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Vittorio De Sica’s “Il Boom” Finally Gets a US Release

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

Shot in 1963, Vittorio De Sica’s brutal comedy has just been released in the US on June 16, 2017.

As Gino Moliterno wrote in Senses of Cinema in July, 2014, “undoubtedly motivated by its poor performance at the box office, and the generally hostile critical reaction it received at the time it was released, Vittorio De Sica’s Il boom (1963) long remained one of the most undervalued of all the films to emerge from the director’s long and fruitful collaboration with screenwriter, Cesare Zavattini.

In more recent times, however, the film has found its champions. For example, Italian film historian Enrico Giacovelli has re-evaluated it as not only one of the duo’s finest films but also as something of a minor masterpiece of the commedia all’italiana (comedy Italian style), that particularly mordant form of film comedy that arose in Italy in the late 1950s as a reflection of – and a reflection upon – the profound moral dilemmas and social contradictions brought about by the so-called Italian ‘economic miracle’ . . .

Significantly, Giovanni Alberti, the film’s protagonist, impeccably played by Alberto Sordi, who by this time had definitively established himself across dozens of films as the very figure of the Italian common man, is of working-class origins. Giovanni has climbed the social ladder by marrying Silvia (Gianna Maria Canale), the beautiful daughter of a retired general, whom the film makes clear he genuinely loves.

His willingness, at all costs, to maintain his wife in the affluent style to which she has become accustomed is, however, unmatched by his modest salary as a small-time business executive. From the very beginning of the film we see him pushed, promissory note after promissory note, ever further into debt . . . All the while, in a desperate bid to climb out of his financial hole, Giovanni has naively been attempting to join what remained the biggest game in town during the Italian boom: building speculation.

And it is precisely while attempting to find a financial partner for a rather dubious plan to make a great deal of profit from a building project involving land speculation that Giovanni comes to be placed squarely on the horns of an atrocious dilemma that dramatically highlights the pound of human flesh demanded by the boom in exchange for its consumer delights: millions of lira, yes, but it will cost nothing less than his eye.”

At a compact 85 minutes, the film is nothing less than a complete success for all concerned, but one can see why the film had such an initially hostile reception in Italy, and why it’s taken so long to come to the States, and then only because Rialto Pictures, a small theatrical distribution company in New York City believed in the film enough to strike a gorgeous print, and open it at Film Forum.

As Bilge Ebiri noted in The Village Voice on June 14, 2017, “how did this one get overlooked?” adding “this is not [Federico Fellini’s] La Dolce Vita [1960], which two years earlier fascinated viewers with its portrait of hedonistic abandon — and slowly revealed the emptiness beneath. Maybe that’s why Il Boom didn’t hit it big: It makes no attempt to seduce us; we see the spiritual corruption from the first frame.” And that’s absolutely true.

Yet the film manages to take a deadly serious subject and play it for the most mordant comic effect – you fully believe the characters, their motivations, and the premise of the film, and yet Il Boom is shot through with an undeniable aura of cynicism, sadness, and revulsion for the consumerist society we’ve now embraced, even as the music score explodes with 60s pop, from Chubby Checker to Italian pop master Piero Piccioni. Though it was made in the early 1960s, it’s even more relevant today, as the world’s populace embraces IPOs, start-ups, and the pursuit of status markers at any cost – but not art.

Click here to see the restored trailer from Rialto Films.

Women Who Built The New York Art World

Sunday, July 9th, 2017

Here’s a fascinating piece on the women – often forgotten – who built the New York art world of today.

As Alexxa Gotthardt writes in Artsy, “over the course of 10 years, between 1929 and 1939, four of New York City’s most iconic museums emerged in Manhattan: the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, The Frick Collection, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. These institutions are now world-famous. But their founders—predominantly women—are relatively unknown.

During this period, other women—like Peggy Guggenheim, Grace Nail Johnson, and Florine Stettheimer—also helped carve out the New York art landscape by establishing influential galleries and salons that fostered avant-garde art.

Today, their work is still visible in the fabric of Manhattan’s landmark art scene, filled with progressive museums, galleries, and experimental art spaces. Rarely, however, are these women heralded as the pioneers they were. Below, we highlight the radical tastes and essential contributions of the women who shaped the New York art world we know today.”

