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June 12 2019

The Forgotten: Love's Struggle Through the Ages

Being Human (1994) is really something. Bill Forsyth's Hollywood career was essentially ended by it, and I get the impression that this was not so much because the film died at the box office, but because the experience of having it taken away from him—a first for a director who had enjoyed very good relationships with his producers up to that point—was so dispiriting.
Forsyth's star had risen steadily from "the first no-budget film," That Sinking Feeling, through the charming Gregory's Girl and the poetic Local Hero. If Housekeeping and Breaking In weren't hits, they were certainly admired.
I recall reading that the studio recut the film (I believe the once-great Deedee Allen had become the "film doctor" at Warners specializing in performing such disfiguring operations without anesthetic) and it performed just as dismally with test audiences as it had in the Forsyth cut, so they kindly released that. Not quite, though: a voice-over, indifferently read by Theresa Russell, had been grafted on, which does quite a bit of damage. It's hard to estimate how much, without an audio option that would allow us to click it off. But you can definitely tell when these things have been written afterwards.
Forsyth deploys a variation on a narrative approach not seen since Griffith's Intolerance and Keaton's The Three Ages: a story is fragmented across history, so we meet five men called Hector, all played by Robin Williams, all struggling, or thinking about struggling, in wildly different ways, to be reunited with their children. Instead of intercutting as Griffith did, Forsyth tells each story in a oner, starting in a caveman period and running through ancient Rome, medieval Europe, a Renaissance shipwreck on the African coast, and ending in modern America. You can have fun finding connections between the storylines, though the voice-over does its best to ruin this fun by pointing them out, but most of them are quirky (shoes!) and not that much help if you're looking to discover what it's all about.
"Can anyone tell me what this film is supposed to be about?" demanded Warners head Terry Semel after an unsuccessful test screening. Forsyth leaned forward to speak. "Not you," snapped Semel.
Forsyth had started out interested in experimental film, before getting into drama, with classic Hollywood comedy as an influence. But his experimental, non-narrative interests started to reassert themselves, along with a love of Bresson. And he'd never been a fan of plot, fighting to keep his storylines as far in the background possible, to concentrate on character. With this film, he was hoping the audience wouldn't worry about what was going to happen next. He was trying to eliminate anticipation from the filmmaking experience.
At first, it doesn't seem likely to work. The first, wordless episode seems to accomplish very little: Williams is a primitive man whose family runs off with another tribe. It certainly doesn't have any laughs, and not much character gets expressed. But it sets up one part of the premise: the various successive Hectors in the film spend their time trying to reunite with their respective children, though the circumstances of their separation vary from segment to segment.
In the second chapter, things get a lot more interesting. Williams is a slave in ancient Rome. John Turturro is his master. The design and feel are a little reminiscent of Fellini Satyricon, which is a film where anticipation is pretty successfully stamped out, come to think of it. And there's some very funny black comedy and some just plain strange tonal movement: highly uncommercial but by no means bad. Really intriguing, in fact.
Then the medieval Hector is trudging through Europe trying to get back to his family, with an Italian widow offering a speedy substitute: why do all that traveling when you could just join a ready-made family? Some weird black comedy as the couple couple a few feet away from a corpse: this is really the first Forsyth film with sex and a body count.
Shipwrecked on the African coast, Renaissance Hector is more concerned with apologizing to an ex than in rescue, as the group of survivors dwindles due to bad eggs, mutiny, and starvation. This is the bleakest episode of all and it's quietly, desperately hilarious. A universal theme of the movie, and of Forsyth's work in general, begins to emerge forcibly: nobody understands anybody else. As mutineers are being hanged (by a boyish Ewan MacGregor), observing nomads mistake this for a human sacrifice in their honor. And the "gallows," a repurposed crucifix, tips over, adding tragic slapstick to the situation.
This is my favorite episode, if episode is the right word here. They're all ineffably parts of some kind of whole. Maybe because the stakes are so great here, the inevitable doom staring these characters down so grim, it's easiest for Forsyth's characters to ignore the story, in a very Forsythian way, so that we have the perfect combination of an unspoken suspense generator and a lot of characters bumbling about, going nowhere. It's like Local Hero with the Grim Reaper instead of the oil industry. Which makes a difference.
In the modern setting, Williams is at last reunited with his kids. In this timeline, the separation was of a very modern sort: divorce. His daughter is one of Forsyth's typically wise kids, just about the only adult mind we meet in the film. The sequence is touching, slow-paced, very mildly funny. Forsyth might have no love for story, but he's taken us on a journey.
Williams is remarkable. It's impossible to imagine anyone else, and this is in itself remarkable because he's not working in any of his usual, or unusual modes. (Williams got his Mrs. Doubtfire voice from working on this film, a combination of Forsyth's accent and another crewmember's.) His manic comedy schtick is vanquished. The sentimental mode he sometimes substituted is tamped right down. The bitter, cold or eerily blank qualities he could summon for unsympathetic characters absent. Instead, he's mild, real, small, and he exemplifies the title. What a loss he was.
The Forgotten is a regular fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

June 11 2019

Implausible Truth

Little Daney gem reposted from Steve Erickson's defunct original website (the new one is here).

