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Louis Malle

Review: Phantom India

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Phantom India is subtitled “Reflections on a Journey.” For Louis Malle the film represents not only a journey out of the Western environs of his previous films, but also out of the fiction film into the documentary. Not that he hasn’t been there before: one of his earliest involvements in the cinema was as co-director of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s Silent World. But the remove of India as a location and the documentary as a cinematic form may well have—must surely have—had their effect on his subsequent narrative filmmaking. The movie, actually seven 50-minute episodes shaped for presentation on French television, leaves one steeped not only in the spectacle but also something like the sensations of life in India—or, if that be too presumptuous for one who has never gone there, of a special country of the cinematic experience. Malle does his utmost to appreciate his subject wholecloth; a couple of the episodes could handily be abbreviated (the fifth, I think it was, is unprofitably long on the subject of Indian politics), but in the main we can only be grateful for the opportunity to live with some of the scenes and situations long enough to move beyond their surface exoticism into their essence.

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Out of Season: The 19th International San Francisco Film Festival – Take 2

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Mine has been a sheltered existence: I never attended a film festival before. And as a matter of fact I attended only four days of this one. But four more disillusioning and dispiriting days I don’t expect, or want, to experience for quite a while, thank you.

It was bad enough knowing that the Joseph L. Mankiewicz tribute, The Romantic Englishwoman, Les Ordres, Black Moon, the Michael Caine tribute, Conversation Piece, the Louis Malle tribute, Chronicle of the Years of Embers, and Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August—to list them in approximate sequence of anticipatory enthusiasm—would take place before teaching and Film Society commitments permitted us to wing south. The remainder of the program was dominated by unknown and hence unanticipatible quantities, save only for the latest film by the director of The Hireling (which we most wanted to see), a three-hour Soviet WW2 epic by Bondarchuk (which we least wanted to see), a new French film starring Jeanne Moreau (which closed the festival and which, because of return-flight connections, we knew we couldn’t see), and tributes to Gene Hackman, Jane Fonda, and Stanley Donen. Of these last, Hackman and Fonda were two eminently admirable people whose work and ever-emergent identities are so much a part of the contemporary cinematic experience that any summary tribute to either seemed a little inappropriate; but I was perfectly prepared to admit that some tribute designer might very well be able to put the consistently likable creations of director Donen into clearer perspective for me, and besides, the general interruptedness of his career in the late Sixties and early Seventies tended to redouble the justification for a festival salute now that that career seems to be off and running once more. And of course, a film festival is a film festival (isn’t it?), and who knew which of those untried films and filmmakers might be the L’avventura or Viridiana, the Godard or Jancsó, of 1975?

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Out of Season: The 19th International San Francisco Film Festival – Take 1

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Beforehand, the 19th San Francisco Film Festival looked less than scintillating. The parts of it that I was able to see were, by most accounts, the best parts, and if that’s so, then the first impression was not entirely wrong. The 1975 edition of the festival wasn’t bad, but … I’m not sure that there were any absolutely first-rate films in the 12-day program. For me, Joseph Losey’s The Romantic Englishwoman, Louis Malle’s Black Moon, and Self Service, a Bruno Bozzetto cartoon, came closest. Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August got a much warmer reception than I thought it really deserved (the word-of-mouth consensus seemed to be that this was the Festival’s high point). And Luchino Visconti’s Conversation Piece got a much cooler reception than I thought it deserved, but—given the nature of the film—that was not too surprising.

For me personally, the proceedings were made especially memorable by the presence of J Joseph Mankiewicz as well as by the various contributions of Louis Malle. The Festival’s tribute to Mankiewicz (a string of film clips followed by a lengthy question-and-answer session) ranks with the best of the tributes I’ve seen in other years at San Francisco. And Malle, who made no fewer than three appearances before the public and press, left his mark via both Black Moon and his charmingly perceptive remarks about his own work and others’. But one sign of the Festival’s disappointingly middlebrow direction is that other Festival honorees included Jack Lemmon, Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, Gene Hackman, and Steven Spielberg—all or most of whom are worthy figures, but none of whom has reached a point where a retrospective might really mean something. Lemmon, of course, comes closest to an exception. But Hackman, for example, has been in films for only a little over a decade and Spielberg, as everybody knows, would still be wet behind the ears were he not so precociously “successful.” (Just for the record, Lemmon “in person” is very like the man we know from the movies, while Caine “in person” is quite another fellow altogether.)

