Watched this the same month as Trouble In Paradise, not having guessed how connected the two would be – the book/script of Stavisky even mentions that they stole shot ideas from Paradise. This one seems like a correction to the other, set during the same year with some of the same reference points (such as Trotsky) but here the upper-class gentleman thief is revealed to be a sham, and rather than escaping at the end to start over with his true love, the thief ends up dead, his widow in prison. The final shot is the chauffeur (of the period Rolls they drive everywhere) placing a bouquet of white flowers for her outside the prison.

Bright and lively music by Stephen Sondheim (who had already won three Tony awards in the 70’s) kept the doomed inevitability away until it was too late. Sondheim had already won three Tony awards in the 1970’s by the time Stavisky came out. It’s one of the very few times he’s written music (more than one song, anyway) for films – the other cases were Warren Beatty’s Reds (another movie featuring Trotsky!) and Dick Tracy.

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Another story by Jorge Semprún, who wrote the exile-themed The War Is Over. One of Stavisky’s associates (Juan Montalvo, a slimy guy who hits on Arlette but can provide Serge with lots of money) was funding the attempted coup in Spain which led to the Spanish Civil War. In researching the film Semprun found that the same police inspector (named Gardet in the movie) assigned to watch over Leon Trotsky in France was also assigned to report on Stavisky, so Trotsky’s exile was written into the movie, as witnessed by a kid named Michel Grandville. The movie is bookended with Trotsky – first arriving in France, beginning his exile from Russia, and at the end after the Stavisky scandal, being moved further into exile, far from Paris, his political influence feared by the conservatives. Stavisky himself is a Russian Jew in exile – so there are a few connections to the previous film.

The paperback book says it “represents the final scenario” for the shooting of the film, and the intro by Richard Seaver addresses something I had wondered about after reading The War Is Over and believing that Semprun’s script was shot word-for-word with very little added by Resnais: “Once the subject is established, the writer does an initial draft, or treatment, after which writer and director discuss it scene by scene, often line by line, in excruciating detail, until the distinction between writer and director blurs or disappears.” So in fact the books by Semprun represent the collaborative vision of he and Resnais – my beloved auteur is no longer in peril.

The real Serge Alexandre Stavisky was involved in ever-larger finance fraud and was connected with people high up in French government, and when this was made public in January 1934 it led to riots, deaths (incl. the semi-suicide of Stavisky himself), trials for his friends and widow (all acquitted the following year) and political upheaval. Not knowing much about French politics, the Wikipedia articles are hard to follow, but it seems the ultra-conservatives tried to overthrow the leftists in power – eventually one leftist resigned, a conservative replaced him, and somehow socialists ended up in power.

Belmondo, a decade after Pierrot le fou and still looking the same:
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Jean-Paul Belmondo as Stavisky/Alexandre is dazzling, a con-man with absolute confidence in himself. Arlette is his glamorous wife, and he’s surrounded by associates, some complicit in his underhanded dealings like assistant Borelli and Serge’s in-pocket doctor (Michael “Thomas” Lonsdale) who keeps declaring Stavisky unfit to stand trial for a six-year-old fraud offense… and some are just content to spend time with Stavisky, enjoying his company and not asking questions, like friend Baron Raoul (an outstanding Charles Boyer).

Arlette: Anny Duperey’s debut was seven years earlier in Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her.
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The book says “Barol Raoul’s looks, gestures, diction and bearing are those one would expect a baron to possess in those films where barons play a part.” That’s hilarious… I hope those are the character notes they gave to Charles Boyer.

