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

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on La Notte (1961)

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Michelangelo Antonioni (right) directs Monica Vitti (left) in Antonioni’s classic film La Notte (1961)

In issue 74 of Senses of Cinema, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster discusses Antonioni’s classic film La Notte (1961), writing in part that “in reviewing the critical reception of La notte (1961), it strikes me that many observers seem to almost completely miss the fact that the film is, in part, a feminist critique of capitalist society, which centers around women, consumption, and the failure of our ecosystem, and not just the director’s trademark alienation and ennui.

Conventional plot summaries of the film routinely insist that La notte centres around a male author, Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni), his uncertain career, and his failing relationship with his wife, Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), as well as his flirtations with beautiful socialite Valentina Gherardini (Monica Vitti).

I would argue, rather, that women are both the centre of the film and the mirrors upon which Antonioni reflects his dark perceptions and stark conclusions about the human condition. At a launch party for his latest novel, those who celebrate Giovanni’s newest book spend precious little time actually reading, opting instead to party all night, while simultaneously remaining oblivious to their own mortality.

As in most of his films, Antonioni’s wealthy protagonists in La notte live in a hell of their own making. So thoroughly alienated are they from one another (and from the environment) that they experience the rain from the sky (in the pool sequence) as a sublime rapture from above, giggling like schoolchildren, briefly lifted out of their stupor for a moment’s play with the actual elements.The tragedy of Antonioni’s characters is not simply a matter of bored bourgeois ennui; these people are disconnected from the feminine, from the earth, and from life itself.”

Brilliant writing – you can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1962)

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

On this appropriately bleak winter day, I sat down to view Ingmar Bergman’s stark masterpiece Winter Light.

From my forthcoming book Black & White Cinema: A Short History: “by 1962 with Winter Light, photographed by Sven Nykvist, Bergman had refined his vision into an austere, almost sculptural sensibility of blacks, whites, and varying shades of gray, striving for a complete simplicity in all his work. As Nykvist recalled of working with Bergman,

‘The whole crew meets two months before shooting to read the whole script, then we start to make tests. We build sets, and when everyone—the costume designer, the production designer, the makeup artist—is there, we make tests for the whole picture so we will never be surprised when we start shooting. We are already halfway through a picture when we start to shoot it, and that is psychologically very important for all the people because everyone, including the grips and electricians, feels that he or she is as important as all the others. . . . When you are operating the camera, you forget all about the other people around you. You just see this little scene and you live in that and you feel it. For me, operating the camera is a sport and it helps me do better lighting sometimes.

When Ingmar and I made Winter Light . . . which takes place in a church on a winter day in Sweden, we decided we should not see any shadow in it at all because there would be no logical shadow in that setting. I said, ‘Oh, that will be an easy picture for me because the light doesn’t change in three hours.’ Ingmar said, ‘That’s what you think. Let’s go to the churches in the north of Sweden.’ And there we sat for weeks, looking at the light during the three hours between eleven and two o’clock. We saw that it changed a lot, and it helped him in writing the script because he always writes the moods. . .

It has taken me 30 years to come to simplicity. Earlier, I made a lot of what I thought were beautiful shots with much backlighting and many effects, absolutely none of which were motivated by anything in the film at all. As soon as we had a painting on the wall, we thought it should have a glow around it. It was terrible and I can hardly stand to see my own films on television anymore. . . . I prefer to shoot on location because in the studio you have too many possibilities—too many lights to destroy your whole picture.’”

And as Roger Ebert observed of Winter Light in 2007, “on the day Ingmar Bergman died, the first film of his that came into my mind was Winter Light. Odd, because I had not seen it since teaching a film class in the 1970s. In the weeks that passed, I found it lingering there, asking to be seen again. What did I remember about it? That it was part of Bergman’s ‘Silence of God’ trilogy. That it was about a pastor who was unable to comfort a man in dread of nuclear holocaust. That the pastor rejected a woman who sought to comfort him. That Bergman and his cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, sat in a rural church for a winter day to note how the sunlight moved through the space. In short, I hardly remembered the film at all, because those sparse memories were not enough to ignite a need to see it again. Yet I felt one. Finally I took Winter Light down from the shelf, watched it again, and was awestruck by its bleak, courageous power.