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Review: A Very Curious Girl

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

I caught up with Nelly Kaplan’s 1969 “Brechtian” comedy one afternoon in San Francisco when MOVIETONE NEWS failed to rate a second ticket to the Jane Fonda tribute at the film festival. While La Fiancée du Pirate (or A Very Curious Girl, as it’s known for purposes of American distribution) compelled a good deal more attention than most of the features in the 19th S.F. Film Festival, I feel dutybound to register a brief demurral as to its value as cinema. The scenario, about an umpteenth-generation, universally exploited piece of provincial trash who undoes her exploiters through a canny manipulation of her sexuality, their stuck-up susceptibility, and such unfamiliar bits of modern technology as a tape recorder and a record player—plus the fact that said scenario was devised and directed by a woman—has tended to win the film reflexively positive notice for eminently respectable sexual-political reasons. It’s a poor excuse for a movie—scarcely as incompetent as 92 in the Shade, but essentially bereft of anything resembling cinematic shape or style. One is always hesitant to protest the absence of such niceties when someone is surely waiting out there to insist, “That’s what’s Brechtian about it, ya schmuck!” But style and self-awareness have to find a meeting ground somewhere between Verfremdungseffekt and the old Hollywood slickeroo, and Nelly Kaplan (a one-time assistant to the monumentally ambitious director Abel Gance) seems to have made little attempt to find it.

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DVD/Blu-ray: ‘Vanya on 42nd Street’

Theater and cinema are so often at odds when attempting to bring the stage experience to the screen. The stage is intimacy and immediacy, losing oneself in words and performances. The movies are images and stars, losing oneself in the rhythm of editing and camerawork. Big screen adaptations of plays are so often static and stiff when a director remains “true” to the construction of the material, or they “open them up” with action sequences or outdoor scenes (because that’s what movies do) that just as often lose the intensity and focus of the play. That’s not to say the two are incompatible — there are many wonderful film versions of plays — but that the experiences are, for all their obvious similarities (actors, scripts, dialogue, narratives), diametrically opposed in so many ways.

Brooke Smith, Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, George Gaynes

Vanya on 42nd Street bridges the two artforms for an experience that is something else altogether, a cinematic engagement with a play performed for the pleasure of the actors and a select audience of friends. This version of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” from a translation by David Mamet that brings American rhythms and vernacular to Chekhov’s 19th century Russian dialogue, comes out of a production that director and playwright Andre Gregory had been staging as a private rehearsal with a select group of actors. Over the course of years, as their schedules would permit, they would gather to explore the play, the characters, and the relationships for the benefit of no one but themselves. Gregory and Wallace Shawn, who plays Uncle Vanya in this project, invited director Louis Malle, who had collaborated with them on My Dinner With Andre (itself a unique piece of cinema theater), to make a film of it. Not a restaging for the cameras, but an exploration of their entire approach to the play. Vanya on 42nd Streetis neither a screen adaptation of a play nor a film recording of a stage production. What Malle captures in the rehearsal space of an abandoned theater is a record of a creative collaboration that has a life of its own, at once documentary, filmed rehearsal, play within a play, and private production restaged for a camera that becomes almost another member of the ensemble.

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Review: Pretty Baby

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

As much as anything else, Pretty Baby is about the end of an era—the ragtime era. Music is so much a part of the film’s atmosphere and texture that it seems an aspect of the production design; and the music reflects that delicate transitional period in popular music when the formal, classical ragtime of Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin began to give way to the freer-flowing “walking” sound of New Orleans blues—a step in the long process whereby African tribal chant and slavery-days work songs developed into the liberated, improvisational swing of the Jazz Age. The pivotal figure in the transition from the Sedalia sound of Joplin to the New Orleans sound that became Dixieland was Jelly Roll Morton, who for all practical purposes appears in the film as “The Professor,” a lean cathouse piano player portrayed by Antonio Fargas, who even looks a little like the old Jelly Roll. Morton did much of his best work playing nights in Storyville; and the closing-down of New Orleans’s fabled red-light district by the U.S. Navy in 1917 was both the end of an era and the reason why many suddenly unemployed musicians—playing something they then called “jass”—fanned out across the country, bringing a new sound with them. In Pretty Baby, when Madame Nell’s closes up and the furniture is being carted off, the Professor still sits, playing a last few bars on his piano as the movers pick it up; he turns quickly away with a tossed-off “Lousy old piano anyway…” to cut the pain of being separated from a part of himself. Fargas has another great moment, earlier in the film, in the close, long take of the Professor’s face, with God-knows-what-all passing through his mind, as the brothel patrons bid for the privilege of taking the virginity of the girl Violet: fleshpeddling of two different kinds meet at that moment in the pained awareness of one face that has seen too much.

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