January 2007

Favorite music videos of 2006: #5

Xiu Xiu – “Boy Soprano”

Too bad the pop-up titles aren’t more clear – but even on this tiny screen it’s evident how the concept and execution are excellent [though I supposed one has to be fairly versed in Nintendo culture to fully appreciate its clever knowingness.]
[youtube]EJFmpLvofrM[/youtube]

25 out, 25 in – If I could mess with the TSPDT

Bill over at the mothership alerted me to a new poll he’s conducting that is open to everyone. The idea is to pick 25 films that you would want to remove from the site’s list of 1000 greatest films and suggest 25 that should take their place. Not sure if anything will come of this that will affect the master list – it’s more of a feedback channel.

Here is what I submitted:

Bad Lieutenant
Black Narcissus
Blow Out
A Clockwork Orange
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
The Exorcist
Fight Club
The Fortune
High and Low
The Matrix
Midnight Cowboy
Natural Born Killers
1900
Orlando
The Phantom of Liberty
Picnic at Hanging Rock
The Searchers
Seven Chances
The Seventh Seal
Straw Dogs
Suspiria
The Thing
This Is Spinal Tap
The Wicker Man
Wild at Heart

Come to think of it though, I’d rather keep Midnight Cowboy and eliminate Forrest Gump.

Now, 25 that should be on the top 1000. These are all films by directors who don’t have a single film in the 1000;

otherwise there would have been easily another 25 films to consider from directors already on the list. (the most notable in my mind being Shanghai Express (1932, Josef von Sternberg). For the record, I would gladly prefer to see John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948) swap out The Searchers, and Buster Keaton’s The High Sign (1921) for Seven Chances. I also wanted to pay tribute to some of my favorite performers who don’t have a single film in the current 1000; let’s hope that someday they will have a turn in the spotlight.

Brooklyn to New York via Brooklyn Bridge (1899, James H. White) – where Lumiere-esque reportage meets avant garde art
The Great Train Robbery (1903, Edwin S. Porter) – along with the exclusion of the Lumieres, unforgiveable
The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912, Harold M. Shaw)
The Last of the Mohicans (1920, Maurice Tourneur)
The Freshman (1924, Fred Newmeyer, Sam Taylor) – I still prefer Chaplin and Keaton, but no Harold Lloyd whatsoever? Come on!
Scar of Shame (1926, Frank Perugini)
Piccadilly (1929, E.A. Dupont) – whither Anna May Wong?
Love and Duty (1931, Bu Wangcang) – Ruan Lingyu. Greatest Chinese actress of all time, and one of the greatest screen actresses, period.
Rose Hobart (1936, Joseph Cornell) – Bunuel knocked over the projector during a screening in a jealous fit. Nuff said.
Street Angel (1937, Yuan Muzhi) – My favorite Chinese film.
Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937, Sadao Yamanaka) – if Yamanaka hadn’t met an untimely death serving the Japanese Army, we might today be asking “Akira who?”
Porky in Wackyland (1938, Robert Clampett) – Chuck Jones, Chuck Shmones. Bob Clampett’s brief tenure at
Warner was a creative maelstrom that truly put the looney in Looney Tunes
Ornamental Hairpin (1941, Hiroshi Shimizu)
This Life of Mine (1951, Shi Hui) – That Forrest Gump is in the 1000 and this film isn’t shows how culturally biased this exercise is.
The House is Black (1962, Farough Farrokhzad) – quite possibly the most poetic film ever made.
Culloden (1964, Peter Watkins)
Trash (1970, Paul Morrissey)
The Arch (1970, Tong Shu Shuen)
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971, Melvin van Peebles)
The Magic Blade (1976, Chor Yuen) – My favorite director of the 1970s.
Amar Akbar Anthony (1977, Manhoman Desai) – Going by sheer audience figures, Amitabh Bachchan is the most popular actor of all time, and he has won more awards in his country than any actor anywhere else. See his films and you’ll know why. Hey you 1,193 critics and whatevers, do any of you have a clue?
Horse Thief (1985, Tian Zhuangzhuang)
As Good as It Gets (1997, James L. Brooks)
Ratcatcher (1999, Lynne Ramsay)
Platform (2000, Jia Zhangke)

Go here if you want to participate in the poll.

