April 2007

919. Peter Ibbetson (1935, Henry Hathaway)

screened Saturday April 21 2007 on DVD IMDb

Reputedly ‘discovered’ by Paul Eluard in a suitably aleatory fashion by following a woman into the Paris cinema at which it was playing, this adaptation of George du Maurier’s novel was hailed by André Breton and other Surrealists as the cinematic embodiment of their magnificent obsession with l’amour fou – the love that transcends all known obstacles. In fact it is a gentler and more romantic channelling of the libidinal surges of L’Age d’Or. A young architect, played with understated intensity by Cooper, meets in adult life his lost childhood love, and is subsequently falsely imprisoned for the murder of her husband. Undeterred by physical separation, the couple continue to meet in their own world, preserved in their youth, until the lasting reunion of death. The film’s boldness and continuing appeal lie in its unhesitating and exultant acceptance of the primacy of love, and in its seamless transitions between the worlds of reality and dream.

- From the Time Out Film Guide

My second attempt at a video essay.  I’ve taken to heart the feedback I received from the first one (on Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps) and have tried to align commentary more with the footage and go more in depth with analysis…

[googlevideo]-6398070039484940536[/googlevideo]

Wikipedia entry

The complete text of George du Maurier’s original novel

918. While the City Sleeps (1956, Fritz Lang)

screened Sunday, April 22 2007 on VHS in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #825 IMDb


Here’s my first attempt at a video essay.  I hope to do more of these with future entries in the project, as an alternative to text or even text with video. Feedback is welcome as I develop this format of analysis.
[youtube]MnqAT83FxV8[/youtube]

Online resources and reviews:
Wikipedia

Mike Grost from his exhaustive Lang page

Classic Film Guide
Dennis Schwarz
Dragan Antulov
Fritz Lang on Senses of Cinema
Question for everyone: what is your favorite Fritz Lang film?

The Cats of Mirikitani (2006, Linda Hattendorf)

screened Wednesday April 11 2007 at Cinema Village, New York NY IMDb

Hattendorf is an editor by trade, and it shows in this deftly woven tale of her evolving relationship with Jimmy Mirikitani, a septagenarian homeless street artist working and living in Hattendorf’s lower Manhattan neighborhood.  Hattendorf takes into her apartment after 9/11 and discovers that Mirikitani has quite a history of his own.  Born in the US, educated in Japan, Mirikitani had ambitions to bring Japanese techniques to influence American art, until WWII kept him in an internment camp and provoked him to renounce his citizenship.  It’s an amazing story, enhanced by the sensation of the camera bearing witness to this story as it unfolds on its own, both in the revelations of Mirikitani’s past as well as the evolving relationship between Mirikitani and Hattendorf, approach a father-daughter-like bond.  This film opens a lot of questions about the role of the documentary filmmaker, since Hattendorf is shaping the story by intervening in her subject’s life — as if his destitute life was the raw material from which she constructs meaning and purpose for both of them.  This is a special kind of self-reflexivity that doesn’t try at all to be clever despite its obvious metafictional layers.  There’s almost no voiceover narration employed to move the story along; Hattendorf lets moments speak for themselves and function dramatically as well as expositionally.  In sum, this film is a fascinating exchange between cinema and life, and the end results are quite moving.
yes/YES

917. La Ronde (1950, Max Ophuls)

screened Friday April 13 2007 on Janus VHS in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #726 IMDb

Who am I in this story, “La Ronde?” The author? The announcer? A passer-by? I am you. In fact, anyone among you. I am the personification of your desire – of your desire to know everything. People always know only one side of reality. And why? Because they see only one side of things. But I see every aspect because I see from every side that allows me to be everywhere and at the same time. Everywhere!

These are the words spoken by the unnamed narrator of La Ronde, played with brio by Anton Walbrook. In the history of onscreen narrators, he is unique in that he not only comments on the action, but frequently intervenes within the narrative to direct the characters to speed them on their fates.
His omnipotence unmistakably makes him an on-screen delegate of Ophuls the director, and the monologue quoted above suggests as much. And yet the narrator insists that he is us as well; that is, he is the personification of our desire. And given that La Ronde is a highly formalistic film depicting a chain of seductions involving ten characters who change sex partners in rondelay fashion, the narrator’s interventions call attention to the contrivances involved in keeping this chain intact (doing so may risk coming off as pretentious, but it strikes me as leagues more honest than all the recent multicharacter poly-narrative films such as Crash and Babel that try to pass their contrivances as a simulacrum of reality). By commenting on our common desire to see love, romance and sex on screen and then acting to ensure that those desires are fulfilled by the narrative, the narrator serves as critic and conspirator of this urge which has surged through the blood of moviegoers for ages.

