogandy to marry their clown chancellor, who gets a few funny bits in this visually indistinct, silly-ass comedy. A pretty good extended contagious-yawn joke leads to a plane crash, then everyone in town falls asleep (probably not a Paris qui dort reference). We follow the chancellor from a statue unveilling to a firehouse demonstration to the launch of a ship, with Marcel Dalio (the marquis in Rules of the Game and Frenchy in To Have and Have Not) playing most of the movie’s roles besides the romantic leads.

A stupid, jittery, high-energy action remake by Anderson, one of Cinema Scope’s 50 Under 50, highlighting what is for me the biggest problem with auteurism these days. In the 1960’s, movies were made on a factory line, some better than others, mostly credited to studios and producers, until observant critics realized that certain directors put out work of consistently high quality – no huge surprise there – but that they also had thematic and structural consistencies throughout a body of films from varied writers and studios. Heroes were belatedly made of Hawks, Ford and Hitchcock, and their films from critically-unloved genres (comedy, western, thriller) were reassessed. Today the studio system is totally different and every director thinks of himself as an auteur. Since the hardcore auteurists have nothing to discover, instead of enjoying the new world of supposedly personal cinema, they stare at the studio genre movies that still get made, searching for new names they can take credit for discovering. My pick was Hong Kong-turned-Hollywood Ronny Yu (Bride of Chucky, Freddy vs. Jason), but I lost interest after Fearless. Mubi latched onto the late Tony Scott, and Cinema Scope loves Paul W.S. Anderson, responsible for three of the worst video-game adaptations I’ve seen in theaters (Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator) and the underrated Event Horizon.

In a dystopian future, racing legend Jason Statham is set up for killing his perfect wife, and sent to a post-reality-TV prison, where he can earn his freedom by winning a few weapon-equipped car races which are, of course, rigged by the authorities (Joan Allen). He takes the place of a masked driver called Frankenstein (role reprised from the original by David Carradine), gets a mechanic (Ian McShane), a saboteur-spy sidekick (Natalie Martinez) and a rival (Tyrese Gibson, in the Sylvester Stallone role). After some ‘splosiony car races, Statham avenges his wife by killing mohawked driver Max Ryan and Pryzbylewski-looking guard Jason Clarke, then secretly teams up with Tyrese, easily breaking out of prison by shooting the walls with their missile-equipped cars, driving away to a Shawshank-esque incognito freedom.

Also, Ian McShane blows up Joan Allen:

Set in the dystopian future world of 2012. Will someone tell me again why future-movies always take place in the extremely near future? Followed by two sequels starring Ving Rhames and Danny Trejo. Produced by the great Roger Corman, in between Supergator and Sharktopus.

C. Huber in Cinema Scope calls him “the elder, least pretentious, and most consistently amusing Anderson of the current director trifecta: its termite artisan.”