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Michelangelo Antonioni’s “I Vinti” (“The Vanquished”) – 1952

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

Michelangelo Antonioni’s I Vinti (The Vanquished) is a forgotten masterpiece of the postwar Italian cinema.

In his early years as a filmmaker, emerging out of the shadow of Mussolini’s Cinecitta, working for the Italian Fascists during World War II – unwillingly, but nevertheless involved – Michelangelo Antonioni created a number of controversial and deeply ambitious projects, beginning with his first feature film, Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore, 1950), and then moving on to the even more accomplished I Vinti (The Vanquished, 1952) – both of which initially received a hostile reception from critics and the general public. While Story of A Love Affair has been available on DVD for quite some time, I Vinti is only recently receiving the DVD release it so richly deserves, from Raro Video. But looking at I Vinti from nearly any angle, it’s amazing that Antonioni even got this project off the ground.

Opening with a ferocious collage of newsreel footage with a relentless voiceover track decrying postwar youth’s lust for instant fame at any price, the film goes on to tell three stories, in three languages; in France, a group of rich, bored teens decide to kill one of their group for the money he claims to have, only to find after the murder that the cash is counterfeit; in Italy, a well-off young man caught up in the cigarette smuggling racket kills a Customs Agent trying to escape after a raid, and dies in his parents’ home as the police close in; and in England, a young ne’er do well “poet” kills a middle aged prostitute in order to sell the story to a tabloid newspaper, and achieve instant “fame” of a sort as a thrill killer.

Grim, to say the least. Even more amazingly, all of the incidents in the film were taken from actual crimes committed around that time, each in their respective country; the French story of bored teen killers was a national scandal; the Italian story – which was censored for the film, and actually involved a young political radical blowing up a munitions factory as a form of protest – was also a matter of record; and the British story concerned the case of teenager Herbert Leonard Mills, who in 1951 murdered a woman simply for the notoriety that it would bring him, and then tried to sell the story to a newspaper.

The Italian story was shot first, and seems the most like later Antonioni, especially L’Avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La Notte (The Night, 1961) and L’Eclisse (Eclipse, 1962). Franco Interlenghi, then a popular matinee idol of the period in Italian cinema, plays Claudio, whose political “idealism” ends in tragedy, when the factory he blows up results in numerous casualties among the workers. This storyline was much too strong for the Italian censors, and Antonioni was forced to reshoot almost two-thirds of the episode to shift Claudio’s criminal activities to smuggling. Astoundingly, the original version of this section of the film survives, and is included on the disc as an extra, and makes for essential viewing, to say the least.

The British story was shot next, and eerily prefigures Antonioni’s later film Blowup (1966), in which a bored and narcissistic fashion photographer (played by David Hemmings) accidentally witnesses and photographs a murder in a park, and then can’t make up his mind whether or not to tell the police about the crime. In I Vinti, Peter Reynolds stars as Aubrey, the dissolute layabout and would-be poet who commits a murder simply for the notoriety it will bring him. Reynolds’ performance is brilliantly self-absorbed and loathsome; indeed, I Vinti effectively typecast him for life in a series of roles as as a decadent, dishonest aristocrat, before his tragically early death at the age of 49.

The French episode also ran into trouble from the censors, as well it might, dealing with the notorious “Affaire J3,” in which a young man was killed by his companions during a picnic outside of Paris. As with the other sections of the film, the truth was too close to the film’s scenario for comfort, so after combined protests from the British, Italian and French authorities and numerous recuts, the film was finally premiered at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival, but only out of competition. Then, since the film was a commercial failure, it was was consigned to the vaults, and given the deeply troubling nature of the film, for a long time it seemed that I Vinti would never see the light of day again.

But in 2013, The Museum of Modern Art brought the film out of oblivion, so to speak, and screened it in their To Save and Project series. But for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to attend that screening, the Raro DVD is a real find. As Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker in 2011, “with the opening monologue of his second feature, the three-part film I Vinti (The Vanquished), Michelangelo Antonioni polemically affirms the theme that would dominate his entire career: the erosion of reason and morality throughout society, due to the onslaught of mass media and the dominion of the bourgeoisie who both produce it and fall under its sway.”

