Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Belated Happy Birthday

Would you believe that on January 23, Jeanne Moreau turned 80? That pixie-ish gamine who was part of the bait in Touchez Pas au Grisbi is eighty years old? C'est impossible!

I was wondering why this item didn't get more attention last week -- I only found out about it because it was posted on a music board I frequent (she did quite a few hit records in France, an aspect of her career that is underdiscussed here). Then I thought about the implications of the fact that Catherine of Jules and Jim is a senior citizen and realized that a lot of my older colleagues probably don't want to be reminded of the passage of time in such a depressing way. I have to confess that the Truffaut has never had the iconic force for me that it seems to hold for so many others. Indeed, my favorite Moreau performances come later in her career -- French Provincial, M. Klein, Cet Amour-La, in which she plays Duras and is the only redeeming feature in an otherwise excruciatingly dull film.

************************

Paying work is a bitch. I've been so busy collecting a paycheck that I've fallen behind on writing about new films at this lemonade stand. Suffice it to say that I have several reviews coming up and will unburden myself later this week. In the meantime, if you can only see one movie this week, run run run to see the Christian Mungiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. In NYC it's at the IFC Center.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Ur-Art Film

There has been an inordinate amount of ink spilled lately in discussions of "art-house" cinema and the alleged death of cinephilia. Thirty-odd years ago, at the peak of my dedication to the auteur theory and the search for great American directors, I might have cracked wise and suggested that a true cinephile was more interested in Boetticher than Bergman, Aldrich than Antonioni or Ford (of course) than Fellini. (Come to that, if those were the dualities proposed, I would still choose the former(s) over the latter(s).) Of course in the past couple of decades guys like Quentin Tarantino have spoiled that ploy by diving deeper than I would care or dare to into the lower depths of genre films. (Fulci over Fellini? Now there is a Hobson's choice of ghastly proportions.) At the same time, I have become increasingly committed in my own aesthetic to a certain vision of narrative film that is both critical and sometimes even anti-narrative.

Moreover, it would be worse than disingenuous to deny the historical connection between the arthouse and the grindhouse in most of our lives in film. I can recall days when I would race from an Aldrich double-bill at the New Amsterdam on 42nd Street to a Bunuel pair at the New Yorker. I still delight in juxtapositions like that, but have to make do with my living room as a screening venue. Viva DVDs!

So, truthfully, I've never had that hard a time reconciling "high" and "low" film art.

What got me wrapped up in this line of thought is the showing at Film Forum over the next couple of weeks of a new 35mm print of Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad, which I've always considered a sort of ur-artfilm. Resnais himself is an aficionado of comic books and similar artifacts of the pop culture world, although you'd be hardput to prove it from his filmography, which is strictly highbrow all the way. (Even his ostensible musicals and bedroom farces are the product of deep theoretical thinking, sometimes but not always to their detriment.)

It must be over 30 years since the last time I saw Marienbad. My memory of it was hazy, as befits a film about the unreliability of human recall and the pliability of our experience of time. The new print on view at Forum is serviceable; it gets a bit grainy at times but that actually works to the film's advantage, amplifying its oneiric quality and Delphine Seyrig's impenetrable sang-froid. Regrettably, Seyrig is about all the film has to offer.

It wouldn't be hard to apportion blame mainly to screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet for the film's obstinate resistance to any fundamental analysis. Compare Marienbad's arch, cryptic anacrostic dialogue and aimless repetitions to Resnais's previous feature, the Marguerite Duras-scripted Hiroshima, Mon Amour and you have the difference between a glib parody of modernist writing and a deeply felt exercise in it. It's a comparison that makes it clear why Duras's reputation continues to grow post-mortem while Robbe-Grillet's evaporates like spit on a hot griddle. Duras's elliptical style conceals deep hurt and real emotion; Robbe-Grillet's is merely so much adolescent game-playing. Their work as filmmakers is similarly disparate: Duras plays elaborate and stimulating games with gender and storytelling, while Robbe-Grillet is basically a high-end pornographer.

