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

Sauve qui peut (la vie) – Jean-Luc Godard begins again

[Originally published in The Weekly, March 11, 1981]

A conversation early in the new film by Jean-Luc Godard:
“Is it a novel, this project you’re working on?”
“No, but maybe it could be.”
“Maybe it should be a new type of serial—how things really are.”
“It wouldn’t work around here.”

The thing about Godard movies is, he’s always talking to us. Talking to us about himself, talking to us about us, talking to us about talking to us. We don’t think about this all the time because movies are seductive, even movies that work to be analytical and disjunctive and Brechtian, and we get drawn along by the beauty of the images and the movement of things via 24 still pictures per second. But every once in a while we snap into recognition that we’re on the other end of a cinematic conversation.

Like that moment in Band of Outsiders (1964), a wacky, funny-sad romantic comedy about three young Parisians who like gangster movies and musicals, and decide they’re going to rob an isolated mansion where one of them, the girl, works. Except of course the movie dithers around a lot while they take English lessons and do a solemn softshoe in a juke bar and break the world’s speed record for touring the Louvre — and suddenly they’re on this train. The girl starts to sing a love song that turns into a ballad of loneliness. The screen fills with luminous nocturnal images of the city, streets, windows, pedestrians, the long glowworm of the train sliding toward the suburbs. Then the girl is onscreen again and she looks right into the camera and sings the last line of the song, something like “My heart goes out to all of you,” and suddenly you feel as big as the night sky and as vulnerable as a newborn child. Part of it is that the whole movie has been building on this theme without getting explicit about it. Part of it is that the girl is beautiful and fragile and brave, and also Anna Karina, the director’s wife, who’s essentially looking at him the same time she’s looking at us. And part of it is that Karina is speaking for Godard, who could never make this declaration of love and caring in person, but makes it and means it, through her and through his glorious film.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews, Jean-Luc Godard

Pierrot le Fou – Love, hate, action, violence, death

[Originally published on TCM.com on November 19, 2007]

Jean-Luc Godard, arguably the most important film director of the 1960s, began the decade with his feature debut Breathless, a scrappy, free-spirited, cinematically audacious take on the B-movie crime genre. By the end of the sixties, he had all but rejected commercial cinema for politically pointed commentaries and film essays like Sympathy For the Devil and Le Gai Savoir.

Smack in the middle of the genre goofing and cinematic game-playing of Godard’s earlier sixties film and the consumer satire and cultural deconstructions of his late sixties films lies Pierrot le Fou (1965). Not that there was some sudden turn in direction; Godard embraced both sides throughout and they blur in so many films of this era. But Pierrot feels like a perfect midpoint (whether or not you could even objectively measure such a thing) in the way that it bounces between the flippant play of moviemaking fun and the social commentary on the modern world.

Pierrot le Fou is a road movie, a crime fantasy, a cultural satire, a tale of consumerist alienation and bourgeois apathy, and a femme fatale noir in Technicolor and CinemaScope, shot in the bright sunlit canvas of broad daylight. Jean-Paul Belmondo, star of Breathless, plays Ferdinand, a former teacher pushed into an advertising career by a wealthy wife with high-society values: “You’ll do as your told,” she demands as they get ready for a party where she hopes he will be offered a job, and he bristles at the empty life he inhabits, escaping only through his books. Anna Karina, Godard’s one-time muse and wife (their divorce became final before the shoot was over), is Marianne Renoir, niece of Ferdinand’s brother-in-law and the family babysitter.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews, Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Histoire(s) du Cinema’

Early in the career of Jean-Luc Godard career, when he still the firebrand film critic aspiring to make features, Godard contemplated the “Mystery and fascination of this American cinema” and found himself bedeviled by an unshakable realization: “How can I hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?”

Forty years later, he’s still pondering the question in Histoire(s) du cinema (1989), his epic rumination on cinema as industry and art. In eight episodes and four-and-a-half hours, Godard struggles between his conflicting perspectives on cinema: on the one hand an industrialized business that cranks out products designed to sell images, consumer goods and an entire ideology, and on the other, a history of images, stories and experiences that haunt the soul and stand with the great works of art.