Implausible Truth - Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
The world once was divided in two. I speak of the world of cinema lovers, the small world of cinephiles. There were those who giggled at the last films of Fritz Lang and those for whom these films ranked among the most beautiful. (Yes, but how to prove it?). The second lived in fear: fear of understanding the firsts' snicker of a smile before Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) or of poking fun at The Indian Tomb (1959). Because these vulnerable films, obtuse with logic, touched on what one pompously called "the essence" of cinema. They touched on the fact that there are films that sound idiotic when one tells their stories and are shattering when one sees them, on the fact that a film isn't its screenplay, nor cinema literature. 
And then, these films had no reputation: the histories of cinema spoke only of Metropolis, M, of the rigour of Fury, and the critical establishment of the time spat with condescension on the American period of Lang, a period of bad luck, tiny budgets and films more and more B. 
One had to defend these films against the thick common sense of the snickerers, against Lang himself, who had the air of being ashamed of them. (Hadn't he spoken of The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb as his "Indian shits?"). Helplessness. The old master already had the disillusioned smile that one could see in him a few years later in Contempt. The slightly superior smile of one who nevertheless knows (and who better than him, who could have become the #1 man of Nazi cinema?) that one must never feel superior. That feeling superior is the only crime. The rictus grin that Langian heroes have at the worst moments, like Tom Garrett at the end of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, when all is lost for him, and he doesn't know how to do anything other than step towards the office to see closer the pardon in his favour that the governor won't sign. 
The scenario of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is the story of a scenario. Of a frame-up, a simulacrum. An influential journalist (Sidney Blackmer) campaigns against the death penalty. He wants to prove that it's perfectly possible to send an innocent man to the electric chair. Yes, but how to prove it? 
He has this baroque idea (well, he thinks he has it) of proposing to his future son-in-law, Tom Garrett, a writer (Dana Andrews, once again rancid and admirable) to let himself be accused of a murder that was recently committed, fabricating false proofs, leaving himself condemned to death. At this moment, deus ex machina, he will unveil the implausible truth* and the partisans of the death penalty will be ashamed and listen to their conscience. That's their scenario, but in the film, it will go entirely differently.
In this film, there is all of Lang. The subject isn't really the death penalty. It wouldn't be a good film for Dossiers de l’écran**. 
The subject, as always with Fritz Lang, is the idea of responsibility. In his films, there are those who know they're guilty (it's stronger than them, it's pathological: from Mabuse to M passing by the "lipstick killer" of While the City Sleeps) and those who believe themselves innocent. But, from the silent serials to his American films made on command, through the big machines of UFA, Lang always drove in the same nail: there are no innocents. There might have been, but there are no longer. Innocence is provisional, wanting proof of it is already being guilty. Being sure of oneself, succumbing to the cold passion of ideas and ideologies, having the superior and smirky air of those who have expected everything, who have answers to everything, who are "mad of everything" is a dangerous state. Dangerous for others. 
The journalist who fights death penalty and the sadistic prosecutor who wants to apply it at any cost are brothers. One wants to expose an innocent man to be condemned to better prove him innocent, the other is ready to condemn the innocent man. What they haven't expected is that the innocent man is already the guilty one. 
I won't recount the events of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. I have already said too much. Its humour would be less redemptive if we weren't also, as spectators, at the same time innocent and guilty. Innocent because we know nothing, guilty because we believe everything. The Lang-machine is infernal: it needs us as spectators, witness, jury, cop. We play all the roles in this comedy of justice. But in the last shot, we are held up to ridicule and if some laugh, that would be from disappointment (one doesn't like being the dupe of a film, of a little celluloid.) Because we should know that in the films of Lang, there is never absolute proof, no end, no certainty, but a dry linking of causes and effects, words and things, puns and favourite objects, doors and secrets behind doors, insane uphill slopes and unreasonable downhill slopes. To infinity. 
How to watch the film? One must not try to be more clever than it. At the cinema, it's never an interesting attitude. (What does resemble the face of a clever spectator in the dark? Nothing great, it's even quite ridiculous.) And if we enter into the paranoid scenario of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, it's by pleasure, by play - not to have the final word. 
One must see the film twice: once for suspense and once to play its humour "in reverse." The humour of Lang, unique in the cinema, consists of supplying the spectator all the information he needs to understand everything. But of supplying it in disorder, so that he can make nothing of it. The truth is implausible because the characters don't stop telling it unknowingly. They don't stop saying innocently the key-words of the story they debate. Imagine a crossword puzzle where the definition and the word to find are the same. What anger (or what laugh) when you discover the trick. 
It's a word, only one, the name of the women that he has killed, that makes Garrett lose, and when the film is over, nothing prevents you from thinking with a greedy and retrospective terror of all the other words of the dialogue that are perhaps passwords, blunder-words of another story that could cross this one, as deadly as it. Infernal circle, that of your imagination. 
I remember the first time I saw the film. I followed dumbfounded this crazy story where the innocent is the guilty man, the inquirer is the inquiry, and it's the criminal who revolts against the death penalty. I admired this way of telling all these stories in one, as if to establish a theorem (I wanted to write this article on Lang without using the word "rigour": I failed.) I also admired the respect of Lang for the public, his estimate of our capacity for memorising all the elements of the film, never doing the job for us. And then, suddenly, at the moment where the old journalist takes his car out of the garage to go to the appeal tribunal of the "unfortunate" Garrett, I had a premonition. The man leaves the garage, he is in a rush and retreats towards the street filled with light that's at the base of the image. A second later, the camera is in the street, at a perpendicular angle to the preceding shot: a truck has knocked over the car, now in flames: the journalist and the false proofs with it. Horror. Horror and logic: it’s the thing we hadn't expected that must happen. 
Lang is at the same time the director who calculates causes and effects as far as possible and the one who knows how to make you feel in advance, only by direction, the stupid accident that will cut you down. A second before (not two, not three) before it arrives. A very abstract director and a very physical director. A genius. (Yes, but how to prove it etc.?).
First published in Libération on 18 July 1981. Reprinted in Ciné-journal in 1986. Translated by Steve Erickson (with minor amendments).

* "The Implausible truth" is the literal translation of title under which the film was released in France.

** Current affairs TV programme, running from 1967 to 1991, where a debate among intellectuals or expert followed a film on the topic raised.

Moviegoing Memories: Asif Kapadia

Moviegoing Memories is a series of short interviews with filmmakers about going to the movies. Asif Kapadia's Diego Maradona is MUBI GO's Film of the Week of June 14, 2019.
Asif Kapadia
NOTEBOOK: How would you describe your movie in the least amount of words?
ASIF KAPADIA: Diego v. Maradona  
NOTEBOOK: Where and what is your favorite movie theatre?
KAPADIA: The Curzon Soho in London.
NOTEBOOK: Why is it your favorite?
KAPADIA: This is the cinema I went to most often while a student at the Royal College of Art—this is when I was trying to make the leap from short films to feature film maker. My girlfriend Victoria—now wife—and I would go every Friday. We’d see the greatest films of world cinema week in week out. This was the cinema I wanted my features to be shown in. This is where I was for the opening night of my debut The Warrior and my first documentary, Senna. I’ve also interviewed some of my heroes at the cinema, including the legendary Nic Roeg (as we walked onto the stage, he turned to me and said, “Let’s not talk about the old films” ), as well as Doreen Lawrence and lawyer Imran Khan. Over the years I became friends with the people who ran the cinema and the programmers; I’m still in contact with them. It was and remains a key part of my life as a cinephile. 
NOTEBOOK: What is the most memorable movie screening of your life?
KAPADIA: Tough one. But I have to say it would be difficult to beat the world premiere of Amy at the Grand Theatre Lumière at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015. Before the screening we had a party in the casino next door which had been converted into a jazz club, Gregory Porter and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) amongst others performed. I had to be dragged out to attend my own premiere! It was a midnight screening, which started at about 1am. The standing ovation seemed to go on forever, it was incredibly intense and emotional, everyone was in tears by the end. We all walked out at 3am onto the Croisette in an absolute daze.
NOTEBOOK: If you could choose one classic film to watch on the big screen, what would it be? 
KAPADIA: The Godfather. An incredible film which created the rules of the modern gangster film genre. Gordon Willis’ cinematography has to seen at the cinema to be believed.

My Nights with Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie


Mijn Nachten met Susan, Olga, Albert, Julie, Piet & Sandra
Pim de la Parra - 1975
Cult Epics BD Regions ABC/DVD All Regions two-disc set

I still remember my visit to Amsterdam, about fourteen years ago. At the store called Boudisque, I asked if they had any DVDs of films by Pim de la Parra. I don't know for sure if the clerk even knew who Pim de la Parra was. Such was the fate of pioneering Dutch filmmakers Pim de la Parra and his production partner Wim Verstappen. It's only been in the past couple of years that the Netherlands' Eye Institute as rescued the films of "Pim and Wim", and with those films, a bit of film history that was virtually forgotten. Cult Epics has in turn made several of the films available on home video.

The title is a bit misleading as it suggests some kind of hedonistic romp. The character with the title in the first person is Anton, a young man who arrives at a converted farm house to meet up with Barbara, a woman never seen in the film. The farm house and a nearby shack are the home for Susan, Sandra, Olga, Julie, and as listed in the Dutch title, Piet and Albert. The farmhouse is an informal commune for these six dropouts. Anton's presence has disrupted the relative equilibrium of the group, although the first scene reveals Sandra and Olga to be anarchic forces. The French title of the film is Les Furies which more specifically would seem to refer to Sandra and Olga as vengeful female spirits, although no motivation for their actions is provided.