But it would be wrong to throw all the blame on one Alain R while letting the other one off the hook. After all, it was probably Resnais's decision to have actors freeze on-camera (bringing to mind unfortunate memories of the ZAZ Police Squad series) and to deliver R-G's dialogue like a cross between the Sermon on the Mount and a fortune cookie enclosure. At the start of his feature film career, Resnais was very much a part of the nouveau roman circle. His work was certainly congruent with the basic attitudes of their own, elliptical, detached, even a little chilly, with a certain formal elegance. Even I, who disliked Marienbad intensely this time around, will readily admit that it is a gracefully crafted film. The precision of Resnais's cross-cutting on synchronized camera movements to link temporally unrelated sequences is frequently breathtaking.

But Robbe-Grillet's strengths and weaknesses are too similar to Resnais's and the glacial cast of the film only emphasizes the problems. As his career progresses, Resnais finds other ways of addressing his own lacks and the results are frequently quite powerful; La Guerre Est Finie, Mon Oncle d'Amerique, Providence, and last year's Private Fears in Public Places are masterful examples of how a repressed style can make its emotional content reverberate all the more powerfully.

But I could happily go another 30 years before I see Last Year at Marienbad again.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Come Home, Woody, All (Well, Some) Is Forgiven

Say what you will about Woody Allen, but even his most stern detractors will have to admit that he has a real affinity for a certain milieu. Bluntly put, no filmmaker has captured the foibles and peculiarities of Upper West Side Jewish intellectuals and would-be intellectuals as Allen. He knows that world as well as John Ford knew a U.S. cavalry outpost, and treats it with as much love and amusement.

Understandably, Allen has chosen in the last several years to move away from that world, both literally and artistically. First he began to branch out to include other precincts of the entertainment world, then the recent past and, most recently, Paris and London. The results from the last move have been wildly uneven, ranging from the incisive social drama of Match Point to the embarrassing failed farce of Scoop. With London as his new base and setting, Allen seems to be groping for a footing. His latest film, Cassandra’s Dream, is not a hopeful portent for the future.

Because his focus in his New York films has always been on such a narrowly defined community, Allen has seldom grappled with class differences. In Match Point he rose to the challenge of class surprisingly well, but even there, one could argue, he was seeking an English equivalent of the people he knows well. Cassandra’s Dream is an extreme departure for him, a film centered on a pair of brothers with roots deep in the working class, and his complete lack of feeling for their daily lives sends the film limping out of the gate from the very first scene to the finale.

Terry (Colin Farrell) is an auto mechanic, Ian (Ewan McGregor) aspires to be a dealmaker but right now is managing their father’s restaurant, little more than a diner. Both the brothers and their parents are in the thrall of Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), a globe-trotting doctor with a chain of plastic surgery clinics. Howard is who Ian wants to be. Terry’s ambitions are smaller, but he is a compulsive gambler and hard drinker. When Uncle Howard shows up with a dilemma involving a business associate who is planning rat him out to the authorities over financial improprieties, he asks his nephews to dispose of the problem.

What Allen seems to have in mind here is a classic film noir, with a dark, fate-driven plot in which everyone suffers regardless of their degree of culpability. The title, which is the name of a boat Terry and Ian buy at the beginning of the film, suggests the kind of fatalistic downward spiral Allen has in mind.

The problem is that Allen has no feeling for the blue-collar world he has chosen as his setting. The problem starts with the casting of the leads: McGregor and Farrell are both too charismatic to be convincing as doomed losers and hapless dreamers. The fact that neither of them is exactly believable as a Cockney doesn’t help but that is the least of the film’s problems. Allen simply has no idea how these people talk or think or behave; the relationships between the brothers and their parents, between the parents and Howard, are clich├ęs gleaned from too many late nights re-reading John Osborne and Arnold Wesker.