This was French superstar Boyer’s second-to-last film. I saw him as the star of Fritz Lang’s not-so-good Liliom. He is the second actor I’ve seen lately (after Maurice Chevalier) claimed to be the inspiration for Pepe le Pew.
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As Stavisky’s right-hand man, beloved character actor Francois Périer of Nights of Cabiria, Orpheus, Le Samourai, also narrated some Chris Marker films. From the book: “Albert Borelli’s face is impassive, but he has a sharp eye. He is a man of few words but not of few thoughts.”
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No wonder I had trouble with inspectors Bonny and Boussard – it’s complicated. Boussard arrested Stavisky years ago, and a couple years afterwards Serge became Boussard’s “informant” – actually Serge pays Boussard to keep an eye on things inside the police department, and the informant thing is just a front so they can meet. Bonny has it out for Serge, hires the blackmailer who comes to the theater during auditions to extort money from Stavisky by threatening to expose his past, and later engineers the police raid during which Stavisky shoots himself. Plus I always have to look hard to tell which Inspector is which, since they look and dress the same.

Inspectors Boussard (left, Marcel Cuvelier, also played an inspector in The War Is Over) and Bonny (right, Claude Rich, star of Je t’aime, je t’aime):
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Bad Boy Bonny:
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Michel Grandville (Jacques Spiesser of The Man Who Sleeps and Black and White in Color) and Erna Wolfgang (Silvia Badescu), who auditions for a part at Stavisky’s theater (he reads with her, playing a ghost – see quote below):
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Lonsdale, after “Serge Alexandre” tells him to get rid of Stavisky and his problems: “The person he once was has become someone else: a ghost he despises. But a ghost who worries him.” And later: “To understand Stavisky sometimes you have to forget files. You have to dream of him and to imagine his dreams.”

Dream doctor Michel Lonsdale:
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Gérard Depardieu got his break as a star just two months earlier. Here he has one scene as an excited young inventor trying to get Stavisky to invest in his product:
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And back to Erna Wolfgang. I just liked this shot.
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One more look at Thomas:
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I wasn’t in love with the movie after I watched it, seemed like a really well-done portrayal of a controversial man with great acting and an over-complicated plot, but reading the book afterwards cleared up all the characters and the structure of the whole thing, and thinking back on the story, acting and photography, I’m now liking this better than The War Is Over. Nobody here is a good guy – not even Bonny, who goes against police corruption but for personal & political reasons – but the movie doesn’t judge them, or go into the details of the scandal. It just gets inside their characters and shows where the scandal came from, how one guy’s belief that he could fake his way into the upper echelon ended up shaking the country.

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Fast, Cheap and Out of Control was the last movie in my documentary month series with Katy, but now Jimmy is doing his own documentary month. Katy didn’t come to this one (sadly, since it was better than almost any of the movies we watched at home). Story of coal miners in Kentucky who decide to join a labor union. The mine won’t recognize the union, so they strike. Tensions escalate between the old miners and the new scab workers, finally one of the old miners is shot and killed. A day or two later the mine lets them back to work, the union in place. Then a couple months after the year-long strike, another strike, this organized by the union leaders for higher pay and safer conditions.

Wonderful story, engrossing movie, with great bluegrass music. I’ll bet Chris Marker liked it.

Won best doc at the ’77 Oscars. Barbara Kopple went on to co-direct Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, a movie I was just mocking in the video store the other day. IMDB trivia: “When filming began, the film was intended to be about the 1972 campaign by Arnold Miller and Miners For Democracy to unseat UMWA president Tony Boyle, in the aftermath of Joseph Yablonski’s murder; but the Harlan County strike began and caused the filmmakers to change their principal subject, with the campaign and murder becoming secondary subjects.”

“Why sometimes do images begin to tremble?”

From the film:

1967 saw the arrival of a rather peculiar breed of adolescents. They all looked alike. They would immediately recognize each other. They seemed to posses a silent but absolute knowledge of certain issues but to be totally ignorant about others. Their hands were unbelievable skillful at pasting up posters, handing paving stones, spraying on walls short and cryptic messages which stuck in the memory, all the while calling for more hands to pass on the message they’d received but had not completely deciphered. Those fragile hands have left us the mark of their fragility. Once they even wrote it on a banner. “The workers will take the flag of struggle from the fragile hands of the students.” But that was the following year.

