January 2010

995 (130). Douce / Love Story (1943, Claude Autant-Lara)

Screened January 27 2010 on DVR downloaded from the website that dare not speak its name in Brooklyn NY

TSPDT rank #839  IMDb

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, the one film on the TSPDT 1000 that I hadn’t been able to locate in any form was this one, which had just been re-introduced to the list after the January update. Not long after that update, with the help of a couple of wonderful people from the French archival cinema community, I was able to track down a 35mm print of the film with the rights held by Gaumont. Unfortunately, Gaumont quoted me a ridiculous fee of several hundred Euros to rent the print, which made it pretty much impossible for me to access it. However, fortuitously at the same time, someone posted a DVR rip of the film, presumably from European television broadcast, to a site that will here remain unidentified. So I had my chance at last to watch this strangely inaccessible classic of French cinema.

The one catch was that the rip was unsubtitled, which presented me with the dilemma of whether I should proceed with watching, esp. given that reviews of the film mention the elegant script by Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche. Fortunately, Marilyn Ferdinand provides a solid enough account of the plot on her site that I was encouraged to take the leap. All the same, I must acknowledge that my understanding of the film is by no means satisfactory. I can only hope that my opting to treat this as an experiment in watching a film without a grasping its dialogue might offer alternative insights focused more intently on its cinematic properties.

I should also mention that watching the film in this manner reminded me of many times as a child when I’d watch American comedy films and TV shows with my mother, and I’d laugh along with the punch lines only to turn to see my mom bearing an uncomprehending smile, aware that there was something to laugh about but not quite knowing what was funny. I think there were at least a couple of instances where I’d play the asshole and ask her if she got the joke. In some ways I was as confused as she was – ashamed at the wedge between us, irrationally resentful to her for making me feel alienated in my joy even as with the TV laugh track to egg me on. I dedicate this entry to her, that we may unshamefully derive our own pleasures from what we don’t fully understand. Continue Reading »

994 (129). Menschen am Sonntag People on Sunday (1930, Curt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann)

Screened January 19 2010 on BFI DVD rip downloaded from the website that dare not speak its name in Los Angeles, CA

TSPDT Rank #984  IMDb Wiki

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“A film without actors” reads the subtitle of this title card. You have to think about what a concept like that meant back in 1930 Germany, why it would be perceived as a selling point instead of a drawback. A desire to get away from the excesses of Weimar Expressionism (Caligari, Metropolis, Murnau) whose overt theatricality and expensively staged, light-and-shadow spectacle were perceived as out of touch with the reality of Germany. All the better for a band of up-and-coming German filmmakers to make a distinguishing statement for themselves. Ulmer, Zimmerman, Siodmark, Wilder, Schüfftan (whose pioneering work in special effects seems antithetical to the spirit of this particular production): no one at the time could have imagined what a dream team of legendary talent this would prove to be. (My deranged mind summons this as a contemporary hip-hop equivalent)

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Wilder’s silent dialogue screenplay doesn’t give much indication of the verbal brilliance that would grace his future scripts; but the story, basically chronicling how two guys pick up and dump a couple of girls on a weekend tryst, does give a whiff of his trademark cynicism. The story, such as it is, was based on “reportage” by Robert Siodmark (I can see it now; Siodmark telling Wilder, “I know this guy…”)

In the opening montage that introduces the main characters, Schüfftan’s way of framing people flirts with the Soviet propaganda style, shooting ordinary working folk in a statuesque, heroic manner, like cab driver Erwin Splettstsser:

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But when he gets around to the Erwin’s friend Wolfgang von Waltershausen, an “officer, farmer, antique dealer, gigolo, wine trader…” the staging and lighting is less flattering:

officer, farmer, antique dealer,
gigolo, wine trade

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One also might wonder if the multiple job labels appended to Wolfgang signify him as a Berlin Everyman, in that there’s a shadiness in men of all stations, which makes them less inconographic and more complicated – and thus more real – than their Soviet onscreen counterparts.

When we get to Erwin’s galpal Annie, an unemployed model who lounges all day in their apartment, we are back in the realm of G.W. Pabst/Louise Brooks decadence, though made less sensationalistic and more quotidian – she’s less the symbol of Weimar moral depravation as just a girl killing time picking her fingernails, waiting for a job but too lazy/depressed to go and find it.