Allen lacks the visual control necessary to give the film the driven, paranoiac quality of classic noir. Except for the actual murder, which is competently staged, the film is too slack visually to work either as a suspense piece or as an exercise in the working out of inexorable destinies. The result is a long, hard slog that never rings true. It may be time for Woody to come home.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Last of the NY Jewish Film Festival, and Several of the First Great Movies of 2008

Well I've had a pretty good week, to say the least. Saw Christian Mungiu's much-acclaimed 4 Months, Three Weeks and 2 Days this evening and it more than lives up to its advance reputation. Obviously, I'll have more to say when it opens at the IFC Center later this month. Speaking of the IFC Center, I was there yesterday morning for a screening of the new Andre Techine, The Witnesses, and that, too, is quite splendid. This is already looking like a potentially terrific year, and it's not even the 20th of January yet.

But let me quickly recommend still another excellent film, one that by virtue of opening Friday is the first great film of 2008, Joseph Cedar's dark, congested war drama Beaufort. You can find my interview with Cedar and some comments on the film here. And you can find the last installment of my three-part review of the New York Jewish Film Festival here. As I suggest in that piece, there were few fully realized works in this year's festival (although Beaufort, which is one of them, would be a standout in almost any group of contemporary films), but what made the festival interesting for me this year is that even the most flawed films had some quality that raised them above the run of the mill. If I can say that about the rest of the year, I'll be a happy man indeed.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

What's Coming Up

It dawned on me this morning that in slightly more than a week, I'll be marking the second anniversary of this blog. I was sitting on the subway with Jonathan Rosenbaum's book Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons, pondering his remarks in the book's introduction about the creation of and need for canons. That, and an interview I had just done with a gifted young classical guitarist who said that what he valued about teaching was the importance of being reminded of basic and essential elements of playing technique, got me to thinking about first principles.

I can't speak for any of my colleagues and friends on this question, but I think the grind of regular journalistic criticism -- a new deadline every few days, a screening tomorrow, tomorrow and again the day after tomorrow -- makes it difficult for me to step back and look at those basic issues with any frequency. It was very different when I was teaching intro film appreciation classes to undergraduates 20 years ago; every semester meant revisiting texts and films, re-evaluating my own ideas and whatever I was gleaning from reading other critics and theorists. It's a useful exercise and one that I may have internalized sufficiently for my own purposes over more than three decades of doing this, but it never hurts to articulate the basic stuff directly. So in the next few weeks, in addition to covering whatever else crosses my virtual desk, we'll be talking about what it all means. Or something like that.

The Grain(iness) of the Voice

Apologies to Roland Barthes, but if you have always wondered what I sound like -- with a mild head cold, that is -- here's your chance to find out. In one of my several other lives, I am the music critic for Jewish Week and a frequent contributor to several other Jewish newspapers; when my oldest friend, radio producer Jon Kalish (we go back to the 3rd grade together), asked if I would sit in on his regular podcast for United Jewish Communities, I gladly said yes. Next thing I know I'm doing a completely unplanned interview with Michael Dorf and dj handler, two major Jewish-music entrepreneurs, on the state of Jewish music in the coming year. Hey, that's why they pay me the big . . . well, actually, nothing at all, but it was fun. So if you want to hear the podcast, which Jon did a splendid job of editing and producing, click here.

Anybody got a handkerchief?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A Little Strike Addendum and an Idle Thought

Courtesy of friend and colleague Bob Lamm, allow me to direct your attention to another excellent source of info on the WGA labor stoppage. Nikki Finke, whose industry column is one of the better features in LA Weekly, is doing an apparently daily update on the strike, which can be found here. I've been an admirer of her reporting for a while, so it's a pleasure to finally have a reason to draw your attention to it.

(You know, I've always wanted to use that phrase "labor stoppage" because it sounds like something your plumber would say -- 'yeah, Mr. Robinson, you got a labor stoppage here, but I can disconnect the valves and clean it out.' It also reminds me of one of my favorite legal phrases 'collateral estoppel,' which just rolls off the tongue like underheated roofing tar.)

