December 6, 2011


It is now possible to hold Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema in your hand, after remaining a rumor in the years following its completion in 1998. It was caught in a snarl of copyright issues that lasted almost as long as the ten years it took Godard to make it, with Gaumont not able to clear the fusillade of music and film rights until 2007. Olive Films took the gamble to license the film for a U.S. DVD release, and now Godard’s grand cinematic convulsion can finally be grappled with in the relative privacy of your mortgaged home, starting today.

One of the first on-screen texts reads, “May Every Eye Negotiate For Itself”, and that is as good a guide as any for this deeply idiosyncratic history of moving images, which is also, per Godard, necessarily a history of the 20th Century. Throughout the 8 episodes (totaling 266 minutes), Godard provides densely and playfully layered super-impositions of film clips, paintings, newsreels, texts and voice-overs, attempting to create a dialogue between art and history, word and image. It is an overwhelming torrent of cultural material, which the viewer has to navigate for themselves. Approach with a computer close at hand (a necessity here to look up quotes and historical figures), and let your eyes wander, finding your own way through Godard’s argumentative thickets and ecstatic epiphanies.

I found my way in through pictures of hands. In Part 1 (Episode 1A: All the (H)istories), Godard slows down a shot from Fritz Lang’s M, in which a concerned citizen writes the eponymous chalked letter on his palm, which he will later smack on the back of Peter Lorre’s child murderer. The citizen discreetly wipes off his hand afterward. Layered over the image of this close-up is a paraphrased quote from 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart: “Only the hand that erases can write”. Godard lops off the last two words, “the truth”, not one to deal with absolutes. In its immediate context Godard uses this gnomic quote to express how works of art are capable of erasing their subjects. Who remembers the actual bombed landscape of a Basque town? It is only Picasso’s Guernica that lives on in cultural memory. Or, Godard continues, we forget Valentin Feldman (a French Resistance fighter executed in 1942) but remember Goya’s etchings and paintings of prisoners. In Part 7 (Episode 4A: The Control of the Universe) he spins a similar argument about Hitchcock’s work, that he was able to turn “shapes into style”, imbuing everyday objects with uncanny power. Godard claims we forget Ingrid Bergman’s motivations in Notorious, but remember the champagne bottle and key. The latter is arguable, but continues to set up the larger point of artistic erasure. All of it leads to the essential failure of the 20th century, of how the world, and the art inside of it, could not put a stop to the Holocaust.

Near the close of Part 1 (Episode 1A), Godard drops one of his most famous and controversial statements: “If George Stevens hadn’t used the first 16mm color film in Auschwitz and Ravensbruck, Elizabeth Taylor’s happiness would never have found a place in the sun.” After this statement, he superimposes Taylor over footage from the Holocaust, and then, in the middle of a devotional painting, with an image of Mary reaching her arms downward toward Liz. A bitterly ironic and startlingly beautiful image, as Taylor’s star power ascends to the heavens, with the image of the camps dissolving behind her. Godard has Stevens and Taylor commit the ultimate erasure.

As Mary’s hands grace downward in an embrace of the great Hollywood star, Part 2 (Episode 1B: A Single History) documents fissures and separations, cinema as the “history of loneliness/loneliness of history”. The defining image of hands here is a desiccated Giacometti figure; fingers pointed rightward, which dissolves into the human hand of a prisoner, touching the ground.  This segment begins with a flash of Gauguin’s painting of a French Polynesian woman, artist and subject separated by a wide gulf of race and culture. Godard then layers images of cinema’s capacity for depicting solitude, including clips from Victor Sjostrom’s The Wind and a long excerpt of Jennifer Jones crawling in the desert in Duel in the Sun. Images of people boxed in and controlled, the camera frame as prison.

Godard opens things up in Part 3 (Episode 2A: Only Cinema), which concerns itself with the technological wonder of cinema – what makes it unique. It opens with images of eyes, a woman at a microscope, a man behind a camera, and a giant Cyclops. Godard tries to provide context to these images, giving a disquisition on French mathematician and engineer Jean-Victor Poncelet, who provided the groundwork for projective geometry while inside a Moscow prison. Godard extrapolates that he came up with the “mechanical application of the principles of projection”, giving a scientific backing behind the microscope and camera, and provides a correlative to the Cyclops by using a long clip of the canoe ride The Night of The Hunter, including a shot of the monstrous Robert Mitchum performance. Godard has Julie Delpy, shown puttering around her Paris apartment, reading Baudelaire’s “The Voyage” over the clip from the Laughton film, which suitably enhances the movie’s infernal beauty. She reads, “The world is equal to the child’s desire, who plays with pictures by his nursery fire.”

It is with Part 4 (Episode 2B: Fatal Beauty) that Godard returns to the theme of an art that annihilates. Here it is the way men have devoured women in the arts over the centuries. In a discomfitingly funny bit, Godard is shirtless during this segment, wearing a tinted visor and smoking his ever-present cigar, looking like a dissolute Hollywood producer, as, I’m sure, he intended. It begins with a montage of women running and falling, from Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running to Anna Magnani in Rome, Open City, with a return performance by Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun. He ends this flurry with a return to the shot from M, and the art that erases, this time of feminine subjectivity. Returning to the theme of erasure, means a return to the horrors of the Holocaust. Godard speaks: “And Friedrich Murnau and Karl Freund. They invented the Nuremberg lighting, when Hitler couldn’t even afford a beer at a Munich café. With his table lamp casting a sufficiently Germanic shadow on the wall he says, “Dirty Hands.” This is an allusive reference to Siegfried Kracauer’s cultural study From Caligari to Hitler, which drew a line between German Expressionism and Nazism. Images of Conrad Veidt in The Hands of Orlac flash by, followed by the text, “Think With the Hands”. In that movie, Veidt’s hands are transplanted from a killer, and he fears those hands might think to kill again.