It is, first of all, much more complex than the broad outlines I held in memory. It is about more than God, silent or not. It is about the silence of a man, Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Bjornstrand), who speaks enough in the film but is unable to say anything of use to himself or anyone else. About another man, the fisherman Jonas (Max Von Sydow), obsessed by evil in the world, who calls God’s bluff, so to speak, by killing himself. About Marta, a schoolteacher (Ingrid Thulin) who cares for the pastor, loves him, worries about him, and is thanked by coldness and hostility. And it is about two monologues in which the pastor and the teacher describe their real feelings, and deeply wound each other . . .

The film’s visual style is one of rigorous simplicity. Nykvist does not use a single camera movement for effect. He only wants to regard, to show. His compositions, while sometimes dramatic, are mostly static. He uses slow push-ins and pull-outs to underline dialogue of intensity. His gaze is so unblinking that sequences with the potential to be boring, like the opening scenes of the consecration and distribution of hosts and wine, become fascinating: More is going on here than ritual, and there are buried currents between the communicants. Nykvist focuses above all on faces, in closeup and medium shot, and they are even the real subject of longer shots, recalling Bergman’s belief that the human face is the most fascinating study for the cinema.”

Fortunately, there is also a feature on the making of Winter Light, available on the Criterion DVD set of the Bergman “Silence of God” trilogy, of which Criterion’s program notes add that “the year is 1961, and Ingmar Bergman is making a movie. While planted on the scene as apprentice to Bergman, Vilgot Sjöman suggests to Swedish Television that they take the opportunity to record with the acclaimed director. In August, Sjöman and the television crew begin to capture what would become a comprehensive five-part documentary on the making of Winter Light, offering views of script development, set construction and lighting, rehearsals and editing, as well as intimate conversations with Bergman and members of his cast and crew. Footage from the film’s Swedish premiere delivers immediate audience reactions and the critics’ reviews the following day. Originally recorded on 16mm film, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie is presented here in its entirety for the first time outside of Sweden.”

A brilliant film, available on Criterion DVD; get a copy now, before it goes out of print.

Jean-Claude Carrière To Receive Honorary Oscar 11/8/14

Saturday, November 8th, 2014

Jean-Claude Carrière will receive a much deserved, much overdue Academy Award for his work tonight.

As Kevin Noonan reported in Variety, “Jean-Claude Carrière will receive an Honorary Oscar at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Governors Awards Saturday, a feather in the cap of a nearly 60-year screenwriting career — but most certainly not an actual cap to it, he says. Known for his numerous collaborations with Luis Buñuel, including co-writing films such as Belle De Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Milky Way, the French screenwriter earned a reputation for crafting and adapting surreal, seemingly impossible projects. That reputation culminated in his work with English theater and film director Peter Brook to create a nine-hour stage version in 1985 and five-hour film adaptation in 1989 of the epic Sanskrit poem The Mahabharata. Already an Oscar winner for his 1962 short Heureux Anniversaire, Carrière [had these thoughts] his long career, working with Buñuel, and not knowing what an Oscar was.

As Carrière told Noonan, in part, “it’s a good encouragement for the thirty years to come. I’m 83, it’s something that I’m very happy to receive and proud, anybody would be. But I hope it will not announce the end of my working life, you know what I mean? That I keep working and writing. What I’m just doing right now, I’m in a hotel room and I’m writing a script [. . .] I’ve been gratified with good health, and since I was a kid, an intense desire for working. I’m a hard worker.

I’m very, very often alone in my room thinking, writing, correcting. I don’t know what it is. I love my job, maybe that’s the main reason. First of all, you need to have some success at one point. If not, you’ll be desperate and you’ll give up. From time to time, every three times you need a success, and then it gives you a real joy and you will enjoy working. Right now, what I’m doing alone a hotel room, far from my family, from my friends, I enjoy it very much. That’s all I can say. Enjoy working. And don’t smoke. You can drink a little bit, from time to time.

. . . A screenwriter is not a writer. He’s already a filmmaker. Of course, he better know how to write. But he’s not going to write a literary novel or piece of literature. What he must know at every moment when he writes a script, what I’m doing now, he must know how it’s going to be shot, how it will last, and maybe how it will cost. He mustn’t be attached to his words. He knows the script is the first form of a film, the first approach. And here in a hotel room, I have no camera, no lighting, no sound recorder, nothing. I’m just alone with my computer. And I have to know precisely the techniques of the filmmaking.

When I’m working with the director, if the director starts talking to me about technique and I cannot answer, he doesn’t need me. That’s why I’ve been an assistant, I’ve been working with the camera … and also I have done a lot of editing. That’s absolutely essential for a screenwriting. You mustn’t approach the film itself as a playwright or a novelist, but as a filmmaker. And I’m very happy about this Oscar, already almost five or six of my screenwriter colleagues, they called me to say how happy and proud that for once a screenwriter is awarded.”