See the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above – essential reading!

Nell Shipman and Back To God’s Country

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017


Here’s an excellent article from Offscreen on the pioneer filmmaker and film actor Nell Shipman.

As the author of the piece, David George Menard, writes, “to discuss the role of women in Canada’s film culture, and even in Hollywood’s film culture, over a period of about a hundred years, is to discuss absence, gaps, discontinuities, and distortion. The images of women in feature films are distorted by a male dominated industry, and at times, inflated through men’s visual obsessions. The trend in any film culture over the last century has been to display the images of women as adjuncts to images of men.

The visual ideas of women have been represented as symbols of ‘otherness’, reflecting the male dominated world of filmmaking, a world of male narcissism and power. Although women have made great contributions to the world of film throughout its history, such efforts have been obscured and belittled —the visions and voices of the women of cinema have been suppressed.

This historical fact is unfortunate because there were great women film pioneers such as Alice Guy who made the first edited fiction film, La Fee Aux Choux (1896); Esther Shub who created the art of compilation film, as seen in The Fall Of The Romanov Dynasty (1927); Lotte Reiniger who made a feature length film a decade before Disney, as seen in The Adventures Of Prince Ahmed (1926); and finally there was Nell Shipman from Canada, also a scriptwriter and a star actress who performed as the principal protagonist in one of Canada’s earliest major feature length film, Back To God’s Country, released on October 27th, 1919.

In the early days of cinema, many young women embarked on acting careers to become Hollywood starlets. Some of the actresses who succeeded at this grand and noble endeavor sometime showed remarkable versatility behind the cameras, and many of them became writers, directors, and producers. Nell Shipman was one of these talented women. She was born Helen Barham in 1892, Victoria, British Columbia.

At the young age of thirteen, she left home to attend acting school. In 1907, she performed in the Jesse Lasky play The Pianophiends. In 1909, she was the leading lady in the Charles Taylor play The Girl From Alaska. In 1910, she got the leading role in The Barrier, a play produced by the famous Canadian producer and theatrical entrepreneur Ernest Shipman, whom she married in 1911.

Thereafter, Nell and Ernest moved to Pasadena, California, in an attempt to wedge their way into the film business. In 1912, Nell Shipman won a script writing contest sponsored by the Tally Theater in Los Angeles, and her winning script, Outwitted Billy, was produced by Selig Polyscope in 1913. In 1914, she scripted the first film produced in Australia, Shepherd Of The Southern Cross.

In 1915, she accepted the leading role in a film, produced by the Vitagraph studios, playing a character from a script adapted from James Oliver Curwood’s novel God’s Country And The Woman. The picture, her first film for a major film company, was an outstanding success, and resulted in movie contracts with Vitagraph, Fox, and Lasky for 1916-17, a period in which she completed thirteen films. All of Nell Shipman’s film experience to this point set the stage for one of Canada’s earliest feature length film, Back To God’s Country.”

There’s much more to read; click here, or on the image above, to read the entire essay.

Manohla Dargis & A.O. Scott – Best 25 of the 21st Century

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott of The New York Times pick the best films of the 21st century.

As they immediately add, “so far.” The introduction to the article notes that “we are now approximately one-sixth of the way through the 21st century, and thousands of movies have already been released. Which means that it’s high time for the sorting – and the fighting – to start.

As the chief film critics of The Times, we decided to rank, with some help from cinema savants on Facebook, the top 25 movies that are destined to be the classics of the future. While we’re sure almost everyone will agree with our choices, we’re equally sure that those of you who don’t will let us know.” And we’re off to the races.

My favorites on the list are The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Boyhood, Summer Hours [I was genuinely surprised and delighted to see this film on the list, but even so, I would have gone with Clouds of Sils Maria, but hey . . . Assayas is a master, so fine with me], The Hurt Locker [shot by multiple crews in Super 16mm so it looks as real as any battlefield coverage], In Jackson Heights, The Gleaners and I, Moonlight, Wendy and Lucy, and the exquisite Silent Light.