********************

The other night the b.w. and I watched Wake of the Red Witch, a not uninteresting 1948 John Wayne vehicle from Republic. The film, which is the answer to a mildly amusing trivia question (from whence came the name of Wayne's production company, Batjac?), is a peculiar hybrid, part Conradian South Seas adventure, part mystical romance, with a slightly rickety flashback structure of the sort that was by then old hat. (If you want to see a film with a really bizarre flashback structure, try Passage to Marseilles or The Locket.) What I found intriguing was the dilemma facing Edward Ludwig and the producer(s); who could possibly play a central character who is a Byronic, doomed Gothic swashbuckler, a brute physical force of nature, a wistful romantic and a possible sadist. Sure, John Wayne is the first name that popped into my head, too.

The problem isn't Wayne; he actually does a creditable job with much of the part. There certainly wasn't anyone else at Republic who could have played the multifarious Captain Ralls. (Wild Bill Elliott? Roy Rogers? Nelson Eddy? John Carroll?) In fact, I'm hard put to think of another actor of the era who wouldn't have foundered on the various shoals of self-contradiction presented by the material. My first thought was Gary Cooper, thinking of his work in Morocco and Peter Ibbetson, which has an ending not unlike that of Red Witch. Margo thought the young Cooper too effete for Ralls; she may be right, but the Cooper of '48 is just too old. Think how the wear is beginning to show in his face in The Fountainhead. I thought briefly of Olivier, but he lacks the commanding physical presence of Wayne. Gable is too self-aborbed (and not that good an actor). James Mason could handle all the emotional posts this human pinball bounces around but, again, the physical action just wouldn't be believable. Brando was too young in '48 and unknown, although he is one of the few American actors who might have had the range and presence to bring it off. Clift is too reactive and physically slight.

Well, it was Wayne, had to be Wayne I suppose. and as one of the handful of films in which the Duke dies at the end, it's worth a look. It certainly won't make you re-evaluate Edward Ludwig, who worked on a couple of other Wayne vehicles, The Fighting Seabees (another film in which Wayne dies) and Big Jim McLain, which I have always thought of as a dry run for The Green Berets in the love-it-or-leave-it-political-embarrassment sweepstakes. It is, after all, the only motion picture ever dedicated to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.


Monday, January 07, 2008

Bloodbath on the Boulevard

Hollywood Boulevard, that is. According to L.A. Weekly's Bill Bradley (no, not the basketball player-Senator), the studio heads have hired former Clinton spinmeisters Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane to put down the Writers Guild strike. Up to now, I have refrained from taking sides on this one; I grew up in a union household, my old man worked for unions, I've held numerous offices in the National Writers Union at both local and national levels, but I cover these people as a journalist, so I've kept my opinions on the strike to myself. I have also refrained from taking sides in the Democratic primary fight -- mainly because I don't know who I will support (I'm just hoping for a big shakeout before the NY primary).

But this latest development does bring to mind a few things. First, despite the whining and sniveling from Chris Lehane, the overwhelming majority of WGA members are not making $200,000 a year, "more than teachers and pilots" as he put it. As was, and is, the case with the freelance journalists and authors of the NWU, most of them are scuffling to make ends meet most of the time, or earning their living from something other than their writing. And when Fabiani and Lehane are pulling down $100,000 a month for their work for the studios, they're not exactly the right people to go to bat for the forgotten poor. Oh, and the studio heads from whom Fabiani and Lehane are taking their money and lines aren't exactly missing any meals either. I made a very cursory attempt to find the numbers and so far the best I could do is this item from a 2005 International Herald Tribune story: "Pay for Walt Disney's chief executive, Michael Eisner, rose 14 percent to $8.31 million in 2004 as the world's second-largest media company posted record sales and profit, Bloomberg News reported." Now, in all fairness, Eisner is no longer the head Mouseketeer, but those numbers are fairly representative.

As for the forgotten poor, well it was the Clinton administration's gutting of welfare rights that helped get them forgotten. I wish someone would ask Hillary about that. At the very least, Fabiani and Lehane provide a vivid reminder of where the Clintons really are at politically. Or as a dear friend and colleague aptly observed several years ago, "Bill Clinton has been one of the best moderate Republican presidents we've ever had."