You can read Noonan’s entire interview with Jean-Claude Carrière by clicking here, or on the image above.

Manoel de Oliveira Directs A New Film at Age 105

Sunday, October 5th, 2014

At 105, Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira has just completed production on a new film.

As Vitor Pinto reports in Cineuropa, the director Manoel de Oliveira began production of O Velho do Restelo, a reflection on Portuguese history, produced by O Som e a Fúria, on September 9, 2014. Pinto continues, “at 105 years old, Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is beginning the shoot for his new film, O Velho do Restelo (literally The Old Man from the Restelo) today in Porto. The short film sees the return of the filmmaker two years after his feature Gebo and the Shadow as well as his involvement in the omnibus film Historic Centre.

With a title evoking the pessimistic character created by Luis de Camões in his 16th-century epic poem Os Lusiadas, O Velho do Restelo is based on excerpts from the work O Penitente by Teixeira de Pascoaes, which recounts the life and work of Portuguese romantic writer Camilo de Castelo Branco. It is through these literary references, which also incorporate others such as those of Miguel de Cervantes, that the film will create a reflection on Portugal and its history. O Velho do Restelo will see actor Luís Miguel Cintra playing the role of Camões, Ricardo Trepa as Don Quixote, Diogo Dória as Teixeira de Pascoaes and Mário Barroso as Camilo de Castelo Branco.

Oliveira, who in an interview last year with French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma described the process of securing funding for the film as ‘a battle’ finally managed to raise enough funds in order to go ahead with the five-day shoot. O Velho do Restelo is being produced by O Som e a Fúria, and has backing from the Porto Film Commission and the Catholic University of Portugal. The film is expected to be completed by August [2015].”

As Kevin Jagernauth adds in Indiewire, “Manoel de Oliveira is 105 years-old, and while other filmmakers talk about retirement or wanting to try something different, the Portuguese director doesn’t know the word quit. That’s right, he’s already in production on his next project, so whatever little complaints you might have about your day, maybe take it down a notch because Oliveira is still shuffling around, getting it down.”

There’s hope for the cinema yet; the powers that be should give him all the financing he wants.

Some Final Thoughts on Reviewing Godzilla (2014)

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

This image of the Hollywood sign in collapse seems sadly appropriate for this post.

My review of the new Godzilla film seems to have sparked some real response, and in the comments section, I added these thoughts, which I think should be repeated here. In response to a number of people agreeing with my assessment of the film, and some people disagreeing, I added these final comments on both the film, and on reviewing films that I’m not fond of – something I don’t enjoy doing.

“I took no particular pleasure in doling out a bad review of the film — and I really went in expecting a genuine return to the roots of Godzilla, so to speak. But we have to keep these things in perspective. On one level, the whole thing is ridiculous – I mean, who really cares if a Godzilla reboot works? On the other, the original film was such a serious and potent metaphor for the nuclear decimation of Japan in 1945 that to see the whole concept turn into just another monster movie is a real betrayal of the 1954 original.

Pop thought it may be, the first Gojira had depth, which this film lacks; then again, I wish Edwards would go back to smaller, more thoughtful projects, but now that Hollywood has him in its grasp, there’s little likelihood of that. The 2014 Godzilla reminded me most strongly of Ataque de Pánico! (Panic Attack!; 2009), a short film made by another spfx wizard, Fede Alvarez on a dimestore budget, which also led to another Hollywood deal.

So it’s like this; make one good film with no money, then Hollywood snaps you up, and you make one bad film after another which is totally compromised by studio/exec interference, but they’re still hits because the studios have sunk so much money into them that they can’t afford to let them die, so they promote the hell out of them, and thus they become ’successes,’ and so you do another.

So I’m waiting for Manoel de Oliveira’s next film, which will have no money, lots of ideas, and will no doubt challenge and engage me more than this — but circling around all of this for me is my conviction that the 1954 Gojira and Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica (2011) are roughly approximate in seriousness of intent, and that a stronger case needs to be made for Ishirō Honda in the first film. The genre really doesn’t matter here; it’s seriousness of intent.” As Honda himself famously noted, “monsters are born too tall, too strong, too heavy—that is their tragedy,” and that’s the tragedy of this film, too.

And that’s more than enough on that topic.

“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.

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.

Guest Blog: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Věra Chytilová

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Let us celebrate the life and work of Czech New Wave director Věra Chytilová.

