[Original published in The Weekly(Seattle), July 13, 1983]
It’s 1938 in the French-African village of Bourkassa and Lucien Cordier, the one-man local constabulary, can’t get no respect. The lone inhabitant of the jail, an ancient black trustee who once poisoned his wife, must have been incarcerated long before Lucien’s time, because Lucien never arrests anybody. Let one of the locals start getting rowdy and Lucien, if he can’t run the other way, does his damnedest to look the other way. Small wonder that the principal resident predators, a pair of bored pimps, don’t hesitate to make public sport of him, or that his immediate superior, a half-day’s train journey removed, treats him the same way. Lucien fares little better in his own home: his wife Huguette refuses to sleep with him out of general disgust and also because she’s busy carrying on with a live-in lout named Nono, who may or may not be her brother. All in all, Lucien Cordier is a congenital, if affable, loser.
He’s such a loser that when he finally, grandly announces “a decision,” it’s that “I decided I don’t know what to do.” This decision is imparted to his big-town superior, Marcel, who has his usual fun scrambling Lucien’s already-dim wits and booting his ass. Somewhere in the course of this lazy-afternoon exercise, Marcel carelessly gifts Lucien with An Idea: if you’re kicked, kick back twice as hard. Serenely bearing what he takes as carte blanche for retribution, Lucien climbs back on the train, returns to Bourkassa, and straightaway shoots down the pimps.
“When Haddish was 13, she and her siblings were placed in foster care; she spent almost two years living in group homes and with foster families until her grandmother gained custody of the kids. Money remained tight, so they technically remained in the foster-care system (hence the taxes line [in her standup]). When her foster-care subsidy ran out, Haddish left home. As a young adult, she became homeless three times, living in her car. ‘I think that was God teaching me a lesson over and over,’ she says. And, as often happens when Haddish reflects on the profound hardships of her life, she cuts up, laughing. ‘I wasn’t paying attention the first two times.’” Caity Weaver’s profile of Tiffany Haddish can’t help but note how performative Haddish’s genial public persona is, another dazzling showpiece from an actor talented enough to pull off anything, smart enough to know what plays, and tempered enough by life’s hard knocks to chart out her success to the dollar.
“In an essay for Artforum from 1993, Arthur Jafa recalls telling a friend, “[Menace II Society] makes Boyz in the Hood seem like The Cosby Show.” The level of violence alone is enough to make that distinction. The Hughes Brothers’ camera repeatedly takes us right up to where we don’t want to be. When Caine is shot for the first time and goes into shock, we are on the ground with him, as though we’re coughing up the same blood. Bullets have consequences. But what Jafa was also getting at is the preciousness of Boyz in comparison to Menace. Boyz n the Hood’s sense of tragedy is meant as a cautionary tale to black men making poor choices. We grieve because those choices mean the wrong people sometimes get shot and killed, or because good people get mixed up in bad situations created by bad people. In Menace, tragedy is ubiquitous to the point of meaninglessness.” Mychal Denzel Smith rates the Hughes brothers’Menace II Society the best of the hood films for its welding of an emotional honesty to a genre story in a way that freed it from the burdens of homilies and inspirational uplift that have weighed down so many liberal filmmakers’ depictions of race.
[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]
DeadPigeononBeethovenStreet is Sam Fuller’s Godard movie. The title is gradually pieced together (cf. Pierrotlefou), there is a scene in a movie theater where the hero grooves on hearing John Wayne in German in RioBravo (cf. Boetticher’s Westbound with an Apollinaire soundtrack in Àbout de souffle and Jack Palance’s orgiastic response to a cinematic bathing belle in the screening room of Le Mépris), there is a plethora of clique-y movie jokes (e.g., a one-scene appearance by Stéphane Audran as a certain Dr. Bogdanovich), and the director’s wife is featured in all her punishing ineptitude (there’s even a nearly subliminal flash of her playing a scene with Akim Tamiroff in Godard’s Alphaville). Besides these factors, none of which is exactly ignorable, the movie parodies its own narrative homeground to a fare-thee-well. After a bang-up opening in which a dead pigeon and a dead man and a wounded assassin named Charlie Umlaut all fall in Beethovenstrasse, in fist-in-the-kisser images slammed into a very jagged rhythm, Fuller gives us a shot of a pair of bare soles being wheeled down the corridor of a morgue. Looking above and beyond them (which is hard), we see Glenn Corbett and a West German cop and, of course, a morgue attendant; Corbett’s voice is droning on, in four lines piling up enough hyperchromatic exposition to occupy most films for a reel. Indeed, for a moment we can’t be sure whether Corbett is telling this to the German cop or doing a Spillane-style voiceover for our benefit.
