Posted in: Essays, Film Reviews

Skolimowski: “Deep End”

[Originally written for the University of Washington Office of Cinema Studies Film Series “Love and Death,” November 15, 1983]

The original poster: hair turns to blood, or maybe just red

Jerzy Skolimowski. The name does not come trippingly to the Anglo-Saxon tongue, but it’s worth fixing in mind all the same, for Skolimowski is one of the sharpest filmmakers now living. He doesn’t get to make a lot of films, and none that he’s made has won wide or conspicuous release. But every time I see one of his best moves—Barrier, Deep End, Moonlighting, much of The Shout—I come away exhilarated and a little awestruck at the nimbleness and suggestibility of his cinematic imagination. Few films are so quirkily, relentlessly alive. Few succeed so vividly in evoking a distinctive vision of life, in which the abstract and the concrete, the accidental and the poetically inevitable, trade off and reinvigorate one another as naturally as the heart pumps blood.

Blood is the first thing we see in Deep End. Or it may be red paint. Or it may simply be (as Jean-Luc Godard had it in Pierrot le fou) red. One of the moments I always think of first when I reflect back on this movie is a daftly barbed encounter between Sue and the bathhouse cashier. Sue drifts into the cashier’s vicinity and begins lazily to consume a milkshake. The cashier, an older woman, less attractive, more desperate, and weight-conscious, does her utmost to ignore the provocation; she glares without glaring. As so often in the film, the architecture of the scene is fraught with tension and definition. Sue moves to a bench across the corridor and eases down onto it; the cashier sits, half cut off from view, in her window. Hold this no-(wo)man’s-land composition a moment. Then this disembodied hand seems to reach out of the wall beyond the cashier and paint a hot red streak up and down the background. The explanation is perfectly rational: we have had ample opportunity to notice that the baths are undergoing a token cosmetic renovation, and in this case a painter has simply been working his way down the hall that intersects our focal corridor at the back of the shot. (He steps fully into view a few seconds later, a wholly anonymous, dramatically irrelevant personage.) Still, that first shock of red bursting against the otherwise bilious environment is at once profoundly unsettling and giddily satisfying. One wants to laugh and gasp in the same breath: laugh at the outrageous obtrusiveness of this stylistic comment, and gasp at how directly it speaks to the derangement of this deceptively prosaic world.

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Essays, Jean-Luc Godard

Vivre sa vie – A Life to Live in 12 Chapters

[Originally published for the UW Continuing Education Office of Cinema Studies, January 23, 1983]

By a strange process of free association I hope eventually to justify, watching a couple of Lily Tomlin’s character sketches on Saturday Night Live this past weekend reminded me of Godard’s rectangular portrait of Anna Karina/Nana Klein in Vivre sa vie. One sketch featured Edith, a wizened-wise little girl who pontificates from a huge rockingchair, dreaming up all manner of bizarre mischief and fantastic scenarios in which she must always be the star. This particular skit ended with Edith’s sudden fear of heavenly retribution for all her egocentric naughtiness. She confides that God has a television set and that he watches us on it: “When I think he’s watching me, I always try to do a commercial for myself … to show him how good I am.” In an earlier sketch, Tomlin had verified the trustworthiness of a “public service announcement” and her own spokesperson sincerity by stating: “I am not a professional actress, but a real person just like you.” Tomlin’s satirical jibes at the power of media/mediated realities to confer or deny authenticity, even the odor of sanctity, began to work for me as a comedic version of the complex collisions of art and reality in Vivre sa vie (1962). Godard’s fourth feature film is nothing if not a commercial for the “goodness” (a term I use in the Godardian, cinematic sense) of Anna Karina/Nana Klein—whether for the edification of a God who watches us all in the movies or the Platonic ideal of film critics, I would not venture to say. Vivre sa vie exemplifies the aesthetic paradoxes implicit in Godard’s critical premises about cinema, paradoxes which, more superficially, are at play in actress-comedienne Lily Tomlin’s assumption of a “real person” persona in a comic skit designed to create the illusion of pseudodocumentary.