On the positive side, thanks to the strike NBC is apparently preparing to drop the telecast of the Golden Globes on the 13th. Surely even die-hard union-haters can agree that this is a step in the right direction for America and the world. Now if we could only do something about the People's Choice Awards, the Grammys . . . .

Finally, I commend you to the following strike-related blogs:
United Hollywood
Speechless Without Writers
Strike Points

Yes, they are all pro-union. This is a blog, a vehicle for my opinions. It is not objective reporting. It doesn't claim to be. If you want the other side, just turn over a rock and ask Fabiani and Lehane.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Starting a New Year on an Up Note

Here's my modest first contribution to your viewing pleasure for 2008. The New York Jewish Film Festival begins at the Walter Reade Theatre on January 9; my first-week coverage of it can be found here. Beaufort, which I consider a must-see film, opens on the 18th.

You have your orders. Now carry them out.

I've always looked forward to the retrospectives this festival always includes. My sidebar on the first three of them runs in Jewish Week today, but some technological reason beyond my feeble understanding, isn't on the website. So here's what I wrote:

Although the overwhelming majority of the writing generated by this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival will focus on the new movies on display, the Film Society and the Jewish Museum have done their usual splendid job of highlighting some important rescue and restoration projects as well. In addition to a retrospective look at the work of the late Austrian director Axel Corti (which we will discuss next week), this year’s festival includes three films from the more distant past that are well worth a look.

By far the most exciting of the three restorations is “Love One Another,” a 1922 drama directed by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Carl Dreyer. Dreyer was an inveterate philo-Semite, a deeply spiritual Christian who devoted many hours and pages to debunking the myth of the Jews as the murderers of Jesus. (His dream project, a film of the life of Jesus specifically intended to exonerate the Jews, was regrettably never made.) “Love One Another,” an adaptation of a novel by fellow Dane Aage Madelung, was only Dreyer’s fourth feature film; like the novel it centers on the terrible tragedies that befall Hanna-Liebe in 1905 Russia. She is hounded out of village by lying gossip, finds herself mixed up with revolutionaries and police agents in St. Petersburg an finally returns home just in time for a pogrom.

Unfortunately, “Love One Another,” for all its admirable intentions, is rather minor Dreyer, a setback after his previous film, the wonderful pastoral comedy-drama “The Parson’s Wife.” Dreyer’s approach to the material is surprisingly unnuanced, his moral palette devoid of any shades of gray, with the result that the film is wildly melodramatic to diminished effect. Still, there are great moments and the entire first third of the film with its skillful contrast between stark and barren interiors and the sun-dappled woods surrounding the village is quite lovely.

“His Wife’s Lover” is a 1931 film that billed itself as the “First Jewish Musical Comedy Talking Picture,” which it probably is. More significant, it is the only appearance on film of the great Yiddish musical comedy star, Ludwig Satz. The script is a silly farce in which matinee idol Eddie (Satz) finds himself wooing the girl of his dreams (Lucy Levin) who he has already married in the guise of a cantankerous old man in order to win a bet. The less one thinks about this plot, the better, but Satz has a grand time jumping back and forth between the two roles and his whiny oldster anticipates Jerry Lewis’s arrested adolescent in some unsettling but very funny ways. Sidney Goldin does little more than keep the action going, but the film is modest fun.

The great historian of silent cinema, Kevin Brownlow, thought so much of Edward Sloman that he devoted a chapter of his classic oral history “The Parade’s Gone By” to his work and recollections. “His People” a 1925 melodrama about Jewish pride and assimilation in modern
New York City, was such a hit that Sloman complained to Brownlow that for years after studio heads would toss at him any remotely Jewish-sounding project. Seeing the film in the restored version being shown in the festival, it’s not hard to see why. Sloman’s direction is brisk and business-like but laced with adroit humor that takes the edge off some of the more absurd excesses of this story of two brothers, one a selfish lawyer who passes himself off as an orphan, and the other a talented boxer with an Irish girlfriend. Rudolph Schildkraut is memorable as their father and the film plays a rather graceful variation on the Jacob/Esau rivalry.

For info on the Festival go here.