Like his debut feature, Obsessions, de la Parra again visits the themes of sex, murder and voyeurism. There is nudity and soft-core sex, as was par for European films during the mid-1970s. Pim and Wim produced films that straddled the line between serious commercial filmmaking and outright exploitation, constantly pushing the envelope of what Dutch censors would allow. This is a much more polished work than de la Parra's previous films, aided by use of a widescreen format. The six commune dwellers have chosen to isolate themselves from society at large, with Albert choosing to enclose himself in a room illuminated by a hanging red light bulb, while Piet lives in the nearby shack, physically expressive but orally mute. Julie is mostly seen sleeping. With police investigating a possible murder in the vicinity of the farmhouse, the choices are to break the cycle of self-enforced separation from others, or to totally succumb to madness.

The blu-ray comes with several supplements. In his video introduction, Pim de la Parra tells of how Rutger Hauer, not yet an international star, turned down the role of Anton. Three early short films are also included, with the two about the perpetually clumsy Joop showcasing the goofy humor of Pim and Wim. The supplement with stills and posters provided the information on the French title for My Nights . . .. The film is notable also has containing the final film work by composer Elisabeth Lutyens, whose atonal film scores had previously been part of several horror films produced by Amicus and Hammer.

June 10 2019

“We Made It For the City”: Joe Talbot and Jimmy Fails Discuss “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

Jimmie Fails (left) and Joe Talbot (right).
“You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”
This is what the soulful San Franciscan Jimmie (Jimmie Fails), the central character of debut director Joe Talbot’s lyrical The Last Black Man In San Francisco, says to two strangers who bicker about their intense hatred of the town. Jimmie doesn’t know them, and yet he interjects with uncompromising civic pride all the same, with the comparable entitlement of someone coming to the defense of his family against badmouthing strangers. To Jimmie, San Francisco is his roots and identity. And in more ways than one, San Francisco is the family that raised him—he can praise and condemn it from the inside, but outsiders better check their unearned judgment at the Golden Gate. “That's the sentiment of a lot of San Franciscans,” Fails says when he briefly joined Talbot and me in a New York café. “We are so proud of where we're from. How dare you come here and complain or say that about our city? We don't love it all the time; there are mixed feelings. Sometimes you wake up and you hate it. But we get to hate it, because we've been here. We helped build it.”
And this is the kind of pride that informs The Last Black Man In San Francisco, which premiered in Sundance last January, earning Talbot both a Directing Award and a Special Jury Prize for creative collaboration. Through a nostalgic blend of surrealism and emotional urgency, the film tackles San Francisco’s savage gentrification problem that continues to displace its communities of color. At the heart of the story is Jimmie’s singular life aim: reclaim the house in Fillmore (“Harlem of the West,” as it’s often referred to) he grew up in. It’s a graceful Victorian built by Jimmie’s grandfather and occupied by white owners puzzled about the young man’s insistence to drop in uninvited every few weeks to fix up and maintain the house’s grounds and exterior. With his closest ally and best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), an aspiring actor who lives with his ailing father (Danny Glover), Jimmie pursues his dream against the odds stacked up against him, while holding onto Mont’s helping hand, living in his home, and sleeping on his floor.
Fails shares a “Story by” credit with Talbot, who jointly wrote the script with Rob Richert based on Fails’ true life story. While the movie Jimmie is a fictionalized version of Fails, “emotionally, everything is true,” he explains. “But it took a while to get there. The early drafts were definitely angrier and more resentful. [We tried to] get it to that place where you felt like you weren't aggressively fighting back.” Fails lived in the Fillmore District until he was 6, but then was driven out alongside his family, living in housing projects and shelters across the city. It was during this time that he met Talbot—the duo has been friends since childhood, witnessing the city’s vanishing character side by side. But making a feature film hasn’t always been their official end goal. “We were always creating things anyway, so it kind of just happened naturally,” Fails reminisces. Talbot agrees, recalling the informal conversations they had half of their lives. There was never a “Let’s do it!” moment. It was an organic project that grew and grew, getting its first break when the duo shot a concept trailer. “Jimmie was skating through the city telling the story that inspired the film, and I was hanging out at my brother's car filming it,” Talbot recalls. “We put it online, and people started reaching out to us. Some of them were from far away, like Paris, London, New York, telling us the same thing was happening in their cities. But then there was a group of people in the Bay who said, ‘How can we help make this happen?’ And they became like a film family.”
“If I looked at the movie and I saw my face, I would wonder why it's this person making this movie,” says Talbot, when asked about being a white filmmaker telling a predominantly black story in an African-American community. “But this one came out of the collaborations we've been doing since we were teenagers.” In this regard, Fails speaks in unyielding favor of Talbot. “[It would have been different] if Joe was an actual outsider, but we grew up in the same neighborhood. And he's my best friend. So he's telling his friend's story, and I just happen to be black. I wouldn't rather have anyone else tell my story. I don't think I could've had anyone else do it.”
Director/co-writer Talbot and I spoke about his film’s inspired mix of tones, getting costuming and music right, and San Francisco’s specific gentrification.

