Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Cleaning Up the Mess That Is My Desk

Maybe I should just forget the month of December happened this year. I certainly have seen movies this month, but I might as well have stayed home, given how much writing I got done.

It wasn't all for naught. You can read my Jewish Week reviews of Valkyrie here and my review of Good, which opens today, below.

It was a terrific year for film, despite what many have said to the contrary. I won't post a final ten-best list until the Iras, sometime in March, but a list of some of the movies that impressed me is a long one:

Beaufort (Joseph Cedar)
Tehillim (Rafael Nadjari)
The Witnesses (Andre Techine)
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Christian Mungiu)
A Secret (Claude Miller)
The Band's Visit (Eran Kolirin)
Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov; his best film since Russian Ark)
Married Life (Ira Sachs; I seem to be the only person in America who liked this one)
Momma's Man (Azazel Jacobs)
Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
XXY (Lucia Puenzo)
Paranoid Park (Gus van Sant)
My Father, My Lord (David Volach)
Warsaw Bridge (Pere Portabella)
Razzle Dazzle (Ken Jacobs)
My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)
"Mother Economy" (Maya Zack)
Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)
A Christmas Story (Arnaud Desplechin)
The Man From London (Bela Tarr)
Ashes of Time Redux (Wong Kar-Wai)
Return to the Scene of the Crime (Ken Jacobs)
News From Home/News From House (Amos Gitai)
One Day You'll Understand (Amost Gitai)


When a film is titled Good, it takes all the self-control a critic can muster not to spend most of a review playing with the title. Mind you, Good, the new film by Brazilian director Vicente Amorim, is much too somber a work to lend itself to any sort of playfulness. Given its subject matter, the ease with which a man of good will can be seduced by Fascism – the title is clearly meant ironically – there are not, understandably, a lot of belly-laughs on offer, and the film’s sobriety is at once both its greatest strength and its principal weakness.

John Halder (Viggo Mortensen, looking disturbingly like the young Kirk Douglas) is a professor of literature, who we first encounter in 1937 when he is called to the Reichschancellory, where he is asked, on the strength of a novel he wrote years before, to prepare a paper in defense of euthanizing the “chronically ill and disabled.” Then we are thrown back into 1933, where Halder is juggling his teaching, cooking for his two children, caring for his aging mother and catering to his neurotic wife, a pianist. Back at the university, he is teaching Proust when his department head, apparently Jewish, informs him that the French novelist is now on the banned list. Outside his classroom, Nazi students are burning books. In the meantime, a fetching blonde student, Anne (Jodie Whittaker) is taking a rather unacademic interest in him. Soon he finds himself immersed in an affair, drifting away from wife and slowly making accommodations to the new political force sweeping Germany. Needless to say, his best friend, a Jewish fellow WWI veteran and psychiatrist, Maurice (Jason Isaacs), is less than enthused.

Once the film has made good on the initial connection between Halder’s novel (about which we learn surprisingly little) and his agreement to write the paper, it drops the to-and-fro narrative line, reverting to a straightforward chronology in which we see Halder become increasingly immersed in the Nazi hierarchy, becoming an SS “reserve” officer, then being ordered into the streets on Kristallnacht and finally being sent to the East to report on the “relocation” of the Jews for Adolf Eichmann. His mother finally dies, he divorces his wife and marries Anne, Maurice is swept up in the maelstrom of Kristallnacht and disappears into the concentration camp system.

Screenwriter John Wrathall and Amorim have adapted C.P. Taylor’s 1981 play of the same name by excising all the theatrical elements and giving it a disappointingly conventional narrative structure, then dressing the entire enterprise up in nicely observed period detail. Their mistake lies in the belief that because film is “a more realistic medium” than theater, it has no room for artifice. As a result, the film is stodgy and predictable, a situation that is not helped by the plodding rhythms Amorim imposes on the material.

The one element of stylization they have retained from the original is that Halder hears Mahler being played by the people around him at key moments in the film, a motif whose payoff comes at the end when he follows the music, one last time, only to realize that this time it is coming from a real orchestra, the inmates of the concentration camp he is inspecting. As Mortensen stammers in disbelief, “It’s real,” and the camera dances crazily around the madness of violence, frenzy and chaos that surrounds him, finally halting on a long shot in which Halder is barely discernible, the lone still point in a Brueghelian nightmare panorama. It is one of the few outstanding moments in the film, a directorial coup de theatre of the sort that Good desperately needs more.