Histoire(s) du cinema is not, strictly speaking, a history of cinema, at least not in a traditional documentary sense. The title provides the first hint. In French, “histoire” means both “history” and “story” and the (s) suggests the multiple histories and stories involved in any understanding of cinema, not the least of which is Godard’s complicated personal connection to film history. From passionate young critic staking out his position in the fifties to maverick director who shook up the staid French industry with provocative films to political commentator and social critic exploring the frontiers of expression and representation, he has been nothing if not provocative. The personal and political are constantly in flux in this collection of eight video essays, begun in 1988 and concluded in 1998, where the Nouvelle Vague legend considers the history of the movies with a typically idiosyncratic style and non-linear train of thought.

Continue reading on Turner Classic Movies

Released by Olive Video. Available on DVD from Amazon.

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Reviews, Jean-Luc Godard

Blu-ray: Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘A Married Woman’

marriedwomanBD

A Married Woman (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), subtitled “Fragments of a film shot in 1964,” is Jean-Luc Godard’s modern portrait of love and sex in the media-saturated sixties with Macha Méril in a role that was clearly meant for Godard’s wife and longtime muse Anna Karina (they were separated at the time) and it channels Godard’s feelings at the time. Like Karina, Méril’s Charlotte is beautiful young woman who is married to an older man and having an affair with an actor. The film opens on a montage where Charlotte is reduced to parts—legs, arms, back, lips, midrift, isolated glimpses of the naked female suggesting those erogenous zones that could not be photographed in a mainstream feature film—caressed by her unidentified lover. It’s shot in creamy cool black-and-white by longtime cinematographer Raoul Coutard and the strikingly handsome formality is both erotic and removed, suggesting a physical intimacy and an emotional disconnection even in even the most intimate scenes of lovemaking and pillow talk.

Charlotte has no close friends (at least that we see), lives in a sleek modern apartment devoid of lived-in warmth, and shrinks from the touch of her pilot husband Pierre (Philippe Leroy). He’s an intellectual with a condescending attitude and she’s more comfortable living in the moment than grappling with history and memory, which becomes all too apparent in their uncomfortable post-dinner dialogue. In between the lovemaking and the conversations, Charlotte discovers she is pregnant. She doesn’t know which man is the father

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews

Hard Eight

[Originally published in Film Comment, March-April 1997]

Black screen; the sound of a truck starting. Fade in on a drab morning, the parking lot of a roadside diner, and the truck itself, a long freighter that hauls itself into, across, and out of a Super-35 frame that, for one satisfying instant, it perfectly fills. As the engine roar recedes, a trenchcoated back looms in frame right, pauses a beat, then approaches the diner, camera following at elbow level. There is a young man seated on the ground near the diner entrance, head bowed, legs drawn up to his chest, like a fetus that has learned to sit up. The man in the trenchcoat stops and speaks to him—an older man’s voice: “Want a cup of coffee? Want a cigarette?” The young man takes his time looking up, as if he’d been somewhere else, and had already accepted that in that place he would never be spoken to again. He can see the man who’s standing over him; except for a blurred reflection in the nearby door, we still haven’t.

Gaston Monescu once observed that beginnings are always difficult. With movies, just the opposite is often true. The audience is eager to be caught up in something—a story, a vision, a mood—or they wouldn’t be there. It’s child’s play to turn on the engine; riding out the trip is hard. Hard Eight, Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature debut, has a classical beaut of a beginning. The better, rarer news is that, having confidently taken the wheel, Anderson never loses his grip or his way. Like its opening shot, Hard Eight keeps us wanting to see more, and is equally satisfying in the ways that it does and doesn’t permit that to happen.

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Posted in: by Robert Horton, by Tom Keogh, Film Reviews, remembrance

In Memoriam: Tom Keogh

On September 28, 2021, the Seattle film community (and many other communities) lost a mainstay in Tom Keogh, and I lost my closest friend. Tom wore different hats in his life, but his interest in movies and his passion for writing about them was a constant.

I am sure I will write and talk about Tom many times in the future, but I thought it would be good to let him speak in his own voice. Thus we are re-printing a piece Tom wrote for The Informer, the monthly newsletter of the Seattle Film Society, in November 1984. This in itself was a kind of memorial: Truffaut had just died, and I wanted to do a tribute in The Informer. So I published a program note I’d written about Jules and Jim, and Tom wrote this piece on The Wild Child, which the SFS has just screened on a bill with Truffaut’s short, Les mistons.