NOTEBOOK: The story in some sense plays on two levels. There’s obviously Jimmie's tale, personal, intimate. And there's this great canvas of the city at the back. You're bouncing back and forth between the two seamlessly.
JOE TALBOT: When we developed the script, we tried to show going back and forth from one emotion to another in quick succession. I was just talking about [Ken Russell’s] Women in Love yesterday; that movie, in three minutes, feels erotic and then scary and funny, all at once.And that [is almost like] being a part of San Francisco. We've had a lot of walks where we're talking about something very emotional, and then we start laughing because we see a naked man. So you're constantly having these different emotions up against each other. As the script got more and more refined, moments like that were very important to us—not just the individual moments, but what they come before and after. So the city and those experiences inform the experience of watching the movie. We made it for the city. If the city didn't like it, we couldn't live with it, we couldn't show our faces anymore.
NOTEBOOK: While the film has a very dreamy, surreal look, reality bleeds through it constantly.
TALBOT: There are contradictions and complex feelings that we feel about our city. We love [San Francisco], but we're also very critical of it. We wanted to depict it in a way that felt real and authentic to people that we grew up with. Jimmie and I both came from San Francisco, but we [still] wanted to make it feel like a dream in some ways—baked into everything that Jimmie is feeling is nostalgia and yearning. Those emotions often make reality feel more dreamlike, in some ways.
And so building [the city’s character] from this feeling was important. We felt it was an Odyssey-like story: this deposed prince, trying to get back home and reclaim the family throne. San Francisco was an interesting backdrop for that, with the Victorian [houses] that feel regal, and of course, with the one particular Victorian that Jimmie loves; a castle of sorts. All those themes and growing up loving movies that straddle the line between feeling emotionally very relatable and atmospherically bizarre and escapist—that was something we wanted to find a way to combine.
NOTEBOOK: As part of that combination, you alternate between the dreaminess of indoors and outdoors; panning through the shipyards and streets when the duo is on skateboards and following them inside this majestic house, just as surreal. Was that challenging to establish that feeling indoors?
TALBOT: It was, if anything, harder outdoors. Our schedule was so crazy that [our cinematographer] Adam [Newport-Berra] had 10 days of prep, if that is any indication. Usually he'd have like three weeks. [To speed things up,] we knew we were going to be stuck shooting some exteriors during these hours in the middle of the day when you have the harshest sun around 12 to 2, when ugly light beats down on you. And Adam found a brilliant way to embrace the harsh light by using mirrors and reflectors, even during the daytime exteriors. And so that actually became part of the language in the movie that we tried to emulate in other sequences. [The scenes] where Montgomery’s on the dock rehearsing, and when a fish flops onto his boat, shouldn't look that good.
NOTEBOOK: And yet they do.
TALBOT: Adam knew how to [make it happen]. For the interiors, we wanted to [make the house] feel almost church-like, and so Adam was constantly pumping dust into the air. He wanted the air itself to feel textural. I don't know that you can ever fully capture that house on film, but walking into it for the first time when we found it on a very busy street in San Francisco, the whole world outside faded away. It feels like you're walking into another time. We were trying to find ways to translate that feeling onto the screen.
NOTEBOOK: The house you filmed in is not in Fillmore, right? Even though it’s set there?
TALBOT: No, it's in the Mission District. So it's actually very close to where Jimmie and I grew up. We were sort of following [the tradition] of geographically inaccurate San Francisco movies, like Bullitt.
NOTEBOOK: The casting of the house must have been a process then, to find somewhere that Jimmie would feel comfortable with.
TALBOT: We took over a year trying to find that house. Oftentimes all these great Victorians that have these beautiful facades have been gutted, and all the detail has been removed. We'd go in and have this heartbreaking experience. Also [it had to look] like one man could have built this. But it was like you said, the most important part of it, beyond the all-engrossing and enchanting feeling, was that Jimmie felt that way. I watched him walk around: he was very quiet, he just kind of looked around and he opened that pope's hole, that secret passageway. And one man actually did do all the work on this house. He's still alive and his name's Jim, as well. He became one of our godfathers on this movie. And Jimmie played the organ, and sat in the parlor. My producer Khaliah [Neal], a fellow Bay Area native, said watching him walk around the house, just his existence there, felt like a political act. And it was really interesting when she said that. Growing up in San Francisco, I think a lot of white people there associate those big Victorians with upper middle class white people. And in truth, when you look at the city's and Fillmore’s history, many of them were owned by African-Americans, even as late as when I was growing up in the Mission. So there are large black and brown populations that own claims to San Francisco's history. Some of that has been erased. And we're afraid it's going to be further erased. So to see Jimmie in that house... and then to see Jonathan and Kofi [Jamal Trulove] in that house…it's such a big part of San Francisco's history.
NOTEBOOK: It’s almost like a brotherly love story between Jimmie and his friend Montgomery. Is any part of your friendship with Jimmie deposited into that camaraderie, or was it entirely fictional?
TALBOT: People are curious about that, because our real-life friendship is a big part of how this movie got made. But in truth, Montgomery's character is based on someone we were friends with in San Francisco, named Prentice. And Prentice just felt like this great San Franciscan, very different from Jimmie, but I imagine them as this odd couple of sorts. We grew up with a lot of people that feel like different shades of Montgomery. And so I think it was always much more about them. After developing [Montgomery] for years and trying to base him on people that we knew, we met Jonathan.
NOTEBOOK: Their on-screen friendship was almost tangible, in a way.
TALBOT: He and Jimmie became that way in real life. Jimmie slept on his floor when they were rehearsing every night during prep. He became our third brother. He also took Jimmie under his wing—Jonathan is a Yale-trained actor, and this is Jimmie's first time. And Jonathan, in a way like Mont, helped Jimmie, sort of guided him. As a director and as a friend to Jimmie, it was really beautiful to watch. That's always the fear when you make a film that has a buddy element, “What if we don't find someone where this friendship feels real?” Jonathan was an angel.
NOTEBOOK: I also love the way they carry themselves so differently. Jonathan was very dressed up and suited compared to Jimmie. Costuming was clearly top of mind for that character.
TALBOT: Yeah. Jonathan is so fit and built, he felt like an old dancer or something. So we [thought of] Gene Kelly when dressing him. He wears his pants high like that; he tucks in. Amanda Ramirez, our costume designer, has Gene Kelly pictures all over her desktop. She's in love with him. When I said “Gene Kelly,” she said, "Are you kidding me? That's my boyfriend! We're in love." And of course, the contrast, like you said, with Jimmie (who essentially wears one shirt the entire film) [was important]. We wanted his character [to be] like Marlon Brando, like Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, that feeling of history in San Francisco, of longshoremen. We wanted him to feel like out of the working class of yesteryear. With the Greek chorus [scenes], costumes were really important too, because the film's also about identity. We wanted to capture the style of San Francisco, which is very particular, but also to push it to a more poetic place than a literal one.
NOTEBOOK: And that poetry is very much embedded in the score, too.
TALBOT: I feel like [I have found] a lifelong collaborator in [our composer] Emile [Mosseri]. In some ways, I'm the worst person to collaborate with because I'm very particular about music, down to the note in a chord. I can be on the verge of tears if it goes to the wrong chord. It pulls me out. If you love music, you know that feeling when you're very sensitive to it.
NOTEBOOK: Oh I hear you! If a note doesn't resolve to the correct place in my mind, then that drives me crazy.
TALBOT: Yes! Right! Every time it comes back around, you're cringing. And yet I don't write. Really I write a little bit by ear, but I can't possibly write anything like Emile can. So he was very kind, because he both humored me and allowed me in there. I would sing melodies to him, some of which appear in the film, but oftentimes, it was just me listening to him create a fusion of all these things we wanted, kind of hymnal in some moments and regal in others: brass and woodwinds and using almost like foghorn or tubas.
There’s this [film score] movement in the last decade or so, towards restrained scores that feel less intrusive, more atmospheric, and very subtle. But I grew up in the wrong era for that. I grew up on The Last of the Mohicans. And Danny Elfman. When I was writing this movie, I'm playing The Last of the Mohicans, and I'm going, "This will never [work]... Too big!" But as a kid, I always dreamt of big melodic beautiful scores that are their own works of art outside the film. Emile understood that. One of the first things he said to me was, "I want to make a score for this that you can hum or sing. Something that feels big and out of Jimmie's big heart.”
NOTEBOOK: And now I can completely hear the merging of those two worlds where the score feels big and old-fashioned, as well as new, like the works of a Jonny Greenwood or a Jóhann Jóhannsson. That contrast thematically echoes the film.
TALBOT: Yeah, that was a thing. We talked about Old Hollywood. We would play Alfred Newman and Georges Delerue…mostly a lot of European composers. We wanted shades of that eternal [feeling]. But then, like you said, people like Greenwood cause it feels so fresh and different. He also, in his own way, has both a classic feeling—I mean, he scored for The Master—and something very perverse and strange. So Greenwood was one we talked about, and Michael Nyman. What Emile did was better than I could have dreamed. And I think you're right, that [classic vs. modern] contrast is so important to the film. If it feels just too classic, then it’s like an homage and not a creation.
NOTEBOOK: I almost want to talk about the "You don't get to hate it unless you love it" line again.
TALBOT: I can tell you one other thing about that scene. That's Thora Birch, one of the girls saying that. When we first talked to Thora about it, we sort of joked that it was like her character from Ghost World, if it was 15 years later and she got a job in tech in San Francisco, if she never got off the bus, and she left in that movie. So that's sort of what she brought to it. She has the Ghost World glasses in her pocket, actually, in that scene.
NOTEBOOK: Wow, I did not notice the glasses. I love that movie!
TALBOT: It was an honor for me, because we shot that by my old high school, where I saw Ghost World as a teenager, and I fell in love with that movie. It changed my life. It was surreal. We're driving by that high school with Thora on this mini bus...very bizarre.
NOTEBOOK: Between Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, and even Fruitvale Station, there seems to be a lot of stories coming out of the Bay Area in recent years.
TALBOT: There's a long history, political history, in the Bay Area. I will say, though, those are all Oakland movies. And I think there is a real difference, even though it's so close, and even though we love our friends across the Bay, San Francisco has a very specific relation to what's happening with gentrification. The Mission, where we grew up, is ground zero for maybe the entire country for gentrification. It's like the blueprint for how to change a neighborhood, you know? With the influx of tech money, it's going to destroy the Latino neighborhood. So while there are similarities, Oakland and the East Bay have a different history and a different modern-day relationship to gentrification. We've been hit very hard. I don't want to say the hardest, but it kind of seems that way.