The Raro DVD contains the complete film, immaculately restored, as well as a host of extras, including the original version of the Italian Episode; an interview with the film’s producer, the late Turi Vasile (in his 80s, his memory was entirely intact, and he effortlessly quotes Marx, Hegel and Kierkegaard from memory in his account of the film’s genesis – name one Hollywood producer who can do that!); an interview with Franco Interlenghi, now deceased, who played Claudio in the Italian episode; as well as a short film by Antonioni, Tentato Suicidio, one episode of the 1953 multi-director feature L’Amore in Citta’/Love in the City, as well as a superbly detailed essay on the film by Stefania Parigi. All in all, it’s a stunning viewing experience.

So there you are – a masterpiece. Can you afford to pass it up? No.

New Article: “Rockin’ the Boat’s a Drag. You Gotta Sink the Boat!”: Robert Downey Sr.’s Anarchist Cinema

Sunday, July 10th, 2016

I have a new article on the life and films of Robert Downey Sr. in the July, 2016 issue of Senses of Cinema.

As I write, in part, “long, long, long ago and very far away, in Manhattan in the 1960s, I knew Robert Downey Sr. as a friend and colleague, and we are still in touch today. At the time, we were all part of what was then euphemistically called the ‘Underground Cinema’, a loose conglomeration of filmmakers and artists who centered around The Filmmakers’ Cooperative and the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, which moved from location to location, continually offering screenings of decidedly outré films, for something like $2 a show. We were part of a group of 100 filmmakers – tops.

All of us were cinematic anarchists, spearheaded by the aggressively confrontational filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas, whose long running column ‘Movie Journal’ in The Village Voice encouraged everyone to make as many films as possible, in as many ways as possible, with as few materials as possible, and to not listen to anyone’s criticism – just their own artistic inner voice.

Robert Sr. was one of those people who really took up the banner of experimental film and ran with it, remaining as controversial as possible, and eager to offend as many people as possible, but with a disarming, almost ingratiatingly cheerful air.” I’m very happy to have done this piece, as I respect Bob’s work enormously; he’s the foremost American social satirist of the 1960s and 70s, and remains as active today as ever.

You can read the entire article by clicking on the link here, or on the image above.

Denis Côté’s Boris sans Béatrice (2016)

Saturday, July 9th, 2016

Denis Côté’s new film Boris sans Béatrice (2016) is a stripped-down, sharp tale of moral redemption.

As Brendan Kelly writes in the Montreal Gazette, “Denis Côté’s films may not make bazillions at the box office, but the Montreal auteur’s original, highly stylized offerings travel the world as much as the work of almost any other Canadian director this side of David Cronenberg. [You can watch an interview with the director by clicking here, or on the image above.]

Côté’s ninth feature, Boris sans Béatrice, had its world première in official competition at the Berlin International Film Festival [in February 2016], and then opened the recent Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois. James Hyndman stars as a successful Quebec businessman who enters a moral crisis after his wife (Simone-Élise Girard), a federal cabinet minister, falls into a coma-like state. It opens in cinemas Friday, including a version with English subtitles. [I asked the filmmaker a few questions] . . .

Q: There has been a debate here for a while about whether we should be making popular films or more artsy films. What do you think of this whole discussion?

A: Look, I’m 42 years old. I’ve made nine features. At a certain moment, I’m allowed to get up in the morning and just be Denis Côté, no? I’m not capable of making a commercial film. It’s not that I don’t want to do it — I’m not able to do it. If you ask me to film a bank robbery, I’m sorry, but I’m allergic to conventional filmmaking. I can’t make a film for M. or Madame Tout le Monde. I’m a cinephile, I was a film critic, and I’ve seen loads of films. I’m a bit obsessed with being different and having my own signature. So by definition, you lose a certain audience because of that.

And I’ve been encouraged to keep my signature. People in the business said, ‘Wow, you made Carcasses [a strange, low-budget 2009 film about a man who has a bunch of burnt-out cars on his land] and you went to Cannes.’ They said, ‘Wow, you filmed animals in Bestiaire [a 2012 film shot at Parc Safari] and you went to 100 festivals around the world and it was sold in seven or eight countries. So at a certain moment you start to believe in Denis Côté. You don’t think of la madame in Verdun.

