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The Cinema of Agnès Varda: Resistance and Eclecticism

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Delphine Bénézet’s new book on Agnès Varda is a superb piece of work.

Agnès Varda never seems to get enough credit. The fore-mother of the French New Wave, long before Godard, Truffaut and the rest of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd picked up a camera, Varda was making feature films from 1954, employing Alain Resnais as her editor, and pretty much setting out the basic precepts of simplicity, communality, and originality that her colleagues would later follow. But while Godard and Truffaut became art house darlings in the 60s – and certainly their work deserves the attention it got – Varda was somehow overlooked, although such films as Cleo from 5 to 7, Les Creatures, and Le Bonheur remain absolutely daring in their approach to the film medium, as well as dynamics of relationships between men and women, and particularly in affairs of the heart.

As the volume’s website notes, “Agnès Varda, a pioneer of the French New Wave, has been making radical films for over half a century. Many of these are considered by scholars, filmmakers, and audiences alike, as audacious, seminal, and unforgettable. This volume considers her production as a whole, revisiting overlooked films like Mur, Murs/Documenteur (1980–81), and connecting her cinema to recent installation work. This study demonstrates how Varda has resisted norms of representation and diktats of production. It also shows how she has elaborated a personal repertoire of images, characters, and settings, which all provide insight on their cultural and political contexts. The book thus offers new readings of this director’s multifaceted rêveries, arguing that her work should be seen as an aesthetically influential and ethically-driven production where cinema is both a political and collaborative practice, and a synesthetic art form.”

In five succinct chapters, detailing Varda’s place within cinema history, her “ethics of filming,” and the aesthetic and technical concerns that inform her films, Bénézet, who teaches comparative literature in the School of Languages, Linguistics, and Film at Queen Mary, University of London, offers a compelling case for Varda as a major filmmaker of not only 20th century, but also 21st century cinema, and one of the most successful at embracing digital cinema in her newer films, such as the transcendent documentary feature The Gleaners and I, shot entirely on a small home digital camera. Bénézet makes it clear that Varda has never stopped evolving as both a filmmaker and an artist in general, embracing new technology and the changing culture of France to create work of stunning resonance and beauty with absolutely minimal resources.

Varda has survived many of her contemporaries, and she keeps on working to this day; in the end, Varda is finally managing to get some measure of the respect and care she so clearly deserves simply by the act of sheer survival – she has outlived her detractors, mostly male, who really couldn’t see the value in her work. Dismissed or marginalized when first released, her films, now lovingly restored by Varda herself in DVD editions available throughout the world, have finally taken their place in the cinematic canon along with those of her male counterparts. There have been other excellent books on Varda, but this particular text, neatly illustrated with frame blow-ups, and graced with a detailed filmography, is one of the best, and also has the virtue of being the most complete.

In short, this is an excellent book from Wallflower Press / Columbia UP; pick up a copy now.

The Most Important Film Book of 2014: Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures

Monday, April 28th, 2014

I have a new review on this remarkable book in today’s issue of Film International.

As I note in my review, “literally hundreds of film books cross my desk every year; I review books on every imaginable genre, director, movement or filmic era on an almost daily basis for a variety of publications, but every so often, a book appears that instantly commands my attention as a work of inescapable importance. Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology is such a volume. Running to a staggering 680 pages, and yet priced in hardcover for a mere $85 on Amazon, this collection of film writings from the dawn of cinema to the present day, edited by Scott MacKenzie, is one of the most inspirational and informative volumes I’ve ever come across, because it highlights the constant need for renewal which typifies the cinema, potentially that most compromised of art forms. It is, indeed, one of the most important volumes on the history, theory and practice of the cinema ever compiled.

The struggle between capital and creation is an ongoing one, even with the advent of digital cinema, and yet it is more than ever vitally important that artists reclaim the cinema, making films that challenge and enlighten the viewer, and break away from established orthodoxies of cinema production. Most of the texts here were written by filmmakers, actual practitioners of the cinematic arts, and they are direct calls to action, even if they (blessedly) contradict each other, and often insist that only “they” are correct in their approach to the cinema. This is the sort of conflicting chaos that creates the most interesting and lasting films in cinema history; films born not out of the studio system, but out of warring, marginalized factions, working with outdated equipment, insufficient funds, no distribution, and nothing more than a vision, and a desperate desire to get the vision recorded by any means available.”

You can read the rest of my review on this absolutely essential volume by clicking here, or on the image above.