June 07 2019

Video Sundays: Briefly Convinced—Dad Abandons Family During Avalanche

By now, you may have noticed the mass circulation of a clip from Ruben Östlund's Force Majeure. A father Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) appears to flee immediately in the face of an avalanche, his selfish impulse leading him to abandon the rest of his family, including the very children who he told that the avalanche is "controlled." The very sudden escalation of the disaster and its icy comedic undertones—which makes the scene both repulsive and relatable—have turned the video into a viral meme.
Many, however, also seem confused as to whether or not the event is real. Some have offered psychological insights as to why the father's impulse may have kicked in during such a crisis, others argue that the parents should seriously consider getting a divorce. The question of reconciliation, of course, is the very epicenter of Force Majeure, which through Tomas's base response exposes to his family the contingencies and precarious foundation of familial loyalty and the artificiality of the roles that each member performs, stripped away by catastrophe.
The debate regarding the video's reality seems to have been catalyzed by the scene being uploaded by MUBI in its short length (on MUBI in the United Kingdom, the film is showing until June 13). The shortness recalls the brief several seconds-long videos of mundane but brutal events that are staged then spread across the web, like a scuffle in a store or a man whose kicking gets him into trouble with the police.
However, as a spectator, part of the perverse pleasure of these very short and very disconcerting clips (of films, or maybe these can be referred to as films themselves) is the uncertainty, the momentary suspension of both belief and disbelief. Following this is the exposure of perhaps a staging or some fabrication, when the dust settles; but there will always be that initial viewing of the avalanche and the father who ran away, in which the spectator attempts to piece together a truth (or an interpretation, such as "Me watching a bad situation and doing nothing till the final hour") based entirely on what can be perceived via the screen.
Though the actual impact of Orson Welles's 60-minute 1938 radio drama "The War of the Worlds" has been disputed over the years, PBS's documentary of its production emphasizes that the radio listeners were "convinced, if only briefly, [and] the nation [was] left to wonder how they possibly could have been so gullible." A few days have passed since Force Majeure crashed into the Internet at large, and with more time the veil will be further lifted, inviting even more cynicism about the stupidity of people or the pondering about how a "small arthouse film from 2014 gets new life as a meme." Or, you could watch the film in its entirety and see Östlund's assembly of fiction for yourself.

June 06 2019

Movie Poster of the Week: The Posters of Ermanno Olmi

Above: 1962 Czech poster for Il posto (1961). Designer: Jaroslav Zelenka.
The great Italian director Ermanno Olmi, who passed away last year at the age of 86, made films for over 60 years and yet is best known, if at all, for his four masterpieces: Il posto (1961), I fidanzati (1963), his Palme d’Or winning Tree of the Wooden Clogs (1978) and The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988), to the exclusion of almost everything else that he made. So the upcoming retrospective at New York’s Film at Lincoln Center, which starts next Friday, is most welcome. Unfortunately it does not include the many documentary short films that he made at Edison Volta in Milan in the early 1950s, but it does include all 19 feature films from his debut Time Stood Still (1959) through to his final fiction film Greenery Will Bloom Again (2014). Olmi has long been a personal favorite of mine and I can’t recommend this series highly enough.
Richard Roud, who was a great champion of Olmi, and selected many of his lesser known films for the New York Film Festival during his tenure there, wrote in his Cinema: A Critical Dictionary in 1980, “It seems to me that Olmi is one of the most important directors of the 60s and 70s and yet his films are just not very widely appreciated, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. It’s not as if they were hard to understand, or remote in their subject-matter.”
The best posters for Olmi’s films inevitably cluster around his most celebrated films, especially Il posto, which inspired a wonderful variety of designs. But there are gems for some of his lesser-known works, such as Andrzej Bertrandt’s abstract design for One Fine Day (1969). From the late 1980s onward, as Olmi’s star waned, the posters become less interesting, though he continued to make marvelous films, all of which I urge you to discover.
Above: 1963 Czech poster for Time Stood Still (1959). Designer: Zdeněk Palcr.
Above: German poster for Il posto (1961). Designer: Dorothea Fischer-Nosbisch.
Above: 1965 German poster for Il posto (1961). Designer: Frisch.
Above: 1964 Polish poster for Il posto (1961). Designer: Waldemar Swierzy.
Above: Spanish and Italian posters for Il posto (1961).
Above: Yugoslavian poster for Il posto (1961). Designer: Stokic.
Above: Italian posters for The Fiances (1963).
Above: Polish and UK posters for The Fiances (1963). Designers: Maurycy T. Stryjecki and Peter Strausfeld.
Above: Italian poster for One Fine Day (1969).
Above: 1970 Polish poster for One Fine Day (1969). Designer: Andrzej Bertrandt.
Above: UK quad for One Fine Day (1969). Designer: Peter Strausfeld.
Above: 1980 Czech poster for The Scavengers (1970). Designer: Eva Heřmanská.
Above: 1979 US one sheet for The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978). Artist: Ron DiScenza.
Above: Japanese poster for The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978). Designer: Masakatsu Ogasawara.
Above: Polish and Swedish posters for The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978).
Above: UK quad for Long Live the Lady! (1987).
Above: Italian poster for The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988).
The Olmi retrospective runs from June 14–26 at Film at Lincoln Center.