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Watched the 3-hour 2008 edit with English narration. There are so many versions of this out there… maybe next time I can watch the 2008 or 1977 French with subtitles.

I thought I’d have more to say about it… three hours’ worth of Chris Marker’s most celebrated film, but I don’t really. Marker is mainly credited as an editor here, arranging others’ footage to show a bigger picture. There’s no wall-to-wall narration, just pops up occasionally. And I’m starting to notice a real sadness beneath many of Marker’s films… the same feeling in Chats Perches is present here. Glad I prepped a little by watching Sixth Side of the Pentagon and Battle of Chile, but I still had to check on wikipedia to see what exactly happened in Bolivia (Che Guevara killed Oct. 1967) and Prague (Jan-Aug 1968, attempted reform of Czech socialism led to 30 years of Soviet military occupation). The movie isn’t here to teach basic history of revolution – assumes you know something already, and since I quit reading The People’s History of the United States before it reached the 1900’s, I do not. Still, was able to follow the movie, thought lots of the footage was excellent, enjoyed watching and learned a little. Some segments have little gems of Marker wit in their editing or narration, but much of it is making connections between different scenes of revolution, both real and wishful, and thinking about what has been achieved, what might have been achieved. Really have to watch again sometime.

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Either this was an early use of the electronic soundtracks that Marker would use in Sans Soleil and beyond, or the sound on my copy of the movie was pretty badly distorted. Or, more likely, both. The sound got worse during part two – there were some sections when I couldn’t make out any of the (English) dialogue.

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Video and audio footage by: Pierre Lhomme (Mother and the Whore, Le Joli Mai, Army of Shadows), Etienne Becker (The Spiral, Le Joli Mai, Malle’s Calcutta), Michele Ray (Latcho Drom), Francois Reichenbach and his crew, Harald & Harrick Maury (The Owl’s Legacy, Day For Night, In the Year of the Pig), Théo Robichet (Band of Outsiders), Pierre Dupouey (Silence… on tourne), Raymond Adam (Jodorowsky’s Tusk), Paul Bourron of the Dziga Vertov Group, Willy Kurant (Far From Vietnam, Masculin-Feminin, Pootie Tang), Peter Kassovitz (Jakob the Liar), Paul Seban (Welles’s The Trial), Michel Fano (Rivette’s The Nun), Fernand Moskovitz (Last Tango in Paris), Yann Le Masson (Je t’aime moi non plus), Mario Marret & Carlos de los Llanos (À bientôt, j’espère), Jimmy Glasberg (Sans Soleil, Shoah), Robert Dianoux (Africa, I Will Fleece You), Jean Boffety (Thieves Like Us, Je t’aime je t’aime, Adieu Philippine), Robert Destanque (Joris Ivens’s The Threatening Sky), Hiroko Govaers (Terayama’s Fruits of Passion), Michel Cenet (Celine and Julie Go Boating), and an excerpt from Volker Schlöndorff’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. That is quite a list of collaborators, though you never hear anyone talking about them.

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English voices: Jim Broadbent (Brazil), Cyril Cusack (Fahrenheit 451), Robert Kramer (dir. Ice, Against Oblivion), Alfred Lynch (The Hill), and numerous British 1970’s TV actors.

“You can never tell what you might be filming.”

Quotes and other reactions:

Icarus Films calls it an “epic film-essay on the worldwide political wars of the 60’s and 70’s: Vietnam, Bolivia, May ’68, Prague, Chile, and the fate of the New Left.”

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J. Hoberman: “Marker begins by evoking Battleship Potemkin, and although hardly agitprop, A Grin Without a Cat is in that tradition—a montage film with a mass hero. Unlike Eisenstein, however, Marker isn’t out to invent historical truth so much as to look for it. (The untranslatable French title, Le Fond de l’air est rouge, is a play on words suggesting that revolution was in the air but not on the ground.)”

