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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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“Citizen Kane,” dir. Orson Welles

April 6, 2010

The most common appraisal I hear from non-majors and casual filmgoers – “Yeah, I can SEE why it’s supposed to be great, but I wasn’t crazy about it.”

So why do I love it? First off, pervasive influence has a bad habit of dimming originality, but the layered virtuosity of how this picture was put together frame-for-frame is still astounding. But stylistic virtuosity means nothing without substance, and a few detractors say Kane is a bit hollow, not much more than a bag of tricks. I think this is partly due to the story, and many say the answer to Kane’s last words simply betray a lost childhood or innocence. I couldn’t disagree more, I think Kane’s life was always empty and shallow.

In the earliest flashback, as his future’s determined inside his parents’ home, he’s playing outside by himself, shouting political slogans he couldn’t possibly understand. When he gets older and powerful, he thinks he’s a crusader for the underprivileged, and he tries convincingly, but it’s not really what he is. As his first marriage grows cold, he tries to be the romantic again, but again, he overidealizes this affair – he even puts too much stock into Susan’s vocal talents.

Whether it’s something small, like trying to be the life of the party, or something grander like romance, professional ambition or reaching for something greater than his own personal interests, Kane never does anything that’s completely and naturally him, it’s always forced. His public stature grows, but he remains as a hollow as ever. Fittingly, his surroundings grow cavernous and empty, and as he slows with age, he drifts further and further from everyone around him, and the people that remain in his inner circle grow fewer as they do distant.

A composite of two shots - notice how the image goes soft around the archway even though it remains sharp deep in the background as well as the foreground.

When he mutters his last word, he’s really grasping at one more illusion. Maybe that explains everything, being denied a normal, loving home as a child…but you know it isn’t true. It sounds too easy, too simple, and I think Thompson himself would agree, even if he found that sled. So in one way, “Rosebud” doesn’t explain anything, because it’s just another lie Kane tells himself. But, as the last and perhaps most romantic fabrication he’s made of his life, maybe it does.

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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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Q&A Notes: Liv Ullman at BAM

December 6, 2009

For the past few weeks, BAM has been showing a retrospective of Liv Ullman’s films in conjunction with her staging of A Streetcar Named Desire, a production that has gathered a fair share of enthusiastic acclaim.

During a Q&A session after an afternoon screening of Cries and Whispers, Ullman gave some amusing and self-deprecating insights into her work, particularly her collaborations with Ingmar Bergman.

Warning: Plenty of spoilers ahead.

To start, she singled out this extended close-up in Cries and Whispers, where Erland Josephson details all the changes in her character’s face:

“You are beautiful… but you have changed. These days you cast rapid, calculating, sidelong glances. You’re gaze used to be direct, open, and without any disguise. Your mouth is an expression of discontent and hunger. It used only to be soft. Your complexion has become pallid, you use make-up. Your fine, broad forehead now has four creases above each eyebrow… And this fine contour from the ear to the chin… it’s no longer quite so evident. That’s where complacency and indolence reside… Look here, at the bridge of the nose, why do you sneer so often, Maria?… Beneath your eyes, those sharp, barely visible wrinkles of boredom and impatience.”

Ullman admitted she wasn’t feeling modest when they filmed this scene – fairly confident about her appearance, she was filled only with bewilderment at Josephson’s lines. (“How can he make all of this up?”) When she finally saw a cut of the film, she realized how damning the scene looked with her puzzled expression…to her, it was a fine example of how an actor can find the right note without fully grasping what they’re doing.