June 05 2019

Rushes: Unseen Kiarostami Restored, Revisiting "Bound", Studio Ghibli Theme Park

Get in touch to send in cinephile news and discoveries. For daily updates follow us  @NotebookMUBI .
First Case, Second Case (1979)
  • A restoration of Abbas Kiarostami's banned 1979 film First Case, Second Case will premiere at this year's edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato. Ehsan Khoshbakht writes that the unseen film is a "testimony to [Kiarostami's] seldom acknowledged political shrewdness and his objective, complex perspective on the tumultuous events of the late 70s in Iran."
  • Studio Ghibli has announced plans for a "Ghibli Park" to be built by 2023. The park will be divided into several themed "lands" as seen in My Neighbor Totoro, Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, and Kiki's Delivery Service. 
  • Last week a meme of what appeared to some to be a real video of a man abandoning his family in light of an approaching avalanche took hold of social media—the clip was actually from Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure and was initially posted by MUBI. Kelley Dong writes about the genesis of this meme and similar confusions of reality in history.
  • TROISCOULEURS examines the use of symmetry in the films of Bong Joon-ho, whose Parasite recently won the Palme d'Or.
  • Rob Zombie continues his trilogy about a serial killer family started with House of a Thousand Corpses and The Devil's Rejects, while reuniting all of the same cast over a decade later. The first trailer for Three From Hell:
  • Two decades after the release of Lana & Lily Wachowski's Bound, Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon reunite for a viewing and live commentary of the film, discussing its legacy as a lesbian neo-noir picture despite the initial pushback it faced from studios.
  • In his latest entry for Film Comment's Queer & Now column, Michael Koresky considers the "anxiety of closeness, of thirsting for union and sympathy" in Fred Schepisi's Six Degrees of Separation.
  • "In this world of heroic cinephilia, the critic lady – the lady critic – is a problem." Erika Balsom investigates the gendering of the "critic lady" as characterized in Orson Welles's The Other Side of the Wind. 
  • Writer Grace Levery delves into the self-contradictory "t4t eroticism" (or, "the attraction of trans people for each other") of Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!
  • Jeremy Carr investigates Josef von Sternberg's Anatahan, "a plainly audacious motion picture, still underrated within von Sternberg’s immensely impressive filmography." Anatahan is showing June 4 – July 3, 2019 in the United States.
  • Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails discuss their feature debut, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and the many contradictions and complexities of the city of San Francisco.
  • MUBI's collaborative video essay project with FILMADRID International Film Festival continues with Diego Cepeda & Luis Franze's A House With Many Voices, which pairs Marguerite Duras's India Song with Manuel Mur Oti's Morir... Dormir... Tal Vez Soñar.
  • A small remnant of Satyajit Ray's The Alien, written in 1967 and brought to Hollywood, then abandoned.
  •  From the Film Comment archives, an interview with cinematographer Néstor Almendros, who discusses Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, his work with natural light, and drawing inspiration from paintings.

June 04 2019

The Face of the Other: Close-Up on Małgorzata Szumowska’s "Mug"

Close-Up  is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Małgorzata Szumowska's Mug (2018), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from May 28 – June 26, 2019 in MUBI's Viewfinder series.
“But does he who loves someone on account of beauty really love that person? No; for the small-pox, which will kill beauty without killing the person, will cause him to love her no more.” A deeply humanistic conclusion regarding humanity rests in the discrepancy between one’s face and one’s personality, as French philosopher Blaise Pascal suggests, and cinema, most of all art forms, possesses the paradigm to represent and overcome it through empathy. Yet, in its tradition of swapping and changing character faces—which has a long cinema history, including The Face Behind the Mask, The Face of Another, Face/Off, and Phoenix—one film stands out with its poignant, yet light-hearted approach, colloquially calling itself Mug.
Małgorzata Szumowska’s newest feature is in keeping with the Polish director’s themes of individual suffering and the social significance of care. While Body (2015) offered a cinematic equivalent of therapeutic practice for its protagonists, Mug shifts the previous film’s ambivalent relation between physicality and psyche to the ethically charged question of the face. Jacek (Mateusz Kościukiewicz) is a hardcore headbanger and Metallica fan who seems malapropos in rural Poland, while his extended family’s preachy but partial Catholicism takes no hold of his joyous lifestyle. After an unfortunate incident on the construction site of the world’s tallest Jesus sculpture (yes, in western Poland, not in Rio de Janeiro), he recovers with an innovative face transplant. Eventually, Jacek becomes a prominent test to his family, fiancé, and the community’s allegiance to humanism and unconditional love. Szumowska is, as always, caring of her protagonists in a way that none of the characters in her story are, testifying to a director’s social engagement with the medium’s ability to enhance human connection. With an uncompromisingly hopeful protagonist, the film wields a bold critique onto unacceptance, wishfully suggesting that man is not an island.
While the film’s claim for social realism is satisfied by its alternation between the family world and the workplace, its opening sequence provides a peculiar insight of its political overtones. Cold hues drench the frame as hundreds of winter-clothed Poles await the opening of a department store with its neon sign pronouncing an “Underwear Stampede Christmas Sale.” Stampede is the best analogy for the social behavior and frenzy that follows, as the doors open and naked figures of all shapes and sizes push and grab each other to secure the reduced-price LCD TV. The eerie bird’s eye view hovers over its zombie-like objects—bodies piling over goods—while alluding to the consumer hysteria following barren Communist times. Undoubtedly, the exercise of social criticism transcends its behavioral accusation, yet its visual form throughout the film is more palpable. Mug is lensed in an uncomfortable way: diffused edges leave off a tight central focus, an allegory for narrow sight which urges the spectator’s attention to make out the hazy backgrounds and obscured details. In other words, by disrupting the viewing experience, Mug demands of us to keep a bigger picture in mind.
Painted as a fleshed-out portrait, the protagonist instantaneously earns our empathy way before the accident and his face transplant. “Jacek” is a fairly popular Polish name, yet its ancient origins (Hyacinth, Apollo’s equally gifted lover, who fatally suffered the god’s jealousy) suggest a presence at odds with its surroundings. The metalhead is defined by his Metallica-patched denim jacket, his long hair and prominent beard, and his allegiance to Christianity manifests through his Jesus and Virgin Mary arm tattoos.  Kościukiewicz’s performance is heartwarming and endearing, as the young man charms with his mischievous smile and bellicose attitude, jokingly refusing to pay for the family Christmas pig because he wants to move to post-Brexit London.
Equally rejected by the community, short-haired Dagmara (feisty Malgorzata Gorol) dances to similar whims, and boy, how they dance together! Amidst the slow decay of a conservative Christmas party where people only bother to tap their feet to a rhythm, Jacek and Dagmara steal the dancefloor with a bang tuned to Gigi Agostino’s electro anthem “L’amour Toujours.” Their intricate connection is more physical than conversational, as childlike wonder lifts their limbs in the air and sways them in and out of the beat. Flares and bright lights adorn their faces in romantic framing as they kiss and Jacek’s face is the focus of close-ups only when paired with his lover’s. Positioned in medium or long shots, only the aural presence of his character dominates the visual field, as his beauty and the significance of his face becomes emphasized only in retrospect.
The absurdist circumstances around Jacek’s disfiguration make a strong case for Szumowska’s assessment of Catholic symbols devoid of interpersonal warmth. The small town of Swiebodzin priding in the (as it turns out, imperfect) statue of Christ the King becomes a caricature of the director’s own nation and its the right-wing conservative fear of the other, whether in religious, racial, or gender terms. Mug showcases a full religious calendar, from a wedding to a funeral, confessions and clergy meetings, to mark the superficial distance of an institution to the existential value of lived life.
Even when his family is secretly calling him “alien” or “monster” after his surgery Jacek remains touchingly sincere in front of a mirror, touching his face with an immutable sense of wonder and curiosity, whispering the confident “It’s me, it’s me.” Mirrors here exist more as a construct of society’s fears than as an objective reflection of reality. The hospital glass walls are panoptical, robbing Jacek’s recovery of privacy yet they manage to attract more sympathy than mirrors. “Will God even recognize him with somebody else’s face?”, his mother ponders, voicing the fears of a community devoid of its humanity, as her hostile attitude finds her in the periphery of the frame, spying on Jacek's reflection, or observing her son’s attempts to regain his fiancé’s lost affection. The dialogue becomes even more sparse as Jacek’s inarticulate words meet his family’s deafening silence, and this rejection of conversation testifies to a new, unspoken, degree of ostracization. While its protagonist accumulates tragic potential, the impossible equation between personality and appearance rules him out of the social order and introduces him to a higher meaning of solitude.
Mug openly engages in criticism of discriminatory behavior but does not spare Jacek’s racist outburst against the Muslim construction workers who labor day and night alongside him on the scaffolding. At the same time, humor shines through in witty details, such as naming the family dog Cygan (Gypsy) and the loving discourse around the pet which muffles any racist undertones. A similar tonal transition bridges one of the early sequences as Jacek jokingly pushes a town bus into motion to entertain Dagmara, who is observing him lovingly from the vehicle’s back seat, to the ending, where Jacek is framed alongside that same bus in solitude. The now solitary extreme long shot marks the disruption between his two lives, as well as the refuted acceptance in social and familial circles that persists as self-acceptance.  Jacek’s relationship with his own (new) face is straightforward and loving. If only it was that easy for everyone else.
The film’s main theme resonates not only on an interpersonal ethical level, embodied by Dagmara’s sudden disappearance and break-off of their engagement, but also on a social note—post-accident Jacek is excluded from pension and financial aid—and on a political level, as an allegory for conservative discrimination: his appearance being unacceptable to the crowd. By the end of Mug, the intentionally diluted sight of the camera acquires an important ethical stance: seeing is as powerful as being seen. The face of the Other may be a mug and this is a triumph of beauty—the tangible kind, that constitutes mutual recognition and togetherness.

