March 2008

Video Essays (two of them!) for 911(51). They Died With their Boots On (1941, Raoul Walsh) featuring Matt Zoller Seitz

Main entry on the film

These days I am using imeem as my preferred channel for video uploads – I find the image quality to be sharper than on YouTube. However I’ve been informed that imeem does not function properly for all browsers. So I am continuing to post these videos on YouTube. You can find the introductory video essay here and the sequence analysis video here.

Special thanks to Matt Zoller Seitz, film critic for the New York Times and host of the blog The House Next Door, for his expert commentary on this film.

Introductory essay:

Sequence analysis:

911 (51). They Died With Their Boots On (1942, Raoul Walsh)

screened Monday January 28 2008 on Warner DVD in Weehawken, NJ

TSPDT rank #764 IMDb Wiki

George Armstrong Custer: courageous Civil War hero, honorable friend to Native Americans, steadfast lover and martyr to the sins of American avarice.  One doesn’t have enough fingers and toes to count the inaccuracies and distortions  presented by Raoul Walsh of one of the most dubious heroes of the American West.  But if one is looking for the quintessential Walshian hero – rambunctious and goal-driven to the point of heedlessness, charmingly mischievous yet chivalrous and principled – one needn’t look further than here.  A rare stab by the crime and action master at the prestige biopic, the film sustains energy throughout its two and a half hours thanks to energetic acting (especially by Flynn, in one of his best roles), a masterful shifting of moods (schoolboy comedy, tender romance, social drama, and of course action Western) that would make the likes of John Ford envious, and an awesome array of dynamic blocking, framing, camera movement and editing, most famously in the climactic enactment of the Battle of Little Big Horn, one of the landmark action scenes in Hollywood history, where the frame plays like an open hand closing into a fist, crushing the soldiers trapped within.  On purely cinematic terms, the film is a masterpiece both on macro and micro levels, each scene captivating with lively, almost musical exchanges of dialogue and mise-en-scene, building to a story amounting to one man’s massive thrust into destiny.

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Video Essays (three of them!) for 909. La femme infidele and 910. Le boucher

Heartiest gratitude goes to filmmaker, critic and blogger – and consummate Chabrol expert – Dan Sallitt for lending his insights for these videos.

General introduction to La femme infidele and Le boucher by Claude Chabrol:

Sequence analyses by Dan Sallitt:

Sequence analyses by Kevin Lee:

910. Le Boucher (1970, Claude Chabrol)

screened Wednesday March 6 2008 on Pathfinder DVD in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #813 IMDb

Arguably the most celebrated of Chabrol’s fifty-plus features is this romantic drama involving a rough but earnest butcher (Jean Yanne) and a lovely but aloof schoolmistress (Stephane Audran) amidst a series of unsolved murders afflicting their idyllic French village. I confess that I have fundamental reservations with a plot that has the viewer more concerned with the emotional claustrophobia of its two leads than with the innocent victims who serve as collateral damage for the unraveling of their relationship. But full credit goes to Chabrol for brilliantly employing a beguiling documentary realism that initiates the viewer in the comfortably unassuming atmosphere of the small town, shifting almost imperceptibly into a wildly expressive and emotional climax. As much as I laud Chabrol’s use of narrative omission to nudge the viewer into active interpretation of events (most brilliantly dramatized in a four minute single take conversation between the leads that subtly exposes a world of irreconcilability underneath their convivial exchange), I am inclined to think that Chabrol errs a shade too much on the side of restraint – the emotional subtexts between them are established with such vague inference that the issues of affection, trust and interpersonal responsibility that emerge can be extrapolated into any number of competing interpretations. By the end, the film literally settles into an artful haze.