This thought manifests itself differently in Part 7 (Episode 4A: The Control of the Universe), in which Godard shows an image of two hands reaching towards each other into a clasp. Over this, he says, “The spirit is only real when it manifests itself, and it manifests through the hand. Love is the epitome of the spirit. And the love of one’s fellow man is an act. Which means a hand held out. Not a covered feeling. An ideal that crosses on the road to Jericho, in front of the man robbed by bandits.” This is a hopeful vision of Palestinian-Israeli amity, the current crisis that he cannot allow art to erase. It anticipates a similar image of trapeze artists joining bodies in a segment on Palestine in Film Socialisme (2010), indicating that no matter how much art has failed him, he still stubbornly dreams of its triumph, of a hand that restores:

“If a man walked thru paradise in his dream, and received a flower as a sign of his visit, and found the flower in his hand when he woke up, what can we say? I was this man.”


April 5, 2011

Screen Shot 2020-01-29 at 3.10.44 PM

It’s taken as long as the caravan journey in The Big Trail, but we finally have a collection of film criticism from Dave Kehr, who currently writes the essential DVD and Blu-Ray column at the NY Times.  When Movies Mattered (University of Chicago Press) gathers his work from his period at the Chicago Reader, from 1974 – 1986. For years I’ve consulted his capsule reviews to guide my viewing habits, still available at the Reader website, but his long-form pieces have long been out of circulation. So this is a cause for celebration, although the resulting party would drive other critics to drink out of jealousy rather than selflessness. His prose is patient and lucid, laying bare stylistic and thematic mechanisms with the graceful invisible style of one of his favored Hollywood auteurs.

I was able to sit down with Mr. Kehr to talk about some of his favorite directors, as well as those not given much critical attention. So we range from Raoul Walsh to Godard and from Eastwood to Paul W.S. Anderson. Something for everyone! And it should be noted that the University of Chicago Press is doing an incredible job, releasing not just Kehr’s book, but also the most recent writings of Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson.

RES:  It’s easy to get caught up in Raoul Walsh’s energy, but it’s hard to pin down his specific style. Could you break it down?

DK:  Well, he goes through a few different periods. If you’ve seen Regeneration, from 1915, the longest feature that survives, he’s really doing Griffith.  There are standard set-ups, moving into close-ups for moments of emotional intensity or alienation. And then we don’t have anything until 1922, something called Kindred of the Dust which is at the Eastman House. In that one he’s already doing wider angles, longer takes, and more staging of action in depth. He’s doing a lot less cutting. He’s moved in a different direction than Griffith at that point. That becomes very obvious in Thief of Baghdad (1924) and What Price Glory(1926). He becomes more about bodies moving through space and less about shots following shots.

The Big Trail (1930) is a huge breakthrough for him. The effect of working in what was essentially CinemaScope in 1930 makes him reconsider everything. Suddenly he’s got this equipment that will give him dead sharp focus over a range of like 5 miles. And he sees the possibilities instantly, which is what I find so fascinating. It has these incredible deep focus compositions, so you can see every aspect of a shot unfolding in the same image. There is a shot of the wagons being lowered down the mountains in the background, and people approaching in the foreground. Conceptually it’s incredible; multiple planes, multiple focal points. A lot of the stuff people think Welles and Tati invented is already pretty much there in The Big Trail. The other thing he finds there is this sense of background motion which becomes really important for him. He’ll have static figures having a conversation in the foreground, but have a lot of crossing in the background, with isolated pockets of action. You get the feeling these extras could star in their own movie. He develops that in a lot of different ways  in the early ‘30s.

RES: How did he carry the lessons of framing for widescreen back to Academy ratio after The Big Trail?

DK: Well, then he starts working on the deep focus. He works with James Wong Howe on Yellow Ticket (1931) which is a really fascinating film, and I wish Fox would make a print of it. They don’t quite have lenses that are fast enough, and they don’t have enough light, but conceptually they are 100% in Gregg Toland, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles land. They’ve got it all figured out. There are shots in that movie that could have come straight out of Citizen Kane.

RES: Did Andre Bazin ever write anything about Walsh?

DK: Not to my knowledge. These films were pretty hard to see. The Fox stuff dropped out of circulation after the studio fire.  I don’t think people were looking at these movies.

RES: When Walsh began making widescreen films again later in his career, do you see any shift in style from The Big Trail?

DK: It’s like he picks up where he left off. Even before that, when he makes his 3D movie, Gun Fury (1953). He had been making movies in 3D all the time. The irony being that he was blind in one eye. He doesn’t do anything differently in Gun Fury than the way he was staging stuff in The Lawless Breed which comes out the same year. He has that natural sense of depth. He identified cues of perspective and how to nestle characters within a space. It works brilliantly in 3D when you see it projected.

RES: How would you characterize his handling of actors?