And yet, like an addiction, the repeated instances of lovemaking become increasingly empty. The interactions in the first half of the film are realized with both visual and dramatic vivacity, especially between a maid (the sultry Simone Simon) who loves an effete young bourgeois (Daniel Gelin), who takes as a feather in his cap a married woman (Danielle Darrieux) who keeps her affair away from her husband (Fernand Gravey). The interchanges in the second half (between the husband, a young “grisette”, a poet, an actress and a count) are shorter and less elaborately staged. Upon second review, the second half seems to be more self-reflexive, especially in the interactions between the actress (a commanding Isa Miranda) and her two lovers, a poet and a count. Take for instance the knowingness in this exchange between the actress and the poet:

Actress – Why play with me?
Poet – You are talent, beauty, life.
Actress – Because I’m an actress.
Poet – Forget the theater for a moment.
Actress – Why forget it? You write plays for it and I play them in it. What would we do without it?
Poet – A man and a woman.
Actress – You think that a man and a woman would have decided to leave now if they were not of the theater?
Poet – You don’t love me anymore?
Actress – And you?
(Poet laughs, caught in his melodramatic mode)
Poet – You are right, theater is terrible. We know in advance what we’ll tell each other. You chose that hotel because it reminds you of an old love. You like to compare the present and the past. A night of memories. What about me? You’ll send me back twenty times.
Actress
– You know I won’t send you back the twenty-first time. You know that don’t you?
Poet – Yes I know.
Actress – That’s why I love you.

Later, the count remarks to the actress, “Happiness? There is no such thing, Madame. It’s the very things that people talk about most that don’t exist…for instance, Love. That’s one of them.” These later scenes are more static, more self-conscious, as if the characters have pinned themselves down in their experiences, their disappointments.

Taking a step back, one sees the sequence of the affairs creating an arc: from young and passionate to bourgeois merchant class to artists and high society. We see a progression of consciousness regarding their desires, but the essential dilemma remains the same. It’s not just about sex either. An interesting recurrence is that almost every character asks what time it is — and it’s usually in a position of compromise, vulnerability, weakness — when they are afraid of succumbing to their seducer, or they are left waiting for that seducer to reappear in their lives at an appointment that only one party as upheld. These characters are not only pursuing the consummation of desire, but they are fleeing time. Like Ophuls previous film The Reckless Moment, this is a film that depicts existence as a restless, compulsive consumption of time. And like The Reckless Moment, by the end the characters have expended their pursits — what’s left is a mood of barrenness embodied by a barren set.

On the other hand, concerning the film’s style, Ophuls, in his first production following his years in Hollywood, expresses himself more freely than at any time in his career at this point. Pre-eminent Ophuls scholar Lutz Bacher gives an extensive account of how Ophuls’ cinematography evolved in his years working in Hollywood, leading him to apply his skills to even greater effect in his final years working in Europe, commencing with La Ronde. One eye-opening insight in this article is the disclosure that Ophuls’ preference for tracking shots may have been an outcome of his difficulty with shooting for continuity editing due to his dyslexia.
Mike Grost:

Some of the camera movements in La Ronde are linked to discussions in the dialogue. These discussions are often logical arguments, in which a character sets forth an idea, point by point. Each stage of the discussion is linked to a new area revealed by the moving camera. The ideas in the dialogue and the images revealed by the camera counterpoint each other, illuminating each other’s concepts. This same approach will often be used in the circus scenes in Lola Montès.

Not only ideas are expressed by the stages of the camera movements, but also the characters’ feelings. The different stages of the scene through which the characters walk, often correspond to the emotional progression of the characters, especially their romantic feelings.

When characters vacillate in these arguments, the camera can move back and forth over the same path, reversing and then re-reversing its path of movement, along with the characters. In the first episode, Signoret’s attempt to have the soldier come with her involves much such back and forth movement, all tied to different stages in her persuasion of the soldier, who waxes hot and cold in his desire to come with her… there is also something profound about the way the camera captures thought. It is as if the tiniest sensations in the thoughts and feelings of the characters are registered by Ophuls’ camera and film frame, ever ready to move with them over the subtlest changes in their minds.

This review from Sight and Sound on the occasion of the film’s 1982 revival offers some illuminating comparisons to the Arthur Schintzler play upon which the film was based.

This article gives further comparisons between some of Ophuls’ adaptations and their source texts

Killer of Sheep (1977, Charles Burnett)

third viewing (first time in theater) screened at the IFC Center, New York NY IMDb

YES YES YES YES – seeing it in the theater gave me shivers. To my mind, the best film ever made about what it feels like to be poor — it even has Pasolini and Bunuel beat on that score with its unflinching look at living in a state of everyday horror. J. Hoberman calls this and Eraserhead the two greatest American independent films of the 70s, and I think the two films have a lot more in common than one would assume. Burnett’s film is as weird, surreal and alienated as anything Lynch has done, with as vivid a cast of bizarro characters — the one key thing that opposes him from Lynch is his basing his characters on real life people instead of distended genre types. This is the best film ever made to capture the spirit of blues music on celluloid — the muddiness, the sorrow, the energy, the blindsingly simple genius of the blues. One of the greatest American films ever made, and therefore one of the greatest films period.
#1 for 1977

A couple of belated acknowledgements of films screened at New Directors/New Films

this new job is kicking my butt. i’m enjoying it and learning a lot (i might possibly apply some of my newfound online multimedia savvy to my film dissections) but it’s leaving me tired in my spare time. we’ll see how it goes once i move past the on-boarding stage. in the meantime, i’ll finally offer some minimal notes from the two films I saw at this year’s New Directors / New Films (down from six seen last year). I’d much rather hear from anyone else who’s happened to have seen these…