Inside the Mind of Anger

I found the anecdote about Anger at the top of these reviews fascinating, so I thought to copy them here:

What fools these mortals be
by Antonius Block 15 hours ago (Mon Jan 29 2007 19:58:51)
Ignore this User | Report Abuse Reply
UPDATED Mon Jan 29 2007 20:42:50

This past weekend I was able to see a collection of Kenneth Anger’s shorts, with Anger in person to introduce them and field questions. Which he did, more or less. Those familiar with his work should not be surprised to learn that he speaks with the same logic as his films. That is, by associations: one idea leads to another, which leads to another, and so on and so forth, through endless tangents that somehow manage to revolve around certain themes or obsessions. Introducing the films, he spent more time telling us about his urologist and upcoming surgery (Feb. 23rd) to have his prostate removed, or on the Iraq war and Babylonian paganism as it relates to birth control, than he did the films he was screening. Fielding questions, it mattered not what anyone asked him, for he invariably never got around to addressing their questions but would just start veering off on whatever tenuous association the question reminded him of. A simple query about the different versions of his work would elicit a string of musings on everything from his decision not to enter Hollywood because his good friend Gale Sondergaard was blacklisted, to the fascism of boyscouts and syphilis. He called Pauline Kael a bunch of bad names (eliciting scattered applause) as much for her overwritten reviews as for her decision to focus on “minor artists like Peckinpah,” while noting that, politics aside, Leni Reifenstahl was the single greatest female filmmaker to ever live. And yet, as hopeless as his digressions were, they were very revealing and managed to give a portal into his mind, which helped me make some sense of these very ambiguous movies.Being a student of Dr. Kinsey, the one theme he kept returning to over and over again was the utter ruthlessness of the sperm to enter the egg, which in his view is the underlying cause of war and violence. This intense male energy, as he sees it, always yearns for an outlet, and if it is not put to good use, it ends up being put to bad use (i.e., war). And this yearning is pivotal to so many of his movies: you see it in Pierrot’s endless longing for the moon in Rabbit’s Moon, in the protagonist’s attempts to ‘light his cigarette’ in Fireworks, or in the blind hero worship in Scorpio Rising.Stan Brakhage said that to watch an Anger film once is like reading a canto by Ezra Pound on the Times Square sign that flashes news bulletins. Be that as it may, here are some initial impressions after only one viewing (with the exceptions of Fireworks and Mouse Heaven, the only two I had seen before).Fireworks (1947) –Kenneth Anger
In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0039383/
Fireworks is a dreamlike depiction of a man (played by Anger himself) violated through sadistic and homosexual imagery that plays like an extension of his personal fears and desires, twisted together into this hallucinatory short film. It features numerous visual puns, and the point at which fear ends and desire begins is purposefully ambiguous.

Rabbit’s Moon (1950) –Kenneth Anger
In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042872/
Set on a simple, artificial set, this tells a vague story in pantomime, with repetitive imagery of a meek, clown-like hero reaching toward the unattainable moon, in between which a court jester jests him and a princess dances for him. The would be tragedy of the story is totally undermined by the pop song soundtrack, which gives the whole thing an ironic, bizarre feel.

Scorpio Rising (1964) –Kenneth Anger
In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058555/
With its frenetic energy and ironic juxtapositions of sound and image, this is easily Anger’s most ambitious work and seemingly the genesis of the music video. The film revolves around images of gay, leather-clad bikers who idolize James Dean and literally have the specter of death on their shoulders, as various contemporary pop songs flood the soundtrack, serving as ironic counterpoints to the images. “Fools Rush In” accompanies snippets of men buffing phallic motorcycle parts; “My Boyfriend’s Back” finds a hooded skeleton hovering over the same scene; “Blue Velvet” is set to a series of images of the bikers dressing up that could be right out of a jeans commercial, vaguely stressing how the ‘look’ defines their conformist identity (Lynch fans take note: the main motorcycle even appears to be named “Frank”); “He’s a Rebel” finds images of the biker walking down the street with footage of Jesus doing the same (which Anger said was accidentally given to him by a Christian organization); “I Will Follow Him” fuses the neo-fascist bikers with images of Jesus’ disciples and the Nazis in an increasingly dizzying onslaught of subliminal imagery that seems as irreverent as it is scathing in its indictment of all these forms of blind worship. Yet at the same time, there’s a sense that Anger really relishes in these images and songs. The men are shot with a roaming camera that moves over every inch of their bodies in a clearly desirous fashion, while the songs are in a sense immortalized by the provocative juxtapositions. There’s a very intentional ambiguity to it all that made me uneasy and at the same time is precisely what makes it interesting.

Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) –Kenneth Anger
In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0059369/
Kustom Kar Kommandos is a much shorter, smoother, softer, version of the beginning of Scorpio Rising, spanning only a few minutes, or the length of a single pop song (“Dream Lover”). The boy, and the car, both have an attractive wholesomeness that seems intentionally dreamy. That being said, this is probably the least of his films.

Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) –Kenneth Anger
In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064493/
Supposedly this is Anger’s anti-war film. It juxtaposes images of military men getting out of helicopters with repetitive, demonic imagery, off-putting gay imagery, and bisymmetrical images, all set to the creepy sounds of a Moog synthesizer composed by Mick Jagger. What it all means isn’t exactly clear, and it’s rather unpleasant to watch, but the program notes make this sound like his most important film so I won’t write it off.

Mouse Heaven (2004) –Kenneth Anger
In Theater http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0489522/
Shot on video, this ten-minute short consists of quickly edited images of Mickey Mouse in every conceivable form he has taken: cartoon strips, logos, dolls, etc., supposedly suggesting that over time he has been usurped into a commodity, which the final images of Mickey, frozen in a golden statue, nail home. The soundtrack contains a selection of pop songs that once again serve as counterpoint to the images.

As a special bonus, Anger showed us a 6-minute clip from a film he is working on, a movie about the Hitler Youth called Ich Will, which in German means “I want.” The answer to this in Nazi Germany was “Mein Fuhrer,” which Anger suggested shows how sick the Nazis were, because they desired the father instead of the mother. And that statement baffled me coming from him because of what it implies, but perhaps that goes to show just how ambivalent his feelings are. Anyway, the 6-minute clip was pretty much stock footage of Nazis juxtaposed with a personal drama he seems to be intercutting. No pop songs. Yet.

Regarding the new DVD, Anger wants everyone to know that he is still in legal battles over the rights to release his films, that Fantoma promised him $5,000, and he has to date received absolutely nothing from them. He wants everyone to know that buying this DVD does not support him in any way.

The Mouse that Roared (1959, Jack Arnold)

screened Monday, January 29 2007 on VHS in Brooklyn NY IMDb

YES for opening title

yes for overall humor and snarkiness

yes for teasing resonance and relevance to contemporary US foreign policy

mixed for Peter Sellers’ hamming (guess I’m not a fan)

yes for Jean Seberg’s midwestern accent
overall rating of yes

Wanda (1971, Barbara Loden)

screened Sunday, January 28 2007 on DVD in Brooklyn NY IMDb

My pal salmau suggested that I just watch a movie without writing anything about it, and I am taking this opportunity to do so. But I will say that this movie, though a bit rough-going at parts, gets under your skin and stays with you. One thought I had — Bonnie and Clyde was one of my favorite films as a kid; would I consider it rather juvenile today, esp. compared to a film like this, that has a more three-dimensional sense of space, place and character?

yes/YES (#6 for 1971 between Pakeezah and Walkabout)

Some key reviews and essays online:

Berenice Reynaud for Senses of Cinema – gives a heartfelt account of the film within the contexts of Loden’s life and feminist cinema.

From review by Tom Sutpen for Flickhead:

there really hadn’t been an American film centered around the character of a working class female since Joan Crawford waited tables with extravagant sincerity in Mildred Pierce—and even then one could hardly call the depiction clinical. It was a social archetype that Hollywood (and most independent cinema, if the truth be told) had never proven terribly eager to pursue. Yet throughout Wanda, Barbara Loden managed to strike, and sustain, a phenomenal note of verisimilitude. Hers is not a performance of great nuance, but it also never strays into the realm of sloven proletarian caricature. She is, all in all, a woman left spiritually and psychically numb by the totality of her existence (smacked in the face at one point, it takes her a full minute before she can work up a slightly irritated “Hey, that hurt”). She doesn’t drift through life, life drifts through her; as if the dearest survival could only be found in the deepest passivity.

Jeremy Heilman at Movie Martyr:

Watching as Wanda drifts from one coal town to another, attaching herself to whoever will have her, it might be tempting to read her shirking of the roles of mother and wife as a feminist move. Loden is careful to never suggest anything so deliberate on Wanda’s part, though. Although she might appear to be a free woman, she is best described as meek and clearly still has emotional dependencies that bind her to others.