DK: Well he likes a very distinctive kind of performer. He didn’t do a lot with Douglas Fairbanks, but he was at the same studio, Triangle, for five years. But when he finally does get to direct him there’s an immediate chemistry: this is the man in action. This is the Walsh hero. He carries this over in different forms. With Fairbanks it’s all light and jolly and weightless. It’s the same with James Dunn in Sailor’s Luck. There’s always something that kicks these people into action, and it can be a conventional goal, or it could be this animal sense of, “I have to keep moving.” And in the case of Sailor’s Luck I think it’s sex. The sexual attraction between those two characters is staggering. Obviously a year later you couldn’t do anything remotely like it. They just have to get together.

Then you get to Errol Flynn, who kind of picks up the Fairbanks stuff, but it’s a little darker, a little nuttier. He’s kind of angry and violent. In Flynn’s first few films he’s juvenile in an irresponsible way, taking unnecessary chances that’ll get him in trouble. And as he works with Walsh, from They Died With Their Boots On (1941) through Operation Burma (1945), that character grows up in really interesting ways.

Flynn achieves manhood for Walsh’s heroes in Operation Burma, and then you get those baroque variations from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Most famously, White Heat (1949), where the character is plainly psychotic. He’s no longer just dangerous, he’s fucking crazy. That performance is so gutsy. It seems so modern to this day. Chewing on a chicken leg as he walks over to the trunk to shoot the guy….

RES: Even in something like The Strawberry Blonde, Cagney is a little insane.

DK: It’s got that Walsh energy, but it’s more coiled and manic than Flynn, and certainly more than Victor McGlaglen. There’s always the sense that something is pushing these guys forward. It could be something as benign as that spirit of adventure of Fairbanks, or as psychotic as what Cagney does.

RES:  I heard you will be writing a new regular column for Film Comment starting a few issues from now. Will it be about directors like Walsh, who have not been written about much?

DK: Yes. For some reason research on American directors stopped with Andrew Sarris. Probably something to do with the fact that theory came swooping in around that same time, and we all had to pretend there was no such thing as authors for a few years. In the meantime directors are dying left and right and prints are dropping out of circulation. The older I get the more amazed I am by the size of the classical Hollywood cinema, how many interesting people there were, and how many films. It’s gigantic. I don’t think any writer has gotten their head around the enormity of this thing.

RES: Have you selected some filmmakers you’ll discuss?

DK: Two of the people I was planning on writing about… One was a guy who worked at Republic in the 30s and 40s named John H. Auer. And another guy named William Nigh who started at Warners in the teens, worked at MGM and ended up on Poverty Row in the 30s and 40s. He had an interesting late career. I thought I would call the column “The Auer is Nigh”, but they didn’t like it…[laughs]

RES: Are there any unpretentious action directors working today worth paying attention to?

DK:  Yeah. Paul W.S. Anderson I think is pretty talented. I always enjoy his films. I’m not sure he’s any kind of thematic auteur, but he certainly knows how to shoot action. And David Twohy, who did Pitch Black (2000) and A Perfect Getaway (2009). This is a sad example. The guy has directed four movies in the last eleven years . How many films would Raoul Walsh have made in that time? You just don’t have the chance to get good anymore.

RES: I’m happy you named Paul W.S. Anderson, who I get a lot of shit for liking. He’s always attracted to constrained spaces…

DK: Yeah, he’s kind of Langian. He loves these underground chambers. In every movie there’s people penetrating a gigantic spaceship [Event Horizon (1997)] or the bowels of the corporate headquarters in the Resident Evil movies. His first film just came out on DVD, Shopping, which is an art film compared to what came later.

RES: You devote a whole section to Jean-Luc Godard in your book, who at that time (the early-to-mid 80s) was re-engaging with, and questioning, narrative. You wrote that he was “concerned with breaking through a media poisoned world to something clear, clean and transcendent.” How would you contrast that with his recent work, which seems like a return to more experimental formal structures, interested in layering images and ideas rather than “breaking through”?

DK: Passion (1982) is probably my favorite of the late Godards. That one almost seems like a Dreyer film, completely spiritual. It’s all about the transcendent, how do we get out of here, what’s in the next room if there is one. After that he falls back into the argumentative mode.

Film Socialism (2010), which is in three parts, seems to correspond to three stages of his career. You get the opening sequence, which is the big beautiful and lyrical piece, of the stunning images he was doing in the 80s and 90s. Then you get the up close and personal family interaction stuff that he was doing in Numero deux (1975) and the films from the 70s that nobody sees anymore. And then it ends up with an essay-ish section which is very much like the Histoire(s) du Cinema. So he seems to be conscious of playing with his different manners. A retrospective film.

RES: Another of your pieces that struck me was your review of Sudden Impact (1983), and Eastwood in that period. I assume he was not taken seriously as a director at that time. Could you talk about Eastwood’s place in relationship to the New Hollywood, whom you often seem to be reacting against?

DK:  I was somewhat alienated from the whole Bob Rafelson, Easy Rider thing. I don’t think I would write those things as negatively now as I did then. It was a polemical moment.  I liked Clint because of his association with Don Siegel. I thought his first film showed an awful lot of personal investment, and particularly in the way he was looking at himself as an object. It’s a theme that continues, consistently imagining his own disappearance, his own death, obsessively. Sudden Impact is the best of the Dirty Harrys because it gives him such a powerful, other form, a Dirty Harriet, which it was often called at the time. He more than meets his match. Directed masculine energy meets undirected female anger.

RES:  The way Eastwood pares away any affect in his performances, I think you even called it “Bressonian” in your review, really stands out in Firefox (1982) in which he barely emotes, like one of Bresson’s models.