Missing for me immediately are The Aura and Melancholia, two stunning films that have gone into my ever-expanding Top Ten list, which now has at least 250 films in it, but that’s the fun of these listings, and it’s a solid stab at what will be remembered, and revered in the future. I’ll never, ever vote for a Pixar film, that’s for sure, but these are all solid and thoughtful choices, the kind of journalism we could use more of in daily newspapers.

Read the entire lavishly illustrated article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Bresson’s “Four Nights of A Dreamer” Needs a DVD Release

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

Robert Bresson’s incandescent masterpiece is still not available on DVD.

OK, enough about genre films and comic book movies. This brief post is really just a placeholder; a reminder that one of the most beautiful and sensuous films of all time still, still, still isn’t available on DVD. There’s a streaming link on Amazon, of reasonable quality, but I’m sorry – that’s simply not good enough. A Criterion DVD is definitely in order, especially since nearly every other Bresson film in the director’s long career is readily available in either a US or European version, with English subtitles. But it seems unlikely that this will happen.

As writer Michael Brooke describes the film’s enigmatic plot on IMDb, “The ‘dreamer’ is Jacques, a young painter, who by chance runs into Marthe as she’s contemplating suicide on the Pont-Neuf in Paris. They talk, and agree to see each other again the next night. Gradually, he discovers that her lover promised to meet her on the bridge that night, and he failed to turn up. Over the next couple of nights, Jacques falls in love with her – but on the fourth night her original lover returns . . .” – and what happens then, I’ll leave for you to discover.

The Amazon streaming version gives only a hint of the film’s stunning pictorial splendor, and it’s a shame to see such a beautiful film held hostage by what I can only presume are rights problems. A Japanese Blu-ray of the film, with Japanese subtitles only, emerged about a year ago, but almost immediately sold out. What makes the whole thing even weirder is that Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of the same story, White Nights by Fyodor Dostoevsky, is easily available in an excellent transfer.

But such are the vicissitudes of fate – here’s a film that I saw in 35mm format when it first came out, and never forgot, but once again, as with so many glorious masterpieces of the cinema, now you see it, now you can’t. In the meantime, here’s a superb interview with Bresson on his last film, L’Argent – enjoy this, and perhaps in the future we’ll get to see Four Nights of A Dreamer in its proper form. I first wrote about this film in 2012 – nothing has changed since then.

Just another film that needs – desperately – a DVD release – right now.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

Only Lovers Left Alive is that rare thing – a genre film that reinvents the genre.

As Susan Wloszczyna writes in a sharp and perceptive review from 2014, very little can “compete with the fabulously aloof and effortlessly cool creatures of the night lurking in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. They don’t need the sun to sparkle. They are superstars illuminated from within.

Not that Jarmusch’s denizens of the dark are so mundane as to be directly referred to as vampires during the course of this pleasurably droll and languorous soak in a pool of comical musings, nostalgic longing and sorrowful loss. They are more like supreme beings, too good for the mundane and crassly disposable 21st-century chaos that exists outside their carefully curated domains. The domestic fortresses where they doze during daylight hours are bursting with rare books, objets d’art, collectible musical instruments, exotic fabrics, ancient electric gadgets and other relics culled from the many centuries they have existed amongst us lesser mortals.

Like most of Jim Jarmusch’s films, the emphasis is not on action but interaction—especially the verbal kind. And atmosphere. Loads of atmosphere, down to the sounds of far-off howls and crimson-red Gothic lettering during the opening credits. As usual, his pacing is decidedly unhurried—the less kind might say sluggish—but it is made more than tolerable by the presence of a pair of exceedingly appealing lead actors.

Tom Hiddleston, with wavy dark hair cascading Veronica Lake-style over one eye and boasting a poet’s slim-hipped physique, Hiddleston is a [superb] as a woeful and weary loner who finds solace in collecting classic guitars and penning mournfully hypnotic mood music. The only thing that truly relieves his gloom is his spouse and soulmate, Tilda Swinton’s more upbeat Eve. This runway-ready vision in a fawn-hued apparel, sunglasses and leather gloves while topped by a tangled mop of beige hair resides across the globe in Tangier, but stays in touch with her Apple iPhone.

