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Archive for the ‘Festivals’ Category

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria is Olivier Assayas’ finest film in quite some time – a really dazzling achievement.

And as Peter Debruge noted in part in his review for Variety, the film had an unusual genesis. According to Debruge, “after collaborating with Assayas on 2008’s perfect, albeit ultra-safe Summer Hours, actress Juliette Binoche challenged the director to write a part that delved into genuine female experience. Though deceptively casual on its surface, Clouds of Sils Maria marks his daring rejoinder, a multi-layered, female-driven meta-fiction that pushes all involved — including next-generation starlets Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz — to new heights.

Binoche plays Maria Enders, a 40-ish movie star approached about appearing in a fresh staging of the play Maloja Snake, a film adaptation of which launched her career two decades earlier. This time, she’s being asked to interpret the older role — a burnt-out, middle-aged businesswoman manipulated by her young female assistant. Maria has always identified with the other character, the one she played at age 20, whereas the role of the has-been is haunted by her previous co-star, who died in a car accident a year after they shot the movie . . .

As the film opens, Maria is traveling with her assistant Val (Stewart) to accept an award on behalf of her close friend and mentor, playwright Wilhelm Melchior (a provocateur loosely inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant echoes below the surface here). En route, while dealing with the particulars of her in-progress divorce, Marie receives word that Melchior has died, dredging up an unpleasant figure from her past, an old co-star named Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler) whose desperation provides a horrifying glimpse into where her own career could be headed.

For this and her myriad other insecurities, Marie has Val, the hyper-reliable young woman who serves as her minder, mother, therapist and rehearsal partner. It is Val who talks her nervous boss into doing the Maloja Snake revival, dragging Marie to a studio-produced superhero movie just to see Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz), the edgy young actress tapped to play the other part. Running lines from the play, Marie and Val may as well be describing their own sexually charged codependency, so perversely does the dialogue fit the pair’s own increasingly unhealthy dynamic.

At times, Val excuses herself to visit a photographer boyfriend (although a weird mountain-driving montage suggests she may simply need to get away when the connection becomes too intense), until finally, she seems to disappear altogether, just one of the many mysteries woven into this rich and tantalizingly open-ended psychological study . . .

Ultimately, Stewart is the one who actually embodies what Binoche’s character most fears, countering the older actress’ more studied technique with the same spontaneous, agitated energy that makes her the most compellingly watchable American actress of her generation . . .

Sils Maria reaches for the stratosphere — which incidentally, is where most of the film takes place, high in the Swiss Alps, above the clouds. From this celestial vantage, Maria and Val are free to observe the real Maloja Snake, a seething meteorological formation that sends clouds winding serpent-like through a valley lined by mountains on either side.

In addition to documenting this spectacle afresh, Assayas unearths an old 1924 silent movie by German director Arnold Fanck, the sort of relic that makes one grateful someone thought to capture this mesmerizing phenomenon on film. Binoche leaves audiences with the same exhilarating feeling here — of having witnessed something precious and rare — answering the challenge of Assayas’ script by revealing a character incredibly closer to her soul.”

With links not only Fassbinder and American pop culture films, as seen in the film-within-a-film ostensibly starring Chloë Grace Moretz, as well to Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Sils Maria instantly jumps into my Top Ten List — in which there are, admittedly, 250 films at least – and is a work of mysterious, mesmerizing brilliance, which should be seen by everyone.

This excellent film will play May 1 – 7, 2015 at The Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater – don’t miss it.

This Is Widescreen – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is running an excellent new series on widescreen cinema.

From May 1st through June 19th, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a running a widescreen “retrospective” of the some of the most innovative CinemaScope and related processes films from the 1950s and 1960s – with the 1960 arguably being when the format reached its zenith. As their program notes for the series comment, “cinema has endured for decades through changes in technology and competing visual platforms, and now you can discover how studios and filmmakers – long before tablets, smartphones and the Internet – responded when audiences began trading regular visits to the movies for the ease and affordability of the first small screen: television.