This tendency is made apparent in the second half of the film, in which Wanda all but forces herself onto Mr. Dennis, a petty criminal who, under his gruff exterior, turns out to have complimentary needs. From this point, Wanda turns out to be one of the more perceptive studies of co-dependence that I’ve seen.

Erasing Clouds:

The sheer cohesion obtained by the editing rhythm, which is slow but tight, keeps this film on track. Some scenes are dragged into embarrassment, shared with the main character, but suddenly sharp, abrupt, cinema vérité-style cutting releases the tension that is soon regained. A strangle-release cinematic approach.

A great collection of screen captures from the film can be found here.

#906. L’amour fou (1969, Jacques Rivette)

Screened Saturday, January 27 2006 on 35mm at National Gallery of Art in Washington DC

TSPDT Rank #958 IMDb
'You should start again with facts and words.'

Lundi 14

My first (and probably not my last) field trip to complete this project. I was skeptical that this film would play in New York again anytime soon after last December’s Museum of the Moving Image Rivette retrospective. Many, many things to say about this film, but first and foremost: it helps tremendously if one is familiar with Racine‘s play Andromaque (synospsis linked), which is the production being rehearsed by the director Sebastien (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) and his ensemble over the course of this film. The play is about a series of unrequited loves set into destructive motion. In the play, it is Orestes’ intrusion into the court of Pyrrhus that sets the downward spiral of the plot in motion. In the film, it is the presence of a documentary film camera observing the rehearsals of a play.

to quote Loretta Lynn: 'Nothin' cold as ashes after the fire is gone.'This incipient intrusion – one we take for granted in today’s age of “behind the scenes” production videos (which most often are anything but) – proves to be the catalyst for a cataclysmic unraveling of two parallel relationships in the film. The first one involves Sebastien and his actress-wife Claire (Bulle Ogier – I’d call this her greatest performance but that would unfairly dismiss so many others). Claire, distressed by the distracting presence of the documentary crew, walks out of the production, and her subsequent home stay leads her down a mad path of alienation, paranoia and estrangement from Sebastien. Meanwhile Sebastien, made self-conscious of his directing technique after watching rushes of the doc, adopts an increasingly hands-off approach to the production, effectively casting the production adrift in endless rehearsals without a clear sense of focus. Four hours of shit slowly hitting the fan (and sliding down the walls) ensue, with the emotional climax being a two day long orgy of sex and Led Zeppelinesque apartment trashing between husband and wife — a cinematic “limit experience” if ever there was.
While the relationships between work and play, the theatrical and the real, time and creation, etc. are commonly identified as the main themes of Rivette’s filmography, L’Amour fou, with its “inciting incident” (did Rivette read Syd Field?) of the camera crew on the production, summons yet another thematic binary that may either be subordinate or supercede the others: that of intimacy and intrusion. There are numerous relationships within and without this film upon which to consider the factor of intimacy: between Sebastian and Claire, Sebastian and the theater group he is directing, the theater group and the documentary camera crew, the film and the viewer, etc.

“the cinema is necessarily fascination and rape …”
- Jacques Rivette, quoted in interview with Cahiers du Cinema
What does it mean that the initial violation commited in L’Amour fou is by a 16mm film camera? What are we then to make of the 35mm camera that occupies the master view of the proceedings? The 35mm footage seems to take a largely omniscent narrative position, presenting us rather plainly with the facts as they unravel in sequence. And yet there remains such an air of mystery and failed apprehension throughout this film that it seems implicitly to be an inquiry on the limits of what straight shooting of spaces and interactions can tell us. I admit that that’s a hazardous argument to make given that the film is neither a straight documentary account of the production, nor is it entirely a work of fiction.
I even wonder to what extent this film is (intentionally) a failure, insofar as it seeks to capture the essence of a failed production, squaring its lens with catatonic fixation on some of the most painful rehearsal scenes I’ve ever seen.
However one wants to evaluate such scenes (and there are many of them), one can safely say that it’s yet another way in which Rivette draws a line in the sand of intimacy and alienation — this time between the film and the audience. Of course running time has consistently been another way for Rivette to push us through a state of liminality, on the other side of which our perceptions of cinema among other things are altered. This most definitely happens in the 5 minute proscribed intermission between the two two-hour halves of the film — it is in the second half that much of the disorientation and weary indeterminacy experienced in part one finds a cathartic outlet in Claire’s carryings on, the rampant weekend, and even the cracks of disaffected smiles and hung heads among the acting troupe. Even as it shows the crack in intimacy and trust between Sebastian and his ensemble, it revives the intimacy between us the viewers and the onscreen production, as well as with the film; a certain understanding of reality — that this production is doomed — is reinforced. But even so that understanding comes with a tinge of regret at what might have been.

