Special thanks to C. Mason Wells, co-writer of LOL, contributor to The Onion and promotions coordinator for the IFC Center for his many insights that contributed to this video essay. This was a film that left me so amazed that I was actually intimidated to offer any substantial analysis, knowing it wouldn’t sufficiently account for my enthusiasm, so I owe Chris a lot for being able to articulate much of what’s great about this movie.
screened May 3 2008 on Fox Lorber DVD in Weehawken NJ
Long considered a stately (read: mediocre) gender-reversing rehash of Jules and Jim (TSPDT #40), Francois Truffaut’s second foray into the work of Henri Roche is in fact his most mature and fully realized work, and one of the very best films I’ve seen throughout the Shooting Down Pictures project. Instead of Jules and Jim‘s giddy, free-flying use of cinema to amplify the exuberance of its young lovers, here Truffaut’s techniques soberly and masterfully emphasize a tactile, constricting sense of place and time against which the desires of this ill-fated threesome continually struggle, charging the film with a steadily accumulating sexual tension that is never fully satiated despite two lengthy sex scenes. Truffaut builds and expands on Jules and Jim‘s vision of love as a dark descent into obsessive ownership killing off the sense of free discovery from which it sprung, while being equally deft, less ostentatious and more judicious in his stylistic approach (characterized by finely choreographed long tracking shots) to emphasize the dramatic core of each scene. The narration is dominated by a voice-over that emphasizes the film’s origins as a novel, but is by no means a reversion to the cinema du papa literary adaptation against which Truffaut made his name criticizing. Narration itself is the controlling theme of the film: it is both a behavior endemic to the film’s highly literate post-Victorian milieu, and an actualization technique through which the three leads formulate their respective identities, though largely at the expense of their innocence and friendship. It is hard to think of many films that are as vigorous and heartfelt in their consideration of the two sexes’ perilous relations as friends and lovers as this masterpiece, Truffaut’s finest.
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Once again I’d like to thank Chris Fujiwara for his tremendous contribution to the video essay for Night of the Demon. Chris, who lives in Japan, took an unprecedented part in conceptualizing the video, sending me multiple drafts of his narration which he even organized into a shooting script with notes on relevant clips from the film. When we were planning the video, we had initially toyed with the idea of incorporating original footage into the film, built around the themes of text and writing as both dead and living entities. Chris went so far as to film footage of the grave of one of his favorite directors, Mikio Naruse. We ended up not incorporating the video or any original footage, as Night of the Demon possesses its own distinct look and feel (enhanced further by Chris’ voiceover) and any additional footage was likely to detract from its power. But I thought it worthwhile to post the footage of Chris and his family’s visit to the Naruse grave, in case anyone wished to pay their virtual respects to this great, still underappreciated master of cinema:
Also be sure to check out “A Visit to Naruse’s Grave” – a photo essay by Film Forum director of repertory programming Bruce Goldstein, published on the occasion of the Naruse retrospective at Film Forum.
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Special thanks to Chris Fujiwara, film critic and author of Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (Johns Hopkins University Press) for his insights and contributions to this video essay.
screened Friday, April 25 2008 on DVD en route to San Francisco CA
At the same time that Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (TSPDT #42) introduced arthouse audiences to existentialist cinema, B-movie veteran Jacques Tourneur’s entry into another 50s genre, the monster movie, tapped as potently into humankind’s fear of the dark unknown. American psychologist Dana Andrews investigates the death of a colleague possibly involving a British devil-cult leader, erupting in a Hegelian death-struggle between rationality and occultism; the outcome emerges when one side acknowledges the power of the other if only to turn it against him. Tourner’s cinema embodies the best of both worlds, utilizing an impressive repertoire of scare techniques – from shock close-ups to long tracking shots shrouded in smoke and shadow; from disorienting geometries achieved through camera and editing to blunt, explicit imagery – in the service of genuine inquiry into the nature of man’s relationship with the supernatural. The results leave a lingering chill, even with Tourneur’s compromise to his producer by, instead of his preferred tactic of perpetual concealment, having to present the titular demon outright (a literalizing of the film’s central concept that’s as egregious as Bergman’s chess-playing Death). The film is perhaps never so unnerving as when it envisions evil in the simplest terms: a storm that descends with sudden implacable force on a children’s party; a slip of paper flapping relentlessly against a fire grate towards its own incineration; a man stumbling down railroad tracks, literally chasing after his life in vain.
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Special thanks to Dan Callahan of The House Next Door, Slant Magazine and Bright Lights Film Journal for his many insights – and for the tweak of Atonement to give this film some contemporary relevance (as well as an excuse to show a Keira Knightley sex scene).
Apologies for the murky video quality – it’s taken from a television broadcast recorded on a VHS that Dan has owned since he was a teenager! Perhaps this is cause to petition for a proper Region 1 DVD release…
screened Monday June 3 2008 on VHS recording of TV broadcast in Brooklyn, NY
The third and final collaboration between director Joseph Losey and screenwriter Harold Pinter nabbed the 1971 Cannes Palme d’Or at the expense of such films as Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (TSPDT #207), Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (TSPDT #611) and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (TSPDT #756). Adapted from L.P. Hartley’s celebrated novel of a schoolboy’s fateful experience conveying love messages between an aristocrat and a farmer, the film mixes period costume opulence and the reserved British sex appeal of leads Julie Christie and Alan Bates with an oblique New Wave narrative framing device to spice up the proceedings. Occurring mostly in the past with occasional flashes to the present, Pinter’s manipulation of time feels perfunctory compared to what Alain Resnais was doing a decade prior, or even what Pinter managed in his script for Losey’s Accident. More interesting is Losey’s entymological dramatization of British manor life, exhibiting both gentility and prejudice with near-emotionless decorum. Pinter’s dialogue pinpoints the neurotic weirdness underlying British politeness with unnerving precision, and is served ably by the ensemble, especially Dominic Guard as the boy, whose naivete and unwitting indiscretions stand sharply against the hypocrisy and innuendo surrounding him.
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Paul Schrader and Ed Lachmann interviewed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of the Ed Lachmann retrospective at BAM.
screened Tuesday, May 20 2007 on 35mm at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
The middle installment of Paul Schrader’s trilogy of urban males entangled in dead-end jobs and murder (including American Gigolo [TSPDT #873], and The Walker) stars Willem Dafoe as a middle-aged drug dealer sliding down the end of his professional and emotional rope. The film improves vastly over the nauseating mix of garish Sirkian camp and austere Bressonian transcendence of American Gigolo, a film too indulgent in B-movie jive to take its seriousness seriously. By contrast, Light Sleeper wears its earnestness almost to a fault, guided by Willem Dafoe’s channeling of Henry Fonda as a Manhattan coke runner, struggling for salvation when old flame and fellow ex-junkie Dana Delany turns up to rip open wounds of guilt and obsession. Schrader directs with professional competence, working with an impressive ensemble (especially Susan Sarandon as the drug den mother) who convey a city full of spiritual vagrants. Schrader’s screenwriting serves them with memorable lines (“You want me to suck your dick? Fine. You want a raise? No.”) and a genuine dose of dignity, as if he’s lived among them. As crisp as their dialogue is at times, their lives are inexorably banal, which might be why critics were unexcited about the film upon its release. But the malaise feels less compensated by style, and therefore less overheated, than even Scorsese’s interpretations of Schrader (i.e. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), and therefore more genuine. The lyrics of Michael Been’s running songtrack rob some nuance from the proceedings, but, along with Ed Lachmann’s atmospheric lensing, add mightily to the overall sense of brooding and endangerment.
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