But even as a character study, Good makes little sense. Although Mortensen struggles mightily with the material, there is no center to Halder. We don’t know enough about his earlier life to understand why he wrote his novel or why he proves so susceptible to the Nazis’ flattery. Without some sense of the man’s inner life, his slow descent into the criminal enterprise that is the Third Reich registers as completely arbitrary, rather than as the slow slide down the slippery slope that it is intended to be. Consequently, Good fails a profile of the banality of evil, as a drama of the ease with which some people can compromise their morals and as a piece of spectacle. Instead, it becomes merely one more soap opera about the Nazis, the latest in an ever-lengthening line.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

This Time, There's a Reason for the Long Silence

I'm struggling with router/adapter problems that have made it impossible for me to get on-line for almost two weeks. I can get a few hours a day on Margo's computer, but running up and down stairs between our offices, juggling files and so on have made it a damned nuisance to do anything more complicated than checking my e-mail.

However, I have not been totally idle. My piece on Adam Resurrected, including a few brief excerpts from my interview with Paul Schrader, can be found here, and when I get these idiotic computer problems resolved, I'll post a lot more from that interview, as well as several reviews of new films.

And in a few days -- technology permitting -- I'll be expanding the George Robinson Communications empire, adding a blog dedicated entirely to Jewish music.

Rupert Murdoch, giu la testa!!!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Anything but Turkey for the Holiday

Hey, drag yourself over to Film Forum, if you're in NYC, 'cause their Carole Lombard festival is about to hit its final high point with Lombard's last film, Ernst Lubitsch's To Be Or Not To Be. As you may well expect, I had a few things to say about this gem in Jewish Week. So after you have polished off that large bird -- Franklin thought that the turkey should have been he nationsl bird, you know -- you can spend at least part of the weekend with something that's definitely not a turkey. (Sorry, I can't help myself.)

Okay, now that I've gotten that out of my system (we're having chicken -- Margo doesn't like turkey and she's doing the cooking so it's dealer's choice), let me refer back to a recent posting for a moment. Back on the 14th I was talking about Arnaud Desplechin and his new film A Christmas Tale, and I neglected to mention that the IFC Center, where that movie is playing, also was doing a retrospective of the director's previous work. My bad. However, you are not too late to catch one more special event around the new film; on Sunday, November 30 at 12:30 p.m., the IFC Center will be hosting the latest in its series of iQ&A programs, conversations with important filmmakers and actors through the wonders of Apple's iChat AV system. Needless to say, the featured transatlantic guests, live from Paris, on Sunday will be Desplechin and actors Mathieu Amalric and Chiara Mastroianni. Should be an intersting afternoon.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Oops -- My Error

My good friend Bob Lamm points out to me that by Fall 1968 when the fabled 29-29 game was played, the Man Known as Dubya had already graduated from Yale the previous spring. Well, we all know that the Yale Class of 1968 has a lot ot answer for.

For example, a federal judge has ruled that five Algerians held for seven years in Guantanamo must be released due to the total lack of evidence that they were planning to go to Afghanistan to fight against the U.S. troops there. To put it football terms -- so that the soon to be former President can grasp it -- holding these poor schmucks while you try to build a case would be like letting Harvard have unlimited time in each of their huddles so that they could plan for every single possible option Yale might come up with. And I have to say that if the U.S. government couldn't build a case against these guys in seven years, it suggests that there wasn't one to being with.

In the meanwhile, I couldn't resist sharing an item from today's Times; in what must surely be an example of life imitating really, really bad art, an Air Canada jet was landed with the aid of a flight attendant last January after the co-pilot suffered a nervous breakdown in the air and had to be forceably restrained. Apparently, though, unlike Karen Black this flight attendant actually was a licensed commercial pilot. And I'm assuming that, also unlike Karen Black in most of her film appearances, the flight attendant didn't bare her breasts gratuitously. God, I miss the '70s. on the other hand, I suppose this proves that you really can't make this stuff up. (and why on earth would you want to anyway?).

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

In Ivy-League Kind of Game

I had the great good fortune recently of seeing Kevin Rafferty's genial documentary Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29 with my good friend and colleague Bob Lamm. Bob, you see, was actually at the famous football game in question back in 1968, and when I finished giving him CPR to get him back to a conscious state -- he warned me that reliving the trauma would be dangerous -- he stammered out a gasping thank-you. The film is playing at Film Forum through December 2.