And the business continues to support me. I didn’t need to fight for four years to make Boris sans Béatrice. I had one meeting at [Canadian provincial film funding agency] SODEC, and it was supported right away by [federal film agency] Telefilm. The agencies are sensitive to two things: box office and international exposure. With me, everyone knows I’m the guy who represents Canada internationally. They like that and they need that. And they don’t expect me to blow up at the box office. So if you ask me if Boris sans Béatrice is an art-house film, I’d answer, ‘Yes it is, and I’m proud of it.’”

The film marks something of a departure, at least for me, from Côté’s other films, in that it’s much more human, and humane, and also about human fallibility, than some of his darker films, like Vic and Flo Saw A Bear, a minimalist masterpiece with a heavenly happy ending, but only after the characters in the film go through all sorts of earthly Hell.

In Boris sans Béatrice, the protagonist’s Hell is of his own making; neglecting his wife for his hyper-successful business, tumbling from one meaningless affair into the next, and most of all behaving with an overpowering sense of arrogant entitlement for most of the film, Boris is clearly headed straight for the wall, in one sense or another.

This all changes when he receives a mysterious summons in his mailbox from a mysterious, otherworldly judge, billed appropriately as “l’Inconnu” in the film’s credits, played superbly by Denis Lavant, who calls Boris to account for his hubris, neglect, and his failure to take care of his wife, his mother, or even his daughter, other than bailing her out of jail after she’s arrested during a protest action.

In a sense, Lavant’s character resembles a more severe version of the character Heurtebise (as played by François Périer) in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), who aids but also chastises the poet Orpheus (Jean Marais) when he similarly neglects his wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa).

Immaculately photographed, superbly acted, and entirely the work of someone who – for once – wants to please himself and no one else, Boris sans Béatrice gives us a indelible portrait of an utterly selfish, self-involved man who finally, through the agency of some supernatural guidance, is restored to the ones he truly loves, after realizing that the rest of his life, without love, is meaningless.

In this, the film is perhaps Côté’s most accessible work, despite his protestations to the contrary. Unlike the fashionably death-obsessed and self-conciously brutal allegories offered up by, for example, Michael Haneke, Boris sans Béatrice – which starts out with an unrelenting coldness – shifts gradually into a film that exudes a palpable sense of realistic hope, becoming a study of a life examined, found wanting, and reclaimed – a spectacle all too rare these days.

My thanks to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for introducing me to this beautiful, thoughtful film.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Masaki Kobayashi’s “Kwaidan” (1964)

Monday, July 4th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay out on the classic Japanese supernatural film Kwaidan.

As Foster writes, in part, in the latest issue of Senses of Cinema, “along with Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jō, 1957), Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964) – aka Kaidan, or ‘ghost stories’ – is one of the peaks of the Japanese cinema during its golden era, and one of the most superbly atmospheric supernatural films ever produced in any country. It’s also a terrific example of how a portmanteau film can work successfully, harking back to Ealing Studios’ multi-director Dead of Night (1945), and gesturing towards the multi-story films of Amicus in the 1960s.

Kobayashi’s filmography as a director isn’t extensive, with only 21 feature films to his credit throughout his entire career, yet each of his projects has an individual stamp that makes them deeply personal. His earlier films are both gritty and introspective, and seem nothing at all like Kwaidan: one of Kobayashi’s most compelling early films is the brutal baseball noir drama I Will Buy You (Anata kaimasu, 1956), in which a young player rises to the top of Japanese professional baseball, revealed to be little more than a racket.

Kobayashi’s other major works include the epic trilogy The Human Condition (1959 – 1961), which clocks in at an astonishing 9 hours and 47 minutes in its entirety, and Harakiri (Seppuku, 1962), a suitably violent and nihilistic samurai film. Most of Kobayashi’s work is in black and white, but in Kwaidan he evokes a world of heavily stylized colour, and creates one of the most sensual and strangely evocative supernatural films ever made. It remains one-of-a-kind not only for Kobayashi, but also for what has been loosely called ‘the horror film’: Kwaidan doesn’t deal in shock imagery, but rather in an ever-mounting sense of psychological dread.

Based on Lafcadio Hearn’s anthology of Japanese tales of the supernatural, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904), the film is structured in four parts. ‘The Black Hair’ follows a warrior who leaves his first wife for a second marriage to gain greater status, only to find the promise of a ‘better life’ is an empty one indeed. ‘The Woman of the Snow’ is a tale of supernatural vengeance in which a woodcutter falls in love with a Yuki-onna, or ’snow woman’ – a spirit who wanders the woods – with unexpected results.