In response, many impressive widescreen cinematic formats were rolled out around the world and capitalized on the breathtaking width of the projected image, not to mention the heightened fidelity of stereophonic sound, to achieve effects far beyond the reach of TV sets.

This Is Widescreen offers a colorful assortment of films (including classic musicals, crime films, sci-fi chillers, ghost stories and more) that demonstrate how filmmakers found new means of engaging the flexibility of the cinema and the key larger-than-life film formats in the ’50s and ’60s – from the launch of Cinerama in 1952 and the subsequent widescreen boom that included CinemaScope, VistaVision, Todd-AO and others – plus highlights from the first wave of ‘Scope filmmaking from around the globe.”

Admission to each screening, projected immaculately in 35mm format, is a mere $5 (!!), and the opportunity to see these remarkable films on the big screen in their original aspect ratio shouldn’t be missed. All screenings will feature pre-show presentations including shorts, trailers, cartoons and/or behind -the-scenes footage. Feature films screened during the series are:

Cinerama Holiday – May 1 at 7:30 pm
Lola Montès - May 7 at 7:30 pm
Carmen Jones and Bigger Than Life – May 8 at 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm
The Hidden Fortress – May 14 at 7:30 pm
To Catch a Thief
and Artists and Models – May 15 at 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm
Shoot the Piano Player and Lola – May 21 at 7:30 pm and 9:20 pm
Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt – May 22 at 7:30 pm  and 9:05 pm
Last Year at Marienbad and The Innocents – May 28 at 7:30 pm and 9:20 pm
Oklahoma! - May 29 at 7:30 pm
A Woman Is a Woman and Cruel Story of Youth – June 4 at 7:30 pm and 9:10 pm
The Vikings – June 5 at 7:30
Kwaidan - June 11 at 7:30
Grand Prix – June 12 at 7:30
The Big Gundown and Dragon Inn – June 18 at 7:30 pm and 9:35 pm

For more information on each program, click on the links above – not to be missed!

Noir City: The 17th Annual Festival of Film Noir

Saturday, April 11th, 2015

Already well underway, this annual noir festival is a real “destination” event.

As the festival’s official press release notes, “For the 17th year, the American Cinematheque brings film noir back to the big screen in Los Angeles! Co-presented with the Film Noir Foundation, our 17th annual Noir City festival offers three weeks of jaded gumshoes, femmes fatale and menacing heavies in gloriously gritty black-and-white.

These evenings shine a spotlight on some usual suspects as well as rarely screened gems, including the Foundation’s new 35mm restorations of THE GUILTY and WOMAN ON THE RUN, as well as new prints of THE UNDERWORLD STORY, NO ABRAS NUNCA ESA PUERTA and SI MUERO ANTES DE DESPERTAR (two classic Argentine noirs making their Los Angeles premieres!). Whether you’re a noir novice or a longtime aficionado of the postwar demimonde of crime and (occasionally) punishment, Noir City is well worth a visit.

This year’s astounding lineup salutes some true giants of the genre. Noir’s quintessential star, Humphrey Bogart, lights up the screen in DARK PASSAGE as a man on the run from a bum murder rap, and the actor’s spirit looms large in THIS LAST LONELY PLACE, the new neo-noir produced by the Bogart Estate; an interview with Stephen Bogart (son of Bogart and Bacall) and a cocktail reception featuring Bogart’s Gin complete the sensational evening (April 4). Barbara Stanwyck makes an equally formidable screen presence in WITNESS TO MURDER and JEOPARDY.

The works of crime novelist Cornell Woolrich were popular grist for some of the best of film noir, including THE CHASE and THE LEOPARD MAN. The latter was directed by the great Jacques Tourneur, whose CIRCLE OF DANGER and BERLIN EXPRESS are also Noir City highlights. Adding to the festivities are rare British and Argentine films, a proto-noir marathon and a closing-weekend Film Noir Party featuring dancing to Dean Mora’s Swingtet, martinis, casino games and other amusements fit for dangerous dames, gumshoes and gangsters!”