As some of you know, I was as sportswriter for about 15 years, and the perspective I bring to sports movies is a trifle odd. (Don't say it.) People who only know that I was trained as a film critic and spent time as a sportswriter make the peculiar assumption that I love "sports movies," by which they mean fiction films in which actors play at playing games.

I don't. I hate them. I hate them because they reek of fake sentimentality worse than any other film genre I can think of (other than holiday-themed family comedies and dramas, particularly those set at Christmas). I hate them because the filmmakers always boast about how authentic their new epic is and how hard the actors worked to learn to play the sport in question; with a very, very few exceptions, the actors look awkward, even foolish at whatever the athletic endeavor in question may be.

Most of all, though, I hate sports fiction films because they invariably focus on what is least interesting to me as a film critic and sportswriter, who wins or loses the "big game." Of course in the real world that is a matter of some concern in and of itself -- I'm fascinated by strategy and tactics, so I'm not indifferent to that question. I love what former major-league catcher Ted Simmons called his favorite part of the game: "the mental application of physical skills." But what is truly interesting about sports is one that is seldom touched on in the sports fiction film, what our games tell us about who we are and what we value. (Hogwash like Field of Dreams purport to tell us that, but that film is clueless beyond a certain orotund spewing of fake-poetic cliches.)

For that we must turn, almost always, to sports documentaries, and that has become a growth field in recent years. These films, at their best, uncover little-known history -- Black Magic, The First Basket -- or ways in which occasionally unfamilar events can tell us something about our society -- Kicking It. Sometimes, in a film like the recent Zinedine Zidane documentary, they just let us get a lot closer to the sheer beauty of an event, the music and dance of the game that often gets lost in our concern with the nuts and bolts and stats.

Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29 is a film that tries to do several things at once. Since the title, drawn from a headline that ran in the Harvard Crimson after the completion of the 1968 version of this ancient rivalry, tells you the final result, certainly the interest can't be on the game's outcome. (Well, actually it is, to some extent as we will see momentarily.) And it's been a long time since either school played for anything more significant than an Ivy League title.

But Rafferty (Atomic Cafe, Blood in the Face, The Last Cigarette) is certainly not a filmmaker who would create a time-waster. In part, 29-29 is about 1968 forty years later, with a supposedly ragtag Harvard team whose members included both anti-war activists and a Vietnam veteran, safety Pat Conway, pitted against a Yale team led by Brian Dowling (who never lost a game in which he started, at any level of the sport) and Calvin Hill, possibly the greatest running back in post WWII Ivy League history. But "ragtag" Harvard were actually undefeated coming into the Yale game, and so was Yale. A recipe for a great end to the season.

But what makes it a recipe for a great film -- and make no mistake about it, 29-29 is wonderful, thoughtful fun -- is the concatenation of events on and off the field. As many of the former players interviewed in the film testify, for Harvard players. living in the heart of a major American city, it was a time of anti-war activism and Black Power, and the moment before the women's movement and the Stonewall riots challenged the conventional conception of masculinity. Yale was more isolated, almost medieval and monastic, by comparison, and the film's interview subjects reflect on that, too.

Another factor that comes into play in the film, albeit a little more obliquely, is that between them the two schools have produced many of the men who have run this country. Consider this: actor Tommy Lee Jones, who provides some memorably laughs in the film, was the Harvard roommate of Al Gore, while the Yale cheerleading squad had among its members at the time George W. Bush. And the next time those two hooked up in contest, the score was also pretty nearly a tie. (Okay, Bush won the election 5-4 in quadruple overtime, but he had to cheat to do it.) As Rafferty says in his "Director's Statement," "Some of these guys are now captains of industry and finance. Many are not . . . but certainly millionaires and possibly a billionaire or two." So whether it is intended or not -- and I'm sure it is -- in an indirect way, 29-29 tells us something about the American ruling class. At the very least, given Rafferty's astute decision to film them in their homes or private offices, we learn that for the most part, they are rather ordinary guys like you or me.

To my surprise, the game itself is still thrilling to watch. Rafferty uses an old TV broadcast of the game superbly and, as the film moves into its own second half, he shifts attention from the larger subjects to what happened on the field. There are some who would argue that this is the greatest college football game ever played. I don't know. I haven't seen every college football game ever played. I wasn't there. But Rafferty and my friend Bob were. And they seem pretty enraptured, even if Bob can't stand being reminded of the outcome.