DK: I know, and that’s a great example of him imagining his own disappearance. Because at the end of the movie he flies off away from the camera into this little dot.

RES: Another interesting aspect is how, as a secret agent in Firefox, he’s supposed to be a good actor, but he keeps screwing up. He’s portraying himself as a bad actor.

DK:  Which is what I loved about Pink Cadillac (1989). That was a movie I got a lot of crap for liking, but this is a movie about why Clint likes acting, and why he’s not very good at it.

RES: His movies are so rich because of how he interrogates his own persona…

DK: Yeah, once he stops doing that, his work really dries up for me. His last great film was Gran Torino (2008), which is the summation of that theme, a film I found emotionally devastating. Literally handing over the keys to the new generation. Again he’s imagining his own death and irrelevance, but this time something comes after that.

RES: Could you talk a bit more about his work post-Gran Torino? It seems the craft is still there but not the same level of personal involvement.

DK: I don’t find them very personal at all. It seems like he’s taking whatever hot, Oscar-ish script of the moment is. He’s getting people like Brian Grazer to make his movies, and they’re prestige oriented stuff.

RES: What about the WWII diptych, which I felt was very strong.

DK: Yeah, the first one I thought was good, the second was really good. In Flags of Our Fathers (2006) he was aiming a little too hard for social significance – it didn’t feel like an Eastwood film. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) is just the opposite .

RES: You felt the same about Invictus (2009) and Hereafter (2010)…

DK: Invictus I just couldn’t get into at all and Hereafter I thought was actually bad. Very disappointing. We’ll see about J. Edgar. Sounds like another Oscar candidate.

RES: Another director you devote two pieces to is Blake Edwards…

DK: Edwards was important because he was a full-fledged studio auteur who was still working at a peak level when I was writing those pieces. Just the perfect example of someone was could make very personal films in a very commercial context.

RES: Would you put him with Eastwood as the last of that breed?

DK: I suppose. I don’t want to sound all apocalyptic or anything. Joe Dante is still in there plugging. And John Carpenter…he’s a real independent. He released through studios but made maybe one studio produced film,The Thing (1982) through Universal. He has that studio ethic without being a studio guy. He fought to keep his independence so he could make movies as if he were working for an old studio.

RES: I wonder when we’ll get to see Carpenter’s The Ward (2010)…

DK: It’s played all over Europe. And Monte Hellman’s got a new picture with no distribution [UPDATE: Monterey Media has acquired Hellman’s ROAD TO NOWHERE]. And Joe’s last picture [The Hole (2010)] never got distribution.

RES: Was The Hole’s fate decided because studios booked all the 3D screens?

DK: He explained it to me. The problem selling it was it wasn’t scary enough for teenagers and it was too scary for twelve year olds. A tweener.

RES: Continuing with more recent work, you wrote that great piece on The Cable Guy (1996) recently, so could you expand your thoughts on Apatow’s output? He has his champions.

DK: He does, but I don’t think he’s that innovative. He’s never done anything as far out as The Cable Guy again. He wrote a lot of it and didn’t put his name on it, but he learned his lesson on that one. Keep it friendly, keep it nice.

RES: Funny People (2009) did seem very personal…

DK: It did, but not in such great ways. It kind of gets preachy on you. I didn’t like how he was layering the characters where the people at the center were these three dimensional, psychologically complex types, but the further you got from them the more grotesque and cheap sitcom-y they got. When they finally meet the husband, he’s this total cartoon. He’s no real competition, there’s no real drama between those two guys. The guy’s a joke. It was an easy way out of that dramatic situation. I generally find the Farrelly’s more interesting, although they kind of ran out of steam. They’re not as funny as they used to be.

RES: I’m a big Stuck on You (2003) partisan.

DK: Yeah, I like that. And Kingpin (1996), I just love it.

RES: Is is their anarchic qualities you admire?

DK: That’s where the real energy is now. Comedy and horror is where you can break the rules. You don’t have people breathing down your neck because executives don’t care about these genre things, they don’t watch them half the time.

RES: That’s why I’m a big fan of the Will Ferrell/Adam McKay comedies, especially Step Brothers (2008), which becomes incredibly anarchic.

DK: Yeah, I have to see that. Ferrell, I can’t quite figure him out. There’s something a little condescending in what he does. It’s not mean spirited, he just likes playing stupid people. He lets you know he’s smarter than they are all the time. Something about that bothers me. You can see him working down, where you could never see Stan Laurel working down.

RES: Step Brothers takes that as its subject. They are literally overgrown children, these men in their 40s, so I think it takes on that criticism. By the end of the film the narrative totally dissipates, into a series of non-sequitur gags. The Other Guys (2010) is more conventional…

DK: I saw that. It was a buddy cop movie that kept telling you, “this is a parody of a buddy cop movie.” But it was doing all the things a buddy cop movie does.

RES: It got caught up in the plot for some reason…

DK: Isn’t this a great parody?  No, it’s just like everything else.

RES: There was a flare-up recently in your blog’s lively comments section recently, this time about Tony Scott, who also has his critical defenders.

DK: I guess so. I was kind of amazed to discover that all of the Lisandro Alonso fans also like Tony Scott. I can’t reconcile this. Looks like the same guy to me who made Top Gun (1986). Just run and gun, shoot, shoot shoot, and maybe we can massage this into something that makes sense but we’ll worry about it later.

RES: So you didn’t find any coherent visual scheme.