“A Lioness on the Prowl”: Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

I have an article out today on Jonathan Glazer’s new film Under The Skin in Film International.

As I write, in part, “Under The Skin is being sold on the basis of a simple premise, which is true on the face of it, but also offers just the merest suggestion of what the film is in its totality. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien inhabiting a woman’s body, who trolls through the Scottish countryside and cities searching for young men, enticing them with the promise of a sexual encounter, and then killing them for food.

In this, she is monitored by another alien, who takes on the form of a sinister motorcyclist (played by real life champion cyclist Jeremy McWilliams), who is there to make sure that Johansson’s character stays on track with her mission. That’s pretty much the plot, or as much of it as I want to give away, but there’s a great deal more going on here than this bare outline would suggest.

Firstly, there’s no real sex in the film, just the promise of sex. Although Johansson lures several men into her white van during the first third of the film, and then takes them back to her flat, ostensibly for sex, nothing really happens; the men strip off and approach Johansson, who backs away from them, as the men sink into some sort of primordial ooze that swallows them up, and then reduces them to fleshy pulp for otherworldly consumption. Indeed, there is more frontal male nudity here than female, and it’s clear that one of the many things that the film is interested in is the fetishization of sex; Johansson’s simulacric image has been created as nothing more than a stock male fantasy.

We get only one glimpse of the actual harvesting process, in which two men, both victims, are now in a sort of limbo, and desperately attempt to touch each other to make some sort of contact, and perhaps escape the trap they’ve fallen into. But no such luck; in an instant, one of the men is reduced to nothing more than a human husk, and the pulp of his body is sucked through a chute into a door of some kind, food for Johansson’s cohorts in a distant galaxy.

Although there are a number of scenes in the film in which Johansson is nude, they’re sequences in which, as an alien, she examines her new body, and wonders at its construction, and why it’s so alluring to her victims. In the opening third of the film, she is utterly without humanity, clubbing one man to death on a beach and leaving an infant baby to be swept out into the tide without even the slightest shred of remorse. But then again, she’s not human – she doesn’t understand the meaning of the word.”

This is a remarkable film, but you’ll have to seek it out; see it as soon as you can.

Oculus: Another Look In the Haunted Mirror

Friday, April 11th, 2014

I have a new review essay out on the film Oculus in Film International.

As I write, “Oculus is a rather pretentious title for a rather straightforward movie, but despite the assembly line nature of its’ construction, the film still has something going for it. At first it’s hard to say precisely what the film has to offer, because on the surface it deals with so many basic and time-worn horror conventions that it seems to be almost aggressively unoriginal. But as the film picks up speed, and accelerates its march towards death and damnation, it gathers a certain sort of peculiar power that isn’t without value. I’m not about to give away the ending here, or any of the major plot twists, because those are the main things the film has to recommend it. Yet having said that, there’s a certain Resnais-like fatalism to the film that reverberates in one’s memory, despite the workmanlike nature of the film as a whole.

Though released theatrically today, April 11, 2014, the film was shot in 2012-2013, and was first screened on September 8, 2013, at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s yet another of the Jason Blum / Blumhouse Productions, all of which are low budget horror films, and the best of which to date is The Purge. Blum has a deal with Universal under which he cranks out numerous horror films in the $3 million or so range, but many of them don’t even see the light of day in DVD or streaming format, much less get a theatrical release. His idea is to keep on cranking out as many films as he can, and then see if anything sticks.

Despite the fact that there are a number of cinematic corpses, so to speak, sitting around in Blum’s vaults, with the number of films Blum makes, some of them are bound to hit. The Purge is going into a sequel, which from the looks of the trailer seems a sort of knock off of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) – the premise being that for twelve hours all criminal acts are legal, which acts as a societal safety valve. In the sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, a group of people are left outside when the purge starts, and have to run across a city in lockdown to safety, but it lacks Ethan Hawke in the lead, and screams “knock off” in every department. But I digress.

Oculus is about a haunted mirror, a staple of cinematic fantasy since the days of Georges Méliès. It’s been used in countless episodes of television series, such as Thriller and Twilight Zone, though my favorite variation on this well-worn theme remains the episode of the classic omnibus British horror film Dead of Night (1945), directed by Robert Hamer, in which Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) buys an ornate, oversize antique mirror as a gift for her husband Peter (Ralph Michael), only to discover that the previous owner killed his wife in front of it in a fit of jealousy, and that Peter is now falling under the mirror’s influence, as well. It’s one of the great horror stories of the cinema, and remains the most effective version of this tale, but for all that Oculus still has, as I suggested, something to add to the subgenre.”