Reprise (2006, Joachim Trier)

screened Sunday April 1 2007 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York NY IMDb

precocious first feature about the divergent fates of two aspiring young writers. Starts off flashy and mega-meta-narrative-ish but settles into some genuine moments dealing with twentysomething insecurities in relationships and self-hood. I can’t believe that these were all non-professionals cast — they’re all great.

yes

The Other Half (2006, Ying Liang)

screened Sunday April 1 2007 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York NY (not listed on IMDb)

Second feature from the director of the acclaimed Taking Father Home (which I haven’t yet seen) – cleverly uses the narrative frame of a young woman working as a legal stenographer to catalog various testimonies of people wanting to take legal action for their grievances. Interesting to a point, but kinda goes nowhere.
mixed

916. Gregory’s Girl (1981, Bill Forsyth)

screened Saturday April 8 2007 on MGM DVD in Weehawken, NJ

TSPDT rank #677 IMDb

I intend to keep this entry relatively brief, for several reasons. My last epic entry on The Sorrow and the Pity took a lot of hours and effort, so I could use a bit of a breather. Also, Gregory’s Girl was a bit of a letdown. Light and breezy, perhaps it suffers after being viewed right after a massive WWII documentary, but even on its own comic terms I was left a bit wanting. Placing film under the well-worn category of coming-of-age teen sex comedy, the best argument I can make for it was that it was a touchstone of the genre. Entering the market right before the genre exploded to dominate 80s’ Hollywood, I wonder just how much influence it had as an art-house import on the likes of John Hughes and some of the more humanistic entries in the genre. It seems like a refreshingly innocent counterpart to the hornier and more mean-spirited come-uppance games played by National Lampoon’s Animal House and Porky’s. On the other hand, there’s more than a few moments in this film that strike me as sweetly off-beat to the point of being simple minded, and eccentric to a fault. In this way it seems in today’s context to be all too related to much of the middling fare that comes to Sundance straining to be likeably off-center – call it Napoleon McDynamite. It’s literally up to its armpits in quirkiness:

A peek at its original trailer from its US release (included as an extra on the MGM DVD) will give you an idea of its humor and worldview – as well as an interesting glance at how trailers for low-budget films were cut back in the day. This is one of the better moments of the film, but don’t be fooled by the clever camera trick — the rest of the film, shot in cut-and-dry TV movie style, hardly has this kind of cinematic ingenuity.

[youtube]kXRSlJbPNp0[/youtube]

In lieu of further analysis on my part, I defer to Andrew Higson’s informed and equitable take on the film from the ever-valuabe site Film Reference:

Forsyth was a key figure in the revival of British film production in the 1980s, and Gregory’s Girl was both a popular and critical success. Forsyth’s British work has been compared to the Ealing comedies of the late 1940s and early 1950s, with his typically light comic touch, his sense of character and detail, his quirky protagonists, and his ability to find the surreal in the most everyday people and situations.

His work—and Gregory’s Girl is no exception—can also be seen as typical of a particular approach to the construction of a national cinema in a Britain overwhelmed by the popularity of Hollywood films: the production of low-budget films with correspondingly modest production values and low-key drama, aimed at the domestic market and the international art market rather than going for broke on the major American circuits; the casting of good character actors rather than big-name stars; the making of tasteful romances for all the family, which carefully resist indulging in the excesses of Hollywood melodrama; and the emphasis on a decidedly ordinary and specifically local or regional setting and milieu, rather than on the internationally recognizable metropolitan centre.

The film thus works within strongly enunciated British cinematic traditions, with something more than a nod to television drama in terms of the carefully limited scope of the action and the clean-cut, uncomplicated mise-en-scène, and a narrative structure (several simple stories, cleverly interwoven) reminiscent of soap opera. The film also owes something to television advertising, with its focus on suburban consumer-land, inhabited by “ideal families” living in modern gadget-laden houses.

The main narrative situates the film as a melodrama: gawky adolescent Gregory attempts to win the favours of the far more sophisticated Dorothy, while a conspiracy of girls effortlessly organises for him to become hitched to a far more suitable partner in Susan. But a quick look at the final four images of the film reveals a much broader filmic system, which also enables the film to articulate a network of interlocking social worlds. First there is a shot of Gregory and Susan kissing, the conventional happy ending of melodrama. In the second shot, we see Gregory and his sister, in a final incantation of the perfection and permanence of the family, in its nice, ordinary, suburban security. Thirdly, there is a reprise of the delightful running gag of Gregory’s friend Andy, and his pal, this time seen hitching to Caracas in search of “girls.” Forsyth, like Tati, is a master of the running gag, which produces its comedy through narrative redundance and eccentric characterisation, as with Andy’s search for girls, or the lost penguins, or the burly headteacher secretively playing whimsical tunes on the piano.