Godard was after nothing less than Truth in the making of movies. His aesthetic politique was radicalized, if not politicized, from the beginning. As an intellectual, more given to the raptures of analysis than emotion, he could see that the genteel fraud of cinematic Art-with-a-capital-A could seduce audiences by means of artifice, creating a comfortable schism between cinema and ordinary experience. One could go into the dark and dream in a willing suspension of disbelief, but the light of day chemically redefined that suspension: dispersion of the components of the dream in liquid reality. Godard, like many of his compatriots in literature, painting, and even sculpture, consciously decided to sabotage the seductive forms and manifestations of art and artifice. The images in his movies would have the dream-stopping immediacy of newsreels or machine-gun fire in the theater aisles. He attacked the beguiling concept of plot, that aesthetic form we so cherish for its orderly shaping of experience into a beginning, middle, and end, a coherent, directed narrative itinerary which satisfies us as messy reality never—or rarely—does. His attack failed, of course, or rather turned into something else, something that allowed for the creation of his best films. For the moment Godard turned the camera on person or scene, he “framed” it, and thereby began the process of making fiction. His eye was too drawn to richly significant images and events, and too able to provocatively juxtapose them, to avoid narrative altogether. Every directorial decision he made toward the end of de-dramatizing his work metamorphosed that work into something new in the world of cinema.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Essays, Jean-Luc Godard

Masculin-Féminin – Mapping All Over

[Originally published for the University of Washington Continuing Education Film Series, February 15, 1983]

It used to be complained of Jean-Luc Godard that his movies were all over the map. Masculin-Féminin (1966) suggests, better than any other single movie he’s made, that such complaints had it turned around. What Godard was really up to was mapping all over.

At a glance, Masculin-Féminin seems fragmented and arbitrary beyond any hope of yielding a coherent viewing experience, let alone a conventionally passive entertainment about some youthful Parisians during the mid-Sixties. Its subtitle proposes that the film will consist of “15 precise facts” (or “acts” — already precision begins to generate ambiguity), but determining the dividing lines among the 15 is problematical. Occasionally the director vouchsafes a chapter number, à la Vivre sa vie, but just when we might begin to feel cozy about this, “fait” number 4 gives way to 4A. Shortly thereafter, a numerical 7 is followed by the single, screen-filling word MAIS, which is followed in turn by a numeral 8: fait 7, it would appear, is one large “but”. Okay, sure, why not! And if the question still persists why, surely the answer is that this is Godard’s way of proposing that chapters, categories, the notion of precise and discrete facts/acts, are unreliable epistemological baggage we should do well to jettison. But in so proposing, he also knows that none of us, least of all Jean-Luc Godard, can forswear trying to make organized sense of the teeming phenomena around us.

Masculin-Féminin teems thrillingly. No other filmmaker has ever looked at streets, passersby, traffic, graffiti, the exultantly grungy multifariousness of modern urban life, with such a sharp and hungry eye as Godard’s. Of course, all the French New Wavers played that game to some degree. A lot of the excitement and challenge of the nouvelle vague films had to do with their demonstration that anywhere could become a movie set and any life a movie. You live in these rooms, you work in that office, you go out at night to those cinemas and cafés? Then that is where your movie should happen. One of my favorite scenes in Masculin-Féminin is the one wherein Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) meets Madeleine (Chantal Goya) in a café for the purpose of proposing marriage. Godard shoots this whole desperate, can’t-get-started encounter in a single take that peregrinates up and down the length of the place, around and among tables and chairs, the camera and the couple ever seizing at new angles of approach. I’m sure Godard and cameraman Willy Kurant didn’t move a stick of furniture, but rather made the inefficient randomness of the environment part of the dynamics of the scene; the broken-field trajectories dictated by the ambient décor are as important to, and determinative of, the tenderly comic desperation of the action as the oddball characters Godard plants around the café to frustrate Paul’s design.

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Posted in: Actors, by Kathleen Murphy, Essays

Sean Connery: The Man Who Would Be King

Originally published in Film Comment in 1997

Just back from the Crusades after twenty years, Sean Connery’s Robin Hood peers up at an abbey window to espy his onetime Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn) decked out in nun’s habit. “What,” demands her scruffy swain, “are you doing in that costume?” “Living it,” she retorts. In Robin and Marian, Richard Lester’s superb deconstruction of sustaining, fatal legend, Robin is a player past his prime, so taken by his own heroic mask he would choose to die under its weight. In fashioning one of his finest performances, Sean Connery must have called upon something of his own struggle with a devouring fiction, the near-loss of his own face to a single fixed expression of heroism.