Paul Arthur: “In its rhythms and editing structures, Grin tries to embody the very shape and textures of historical transformation, rendering the abstraction of change as an amalgam of rapid, plurivocal, uneven, and, at times, contradictory forces aligned in provisional symmetries encompassing past, present and future perspectives.”

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Y. Meranda: “The editing de-emphasizes the narrative structure and instead stresses the poetical interrelationships of the sequences by putting almost all of them out-of-context. … Paralleling the visual editing, the sound editing is more based on poetical considerations than on intellectual ones. … Because there is very little attention paid to the intellectual arguments and because the style goes beyond making statements about a political ideology, A Grin Without a Cat becomes much more than a left wing documentary about the left: It achieves to be a poem about revolting against the system (and not just the political system), the conformity and the order. It suggests that it is an eternal struggle that is supposed to fail (as was in the case of the New Left) most of the times. This universality, achieved by Marker’s distinctive style, is what makes the film great.”

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Excerpts from the Lupton book:

“Marker explicitly pitched the film against what he saw as the historical amnesia surrounding the period promoted by its treatment on television, where ‘one event is swept away by another, living ideals are replaced by cold facts, and it all finally descends into collective oblivion.'”

Movie is partially composed of outtakes from other projects. “Introducing the published script, Marker wrote that he had become curious about all the material that had been left out of militant films in order to obtain an idealogically ‘correct’ image, and now wondered if these abandoned fragments might not yield up the essential matter of history better than the completed films.”

“As a groundbreaking work of visual historiography, Le Fond attempts nothing less than to give cinematic form to the chaotic and contradictory movement of world history during the tumultuous decade that it covers.”

“The reappearance of cats, even in this thoroughly politicized context, is a signal that Chris Marker was beginning to re-emerge from the anonymity of unsigned militant productions and to reintroduce into his work the familiar tokens of his own distinct presence.”

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Chris Marker:

Scenes of the third World War 1967-1977

Some think the third World War will be set off by a nuclear missile. For me, that’s the way it will end. In the meantime, the figures of an intricate game are developing, a game whose de-coding will give historians of the future – if they are still around – a very hard time.

A weird game. Its rules change as the match evolves. To start with, the super powers’ rivalry transforms itself not only into a Holy Alliance of the Rich against the Poor, but also into a selective co-elimination of Revolutionary Vanguards, wherever bombs would endanger sources of raw materials. As well as into the manipulation of these vanguards to pursue goals that are not their own.

During the last ten years, some groups of forces (often more instinctive than organized) have been trying to play the game themselves – even if they knocked over the pieces. Wherever they tried, they failed. Nevertheless, it’s been their being that has the most profoundly transformed politics in our time. This film intends to show some of the steps of this transformation.

More images:

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The Chairman:
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Funeral in Prague:
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Last footage ever shot of Salvador Allende:
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Allende’s daughter, who would commit suicide in 1977:
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Fidel in Russia:
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Enormous cats (no owls):
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Nixon looks on:
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The always-fascinating adventures of Big Edie and Little Edie. I’d picked it as a must-see for our short-lived Documentary Month, then decided there was no time to waste since there’s a fictionalized version with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange later coming out this year. Katy liked it, I think, or at least we talked about it a lot. I love how Little Edie draws the Maysles into her arguments, flirts with them, tries to knock them over…

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Listened to the commentary at work. Albert Maysles says when they were done editing, the first people they showed the film to were the Beales… they took it to the house and set up a screening in a room of the house they’d never been in before. After the movie ended, a long silence while little Edie paced the floor, then she looked up and announced “The Maysles have created a classic.”

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IMDB says it’s “believed to be Africa’s first avant-garde film”. Think it’s the earliest African film I’ve seen period other than the not-so-avant-garde Black Girl & Borom Sarret.