The final shot of the film repeats another recurrent image: Dorothy, running alone in the dark, a fleeting image of the impossible object of desire, accompanied by the now familiar, dream-like music. Dorothy’s character is highly ambiguous, since she is both a sweet, innocent, asexual girl, and a version of the femme fatale (the most dangerous figure in the film’s conspiracy of women), wherein female sexuality becomes a threateningly seductive but unattainable enigma, a mystery, both for Gregory and for the implied spectator who is equally kept apart from understanding the ways and means of the female sex. The film, in this sense, reproduces the point of view of the adolescent male.

The film is structured around inversions and reversals: children act like adults, younger siblings act like older ones, etc. But the most important of these is the reversal of gender roles. The only characters that are confident, assured and in control are the girls.

- From the Senses of Cinema Great Directors bio on Forsyth

This point about gender reversals is probably the most intriguing thing I find about the movie — but as Higson seems to imply above, the film seems less interested in exploring this phenomena as a manifestation of social change than as leaving it as another manifestation of his idyllic Scottish suburb viewed sideways.

This site features an impressive collection of trivia on the film’s cast, production and locations, including mention of how the film was post-dubbed in softer Scottish accents for its US release. The MGM DVD has two soundtracks, one marked “English” and the other “Scots-Gaelic:”

Scots-Gaelic:

[youtube]BDhH_UkNxKc[/youtube]

English (this clip also happens to be a good example of the inverting of gender roles mentioned above that Forsyth repeatedly employs:

[youtube]Vu6GplVgwkY[/youtube]

And if you’re curious about the difference in pronunciation of the word “brassiere”:

In English (this, the opening scene which looks like it was cribbed from Porky’s, really threw me off in terms of what this film would be like. The rest of the film is not nearly as vulgar. To me it speaks of a tonal inconsistency that Forsyth lives and dies by in this picture — his later, better films I’ve seen, Local Hero (TSPDT #384) and Housekeeping don’t sacrifice an underlying sense of unity for the sake of getting a rise from the audience.)
[youtube]E_zOTfU9jiA[/youtube]

Scots-Gaelic:

[youtube]ci2GCv_6n04[/youtube]

Apparently it worked as the film was well received by both art-house audiences and critics upon its stateside release:

Writer-Director Bill Forsyth, working inexpensively on his native heath, is not one to confront life headlong and headon. He is a jogger not a sprinter, a man content to chug amiably along observing the world through a series of sidelong glances instead of driving single-mindedly toward a narrow goal.

- from Richard Schickel’s first-run review in Time, 1982.

Also see Roger Ebert’s first-run review in the Chicago Sun-Times and Vincent Canby’s first-run review in the New York Times.

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Glenn Erickson’s DVD Savant review mentions how the film played on the late great Channel Z in Los Angeles
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More on Bill Forsyth:

Leaving documentary production in 1977, Forsyth wrote the scripts for Gregory’s Girl and That Sinking Feeling in the hope of breaking into feature films. Obtaining finance, however, proved frustrating and problematic. The BFI Production Board rejected Gregory’s Girl three times. Forsyth later observed, “I remember one torment of a meeting when I tried to explain that Gregory’s Girl was really a structuralist comedy… I suspect my script was too conventional although nobody actually told me as much.”.

- From Screen Online’s bio on Forsyth

Q- Gregory’s Girl was your breakout hit in the USA. Were you happy with the reception?

A- It was three years after I’d finished the script for Gregory’s Girl that I got to make it, but I prefer That Sinking Feeling as a film. I’m not fond of any of my films in an intimate way, but Gregory’s Girl would be number 4 on my list.

- From Gerald Peary’s 1985 interview with Forsyth

“I think we’re basically all odd. I think we all have a tension between what we think we are and what other people think we are. Everyone is like that and I just tend to highlight it. I think I could make a detective story, or something conventional like that, and end up having odd characters in it too. Strangeness is in everyone, it’s just a matter of whether you choose to reveal it or not.”

Forsyth, from this page of amusing Forsyth quotes

915. Le chagrin et la pitié / The Sorrow and the Pity (1969, Marcel Ophuls)

screened March 2007 on Image DVD in Weehawken NJ and Ottawa Canada
TSPDT rank #709 IMDb

“In its complexity, its humanity, its refusal to find easy solutions, this is one of the greatest documentaries ever made.” – from Roger Ebert’s review upon the film’s initial 1972 release in the US

“I’m not in the mood to see a four and a half hour documentary on Nazis.” – Diane Keaton, Annie Hall (TSPDT #129)

I confess to sharing some of Annie Hall’s misgivings upon my initial viewing of The Sorrow and the Pity. Though not properly a documentary of the Holocaust, I had it categorized in my head as part of that subgenre, and as such I compared it to the likes of Alain Resnais’ breakthrough Night and Fog (TSPDT #381) and Claude Lanzmann’s epic Shoah (TSPDT #117). Upon initial viewing, Ophuls’ opus compared unfavorably in both cases On the one hand, I missed Resnais’ deft montage of archival Holocaust footage cumulating in the blistering question directed to all humanity: “Who is responsible?” On the other hand, there is Lanzmann’s steady, unwavering interrogation of both people and places with his long tracking shots of Holocaust sites and relentless, in-depth interviews with witnesses, making us conscious of the past that exists within the present. At first glance The Sorrow and the Pity seems artistically mild compared to these two feats — a series of talking heads intercut with archival footage — this is pretty much the aesthetic convention of historical documentary today. Is the significance of Ophuls’ film simply that it was the first of its kind?