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909. La femme infidele / The Unfaithful Wife (1969, Claude Chabrol)

screened Thursday March 7 2008 on Pathfinder DVD in Weehawken, NJ

TSPDT rank #798 IMDb Wiki

Perhaps I am willfully misreading through Bunuelian lenses, but I love how Claude Chabrol’s wicked and ultimately haunting account of a marriage saved by murder implodes the middle class domestic mindset with its own politely repressed logic and values. And yet there’s a line of thinking around this film that maintains the act of killing a wife’s lover in order to impress her back into her marriage is presented by Chabrol with sincerity as justifiable, redemptive, even heroic. Perhaps it’s to Chabrol’s credit that he hides his intentions behind masterful camerawork that alternates between push-dolly scrutiny of a lushly colored, opulently Sirkian mise-en-scene of soft-focus domestic bliss and wide-angle interludes resting within interior spaces quietly suggesting volumes of household dissonance. His direction mirrors his characters’ emotionally bottlenecked reticence, presenting small gestures in such a way that the audience must read intention into them, much the same way as the suspicious husband (Michel Bouquet, a perfect fop). While Chabrol’s cinematic mirroring of alienation borders on outright satire for the most part (Bouquet’s post-murder housecleaning is priceless), in the last act he pulls a startling about-face. He puts repression back on the mantle as a valid and virtuous mode of social intercourse, presenting a stony embrace between husband and wife as a sublime moment of genuine reconciliation. Is this intended as just another ironic layer of self-deluding bourgeois fantasy? Much of it comes down to how one reads the last line, “Je t’aime comme un fou (I love you like a fool)” uttered by the cuckold as either a sincere reclamation of the sanctity of marriage or possessive spousal pathology taken to a fatal extreme. Perhaps it’s both.

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Claude Chabrol: an online dossier

IMDb  Wikipedia

One of the stable of Cahiers du cinéma critics, Chabrol inaugurated the New Wave with Le Beau Serge (1957), Les Cousins (1958) and Les Bonnes Femmes (1960). Like other early New Wave films, these were characterized by independent production, location shooting, new stars (Jean-Claude Brialy, Stéphane Audran) and a focus on a young, disaffected generation. Chabrol soon departed from this idiom to enter on a prolific and varied career embracing comedies (Marie-Chantal contre le docteur Khâ, 1965), thrillers (A double tour / Web of Passion, 1959), war films (La Ligne de démarcation, 1966), political thrillers (Les Noces rouge / Blood wedding, 1973, Nada, 1974), a “lesbian” drama (Les Biches / The Does, 1968), and more; his filmography runs to over forty features. If there is unity in Chabrol’s work, it can be found along two axes. The first is his work with his main star (and for a long time, wife) Stéphane Audran, especially Le Boucher (1970) and their superb “drama of adultery”: La femme infidèle / The Unfaithful Wife (1969), La Rupture / The Breakup (1970) and Juste avant la nuit / Just Before Nightfall (1971). The second is Chabrol’s dissection of the French bourgeoisie, which ranges from the incisive to the affectionate, usually in the thriller format. At the incisive end are Que la bête meure / Killer! (1969) and Violette Nozière (1978); more affectionate are Poulet au vinaigre / Cop au vin (1984), Masques (1987) and Le Cri du hibou / The Cry of the Owl (1987). With his lush adaptation of Madame Bovary (1991, with Isabelle Huppert), Chabrol made an excursion into the Heritage cinema genre, though Betty (1992) and L’Enfer (1994) signal a return to the bourgeois thrillers. Ironically, given Chabrol’s critical beginnings, there is a comfortable “quality” to his films, which is, however, far from unpleasurable.

— Ginette Vincendeau, Encylopedia of European Cinema

If Jean-Luc Godard appeals to critics because of his extreme interest in politics and film theory, if François Truffaut appeals to the popular audience because of his humanism and sentimentality, it is Claude Chabrol—film critic, filmmaker, philosopher—whose work consistently offers the opportunity for the most balanced appeal. His partisans find especially notable the subtle tone of Chabrol’s cinema: his films are apparently cold and objective portraits of profoundly psychological situations; and yet that coldness never approaches the kind of fashionable cynicism, say, of a Stanley Kubrick, but suggests, rather, something closer to the viewpoint of a god who, with compassion but without sentiment, observes the follies of his creations.