‘Hoichi the Earless’ deals with a blind musician who discovers that he has been unwittingly singing for a family of ghosts, resulting in dire consequences. The last section (which the spectator is invited to complete in their own mind) is ‘In a Cup of Tea,’ the philosophically deepest and most challenging of the tales, in which a writer is continually disturbed by the unexpected sight of a face in – as the title suggests – his cup of tea.

Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, and honored with an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film the same year, Kwaidan is one of the most sumptuously mounted horror films ever made, shot in moody, otherworldly colour that would be evoked again in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), in true TohoScope ratio 2.35:1 by the gifted cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima, with stunning art direction by Shigemasa Toda.”

You read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above – enjoy!

Glenn Erickson on Cy Endfield’s Try And Get Me!

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

Cy Endfield’s noir classic Try and Get Me! (aka The Sound of Fury) finally gets a DVD release.

As Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant writes in a guest post on Steve Eifert’s excellent site Noir of The Week, “1950’s Try and Get Me! has never been an easy film to see. Its only home video release [was] a Republic Home Video VHS from 1990. [Thankfully, the film has just now been released in a superb transfer by Olive Films, which makes a business of rescuing lost classics before it's too late - so check it out.]

It’s both a socially conscious tract against lynching, and one of the most pessimistic, frightening films noir from the classic period. It encourages examination from several angles. Its director was blacklisted. It was released as The Sound of Fury late in 1950, and underwent a title change while in its initial run. No official reason is given, but the title might have been uncomfortably similar to MGM’s 1936 film Fury, which is loosely based on the same factual incident.

Not unlike Jules Dassin of Night and the City, versatile director Cyril (Cy) Endfield was just getting his career in motion when the blacklist made him unemployable in Hollywood. Endfield would later achieve success in England directing, writing or producing tough minded pictures like Hell Drivers, Zulu, Sands of the Kalahari and Zulu Dawn. Try and Get Me! was filmed on location in the Phoenix area. Unemployed Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) already has one young boy. His wife Judy (Kathleen Ryan) is anxious that he finds a job soon so she can see a doctor to deliver her second child.

Demoralized by the bleak job prospects, Howard falls in with Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges), a narcissistic braggart who lures him with promises of easy money: ‘Getting any other offers lately?’ Howard drives the getaway car for a series of robberies; he tells his wife that he’s found a job and begins to drink heavily. Then Jerry bullies his reluctant partner into helping kidnap the son of a wealthy local. The unstable Jerry murders the kidnapped man.

Torn by guilt and self-loathing, Howard continues to drink. He accompanies Jerry on a nightclub holiday with the loose Velma (Adele Jergens) and her mousy friend Hazel Weatherwax (Katherine Locke). Unable to keep silent, Howard breaks down in Katherine’s apartment. The secret gets out and the police close in. Howard is locked up with the now-deranged Jerry. Stirred up by alarmist newspaper headlines, a huge mob converges on the city jail. The sheriff (Cliff Clark, in one of his finest roles) can’t hold them back.

A social horror movie for depressed times, Try and Get Me! is not recommended for everybody — its emotions run high even before the crime and kidnap story gets in gear. Howard Tyler’s unemployment experience is sheer misery and humiliation, death in small doses. It hurts when his kid asks for money to go to a ball game. He can’t possibly tell his wife how hopeless things have become. The neighbors’ new television is just more evidence of Howard’s failure.

Author-screenwriter Jo Pagano indicts American society as aloof to the needs of working class citizens in economic straits — the Land of Riches doesn’t give a damn if Howard’s family goes homeless or starves. A bartender sees nothing wrong with charging Howard extra for a grade of beer he didn’t order. The situation is emasculating, especially with the preening, suppressed homoerotic Jerry showing off his muscles and asserting his superiority. The film’s key image shows Howard unable to sleep, standing in the dark staring out the window. He’s a criminal; he knows that he’ll be caught sooner or later.”

You can read the rest of this excellent essay by clicking here, or on the image above – it’s must see viewing!