What you have to understand is that Yale, led by Dowling (the model for B.D. in Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury strip), was ahead 29-13 with three mintues to play. What happened in those three minutes was pretty close to inconceivable. Perhaps, as Bob said after the film, it was the cockiness of the Yalies that brought them down; someone notes that during half-time they were fooling around in the lockerroom, throwing oranges at one another. They certainly had trouble holding on to the ball, coughing up five fumbles in the first half. And their clock management in the last five minutes was deplorable. (Harvard probably helped them on that count by running gadget plays that took forever to develop. They ran naked bootlegs, halfback option passes and double reverses to no seeming purpose. I half expected to see the Statue of Liberty play in the last drive.)

Whatever the reason, the game, as you can tell, ended in a totally unexpected draw. Which should have made everybody happy, except that Yale fully expected to win. The most telling moment in the film for me comes when Mike Bouscaren, the Yale defensive captain, says, "I'm glad we lost." So maybe the Crimson had it right after all.

Finally, and maybe I'm more acutely aware of this now than I might have been if I were reviewing this film, say, twenty years ago, Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29 is poignant thanks to its simplicty, the juxtaposition of older men and their younger selves. Rafferty doesn't tell us what became of these guys (okay, we know about Tommy Lee Jones, a rare Oscar-winning offensive guard; John Hannah eat your heart out! No, not John Hannah the actor, John Hannah the Pro Football Hall of Famer). He's probably saving that for the book he's got coming out next spring. But we can see the vast difference between them in '68 and now, we know by the film's end that Harvard tackle Fritz Reed died last year, and we can feel the difference in ourselves. I suppose that one could agree with A.E. Housman that the athlete who dies young has the best of it, but I don't think so and I'm sure none of the men interviewed in this splendid film would either.

And as for the final score? I'm sure that at the time my friend Bob was typical. But as several of the former player wryly note, if either team had won, "we wouldn't be having this conversation." Or this film.

A Look Back at a Polish Master

The 20th annual edition of the Polish Film Festival in America, which is held every year in Chicago, is offering a retrospective this month of the work of Jerzy Kawalerowicz, one of the most unjustly neglected of East European post-WWII filmmakers. I wrote a bit about Kawalerowicz a couple of years ago when the Film Society of Lincoln Center did a series of his films, and given the program in Chicago, I thought I'd post that piece once again. Keep in mind that this was written for Jewish Week, which explains the slightly odd focus of the piece.

There is among Jews a tendency, I think, to underestimate how brutal and tragic the history of the Polish people has been. Poland has been overrun by countless ruthless dictators, partitioned repeatedly, its people murdered and tormented. Nowhere is this message brought home more forcefully than in the works of the four major filmmakers who emerged in the aftermath of the Soviet occupation of Poland in the late 1940s, the auteurs of the cinematic “Polish Spring”: Andrzej Wajda, Tadeusz Konwicki, Jerzy Munk and Jerzy Kawalerowicz. Wajda, of course, is well known in the U.S., and Konwicki and Munk were the subjects of retrospectives in New York City last year.

Now it’s Kawalerowicz’s turn, and Jews and film scholars alike should rejoice, because Kawalerowicz is not only a highly accomplished director and screenwriter, he is among the most totally philo-Semitic non-Jews in the history of Polish culture, a filmmaker whose work includes highly sympathetic, nuanced and affectionate portrayals of Jewish characters in almost every one of the films that were available to the press prior to the opening of the program of his works at the Walter Reade Theater.

How to explain this unusual affinity? Kawalerowicz said in an 2001 interview with Ray Privett (which can be found on the excellent Web site Kinoeye at, that he grew up in a small town in Ukraine, Gwozdziec, where “60 percent of the people were Jewish, 30 percent were Ukrainian and 10 percent Polish. It was a typical Galician town, which was totally destroyed by the Holocaust. But because I lived with many people who died in the Holocaust, I remember everything about them.”