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The plot kicks off at a bus stop with Christl, introduced as a real life movie extra – her casting as a lead here may be a conscious inversion of the pecking order of actors. Wolfgang picks her up and makes a date in this shot, shot in a telephoto on a bustling street with real pedestrians and presumably a real police officer who doesn’t know he’s being filmed.

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It’s a verite technique that (permits be damned) continues to this day, so long as the desire for street realism persists. The first time I was ever conscious of it was when Siskel and Ebert pointed it out in their review of Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies:

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For an outstanding present-day example of this technique, check out Bradley Rust Gray’s The Exploding Girl, which will be released this spring in the US. (The film’s street cinematography is highly influenced by Hou Hsiao Hsien’s use of the technique in Cafe Lumiere).

This is just one of several strategies used by the film to infuse its wisp of a narrative with a real-time, real-world immediacy and texture. Aside from cinematography, there’s also montages of street shots that break in between scenes involving the main characters, as if to say, this story is just one plucked from the many people and experiences happening now. The montages also provide invaluable incidental details on Berlin circa 1930: how people got around (trolleys, cars), how streets looked:

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But again, realism in narrative cinema isn’t just a matter of shooting everyday streets and scenarios and leaving it up to whatever happens to pass in front of the camera, at least as far as this film is concerned. There’s a distinct craft on display. All the technical resourcefulness and attentive eyes that blessed German filmmaking of this period is now trained not on outsized spectacle or melodrama but on capturing, staging and conveying an unmistakable impression of the real, and making it feel effortless and incidental. This paradoxical effort truly comes through in the scene where Edwin comes back home to find Annie lounging. Their mutual sense of malaise slowly simmers through a series of mundane actions that erupt into a shared tirade. Count how many shots are used in this sequence, moving deftly across the room, moving ever tighter, as if the walls were closing in as surely as that incessant dripping of the faucet:

At last, to get at each other’s goat, they tear down a wall’s worth of matinee idol lobby cards (actresses for him; actors for her), an arresting image and yet another dig at the wall of conventional moviemaking that this film attempts to undermine – as if all these fantasy images were symptomatic of the self-oppression and alienation from reality that may be plaguing this couple (and really, how far have we come?). But before they can really have it out, Wolfgang waltzes in and the buddies pick up a game of cards, leaving Annie looking on helplessly. We get one devastating close-up before the camera recedes from this tomb-like chamber of discord.

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The next day Wolfgang and Erwin meet up with Christl and her friend Brigitte, a salesgirl, for a jaunt to Nikolassee, a grand park and recreation area on the outskirts of Berlin. In this extended passage the film is a world away from the tightly rendered naturalism of Erwin’s apartment, and indulges in a series of bold ventures in alternative narrative cinema. To set things up there’s a titillating sequence where the youngsters awkwardly undress, hiding in the rushes along a river.

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Later on they picnic in a nearby spot, engaging in some jocularity leading to Erwin getting playfully spanked. This triggers a jarring jump to a scene of schoolboys spanking each other. Is it a cutaway to some other part of Berlin where this is happening? Is it a flashback to Erwin’s school days?

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This leads to an idyllic passage that roams the park landscape ripe with families picnicking with naked babies frolicking on the sunny grass – the film seems to be moving intuitively through a series of moods and associations of gaiety and youthful innocence…

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But as the sun-drenched visuals continue, a sense of afternoon languor starts to creep in: the shots move back to the city, baking in the midday heat. Adults slump on park benches or slouch over windowsills. The montage comes to a rest back in the apartment of Annie, finding her sleeping:

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And then leaps back to the park, where we find our party similarly resting in the sun. At least Erwin is behaving himself so far from his girl’s sight, though that leaves Wolfgang to casually lay his paws on both girls at once:

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Another vaguely associative cut, jumping back to the city and the shot of a mannequin in lingerie basking in the harsh shadows of late afternoon – seductive yet strangely deathly in its inertness. The death theme creeps in further as the montage shifts to shots of a gravesite:

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Which then matches graphically with the windows of an apartment building:

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and then the montage shifts to a scene where a beach photographer takes souvenir photos, which are incorporated in the montage. The internal logic of the sequence seems to be a desire to overcome a creeping sense of death and languidness that threatens to extinguish all this life…

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Immortalized by the camera:

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… or in a moment of sexual fantasy. A moment unlike any other before in cinema – clearly no love involved, at least on the male side, so for the viewer there’s no pretense of romantic idealism attached to the moment.