New Article – Kelly Reichardt: Working Against The Grain

Thursday, June 9th, 2016

I have a new article on the films of Kelly Reichardt in Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

As I write in the article on her film River of Grass, ”like so many of Reichardt’s protagonists, Cozy and Lee want to leave the lives they’re drifting through behind, but they have no clear idea – indeed no idea at all, what to do about it. They have no money, no real aim, in life, but they’re not so much hopeless as they are bereft of imagination. There’s a world out there beyond Florida, but somehow, home is home, and that’s where they seem to be stuck, in a state of permanent stasis.

And, of course, the film has many stylistic and thematic debts, which Reichardt is all too willing to acknowledge. As she told Iain Blair, in River of Grass ‘I can clearly see Godard’s influence, and noir and early Terrence Malick. It’s all laid quite bare.’ The film was recently restored as part of a Kickstarter campaign by Oscilloscope Laboratories, and released as an extra on Oscilloscope’s DVD of Reichardt’s ultra-realistic, almost existential Western Meek’s Cutoff (2010). It’s a solid first effort, and certainly offers an early clue to the direction her career was heading in.

Reichardt followed this up with two shorter films, Ode (1999), clocking in at 48 minutes, which is a sort of riff on the plot of the 1960s pop song hit Ode to Billy Joe, and then two very short films: Then A Year (2001), dealing with the consequences of a ‘crime of passion,’ and Travis (2004), centering on the human cost of Iraq war. But at the same time, Reichardt’s enthusiasm for making films had dwindled; these newer films were shorter, less ambitious, and she was clearly backpedaling in her career – indeed, she wondered if she had any real future as a filmmaker in any realistic sense, even working at the margins of the industry.

River of Grass has made something of a splash on the festival circuit, being nominated for Best First Feature, Best First Screenplay, and Best Debut Performance (Lisa Bowman), as well as the rather enigmatically named Someone to Watch Award at the 1996 Independent Spirit Awards, as well as being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994, and for Best Feature Film at the Torino International Festival of Young Cinema – but none of those nominations translated into a win, and gradually, the ‘heat’ surrounding Reichardt began to wear off.

As she admitted to Iain Blair, ‘making [River of Grass] was a real eye-opener, and even going to Sundance and all of it – that was my first realization that it was different for women in this business. There were just two of us women filmmakers at Sundance in ’94, and there was no sense of camaraderie or welcoming – no fault of Sundance. And I took it really personally and it took me a long time to get over it. That was a part of my retreating afterwards.

The other part was, I just couldn’t get financing, and it was so frustrating. I tried so hard to be a more avant-garde, less narrative filmmaker, but it just didn’t come naturally to me. I went to L.A. for a while, and Jodie Foster was going to produce a film I was doing, but it never got made. I simply didn’t have the social skills needed to operate in the business. So I went back to Super 8, which is what I’d done in college.

It seemed like nothing happened during my time in L.A., but I’d worked – in the art department – on Poison, and I became friends with (director) Todd Haynes. And he introduced me to (novelist) Jonathan Raymond, and one of his stories became the basis for Old Joy (2006) – but I had no idea when we did it that it’d even become a feature.’”

In short, it’s a tough world out there, but Kelly Reichardt keeps working, which is the only way to get anything to happen, no matter what your chosen field. Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall, but you can gain access through Love Library Reference, if you’re interested, and in the meantime, check out some of Reichardt’s superb films – she’s one of the most truly original directors working in America today.

That’s Kelly Reichardt – working against the grain.

And Speaking of Killer Computers . . .

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

Herman Hoffman’s 1957 film The Invisible Boy is a forgotten look at a possible AI future.

As Wikipedia notes, “The Invisible Boy is a 1957 American science fiction film from Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, produced by Nicholas Nayfack, directed by Herman Hoffman, and starring Richard Eyer and Philip Abbott. It is the second film appearance of Robby the Robot, the science fiction character in Forbidden Planet (1956), also released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The Invisible Boy is a mixture of lighthearted playfulness and menacing evil. As it begins, ten-year-old Timmie Merinoe (Eyer) seems only to want a playmate. After he is mysteriously invested with superior intelligence, he reassembles a robot that his father and other scientists had been ready to discard as unrepairable junk. No one pays much attention to the robot, named Robby, after Timmie gets it operating again, until Timmie’s mother becomes angry when her son is taken aloft by a huge powered kite that Robby has built at Timmie’s urging.

When Timmie expresses a wish to be able to play without being observed by his parents, Robby, with the aid of a supercomputer, makes him invisible. At first Timmie uses his invisibility to play simple pranks on his parents and others, but the mood soon changes, when it becomes clear that the supercomputer is evil and intends to take over the world using a military satellite.”