All films are shown in rare, restored 35mm prints – a must see if you’re in Los Angeles.

Manoel de Oliveira – Greatest Living Filmmaker – Dies at 106

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira shooting his film The Magic Mirror in 2005.

Since we’re all mortal, it had to happen, and now it has; Manoel de Oliveira, to my mind the greatest living filmmaker – without question – has finally died at age 106. His second to last feature film, Gebo and the Shadow, was an austere masterpiece, and he adapted readily to digital cinema, but remained a master of the quiet, patiently constructed image, creating films that always ended with an unexpected twist, but on a metaphorical level rather than being a mere plot shift.

Not that Oliveira was without humor – far from it – as evidenced in this great clip in which he does a Chaplin imitation for filmmaker Agnes Varda. And of course, the Tweets are piling in – as well they should. Since he picked up the pace of production in his late 80s, Oliveira has emerged as the most innovative, deeply moral, and absolutely humanist filmmaker of the late 20th and early 21st century. There’s really no one else like him – before, or now, after his death.

As Ali Jaafar perceptively writes in Deadline, “Manoel De Oliveira, the Portugese filmmaker who for so many years appeared to defy the laws of gravity and physics, has died at the age of 106. He was, by some measure, the world’s oldest active filmmaker, working up until last year when his latest — and last — film, The Old Man Of Belem premiered at the Venice Film Festival.

Born in 1908, De Oliveira’s productivity — he directed 29 films in all — is all the more remarkable given he had only made two films by the time he was 55. The latter half of his long, and critically acclaimed, career would see him earn a dozen career achievement prizes from major film festivals, including two career Venice Golden Lions (in 1985 and 2004) and a special jury prize for 1991’s The Divine Comedy. In 1999, he took home the Cannes jury prize for The Letter.

Unapologetically art house and cerebral in taste, De Oliveira confounded his peers with both his longevity as well as the consistency of his output in his latter years.  He got better with age, making a film a year once he turned 80 until his death. He might not even be finished just yet: He is reputed to have insisted that one of his films, Memories And Confessions, not be shown publicly while he was alive.

De Oliveira was born into privilege. His industrialist father, amongst other things, produced Portugal’s first electric light bulb. Finding himself out of favor under the iron rule of Portugul’s Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar from 1932-1968, De Oliveira found it similarly difficult under the socialist government in the early 1970’s as his upper class roots counted against him. Nevertheless, he persisted with his dream to become a filmmaker, even while he managed his family’s factory well into middle age.

In time De Oliveira moved from the neorealist verité style that categorized his early work — his debut feature was Aniki-Bobo in 1942 about the slums of his hometown Porto — eventually gave way to a more formal, literary approach often dealing with themes of unrequited and unfulfilled love. He often adapted literary works, including four books by Agustina Bessa-Luis.

He worked with many fine actors, including Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich, Michel Piccoli, Jeanne Moreau, Claudia Cardinale and also Marcello Mastroianni in the iconic Italian actor’s final role in Voyage To The Beginning Of The World.” His other standout films include Acto de Primavera, The Strange Case of Angelica, The Convent, A Talking Picture, and numerous other works – Oliveira was one of a kind, and his films – as well as his life – serve as an inspiration to all who love and cherish the cinema.

As Cahiers du Cinema said of Oliveira’s work, “He is sovereign, free, unique, perched high on a tightrope no one else can reach, defying the laws of gravity and above all the rules of cinematic decorum and commerce.” I try to avoid obits in this blog, but this is just too major a passing to omit – our greatest living filmmaker is now gone.

All day long, I have had the feeling something was terribly wrong – now I know why.

The White Reindeer (1952)

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

Here’s a real curiosity – a forgotten fairy tale / horror film from Finland.

As Wikipedia notes, “The White Reindeer (Finnish: Valkoinen peura) is a 1952 Finnish horror drama film written, photographed and directed by Erik Blomberg. It was entered in competition at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival and earned the Jean Cocteau-led jury special award for Best Fairy Tale Film. After its limited release five years later in the United States, it was one of five films to win the 1957 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film.