Ophuls made the film, a “chronicle of a French city under the Occupation,” in the wake of May 1968. The conservative, established powers of French state and society, under the leadership of de Gaulle’s party, had just reasserted themselves, basing their moral authority, as always, on the myth of Gaullist heroism during the Occupation. The response of Ophuls and his fellow filmmakers was to secure financing from Swiss and German television–French television declined to back the project–and explode the myth, by taking a thorough look at resistance and collaboration during World War II.

The Sorrow and the Pity was therefore a portrait of present-day France, as much as it was an investigation of historic events. This aspect of the film, its contemporaneity, has now been lost to us. We cannot respond as did people in 1971, when the word dropped that then-President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing had been a self-deluded acolyte of Marshal Pétain. Nor can we experience the exultation or outrage of audiences back then, when they heard Denis Rake–a former British agent in occupied France–explain almost unwillingly that workers and Communists had given tremendous support to the Resistance, but that the bourgeoisie had been, well, apathetic.

That much is lost. What remains is a grand, astonishingly comprehensive document, recorded with unfailing persistence and intelligence. Ophuls detailed the full range of French responses to Nazism, as experienced primarily by people in the town of Clermont-Ferrand. That was the first, and most invaluable, level of his achievement. Nobody else managed to get all these characters on camera.

-Stuart Klawans in The Nation

Indeed, the unprecedented number of interview subjects for this documentary (nearly three dozen by my count) is astonishing, dare I say overwhelming. Part of the difficulty of my initial viewing no doubt had to be the overwhelming task of keeping track of who’s who. With so many interview subjects, one is bound to gravitate more towards one than another. Ophuls spends an discernibly inordinate amount of time with key figures in the Resistance: there’s Pierre Mendes-France, a former Resistance leader who later became Primer Minister of France; and at the grassroots level, there’s Alexis and Louis Grave, two farmers turned Resistance fighters. But I think he spends more time than anyone on Marcel Verdier, a French pharmacist who mostly minded his own business throughout the Occupation:

[youtube]fldlirvkj84[/youtube]

The main overall achievement of Marcel Ophüls’ ambitious documentary is to give us primary source material from people who directly experienced the Occupation and make us wonder what we would do ourselves in such a situation. As Annie Hall wonders, “sometimes I ask myself how I’d stand up under torture.” French history revisionists would like us to believe that the French people as a whole were very heroic and resisted the Germans en masse. Nothing could be further from the truth. Turns out that they act like . . . people.”

- Toxic Universe review

It’s striking how bored Verdier’s children look as they politely sit in this room and smoke or hang their heads as their father talks of a time of suffering only a generation ago but could be the Dark Ages for all they cared. I especially love the look of the bratty boy’s face — this guy looks like he can’t wait for this interview to be over so he can pop into his Maserati for a weekend on the Riviera. If anything, his insolent look made me conscious of my own initial indifference. The paradox being that you have to establish a certain level of attentiveness to have the film tap into your conscience like this. And who’s responsible for stimulating that awareness – the viewer or the film? Maybe Ophuls’ approach worked for audiences whose expectation of then-revelatory testimonies was enough. Today, in some ways it feels like evidence of the derogatory connotations of the word “documentary” – that it’s more of a document than a film.

And yet, upon closer inspection, there is artistry to be found in Ophuls filmmaking. I’ve seen the film two more times in the past week, moving forward and back on my DVD to reconnect interview footage from a given individual scattered across four plus hours, and getting a firmer sense of Ophuls’ arrangement of footage to form a coherent narrative. The film lends itself well to DVD viewing, as its puzzle-like qualities emerge and can be exploited by the active viewer.

Ophuls makes one subtle connection at the very beginning, as Verdier and his family are one of two groups of people whom Ophuls introduces before the title sequence. The other is Helmuth Tausend, a German officer stationed in Clermont Ferrand for much of the war. Amazingly Ophuls gets footage of Tausend at his daughter’s wedding in Germany, and even interviews him at the banquet table. This guy must really be proud of his time served for the Nazis to impose it on daughter’s wedding reception.

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Why does Ophuls juxtapose these two families – German and French, to start off his movie? We see that they are both comfortably middle class, grounded by solid, self-possessed patriarchs. There’s a weird sense that, despite one being the occupier and the other the occupied, the two sides have more in common than one might initially assume, and their shared aura of bourgeois complacency seems at odds with the historical outrages the film regales.

Thirty years down the road, Ophuls’ methodology is as interesting as the history he tells. Merely claiming that Ophuls had an argument seems to work against the surface of his film, for he disguises his point of view, his argument, behind the reminiscing of his interview subjects. The film is a classic of humanist culture in large part because Ophuls, in giving the people the chance to say their piece, apparently puts his faith in those people (and in the audience that watches them) to impart “truth.”

