Archive for the ‘1950s’ Category

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“The Night of the Hunter,” dir. Charles Laughton

November 8, 2010

You have to be careful with the kind of expectations you set up for this film. I’ve seen some people, critics included, who build this up as a scary horror flick, like Halloween, but it’s not like that at all. This isn’t the sort of edge-of-your-seat suspense movie that’s meant to terrify you, but something more twisted and strange. It reminds me of the cheap, flimsy children’s books I used to read in churches, only warped and deranged from a good dose of German expressionism. Imagine if Disney pursued a less commercial direction after his initial triumphs; he would’ve wound up here.

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“Rashomon,” dir. Akira Kurosawa

November 7, 2010


Rashomon‘s influence is so pervasive, the story structure will be familiar to anyone, even if they’ve never heard of the picture. A crime is committed, and the only witnesses give very conflicting accounts. Revolutionary in its time, the gimmick has lost its novelty now that countless films and television shows have lifted it, but few if any of them retained the same philosophical implications. Most writers turn it into a simple lesson in subjectivity – characters lie to make themselves look better. The characters in Rashomon do the opposite. By the film’s end, the most important questions are not raised by the legalities of the case, it’s raised by how the characters perceive themselves – what they believe are their given roles in society and how that defines them, not just the way they live or what they do, but who they are.

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“The Golden Coach”/”Le Carrosse d’or,” dir. Jean Renoir

April 14, 2010

Typically described as a love letter to acting and the theater, this is one of Renoir’s finest, latter-day films. It’s a credit to Renoir’s humanism that his characters can be selfish, impetuous and jealous to an unflattering degree yet remain very sympathetic. It’s even more striking how this sensibility’s reflected in his compositions – they recall the inclusive, democratic nature of his father’s day-in-the-life paintings, where every person is an equally important element in the picture. Like The Rules of the Game, the long shots are often multi-layered compositions that constantly suggest a film divided into multiple worlds – not just in class, but even from stage to reality. The fake mirror gag, the way Camilla, the lead actress, is observed from off-stage, the way characters observe the opposite end of society in rooms or courtyards through partially obstructed windows and doorways…all of this builds to an ending that’s almost cruel in the way it separates the audience from the performers, or “the so-called real life” from the stage.

But up until then, Camilla and the others rarely recognize these divisions, and as they move back and forth between the two, their behavior smears the distinction between performance and reality. The way Camilla expresses her anger through a guitar, the king’s obligatory wig, the obvious refusals to mingle between classes…even backstage, when the actors dress, the dividing sheets are gorgeously designed like the backdrops seen in their shows. It’s a constant reminder of how these people act out their perceived roles in real life as well as on stage.

Actually, the more I think about it, the ending feels more sobering than cruel. If Renoir’s insisting on divisions between the stage and real life, maybe it’s because performance in life is doomed to dissatisfaction. At one point, the king laments that “no one dreams of anything else. Where gold commands, laughter vanishes.” He’s referring to the roles everyone’s mapped out for themselves at the expense of living.

Performance on stage is a different matter. Early in the film, Camilla’s bitter, tired and disillusioned with acting. However, her bitterness is based in professionalism. Even when their financial potential looks particularly grim after a successful performance, a fact that’s hardly lost on Camilla, she returns to the stage time and time again. Not surprisingly, Camilla’s most revealing moments often deal with conscious play-acting – whether it’s mocking societal manners over dinner with the king or, more significantly, when she’s on the other side of a performance, enjoying a bullfight.

Self-consicous stunts can be fairly hollow, as if being self-referential alone will somehow deliver so much more, but that’s never the case here.

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The French New Wave, 50 years later…

November 1, 2009

“I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse.” – François Truffaut

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This Thursday and Friday, BAM will be screening two masterpieces from François Truffaut: Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim. Although both screenings are part of BAM’s excavation of 1962, they’re also apropos in commemorating the 50th anniversary of the French New Wave, which hit these shores on November 16, 1959 when Truffaut’s The 400 Blows premiered in New York City.

If D.W. Griffith codified filmmaking the way Elvis consolidated rock ‘n’ roll on his Sun 45s, and if Citizen Kane took film language to its complete fruition the way Revolver and Sgt. Pepper elevated studio recording, then the French New Wavers were the punk rockers of their era, revolutionizing cinema the way the Ramones, the Clash and the Sex Pistols redefined pop music 25 years later. Punk wiped away the excesses of its predecessors, going back to three primordial chords. After Jean-Luc Godard and Truffaut, there were no more rules in filmmaking, only conventions, and at its earliest peak, the French New Wave was anything but conventional.