It sounds rather bizarre, and it is; cheaply produced on a budget of less than $400,000, the film grossed almost a million dollars at the box-office, a respectable return for a film of the late 1950s. Unlike Forbidden Planet, which was lavishly produced, this is clearly a “cash in” project, designed primarily to exploit the pop culture popularity of Robby the Robot. But surprisingly, Robby takes a back seat in film’s narrative to the omniscient and dictatorial computer pictured above, which hopes to gain world domination using the robot as its tool.

It’s not a successful film by any means, and only sporadically comes alive, particularly in the scenes between the robot and the computer, which clandestinely programs the robot to obey its commands. Still, the moody, atmospheric black and white cinematography, no doubt dictated by budgetary concerns, nevertheless works to make the film a sort of sci-fi noir, once the requisite “humor” of the first half of the film is thankfully abandoned.

As Bruce Eder wrote of the film, “it’s very difficult to say whether The Invisible Boy is a good movie or not — mostly because it’s such a strange picture, weirdly (and, at times, self-consciously) campy, and yet amazingly knowing, sophisticated, and even compelling in some of its scientific conceits, especially for a 1957 movie.

What can one say, in any reasonably coherent review, about a movie that is a space fiction and time-travel story, but also a kids’ adventure story; a yarn about a mischief-making boy, and a meditation on the dangers of science (and, especially, artificial intellegence) outstripping man’s ability to control or understand it . . .

On the one hand, [The Invisible Boy] is about a super-computer planning to take over the world — on the other, it’s about a 10-year-old who keeps getting spanked for misbehaving and wants to make himself invisible so he can have more unsupervised fun; sort of Booth Tarkington meets Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke (with a little bit of Robert A. Heinlein thrown in).

In all, it’s not a great, or even a very good movie — the black-and-white production often looks cheap, and this was very obviously filmed in a hurry, as it looks like a lot of first takes were used. But in its own low-budget way, it is a fascinating pop-culture artifact of its time. And it is a lot of fun, just as a notion for a science fiction/adventure film, with a very dark side to the serious component of the plot.”

In short, The Invisible Boy is a deeply odd film that’s certainly worth a look; you can get it on DVD as an extra with the deluxe “box” version of Forbidden Planet (it has yet to be released as a stand-alone project); and you can view the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above. But you should definitely give it a look as, as Eder puts it, “a fascinating pop-culture artifact of its time.” It’s certainly that – and much more.

Another cinematic oddity that holds a claim on the memory of those who have seen it – it’s your turn now.

How Francois Truffaut And Jean-Luc Godard Changed Cannes

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

Cannes, 1968: Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle, Roman Polanski

The Cannes Film Festival today- it’s going on right now – has turned into such total glitz and glamour that it’s become a shadow of what it used to be. It was always a marketplace, but it was also a place of ideas, where revolutionary ideas in the cinema were discussed, and sometimes put into practice.

In the industry journal Deadline, which is not really known for historical coverage, preferring to focus on the here and now of the movie business, there is nevertheless today a short but remarkable essay on Cannes 1968, when the festival was shut down by a group of directors who refused to buckle under to governmental interference in the arts.

As Ali Jaafar writes, “before there was Occupy Wall Street or Nuit Debout, there was Paris, 1968. In a revolutionary year—think the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination—May was a particularly revolutionary month. Student protests in the City of Lights against capitalism, consumerism and traditional values, some say emboldened by their victory in re-instating the much-cherished head of the iconic Cinematheque Francaise, Henri Langlois, after he had been briefly dismissed by the De Gaulle government, took over the city on May 3, Red Friday.

Within days, the trade unions had joined in, millions of people around the country were demonstrating and France was brought to the verge of standstill. In Cannes, meanwhile, life was—initially at least—proceeding as normal. The 21st edition of the world’s most prestigious film festival kicked off on May 10 with a restored version of Gone with the Wind. As the protests spread across the country, however, so too did the enfants terribles of French cinema, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, who hit the Croisette with one goal: to shut down the festival.