Devil's Kiss

devils kiss poster.jpg

La perversa caricia de Satan
Jordi Gigo - 1976
Redemption BD Region A

Devil's Kiss has just about everything needed for an exploitation horror movie - gratuitous sex, unmotivated violence, and a story that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. And yet I got the feeling that for whatever reasons, writer-director Jordi Gigo was holding back on the sex and gore when he really should have been fearlessly tasteless. This was a French/Spanish co-production made for Eurocine, a French company that specialized in low budget fare that played in the grind houses of Europe.

While the better known Eurocine productions were directed by Jesus Franco, with Jean Rollin also on hand for a couple of films, one of the other frequent filmmakers was Pierre Chevalier. I have to admit I have seen only a handful of films compared to historian Tim Lucas, who contributed some notes on the back of the blu-ray cover. But I have seen Chevalier's Orloff and the Invisible Man which is deliriously unhinged. More laughable than horrifying, the film also presents an argument that some actresses should not be seen in the nude, even if it is a requirement. Not only were these movies made to be screened in theaters where paying close attention to the story was besides the point, the films sometimes would have pornographic inserts based on when and where said film was shown.

There is very little information on Jordi Gigo. In writing about an earlier DVD release of Devil's Kiss, critic Aled Jones commented, "Not wanting to belittle Jordi Gigo and his directing chops but he does come across as a third assistant on a Jess Franco shoot in terms of talent which is hardly a recommendation." IMDb indicated that Gigo had a hand in writing Exorcismo with star Paul Naschy in 1975. Following Devil's Kiss, Gigo made a soft-core film, Porno Girl, before slipping into obscurity. Devil's Kiss definitely has a cult following, but it is primarily based on enthusiasm for the genre both dismissed and loved as "Eurotrash".

A spiritualist, Claire Grandier, blames the Duke of Haussemont for the suicide of her husband. She accepts the invitation to one of the Duke's parties as part of her scheme for revenge. With Grandier is the scientist, Romain Gruber, who specializes in mental telepathy. The guests at the party are part of what use to be known as "the jet set". Grandier holds a seance where the lights suddenly go out, but that's far less horrifying than the fashion show beforehand featuring garishly ugly bell bottom jumpsuits. The two become houseguests of the Duke. The reanimation of a bald, facially scarred corpse is only the beginning of their havoc.

Jordi Gigo appears to have taken various elements from horror movies almost at random, to form an incoherent mix. I bet you didn't know that zombies could be stopped by the sight of a crucifix? The blu-ray comes with both the English and French language dubbed tracks, but neither makes a difference in any added nuances. The expository dialogue is dull enough to make one long for the inane prose of Ed Wood, Jr. The cast is made up of primarily secondary Eurocine contract players Silvia Solar, Olivier Mathot and Evelyne Scott. Were it available online, I would love to read what horror film historian Stephen Thrower has written that might cast a brighter light on Devil's Kiss. As it is, the critical consensus is that this is cinema audit, loved by the most dedicated genre aficionados. You can't totally hate a film with the line, "No one will notice an additional grave in a cemetery."

Buchkritik: Reader Superhelden. Theorie – Geschichte – Medien

Nachdem Superhelden in den vergangenen Jahren weit über die Grenzen von Comics hinaus zu kulturellen Gemeinplätzen geworden sind, hat auch die Forschung über diese Figuren an Sichtbarkeit gewonnen. In ihrem Reader Superhelden haben Lukas Etter, Thomas Nehrlich und Joanna Nowotny nun Texte zu Theorie – Geschichte – Medien der Superhelden zusammengetragen – aus allen Epochen ... weiterlesenBuchkritik: Reader Superhelden. Theorie – Geschichte – Medien

June 03 2019

A Straub-Huillet Companion: "History Lessons"