Věra Chytilová, a central figure in the radically experimental Czech New Wave who passed away on March 12, 2014 at the age of 85, is best known for her stunning film Daisies (1966). Chytilová called the film “a philosophical documentary in the form of a farce,” which is a good way to phrase it. Daisies is best described as a Brechtian comedy about two young women who loll around naked as they talk directly to the audience about philosophical questions.

A prototypical New Wave feminist film, complete with direct political statements (“everything is spoiled for us in this world”), jarring editing (the narrative sequences of the two women are intercut with stock images of buildings falling apart), and existential ponderings (the women state that “if you are not registered, [there is] no proof that you exist”), Daisies remains a classic of the era, which shocked and surprised audiences around the world when it was first released.

The suppressed violence of Bourgeois culture is suggested through a bizarre orgy sequence, and the wildly experimental visuals are underscored by gunshots on the soundtrack, as the camera pans over the ruins of a city. It is nearly impossible to describe the frantic pace, dazzling beauty, and the revolutionary qualities of Daisies; Chytilová’s avant-garde use of brilliant colors, her rapid fire editing, and her approach to film itself was in many ways more revolutionary than that of Jean-Luc Godard and the other, better known directors of the French New Wave.

Not surprisingly, Daisies was almost immediately banned by the Czech authorities, but not before Chytilová’s film won the Grand Prix at the Bergamo Film Festival in Italy in 1967. Indeed, Daisies was perceived as being so subversive film and controversial that Chytilová was not allowed to make films for several years after the film’s release. But with the recent release of a magnificently restored version of the film from Criterion in DVD and Blu-Ray format, Daisies is now being rightly being hailed as “an aesthetically and politically adventurous film that’s widely considered one of the great works of feminist cinema.”

After a number of years, Chytilová was able to return to film making, which she continued throughout her life, a life that we should mark with celebration. So break out the bubbly and enjoy a screening of Daisies, a film that continues to dazzle audiences and inspire young filmmakers: here are just a few of the sites that are celebrating both the film, and Chytilová’s lifetime of work — see these links to Dazed, The AV Club, ABC News for more on this deeply important and influential artist, as well as this list of online sources on Chytilová’s work from Kinoeye.

If you have not seen Daisies, you are in for a real Dadaist treat; this is bold, adventurous filmmaking that breaks all the rules, an authentic feminist vision which has gathered additional power and resonance with the passing of time, and is now considered one of the key works of the Czech New Wave, and of experimental cinema as a worldwide artistic movement. Chytilová was, simply, a master filmmaker.

Věra Chytilová, an authentic original, and a deeply visionary filmmaker.

About the Author: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is a Professor of Film Studies in the Department of English, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and co-editor of the book series New Perspectives on World Cinema from Anthem Press, London. Her many books include 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011) and the second, revised edition of A Short History of Film (2013), as well as Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture (2005), Identity and Memory: The Films of Chantal Akerman (2003), and Women Filmmakers of the African and Asian Diaspora: Decolonizing the Gaze, Locating Subjectivity (1997). Her book Women Filmmakers: A Bio-Critical Dictionary, which covers the work of hundreds of women filmmakers, is considered a classic in the field of feminist film studies.

The Death of Foreign Films in America

Monday, January 27th, 2014

Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), still the highest-grossing foreign-language film of all time.

Once upon a time, every movie had to open in a conventional 35mm theater run to make money. This made for a kind of financial egalitarianism; a $100,000 horror movie would have to open in a theater the same way that a $5,000,000 movie would have to; there were no DVDs, streaming videos, video on demand services, or even cable. While no one would want to go back to the analog age, as this blog itself demonstrates, the fact remains that from the dawn of cinema until the late 1980s, foreign films had a solid chance in the US market, and were roughly divided into two groups: commercial cinema and art cinema. But no matter what the label was, every film still had to open in a theater to make money — there simply was no other market.

Commercial foreign films, such as Italian westerns or horror movies, or Japanese science-fiction spectacles, were hastily dubbed into English and dumped into theaters on a mass basis, and made their money back. More serious fare, such as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita – which I wrote about in a 2010 article in the web journal Senses of Cinema – were presented with subtitles, and no one seemed to mind. Eventually, La Dolce Vita, too, was dubbed for wider distribution, although this version never really caught on, and audiences of the period were discerning enough to notice that replacing the actors’ voices in the film essentially destroyed Fellini’s work.