On May 13, the French Critics Association issued a statement calling on those present to demonstrate in solidarity of the students, protest against the heavy-handed tactics of the police, and demand the festival be suspended. Festival founder and longtime president Robert Favre le Bret refused. As a concession, he offered to cancel parties and cocktails. That wasn’t enough, however, for the impassioned leaders of the French New Wave, one of whom—Claude Lelouch—actually reported for revolutionary duty in Cannes on-board his private yacht.

Fervor was spreading as the three musketeers of Godard, Truffaut and Lelouch set about disrupting the festival, enlisting members of the jury—including Roman Polanski—and filmmakers, some of whom like Carlos Saura even had their own films in the festival, to the cause. During one heated debate, Godard lost his cool, screaming at someone against cancelling the festival: ‘We’re talking about solidarity with the students and the workers and you’re speaking about travelling shots and close-ups’ . . .

When the festival tried to go through with the screening of Carlos Saura’s Peppermint Frappė against the wishes of the filmmakers, Saura and leading lady Geraldine Chaplin, along with Truffaut and Godard, tried to grab hold of the curtain in front of the screen to prevent it from opening; hanging on like leaves on a tree. There were fist fights. Godard lost his glasses while Truffaut took a tumble.

Eventually, Le Bret relented, reluctantly, and cancelled the festival on May 19, five days before its intended close. Cannes would never be the same again. The following year, a new section was introduced, Directors’ Fortnight, that would become a showcase for radical, daring and revolutionary voices . . . ‘We started Directors’ Fortnight because we wanted to have a festival inside the festival. Cannes did not agree to change some of the regulations,’ says Pierre-Henri Deleau, who ran it for three decades.

‘The first year, we didn’t even know we had to ask for permission from the French customs to allow 35mm prints into the country, so the first two films we had scheduled were delayed. We didn’t even have a catalogue. Just a poster with the names of the films. But, to our surprise, it was a big success. So we kept on doing it.’

Over the years, the selection of Directors’ Fortnight, or the Quinzaine, would continue to seek to push the envelope, whether in terms of showing creatively bold films or simply films from countries never selected for a major festival before. ‘We showed the first films from Cuba post-revolution, for example, or Asia and Latin America. Back then, the competition was quite conservative,’ says Deleau.

‘It was always France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the US and the UK. The selection was like diplomacy. You have to remember in those days there were only three unions: the producers, distributors and exhibitors. There was no voice for the creators and directors. We wanted Directors’ Fortnight to represent the fight against censorship.’

As for the long-term legacy of 1968, there is no doubt that the events in Paris, the country as a whole, and Cannes that year, changed the festival, even if not ultimately exactly the way the great agitators initially envisaged. Ironically, the political fight may have contributed to the eventual breakdown in the friendship between Truffaut and Godard. Godard’s strident declarations and behavior marked him out as a genuine political radical, in contrast to Truffaut, whose main concern was, and remained, cinema.

‘Truffaut was never political,’ says Deleau. ‘He always refused to be associated with one specific party. Ultimately, 1968 was not a revolution. It was not even the beginning of a revolution. It was a happening. The festival did change over the years, in some ways for the better, especially under Gilles Jacob when it became the festival that was choosing the films in selection, and not the producer countries.

But what happened in 1968 could never happen again today. Now, it’s all a question of business and promotion. There are too many films. How can a critic see 70 or 80 films? The real power isn’t in the hands of the director or the producer anymore. The people selling the films are in charge.’”

Yes, today Cannes is a commercial market above all else. But then again, things that go around come around, so to speak, and every so often, the cinema – like all the other arts – reinvents itself. Perhaps something like this, at another festival, with other directors who refuse to accept the status quo of the comic book movie DC / Marvel Universe present may eventually assert itself.

In the meantime, this article, and the events of May 1968, serve to remind us that film has always been torn between two polar opposites; it’s a business, and it’s an art form. Right now, the business end is winning. But as history has shown us time and again, all overblown regimes eventually collapse under their own weight, and commercial cinema has always been – as Jean Cocteau once put it – “a little overripe.” What will happen next is anyone’s guess, but as long as the struggle between art and commerce continues, and the underlying tensions remains, change is always possible.

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet Retro at MoMA

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet finally get a complete retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art.

As the program notes for the retrospective announce, “MoMA presents the first complete North American retrospective of the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, who together formed one of the most intense, challenging, and controversial collaborations in the history of cinema. Straub (French, b. 1933) and Huillet (French, 1936–2006) were inseparable partners from 1954 until Huillet’s death, working intimately on every aspect of film production, from script writing to direction to editing.