The film, based on pre-Christian Finnish mythology and Sami shamanism, is set in Finnish Lapland and centers on a young woman, Pirita (Blomberg’s wife Mirijami Kuosmanen). In the snowy landscape, Pirita and reindeer herder Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä) meet and soon marry. Aslak must spend time away for work, leaving his new bride alone and lonely.

In an effort to alleviate her loneliness and ignite marital passion, Pirita visits the local shaman, who indeed helps her out; but in the process turns her into a shapeshifting, vampiric white reindeer. The village men are drawn to her and pursue her, with tragic results.”

As with so many interesting films from the past, even films such as this which received significant honors, and a fairly high profile festival release, The White Reindeer is not available on DVD in the United States, but can be found on a French DVD (Region 2) under the title Le Renne Blanc – and is well worth seeking out.

With a very brief running time, the simplest resources, this is a compelling and deeply original film that deserves more attention – another example of how much there is available in world cinema, and how much more there is to discover. Why this isn’t available in the United States is a mystery to me – there’s even a Criterion “fantasy” site where the film is listed as a supposed release – but sadly, this is just a dream.

So do yourself a favor – buy the DVD, which has English subtitles, while you still can.

Leon Wieseltier on Turner Classic Movies

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Leon Wieseltier recently published an appreciation of TCM in The New York Times; I couldn’t agree more.

As Wieseltier wrote, in part, “when disappointment has brought you low, or sadness has colonized you, or fear has conquered your imagination, you experience a contraction of your horizon. Your sense of possibility is damaged and even abolished. Pain is a monopolist. The most urgent thing, therefore, is to restore a more various understanding of what life holds, of its true abundance, so that the bleakness in which you find yourself is not all you know.

The way to break the grip of sorrow and dread is to introduce another claimant on consciousness, to crowd it out with other stimulations from the world. Sadness can never be retired completely, because there is always a basis in reality for it. But you can impede its progress by diversifying your mind.

Nothing performs this charitable expansion of awareness more immediately for me than TCM. Movies are quick corrections for the fact that we exist in only one place at only one time. (Of course there are circumstances in which being only in one place only at one time is a definition of bliss.) I switch on TCM and find swift transit beyond the confines of my position. Alongside my reality there appears another reality — the world out there and not in here. One objective of melancholy is to block the evidence of a more variegated existence, but a film quickly removes the blockage. It sneaks past the feelings that act as walls [. . .]

When I watch the older movies on TCM, I am struck by the beauty of gray, which makes up the bulk of black and white. How can the absence of color be so gorgeous? Black and white is so tonally unified, so tone-poetic. Shadows seem more natural, like structural elements of the composition. The dated look of the films is itself an image of time, like the varnish on old paintings that becomes inextricable from their visual resonance. There is also a special pleasure in having had someone else choose the film.

Netflix, with its plenitude of options, asks for a decision, for an accounting of tastes; but TCM unburdens you of choice and asks for only curiosity and an appetite for surprise. The freedom to choose is like the freedom to speak: There is never too much of it, but there is sometimes too much of its consequences. Education proceeds by means of other people’s choices. Otherwise it is just customization, or electronically facilitated narcissism. Let Mr. Osborne decide!”

You can read his entire essay in The New York Times by clicking here, or on the image above.

Francisco Ferreira on Manoel de Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Here’s Francisco Ferreira on Manoel de Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow in the journal Cinemascope.

As Ferreira notes, in part, “Gebo (Michael Lonsdale) is an aged, decent and broke family man subdued by routine and a sense of duty who has learned from life that ‘when money’s involved, no one ever forgives.’ He lives with his wife Doroteia (Claudia Cardinale), a woman who does not accept reality, pushing upon Gebo and their daughter-in-law Sofia (Leonor Silveira) an endless pack of lies about their missing son, João (Ricardo Trêpa, speaking in a disarming French accent that draws attention to his character’s dubious nature). Gebo often receives his faithful neighbors Chamiço and Candidinha (Luís Miguel Cintra and Jeanne Moreau): their favorite sport is complaining, which nicely complements Gebo’s perpetual sense of hopelessness. A man without ambition, Gebo often laments: ‘The question is whether we come to this world to be happy.’ In fact, happiness here is a temptation and a sordid object in the house: a bag full of money collected from the company where Gebo works.