It’s a semi-comic story of horned-motorcycle-drivin’ Mory and his college student girlfriend Anta riding around Dakar, Senegal looking to steal enough money to get them to the paradise that is Paris. After successfully robbing a gay rich dude and unsuccessfully robbing a wrestling match, she boards the boat but he is overcome by nationalistic cow-related panic and runs back into town. There’s a woman “Aunt Oumy”, local griot, yells at them, they imagine returning to town rich and famous, Oumy singing for them. I did kinda like it even though I don’t have much to say about it.

Rosenbaum says “one of the greatest of all African films and almost certainly the most experimental … The title translates as Hyena’s Voyage, and among the things that make this film so interesting stylistically are the fantasy sequences involving the couple’s projected images of themselves in Paris and elsewhere.”

From wikipedia, Mambety “sought to expose the diversity of real life”, and his “editing and narrative style are a confluence of the ancient griotic tradition of tribal storytelling and modern avant-garde techniques. Mambéty was interested in transforming conflicting, mixed elements into a usable African culture, and in his words, reinvent[ing] cinema.”

Shortly before he died, Mambety was asked what he would do next. “I will finish the third part of the trilogy about ordinary people. After that, I will make Malaika, the third part of the trilogy about the power of craziness. The first two were Touki Bouki and Hyènes. Then I will consult God about the state of the world.”

Sex on the beach:
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Wild child in a tree:
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Griot in a riot:
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Fantasy riches:
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Also watched Episodes from the Life of Jekyll and Hyde by Paul Bush, a few-minute piece using the soundtrack to one (or a few) Jekyll & Hyde movie and ultra-fast-cutting two actors together into some kind of stop-motion nightmare… where the Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb meets Alone, Life Wastes Andy Hardy. Cool.

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Hosted by an actual BBC personality, this was a special episode of a (made-up?) show called Science Report that aired on April Fool’s Day. Plays it very straight, a well-made fake documentary. Can’t scare people with it anymore because of the dated 70’s look, but it would be fun to re-stage today, especially with global warming so big in the news.

The premise is that scientists discover global warming has passed the tipping point and the planet is doomed. The space race is a ploy, and subsequent moon landings after the first few were faked on a studio lot. Really the shuttles are delivering parts for a new ship that will be launched from orbit to send some hot scientists and a representative group of people from different specialties to live on Mars, where they have recently discovered life, to begin a new society. All of this has been hidden from the Earth public to avoid panic. The BBC has carefully uncovered hints of the truth over the last six months but hasn’t learned everything. The movie ends with questions, and a challenge to the people involved in this secret project to explain themselves on-air.

This movie is as old as I am. Cool spacey music by Brian Eno. Some of the same crew later worked on Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, including producer John Rosenberg, who died of cancer in ’91.

Unfortunately I returned this before I could get screen captures.

Lots of new-age philosophy collides with commentary on communist Yugoslavia in a way that doesn’t make much sense but involves much nudity.

Seems like this would be a fun movie, but I’m alarmed to say that I enjoyed watching critically-derided El Topo a second time more than I enjoyed seeing this acclaimed masterpiece once. This felt like a dated study or presentation, an essay of some sort. Ugly, non-sexy nude scenes in ugly, non-sexy locations, stock or documentary footage, handheld graininess and a bunch of stuff I didn’t understand. I must have missed a lot… didn’t check out Raymond Durgnat’s mash-up commentary or J. Rosenbaum’s booklet essay, so I don’t know what to do with this one, other than to compare it unfavorably to Jodorowsky and Underground and maybe rent Sweet Movie sometime to give the filmmaker another chance. Senses of Cinema: “Makavejev’s stated aim in Sweet Movie was to combine Eisensteinian montage with Buñuelian imagery.”