You can read the entire essay here. Here’s looking at you, kids!

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or, Nothing You Believe is True

Saturday, April 5th, 2014

I have a new review out on this rather remarkable project in Film International; read it here!

As I write, in part, “I’m teaching a class right now in comic book movies, partly to trace the history of the genre from the 1940s on – when they began as Saturday morning serials – and partly to discover, if I could, why these films have moved to the mainstream of cinematic discourse. There’s no question about it anymore; Comic-Con rules the multiplex, and for the most part, I’ve avoided these films like the plague.

I remember sitting through Christopher Nolan’s interminable and interminably boring Inception (2010) impatiently looking at my watch throughout the film; there was nothing in it even remotely original, and plenty that had been “borrowed” from Cocteau, Resnais, and others, and at the center, it really wasn’t about anything.But at least the emptiness of that film was less offensive than the straight out class warfare of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), which Daniel Lindvall effectively eviscerated in the pages of Film International. And yet from the Iron Man films to Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011), emptiness, coupled with over-the-top violence, is all that’s on display.

Here, we have something different. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes on the CIA, hypersurveillance systems, killer drones, and the Snowden affair, and comes down on the side of the average citizen for a change, rather than the ruling elite. The special effects are absolutely non-stop, the violence is ramped up to hyperkinetic levels, with cutting to match, and the performances are all cardboard, but at the center of the film, giving one of his most effective performances in years, is none other than Robert Redford, who’s never done a comic book film before, superbly playing the villain of the piece.”

Read the rest of the review here now; it’s best in 3-D, on a big screen – who says I don’t like some mainstream movies?

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s L’Immortelle Finally Released on DVD and Blu-ray

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Click here to read my review of the DVD of L’Immortelle released yesterday, a full 51 years after the fact.

As I note, “L’Immortelle was shot in 1962, and released in France on March 27, 1963, but despite the enormous success of Marienbad, L’Immortelle was deemed too difficult for American audiences, and resolutely uncommercial – which it is – and with a rough negative cost of $100,000, the producer and distributor of the film deemed a United States release more trouble than it was worth. And so it was not until six years later that L’Immortelle made the rounds of screening rooms in Manhattan; after that, I think it might have played at a few art houses for a week or so, but then it vanished from sight completely.

L’Immortelle itself has a curious genesis; it was made with blocked funds in Turkey that couldn’t be taken out of the country, and so shooting in Istanbul was a given, though Robbe-Grillet had ties to the city and knew it well. The producers even went so far as to say that they didn’t even really care if the film made money, just so long as they could get something out of Turkey. Thus, Robbe-Grillet and his wife, Catherine, who appears in the film as the enigmatic Catherine Sarayan, scouted locations and had the entire project ready to go, when a revolution interrupted their plans, and shooting had to be put off for two years before a new regime was installed, and some semblance of order restored. Then the film was shot quickly and efficiently, in richly saturated black and white.

The film’s narrative is so slight as to be nonexistent; the official press synopsis describes the film as ‘an erotic, dream-like fantasy in which a despondent man meets a beautiful, secretive woman who may, or may not, be involved in using kidnapped women as prostitutes.’ This is as good a synopsis as any might be, because the real psychic and visual terrain of the film is memory, repetition, the impossibility of knowing another, the unreliability of the senses, and a circularity of narrative that keeps bringing the viewer back to one location after another with the stubborn insistence of a spectral tour guide who seemingly insists that we visit a room, a mosque, a nightclub, an antique store, an apartment and numerous other locations just one more time, until they are indelibly imprinted on our memory.

The leading characters, Françoise Brion and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, known only as L and N respectively, are not so much characters as situations; people frozen in time and memory who walk through the film with an air of complete detachment from any sort of reality, as if they are the principals in their own fantasy of Istanbul, and the few supporting characters who surround them behave in exactly the same fashion. Scenes are routinely repeated two, three times or more, sometimes exactly the same, down to the slightest detail, and other times with minor variations, seemingly in slow motion, as if actors are sleepwalking through the world they inhabit. Often, characters appear within a scene without explanation, as if they had always been there, and perhaps always will be there; timeless, unchanging, fixed and motionless.

There is a timelessness about the film, and for good reason; as Robbe-Grillet has acknowledged on numerous occasions, Françoise Brion’s character is already dead when the film begins, although she assumes a phantom corporeality for the purposes of the film, and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, for all intents and purposes, is in love with someone who no longer exists, if she ever existed – in fact, we can’t be sure if any of the narrative ever occurred, or if everything we’re seeing is a fever dream, something conjured up out of loneliness, isolation, or the sheer existential longing of one man’s need to be loved.”