Despite the distance between them, Jarmusch cleverly signals their psychic connection to one another from the first scene when a spinning 45-rpm record fills the screen and rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson’s witchy wail resounds on the soundtrack. That hypnotic image dissolves into the sight of two reclining figures going round in a circle, seemingly in the same room yet miles apart.

The story, such as it is, revolves around a concerned Eve paying her beloved Adam a visit, which requires booking a night-time-only flight and selecting just the right fake passport.Why they are apart is not fully explained, though we are left to guess it has to do with Eve’s close ties to Christopher Marlowe. Yes, that Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan tragedian whom some believe—including Jarmusch—wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare. He, too, is a vampire but less than thriving. The conceit that he is still around, hiding out in Morocco and supplying fresh untainted blood to Eve comes a bit out of nowhere, but John Hurt invests both pathos and humor into the role.

It is just one of the ways that Jarmusch, who with his legendary shock of white hair could be a cool vampire himself, allows his characters to toy with supernatural lore instead of over-explaining their lifestyles. Fearing contamination from feeding on humans directly, Adam, posing as Dr. Faust, gets his supply of hemoglobin by bribing a hospital worker who goes by the name of Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright). He also employs the services of Ian (Anton Yelchin), a none-too-swift kid who may or may not have tipped off others about the existence of Adam and his underground recordings.

Ian, who is a real bloodhound when it comes to fulfilling his master’s craving for rare guitars, doesn’t seem to question Adam’s nocturnal habits or the fact that his bathroom is perpetually out of order. The only time he gets suspicious is when his delivery of a Gretsch Chet Atkins gets Adam reminiscing about seeing rocker Eddie Cochran of Summertime Blues fame—who died in 1960—perform while using that model. Ian pipes up: ‘You saw Eddie Cochran play?’ ‘On YouTube,’ quickly explains Adam, covering his tracks. It’s akin to Bela Lugosi saying, ‘I never drink—wine.’

The arrival of Ava, Eve’s brazenly bratty little sister who is given a mischievous spin around the seductive bloodsucker block by Mia Wasikowska, soon up-ends the order of their carefully maintained universe. But the best parts are when we get to witness the reunion of Adam and Eve, sipping blood in aperitif glasses or slurping it in Popsicle form, driving around the ruins of a downtrodden Detroit in a vintage sports car (when Adam mentions the Motown Museum, Eve begs off: ‘I’m more of a Stax girl myself’) and sharing ancient memories of acquaintances past.”

Everything about the film is meticulously detailed, and the gorgeous score, composed principally by Jarmusch’s own band, is the perfect accompaniment to the proceedings. The ruins of Detroit, the back alleys of Tangier, and a seemingly endless round of intercontinental flights blend together to create a commentary on the passing of time, coping with changing technology, of the long view that 500 years of existence can bring to one, and the daily need for blood – now obtained through blood banks and other semi-legal means (most of the time) – as a constant factor in continued existence.

What makes the film so ravishing is the intoxicating camera work, the dim yet pungent lighting, and the mood, feel, atmosphere and eternal timelessness that the film conveys. This isn’t another film about some roving vampires and their victims, and it isn’t another franchise film cranked out by someone who once had promise with their first film, and then abandoned any pretense of artistic integrity to follow the Marvel or DC bandwagon. This is a slow moving, deeply felt, and passionately crafted film, which lingers in the mind long after the last frame has faded from the screen.

Only Lovers Left Alive does nothing less than create a whole new way of looking at the “undead.”

Agnès Varda’s Cannes Winner – “Visages Villages”

Saturday, May 27th, 2017


Agnès Varda’s documentary Visages Villages Has Won The Golden Eye Prize at Cannes. 

As Rhonda Richford writes in The Hollywood Reporter, “Agnès Varda and JR’s documentary film Faces Places (Visages Villages) has taken the Golden Eye prize, which recognizes a documentary from across all sidebars.The film screened out of competition in the official selection.

The prize was awarded by a jury of French actress Sandrine Bonnaire, Oscar-nominated The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom director Lucy Walker, Oscar-nominated The Gatekeepers director Dror Moreh, Toronto Film Festival programmer Thom Powers and film critic Lorenzo Codelli.