It is a world he portrays with great warmth in his 1983 film “Austeria/The Inn,” based on a novel by Julian Stryjkowksi (born Pesach Stern, and another fascinating figure in his own right). “Austeria” was a life-long dream project for Kawalerowicz, a tragic recounting of the first day of World War I as experienced by people trapped in a Jewish-run inn on the edge of the Polish-Russian border. He immediately and deftly sets up a contrast between the verdant, seemingly peaceful countryside and the almost unending thunder of artillery shells in the distance. Kawalerowicz’s vision of the countryside, however, is anything but idyllic. In “Austeria,” as in the other films of his that I have seen, it is a quietly chaotic and empty place, reflective of a Hobbesian world in which the forces of destruction are seldom far away. As one of the Jews says, “I’ve fled before ... to escape a pogrom.”

At the same time, the different elements of the Jewish community — chasids, maskilim, a troupe of itinerant actors, local farmers — are depicted with wry, warm humor. Kawalerowicz, who describes himself as an Armenian with no attachment to the Armenian Orthodox Church, takes particular delight in the chasids, fleeing with their all-but-mute tzaddik, bursting into powerful song and dance at the drop of a suggestion of deliverance. They are endowed with a spirituality that most of Kawalerowicz’s protagonists are denied.

Perhaps the most surprisingly unspiritual of these is the priest-exorcist at the center of his best-known film, “Mother Joan of the Angels” (1961). Another retelling of a true incident of alleged demonic possession in a convent, the story was the inspiration for Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudon” and Ken Russell’s “The Devils.” An austere, almost forbidding film, “Mother Joan” anticipates the work of Andrei Tarkovsky (particularly his masterpiece “Andrei Rublev”), but unlike Tarkovsky, or Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer, two other directors whose names the film calls to mind, Kawalerowicz seems to deny his tormented anti-hero grace and transcendence. Here, there is only self-abnegation and self-destruction. The priest’s alter ego, a rabbi (both of them played by the extraordinary Mieczslaw Voit) warns him that he hovers at the lip of the abyss, but the alarm goes unheeded.

Kawalerowicz achieves some of his most stunning effects in both these films with sudden shifts of point-of-view. Given the claustrophobically self-contained communities he depicts in them, these abrupt switches are startling, even shocking. It is a structural motif he uses to great effect in another of his films, “Night Train.” A 1959 effort that seems at first to be a low-key film noir about the passengers on an overnight train to a beach resort, it quickly reveals itself to be something altogether more profound, a sad rumination on the tension between the individual and the social unit and the ease with which people can become a mob. Like many of his other characters, the people on the title vehicle are fighting what one of them calls, “the modern disease, fear of anonymity,” yet their very struggles defeat them.

Even in this otherwise seemingly apolitical film, Kawalerowicz makes a small explicit bow to the Shoah, showing one of the more likeable passengers sitting up all night reading because the sleeper berths remind him of his time as an inmate at Buchenwald.

When he deals directly with World War II itself, in a labyrinthine 1956 thriller, “The Shadow,” the experience is of a piece with his later, more accomplished and oblique films. Life consists of sudden death, people hide their true selves from one another, often in the service of ignoble causes, and fires seem to be burning in the distance all the time. Only his third film, “The Shadow” is a quantum leap from his debut feature “Night of Remembrance” (1954), a rather stolid literary adaptation distinguished only for a few nicely staged set pieces and a surprisingly forthright attack on anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church.

Now 81, Kawalerowicz has not made a film since 2001’s “Quo Vadis.” His output is depressingly slender, only 16 features in nearly 40 years of directing. Given the obstacles faced by artists in the Stalinist nightmare world of post-WWII Poland, that is not entirely surprising. His critical neglect outside Poland, however, is inexplicable.

That was published in 2004; Kawalerowicz didn't make any more films, unfortunately. He died last year, a fact that went largely unremarked in the American dailies.

For those of you who aren't in the vicinity of Chicago, there are seven of his films available from Facets Multi-Media for the not ridiculous price of $29.95.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Too Much Theory and Not Nearly Enough Feelthy Pichoors

Hey, this is going to be a long, single-minded rant about film theory, so if that bores you, I suggest you surf on over to something more amiable or tittilating.

Got an e-mail from my friend and colleague Ed Sikov a couple of days ago, asking the e-ssembled Ira voters to look at a clip from Citizen Kane and offer an opinion on something in the shot in question. To keep the story brief, the discussion turned on whether a character in the shot was looking directly at the camera and, if so, was it a rare case of direct address or something less out-of-the-ordinary. Opinions were offered, discussion was had and no definitive answer was reached. Or as fellow Ira voter Andrew Dickos (one of the major doyens of film noir) asked earnestly, "Couldn't it be both?" I came up with a couple of possible examples of direct address in the context of a narrative film, finishing off with a scene from Joseph Losey's The Concrete Jungle in which Patrick Magee, playing the chief warder of a prison has a monologue, during which the lights in the shot dim very theatrically.