Chabrol’s work can perhaps best be seen as a cross between the unassuming and popular genre film and the pretentious and elitist art film: Chabrol’s films tend to be thrillers with an incredibly self-conscious, self-assured style—that is, pretentious melodrama, aware of its importance. For some, however, the hybrid character of Chabrol’s work is itself a problem: indeed, just as elitist critics sometimes find Chabrol’s subject matter beneath them, so too do popular audiences sometimes find Chabrol’s style and incredibly slow pace alienating.

—Charles Derry, Film Reference.com

Along with François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol’s name is famously associated with the pathbreaking criticism of Cahiers du Ciné ma and the rise of the French new wave. But whilst Truffaut and Godard saw themselves as auteur and innovator, to survey Chabrol’s long career is to see a craftsman productively immersed in the conventions and compromises of mainstream filmmaking.

Born in Paris in 1930, Chabrol was evacuated during the occupation to the Creuse department in the Massif Central. Growing up in the village of Sardent, he and a friend set up a makeshift ‘cinema’ in a barn. Playing the roles of programme director, exhibitor and projectionist, Chabrol got around the German prohibition against Hollywood by advertising German genre movies as American “super-productions”. Returning to Paris after the Liberation, he began attending the thriving postwar ciné-clubs and cinémathèques, where he met Truffaut, Godard and Eric Rohmer. An ardent fan of Lang and Hitchcock, he was invited to contribute articles to Cahiers. Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock would have profound influences upon Chabrol’s own films. From Lang, he derived a sense of cinematic space, the relationship of image to narrative, the prospect of entrapment. From Hitchcock, he derived a sense of irony, the relationship between guilt and the individual, and the prospect of murder. Supporting himself by working at the Paris publicity office of 20th Century-Fox, in 1957 Chabrol and Rohmer published an influential book on Hitchcock.

In a 1956 Cahiers’ review of the Hollywood thriller Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Chabrol wrote that director Robert Aldrich had created brilliance out of “the worst, most lamentable…the most nauseous product of the genre fallen into putrefaction”. Whilst the mid-1960s is not regarded as his most interesting period, like Lang and Aldrich, Chabrol showed that he could turn his hand to a range of genres and sources. The director has made thrillers, spy spoofs, a war film, and over the years has adapted, amongst others, the work of Patricia Highsmith, Ed McBain, Ruth Rendell, Ellery Queen, Henry Miller and Georges Simenon. Arguably, his critical fall from grace owed something to a classical lucidity of approach that was out of favour in the mid-1960s. Writing of Hitchcock, Chabrol had drawn attention to an “interdependence of form and subject”. But Hitchcock’s own critical stock fell at this time, while Chabrolian irony was increasingly regarded as cynicism. Another Hollywood figure with whom Chabrol has been compared is Billy Wilder, also derided for his ‘cynicism.’

Recently, Chabrol has worked with producer Marin Karmitz (Three Colours Trilogy) and is highly regarded as an elder of French cinema, having worked with many of the best actors and technicians of the postwar period. Although occasionally contentious – Une Affaire des femmes’ account of wartime collaboration excited controversy in 1988 – his work seldom generated the cinephiliac excitement attending Godardian experimenta, nor drew the devoted crowd that followed Truffaut. Yet, for Ginette Vincendeau, the bulk of Chabrol’s work elicits “a comfortable ‘quality’ which is…far from unpleasurable”. The best of them belong in a pantheon alongside vintage Lang and Hitchcock.

Richard Armstrong, MovieMail. This text also appears as part of Chabrol’s Senses of Cinema Great Directors biography

In the best Chabrol movies, like “Le Boucher,” the thriller mechanics are almost irrelevant; what keeps you on the edge of your seat isn’t wondering whodunit, but wondering how you’re supposed to feel when you find out. Because Mr. Chabrol won’t tell you.