The shadow of the title, on the other hand, seems to be a far more complex issue. Because first of all in the film, brilliantly shot by Renato Berta in HD on a studio set, faint oil lamps are always flickering, and there is no distinction between day and night. This is a perennially dark world where there is almost no light to reflect any shadows at all: we could dare to say that colors and image here have a pictorial sense and a distinctive purpose . . . the shadow [of the title] is a suffocating thought, commenting on the Portuguese soul and despair from the perspective of the myth of Sebastianism, a topic addressed by Oliveira in both No, or the Vainglory of Command (1990) and The Fifth Empire (2004). For a director who once said that the truth and the event are the two greatest vectors of his work, this historical approach is not an abuse of our imagination: ‘Today is a product of yesterday,’ as Oliveira once said.”

To which Gwendolyn Audrey Foster adds, “Oliveira is like a time traveler who takes us back to another century, illuminated by candles and philosophy . . . he’s the only truly significant classical artist left in the cinema,” a sentiment with which I heartily agree. Oliveira is now 106 years old – his birthday is December 11th, 1908 – and I keep hearing reports that his health is now, perhaps inevitably, precarious, though he has just completed two short films, and I sincerely hope that he will make more features.

After laboring in near-obscurity for decades, Oliveira really began to burst forth on the international scene in his eighties, and has in the last yen years developed a very late classical style which is at once restrained and deeply penetrating; as I’ve said before, he makes viewers work for their pleasures in his films, but in the end, the cumulative effect is staggering. Oliveira truly is the last great classical filmmaker, in the tradition of Renoir, Bresson, and others, and yet his works are still little known, and Gebo and the Shadow, to date, has only a European Region 2 DVD release – but with English subtitles, so there’s no excuse for not getting a copy now. Having recently suffered through the trivialities of the Academy Awards – and every year, though I’m asked to comment, this year vowing never to do so again – seeing something of this quality restores my faith in the cinema, and in art, though no one- absolutely no one – is now working in the cinema at the same level as Oliveira. I urge you to see this film at once.

You can read Ferreira’s excellent article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Claus Drexel’s On The Edge of the World (2013)

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Claus Drexel’s documentary about the homeless of Paris is a shattering experience.

In 1995, I directed a feature film outside of Paris called Squatters, for which Claus Drexel was the cinematographer, and did an excellent job. Over the years, be became a director in his own right, with such successful films as Affaire de famille (2008). We lost touch, but then a few weeks ago, he sent me an e-mail about his newest project, On the Edge of the World (Au Bord Du Monde), in which Drexel and a small camera crew followed a group of homeless Parisians through the streets of the city as they struggled to survive in an increasingly hostile, mercantile world.

On The Edge of The World has been screened at Cannes, won the Best Feature Film Award at Tuebingen, the FIPRESCI Critic’s award at Thessaloniki, and was a nominee for the prestigious Prix Louis-Delluc. Claus offered to send me a DVD, with excellent English subtitles. It arrived, I popped it in the player, and was blown away. Here’s yet another gorgeous film which has been festival hit which isn’t getting the attention it deserves, but I came across an excellent interview with Claus conducted by Vanessa McMahon on the genesis of the film, and here are some extracts:

“Vanessa McMahon: When did you decide to make a film about the homeless of Paris? How long did it take?

Claus Drexel: I wanted to make this film for a long time, but never really decided to move on it. My idea was to give these people, that we see everywhere but never hear, the possibility to talk to us. Then one day, I pitched the idea to my producer friend Florent Lacaze. He loved the project and urged me to do the film as soon as possible. So we set up our team (1 cinematographer, 1 sound engineer and myself), made a few camera, lens and microphone tests and started right away. The shoot lasted more or less one year.