This whole exchange got me to ruminating on one of the basic principles of film theory with which I was raised, way back in the Stone Age, and I wrote the following, which I think is worth passing along to you, Dear Readers.

This discussion reminds me of something I've thought for a long time, going all the way back to V.F. Perkins's Film As Film, and the big Bill Nichols Movies and Methods anthologies. I mentioned The Concrete Jungle only afterwards did I realize that one of the reasons that the scene I mentioned has stayed with me is that Perkins offers it as an example of a device he disdains because of its "unmotivated" nature -- why should the prison wing's lights go down at this point in the film? -- hence, it's abrupt puncturing of the "realist" text.

Back in the day, I used to give people the Perkins book as a good first guide to film aesthetics, but I would always warn them that the first third of the book, a lengthy and (to my mind) tiresome exposition of earlier film aesthetics leading up to the messianic arrival of Andre Bazin, would seem kind of dull and beside the point. But Perkins's thesis, which was tied -- no, handcuffed -- to the notion of film as a realistic medium and all the implications that proceed from that premise, absolutely required that you understand the old battles that culminated in the appearance of St. Andre.

That's all well and good -- in terms of practical methodology, Perkins is a good guide, whatever the philosophical underpinnings that gird his actual readings. For example, there's a long passage in the book on the kitchen scene between Eddie and his father in Minnelli's The Courtship of Eddie's Father. It's a tour de force of close reading, as good as any analysis of a single scene of Minnelli's as you'll find anywhere.

But what sense does it make to treat Minnelli by a yardstick that is based on the initial premise of realism? Or, to take a few more glaring examples, Sternberg, Leone, Murnau? The only way to fit an expressionistic film style onto the procrustean bed of "realist" aesthetics is by hacking off someone's too-long legs at the knees, so to speak.

When I bought my first copy of Movies and Methods, Vol. 1, I think I had already begun to feel this problem acutely. It is why, in large part, I've always been sympathetic to the linguistic turn in post-Bazinian film aesthetics. If you try to treat film as a "language system" then you are no longer yoked to issues of realism, to a theory that can't cope with that scene in The Concrete Jungle. The linguistic model has other, more serious flaws. Being married to someone with a very serious and deep grounding in linguistics, I'm very conscious that film does not function like a language. (Which takes me back to Andy's point below; there is too much ambiguity of meaning in a single image or a single shot of a film -- or as a pretentious asshole like me might say, photographic images are just too polysemous -- to support a single reading that excludes all other possible readings. When I was teaching film -- back in the silent era -- I always told my students when it came time to assign papers that I would consider any interpretation of a film, or a sequence or a shot, that could be supported by the text. There isn't one right answer that excludes all others; that works in math and hard science, not in the arts.)

So I tested a language-based film aesthetic and found it useful but wanting. I didn't realize that what I was looking for was, sort of, a film version of reception theory. If you believe, as I do to some extent, that a film takes place in the "space between the audience and the screen," to put it colloquially, then you need a theory that also takes place there. I'm not interested in the demographics of the film audience or their reactions per se -- that's either sociology, anthropology or market research. But I think that it's important to understand how a film creates meaning in the audience's mind. I guess that what I mean -- and I'm having trouble articulating it, which is why I don't write on theory if it can be avoided -- is that what I'm interested in is how a film communicates. What is the process of signification when an audience watches a film?

One of the aspects of early cinema studies that intrigues me is to see how film "grammar" developed. Why did a dissolve come to mean passage of time of a longer duration than a straight cut? What do you do -- to come back to Citizen Kane -- with a film in which the director deliberately reverses the meaning? (Look at the scene of Thompson in the Thatcher Library -- when he crosses the mausoleum-like antechamber, Welles divides his passage into three shots linked by slow dissolves.) I was absolutely fascinated to discover in reading Eileen Bowser's first volume in that huge History of American Cinema series that the old magic lantern shows and similar pre-cinematic entertainments had already established some of the conventions of film "grammar," like the one about dissolves for example. So the earliest filmmakers weren't really in virgin territory. There were some pre-existing cognitive sets at play in the audience of those earliest films.