“Our jury has been deeply moved by Agnès and JR’s decision to meet local people, aimed by this movie-tale about consideration for Human throughout Art. This combined perspectives, are delicate and generous,” the jury said. The documentary follows the two directors as they travel through rural France in a van photographing and interviewing rural and working-class people. JR is best known as a graffiti artist and street photographer.

The Golden Eye, or L’Oeil d’Or, is awarded to the best documentary across all official selections with the French Writers Society. It was initiated in 2015 with the support of the festival and awards the winning director €5000 prize.”

In his review of the film for Variety, critic Owen Gleiberman was ecstatic and unstinting in his praise: “she’s 88, and makes films like she’s 28. Her movies are [. . .] a tonic — just watching them makes you feel younger. Her new one, Visages Villages (which does indeed take place in villages, though the idiomatic translation is Faces Places), is another roving personalized documentary made in the cinematic thrift-shop spirit of The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008).

Both those films were enchanting, and this one is too, though here Varda raises the bar on what she’s doing, because her premise is so slender that she appears, at times, to be conjuring the film out of thin air. Agnès Varda, in the glory of her golden years, has become a humanist magician.

In Visages Villages she teams up with the renegade French graffiti-artist-turned-outsize-street-photographer known as JR, who could be characterized as a rough Gallic equivalent to Banksy. He and Varda met in 2015 and quickly recognized each other as kindred spirits, despite their rather dramatic differences: He’s a prankish and supremely laid-back 33-year-old millennial hipster who never takes off his pork-pie hat and sunglasses, and she’s a venerable New Wave legend whose face still expresses the beautiful gravity that always defined her. Yet both are outsider artists, committed to visualizing life by making up their own rules. ‘Chance has always been my best assistant,’ says Varda, and she’s not kidding. In this movie, she leaves nearly everything to chance.

Varda and JR, who share directing credit, begin to travel around, with a single liberating agenda: In each place they visit, they’ll meet the people there, and JR will produce his epic-size black-and-white portraits of them, which they will then plaster on houses, barns, storefronts: any available surface. In doing so, they will render the people large. Larger than life? No. As large as life.

Varda, who tends to blurt out whatever’s on her mind, says that JR’s refusal to remove his sunglasses reminds her of Godard in the ’60s, who also kept his gaze hidden. She flashes clips from her five-minute 1961 burlesque short Les Fiancés du pont Mac Donald ou (Méfiez-vous des lunettes noires), which starred Godard and Anna Karina, and in that movie Godard looked almost innocent, but by the end of Visages Villages he will come back to haunt her [ . . .]

There is no mention of politics, yet Visages Villages may be the most profound political movie to play at Cannes this year. Its ‘message’ is simplicity itself: Everyone is who they are. Yet in capturing anonymous workers as images of transcendent individuality, Visages Villages makes a powerful statement about the kind of society we’re becoming, in which the one percent don’t just own too much of everything; they get all the attention too. Our addiction to wealth and celebrity has begun to suck the air out of the appreciation for ordinary life, and this film offers a sublime rebuke to that.

Varda and JR are bumptious companions who tease each other into confessions and flights of fancy. Varda won’t stop bugging JR about his sunglasses, to the point that they become an active annoyance for her. She also uses shots she took decades ago to meditate on her friendship with the late fashion photographer Guy Bordin, and she muses upon her own death, summing up her feelings about it with the perfect cosmic retort: ‘I’m looking forward to it. Because that’ll be that.’

And then there’s Godard. He’s an old friend of Varda’s, a long-time comrade of her and her late husband, the director Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), and near the end of the movie she and JR take a train to visit him. When Godard fails to show up at a café at the appointed time, they wind up in front of his house, where he has scrawled a cryptic message in magic marker that leaves Varda in tears.

She’s wounded, and calls him a ‘dirty rat.’ Yet if Godard, in this movie, represents the weight of the past, Varda’s communion with JR suggests the promise of the future, never more so than when he proves his friendship by giving her what feels, for a moment, like the ultimate gift. He takes off his sunglasses.”