The most revealing anecdote involved a pivotal scene in Bergman’s Face to Face, where her character attempts suicide in her childhood bedroom. Apparently, Bergman gave her very little direction, telling her, “Okay, in this scene, you take some pills, you lie down and then you die.” (cue audience’s laughter) As soon as he said that, Bergman then turned to the prop master and said, “Are you sure you replaced the Valium with fake pills?” An obvious joke, but Ullman entertained herself with a touch of paranoia, wondering if he was serious, and that was enough to spark her imagination. To her, that was the key to any convincing performance – in other words, good direction set off the imagination (or “fantasizing”) necessary for any actor lose themselves in a character or a scene. Beginning with Bergman’s remark, Ullman detailed her entire thought process throughout that take: following the paranoia, her hands were able to shake from anxiety. Then, she realized she had to take many pills, perhaps all of them, in order to successfully kill herself, and Ullman didn’t liked swallowing pills in general, much less many pills – that ratcheted up her anxiety even more. Then when she laid down to die, Bergman remained silent, which meant the scene had to continue. She then began to pick up details in the room, like a mural, and she felt it because she thought it was something she had seen in this room throughout her childhood so she wanted to touch it one last time. She then looked at her watch because she curious what her time of death would be. Finally, Bergman said, “Thank you,” and that was the end of the scene.

She later noted that bad direction gave her a better idea on how to handle actors, recalling one experience (without identifying the film or director) where she was given very technical instructions. “Walk over here, say your line, count to five, then go here…” Following such instructions (especially counting out beats in her head) took her completely out of the scene.

Ullman discussed Persona, pointing out that she and Bibi Andersson were already best friends when they made that film and kept virtually no secrets from each other. The one scene she focused on was Andersson’s famous retelling of an orgy – apparently the physical details of her character’s reactions were all carefully scripted (the look she needed in her eyes, even the growth in her character’s lips). It struck her as excessive, a lapse in Bergman’s direction, but he was able to get her to follow through.

(As a side-note, five years ago, I caught a restoration of “Persona” presented by MGM archivist John Kirk. Though he wasn’t fluent in Swedish, he knew enough that he was dissatisfied with most translations of the film’s dialogue. So for the ‘orgy scene,’ he got several translators to work on it and then used the least inhibited translation for the new film prints and the DVD reissue.)

Ullman then briefly discussed her only line in the film (“Nothing!”) which she claims she’s seen mistranslated in some prints (not Kirk’s, I hope), and she confessed that she and Andersson believed Persona “would never be heard from again because it was soweird.”

Ullman then said that the most satisfying experience she’s ever had making a film was actually Jan Troell’s The Emigrants/The New Land. She credits that to Troell’s background as a cinematographer – apparently the camera was constantly filming and hovering about on the set, a tactic that kept her ‘lost’ in the film which she believed reinforced her performance.

She had some amusing things to say about her last directorial effort on film, Faithless, which Bergman wrote. In that film, the director’s name is “Bergman,” but when Ullman brought up the explicit referential nature of that character, Bergman went coy, telling her, “Oh no, it’s just a name I came up with…” Bergman tried not to interfere with Ullman’s work, but he initially disagreed with two of her choices (showing forgiveness to the lead male character and a shot of “Bergman” looking at himself on the beach). In both cases, he eventually told Ullman that she was right and he was wrong, and in the case of the latter, he even duplicated the shot for his own autobiographical documentary.

Ullman also said she would never direct another film – unfortunate but not surprising if you read Vogue‘s recent feature on Cate Blanchett. She said she no longer had the stamina to deal with the business side of filmmaking (mainly getting backers), and she didn’t like producers who meddle, something she claims is comparatively absent in her experience in the theater.

The afternoon’s most amusing anecdote involved her only experience in a stage musical back in the 1970s. She told the producers she didn’t know how to sing or dance, but apparently they just said, “Oh, you’re charming and pretty, you’ll do fine.” She repeated the same fears to the composer Richard Rodgers, who was by then fairly old. He told her, “Don’t worry, I’ve worked with plenty of actors who’ve never had any singing experience…I’ll write something that’ll fit your voice and you’ll have nothing to worry about it. I just need to know your range, so just sing for me ‘Happy Birthday.'” Ullman obliged, and she swears that Rodgers aged ten years right in front of her. She followed through on the project, and she admits there was a great deal of fun, “but then again, maybe I shouldn’t have done it?” (Very hysterical the way she delivered this.)

Finally, she closed the Q&A by discussing her plans to tour a production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in her home country – something Norwegians can look forward to next year.

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It’s come to this…a list.