[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]
Claude Chabrol’s self-consciously amused but ominous portrayals of the foibles of les petits bourgeois, aside from reminding us of the director’s acute filmic awareness indicate an atmosphere which borders on a kind of noir fantasy. Like Luis Buñuel (especially in his later films), Chabrol is ambiguous in the concessions he makes to reality. He may look, sometimes very closely, at real things—setting many of his scenes in a natural environment, even taking from a true account in a French newspaper his story of a man who murders his wife and his lover’s husband (not that there is anything unfamiliar about that tale)—but there is seldom anything “natural” about what we see. The sun is blindingly bright in some of the exteriors; the white mist on a lake behind Pierre and Lucienne flattens the space within the frame, as though they were standing in front of a blank canvas.
[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
“Sometimes dreams are really…”
One way or another, all the really big guys make movies about themselves making movies. Luis Buñuel may be caught most conspicuously doing so at the beginning of his career, in UnChienandalou, and at what must be temporarily accounted the end of his career, LeCharmediscretde labourgeoisie, until Le FantômedelaLiberté gets here or until Buñuel really does stop making films, as he’s been threatening to do for about a decade now. Unlike most of its sophomoric contemporaries, UnChienandalou operates as a most lucid disquisition on a kind of formal logic peculiarly available to the cinema. The recurrent patterns of diagonal design (the pattern in Buñuel’s tie, the lines on the lid of the cyclist’s box and the wrapping paper inside) and diagonal movement (the stropping of the razor, the woman’s arrangement of untenanted garments on the bed) attest to the possibility of formal integrity without reference to any conventional, mundane logic. The succession of visually similar forms (a hole in the hand, a tuft of underarm hair, a sea urchin, a head glimpsed in a god’s-eye-view iris-shot) provides its own poetic justification, and a sinister shot-pairing (clouds cut across moon, razor cuts across eye) testifies to the power of editorial progression! A woman “hears” and reacts to the approach of a cyclist whose only sensory signal has been to enter and pass out of a right-angle frame of a street scene disposed between two shots of her looking at a book in a room somewhere: shot juxtaposition creates its own acceptable narrative logic. And that room she sits in, having been established in a conventional full shot at the beginning, can be broken up by camera angling and restructured by montage so that its window looks down on both a city street and a desolate beach, and its door opens on a stairway, the seashore, or the mirror duplication of the selfsame room, depending on where the narrative chooses to go next. Truly, Buñuel opens not only the girl’s but also his and our eyes to a new kind of vision.
[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
Vincent is losing his mistress, his factory and his health. In the dark night of the bourgeois soul he goes to see the wife he’s already lost because of the mistress. Embarrassed by his needs, discomfited by the sudden knowledge that another man has just left his wife’s bed, he tries on an expansive gesture in her small apartment—and knocks over a vase of straw flowers. Yves Montand is the miraculous kind of actor who can reach over, restore the flowers, and cap the action with a look and wave that encompass “You know me!”, “You would have that kind of thing in your apartment,” ”I’m really up that well-known tributary,” and “There! good as new!” It’s scarcely an isolated actor’s-moment in Vincent, François, Paul et les autres; Montand and his co-players serve up many. One of the best-acted scenes of 1976 is likely to remain the café interview, a bit later in the film, between Montand and wife Stéphane Audran: he indicating by cautious, hopeful indirection that he’s at liberty, the young mistress is gone, he no longer worries about being a man of affairs in any sense, and maybe they could give it another try; she understanding from the first, supremely considerate of his feelings and vulnerability, but aware that life has moved on and so have they, that she must answer other imperatives now.