Vanessa McMahon: How did you find your characters? Was it hard to get your cast to decide to be filmed?

Claus Drexel: The first two months we walked through Paris and talked with many homeless people. Maybe one hundred. Then I decided to focus on the dozen that are in the film, as I was deeply moved by their incredible loneliness. I first expected that most of them would not accept to appear in a film. But I was totally surprised by how warmly we were welcomed. I then understood that our society always thinks about material solutions for these people, but what they need most, his human relationships and consideration.

Vanessa McMahon: Would you say that Paris is one of the worst places in the world to be homeless? Why?

Claus Drexel: It certainly is the most striking, because of the incredible splendor of the city. On the other hand, as it is a big city, there are many humanitarian associations out there. You don’t starve in a city like Paris.

Vanessa McMahon: The film is shot beautifully. Can you talk about the aesthetics of the shoot?

Claus Drexel: I wanted to emphasize the incredible contrast between the situation of these people and the splendor of Paris. As in a painting, I also believe that there is a deep resonance between the inner beauty of these people and the magnificent backdrop.

Vanessa McMahon: Most people think that France has a good social system (compared to poorer countries), so why are there so many homeless people?

Claus Drexel: Maybe the French social system has reached its limits too, regarding the ongoing crisis. On the other hand, it is important to understand that many of these people have much deeper problems than just economical ones. Even if you’d provide them with a home, they’d come back on the streets sooner or later. It’s hard to understand, but we must accept that and have consideration for them, even if they remain a total mystery to us.

Vanessa McMahon: Do you think that being homeless is it at times a conscious decision for people or a matter of poverty? Or both?

Claus Drexel: Living on the streets is so tough, that no one would go for it conscientiously. Even if some people say so, I believe it’s one last expression of pride: if you say that you chose this situation, it sounds as if you still have a control over your life. But I think that they just can’t do otherwise. When people tell me that they can’t understand why the homeless just don’t make the effort to find a job and move on, I answer them asking why – if themselves, they’d like to have more money – they just don’t make the effort to run as fast as Usain Bolt, who is obviously very rich. We all have our limitations and deserve equal recognition as human beings, regardless of what we are able to do and what not.

Vanessa McMahon: What do you think about the rise of poverty happening in the world today, and with that the rise in homelessness?

Claus Drexel: I sincerely believe that money is the worst invention of mankind. Its main purpose is to enable some to have much more than they need, inevitably taking it away from others, who consequently have less than they need. And it gets worse and worse. If money didn’t exist, no one would pile up tons and tons of potatoes in his garden that he wouldn’t be able to eat, leaving the others starving. And we should not forget that some of the greatest works of art, like the incredible cave-paintings in Lascaux and elsewhere, prove us that homo sapiens were able to achieve extraordinary tasks before money existed.

Vanessa McMahon: Do you think this material digital age has created a greater divide between those who have and those have not? And do you think that those having a hard time making money are those who are having a difficult time changing as rapidly with modern times?

Claus Drexel: I personally don’t think that what the digital age offers is a great enrichment. I have much more consideration for a little drawing made by the hand of Man, than for a telephone with a fruit printed on the backside. But what frightens me, is the ability of the industry to impose this change onto us: if you don’t follow, you drown. In India, for example, welfare money is now wired on people’s cell phones. If you don’t own one, you get no money. So, yes, it definitely creates a greater divide.

Vanessa McMahon: Will you continue to make documentaries? If so, what will you work on next?

Claus Drexel: Coming more from the fiction world, I loved making a documentary. In fact, what I loved most, was meeting different people. I certainly want to make another documentary one day, but I’ll have to find the right subject first. In the foreseeable future, I only work on fiction projects.

Vanessa McMahon: How did it feel to be an award winner at TIFF? How was the reaction to your film?

