Archive for the ‘1960s’ Category

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Arthur Penn 1922-2010

September 29, 2010

The director behind Little Big Man, Night Moves and, of course, this…

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Andrew Sarris on Carl Dreyer’s “Gertrud”

March 13, 2010

Yesterday, I came across a brief review written by Andrew Sarris back in the day (1964 to be exact). His passionate defense makes it clear that Dreyer’s austere approach had become very polarizing…hardly a shock, given the emergence of the French New Wave and the way world cinema was evolving back then. More striking is Sarris’ observation in the opening paragraph:

Gertrud is a sternly beautiful work of art with none of the fashionable flabbiness of second-chance sentimentality exemplified most vividly in Monica Vitti’s compassionate caress of Gabriele Ferzetti in the final, ultimate blank-wall composition of L’Avventura. Dreyer has lived long enough to know that you live only once and that all decisions are paid in full to eternity.”

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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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New York Film Festival • “Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ‘Inferno’,” dir. Serge Bromberg

October 5, 2009
Romy Schneider indulges herself in this outtake from "Inferno"

Romy Schneider indulges herself in this outtake from "Inferno"

Bromberg is known for finding rare films that have either been lost or kept from the public for many years. For his latest documentary, he convinced Clouzot’s widow to license him the footage from his aborted production, Inferno.

Bromberg discussed his encounter with Clouzot’s widow when he introduced the film at the New York Film Festival, and much to the audience’s delight, Bromberg kept delaying the start of the picture with his anecdote. It was clear that he and film critic Scott Foundas had rehearsed this little routine, but it was a charming way to open the movie.

According to Bromberg, many people had already approached Clouzot’s widow about Inferno, but she was never compelled to release the footage. She agreed to meet with him anyway, and every time Bromberg believed he had convinced her, she would shoot him down, pushing him to grovel a little bit more.

When Foundas cut off Bromberg, he was recounting his pleas to Clouzot’s widow as she escorted him to the elevator. At that point, Bromberg told us he would finish the story after the show, and when the film started up, the first words we heard were: “Our story begins in a dark elevator in Paris…”

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When the French New Wave landed in 1959, they apparently raked Clouzot over the coals.* To them, Clouzot was part of the French filmmaking establishment they were rebelling against, and with Inferno, Clouzot was determined to show them a thing or two.

What followed actually recalls the Beach Boys’ SMiLE album; the film was never completed and Clouzot suffered greatly for it (though not as much as Brian Wilson did for SMiLE). But what little survives is revelatory and stylistically audacious.

Most of the unearthed footage appears to be test shots, and as can be expected, the experiments are hit-or-miss. The kaleidoscope effects in particular look very dated, but some effects look absolutely stunning. Coming from Clouzot, it was even more impressive; nothing in his previous work had anything like this. How often do you see an established, successful veteran leaping out of his comfort zone and swinging for the fences?

One of the more fascinating experiments dealt with color – some of the visuals Clouzot had in mind were difficult enough, but he wanted to forgo photographic processing altogether and do everything in-camera. For example, much of the film takes place around a lake, and he wanted to alter the color of the water and the landscape while retaining the actors’ natural skin color. Clouzot apparently accomplished this with the help of body make-up, painting the actors in blue tones so that they would look ‘natural’ on film.

Unfortunately, the production didn’t last long, and very little was ultimately shot. The documentary doesn’t even show any dialogue scenes; instead, Bromberg had to film recreations with Berenice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin, framing them on blank sets.

What we do get is two sequences that are close to completion. Inferno deals with a husband’s pathological jealousy, and both sequences are compelling portrayals of this mindset.

The first one follows the wife through the local marketplace, and it unfurls many of the experiments seen in the earlier test shots. It’s hardly subtle, but it all works, with every trick rooted in the husband’s warped perspective. Clouzot handles everything with just enough discipline to keep it palatable.

The second is far more tantalizing, with the husband observing his wife with another man. This time, a stronger narrative runs through the sequence, and Clouzot’s bold experiments feel wholly organic to the storytelling. For example, Clouzot shifts back and forth from color to black and white, the former representing crazed delusions and the latter reality. Even better are the brilliant compositions scattered throughout this sequence, with the best one involving a train running over a bridge. (When I find a still, I’ll post it.)

The last few minutes of the documentary is dedicated to a series of color shots involving Romy Schneider, who played the wife. Most of these were intended as brief inserts, and Bromberg believes they would not have survived in their entirety had they been edited into the film. Seen uncut, they comprise one saving grace of the production’s failure. (I doubt a slinky has ever been filmed with more suggestiveness).

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Which brings us to the conclusion of Bromberg’s story. As luck would have it, their elevator was stalled for two hours. During that time, Bromberg and Clouzot’s widow got acquainted on a personal level, and it was only then that she agreed to loan the footage to him.

A year later, when Bromberg showed her the completed documentary, she was visibly upset throughout the entire screening. When the lights went up, Bromberg believed his film would never see the light of day. Instead, she told him, “this is exactly how it happened,” and no changes were ever made to the Bromberg’s documentary.

* Bromberg conceded that Truffaut wrote Clouzot a gushing fan letter, but he said that “Truffaut wrote a lot of letters to everybody…if you went through Leni Riefenstahl’s files, I’m sure you would find a letter from Truffaut.”

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“Pierrot le fou,” dir. Jean-Luc Godard

October 3, 2009
Samuel Fuller explains cinema to Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo)

Samuel Fuller and Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo)

Godard makes movies as if he’s got a love-hate relationship with cinema, and in this case, he’s madly in love with it. Intoxicated with the possibilities of film language, Godard executes a full-on assault on movie conventions, and he performs it with gleeful precision.

Early on in the story, Sam Fuller makes a cameo appearance and lays out his definition of film. He covers every aspect – (“love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word EMOTION.”) – and Godard runs through all of them without caring for something as trivial as, oh, plot.

Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina)

Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina)

When we’re introduced to Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo), he’s dragged to a party where every guest regurgitates ad copy. When he runs into an old flame, he jumps ship – not just from his life but from the movie itself. One thing leads to a murder and the next thing you know, they’re on the run, role-playing their way through gangster shoot-outs and musical interludes. (At one point, they even act out cultural caricatures for a group of American tourists.)

Pop culture may have been a deadening influence on the materialistic bores ditched by Ferdinand at the beginning of the film. But for the rest of the picture, pop culture becomes invigorating in its artificiality, flipped in reverse as an expression of Pierrot and Marianne’s id.

A delirious, anarchic masterpiece, this is a gorgeous landmark of the ’60s and possibly Godard’s most enjoyable work.

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina step into some new roles

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina step into some new roles