Steven Rubio for Bad Subjects

It seems contradictory that Ophuls is allowing people to “say their piece” while disguising his point of view within their statements, but Rubio’s description is apt for how the film works. There are obvious choices he makes in the way he films and interviews his subjects. Take for example his preferred manner of shooting Helmuth Tausend — few subjects in the film get this much of a close-up. Ironically, we are physically closer to the “enemy” in this film than to anyone else. Is this a way to offset the expected audience antipathy towards a German subject, either because we are predisposed to dislike him or because we identify least with his point of view? Or does the extreme close-up of his pudgy, cigar-chomping mug actually make him seem more sinister? Likewise, whose idea was it to interview Verdier among his children? And why does Ophuls’ camera seem to pan towards one of his kids every time they yawn or nod off?

It’s worth trying to distinguish between the various factors that contribute to the final outcome: how things were set up and why, what happened, and how the filmmaker reacted in his filming. The Sorrow and the Pity is interesting in that one can see Ophuls’ proclivities and sympathies emerge here and there. When ex-British secret agent Dennis Rake is interviewed, he reveals how serving his country was a way to overcome his insecurities as a homosexual of not being as brave as other men, and Ophuls perversely comes to his defense by chiding him: “But you were buying into the prejudices of the time!” We see Ophuls absorbed as Rake details his dilemma of how he had to extricate himself from a German officer he fell in love with while spying on him.

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One tries to measure in what ways Ophuls’ presence enhances as well as detracts from the central matter of fact finding. It’s plain that the empathy Ophuls displays towards Rake is what helps elicit Rake’s intimate revelation. There’s such an abundance of material that the democratic effect of many voices allowed to speak their mind is maintained. It’s open to argument to what extent Ophuls’ technique amounts to subterfuge, subtly nudging the viewer towards his own judgments of the people on screen. It’s never as overbearing as, say, a Michael Moore. If anything, you have to wonder whether a film that lets its aura of objectivity slip once in a while does more to stimulate the active viewer than a film that aspires to total objectivity all the time.

[youtube]UFmFvZYKBDo[/youtube]

It is clear that totalitarian cinema requires a passively receptive audience whereas a democratic experience of art requires individual responses from active viewers. The French film The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) demonstrates this contrast. It juxtaposes post-war interviews with wartime footage and explores the extent to which the French middle classes cooperated with the German occupiers, raising questions untouched by propaganda…. Not only does this dig beneath the surface of recognised history, it also questions our core assumptions about the medium: film’s ability to present itself as recorded truth.

James Plumtree, The Owl Journal

[youtube]h1FXDKE3HWk[/youtube]

Alongside Ophuls’ interviews, his use of archival documentary footage, mostly taken from German and Vichy propaganda films, makes up the other half of the movie. I think the use of a propaganda clip like the one above is more than just presenting a sense of what things were like back then, but also questioning the truthfulness of documentary footage. This is an idea conveyed in the opening reel of Citizen Kane (TSPDT #1), but in The Sorrow and the Pity the appropriation of this documentary footage acquires a different relevance because it further brings to attention what’s at stake in Ophuls’ project. Is he correcting the falsehoods of the past? Or is it more of an acknowledgment that truth is something that’s always in process, both through the vertical axis of time and the horizontal axis of different people in different spaces?
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One of the most intriguing moments of the film involves an interview with Christian de la Maziere, who during the Occupation joined the German SS and volunteered to fight on the Eastern Front against Russia. Maziere is a remarkably charismatic presence, who seems to talk openly despite his sordid past. Ophuls chooses to stage the interview as an ambulatory conversation through the halls of the former Vichy headquarters, while a guided tour passes through, dutifully impressed by their surroundings. Note the bizarre interlude of Nazi music that creeps in as they walk through a particularly opulent room.[youtube]QhA2gA2hcrs[/youtube]

In this one sequence Ophuls makes some striking connections between Maziere’s childhood desire for idealism and spectacle and the tour group’s enjoyment of the castle — that we are all susceptible to the appearances of opulence and power, and that our desire to participate in it can make us complicit in the uses and abuses of that power. The remedy prescribed by Ophuls’ filmmaking is to become aware of those appearances, to disrupt our unthinking acceptance of them (hence the music in the middle of the hallway), to ask questions, as he does throughout these four hours.

And he is just as liable to questioning as anyone. From Gerald Peary’s interview with Ophuls:

Q- Why are women in such a subordinate position in The Sorrow and The Pity?

A- This question is asked at every bull session. There must be some justification for it.

Women resistance leaders in France are treated today as Joan of Arc-figures at official ceremonies. They transport the flowers and the flag to the sounds of trumpet calls. Maybe it is because of this sexist representation that I intuitively stayed clear of their particular fate…. Maybe I’m just rationalizing.

Q- But what about Madame Grave, who is there during your long conversation at the home of the Grave brothers, ex-Resistance fighters? Mostly, she comes in and pours wine for the men.