But this is a tricky game for a filmmaker to play with his viewers. And in the years since his glory days of the late 60’s and early 70’s, Mr. Chabrol has lost as many times as he has won. Even a method as distinctively counterintuitive as his can turn predictable. (Especially if you’re as compulsively prolific as he is). And when he isn’t in top form, his calculated opacity is alienating rather than fascinating; the sly correctness of his style can make him seem as dangerously repressed as his most poisonous bourgeois characters.

Mr. Chabrol has suffered, in a sense, from the sort of anxiety of identity that he has so often visited on the nervous middle-class people in his films. He has a reputation, a position: the world knows who he is, and what a movie with the Claude Chabrol brand should be. He isn’t always so sure.

Terrence Rafferty, The New York Times. Another New York Times Chabrol appraisal by Stephen Holden

If Chabrol is apparently tabloid in theme, his style has frequently been sophisticated and languorous — a slow burn examination of his characters’ lives with a rapt, patient camera. Consequently, place is of immense importance. Britanny, Massif Central, the Loire Valley, out of season St. Tropez: many a region, small town or village has been focused upon, not simply utilized. In maybe his finest film, Le Boucher, Chabrol gives an onscreen credit to the Perigaud valley villagers who give the film so much of its atmosphere. Even Chabrol’s houses are memorable and significant. The stretched, low slung and vaguely Americanized abode in La Femme Infidèle; the minor chateaus of Wedding in Blood and La Cérémonie, each isolated and aloof; the marvelous convivial country house in the early stages of Un Partie du Plaisir, and the nouveau riche home of the garage owner in The Beast Must Die all indicate characters inextricably linked to the place in which they live. A man’s home is almost literally, in Chabrol, his castle, and it is equally true that the castle is the man.

Lest we are in any doubt, watch how Chabrol subjectifies the camera even when not utilising point of view. In La Cérémonie, for example, where swift, darting camera pans have all the admiring envy of a petty bourgeois social climber. When a character finally passes comment upon the property, its pleonastic: the camera’s already done all the work for us. However, the repetition suggests the depth of envy. If the camera indicates a keen interest, the words of the lowly postal clerk Jeanne give the film a murderous intent. “A la la … now there’s class for you,” she says on seeing the Lelièvres’ family home. Teamed with the family’s maid, Sophie, Jeanne’s powder-keg character awaits the fuse of indignation and finds it when Sophie’s sacked by this haute bourgeois family. Jeanne returns one evening to the chateau with Sophie, apparently to pick up Sophie’s things. They quietly make hot chocolate while the family obliviously watches Don Giovanni in the study. Then we watch as the pair of them creep up the stairs, pour hot chocolate over the master bed, and rip the wife’s clothes to shreds.

- Robert McKibbin, Images Journal

The following quotes found on the Charles Chabrol page of They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?

“If Jean-Luc Godard appeals to critics because of his extreme interest in politics and film theory and if François Truffaut appeals to the popular audience because of his humanism and sentimentality, it is Claude Chabrol – film critic, filmmaker, philosopher – whose work consistently offers the opportunity for the most balanced appeal…Chabrol’s work can perhaps best be seen as a cross between the unassuming and popular genre film and the pretentious elitist art film.” – Charles Derry (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)

“Chabrol, whose admiration for the Hitchcock thriller style is evident in some of his own films (The Champagne Murders, This Man Must Die, Cop au Vin), is more typically concerned with exploring, in a curiously detached way, personal relationships (Les Cousins, Les Biches). His favorite target remains the urban French petite-bourgeoisie, the milieu of his youth.” – (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)

“While Claude Chabrol is certainly one of the most important filmmakers to have emerged from the the French New Wave, his consistency of theme and assured, expressive style are often betrayed by poor material, resulting in a career as uneven as it is prolific…A consummate craftsman, his interest in human emotions often seems intellectually motivated, which may explain the erratic nature of his work.” – Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)