Straub-Huillet created highly personal film interpretations of profoundly ambitious art: stories by Böll, Kafka, Duras, and Pavese; poems by Dante, Mallarmé, and Hölderlin; a long-forgotten Corneille play, an essay by Montaigne, a film by D. W. Griffith, a painting by Cézanne, an unfinished opera by Schöenberg; and the biography of Johann Sebastian Bach as told through the (fictionalized) letters of his wife Anna Magdalena.

They sought to make what Straub called ‘an abstract-pictorial dream’ while remaining rigorously sensitive to the letter and spirit of the text, and to the relationship between sound and image. At the same time, all of Straub-Huillet’s films are political, whether obliquely, in reflecting on the lessons of history and advancing a Marxist analysis of capitalism and class struggle; or overtly, in considering ancient and contemporary forms of imperialism, militarism, and resistance, from Ancient Rome to colonial Egypt to wartime Germany. They aspire to nothing short of a revolution in political consciousness, especially among workers and peasants, the colonized and the exploited.

At 83, Straub continues to make films that never waver from his commitment to the subversion of all forms of cinematic convention, whether through the use of direct sound, disjunctive editing, amateur actors, and a foregrounding of the natural landscape; fragmentary and elliptical narratives spoken in various languages; Brechtian estrangement; on-location shooting of ancient texts in contemporary, anachronistic settings (for example, on the ground where the Circus Maximus once stood); and a privileging of musical and poetic rhythms and structures over the decorative, the spectacular, the psychological, and the satirical. Dialogue is shorn of emotion, and images are deliberately unflashy. ‘The work we have to do,’ Straub insists, ‘is to make films which radically eliminate art, so that there is no equivocation.’

Introductions by noted Straub-Huillet collaborators take place during the retrospective’s opening weekend. Unless they are listed as 35mm, films are presented in new digital preservations overseen by Straub, Olivier Boischot, and Barbara Ulrich. The series is organized by Joshua Siegel, Curator, Department of Film.” This once in a lifetime chance to see the work of these master filmmakers, most of which is unavailable on DVD, is simply not to be missed in one is in the New York area.

My own favorites of their work include The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), starring harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt as Bach (whom I once had the pleasure of meeting and talking with about the making of the film, after he presented an organ concert in Amsterdam); the 16mm color feature History Lessons (1972), and the 35mm short The Bridegroom, The Comedienne and The Pimp (1968), featuring a young Rainer Werner Fassbinder as the pimp, but these are just a few of their many brilliant films. A chance to see these gorgeous, transcendent films should not be passed up if at all possible.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the entire schedule for the series.

Special Issue of Cinephile – Visions of the 60s

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

This came out in 2015, but somehow it slipped past my radar.

I have an essay in this issue of the excellent journal Cinephile on experimental cinema in the 1960s, Cinephile 11.1, “Visions of the Sixties.” As the journal’s website notes, “marking the tenth anniversary of the University of British Columbia’s Film Journal, this issue features articles by Wheeler Winston Dixon, David E. James, Victoria Kennedy, Andrew Marzoni, and Emma Pett, with an introduction by Timothy Scott Brown. For more information, please click here.”

It was a pleasure working with the editors of the journal, Molly Lewis and Angela Walsh, on the essay. I love the cover, which really captures the spirit of the era. As Timothy Scott Brown notes in an introductory essay for the issue, “if one theme or question emerges from the essays in this issue, it is about the status of popular culture as a field for the creation, elaboration, and consumption of the 1960s cultural revolution.

Wheeler Winston Dixon’s essay, ‘The End of the Real: 1960s Experimental Cinema, and The Loss of Cinema Culture,’ calls to mind the now (in some cases, literally) lost world of 1960s independent filmmaking, a world in which the notion of making art outside of normal channels of production and distribution was understood by its protagonists as its own form of radical praxis.

It is difficult to call to mind now, in an era of almost unlimited access to the cultural means of production—no further away than one’s laptop—the radical imperative at work in the artistic initiatives Dixon examines. Against the backdrop of our current and seemingly endless horizon of digital possibility, the technical inaccessibility of this earlier wave of underground art reads as particularly ironic.”

If you get a chance to pick up a copy, do so – it’s an excellent issue all around.

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.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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