A- Now I spent several days there and know that Madame Grave is a very important figure in the household. During the time of the Resistance she was also a very important figure. Yet the whole evening of the filming she stayed geographically between the kitchen and the living room. We didn’t set it up that way. It just happened…

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Ophuls (cont’d): One of the producers, a political journalist, Andre Arice, became very uncomfortable because he believes in sexual equality, that every part of the family should contribute to the conversation. So he said, “Madame, why don’t you join us? Come sit at the table, participate…”

Here’s what a documentary maker should not do. The men started shifting their feet. She didn’t want to sit down because her daughter-in-law would be left out. Now all of us were uncomfortable. Finally, out of courtesy, Madame sat. We shot two or three reels and I found in the editing room that I couldn’t use a single sentence.

Arice, who should have known better, had blown it. My basic belief about documentary film direction is that you must not upset the scene you are filming, and especially not by projecting your own ideas.

Ophuls does include one extensive interview with a woman, a Madame Solange who was wrongfully accused of denouncing a Resistance captain based on a forged letter. Her account of the injustice she suffered, placed purposefully towards the end of the film, is a sobering testimony to the paranoia and damage inflicted by the Occupation on French society, leaving no one unscathed. However, at the very end she maintains her affection for Marshal Petain and the Vichy regime.

Maurice Chevalier is featured prominently in the documentary. He’s the grinning boulevardier singer, who with most entertainers in Paris, weathered the occupation living a high life with the German occupiers, while the non – V.I.P. population lost an average of 25 pounds each due to malnutrition. Some of his songs provide infrequent background for archival footage. The picture ends with a newsreel of him, grinning like a baby, claiming he was not a collaborator. The charges against him that he was one were false, you see, because he never went to Germany to perform singing engagements for the Nazis, not once! He did go to sing for French P.O.W.’s in their camps, and that was it! Honest, you can believe Maurice! He’s just a singing, non-political carefee guy! After all the sincere testimony from citizens, important and humble, Chevalier’s image-mending comes off as particularly heinous.

Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant on DVD Talk

As ridiculous as the footage of Chevalier is at the very end, I don’t think the film achieves the same level of thematic or aesthetic resonance if the coda is seen as playing one fool’s staged apologia against all of the supposedly more “sincere” interviews that precede it. The juxtapositions of past and present, and of different types of filmmaking, don’t so much leave us wanting to point fingers at who’s to blame but to bring us to a more troubling – and hopefully more humanistic – view of man’s relationship to memory, to self-presentation, to each other.

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A well-written synopsis and extensive bibliography of The Sorrow and the Pity

Critique from The World Socialist Website offers further historical context

Films de France

One blogger after screening The Sorrow and the Pity sees parallels between the German occupation of France and the present US occupation of Iraq.

Steven Rubio of Bad Subjects compares Bowling for Columbine by Michael Moore and The Fog of War by Errol Morris unfavorably to The Sorrow and the Pity:

Ultimately, an artist like Ophuls seems to trust humanity, even in the face of catastrophe. He treats people decently, he respects the intelligence of his audience, and while he is as interested in aesthetics as his counterparts, he is more interested in truth. Artists like Moore and Morris, performing a crucial task, succeed on many important levels, but the trust that Ophuls exhibits is not always clear in their work, which leaves them open to criticism that deflects attention away from those crucial tasks.

A reviewer at MIT compares Ophuls’ Oscar-winning follow-up Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (TSPDT #444) unfavorably to The Sorrow and the Pity

My Girlfriend is the Future of New Yorker Video

For years New Yorker DVD has been held in disrepute by discerning cinephiles who are used to the Criterion Collection standards of video transfer quality and extras. My girlfriend has been on a mission to change all that. Her latest and greatest endeavor was on Hong Sang-soo’s Woman Is the Future of Man. She worked her butt off to get an NTSC source video directly from South Korea instead of risking a PAL-to-NTSC transfer from the European print she had readily available. While the results aren’t totally immaculate, according to DVD Beaver’s erudite Gary Tooze, it’s the best possible transfer anyone could have managed, and the supplements make it a worthwhile purchase: “The DVD is stacked with supplements… There are 30 minutes worth of optionally subtitled interviews (3) with the principles, an almost 40 minute long ‘Making of…” featurette (also optionally subtitled), a photo gallery and both Korean and French theatrical trailers. There is also a 6-page liner notes leaflet with short essays by Michael Atkinson and Kyung Hyun Kim. All relevant additions and fully supporting further appreciation of the film… As for this New Yorker edition – I am quite proud of them – they have come a long way in the past few years and this has shown some real growth expecially in the area of extra features.”

But the piece de resistance is the special on-camera introduction by none other than:

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Cindi worked for weeks on end calling Scorsese’s office to arrange this interview, in the thick of Oscar season no less. Thanks to Marty and his office for squeezing in this 2 1/2 min piece in the midst of campaigning for The Departed — nice to see him giving a little something back to Asian Cinema!

I’m very proud of Cindi for all the work she put into this — and she is getting the recognition she deserves. Let’s see if this enthusiastic write-up by Glenn Kenny of Premiere is just the tip of the iceberg…

More thoughts on #914. The Reckless Moment (1949, Max Ophuls)

I couldn’t help but notice the coincidence of watching two films consecutively about housewives whose encounter with a menacing intruder becomes a vehicle for their own subversive self-fulfillment. Both Intentions of Murder and The Reckless Moment are remarkably accomplished works by masters. I admire Imamura’s unsettling treatment of character and tone and unsentimental embrace of unsavory workaday subjects. But Ophuls gets the edge in my book primarily on two grounds: pacing and character identification.