Can’t wait to see this; I wonder what kind of distribution it will get? Only at Cannes!

Lucy Fischer’s New Book “Cinema By Design”

Friday, May 5th, 2017

Lucy Fischer has an excellent new book out on the influence of Art Nouveau in film.

As the website for the book from Columbia University Press notes, “Art Nouveau thrived from the late 1890s through the First World War. The international design movement reveled in curvilinear forms and both playful and macabre visions and had a deep impact on cinematic art direction, costuming, gender representation, genre, and theme. Though historians have long dismissed Art Nouveau as a decadent cultural mode, its tremendous afterlife in cinema proves otherwise. In Cinema by Design, Lucy Fischer traces Art Nouveau’s long history in films from various decades and global locales, appreciating the movement’s enduring avant-garde aesthetics and dynamic ideology.

Fischer begins with the portrayal of women and nature in the magical ‘trick films’ of the Spanish director Segundo de Chomón; the elite dress and décor design choices in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Affairs of Anatol (1921); and the mise-en-scène of fantasy in Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Reading Salome (1923), Fischer shows how the cinema offered an engaging frame for adapting the risqué works of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Moving to the modern era, Fischer focuses on a series of dramatic films, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), that make creative use of the architecture of Antoni Gaudí; and several European works of horror—The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Deep Red (1975), and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013)—in which Art Nouveau architecture and narrative supply unique resonances in scenes of terror.

In later chapters, she examines films like Klimt (2006) that portray the style in relation to the art world and ends by discussing the Art Nouveau revival in 1960s cinema. Fischer’s analysis brings into focus the partnership between Art Nouveau’s fascination with the illogical and the unconventional and filmmakers’ desire to upend viewers’ perception of the world. Her work explains why an art movement embedded in modernist sensibilities can flourish in contemporary film through its visions of nature, gender, sexuality, and the exotic.”

This is a brilliant and wide-ranging book, written in a direct and accessible style, which moves smoothly from one film to another, and one era to another, effortlessly navigating both space and time in cinema history, in a text which is at once adventurous, incisive, and thoroughly grounded in cinema and art history. Fischer is a brilliant scholar whose work is always deeply informed and carefully considered, and with this book, she tackles a theme in cinema art direction which is far more wide-spread than one might expect. Complete with a plethora of illustrations, this is a must have text for any lover of film.

Again, proof of the old saying that the only new history is that which you don’t know – essential reading.

Sweet and Lowdown: Woody Allen’s Cinema of Regret

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

Lloyd Michaels has an excellent new book out on the cinema of Woody Allen.

As the publisher, Wallflower Press / Columbia UP note on their website, “Over a career that has spanned more than six decades, Woody Allen has explored the emotion of regret as a response to the existentialist dilemma of not being someone else.

Tracing this recurrent theme from his stand-up comedy routines and apprentice work through classics like Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Bullets Over Broadway as well as less esteemed accomplishments (Another Woman, Sweet and Lowdown, Cassandra’s Dream), this volume argues that it is ultimately the shallowness of his protagonists’ regret—their lack of deeply felt, sustained remorse—that defines Allen’s pervasive view of human experience.

Drawing on insights from philosophy, theology, psychology, and literature, the book discusses nearly every Woody Allen film, with extended analyses of the relationship films (including Alice and Husbands and Wives), the murder tetralogy (including Match Point and Irrational Man), the self-reflexive films (including Stardust Memories and Deconstructing Harry), and the movies about nostalgia (including Radio Days and Midnight in Paris).

The book concludes by considering Allen’s most affirmative resolution of regret (Broadway Danny Rose) and speculating about the relevance of this through-line for understanding Allen’s personal life and prospects as an octogenarian auteur.”

Lloyd Michaels edited the journal Film Criticism from 1977 through 2015 and has published four previous books on cinema, and this is one of his most ambitious and transcendent works – absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in American cinema, and the fate of the individual talent in contemporary Hollywood. It’s also nice to see that the book is named after Sweet and Lowdown – one of my favorite Woody Allen films, and arguably Sean Penn’s finest performance.

Available now from your local bookseller; a book not to be missed.