[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
Trying to flag down a notion of just how “pure cinema”—Hitchcock’s term—works is tricky. The implication is that there is a level on which film operates which is undetectable by those who are unwilling or untrained. Sounds kinda elitist, I’m sure, but this is probably why many people miss the glories of Halloweenand The American Friendto settle for the satisfying conventionality of Brubaker‘sgood intentions. All that’s really necessary for appreciating “pure cinema” is a pair of open eyes: when a filmmaker is fluent enough with the language of the cinema, then the bodies, images, sounds will accumulate, interweave, and a lasting impression will be registered through those open, willing eyes. To watch Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lacor Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtainis to feel utterly in the hands of a master: every color, aperture, strand of dialogue, camera movement can be apprehended to be part of the bigger fabric of the movie, each cinematic event reflecting on another. Bresson’s Pickpocketis an example of pure cinema which employs a series of dispassionate images that, piled on top of each other as they have been by the end of the film, produce a startlingly moving fadeout.
[Originally written for the University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series, May 22, 1973]
For some time it was easy to regard Claude Chabrol as far and away the least of the nouvelle vague Big Three. Whereas Truffaut gifted us with bittersweet, occasionally wry affirmations of an abounding, Renoiresque life force and Godard challenged us to tag along as he sought new ways of looking at movies and at the world as well, Chabrol seemed to be playing games of a highly dubious, unrewardingly perverse nature. His early works, like Les Cousins and À Double Tour, reveled in the habitually petty and gradually escalating nastiness of very unattractive human beings; their occasional doses of broken-field camera movement and hothouse color tended less to exhilarate the viewer than to inculcate a sense of the director’s rash presumptuousness. (It was irritating to feel the nagging doubt that even though convention insisted such bravura displays had no place in depictions of such folks and their tainted milieux, Chabrol knew that, too, and had the germ of a serious purpose in flouting convention — though a failure of technique or timing usually flawed the unexpected track or crane or whatever, and hence restored one’s sense of complacent moral/aesthetic superiority before one was forced to concede Chabrol the point.) Bourgeois resentment tended to be upheld by the reviewers and the distributors: most Chabrols that managed to get to the States scarcely got beyond New York thanks to pans or lukewarm appreciations and soft grosses. Even at home Chabrol did not fare as his fellow critical confreres–turned–filmmakers, and eventually his resources (a wife’s personal fortune) ran out. The mid-Sixties found him making commissioned films, wishful James Bond imitations (Le Tigre aime la chair fraîche, Marie-Chantal contre le DocteurKha, Le Tigre se parfume à la dynamite). The case seemed closed. Then, about the time Godard went politicking into anticinema and Truffaut threatened to get lost in Hitchcock imitations, Chabrol came back with Les Biches, and the thing was so gorgeous, so enthralling, yet so quirkily self-aware at the same time that I, for one, began to wonder whether this once trivially quirky gentleman mightn’t turn out to be the foremost classicist of the New Wave. And after La Femme infidèle, Que la bête meure, and Le Boucher, I’ve stopped wondering.
La Femme infidèle looks like the director’s masterpiece to date. It’s certainly a masterpiece. From the opening, almost functional glide along the front of the Desvallées’ suburban home, the film gathers itself with delicate relentlessness and moves toward one of the most lucid and fulfilled closing shots I’ve ever experienced. A major charm and, beyond and through that, a major strength of Truffaut’s films is that they are rife with “moments.” In Baisers volés or Deux Anglaises et le Continent these moments tend to accrete toward a deep conviction of the artist’s — and sometimes his characters’ — receptivity to life’s bounty. (In the contemporary world of Baisers volés and the continuing saga of Antoine Doinel, they testify toward the ultimate shaping of a random life; in the temporally distant cinematic country of a Deux Anglaises or a Jules et Jim they reverberate with remembered heartbeats, the knowledge of missed opportunities, the tenderly comic sense of people who caught at life with such fondly absurd deliberation that they crushed it; in a La Mariée était en noir or La Sirène du Mississippi, they suggest the flutter of a sensibility (Truffaut’s) whose instincts run counter to the generic house rules. Chabrol’s films — at least, once one has sat through them and is in a position to consider the whole of the individual movie — suggest a kind of organic containment or completion. This is hardly to say that Truffaut’s films lack form. Rather, their very form encompasses a sense of spontaneity, of accident: shots and scenes may go by very rapidly, as if they were pieces of a larger spatial and temporal reality but only these snatches of perception are important to the director and to us and so they are all we see. Truffaut is capable of long-take scenes and Chabrol is capable of fragmentation; but even Chabrol’s techniques of fragmentation and disruption tend to reinforce our sense of the scene’s relation to the entire movement of the piece.