Samedi 19

For fun: a cellphone video made by Craig Keller of an excerpt from Jonathan Rosenbaum’s introduction to L’Amour fou screening December 3, 2006 at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City.

[youtube]NzxIhfZ0jzI[/youtube]

If the above video is found wanting, here’s a capsule review by Rosenbaum.

Don’t mean to set up a feud, but for dissension’s sake here is Keith Uhlich. He makes a provocative contention that L’amour fou amounts to an intermittently successful dry run to the greater accomplishments of both versions of Out I.

Paris nous appartient - NOT!

The funny thing is that if you can disregard its stylistic, narrative, and physical challenges, L’Amour Fou is eminently watchable and approachable. As I mentioned, the plot is quite thin. It follows the dissolution of a marriage between Claire, an actress (brilliantly played by Bulle Ogier), and Sebastien, her director (Jean-Pierre Kalfon). This specificity allows the characters to be developed to an extent that’s almost unparalleled in cinema. Rivette uses the longer running time of the film to establish their relationship’s end as the result of a recurring cycle of self-destructive behavior, and not just the fallout from a nasty squabble. Neither in the duo is any more to blame for the breakup than the other. She realizes he will only respond to her when she acts needy and hurt. He stops responding to her because she acts needy and hurt. Their circular routine of self-destruction is unequivocally mutual. To ask who the instigator is would be as pointless as to ask if the chicken or egg came first. Watching their breakdown is both harrowing and fascinating. The only real question for the audience is how long the two of them will both buy into the illusion that it’s going to work out.

- Jeremy Heilman

“Man, that was an some kind of movie. Amazing movie! Those French people, man they are crazy!”
- Homeless man emerging from the free screening at the National Gallery I attended. According to an inside source, apparently since the Smithsonian film screenings are all free, there are quite a few homeless and otherwise underprivileged cinephiles roaming the streets of DC.
Jeudi 24

A Double Life (1947) is a strangely complex Cukor film that always makes me think of L’Amour fou.

John Hughes, while interviewing Jacques Rivette

(right on — and how about Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town?)

'This desire to find still water again...'

Shooting a film should always be a form of play, something that might be seen as a drug or as a game. Even during the ‘breakdown’ scenes near the end of L’Amour fou I was not being tragic as many people thought. I was joking, having fun, and so was Bulle. It’s just a movie, not some kind of cinéma-vérité!

Rivette, from the same interview

Samedi 26

“…the fruit of an impossible encounter between the two extremes of absolute control and absolute freedom.” — Jean-André Fieschi

“There is a feeling of exhiliration and liberation in L’Amour fou — almost as if Rivette had always known that this was the way he had to make films but hadn’t, until now, had the courage to try.” — James Monaco

“I reject the word “script” entirely — at any rate in the usual sense. I prefer the old usage — usually scenario — which it had in the Commedia dell’Arte, meaning an outline or scheme: it implies a dynamism, a number of ideas and principles from which one can set out to find the best possible approach to filming.” — Jacques Rivette

quotes taken from here

Lundi 28


I no longer remember what made me buy this book. At the time I bought it, I had never seen a Rivette film. I don’t know if I had heard of Rivette. I was just starting to think about film seriously. I had a friend who might have told me about Rivette: possibly he had seen “Céline et Julie vont en bateau” (1974) though probably not, since the film hadn’t been well distributed; and since neither of us lived in Paris or New York I don’t know what opportunities we would have had to see Rivette films even if we had known about him.

Probably the cover. I remember being taken with the name Rivette. It looked very modern, cool and sharp. I was in my destroy-all-sentimentality phase, and the sound of the name Rivette attracted me with its crispness and hardness.

The book itself was amazing. I read it and immediately wanted to make Rivette-like films.

Chris Fujiwara, in his tribute to the book Rivette: Texts and Interviews, Jonathan Rosenbaum (ed.), 1977, London, BFI.