DK:  I couldn’t find a pattern in what Pat Graham was talking about in Unstoppable (2010), supposedly mirrored, up and down panning shots. If they’re there, I totally missed it. One little trick for getting a quick sense of a director’s visual style is to fast forward through the movie.

RES: Do you do that often?

DK: Not often, but once in a while. So you’re not distracted by the trivialities of plot and character and acting [laughs]. But a quick fast-forward through and you get a good sense of the visual vocabulary. I just ran Unstoppable, the ten minute version, and there didn’t seem to be anything particularly organized about it. He takes these really banal screenplays and embroiders them with these big effects, which is what everybody does. He’s a little more creative technically, he’s willing to go the extra mile of bringing in the helicopter.

RES: I admit I’ve enjoyed his last few movies. I’d say he’s the main exponent of Bordwell’s “intensified continuity”. He’s able to take this style and pare it down where it moves and still makes sense, even if there is no overarching visual structure.

DK: But there are those push-ins at the end of close-ups, for no effect. It doesn’t mean anything. He uses it here but doesn’t use it there. It’s what someone called “refreshing the screen”. It’s just to keep something happening to keep kids from getting bored. Stimulating the optic nerves to keep people interested.

RES: I can’t argue that. But I also think he’s an efficient storyteller.

DK: That’s the kind of filmmaking I value. I just don’t get him, or “the working class metaphysics.”

RES: That quote from Mark Peranson in Cinema Scope (read here) really got under your skin.

DK: That phrase stuck in my craw. It’s too easy. What’s working class about that movie? It’s not about the Hawksian pleasures of doing your job or the Walshian pleasures of community. It’s your typical Hollywood heroes acting in complete isolation. The thematic is tired old therapy stuff. By stopping this train we’ll become better husbands and fathers.

RES: Let’s talk about your blog, and the great community you’ve created there.

DK: I don’t think I created anything. It’s just there aren’t that many places where you can discuss these issues without having the same tired argument over and over again, “is the director the author of the film?” I’m too old, I don’t want to talk about that anymore.

RES: The discussions get intense sometimes. Do you think it recreates the polemical atmosphere of the Kael-Sarris period of your writing, of “When Movies Mattered”?

DK: I hope so. The thing about Tony Scott was a pretty good example of that. I really enjoyed that, it got tense.

RES: In the blog you mentioned that I Saw the Devil (2010) is the natural endpoint of the revenge film cycle kicked back off by Tarantino. Could you elaborate on that?

DK: It’s just hard to imagine things going any further. It’s the old gag where the cop is as crazy as the criminal, but in this case the competition is about who can cause the other greater pain. The pain is registered with such force and originality, it really shook me up. He’s not nearly the craftsman that Park Chan-wook is, but his color sense is magnificent in that great opening shot of the face created in the rear view mirror.  You don’t know whose point of view it is until a half-hour into the movie. It has that old-fashioned craftsmanship that cares about composition and texture and color. You see it in the Korean films coming out now, which I guess is inspired by Park Chan-wook. It’s not happening in many other places now.

RES: Is there anywhere else?

DK: Well, we seem to be living in this post-mise-en-scene world, with a few pockets of it remaining. Johnnie To mainly, the couple guys in Korea, David Fincher, David Twohy, and I’m sure a few others but not that many. Now it’s all about acting and framing the performance. Most mise-en-scene is just finding some way to separate the actor from the background. And that’s all they’re thinking about, how to isolate this face. I was sitting through Sucker Punch (2011) last week, and I thought, what am I doing here? I could have watched three Allan Dwan films in the time it took me to watch it!


September 28, 2010


The Social Network, the opening night selection at the 2010 New York Film Festival (and opening nationwide October 1st), consists of men (and one girl) talking in rooms and around tables. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg)  is the reluctant participant in these discussions, hunched over and bristling, much preferring the inscrutable company of his own mind. The essential opacity of these thoughts to his friends and foes, Zuckerberg’s intractable isolation, is the nexus around which director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin spin their tale of mis-communication and betrayal.

Sorkin frames the story of Facebook’s founding through legal depositions of two concurrent lawsuits facing Zuckerberg. One from his supposed best friend and former CFO Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), the other from three schoolmates who proposed a similar social networking site called The Harvard Connection.  Their competing testimony shifts the point of view between all three of these perspectives, offering differing visions of Zuckerberg’s character, Citizen Kane style (Sorkin referenced Rashomon at the press conference, but the focus on the unstable image of one man, as opposed to an event, is far more indebted to Kane – for a further elaboration of the comparison, see Michael J. Anderson’s essay here).

The dialogue is read in staccato bursts of defensive manuevers, everyone protecting their intellectual territory. Eisenberg zooms through the script with brittle intensity, a man of supreme arrogance, intelligence and insecurity insulating himself with words. It’s a bravura performance, in which Zuckerberg’s mask of intellectual impassivity is cracked for a few brief moments, introducing doubts about how much of an asshole he really is. The puzzled, crestfallen expression on his face after his final split with Saverin is tantalizing in its ambiguity. Joined by a truly Mephistophelean turn from Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker (look at his manipulations in the photo above), the wide-eyed innocence of Andrew Garfield, the blue-blood hauteur of Armie Hammer as both Winklevoss Twins (using the facial motion-capture technique Fincher pioneered in the underrated Curious Case of Benjamin Button), and a scene-stealing demolition job by Douglas Urbanski as former Harvard president Larry Summers, The Social Network is brimming with revealing put downs, glances and asides.