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Amusingly enough, they started off as film critics – fairly logical, but then again, how many critics have launched a career in film production? Not counting the Left Bank directors often grouped with the New Wave, most of them came out of Cahiers du Cinéma, a film journal co-founded by the late, great André Bazin. He died of leukemia in 1958, before he saw any of his young critics develop into full-fledged artists, but he was a massive influence on all of them. His belief in the director’s personal vision laid the foundation for the New Wave’s auteur theory, and regardless of whether or not you agreed with its ideas, it certainly informed the approach most of them took to filmmaking.

Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and many others went on to become formidable directors, but the best known were Godard and Truffaut – to many, they represented the mind and soul of the movement. As filmmakers, Godard was something like Lennon to Truffaut’s McCartney – the snotty intellectual to the romantic sentimentalist – but as critics, they were both enfant terribles. Truffaut enraged the establishment, inciting the audience to “rise up against French cinema” and to “smash the seats when faced with these revolting films.” He demanded more from motion pictures and he wanted audiences to demand more as well rather than sit back and watch as docile co-conspirators.

They may have been scornful of what had become of French cinema, but they absolutely adored what was coming out of America. Hollywood’s studio system was virtually finished and its productivity was crippled, but directors like Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller and many others were still working through creative peaks – to the Cahiers critics, the only thing amiss was how these films were overshadowed in their own country by less worthy ‘Oscar collectors.’

In 1958, Hitchcock created Vertigo, widely celebrated as his greatest work and possibly the best film ever made. The mainstream American press wasn’t moved, and the industry crowned Gigi as ‘best picture.’ That same year, Universal dumped Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil into B-movie purgatory, but overseas at Expo 58 (the Brussels World’s Fair), Truffaut and Godard awarded it the top prize. Now considered a masterpiece, it’s reprehensible that Hollywood would never bankroll another Welles production after Touch of Evil, but there is some measure of karmic justice – after screening it at the fair, Truffaut came out of it determined to make his first picture.

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Truffaut at work, 1964

The pressure must’ve been intense – after taking his abuse time and time again, the French film industry saw an opportunity for some considerable schadenfreude. Fortunately for us, Truffaut didn’t indulge them. A year later, Godard stepped in with Breathless and nothing would ever be the same.

It’s fairly common for any artist to mimic their influences on their first time out – sometimes to the point of thievery – but barring the occasional homage, the first French New Wave films had little resemblance to any of their inspirations. They were radical and wholly original, reinventing film language and rejuvenating it in a way that suggested a love-hate relationship with cinema. The 400 Blows came first, but Breathless captured the spirit of the French New Wave better than any of their other films. There would be better pictures, but none were as raw or dynamic as Breathless.

Nothing appeared too amateurish once it was folded into the aesthetic – what was good enough for newsreels was good enough for them. Not even the Italian neo-realists were that crazy – maybe Rosellini out of necessity, but even The Bicycle Thieves was a large scale production employing an army of studio professionals while sticking to the basics of conventional storytelling. Watching Breathless, you felt that Godard never waited for the crew to light a scene to the point of sterility – if film was about capturing a moment, he wasn’t going to let it slip away, professionalism be damned.

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And that spirit ran through the film’s characters, often played by amateurs. There was a rush in the way they lived and the way they inhabited their films, even when their situations were bleak and the repercussions were tragic. Truffaut’s surrogate, Antoine Doinel, did his best to outlast childhood in The 400 Blows. Ferdinand and Marianne abandoned modern life in Pierrot le fou for something crazier and more intoxicating than Bonnie & Clyde. Odile, Arthur and Franz found time in Band of Outsiders for a minute of silence…then the Madison…and then a mad dash through the Louvre. And then there’s Catherine, loved by Jules and Jim, refusing to live as anything less than a free spirit.

The New Wave’s influence remains ubiquitous, most notably in filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mama Tambien recalls Jules et Jim) and Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation channels Godard), but the rest of the world has fallen backward. Hollywood bares little resemblance to the commercial entity once championed by the New Wave. “I pity the French cinema because it has no money,” Godard says. “I pity the American cinema because it has no ideas.” With every studio cannibalizing its ‘independent’ divisions and filmmakers overseas finding more difficulty in getting seen in their own countries, one hopes for another revolution.