This is essential cinema; get the DVD or Blu-ray now, and prepare to be astonished.

Graham Greene on Paris in Spring

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Here’s a charming musical that isn’t available on DVD, and should be.

A lot of people forget that writer Graham Greene was a prolific film critic in the 1930s. In addition to the fact that many of his short stories and novels were made into films, and he was a man of immaculate taste. Here, he discusses in a contemporary review the long forgotten film Paris in Spring, featuring a young Ida Lupino in a supporting part, which he smartly compares to the best of Ernst Lubitsch, the master of light romantic comedy. Yet, sadly, the film isn’t available on DVD.

It should be admitted, as Greene notes, that the film’s director, Lewis Milestone isn’t a name readily associated with a project such as this; Milestone’s most famous film, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), is a grim slice of anti-war realism, set during World War I. Yet so strong is the pull of Paris in Spring that having only seen it once, many years ago, complete with its highly stylized opening titles and location work at the Eiffel Tower, that I have never been able to forget it. Here’s what Greene had to say on the film, which was released as Paris Love Song in the UK.

“You wouldn’t think that [Lewis] Milestone, the director, was a Russian, so deftly has be caught the gay, the shameless Lubitsch Manner. It is a silly, charming tale of an Italian count [disappointed in love] who goes up the Eiffel Tower to pretend to commit suicide, and finds at the top a young woman who intends to commit suicide [for the same reason]. They agree, of course, to make their lovers jealous, and the lovers come together in the same conspiracy. Mr. Milestone mas made out of this nonsense something light, enchanting, genuinely fantastic.

Mary Ellis’s is the best light acting I have seen since [Kay] Francis appeared in [Ernst Lubitsch’s] Trouble in Paradise. She is lovely to watch and listen to; she has a beautiful humorous ease . . . only the cinema is able in its most fantastic moments to give a sense of absurd unreasoning happiness, a kind of poignant release: you can’t catch it in prose: it belongs to Walt Disney, to [René Clair’s] voices from the air [in À nous la liberté, 1932], and there is one moment in this film when you have it, as the Count scrambles singing across the roofs to his mistress’s room; happiness and freedom, nothing really serious, nothing really lasting, a touching of hands, a tuneful miniature love.”

As always, it’s the films that survive in circulation that have the best chance to being reevaluated as time passes by – but since Paris in Spring has been more or less abandoned to the Paramount vaults, and circulates only in bootleg DVDs, one either has to see a second rate copy of this first-rate film, or be content with memories. Complicating things further is a really vicious review of Paris in Spring in The New York Times by Frank S. Nugent from July 13, 1935, when the film was first released in the States – contrast this with Greene’s review, which is only available in a volume of his collected film reviews, and not on the web.

This is yet another film that deserves to to be on DVD; one more film where only the reviews survive.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on The Phantom of Liberty

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

Above: Luis Buñuel directs Jean-Claude Brially and Monica Vitti on the set of The Phantom of Liberty.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay out in the latest issue of Senses of Cinema on this superb film, in which she notes that “Luis Buñuel, to my mind the greatest and most ingenious of the Surrealists, was as fervent and consistent in his rejection of the moral hypocrisy of the most guarded tenets upheld by religion and bourgeois conventionality as he was emphatic in his embrace of the elegance of chance, the power of the imagination, and his love of the power of all things subversive.

It seems ironic and imbecilic that Buñuel is sometimes misperceived as a libertine as well as someone who simply subversive used humour to reject morality, as in reality Buñuel strenuously worked to replace notions of conventional morality with his own deeply held understanding of personal morality built upon a deep understanding and love of the illusory nature of chance, the asymmetrical wisdom of Nature, the naturalness of all things perverse, and a passionate hatred for the human propensity to turn perfectly natural objects into things that are labeled wrong and perverted.

Decades after its release, Buñuel’s brilliantly anti-narrative film Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, 1974) not only seems to anticipate many of our current obsessions and human foibles, but stands out as much more than a Surrealistic satire or comedy; it is in many ways a politically charged manifesto that not only overthrows narrative as we know it but also seems almost frighteningly prescient in it’s treatment of the routine celebrity of terrorists and mass murderers and, more importantly, in the way it anticipates the humankind’s own destruction of the world through our own imbecilic and suicidal pollution of the earth.