December 2, 2009

Top 50 Films of the Decade*

  1. Beau travail (directed by Claire Denis, a French production, released in 2000)
  2. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S., 2007)
  3. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, U.S., 2001)
  4. Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Edward Yang / 楊德昌, Taiwan, 2000)
  5. In the Mood for Love / 花樣年華 (Wong Kar-wai / 王家衛, Hong Kong, 2000)
  6. Werckmeister Harmonies / Werckmeister harmóniák (Béla Tarr, Hungary, 2001)
  7. Syndromes and a Century / แสงศตวรรษ (Apichatpong Weerasethakul / อภิชาติพงศ์ วีระเศรษฐกุล, Thailand, 2006)
  8. Elephant (Gus Van Sant, U.S., 2003)
  9. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, U.S., 2001)
  10. Far from Heaven (Todd Haynes, U.S., 2002)
  11. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, U.S., 2002)
  12. Y tu mamá también (Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico, 2001)
  13. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, U.S., 2004)
  14. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, U.S., 2005)
  15. Summer Hours / L’Heure d’été (Olivier Assayas, France, 2009)
  16. Pan’s Labyrinth / El Laberinto del Fauno (Guillermo del Toro, Mexico, 2006)
  17. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, U.S., 2007)
  18. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, written by Charlie Kaufman, U.S., 2004)
  19. L’Enfant (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium, 2005)
  20. Hunger (Steve McQueen, Ireland, 2008)
  21. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, U.K., 2008)
  22. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, U.S., 2005)
  23. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days / 4 luni, 3 săptămâni şi 2 zile (Cristian Mungiu, Romania, 2007)
  24. Wall•E (Andrew Stanton, U.S., 2008)
  25. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, U.S., 2003)
  26. Memories of Murder / 살인의 추억 (Bong Joon-ho / 봉준호, South Korea, 2003)
  27. Zodiac (David Fincher, U.S., 2007)
  28. Everyone Else / Alle Anderen (Maren Ade, Germany, 2009)
  29. Letters from Iwo Jima/Flags of Our Fathers (Clint Eastwood, U.S., 2006)
  30. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, U.S., 2006)
  31. 35 Shots of Rum / 35 Rhums (Claire Denis, France, 2009)
  32. The War Tapes (Deborah Scranton, U.S., 2006)
  33. The Son / Le Fils (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium, 2002)
  34. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S., 2002)
  35. The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami / عباس کیارستمی, Iran, 2000)
  36. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, produced by Stanley Kubrick, U.S., 2001)
  37. Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, U.S., 2008)
  38. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, U.S., 2009)
  39. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, U.S., 2009)
  40. Adaptation (Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, U.S., 2002)
  41. Russian Ark / Русский ковчег (Alexander Sokurov / Алекса́ндр Никола́евич Соку́ров, Russia, 2002)
  42. The Flight of the Red Balloon / Le voyage du ballon rouge (Hou Hsiao-Hsien / 侯孝賢, France, 2008)
  43. The House of Mirth (Terence Davies, U.K., 2000)
  44. The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu / Moartea domnului Lăzărescu (Cristi Puiu, Romania, 2005)
  45. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, U.S., 2008)
  46. The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, U.S., 2005)
  47. Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, U.S., 2009)
  48. Gosford Park (Robert Altman, U.S., 2002)
  49. Caché / Hidden (Michael Haneke, France, 2005)
  50. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Spike Lee, U.S., 2006)

*One rule: films with a general release pre-dating 2000 are not eligible.

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Van Morrison & The Band in “The Last Waltz,” dir. Martin Scorsese

November 26, 2009

My favorite performance from The Last Waltz, filmed on Thanksgiving Day, 1976:

Other highlights:

The Band’s performance of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from the same night…

…and the Staple Singers perform “The Weight” on a sound stage with the Band.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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“Jaws,” dir. Steven Spielberg • a case study in remixing

November 26, 2009

Courtesy of Stephen Altobello:

“In 2000, Jaws was remixed from its original mono soundtrack into 5.1. The result is an insult to the craftsman who won an Oscar in 1975 for Best Sound.”