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“The Searchers,” dir. John Ford

October 29, 2009
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Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan) sees her brother-in-law, Ethan (John Wayne)

Despite its canonization, The Searchers has had its share of detractors, and I always felt that the skeptics outnumbered the devotees in my generation. Compared to many of the Westerns made in the past 20 years (the revisionist Unforgiven, the off-beat Dead Man, the politically correct Dance with Wolves), I can understand how someone can dismiss it as “off-putting to the contemporary sensibility.” But such a statement betrays some historical arrogance in one’s taste.

The first time I saw The Searchers, it looked uneven – I thought there was too much shlock, and I believed Ford’s approach was too broad. When I saw it again a few years later, and again a few days after that, all those alleged flaws appeared deceptive, and that’s when I really noticed a subtlety in craft that was powerful as it was economical. The build up to Lucy’s terror, the traumatic moments that are never seen but completely felt, the hatred conveyed in one chilling close-up…Ford knew how to get under your skin without any emotional bullying. But Ford could also be sentimental without crossing the boundaries of taste, and The Searchers can be surprisingly moving. One of the most tender scenes comes near the beginning, when you realize what’s there between Ethan Edwards and his brother’s wife, Martha. A silent, understated miniature, it’s all the more poignant in the way Sam Clayton chooses to witness it. Classic Hollywood has always been lauded for its “invisible style,” an approach to editing and composition that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but this scene is an extraordinary example of this.

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Unfortunately, films with a reputation like The Searchers are often burdened with misguided expectations of perfection, and to be fair, there are some awkward moments in The Searchers. (The wedding near the end comes to mind.) But the biggest mistake you can make is to count the number of flaws instead of appreciating the weight of its merits. For me, it’s one of the first great depictions of racism in a Hollywood film – ambiguous but unflinching and accurate in its complexity. Some critics have even accused the film of racism, a credit to the film’s lack of didacticism.

The story of two men who look for a girl kidnapped by Comanches, The Searchers makes it clear that if she’s alive, the Comanches will probably make her one of their own. As the picture shows the lengths some will go to preserve what’s acceptable in civility, the division between what’s savage and what’s civilized appears more and more precarious.

That wedding may have been clumsy, but it leads up to a startling confrontation between Laurie Jorgensen, arguably the sweetest character in the whole picture, and Martin Pawley, the adopted brother of the kidnapped girl. One-eighth Cherokee, Martin and Laurie are/were lovers, and it’s all the more disturbing that she would say those things to Martin considering who he is.

If there’s anything else I’ve grown to appreciate about The Searchers, it’s John Wayne’s brilliant performance, proof he can be great despite his limitations. No one else could have brought the same weight to Ethan Edwards, one of the most fascinating, enduring characters in cinema. He’s the embodiment of everything mythic and virulent about the Old West – every bit the alpha male while flirting with psychosis.

But when the film ends, he appears unexpectedly vulnerable. Ethan and Martin put everything on the line to find Debbie, sacrificing years without knowing how many more would be spent. They’re the ones who restore their family, but unlike Martin, Ethan can’t be a part of it. He’s always known it, that this was a way of life could never be his, but that doesn’t stop him from ever wanting it. That one small gesture, grabbing his arm before he turns and leaves, tells you everything you need to know. Not many people would consider it a desolate ending – he’s found some measure of peace – but it always seemed tragic to me. Ford films it beautifully, mirroring the beginning, and I don’t think any film has ever had an opening and closing shot more perfect than The Searchers.

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“The 400 Blows”/”Les Quatre cents coups,” dir. François Truffaut

September 7, 2009
Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel in "The 400 Blows"

Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel in "The 400 Blows"

The 400 Blows was the first film on adolescence that meant anything to me. By the time I saw it, it was almost 40 years old and Truffaut had long since passed, but it was a better reflection of childhood than anything I had seen before. It stripped away the phony nostalgia usually imposed on youth and came up with something raw and honest.

Technically, it isn’t an autobiography, but the story draws liberally from Truffaut’s own childhood, much more than he originally let on. The lead character, Antoine Doinel, doesn’t know his biological father, and even though his mother’s eventual husband gave him his surname, he was passed off to be raised by others – his parents didn’t take him in until he was ten years old, and his presence is treated as an enormous burden.