Hands Down – The Most Important Film Book of 2016

Friday, December 30th, 2016

Along with Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph, this is one of the essential film books of 2016.

Robert Bresson is one of the most mysterious, and yet the most accessible of filmmakers – much like his compatriots Yasujirō Ozu and Carl Th. Dreyer (forming writer / director Paul Schrader’s holy trinity of cinema). His classic, epigrammatic text Notes on the Cinematograph, first published in English in 1975 in an edition entitled Notes on Cinematography translated by Jonathan Griffin, has been out of print since its initial publication. I came across the first hardcover edition in a remainder pile at Brentano’s in New York in the early 1980s, going for $2 a copy. I bought five copies on the spot, and it remains on my shelf as one of the key books by any filmmaker on their work, stripped down to the essentials.

Now, New York Review Books has republished Notes on the Cinematograph in a new translation, back in print in a real edition – a very cheaply bound one circulated for a time a few years back – but just as importantly, they’ve gathered together interviews with the director on all of his films from 1943 to 1983, the year of his last film, L’Argent, along with a few supplementary texts written by those who worked with him, and with a selection of exceedingly rare production stills, in an essential text entitled simply Bresson on Bresson – Interviews, 1943–1983.

The result is mesmerizing; Bresson is absolutely modest, serious, and above all patient – my first takeaway from the volume was how extremely tolerant he was of the various interviewers who interrogated him over the years, asking the same questions again and again – how he used actors (or “models,” he called them), how he used as little music as possible, how his camera lingered on an empty space long after the actors had departed. Yet Bresson managed to turn even the most banal questions to his advantage, never passing up an opportunity to offer some fresh thoughts on his work.

Bresson on Bresson – Interviews, 1943–1983, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis, edited by Mylène Bresson, with a preface by Pascal Mérigeau, offers an series of penetrating insights into the director’s work, and serves as a useful model for filmmakers today, in an era where spectacle and special effects have replaced, for the most part, thoughtful cinema.

As the NYRB notes,”Robert Bresson, the director of such cinematic master-pieces as Pickpocket, A Man Escaped, Mouchette, and L’Argent, was one of the most influential directors in the history of French film, as well as one of the most stubbornly individual: He insisted on the use of nonprofessional actors; he shunned the ‘advances’ of Cinerama and CinemaScope (and the work of most of his predecessors and peers); and he minced no words about the damaging influence of capitalism and the studio system on the still-developing—in his view—art of film.

Bresson on Bresson collects the most significant interviews that Bresson gave (carefully editing them before they were released) over the course of his forty-year career to reveal both the internal consistency and the consistently exploratory character of his body of work. Successive chapters are dedicated to each of his fourteen films, as well as to the question of literary adaptation, the nature of the sound track, and to Bresson’s one book, the great aphoristic treatise Notes on the Cinematograph.

Throughout, his close and careful consideration of his own films and of the art of film is punctuated by such telling mantras  as ‘Sound…invented silence in cinema,’ ‘It’s the film that…gives life to the characters—not the characters that give life to the film,’ and (echoing the Bible) ‘Every idle word shall be counted.’

Bresson’s integrity and originality earned him the admiration of younger directors from Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette to Olivier Assayas. And though Bresson’s movies are marked everywhere by an air of intense deliberation, these interviews show that they were no less inspired by a near-religious belief in the value of intuition, not only that of the creator but that of the audience, which he claims to deeply respect: ‘It’s always ready to feel before it understands. And that’s how it should be.'”

Anyone even remotely interested in film should buy this volume immediately, along with the republished text of Notes on the Cinematograph, as a useful tonic to the current ultra-commercial cinematic landscape. As Alan Pavelin wrote in Senses of Cinema long ago, “Robert Bresson’s 13 features over 40 years constitute arguably the most original and brilliant body of work over a long career from a film director in the history of cinema. He is the most idiosyncratic and uncompromising of all major filmmakers.” Or as Martin Scorsese put it, “we are still coming to terms with Robert Bresson, and the peculiar power and beauty of his films.”

This is the essential film book of the year. Pick up a copy now – right now.

About the Author

Headshot of 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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