In many respects, The Phantom of Liberty plays as if it was made for 21st century audiences. Buñuel delighted in repeatedly saying that he made the film in collaboration with Karl Marx (the title refers to the first line of the Communist Manifesto); but the title is also a personal nod to a line spoken in Buñuel’s La Voie lactée (The Milky Way, 1969): ‘Free will is nothing more than a simple whim! In any circumstance, I feel that my thoughts and my will are not in my power! And my liberty is only a phantom!’ Buñuel firmly believed that chance governs our lives, and as much as they could, Buñuel and his screenwriting companion Jean-Claude Carrière tried to invite chance at every opportunity into the writing of The Phantom of Liberty.”

You can read the rest of this brilliant essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Spartans Meet The Muppets, or 300: Rise of an Empire

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

I have a review essay out today on the new film 300: Rise of An Empire in Film International.

As I write, “It would be a mistake to dismiss director Noam Murro’s sword and sandal “historical” pageant 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) entirely, if only because mainstream pop culture films can often tell us more about the times we live in than so-called ‘quality’ films, since they pander so shamelessly to their audiences. So it is with 300: ROAE, but let me hasten to add that most of what it has to tell us is unintentional freight. The makers of this film – the producers, screenwriters and the director – wanted a serviceable follow-up to Zack Snyder’s 2007 original, to create what could be a profitable franchise, if properly handled – and Murro delivered it. It’s a maelstrom of unending cruelty, barbarism, and conflict.

You want endless, mindless, slow motion violence, delivered with a minimum of dialogue or motivation (other than the standard ‘I want revenge’ card)? You got it. Battlefields littered with corpses? Check. Huge, panoramic vistas that trail off into infinity, as the protagonists strike heroic poses in the twilight? Coming up! Spectacular battles on sea and land? Gotcha! Sex scenes with a dollop of violence? Of course! It’s all here, trotted out to meet audience demand, something Murro is no stranger to. Murro has directed numerous high-end commercials and videos, and one feature, Smart People (2008), starring Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker. He’s even worked with The Muppets! Now, if only he could learn to direct people.

That’s probably good training for this film, because most of the cast walks through their paces like so many automatons; what really saves the film as a visual construct is Murro’s sense of non-stop kineticism, which is easily the equal of some of the best action directors in motion picture history. Mind you, I’m talking sheer technique here, not resonance; the film is as empty as it is dazzling, but nevertheless, some main points come to mind. Watching the film, I kept thinking of what a first rate talent like Sam Peckinpah might have done with similar material in his prime; ‘Bloody Sam’ would have been right at home here, provided he was willing to bring the film in on time and under budget.”

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

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster: Surviving the Monster Mom: Child’s Pose

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay in Film International on the Romanian film Child’s Pose.

As she writes, “If a toxic abusive mother raised you, be forewarned. Child’s Pose is a harrowing and deeply traumatic film that will leave you shaken far beyond any previous cinematic exploration of familial horror and dysfunction. Another superb example of the Romanian New Wave Cinema, Child’s Pose (Pozitia copilului), directed by Călin Peter Netzer, and co-written by Netzer and novelist Răzvan Rădulescu, emerged from lengthy discussions Netzer and Rădulescu had about their own domineering mothers. The result is one of the most emotionally demanding films one can imagine.

The plot of Child’s Pose is deceptively simple: a wealthy Romanian mother, Cornelia Keneres (Luminita Gheorghiu) will stop at nothing to keep her son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) from going to jail after he hits and kills a young boy while speeding on the freeway in a race with another driver. That a wealthy son is responsible for the death of an underprivileged child is important in that it is used to force us into an engagement with a spectacularly dysfunctional mother-son relationship and, at a secondary level, to explore the evil of the class system of Romania, a society rife with blatant corruption and moral decay.

As Dana Stevens notes in Slate, “the original title, Pozitia copiluilui, refers to the literal physical position of a child – an image which might have several meanings in the movie’s context, none of them involving a relaxing forehead-to-floor asana,” and much more to do with the cringing, child-like, defeated persona of Barbu, who seems to have no life or will of his own. I have never witnessed another film that so effectively captures the inescapable trauma of being the spawn of such a dangerously toxic pathological mother. There is no doubt in my mind that both Netzer and Rădulescu understand first hand the pathology of the monstrous parent; the level of realism in the film obviously has much to do with personal experience.”

You can read the rest of Foster’s essay on this amazing film by clicking here, or on the image above.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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