I thought the piece, which begins with an adolescent memory, marked a turning point in Tom’s writing. I believe Tom did too. Some of his obsessions are here, and his communion with cinema, and his strong feeling for childhood. This piece is insightful on a particular film, but it also shows you a writer – which is what good film writing does. I hope it helps you appreciate our friend. (Thanks to Marni Wiebe-Keogh and Kevin Keogh for their blessing and the photo of Tom.) – Robert Horton

‘The Wild Child’

The Wild Child

by Tom Keogh

In the relations between artist and critic, everything takes place in terms of power, and curiously, the critic never loses sight of the fact that in the power relationship he is the weaker even if he tries to hide the fact with an aggressive tone; while the artist constantly loses sight of his metaphysical supremacy. The artist’s lack of perspective can be attributed to emotionalism, sensitivity (or sentimentality), and certainly to the more or less powerful dose of paranoia that seems to be his lot.

When I was a critic, I thought that a successful film had simultaneously to express an idea of the world and an idea of cinema; La règle du jeu and Citizen Kane corresponded to this definition perfectly. Today, I demand that a film express with the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not interested in those films that do not pulse.

–Francois Truffaut, “What Do Critics Dream About?

Seventeen years ago, I was a fat, morbid Catholic schoolkid in dreamland, sitting politely in a rented movie theater in Honolulu with a thousand other Catholic schoolkids who were, largely, running amok and having a better time than me for it. Why I was missing my freshman English that day and even (shudder) mixing with girls for this, I didn’t know. Then a local priest, popular with kids for his gentleness and slightly maverick reputation, walked slowly in front of the screen and quieted everyone.

“This is an experiment,” he said. “I asked your schools to let you be here for something new. I want you to really look at this movie today. Look for symbols, especially Christ symbols. See if you can understand why the hero is a Christ symbol. Then go back to your schools and talk about it.”

I looked. It was the first time I really looked at a movie at all: On the Waterfront. Afterward, I sensed there was more to talk about than how many times Marlon Brando fell and rose again, unaided, Christ-like, before wobbling all the way to the dock and redeeming the lifeless workers, but it didn’t matter. “Christ symbols” gave me a strange way to read a movie, but I got the idea I could do better. There was something living in the film, and now, between coming out of the closet about loving rock and roll (the anti-Christ in grade school; a valuable teaching tool in high school) and a desire to see more films, I had something to do with myself. Enter Francois Truffaut.

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Posted in: by Ken Eisler, Contributors, Film Reviews, Horror

Review: Black Christmas

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

“The Film Funding Corporation Limited in association with Vision IV” has produced a serviceable-enough Canadian low-budget shocker in Black Christmas and pitched it at the end-of-year trade. Unless I’ve missed some subtle subtext, the tie to Christmas is tenuous: an establishing shot of wassail seen through the windows of Gothic-looking Hart House, University of Toronto (decked out with Christmas lights and disguised as a sorority house in the college town of “Bedford”), and an advertising campaign built around a Christmas wreath gift-labeled “Season’s Greeting’s” and enclosing a still of a polyethylene-wrapped corpse propped in a rockingchair. One question about this campaign teases my mind more persistently than any puzzle propounded by the film itself. Did the merchandiser who dreamed it up personally place the apostrophe before that plural s in “Greetings,” as unselfconsciously as if he were scrawling the words on a wrapped Christmas gift in the sanctity of his own home; or could FCC Ltd./Vision IV in fact be trying to hip us, via their use of this endemic seasonal illiteracy (see also: Greetings from the Smith’s, The Smith’s Live Here, etc.) to their extraordinary concern in Black Christmas for the exact social detail?

If I could only resolve this question of intent, I suspect it would help with other questions in the body of the film. Such as: when the roster of missing persons keeps swelling at that sorority house, and the bodies of murdered women are piling up in the attic, and conscientious, intelligent Lieut. Fuller (John Saxon) finally takes charge of the investigation, is his elementary failure to have the house thoroughly searched a sophisticated Hitchcockian reversal of audience expectations (1ook how sober and competent this cop seems … you assumed he’d be a great detective, didn’t you? … horse on you, chaps!)? or does it merely reflect the filmmakers’ helplessness in the face of the tact that one peek into the attic would reveal the dead bodies, the extension from which the killer has been making wildly obscene phone calls after each of his depradations within the house, and maybe the killer himself, thus ending the film? Similarly: when director Bob Clark hits us over the head for 85 minutes with the same soundtrack red herring, an ominous twang of piano strings, and then, in the last five minutes, unashamedly exposes his own dishonesty, does he expect us a) to retrospectively erase the sounds, and visual clues, too, that he has attached to shots of the killer at work? b) to laugh with him at this clever imposture? or c) to forgive him almost anything just because he transmutes a trick ending into cinematic gold? I confess to c. The conclusion is beautiful: a meld of fading sounds, shadows, and reflected lights; a smooth, slow travelling shot, a high overhead; a cop warming his hands outside the darkened, hulking Hart House; a sedated girl lying on the bed in a pitchblack room; silence; a phone ringing.