That it’s taken me this long to get to Fincher says a lot about his role here, a true collaborator with Sorkin and his cast (along with DP Jeff Cronenweth and the fine pulsating score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). But the film, like all of Fincher’s work, is beautiful in strange ways. There is the infernal darkening red hues in which he shoots the Harvard sequences, a simmering hormonal pool of class resentments and hard-ons. One sequence, in which he inter-cuts a Dionysian “final club” party with Zuckerberg coding his early “FaceMash” site is revealing of the unreliability of Zuckerberg’s POV. As he builds his site, an ode to a male’s wounded ego, which allows campus libidos to vote on female students’ hotness, we get visions of stripped down co-eds cavorting in the aristocratic party that Mark would never be invited to. The party seems like his resentful projection, but it’s presented as a simple cross-cutting sequence, or his version of the truth. All three POVs should be treated as unreliable, or at least as clouded by self-interest. By the end, when Zuckerberg’s every move seems both justifiable and monstrous, I could only think of Marlene Dietrich’s closing summation in Touch of Evil: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”


The other triumph in the main slate was Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (coming to theaters in the U.S. in  March 2011 from Strand Releasing)Set in a small farming village in the Northeastern part of Thailand, it tracks the last days of Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) during which he is visited by the curious ghosts of his relatives. It is a film of permeable borders, between Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, between life and death, man and animal, and ultimately, between possible worlds. Boonmee’s caretaker, Auntie Jen (Jenjira Pongpas, from Weerasethakul’s previous Syndromes and a Century), complains about the Laotian caretaker of his farm, worried that he doesn’t bathe. Later, Boonmee is afraid that he created bad karma because “I’ve killed too many communists.” This speaks to the crackdown on Communism in the region following the war in Vietnam, in which peasants informed upon and fought against Communist cells or were accused themselves. The monkey ghosts which haunt the film can be read as the spirits of the Communists who fled into the forest, although that is only one, much too reductive interpretation.

And yes, the monkey ghosts arrive as naturally as the disfigured princess, who arrives in a deliriously beautiful set-piece that Joe staged as an homage to the royal costume dramas of his youth, although I doubt they contained the amorous catfish in his version. But they should have. Boonmee’s procession into death is also a procession into Weerasethakul’s personal memory and history, as well as the history of his films. Along with Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee returns from Syndromes, as Boonmee’s nephew, and later as the monk from the previous film, as the personal blends with the artistic and historical. There are endless strands to analyze and untangle, but there are also the manifest pleasures of lolling in his gentle, comic rhythms and sparklingly beautiful compositions (it was shot on Super-16 and blown up to 35, often using day-for-night). By the time it descends into Plato’s cave and encompasses the whole history of moving images, I knew I had seen a masterpiece. And I want to watch it again right now.


As space is running short, some quick notes on other defining moments from the festival:

Film Socialisme, directed by Jean-Luc Godard (no distribution, screens Sep. 29th at 6PM and Oct. 8th at 3PM)

A lament for Europe, in layers of video and text. HD images of a decadent cruise through the Mediterranean are interrupted by degraded and pixelated footage of mobbed dance floors and YouTube videos of mewling cats. He gets incredible effects from reducing the video resolution, getting cubist collages of capitalist excess and moments of incredible, uncanny beauty. One image, a hand placed on a window, then pulled back, obscured by the degraded image and made ghostly and strange, spoke more to me about the cultural losses he refers to so incessantly. The cruise ship docks, replaced by a family owned gas station, whose parents (and then children) are running for election, chased down by a relentless news team. A young boy, adept at slapstick, scares them away with a stick and then conducts an invisible symphony with it. So referentially dense, it would ideally be watched with hyperlinks attached to all the quotes and film clips, as well as the concrete poetry of the partially-translated subtitles, which he puckishly described as “Navajo English”.

The RobberDirected by Benjamin Heisenberg (no distribution, screens Sep. 29th at 9:15PM)

In this propulsive genre workout, a prisoner trains in his cell to be a long-distance runner. Upon release he wins a marathon, but, alas, keeps robbing banks. Incredibly, it’s the true story of Johann Kastenberger (changed to Rettenberger in the film, and played with wiry athleticism by Andreas Lust), or “Pump Gun Ronnie”, who wore a Reagan mask during his reign of terror. The superbly controlled action sequences are shot in sinuous steadicam long takes, and one heist in particular stands out. Lust, after holding up one bank, sprints to another one, as the cop cars are busy investigating the first. Setting his camera up across the street, Heisenberg resolutely keeps his distance from any kind of psychologizing, he’s just here to emphasize the physical feats. Then Lust bursts out of the second, and a chase erupts when a cop car foolishly tries to run him down. Racing up a parking garage, and then down and outside through a cellar, it’s a white-knuckle affair shot with daredevil fearlessness. The steadicam operator was sprinting down hallways as fast as Lust, with little cutting and total spatial coherence.


May 18, 2010

Screen Shot 2020-01-23 at 12.59.17 PM

A groggy John Huston welcomes you to today’s equally confused post. He’s an interview subject in Peter Lennon’s Rocky Road to Dublin (1967), an acidic documentary portrait of 1960s Ireland. Lennon wrote a series of articles for The Guardian about how the Catholic Church and their Republican government cronies were choking off the cultural life of his country, and he adapted his polemics to the screen with the help of regular Godard cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Intimate and barbed, Coutard’s handheld camera nudges its way into bustling pubs, sparsely attended hurling matches (soccer was banned as a “foreign sport”), and the backyards of splenetic Irish authors.  Recently released on DVD by Icarus Films, it’s a unique inverse of the silent “city symphonies” made famous by Walter Ruttmann. Maybe call it a city (and country) evisceration.