“Emotional relationships marked by physical and psychological violence distinguish Chabrol’s films.” – William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)

“I like making black and white films in natural surroundings, but I much prefer shooting a color film inside a studio where the colors are easier to control.” – Claude Chabrol

“It’s often wrong to write for specific actors because one ends up using what is least interesting about them, their mannerisms and habits. I prefer not to write for specific people.” – Claude Chabrol

Video Essay for 908. Duel (1971, Steven Spielberg)

Featuring House Next Door editor Keith Uhlich, House Contributor Steven Boone of the blog Big Media Vandalism, and Andrew “Filmbrain” Grant of the blog Like Anna Karina’s Sweater. The screening was held at an especially apt venue, the DRV-IN at Grand Opening, currently the only drive in theater in Manhattan. DRV-IN will close its doors at the end of March but will reopen at a larger venue later in the year. Special thanks to Cindi Rowell for recording the audio.

Here’s another video that profiles the DRV-IN:

908. Duel (1971, Steven Spielberg)

screened Monday March 17 2008 on DVD projected at DRV-IN, Manhattan’s only drive-in theater

IMDb Wiki

Steven Spielberg’s first feature production, in which a seemingly driverless Peterbilt truck terrorizes Dennis Weaver’s salesman on a California highway, is an object lesson in narrative efficiency and resourceful filmmaking, having been shot in only 16 days with a miniscule budget and edited in only three weeks for TV broadcast. The result was so wildly successful that the film was released theatrically in Europe with an additional 20 minutes of footage. The extra scenes, which include a telephone conversation with Weaver’s wife and Weaver’s internal monologue gratuitously expressing his anxieties, mostly detract from the brilliant simplicity of sci-fi legend Richard Matheson’s script. While Weaver’s David Mann fends for his life against several tons of metal on wheels, this machine is not nearly as relentless as the cinematic apparatus as employed by Spielberg, cutting across a panoply of angles and camera movements from which the truck is regarded every which way, such that its menace is amplified, even fetishized. To produce such claustrophobic suspense across miles of open road is no mean feat, a triumph of cinema applied to a minimal scenario. The visceral has always been Spielberg’s primary domain, try as he has in recent years to apply it to lofty themes (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) or even to subvert its immediacy (A.I., Munich). Here, for better or worse, it’s as pure as it can be.

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Why “Country Mother Love Happy War” will be the next Indie film sensation

Just found this interesting post written by someone at the Lathiros Film Festival Database where he was able to extract the top 50 most common words of film festival titles.  To wit:

  1. war
  2. country
  3. love
  4. mother
  5. happy
  6. son
  7. blue
  8. broken
  9. now
  10. princess
  11. everything
  12. body
  13. day
  14. black
  15. story
  16. up
  17. park
  18. pool
  19. wild
  20. daily
  21. cant
  22. la
  23. run
  24. high
  25. innocent
  26. requiem
  27. august
  28. night
  29. amour
  30. crazy
  31. four
  32. hope
  33. dark
  34. daughter
  35. trouble
  36. bell
  37. color
  38. full
  39. dance
  40. it
  41. dust
  42. want
  43. super
  44. eye
  45. sex
  46. hotel
  47. go
  48. legacy
  49. she
  50. river

Notes from the NYU Film Conference, Pt. 5 – Q&A hosted by Girish Shambu

Before I wrap up this report, I must express gratitude to Paul Grant and Martin Johnson, the organizer of the NYU Film Criticism workshop, for permitting me to live blog from the workshop. This has been a very exciting and informative event and I hope the reports will help bring public recognition to the efforts of them and the NYU Cinema Studies department to foster a serious dialogue on the practice and the future of film criticism.

the following are some summarial notes on the open Q&A session between Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adrian Martin and moderator Girish Shambu.