In forty years of filmmaking, Sean Connery has climbed into a remarkable variety of cinematic costume: suits from Savile Row, uniforms of every stripe, American West gear, exotic regalia from loincloth to kilt to Spanish grandee’s piratical splendor, the robes of a Benedictine monk, the sturdy tweeds of an elderly British archaeologist, and the slightly seedy duds of a boozy publisher. He’s been spy, soldier, scientist, submarine captain, cop, poet, miner, thief, messiah, sheikh, fertility god, and dragon. No matter the clothes, period, or genre, Connery displays the sangfroid of an instinctively naturalized citizen, at home from Sekandergul to Oz.

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Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Essays, Film music, Westerns

Morricone Encomium

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

Foreword

I don’t read a note of music, so the language of this article is necessarily interpretive rather than technical. Also, the here-today-gone-tomorrow Duck, You Sucker has thus far eluded my company, so I have recourse only to the first four westerns that Morricone scored for Leone. —RCC

A soundtrack score is rarely significant enough to make or break a film. Generally the least obtrusive music is the most effective in creating mood or building atmosphere—the kind of music the pianists and organists used to improvise to accompany silent movies. If a film score is overly assertive it can do severe damage to a film, as Miklos Rozsa’s did to Hitchcock’s Spellbound, or as most of Maurice Jarre’s post–Lawrence of Arabia scores have done.

With this in mind, it is with the greatest of awe that I express my admiration for the brilliantly assertive yet totally un–self-serving scores that Ennio Morricone has composed for Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns.” The unique, indefinable atmosphere which Leone’s films create is built in large part by the director’s tremendously personal style of mise-en-scène, shot composition, and montage, to be sure. But it is often Morricone’s music that turns the trick in creating that timeless, haunting aura, and lends an otherworldly, almost religious significance to the action it accompanies.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays, Silent Cinema

Japanese Girls at the Harbor

When Hiroshi Shimizu released Japanese Girls at the Harbor in 1933, the veteran filmmaker had already made more than eighty-five films. When he died in 1966, he had at least 160 films to his credit in a thirty-five-year career, most of them made at Shochiku, also the home of his friend and colleague Yasujiro Ozu. In his time Shimizu was both a popular director and a respected filmmaker, but after his death he was practically forgotten, even in his home country. He was born in 1903, the same year as Ozu, yet after the glorious celebration of Ozu’s centenary with a near-complete touring retrospective in Japan, Shimizu received a belated “101st Anniversary” celebration at the 2004 Hong Kong International Film Festival, an afterthought, showcasing a mere thirteen films.

Why? Access is certainly a factor. Only a fraction of his films survive, even fewer are available on home video, and his work is rarely revived outside of Japan. Another reason may be a reputation that stuck as a director of light entertainment after his series of children’s films that he began making in the late 1930s. “Shimizu’s world is a sunny one, where the sadness of things only rarely intrudes,” wrote Alan Stanbrook after a 1988 retrospective at London’s National Film Theatre, the first to showcase the director in the West. And then there was the reductive public persona that remained long after the films receded from the public.

Continue reading at The San Francisco Silent Festival website

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays, streaming

The Best Current Source For Streaming Classic Movies is … Amazon Prime?

What is the classic movie fan to do in the era of Netflix? For a few glorious years FilmStruck was our salvation, offering a rich, well-curated collection of films from the silent era through the 1970s, something Netflix gave up on years ago. 

So with FilmStruck dead, where can the fan of classic movies—let’s say, just for the sake of argument, anything older than 40 years—get their fix without resorting to renting each and every title on iTunes or Fandango?

The answer might surprise you. The meatiest streaming source for world cinema classics is Kanopy, a free service offered through most (though not all) public and college library systems. But there’s a limit of five streams per month and while they carry hundreds of titles from the Criterion Collection from such directors as Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman, the collection of classic American cinema is relatively small.