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It’s just the pure erotic charge of a moment, where woman’s common sense (I know this guy just wants to bone me, and yet…) puts up an initial resistence…

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And yet… the intense sensation of touch, the warm breath of his nostrils under her palm, the sweat and pulse of sexual excitement. The moment where a girl and The Cinema both discover the feeling of sex…

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… all in this shot…

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And so, a film ostensibly about capturing the lives of everyday people funnels into a full-circle depiction of their desire to escape the everyday, if only for a moment…

Jump forward nearly 80 years – the push-pull explosive exertion of this moment hasn’t been forgotten, at least not by Jean-Luc Godard. Witness his trailer for the 2008 Viennale:

And see also the films of this guy to see how the spirit of People on Sunday lives on… Everyday people, enraptured in everyday fantasy.

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993 (128). Abschied von gestern – (Anita G.) / Yesterday Girl (1966, dir. Alexander Kluge)

Screened December  17 2009 on .avi format downloaded from the website that dare not speak its name in Brooklyn NY

TSPDT Rank # 938 IMDb Wiki

This post is dedicated to Matthew Dessem, proprietor of The Criterion Contraption. I’m going to co-opt his lengthy, conversational approach to writing up films, to savor this film as well as the remaining entries of my own project…

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Accentuating the Positive: Favorite TSPDT films I Saw Last Year

Since my last entry had some less-than-flattering commentary on the TSP1000 list, here’s a post that highlights some of the best movies I saw last year, all thanks to the TSP1000 . You can click on the respective titles to see what I wrote about each. Unfortunately it seems that each one is on a slippery slope due to the new update, and a few have dropped out of the list entirely.

I’m also surprised and delighted by the number of comments that last entry received, and to know that others are using the TSP1000. So what films from the list have you seen in the past year that you enjoyed most? You can scan through the list to jog your memory if needed. In the meantime, here were my favorites:

Under the Bridges (1945, Helmut Kautner) (was #829, now #889)
Limite (1931, Mario Peixoto) (was #683, now #732)
Moonrise (1948, Frank Borzage) (no longer in the top 1000)
Toute une nuit (1989, Chantal Akerman) (was #975, now #977)
Bienvenido, Mister Marshall (1953, Luis Garcia Berlanga) (was #915, now #955)
Lucifer Rising (1972, Kenneth Anger) (no longer in the top 1000) Video  Essay
Tout va bien (Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin) (was #948, now #975)
The Ladies’ Man (1961, Jerry Lewis) (no longer in the top 1000)
Starship Troopers (1997, Paul Verhoeven) (was #974, now #898)
The Lusty Men (1952, Nicholas Ray)  (was #740, now #760) Video Essay

Shuffling the Deck (& Losing Cards): Thoughts on the Latest Update to the TSPDT 1000

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First off, I want to commend Bill Georgaris on another monumental round of collecting, compiling and computating in delivering the latest update to the 1000 Greatest Films on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? The January 2010 edition incorporates 216 more films than the previous update of December 2008, resulting in the replacement of 68 films in the list of 1000. The good news for me is that the update only sets me back four spots in my quest to see  all 1000 films. My countdown will resume with Alexander Kluge’s Yesterday Girl at #993 instead of #997.

I’m expecting the Shooting Down Pictures project to finally conclude in the weeks to come – though I’ll be taking time to savor the remaining films as best as I can, at least as much as Matthew Dessem appears to in his entries on the Criterion Collection catalog. (Many thanks to him for giving me a mention in his profile by Roger Ebert.)

There is one film in the “left to see” column that has proven incredibly difficult to obtain, and that film is Douce / Love Story by Claude Autant-Lara. I can’t find a video copy of this film anywhere, and as of now it’s looking like I will have to spend a few hundred Euros to rent the film from France and then rent out a theater to screen it. If anyone out there knows of a way to access this film without considerable financial cost, please don’t hesitate to contact me at alsolikelife at gmail dot com.