Of course this is subjective, but whereas I found Intentions of Murder to be a bit plodding at times, The Reckless Moment, which clocks in at half the length of the Imamura, covers a remarkable amount of narrative in less than 80 minutes. Again, each director has their own vision of time and space, and it may merely be that Ophuls’ way of presenting life’s rhythms and spaces cuts much closer to my own experience. It’s just so compressed. There’s a near-constant flow of things from scene to scene, especially when Lucia is roaming through packed public spaces on her errands or weaving through family members at home. This sequence is perhaps my favorite — things just keep coming at poor Lucia, and she’s constantly moving, and every stop is like another corner of her world to contend with.
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I should disclose that I identify not a little with Lucia’s way of handling life’s demands. Further into the issue of character identification: Imamura has his own carefully calculated treatment of his hapless protagonist, keeping the audience at a certain distance to hold easy sympathy for this woman at bay, while making her simple-mindedness an uneasy virtue. Ophuls establishes a similar tension in his treatment of Lucia Harper. Like Imamura, Ophuls shoots his heroine mostly in distancing medium and longshots (according to Lutz Bacher’s DVD commentary track, the Columbia Pictures front office thought Ophuls was making mistakes by not getting more coverage of scenes; ironically Ophuls’ master shots was a way for him to follow the studio edict of staying under schedule and budget). In many of the exterior scenes Harper dons sunglasses, obscuring her visage from our gaze. And even in some of her more intimate scenes with James Mason as the “bad guy”, Ophuls frames them such that we see (and effectively identify with) more of the open-faced Mason than Joan Bennett.

One could see this as indicative of how the film blends the dominant 40s genres of film noir and melodrama, such that our domestic heroine is seen through femme fatale lenses. The question arises, why do this? Well for me the answer lies in the effect, which I would describe as that of vividly reflecting the state of mind of Lucia Harper and how she sees her own place in the world. It has the same effect as Lucia’s restless perpetual motion as described above, dealing with whatever comes her way, such that she dispatches with a murdered man on her property the same fussy determination with which she chides her children. In other words, she’s always in the middle of everything, always moving things along, but hardly moved herself. There is a kind of shell around her, which Ophuls makes clear in one shot after another. It leads to some intriguing visual juxtapositions of her predicament. There’s a persistent sense of her being in view. Even when she is getting rid of the body with no witnesses within sight or hearing, there’s a row of lakeshore homes in the background give a sense of scopophilic portent:

And take this scene where Mason and Bennett discuss illicit plans rather brazenly given that they’re in a crowded diner. Ophuls places an Asian man to accentuate the effect — he’s framed in such a way to suggest he could be eavesdropping on their conversation (but given that he’s an Asian in 40s America it is unclear if he can understand what he may be overhearing):

Tag Gallagher:

To talk about Lola Montès, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Sans lendemain or La signora di tutti as though Ophuls, like Mizoguchi, is championing the oppressed female is to disfigure women who resolutely create themselves and who consent to be an object of gaze only in order to assert themselves as subject.

These moments of bad behavior in plain sight reveal a paradox in Lucia Harper’s enactment of her roles. On the one hand, she has taken her matriarchal duties so far as to risk her public standing to protect her daughter. But, as Gallagher suggests, there is an element of choice to this sacrifice. Her flagrant public appearances with Mason flirt with being a kind of rejection of her appointed public personae of faithful wife and housebound mother. One can step back and see the whole narrative this way — by becoming the surrogate for her daughter’s involvement with shady underworld types, she not only fulfills her ostensible role of protecting her daughter, but she also gets to experience a momentary escape from her domestic prison, the very same escape that her daughter sought in the first place.

Lucia Harper desires every moment of this crisis imposed on her, even as it brings her to the verge of self-destruction, because it pushes her ever closer to a full-on confrontation against the narrow confines of her life — and as viewers, we see her ever more closely and we feel the yawning anxiety that no amount of domestic tasks completed can soothe.  Her existential foray proves only to be temporary.  Just like her daughter came running home after being betrayed by her art teacher and would-be lover Ted Darby, Lucia returns to the household, begging her husband to come home.  It is worth noting that when Lucia is on the verge of confessing everything to the authorities (and therefore permanently putting scandal on herself and her family — I have to wonder if it isn’t just a sense of resignation, but if there isn’t a supressed desire on her part to do this) it is two characters on the social fringes — Mason’s huckster and Bennett’s black maid Sybil (played with brilliant watchful understatement by Frances Williams – Todd Haynes referenced her for his own black maid character named Sybil in Far From Heaven) — who aid in the cover-up and usher her back to normalcy.
In the end, there is no escape for Lucia, only a return to a perpetual masochistic compulsion caused by living one’s life for others. But this film does not put us in a position to judge or pity her condition, even as it leaves its heroine behind the prison bars of a staircase in her home. Ophuls’ grand achievement over these 80 minutes is in transplating her imprisoned soul upon our own.