That’s where Amazon Prime Video enters the picture. 

Continue reading at RogerEbert.com

Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Essays, Film Reviews

Chasing the Hat

[This article first appeared in the September-October 1990 issue of Film Comment. It was reprinted in the National Society of Film Critics anthology They Went Thataway: Redefining Film Genres (1995).]

Ice dropping into a heavy-bottomed glass: cold, hard, sensuous. The first image in Miller’s Crossing hits our ears before it hits the screen, but it’s nonetheless an image for that. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) has traveled the length of a room to build a drink. Not that we saw him in transit, not that we yet know he is Tom Reagan, and not that we see him clearly now as he turns and stalks back up the room, a silent, out-of-focus enigma at the edge of someone else’s closeup. Yet he is a story walking, as his deliberate, tangential progress, from background to middle distance and then out the side of the frame, is also a story – draining authority from the close-up Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) who’s come to insist, ironically enough, on the recognition of his territorial rights.

The place is a story, too, which we read as the scene unfolds. A private office; not Caspar’s, but not Reagan’s either – it’s city boss Liam “Leo” O’Bannion (Albert Finney) who sits behind the camera and his big desk, listening. An upstairs office, we know from the muted street traffic (without stopping to think about why we know). Night outside, but sunlight would never be welcome, or relevant, here. A masculine space, green lampshades amid the dark luster of wood, leather, whiskey. A remote train whistle sounds, functional and intrinsically forlorn; the distance from which it reaches us locates the office in space and in history. This room exists in a city big enough to support a multiplicity of criminal fiefdoms and a political machine that rules by maintaining the balance among them, yet it is still a town whose municipal core lies within faint earshot of its outskirts. Urban dreams of empire have not entirely crowded out the memory of wilderness, of implacable places roads and railroads can’t reach, even if one of them has been wishfully designated Miller’s Crossing. Hence we are not entirely surprised (though the aesthetic shock is deeply satisfying) when the opening master-scene, with its magisterial interior setting and dialogue fragrant with cross purpose, gives way to a silent (save for mournful Irish melody) credit sequence in an empty forest. And then to a title card announcing, almost superfluously, “An Eastern city in the United States, toward the end of the 1920s.”

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Documentary, Essays

Elvis and the Death of the American Dream, Through Movies

Elvis Presley is ostensibly the subject of The King, Eugene Jarecki’s expansive road movie of a documentary. The award-winning director drives Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce across the US, from Mississippi and Memphis to Nashville, New York, Las Vegas, Hollywood, and elsewhere, talking to historians, musicians, members of Presley’s inner circle, and everyday Americans. Elvis centers the film but is also a starting point for a much more wide-ranging discussion of the state of American life, and that discussion takes off in all directions. That Jarecki began his odyssey in the months leading up the 2016 election and ended up on the other side of it only adds fuel to the discussion.

Not of political identity, mind you, but of America itself. Elvis is the touchstone that centers it all, with Jarecki using his life and legacy as both a roadmap for the cultural odyssey and as a metaphor for the state of contemporary America.

And at the heart of the film is the question: Is the American dream dead, a victim of greed, excess, and increasing isolation?

Continue reading at Independent Lens

Posted in: Bernardo Bertolucci, by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Essays

Bernard Bertolucci’s ‘Partner’

[originally written for NoShame Films, August 27, 2005]

Our subject is primarily life, but if you feel that life’s missing something, steal a camera and try to give life a style.

Partner, Bernardo Bertolucci’s third feature film, has always been one of the most elusive of the director’s endeavors: a forthrightly experimental work—”a film that comes from the head,” in Bertolucci’s own phrase, “a totally deconstructed film”—that willfully declines to satisfy audiences’ conventional expectations regarding narrative and emotional identification with characters. Nominally based on the Dostoevsky novella The Double, the movie centers on—and largely transpires in the imagination of—a rather priggish young drama teacher in Rome played by Pierre Clémenti. Clémenti also plays the wilder, looser alter ego who begins to share the teacher’s life and, to an extent, identity; both go by the name of Giacobbe (or Jacob, in English-language commentaries).

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