I feel that I should follow up on last year’s version of this “state of the project” post (which itself was a rehash of issues I raised the year before), in which I offered a mild complaint that the list has consistently shown a lack of regard for world cinema (unless your idea of world cinema is Europe or Hollywood movies set in Middle Earth), as well as experimental films and films by women. Maybe I’m betraying my own biases towards films I consider underrepresented, but on the other hand there seem to be no shortage of supporters of the mainstream. The latest version of the list grimly bears this out.  I don’t so much mind that Jaws is now part of the top 100 films, even if it bumps off Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or, a Surrealist equivalent of a cinematic shark attack on the unsuspecting viewer. I have more of an issue with the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy being shoehorned in by however many fanboy lists taken from any number of popcorn geek sites.

The numbers offer further discouragement. The number of films from North America and Europe keep climbing, from 900 to 905. At least the number of films by women went up one notch – the list traded Jane Campion’s Angel at My Table for Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark and Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I, bringing that total to 17. The experimental field dropped to 18 films (Mothlight and Dog Star Man replaced Flaming Creatures, Scenes from Under Childhood and Lucifer Rising).

Last year I tried to make my move to buck this trend by calling out to world cinema and experimental film scholars to contribute their lists. Unfortunately, my calls were met with typical responses of “I don’t do lists” and “how much does it matter anyway?” At the start of last year I considered the TSPDT 1000 a cultural landmark, something that people, especially young aspiring cinephiles, would turn to for guidance in their exploration of movies, and thus it was vital to make sure that the list represented a diversity of cinema. But after hearing so many film experts whose opinion I respect give a collective shrug to the project, I’m all but burned out on the idea of canons and their importance.

I do thank those individuals who sent lists my way, which I duly forwarded to Bill for inclusion. I would like to give a special thanks to one particular person, Nitish Pahwa, who took my call to action more to heart than just about anyone. He went to the trouble of transcribing an issue of Outlook magazine in which 25 Indian film directors were polled to pick their favorite Indian films of all time, the results of which were compiled. (Since this list doesn’t exist anywhere online to my knowledge, I plan to post it sometime soon.) I considered this a major find, given that India continues to make more movies per year than any other country, and yet they receive very little exposure to a world audience. I dutifully forwarded the results to Bill, as well as the findings of a similar poll of South Asian cinema organized by the BFI some years ago. To my chagrin, neither of these polls were figured into the current update.

In an email, Bill had told me that he could only count top ten lists for all films, and not those only focused on national cinemas. But if you look at the PDF Companion to the current 1000 films, which lists every source cited in the compilations, you’ll see numerous lists from the American Film Institute (AFI) that celebrate only American films: “America’s 100 Most Thrilling”; “America’s 10 Greatest Films in 10 Classic Genres”. There are countless genre-specific lists as well that focus only on sci-fi, horror, comedy, even “Spiritually Significant Films.”

If these topical lists can be considered, then why can’t a list on Indian or African or Asian cinema? Especially if it’s the only way for Indian film experts to be counted, given that these Indian specific lists are the only instance of their input on the subject? Otherwise, if you look at who voted for the Indian films, they’re almost exclusively European or American critics. Really then, what is this list but an echo-chamber exercise touting whatever films a Euro-centric pool of “experts” happen to see? Maybe this would explain why several Satyajit Ray films remain on the list, while Mother India, arguably the most revered film among Indians, dropped out of the updated list of 1000 – despite being mentioned repeatedly in the lists I collected to give to Bill.

I really hope that Bill reconsiders his position on the lists I submitted him, because for me they embody a crucial underpinning to the cultural significance this list has to offer: to what extent it can truly claim to offer the “greatest” in “all” of cinema,  according to a truly representative selection of film “experts.” As someone who has followed this list for years,  and has been one of its most ardent supporters, it pains me to raise these questions. But I wish to make the stakes clear: nothing less than ensuring the credibility and value of this list.

Poll: Chinese Films of the Decade

Running on Karma (dir. Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai)

Running on Karma (dir. Johnnie To and Wa Ka Fai)

Over on the dGenerate Films website, the results of weeks of emailing Chinese film experts and tabulating of ballots to determined the top Chinese language films of the last 10 years. I’m kind of whateverz about the top pick, which I’ve reflected upon already, but I think results are quite interesting. I didn’t expect West of the Tracks to place so highly, and didn’t realize Devils on the Doorstep had so much support as well. But the showing for Oxhide was truly amazing – and heartening. I still need to write at length what I think about that film as well as it’s equally astounding sequel.