Jeudi 31

Further down the Fujiwara essay:

I was most strongly struck by Rivette’s text on Fritz Lang’s “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” (1956) which is included in the volume. I hadn’t yet seen “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” either. When I finally was able to see it, a year or so after my encounter with the Rivette book, it disappointed me at first; “While the City Sleeps” (1956) seemed more important. It was only after repeated viewings that I realized the greatness of “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” to which I then devoted a long period of monk-like study.) For me this is still one of the most staggering pieces of film criticism. Why? One reason is its ability to find a single image, one that, without Rivette, probably would have tempted few viewers to single it out: the hand of the governor poised over the unsigned pardon — an image that if this were an average Hollywood production would probably have been entrusted to the inserts department or an ad-hoc second unit, but which I am convinced Lang shot — and position this image as a sign organizing the whole film (reminding us, tacitly, how definitive and defining hands are throughout Lang’s work — the hand in “M” (1931) being the example that will instantly come to mind), makes it graspable by our intelligence. The way he writes about the hand — tucking his reference to it away in an inconspicuous part of the text, even though it gives him his title — tells us how much deviousness is required to understand such a film.

This proclivity attributed to Rivette, to capture the hidden (and usually menacing) significance in images, gestures, and moments that would otherwise pass unremarked, it’s enough to drive a viewer mad in looking for those same lynchpin, crystalline moments in Rivette’s films — a Sisyphean effort if ever there was, it seems, given how they seem to stretch out into an infinity of time and space, every vanishing point offered itself vanishing (there were four or five moments in the last hour of L’amour fou that felt like an ending… and yet… and yet…). Reading this above quote made me think what might be such an equivalent moment in this film, where four plus hours of celluloid are encapsulated in one frame. Somewhere in the rampant apartment debauchery sequence? The memorable scene when Claire opens up one Russian Doll after another? The thing with Rivette’s films, I suspect, is that such moments can’t be pinned down to a key image or gesture — more akin to the films of Otto Preminger, the thing that matters most seems to hang invisibly, tantalizingly in the ether. I submit as evidence the opening scene, which to me is the most significant in the entire film, the moment where everything is set like Greek drama into an irreversible tragic trajectory. But where exactly, dear viewer, does the end begin?

Senses of Cinema Great Directors biography of Rivette

#905. Van Gogh (1991, Maurice Pialat)

screened Friday, January 26 on DVD in Brooklyn NY

TSPDT rank #615 IMDb

First I want to thank my ever resourceful gf for securing me a copy of the recent NTSC DVD issued by Sony. Though lacking in extras (the Artificial Eye Region 2 PAL disc has interviews and deleted scenes; the Sony disc only has the deleted scenes) it looks gorgeous.

Having just watched it, I’m a bit speechless. I do know that I will want to see this again, so I want to diverge from the essayistic approach I’ve used with other films so far and see what thoughts come forth. When I watch this again I will offer some choice clips and screen captures and related reflections.

For now:

  • - No offense to Ken Loach, but this film in its own way addressed some of the issues I had with Riff-Raff (TSPDT #552), that is the subordination of real-life indeterminacy and spontaneity to a socio-political or even a narrative sense of predetermination. The only moments that made me feel anything close to cringing were when things started to get melodramatic in the last act — and even then Pialat’s direction of something as tried and true as a family brawl was startling (check out how Vincent Van Gogh slaps his sister-in-law! Wow!).
  • - I admit it took me a while to get into this film in terms of rhythm and demeanor. It was startling to see Van Gogh so well-mannered for a good half of the film. It really wasn’t until a third of the way into the film that I found its wavelength. It’s not the lustier than life Kirk Douglas Van Gogh, that’s for sure. It’s less interested in exalting Van Gogh’s misunderstood genius than in getting back to that man at that time and place, and seeing how such a genius could have been misunderstood. The sobering answer is, much easier (and forgivably so) than one might think.
  • - Like so many great films, such as those by Pialat’s idol Jean Renoir (and Bresson is the other director Pialat reminds me of — the boy in Naked Childhood [TSPDT #841] is a spiritual sibling to Bresson’s Mouchette), this one hits squarely upon the impossibility of existence. It’s not hard to draw a line connecting Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning to Van Gogh (there’s even a scene where Van Gogh tries to drown himself – the emotional turning point of the film).
  • - Perhaps further to the point of life’s impossibility (as well as the comparison to Bresson), there’s also how this movie nails the pain of life’s irrationality. No one in this film has a consistent sense of self — you have scenes that begin with two people finishing their lovemaking all smiles and screaming vitriol at each other less than five minutes later. Those that do maintain their composure (like Van Gogh’s brother Theo) look as shallow in their principled living as the others do in their inconstancy. This is not to say that Pialat condescends, sneers or even pities any of these characters. They live on screen with as much of a facutal sense of irresolution as they are resolutely dead today. Like I said, this film doesn’t put Van Gogh on a pedestal — here, he’s just a guy who painted, caroused with women, acted badly and died like one of so many of God’s misbegotten creatures.
  • A subset to irrationality is the film’s views on value, artistic or otherwise. This film seems to treat Van Gogh’s paintings with a cautious reverence, playing with their now-iconographic status. Listening to Theo Van Gogh and Van Gogh’s doctor/patron discuss Vincent’s art, you get a sense of the utter subjectivity of art. There’s the banality of everyday life and thought, and the arbitrariness of value manifested in their conversations – just as one might find today. And there’s a subsequent sense of wonder that we ever truly appreciate anything. That which is beautiful, in the end, is nothing – just as that which lets us peer into that nothing is beautiful.