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Posted in: by Rick Hermann, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Black Christmas

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Black Christmas starts to get interesting in the last two minutes. After a series of killings in a college-town sorority house at the beginning of the Christmas holidays, the supposed murderer, in a scene we don’t actually get to see, has been done in by his own girlfriend and a handy firepoker when she thinks that he’s set on making her his latest victim. The movie is about to end on a shot looking from the hallway of the house into the bedroom where the girl (Olivia Hussey) is sleeping, having been left alone to rest until her parents show up in a few hours. Then, with the recurrence of a few familiarly ominous chords on the soundtrack, the camera begins slowly to pan to the right through the dimly lit hallway, pausing at each doorway where a murder has occurred. So far it’s just a kind of chilly atmospheric effect, prolonging the tone of malaise and spookiness, leaving us slightly off balance even though things have been pretty well wrapped up. But that ain’t all. The camera just keeps on trucking, and we begin to hear the maddened jabberings of the heard-but-not-seen psychotic killer who apparently is still around and who apparently wasn’t Keir Dullea, the boyfriend, after all. The latch on the attic trapdoor springs shut once again (that’s his hideaway), he gently rocks a dead girl—his first victim—who sits wrapped inside a plastic bag on a rocking chair (still we don’t see him), and the final scene of the movie looks at the house from a slightly elevated perspective across the street; a cop stands guard on the front walkway, listening to a phone ring inside. The killer, who made it a habit of saying obscene things over the phone before he murdered someone, still seems to be on the loose. Strange, but it doesn’t really seem to matter much by now.

Stopping with that chillingly evocative camera drift would perhaps have been a wiser move than such a clumsy attempt to inject a little Polanski-esque, Dance of the Vampires, evil-is-still-loose pessimism into Black Christmas‘s modest cosmos of unabstract scariness. In plain narrative terms, the ending is a cop-out because the movie’s tensions have been based on the slowly and quite carefully developed implication of Keir Dullea as the culprit. We see him sweating over his piano during a demonic recital that consummates eight years of study at the conservatory, then smashing it with a microphone stand when he’s failed, ostensibly because his pregnant girl told him she wasn’t going to have the kid. Something he says to his girlfriend about abortion is repeated over the phone by a voice we have come to associate with the killer. And Dullea’s always lurking around the house, or in it, which renders him even more suspect since the killer is making his obscene phonecalls from an upstairs bedroom (why doesn’t anyone ever hear his crazy yappings, or bother to look in the house for the missing bodies?). But the final turn which Black Christmas takes transforms the convention of the “twist” ending into the empty gesture of look-we-fooled-you; whereas, say, Donald Sutherland discovering that his red-hooded orphan is a murderous dwarf in Don’t Look Now is an example of a surprise ending that suddenly lends coherence to a mystery tale, the end of Black Christmas only adds another narrative possibility to an already concluded yarn.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews

Blu-ray: Walter Hill’s ‘Streets of Fire’ on Shout! Factory

A self-described “A Rock and Roll Fable” from “another time, another place,” I think of Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984) as a rock and roll western dropped into the urban badlands of a brick and neon noir. It opens on what appears to be the 1950s frozen in time, a working class neighborhood forgotten in the explosion of the post-war American big city dreams. It could be Chicago (where some of the film was shot) or New York or any city, really, a film noir in comic book color, and it’s where former soldier turned shaggy soldier of fortune Tom Cody (Michael Paré) returns to play reluctant hero.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews

Blu-ray: ‘The Lovers on the Bridge’ on Kino Lorber

The Lovers on the Bridge (France, 1991) (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray), Leos Carax’s tale of l’amour fou, was the most expensive film ever made in France at the time and one of the most ravishing made anywhere ever. It was also a commercial disaster, alternately celebrated as a triumph of personal expression and vilified as the French equivalent of Heaven’s Gate, and despite the presence of Juliette Binoche it was almost a decade before the film finally made it to American shores. The Lovers on the Bridge is the American title, a rather prosaic translation of Les Amant du Pont-Neuf. In French, the title references the oldest bridge spanning the Seine in Paris and all the history and romance that name embodies.

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