Of course, I don't reject any of these various approaches out of hand. In my own critical practice, I tend to think syncretically, loading an intellectual tool box with all of these as well as feminism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, queer theory, etc. Nobody's right all the time, and every text requires a slightly different set of tools to unlock its secrets, in a manner of speaking. Maybe I think of this job a little too much like the literary equivalent of auto repair, but that doesn't mean I would approach a film without a full set of, let us say, Allen and hex wrenches. (Of course, there are some films and filmmakers that are better dealt with through the use of a wrecking ball, but that's a discourse for another time.)

Tomorrow, I'll tell you about a film that actually calls upon my experience as a sportswriter.
Sort of.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Arnaud Desplechin, Master of the Unexpected

When Jean Eustache committed suicide almost exactly 17 years ago (November 3, 1981 to be exact), I remember thinking that his act seemed to write a premature end to a promising split-off from the nouvelle vague. La Maman et la putain (1973) clearly was a polemic aimed at the self-satisfaction that was beginning to afflict Eustache's immediate predecessors and role models, and Mes petites amoreuses (1974) seemed to suggest another direction for young French filmmakers. I'm shocked, looking at his IMDB listing, to see how many subsequent films and television episodes Eustache directed that have never been shown here, but regardless of those unfamiliar works, his death closed out a fruitful career. Who would take on the role he seemed to have carved out for himself? Leos Carax seemed a likely successor, but his filmography is sparse, with long gaps between 1986 and 1991 and, most recently, no new features since 1999.

Enter Arnaud Desplechin, whose first feature film,
La vie des morts (Life of the Dead), was released in 1991, and whose latest, Un Conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale), opened today in NYC. Desplechin studied at IDHEC and worked as cinematographer and screenwriter for his friend Eric Rochant before striking out on his own. I first became aware of him with his third feature, Comment je me suis dispute . . . (ma vie sexual) (How I Got Into an Argument . . . My Sex Life), and I remember distinctly that I thought, here's a worthy successor to Eustache, someone who "gets" the nature of the nouvelle vague, both its strengths and weaknesses, is influenced by the old Cahiers mob, but has his own voice. Like all of his subsequent films, Argument is, by turns, funny, poignant and frequently surprising. And he's been like that ever since.

Desplechin has his own informal stock company. Emmanuelle Devos has appeared in almost all of his films, Mathieu Amalric, Emmaneulle Salinger, Marianne Dernicourt and his brother Fabrice Desplechin in several. You can chart his shifting interests and concerns by tracing the variety of characters they portray. Amalric, in particular, has always struck me as a stand-in for the writer-director. His central concern is the confining, even stifling, nature of family ties, usually examined through generic situations that are just short of hackneyed. Yet he always manages to find a twist in his films that turns our genre expectations inside out. Desplechin's emotional universe is more complex, his moral code more nuanced, than that of most contemporary directors of family melodrama or chamber comedy. Whatever his relationship to Truffaut, Rohmer, Godard, et al., he is definitely the anti-Sundance filmmaker par excellence. And thank God for that.

This is nowhere more apparent than in Un conte de Noel. The plot, as is so often the case with Desplechin, is complicated, a sophisticated mixture of family melodrama and farce that turns on the revelation that Junon (Catherine Deneuve), the matriarch of a scattered family, has been diagnosed with cancer and desperately needs a bone marrow transplant. Thus, her family comes together for a Christmas holiday filled with recriminations and painful memories. The family history includes mental illness, financial improprieties and the usual ill will among siblings. Desplechin juggles the myriad of plotlines deftly, helped immeasurably by Emmanuel Bordieu, his frequent writing partner.

But what really raises Un conte de Noel above the fall’s run of intelligent family dramas is what makes Desplechin such a challenging and exciting filmmaker in the first place, his ability to shift gears suddenly, to alter radically our perception of his characters and, in doing so, to make us call into question our own all-to-automatic reactions to narrative situations. His previous fiction film, Rois et reine (Kings and a Queen), is structured entirely around that premise, with our understanding of the characters’ motives undermined brilliantly. The new film works in more complex ways, with our perceptions of the positions of the family and their closest friends subtly altered. In the end, one could say that even the worst of them is redeemed in ways both large and small, and in that respect Desplechin resembles not so much the great filmmakers of the nouvelle vague, but their cherished godfather, Jean Renoir.

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