But La Dolce Vita — which is one of my favorite films of all time, and perhaps the best examination of modern pop throwaway celebrity culture ever created – made the bulk of its money in a subtitled version, and thus audiences were educated from a very early age to realize that there were many different kinds of films available. There were American films, of varying degrees of budget and artistic ambition – and often some of the lowest budget films were the most artistically ambitious — and then there were foreign films, and the junk was dubbed, while the better films were presented aurally and visually intact, with subtitles. But now it seems that dubbed or subtitled, no one is going to foreign film anymore, except for Bollywood films, which have a huge audience throughout the world, as well as here in the States.

As Richard Corliss, who knows his way around cinema history, writes in an article in Time Magazine, “you probably know about Blue Is the Warmest Color, the French movie with the lesbian lovers romping through a five-year affair. But chances are you haven’t seen it. For all its ballyhoo and bravas, Blue has earned only about $2.1 million at the U.S. box office. Given the high price of art-house tickets, that means only a couple hundred thousand people have paid to see it in its three-month American run — fewer than the number that bought tickets to Ride Along this past Tuesday.

These are hard times, maybe the end of times, for a kind of film that accounts for only about one in every 200 tickets sold in the U.S. But before we get to the depressing news about the current state of foreign-language films in the States, consider a time when this tiny niche was a tremendous niche — representing about 5%, not 0.5%, of the domestic market — and when foreign films were thought essential to any true cinephile’s education and appetite.

We speak of the 1960s. Giants like Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and François Truffaut strode the earth; and their favorite actors — Marcello Mastroianni, Max von Sydow, Toshiro Mifune and Jeanne Moreau — became icons on this side of the pond. Mastroianni and the rest provided the best directors with faces and personalities that charmed the foreign-film audience across America. And soon other movies with these stars appeared in U.S. theaters. In the early ’60s, as many as 30 Italian films reached U.S. shores.

That’s because of the startling success of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which, in terms of tickets sold, is still the highest-grossing foreign-language film of all time. It earned $19.5 million in U.S. theaters in 1961, when the average ticket price was just 69 cents. In today’s dollars, that would be $236 million — more than the domestic gross of 2013 hits like Oz the Great and Powerful and Thor: The Dark World. In 1966, Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman, a race-car love story starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée, grossed the modern equivalent of $107 million. Three years later Costa-Gavras’s political thriller Z took in what would be $92 million today. As the moguls would say, real money.

Two quick reasons for the appeal of foreign-language films in the ’60s: They had a higher IQ than the average Hollywood movie — making works like Fellini’s and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad the subjects of earnest debates at penthouse cocktail parties and on college campuses — and they were sexier, exposing flesh along with their vaunted angst and anomie. A third reason: they gave any American with cinematic wanderlust a view of other countries and cultures. Here were people and ideas so different, perhaps forbidding, yet often enchanting.

At the end of the decade, Hollywood grew up fast, with copious infusions of sex (Midnight Cowboy), blood (The Wild Bunch) and double-dome philosophizing (2001: A Space Odyssey). That’s an oversimplified way of saying that American movies had recaptured the conversation [. . .] Another factor: Americans lost interest in other cultures; we were not only No. 1, we were the only 1 we cared about. With foreign films’ monopoly on intellectual maturity and adult themes broken, they receded to specialty status: canapés for connoisseurs.”

I’m afraid that Corliss is right; the multiplexes, as I have observed many times before, play simply the biggest hits in a very tight playlist, and no one seems to have for more thoughtful cinema anymore. The big news these days is the upcoming Superman/Batman team up, and ComicCon rules the box office. Not much chance for anything enlightening there. In the 1960s, and until the late 1980s, theaters gave audiences a choice, simply because they had to — theaters were the only venue available. Now that the studios can dump smaller films on VOD or streaming, you can forget about a theatrical release. Which means that most people will never hear of it, which means most people will never see it, which means that if you want thoughtful film viewing, it’s either the VOD foreign cable channel, or a a DVD, or Netflix.

But it’s not the same as seeing it on a big screen, and at the same time, it has much less cultural impact. This is bad for American viewers, bad for the future of cinema, and portends an endless array of nonstop comic book movies with no content – just action, action and more action, like the Fast and Furious franchise. There’s nothing wrong with that, if all you want is to see a bunch of cars crashing and things being blown up. But it would be nice to have a choice, available to all and widely publicized. Once, you had such a choice. Now, you have no choice at all.

Foreign films led the way to a more enlightened cinema – what has happened to that cinema today?

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

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

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