Claus Drexel: Receiving the international critics award was a fantastic surprise. I’m very grateful to the jury members, who told me very nice things about the film in private, after the ceremony. On the other hand, a competition is always like a lottery. You’re lucky, if most of the jury members are responsive to the kind of films you make. It doesn’t mean that the awarded film is ‘better’ than the others.”

Here’s hoping this will come out on DVD in the States; it’s an unforgettable film.

Denis Côté’s Joy of Man’s Desiring (Que ta joie demeure)

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

Denis Côté’s Joy of Man’s Desiring is an absolutely brilliant film about the modern day workplace.

I am indebted to the writer and critic Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for bringing Côté’s work to my attention; in our digital age, films such as these don’t get the distribution they deserve, almost never play in theaters, and are in general confined to the festival circuit throughout the world. But thankfully, Joy of Man’s Desiring has just become available in the United States as a digital download on Vimeo, and this absolutely superb film, running just 79 minutes, is one of the most impressive achievements of the cinema in 2014.

You can see the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above, and then either view or download the entire film for a modest fee after that – a price that is an absolute bargain for such a mesmerizing, transcendent piece of work. This is the sort of filmmaking that needs to supported on an everyday basis, as an antidote to the non-stop explosions and commercial blandness of mainstream cinema; Côté’s films, part fiction, part documentary, create an unsettling vision of the world that his uniquely his own.

This is what Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin were shooting for with films like British Sounds, in which their Dziga Vertov collective hoped to find common ground with workers, including a memorable tracking shot in an auto assembly plant with a soundtrack of unceasing noise, generated by the manufacturing equipment itself. But Côté’s film goes far beyond Godard and Gorin’s work – and is certainly far less didactic – to give a sort of infernal life to the machines that control women and men on the factory floor, adeptly blending staged vignettes of industrial impersonalization with documentary sequences that chronicle the repetitive tedium of jobs that require labor, and no thought whatsoever – jobs that most people work at for their entire lives, jobs which eventually destroy them and use them up, much like the machines they are forced to operate.

Côté is an extremely prolific filmmaker working out of Quebec, whose many films, including Vic + Flo Saw A Bear, Bestiaire, and Curling offer a disquieting, almost trance-like meditative vision of the modern world, and the alienation and distance that accompanies it. As the presskit for the film notes, “Joy of Man’s Desiring is an open-ended exploration of the energies and rituals of various workplaces. From one worker to another and one machine to the next; hands, faces, breaks, toil: what kind of absurdist, abstract dialogue can be started between human beings and their need to work? What is the value of the time we spend multiplying and repeating the same motions that ultimately lead to a rest – a state of repose whose quality defies definition?”

As Côté himself says of Joy of Man’s Desiring, “there’s no doubt this is the kind of film-essay in the same lineage as my smaller-scale films, which look for the unfindable (Carcasses, Bestiaire) and question language. I take a great deal of pleasure in making films that don’t easily reveal themselves either to me or the viewer. They need to be out there for a long time, they need to get around. We have to put words to these sound-and-image experiments. I hope viewers won’t go crazy; I hope they’ll watch work in action, thought in action, research in action. There’s a little humor, a hypnotic element, some distancing moments, but there is no real issue or end to the film either. I enjoy watching a film get to a moment when I know I am in the process of watching a film. Maybe I don’t understand it, but I turn it over and look at every side to see how we did it; I think about it, let it exist.”

As Stephen Dalton noted in The Hollywood Reporter when the film premiered at The Berlin Film Festival on February 7, 2014, “Quebecois director Denis Côté won a Silver Bear in last year’s Berlinale for his offbeat comic thriller Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, but the formal rigor on display here feels more akin to the director’s unorthodox animal-watching documentary Bestiaire, a left-field Sundance and Berlin favourite in 2012 . . . The film’s non-fiction segments are lightly peppered with dramatic vignettes and poetic touches, including a stern opening monologue delivered straight to camera by an unnamed woman (Emilie Sigouin). ‘Be polite, respectful, honest,’ she warns the viewer, ‘or I’ll destroy you.’ . . .