The film starts out talking about Wilhelm Reich, a therapist whose methods didn’t make much sense to me… his life, his followers and family, and how he was mistreated and ultimately died in prison. Blends into a tale of two women (roommates) and their chosen lovers and sexual politics. One of them is dating a stand-in for Lenin, an ice skater who finally beheads her and then sings a nice song to close out the film.

SoC: “The discontent of the New Wave auteurs was often toward the construction of fixed meanings through the approved systems of film language: Socialist Realism, Left-approved ‘orthodox’ Neo-Realism after 1948, wartime propaganda. Film should remain open to reality, be an aspect of that reality, and so incorporate the paradoxical, the contradictory, the ambiguous. In the East Bloc, this was a return of the repressed: the bourgeois “mystification” and dissembling that A. A. Zhdanov had railed against in 1935 at the First Soviet Writers’ Congress and the establishment of Socialist Realism. New Wave films should be, in Umberto Eco’s term, ‘Open Works’.”

This movie, are you kidding me? 100 percent awesome. Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, split screens, mobile long takes and a shower scene with a knife. It could only be Brian DePalma’s parody-tribute to Phantom of the Opera.

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Winslow Leach is writing a rock cantata of Faust and auditions it for Swan, the hugest most important record producer in the industry. Swan steals Leach’s cantata and adapts it for his new theater (Paradise), auditions some girls (Leach meets one briefly, Phoenix, falls in love, thinks she has a perfect voice for his songs, etc), then gets Leach falsely arrested and sent to prison, where his teeth are removed and replaced with metal ones for some reason I forget.

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Leach escapes, returns as the Phantom of the Paradise, and kills the dude hired to sing his stuff (“Beef”). But Swan finds Leach and signs a lifetime deal with him to keep writing stuff that Swan will produce… a bad deal for both of them, I guess. After a life/death struggle for creative control and the love of the girl, they both end up dead dead dead.

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Good music, good story, great movie. What in the world happened? Why have I never heard of this before? Why haven’t my coworkers heard of it?

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Best part: the phantom stabs himself in the heart, but can’t die because he’s still under contract.

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Feels appropriate that I watched this over the course of a week, since it’s pretty episodic. Apparently (according to scraps of the commentary track that I checked out) it’s about the gradual enlightenment of Jodorowsky’s title character. The dude could use some enlightenment, too, what with his woman issues, his murderous obsessions, his strange attraction to people with deformities, and his tendency to kill animals on-camera.

El Topo, riding across the desert dressed in black, abandons his son in favor of some woman. The woman demands he prove himself by defeating the four gun masters of the desert. Somewhere along the way they pick up an evil hot woman who talks like a man and I don’t know what that’s about. Anyway, Topo tricks and murders all four masters: blind guy; digs a hole in front of him, fall, fire… guy who always hits heart; ash tray in front of heart… guy who lives for love; distract him by crippling his wife… and crazy guy with no possessions, no gun, nothing; shoots himself to prove he has left no material desires!

Okay, but woman leaves him for the other woman, and they shoot him all up on a rickety bridge (give him the five wounds of christ, as a.j. immodestly explains on the commentary), then some mutants drag him into a hole, the end.

No! He wakes up 30 years later all white-bearded. The cripples and deformed have kept him alive as a god, and now he must leave the cave, go to the town and get help so they can all be free. Of course he does this by bringing a short woman with him and performing awful vaudeville routines for money to afford dynamite. Long story short, they free the cripples, the townsfolk mow them all down, and Topo duels his now grown son.

I had not-great memories of this one… remember most of it taking place inside the mountain (hardly any of it does!) and the picture and sound being bad, bad bad. New DVD looks miraculous… the desert sky so bright and blue. Movie not nearly as dull and drab as I remember it (and as recent restoration reviews have been saying), it’s totally watchable, and its horrible weirdness makes it worth watching.

Is it a GOOD movie then? Well it’s got some style (love the bridge scene, the rides through the desert) and it’s weird enough to recommend (most movies could stand to be weirder). I liked it more than I didn’t, so yeah, why not?