So why trot out Huston now? Lennon’s film was the last one screened at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival before Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut shut it down to support the general strike which was occurring outside its doors. There’s a short “Making of Rocky Road to Dublin” included on the disc, and there is footage of a Peter Lennon arguing with Godard and Truffaut at the screening to allow the doomed discussion of his film to continue. All of which is a rather long-winded preamble to talk about this year’s Cannes Festival. Of all of the coverage I’ve been reading, by far the most entertaining has been that surrounding Godard’s latest provocation, his new feature FILM SOCIALISME.

The fun began when The Independent reported that the film would be subtitled in “Navajo English”:

as in old Westerns where the Native Americans spoke in choppy phrases. Because the dramatakes place on a cruise ship where no one speaks the same language, Godard has fashioned his subtitles concisely to say the least. If a character is saying “give me your watch”, the subtitle will read “You, me, watch.”

This is both hilarious and conceptually apt, and will make initial screenings of the film difficult to parse for mono-linguists like myself. Critics will have to work for this one. Manohla Dargis and Ben Kenigsberg take their (provisional) shots at the NY Times and Time Out Chicago, respectively. Dargis charts out a structure: cruise ship-gas station-cities and a hint of a theme, taken from an interview at “the Americans liberated Europe by making it dependent.” The full interview with Godard, conducted by friend and former collaborator Daniel Cohn-Bendit, has been translated by Craig Keller at his blog Cinemasparagus.

Kenigsberg focuses more on the visuals, of a “woman reads Balzac at a gas station while standing next to a llama”, and says it is “stunning to look at—memorable images include a man lecturing to what appears to be an empty auditorium and a boy in a Soviet shirt conducting a phantom orchestra”, but considers it more “tossed off” than his previous essay films (recently Notre Musique (2004) and In Praise of Love (2001)).

For a thumbail reaction internationally, the Letras de Cine blog has been posting number ratings from critics worldwide, and FILM SOCIALISME has the highest average ranking (9.36 out of 10) out of every film polled (Manoel de Oliveira’s highly anticipated THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA is in second with a 8.73). In any case, it’ll be a long wait to see it in a U.S. theater, which is why I was thrilled to see Dargis link to, which is streaming the film for 7 EUR through tomorrow. However, it doesn’t look like it is accessible to people in the U.S. (and Spanish critic Miguel Marias said it wasn’t working for him either, in a comment at Cinemasparagus).

Godard canceled his press conference appearance with a characteristically enigmatic fax to festival head Thierry Fremeaux, as Dargis reports:  “‘problems of the Greek type”’had prevented him from attending and that he would go to his death for the festival, but not one step more.’”


Some rare screenings this week as the Migrating Forms festival rolls on in NYC. First was a trio of recent shorts from Jean-Marie Straub, Artemis’s Knee (2008), The Itinerary of Jean Bricard (2008), and The Witches-Women Among Women (2009). Bricard is the last film he made with Daniele Huillet, his long-time collaborator and wife who passed away in 2006.  For context and analysis of these works, Richard Brody’s laudatory short piece at The New Yorker is the place to start. He has a handle on the source texts (by Cesare Pavese, Heinrich Schulz) and music (Mahler), that my circumscribed education has…circumscribed.

The most striking work for me is Jean Bricard, which opens on an epically long take of a camera riding along on a boat. As it passes a autumnal B&W landscape of skeletal trees dotted with bulbous nests, one expects it to resolve itself as a simple, starkly beautiful  landscape film (shot by Irina Lubtchansky and her brilliant late husband William). But then there is a jolt of humor, as the boat passes two consecutive arrows, each pointing in opposite directions. This graphic comedy rouses one out of reverie and into the story they tell, which emerges in voice-over from Mr. Bricard, a French Resistance Fighter during WWII who was recorded by sociologist Jean-Yves Petiteau in 1994. The film slowly reveals itself to be about decay and loss. As Bricard recalls an uncle who was murdered in the high grass by Vichy forces, Straub-Huillet circle round the abandoned Coton Island where he lived, framing the sunken cafes and muddy shorelines of a river raised, re-directed and polluted, essentially destroying the island and relocating its inhabitants. History and geography both show the scars of time.


The last item on my viewing list is an early David Cronenberg feature, Stereo (1969), also part of Migrating Forms. It’s a resourceful piece of no-budget sci-fi that utilizes the Brutalist architecture of Scarborough College in Canada to its fullest extent. Long corridors, slanting windows, and slab-like structures are the rather ascetically imposing settings for some telepathic experimentation. Cronenberg shot the film with no synchronous sound, recording a lengthy voice-over of doctors’ reports, analyzing the actions of the “patients” on-screen. These subjects are college-age kids given ESP on the operating table, and thrust into the habitrail of the campus to study the possible development of a new kind of language and family units. The voice-over informs us that a couple of the patients have had their larynxes removed in order to further force the issue of ESP language formation.

The structure an ingenious way to save on sound costs, but the voice-over eventually falls into tedium, and the frequently striking compositions of men fading into the architecture becomes the sole force of the film. The narrative loses drive, but Cronenberg never loses the lack for conjuring uncanny images. A curio, but one well-worth seeking out. It’s available as an extra on the Blue Underground DVD and Blu-Ray for his racing film, Fast Company.