Moving between different industrial spaces, Côté’s method mostly consists of artfully composed static shots and slow zooms into heavy machinery. These scenes have a stark, vaguely menacing beauty. They are intercut with still-life studies of machinists and carpenters, laundry workers and food packagers. Some are caught in fragmentary conversation, others in sullen and wordless poses. Joy of Man’s Desiring constantly hints at interesting themes – like the psychology of manual labor in a mechanized age, or the broad cultural mix of Francophone immigrants among Quebecois factory workers” but, as Dalton notes, leaves these issues largely unresolved, as they are in real life.

This is thoughtful, crisp filmmaking, which takes genuine risks and at the same time is easily accessible to the average viewer – the film’s running time flies by in what seems to be an instant. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is preparing a major piece on Côté’s work as a whole, and I look forward to it with great anticipation – there hasn’t been nearly enough written about him, and most critics really don’t understand what he’s trying to do, though it seems clear to me. Côté’s cinema is as strong, as compassionate, and as effortlessly masterful as the films of Robert Bresson, and as meditative and humanistic as the films of the great Yasujirō Ozu, who viewed the world, and the human condition, with an equally clear and direct gaze.

Joy of Man’s Desiring, is, in short, one of the most impressive and effective cinematic essays I’ve recently seen on the connection between humans and machines, labor and capital, and the gap between our dreams and what we actually accomplish. See it as soon as you can. It is a stunning piece of work.

View the trailer for this film by clicking here, and then, by all means, see the film itself.

Rare Houdini Film Premieres At TCM Film Festival

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

A very rare Harry Houdini feature film has been rescued and restored by Turner Classic Movies.

As Lisa de Moraes writes in Deadline, arguably the most authoritative source for Hollywood news, “Turner Classic Movies is bringing its restoration of ‘lost’ Harry Houdini classic The Grim Game to have its world-premiere screening at its TCM Classic Film Festival in March. This much-sought-after 1919 film — a complete print of which only recently was brought to TCM for restoration — features the escape artist and legendary illusionist in one of his few starring roles. The film was discovered and the restoration was produced and restored by film preservationist Rick Schmidlin, whose credits include such restorations as The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894/95), Greed (1924), London After Midnight (1927), Touch Of Evil (1958) and Elvis: That’s The Way It Is – Special Edition (1970).

In The Grim Game, Houdini plays Harvey Hanford, a young man who is framed for murder. As Hanford escapes from the police and goes after the gang of men who framed him, the movie offers numerous opportunities for Houdini to display his own skills as an escape artist, illusionist and stuntman. Among the most remarkable sequences is a mid-air collision between two airplanes that was a real accident caught on film and used in the story.

The only known copy of the complete film was held by Larry Weeks, a 95-year-old retired juggler who lived in Brooklyn. Weeks had obtained the film from the Houdini estate in 1947, had only shown it a few times and  never had been willing to sell it. Schmidlin got in touch with Weeks and visited him to assess the condition of the film. Weeks showed him the two film cans that contained The Grim Game. Schmidlin explained that TCM was willing to make an offer, and after two hours of discussion, Weeks finally agreed.

Schmidlin arranged to have NYU provide storage in its on-site vault. At NYU, an examination of the film revealed the total movie was 5 1/2 reels, not the five reels that always had been reported. They also had two reels of negative film. ‘Harry Houdini is an compelling cultural icon, but most people don’t know about his movie career,’ said Charles Tabesh, SVP Programming at TCM. ‘He made several films, but The Grim Game was his first feature, considered his best. It’s fascinating to see Houdini as an actor . . . it’s really fun to watch [a film] that even the most hardcore fans haven’t had a chance to see.’ During the world-premiere screening in Hollywood, composer Brane Zivkovic will conduct a live performance of his new score for the film. Additionally, The Grim Game will make its world TV debut on TCM later in the year.”

Turner Classic Movies – an invaluable cultural resource. Can’t wait!

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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