GS: The blogosphere offers unique forms of film criticism that can’t be found in traditional formats (print, etc). They can take on a remarkable variety of lengths, approaches and insights, from the fleeting, pithy remark to an extensive study. Girish subscribes to over 130 film blogs and utilizes blog digest software to stay abreast of them – not a day goes by that he doesn’t find a fascinating remark somewhere on his blog network.

JR: People on the blogosphere seem to write before they think, and get into family spat-like exchanges with others.

JR: Recounting experiences from Reader film blog. Was heckled by at least one visitor but noticed that others would come in to chastise hecklers and regulate conduct. Interesting sociological phenomenons and culture formations emerge on internet.

AM: Shared experience of finding a website called adrianmartinisa*******idiot.com,contacting the administrator of the web, who expressed surprise that Martin had even found and read the site. Strange experience of a cultural hierarchy collapsing within the space of the internet.

AM: Quoting Daney: “I want to militate cinema for cinema.” – cinema activism on behalf of cinema itself as a political or social movement, as opposed to being a function of political or social purposes.

JR: Reflecting on the book co-written by Martin, Movie Mutations – when they started it, email wasn’t a common fixture – they began through postal correspondences but was finished by the time email began to be widely adopted.

JR: Film as criticism – distinguishing homages between superficial references vs. critical commentary “it needs to be more than just showing a baby carriage going down the steps” – what does it mean in this film, or how might it illuminate something new about this reappropriated image or moment?

JR: Recognizes the Cinematheque Francais programs of Henri Langlois that revolutionized film culture by juxtaposing films of different origins and eras together such that they generated a running dialogue on film history and aesthetics.

AM: Describes the blog The Art of Memory which creates a visual essay out of dozens of still captures showing frames containing light flares, such that it resembles its own experimental photo montage. Points out how online critics are eager to extend the art of “writing” to incorporate images and film clips.

GS: Poses question about the seeming “gulf” between journalistic writing and academic writing about film.

JR: By and large there’s a lot of mutual antagonism between these two camps. Attributes it to the forces that helped engender a formal film studies curriculum in the ’60s and ’70s. Literature departments were antagonistic to film studies courses as the latter were extremely popular yet perceived as light. Film studies had to prove itself as a discipline as rigorous as other academic fields of study. Theories needed to be adopted. Agee and Farber were less adopted than Kracauer and Warshow. Recalled AM’s earlier remark that criticism ceases to be interesting when it reinforces a familiar way of thinking. JR cites a popular academic essay, Counter cinema by Peter Wollen, as an example of a systemic, institutionalizing text. Opposes both academic and journalistic writing that is too specialized and fixed in its own interests.

AM: Wants practice of journalism as striving to be more intellectual, and academic writing to be be more accessible. Agrees with JR that both academic and journalistic writing are under tremendous institutional pressures. Journalistic writing is under pressure to cater to film industry interests and dumb down to lowest denominator of readership; individual expression is subject to the authority of editors. Academic writing seems to lose sight of an intended audience; individual expression is subject to the authority of peer review; discourages experimental writing approaches. Some of the best work these days seems to come from outside institutions, “hobbyistic” practices by retired professionals or non-professionals.

JR: When he wrote his first book Moving Places, he took a stint writing for the magazine American Film make a living, which he considered to be “alienated labor.” Expresses admiration for Ronnie Scheib, who is able to flourish as a writer within the unlikely auspices of Variety.

GS: On his experiences gleaning the blogosphere on his RSS reader, Girish has learned to glean his readings to hone in on choice passages to highlight. Regarding DVD commentaries, he finds he tends to bail on the first 10 minutes. Girish praises Jonathan’s commentary track recorded with James Naremore on the Corinth Version of Welles’ Mr. Arkadin on the Criterion DVD.

JR singles out Criterion’s Elizabeth Helfgott in the crowd to comment – EH shares that these days Criterion staff deliberate the necessity of a commentary track on a release-by-release basis.

AM: When you think of the number of words that someone speaks on a commentary track, that could constitute a book’s worth of material.

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