His adopted father tries, but he’s never a strong father figure, and parenthood doesn’t suit his mother at all. She bemoans any work that’s needed to raise him, as if inflating her efforts will excuse her frequent lapses and repeated neglect.

It’s telling that a filmmaker as sentimental as Truffaut would make a feature debut so scarred with bitter memories. For Truffaut to show those experiences in a way that can feel so cutting and exposed decades later, I suppose he’d have to emerge from them with his tenderness intact.

Antoine Doinel stealing some milk in "The 400 Blows"

Antoine Doinel stealing some milk in "The 400 Blows"

Having said all that, I don’t want to leave the impression that The 400 Blows is a thoroughly wrenching experience. Far from it, because most of it bounces between anarchic pleasures and authoritative repression, with each experience feeding the other.

The first scene opens in a classroom run by a school teacher who puts more effort into castigation than education. To be fair, the kids don’t give him an easy time, but then again, with a nickname like “Sourpuss,” it’s obvious why they don’t. Up against this backdrop, Truffaut scatters dozens of gems, moments of rebellion that are worth the inevitable disciplinary action even if the gratification is fleeting. If any one of them stands out, it’s the mass escape from gym class, captured brilliantly in (more or less) a single, overhead shot.

Eventually, a failing Antoine has to regain his footing in the classroom, and an opportunity arrives when Balzac delivers him some much-needed inspiration…or at least that’s how it should’ve played out. Instead, his teacher brands his clumsy attempt at homage as cheating (more precisely, plagiarism); he doesn’t see potential or consider why Antoine would repeat Balzac verbatim, he only sees reason for punishment. Antoine knows that’s all he’ll get, and not surprisingly he runs away.

Truffaut’s own experience with education was hardly different. Soon after watching Abel Gance’s Paradis perdu, he became infatuated with cinema at the age of 8, but there was no place for it in school. Instead, the usual rote expectations were placed on him, and when Truffaut failed to comply, he was expelled. Fortunately, his removal actually freed him to pursue his own passions in full force. (He claimed to have seen a minimum of three films every day.)

Antoine Doinel and his classmates in "The 400 Blows"

Antoine Doinel and his classmates in "The 400 Blows"

That’s one autobiographical element missing in The 400 Blows: cinema is never Antoine’s salvation. Even if his relationship to the artform isn’t extraordinary the way it was for Truffaut, it still does plenty for Antoine and everyone else: his family’s only moment of harmony involves a trip to the movies. But like everything Antoine enjoys, it’s a fleeting diversion, not a way out.

When he escapes school over Balzac, he lives freely for a very short time. Eventually, he needs to get money, and eventually, he’s apprehended. This time, his father settles for an easy solution with nominal concern for proportion, and Antoine is thrown into jail. Truffaut’s stepfather put him through the same ordeal, and he convincingly recreates that experience here. The details feel real in the way the grown-ups handle Antoine with indifference, and the way Antoine quietly goes along with the charade until the reality of the situation sinks in and breaks him.

From there, it only gets worse at the labor camp where Antoine’s detained. Punishment is not only more severe but even crueler in how its methodically delivered. When Antoine fails to show the table manners no one bothered to teach him, he pays for it. The scene doesn’t last very long, but it’s enough. This is how it will be: under an authority with unspoken rules you don’t necessarily understand, and where every mistake, including the smallest missteps, lead to the same enormous pain.

He has one legitimate path to freedom, but his parents take that away from him in a sadistic, selfish act. So not surprisingly, Antoine runs once more, and we see it more or less in one continuous shot. As the landscape changes next to him, sketching the growing distance between him and that prison, it relaxes like one long exhale. It’s absolutely liberating, but the feeling doesn’t last. Eventually Antoine reaches the sea, the first time he’s ever visited it, and it’s pretty cruel that he can only see it as an endless boundary.

While shooting that final scene, Truffaut allegedly ran out of film, but one shouldn’t make the mistake of dismissing the closing shot as a product of necessity – Truffaut chose to use a freeze frame, stopping the scene cold before blowing it up on Antoine’s gaze.

Antoine would later appear in four more films by Truffaut, grown-up then married (then divorced). But as good as some of those films are, they’re worlds away from The 400 Blows. Even with the knowledge of what lies ahead, the final shot is still startling, not as a stylistic breakthrough, but as a lasting impression of a boy trying to survive adolescence and realizing it can’t be escaped, only outlasted.

Still taken from the final shot of "The 400 Blows"

Still taken from the final shot of "The 400 Blows"