I didn’t submit a top ten list to the poll to avoid conflict of interest, but for what it’s worth here’s what mine would have looked like:

Before the Flood (Yu Yan and Li Yifan)
Crime and Punishment
(Zhao Liang) – still waiting to see Petition though
Hero (Zhang Yimou)
Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow)
Oxhide (Liu Jiayin)
Platform (Jia Zhangke)
Running on Karma (Johnnie To and Wa Ka-Fai)
The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang)
West of the Tracks (Wang Bing) – sort of the 800 pound gorilla whose massiveness can’t be denied
Yi Yi (Edward Yang)

See what everyone else voted by going here

Top 50 of the ’00s (as seen on Twitter)

For those not following, here’s the rundown:

50: ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (04 McKay) The purest, most protean offering from the Judd Apatow juggernaut.
49: HERO (’02, Zhang) Up there with TRIUMPH OF THE WILL among great propaganda movies. (The ’08 Olympic ceremonies could have this spot 2)
48: CACHE. Former #1 of ’05 4 me, but I’ve lost interest in Haneke’s puppet-stringing along of his audience no matter how masterful
47: WOMAN ON THE BEACH (06) My favorite Hong Sang-soo film b/c it goes furthest beyond the psychosexual self-flagellation of prickish males
46: WEST OF THE TRACKS (04 Wang Bing) The SHOAH or SATANTANGO of the ’00s? Europe/Asia say yes, US has no clue – I’m somewhere in between
45 KUNG FU HUSTLE (04) Not as deliriously funny as Chow’s 90s work but more consistent, world audience-friendly, and still crazy inventive
44 GRIZZLY MAN (05 Herzog) Rarely has a filmmaker revealed so much of himself (boorishly & brilliantly) by sifting through another’s work
43 WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE (06) 25th HOUR is great, but Spike Lee’s 4 hr Katrina doc is like a Mahler symphony: 1 long cumulating heartbreak
42 BEFORE THE FLOOD (05 Yan Yu, Li Yifan) docu inspiration for STILL LIFE, w/o the arthouse dressing. Sometimes raw is better than cooked.
41 PAPRIKA (06 Satoshi Kon) like an anime Cronenberg movie, and even more chockfull of animation styles than SPIRITED AWAY
40: MOOLAADE (04 Sembene) A feel-good movie on female genital mutilation: one of many contradictions from this African JOHNNY GUITAR Continue Reading »

996 (128). White Shadows in the South Seas (1928, W.S. Van Dyke)

Screened Wednesday December 23 2009 on 35mm at the MoMA Study Center, New York NY

TSPDT rank #986    IMDb Wiki

A white man on a trade expedition in an exotic tropical locale abandons his greedy merchant colonial companions to shack up with a native girl. He learns her people’s ways and warns them of the encroaching enemy that threatens to wipe out their culture. All of this is presented in a groundbreaking cinematic format that will redefine the standard of motion pictures to come. Sound familiar?

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This 1928 Tahitian excursion was the first MGM sound film (as well as the first to feature the famous MGM lion in the credit roll). Swap 3-D for sound innovation and you pretty much have a Tahitian template for Avatar.  Not saying that James Cameron knowingly ripped off the plot; it’s pretty much self-flagellating post-Colonialist drivel, the Eurocentric bullshit that even Terrence Malick isn’t immune to. But at least instead of James Horner muzak, we get William Axt and David Mendoza’s sub-equatorial symphonic jazz score (listening to it, you can practically see the palm trees swinging languidly in the breeze – trimmed with Art Deco tinsel):

This production was set to be Robert Flaherty’s first feature for a Hollywood studio, but (as notes following the break detail) his ethnographic philosophy and methods clashed with his professional crew, led by assistant director W.S. “One Take” Van Dyke (The Thin Man). Flaherty eventually left the shoot (later to return to the Polynesians with F.W. Murnau to shoot Tabu) and Van Dyke took over, completing the shoot in swift succession and delivering what in many ways is a quintessential Hollywood entertainment: exotic adventure, love, gunfights, technical innovation,  spectacle linked to pseudo-liberal social consciousness. Plus giant killer clams and a the unforgettable sight of a body washed ashore covered in horseshoe crabs.  The film also skirts the issue of language barrier that forced Cameron to invent a whole new language, as White and Tahitian silent dialogues are translated into the universal language of English subtitles. Only in the movies, indeed.

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