Here today, van Gogh tomorrow

Some helpful writings on the film, with choice excerpts:

from Kent Jones’ essay on Pialat for Film Comment:

Pialat was an irascibly private artist, charting a twisted, crook-backed path with each new movie, almost always emerging with works in which the mind-bending vitality of immediate experience trumps all belief systems, allegiances, plans. Elsa Zylberstein, who played a prostitute in Van Gogh, once told me that working with Pialat was like trying to walk a straight line in a funhouse after downing a quart of vodka. Lightning in a bottle – a motto, a working principle, an instinct, a way of life. “Stop – what you’re doing now, that’s exactly what I want,” he would tell Elsa. “What?” she would ask. “You just lost it!” “What did I just lose?!?”

More than Cassavetes, more than Renoir, Pialat wanted every frame of celluloid bearing his name to be marked by the here and the now… The exquisite agony of the moment, which must always come to an end, the transience of experience, eternally invigorating and just as frustrating – few filmmakers have ever come as close to capturing it on film… In every conceivable way, from every possible angle, Pialat’s cinema is all about the shock – startling, violent, eternally and teasingly promising – of being alive.

From Joe Armenio’s DVD Verdict review:

At times when watching Van Gogh, I was reminded of the strict materialist realism of Rossellini’s historical films, or Straub and Huillet’s Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. The film has the same interest in capturing the texture of everyday life, of taking the time to understand the basic material conditions under which people lived in the past. Consider, for example, the scene in which Theo Van Gogh and his wife, Johanna, discuss Vincent while going about their domestic routine. Johanna pops a pimple for Theo, then prepares for and takes a bath; Pialat seems as concerned with the bath as he does with the conversation. This attention to detail gives the characters a rare richness and depth: one senses that these are people who have lives which extend outside of the film’s narrative. He presents Van Gogh’s Paris debauch in a similar way, creating a fully realized, detailed environment in which the characters are capable of unguarded moments of pleasure, while at the same time never losing track of the psychological dynamic of each relationship. A more dramatic (or, more accurately, anti-dramatic) example comes at the end of the film, when the painter’s death is presented as just one event among many at the inn where he has been staying: children play in the yard, the innkeeper’s wife drops something on her foot and needs to be attended to.

thanks for the roll in the hay - now get outta here so I can paint my $80 million landscape!

From Darragh O’Donoughe’s annotations for Senses of Cinema:

“Pialat films this narrative with a lack of emphasis complementary to Lust for Life’s vivid hysteria. The profound difference between the films can be located in their respective central performances. Kirk Douglas dominates Lust for Life, his voice and body bursting through every frame, his flame-haired face contorting in pain as if about to turn into a “dark-side” monster like Dr. Jekyll or Bruce Banner. It is a performance attuned to the public myth of Van Gogh, the events of his life, and the intensity that sears his letters, extracts from which provide much of that film’s contextual information, locking us further into his worldview.

Douglas is so immediate because Minnelli, through dialogue, scenario and mise en scène, gives privileged access to Van Gogh’s feelings and thoughts. Pialat keeps his artist at a distance, never externalising beyond what would arise “naturally” from conversation; Van Gogh is often marginal to or even absent from whole scenes, “everyday” vignettes that have nothing directly to do with him at all. Dutronc’s is one of the great performances, coiled yet passive, its sullen calm occasionally breaking into banal violence, but mostly rendered through walking, painting, listening, doubting, thinking thoughts we can only guess at (Dutronc said of Pialat himself, “Like all directors, what’s in their head is a secret”). Minnelli gives us enough reasons to make Van Gogh’s death inevitable, even understandable. Watching Pialat’s film, the suicide is as arbitrary as any of Van Gogh’s other gestures. His death is not viewed through a hagiographic, myth-making glow, but is bitter, silent, painful, spasmodic and dragged out.