April 21, 2009


Four faces of Jean-Luc Godard,  (L-R from 1968, 1970, 1979, and 1980) taken from the tantalizing DVD artifact “JLG in USA”, which accompanies the March/April edition of The Believer (Full Disclosure: Don’t hold it against it the magazine, but my wife and I wrote a brief article in the issue). Compiled by BAM programmer and Film Desk founder Jacob Perlin, it contains four short films of interviews, lectures, and home movies recorded at the cusp of Godard’s experimental video work in the early 70s with the Dziga Vertov Group and beyond, through his return to more personal art films with Every Man for Himself in 1980. This period is still the least understood in his career, and the few films I’ve seen from his seventies work, Ici et Ailleurs (1976) and Numero Deux (1975), are both extraordinary and demanding. For those like myself eager for further info into this part of his career, it’s a fascinating and surprisingly moving look at a man going through artistic and (one assumes) personal upheaval.

The disc begins with a D.A. Pennebaker/Ricky Leacock production, “Two American Audiences”, documenting a visit by Godard to NYU on April 4th, 1968 to discuss La Chinoise, the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. As Pennebaker is quoted in the notes: “Of course, none of us in the room knew about that then.” A month later, Godard, along with Francois Truffaut, rushed the stage at the Cannes Palais des Festivals stage, urging solidarity with the striking students. A moment out of time. Godard takes questions from a variety of delightfully hairy film students and moderator Serge Losique. Losique asks if the Maoisms spouted by La Chinoise‘s callow youth are a simple reflection of the times, a mirror, or a political call to action. Godard, whose cinema lies in the space between either/or, who revels in contradiction, admits that there is movement between both. It is not static, “it’s a movie, a movement.”

He is openly sympathetic to Maoist thought,  but his intellect is too searching to make a simple propaganda film. These sympathies are troubling, but his film work is often far more complex and nuanced than his stated political positions. He can’t help but let the artist introduce ambiguity and other complications. La Chinoise is both a parody and homage to the dreams of revolutionary youth, absurd and romantic. Godard bristles at a questioner who notes this humor, but his filmmaking gives the lie to this, with its playful digressions and in-jokes (one character’s defense of Johnny Guitar gets him expelled from the cell). His cinephilia is still in full bloom in this interview: “The average film of the silent era, or even the Hollywood film of thirty years ago – was much more subtle and intelligent than the average Hollywood film today”. He goes to oppose Gone With the Wind to Doctor Zhivago to prove his point.

The second film, Godard in America (1970), was shot by Ralph Thanhauser when Godard was deeply involved with the Dziga Vertov Project, his Marxist film cooperative that also included filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin. Questioned by Andrew Sarris about his new group, it’s clear his priorities have shifted the political above the aesthetic, his cinema become a tool for revolutionary thought. Or at least that’s what he claims. I have yet to see a Vertov project, although the material used in Ici et Ailleurs was footage abandoned by the group in 1970, and re-purposed by Godard to investigate the deceptive nature of filmic representation, how the images of these Palestinian fighters would have “added up to zero” since each new frame completely replaces the one before it. In the documentary, Godard and Gorin flip through their storyboards, laying out the structure that Godard would completely deconstruct six years later.

The third film, “A Weekend at the Beach with Jean-Luc Godard”, is an amusing curio shot by photographer Ira Schneider. Godard stayed at Schneider’s beach house for a weekend with Wim Wenders, Alice Waters, Jean-Pierre Gorin, among others. It’s strange seeing such an eccentric intellectual as Godard wearing a sun hat and joking with friends (I can see the US Weekly story now, “Godard: He’s just like us!”). Schneider, no fan of the obstreperous Frenchman, offers a short, drily funny voice-over in an attempt to de-mystify this object of film cult adoration. Nice try! But he still mystifies me.

The most incredible piece of footage on the disc is an interview with Dick Cavett from 1980, done for the release of Every Man for Himself. It was being received as a comeback of sorts, since it was a return to a form of narrative. Godard denies he ever left, that he was just “pushed away.” That much is true – he never stopped working, people just stopped watching. But with Isabelle Huppert, texts by Charles Bukowski (who Godard mischievously claims was unknown in the US at the time), and a plot revolving around prostitution, he got his name back in the papers. This two-part encounter with Cavett is combative, enlightening, and surprisingly touching. When Cavett quotes some critics as calling his films too “distant” (which I would call one his strengths), Godard responds that he thinks he’s getting closer, and that he’s possibly found a balance between the charismatic personality of his earlier works to the almost didactic form of his experimental work. He calls Every Man for Himself a second first film, comparing it to a return to childhood, except  this time he went through the back door or a second floor window.

There’s also plenty of his film critical insights. He predicts that Scorsese’s next film would be “beautiful” (Raging Bull); that Woody Allen’s use of B&W in Manhattan was an empty gimmick; that Jerry Lewis was a painter who was a master with space and geometry, and that his infamous Day the Clown Cried project also sounded “beautiful”. Godard gamely responds to Cavett’s stylistic questions, his use of slow-motion to capture the intimacy of a fight scene, and the freedom necessary to his dynamic use of sound, which often runs independent of the image track. In an unexpected bit of emotion, Cavett recalls an old interview inquiring about Godard’s ambition, which, after a pause of 42 seconds, he responded, “I would like not to be so lonely.” Godard reiterated this statement, and went on to say that he would always like to feel that the door to his parents’ room was open at night, so as not to be afraid of the loneliness. He said he was no longer afraid.