This is not to dismiss Minnelli as conventional and theatrical in order to praise Pialat’s authentic realism. He may use actual locations, and privilege the routine over the dramatic, time passing over milestones reached, but Van Gogh is as artfully contrived as Lust for life. Pialat has been accused of being a “chaotic”, “inelegant” filmmaker; this may or may not be true of his other films, but is plainly not of Van Gogh, which features some of the most quietly complex and rhythmic sequences in modern cinema, most memorably the 3½ minute tracking shot that follows Van Gogh and Jo back and forth on the riverbank during the fête sequence, the lack of an edit creating tension only broken when Vincent throws himself into the river.”

Bordwell speaks: Indies listen!

http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=339

“The point is simply that good filmmaking doesn’t have to flay its audience. Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, Dreyer, Renoir, Ford, Tati, Keaton, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Kiarostami–the list could go on indefinitely–present distinctive views of the world. They don’t try to be outlaws; they don’t strut; they don’t trail brimstone; they are not cool. Their films display a mature tact that goes deeper than either quirkiness or bleeding-edge daring.

Most Indie Guignol flaunts itself as cynically knowing, tapping into some dark current that the squares can’t face. The filmmakers I’ve just mentioned have done something that’s rather different and that’s becoming increasingly rare. Their subject usually isn’t life’s corrupt underbelly but the poetry of the drab and the ordinary. Their work is formally innovative, but in quiet ways–ways that have taken us decades to understand. Their films, even when they’re pessimistic, have a poise, nuance, and complexity that most independent cinema never approaches. Instead of talking about being radical, these directors have made movies like grownups. They’ve counted art more important than attitude.”

Blogolicious recognition

my IMDb buddy LeSamourai alerted me that two of my favorite critics have mentioned this project on their own blogs:
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
http://blogs.chicagoreader.com/film/2007/01/22/more-list-o-mania/

by Dave Kehr
http://davekehr.com/?p=150#comments

I should give props to my gf for mentioning the TSPDT website to Jonathan in the first place — apparently it left an impression! And the editors of the TSPDT 1000 list referenced Jonathan’s list on my website in order to include it in their tally. It’s all kind of incestuous isn’t it?

Reading the linked discussion on Dave’s site pointed out several other blogs, many of which were unbeknownst to me. I’ve spent a good chunk of the day compiling a list of film blogs to look into further. Some like Reverse Shot and The House Next Door have proven to be great sources of info and insight to me in the past. I look forward to checking out Elusive Lucidity, Girish Shambu and Andy Horbal. And I don’t think I’ve taken full advantage of the overabundance of material on GreenCine or IndieWire

The question I have… how much time do my fellow cinephiles take to wade through the nonstop stream of film writing to be had for free online? It’s like my mom’s beloved Asian buffet — sure you get your money’s worth but you can leave feeling sick and bloated rather than satiated. A bipolar control freak like me has to be careful and find some way to manage all this content and have it delivered to me with little fuss and muss. I’ve spent a good deal of the day figuring out my Google Reader. I’ve got about 12 different feeds set up – let’s see what they come to in the coming days…

Babel vs. Bresson (and more Commandments)

In response to my initial post on Babel – my dear friend Antonius Block, knowing of my love for Bresson (a filmmaker that does nothing for him), threw up this challenge, which in turn inspired more commandments on filmmaking as a way to help me understand why I love Bresson and despise Babel:

How many of these apply to Bresson?
  by Antonius Block     1 day ago (Tue Jan 23 2007 22:06:21 )

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I – Thou shalt not treat thine characters as pawns shuttled around in a grand narrative about universal suffering.

Check.


III – Thou shalt not pass bogus and nonconsequential coincidences off on viewer as rationalizations to connect unrelated stories.

Check.


IV – Thou shalt not take thyself too seriously and instead look for moments of disarming humor.

Check.


V – Thou shalt not waste Cate Blanchett

Ch — err, I guess not. And this is the most important of the five, so… Continue Reading »

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