A Straub-Huillet Companion is a series of short essays on the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, subject of a MUBI retrospective. Straub-Huillet's History Lessons (1972) is showing on MUBI from June 6 – July 6, 2019.
In her autobiography, Toby Talbot of New Yorker Films writes of a party she attended at the apartment of Bernardo Bertolucci in Rome in 1966. She remembers that “everybody was drinking wine and beer, smoking pot, dancing, having a ball.” Shortly thereafter, the doorbell rang. Bertolucci turned to the Talbots and then jumped to his feet. “Shhh-hh,” he hissed at his guests. “Get rid of the pot! Put the drinks away. The Straubs are here!”
If there is a single basis upon which both detractors and admirers of Straub-Huillet can agree, it is that the duo were utterly serious in their general mission. I’d bet these same people would go so far as to say that judging from public appearances the Straubs lacked a sense of humor altogether. Never mind Jean-Marie’s own penchant for mischievous declamations and clownish public appearances (Danièle often played the straight man). He once asserted that “we make films so people can walk out of them.” Another time, he stated that Carl Dreyer being unable to make a film in color proved that society itself “was not worth a frog’s fart.”
And despite their own frequent acknowledgement of the massive influence of Chaplin, Lubitsch, Luc Moullet, and Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on their work, very few people have attempted to seriously investigate the comic lineage into which the pair place themselves in any meaningful way, perhaps because to do so would seem on its face to be an enormous provocation.
It is pretty obvious that, in the seventies at least, this impression developed in no small part because of just how prominent their pugnacious adaptation of Brecht’s The Business Affairs of Julius Caesar (dryly retitled History Lessons) was in “structuralist cinema” programs on college campuses across the United States alone.
In the film, an unnamed young man tours Rome and conducts interviews with toga-clad members of ancient Roman society on the subject of “C,” meaning of course Julius Caesar. It plays like Citizen Kane shorn of any of the flashbacks that bulk out that film: here, it is all exposition, reminisces, impressions. Interspersed through these sedentary discussions are a series of randomly protracted car rides through the city, all recorded in unbroken takes from the backseat of the young man’s Fiat 500.
From this brief description alone, I’m sure you can see why structuralist-minded academics in the seventies had a field day.
Yet I have always found it ironic that it was History Lessons in particular that seemed to have sealed Straub-Huillet’s reputation for implacable humorlessness for good. Throughout the film, there are a number of broad gestures on the part of the Straubs that I find absolutely hilarious. Not least among them is the rather lowbrow gag that rounds out the film: that is, cutting from the bloviating banker Mummilius Spicer to an explosive zoom into the Fontana del Mascherone, which features a fat-faced stone icon spewing rainwater from its mouth.
Another zoom a short while later sends up the very idea of an “establishing shot,” which the film’s pseudo-mockumentary feel would suggest is part-and-parcel of the staging of these kinds of one-on-one re-enactments.
We are on a boat. The sea rocks it quite violently, and consequently the handheld camera sways back and forth. The throw-away quality of the image is shocking at first, given Straub-Huillet’s well-documented obsessiveness about their staging. Then, as if to throw this in our face further, the image queasily zooms in on the shoreline, becoming more illegible still as the rocking is accentuated by this wild push-in.
In another scene, Straub-Huillet move through seven angles on Spicer’s face, along quite literally a 180-degree axis, as he speaks to the interviewer. As if to confound our expectations further, these images vary in distance to the subject, beginning in medium-wide shot, then alternating at random between medium and close-shot and jumping to the next position timed with no discernible relationship to the man’s words. A sense of humor—a knowing acknowledgement of the idiosyncrasy of their style—would seem to be the only explanation for these decisions.
Whenever I see History Lessons, it is hard not to think of “Creature Comforts,” Aardman Animations’ famous five-minute contribution to the Channel 4 series Lip Synch. There, as in History Lessons, at least part of the joke is the mixture of rigorously determined settings with a subject already humorously embedded at their center when the scene in question begins (like the writer Vastius Alder in History Lessons who faux-casually rests in a multi-coloured deckchair, his hands folded behind his head as he speaks), a laughably fixed camera position, and a jolting disconnect between speech, setting, and speaker.
What comedy there is in Straub-Huillet’s films would seem to emerge as a result of their eccentric formal tastes. For instance, in their 1969 adaptation of Othon (discussed in the last piece of this companion series), characters ancillary to the immediate action—all, if I am not mistaken, off-screen—seem to appear as if from nowhere when it is their turn to speak, weird moments that are the natural by-product of Straub-Huillet’s Lubitsch-like belief in the primacy of sound over image.
In other words, any good gag (or aesthetic idea) worth its salt leads with the aural and takes a roundabout route to the visual. Here, two characters discuss a subject at length. They then look up at something off-screen. Straub-Huillet hold on their face for a moment, then cut to what they are looking at: another character has appeared just a few feet away, Batman-like, waiting to deliver their lines. In their films, as in Lubitsch’s, sound often “leads” the image, creating weird moments like these. Needless to say, part of what is so funny about them is that it is never clear just how long these people have been standing there.
One could argue that Straub-Huillet’s method often functions like a good joke. There is a build-up—a unadorned pan around a valley in rural Italy, for example—and the punchline, the moment you “get” the idea—when, say, you understand that this was the site of an historical massacre of leftists. While such macabre and sincere gestures are very much not funny on their face, their one-two structure bears the unmistakeable mark of a comedic formal influence.
Likewise, History Lessons’ famous driving sequences seem to build to visual “punchlines.” By virtue of the austerity of the staging—staring at the back of a person’s head as he drives—as a viewer you are forced to scan a busy frame filled with lots of extraneous action at its edges. These scenes’ hypnotic slowness lulls you into tiny dramas that form in a natural concert with the car’s journey along the streets. Therefore, when to cut away is apparently determined by adhering to the rhythms of these small bits of business.
In the first of these sequences, Straub-Huillet cut away just as the first real piece of drama spawns unprompted from the untouched material of the journey. After such a long period of quiet driving with no indication of intent, as a viewer you become acclimated to the aimless rhythms of the trip and, as a modern viewer looking back at these images, enjoy the unfiltered view of Rome c. 1971. Then the young man has to stop in a narrow street as a car coming the opposite direction slows down ahead of him.
It is the first trace of drama: we feel the inevitable frustration we would if we were actually driving the thing. He sticks it in reverse and backs up. We wait, unconsciously drawn to the first sign of conflict. A line of cars thanklessly trundle by. He accelerates and begins to wind down the street again. Only then do the Straubs mischievously cut away, catching us in an act.
In another, the young man weaves the car through the city streets, dodging groups of disinterested citizens going about their business with a quintessentially Italian disregard for traffic. Again, Straub-Huillet only relent at the moment a minor occurrence grabs our drifting attention. A group of geriatric old ladies potter around in front of the car, stopping both our impassive driver and another frustrated man opposite waiting angrily for them to shuffle away.
I find that such winking awareness of the act of fiction-making is embedded in Straub-Huillet’s funniest films. Small, self-conscious, and spontaneous gestures stimulated by some aspect of the process nod knowingly to the audience. One such exciting moment in History Lessons sees an errant leaf drift down from above and land in the sitting young man’s lap as he is summoning up the will to speak, intruding upon the carefully established scene in question.
It is worth pointing out that the vacant pauses that sit on either side of the dialogue in Straub-Huillet films situate it—as well as the speaker—within the space itself. They are an important aspect of their way of working. In this case though, the leaf breaks the spell into which the actor playing the young man has been lulled. He looks down at it and then cheekily glances off-screen, presumably looking to the Straubs to for assurance as to whether he should continue. He smiles out of the corner of his mouth before speaking.
That Straub-Huillet leave moments like these in the final film betrays a respect for a spontaneity of reaction that their rigorous preproduction planning would seem to belie. Indeed, Straub once said that only with preparation and intense rehearsal could true spontaneity occur, which at least to me sounds not that distant from the kind of wisdom of a great comic.
Similarly, their obsessive concern with cutting to the exact frame to make a scene “work”—often at a point at which no other filmmaker would think to cut—makes me think of Jerry Lewis’ admission that it took him days of pacing his office to find the funniest frame to cut from a boss yelling “HE WHAT?!” to an airplane taking off in the famous gag from The Bellboy.
Like all great comic filmmakers, the Straubs disregard the logical conventions of much of the cinema. They also make an ass of the formal ideals that much of non-commercial cinema is in thrall to. And like a Tex Avery, a Frank Tashlin, a Harry Langdon, or indeed a Jerry Lewis, they brazenly stretch the formal limits of their work to an obtuse breaking point that is pretty damn funny in itself.

Star Trek: Discovery – Staffel 1 (2017/2018)

Michael Burnham (großartig: Sonequa Martin-Green) ist eine Ausnahmeperson: Als menschliches Waisenkind wurde sie auf Vulkan großgezogen und ist nun Erste Offizierin auf der USS Shenzhou. Auf einer Forschungsmission kommt es zu einem Zwischenfall, der einen Krieg zwischen der Föderation und den Klingonen auslöst; die Shenzhou wird zerstört, ein Großteil der Crew kommt ums Leben. Geächtet ... weiterlesenStar Trek: Discovery – Staffel 1 (2017/2018)

June 02 2019

How to hypnotize the viewer: Mizoguchi’s STREET OF SHAME on the Criterion Channel


Street of Shame (1956).

Filmmakers must study the film image and its potential for expression. This is our primary responsibility.

Kenji Mizoguchi

DB here:

So much of contemporary film and TV takes pictorial space for granted. Yes, The Avengers: Endgame stuffs its frame with, well, stuff, but you’re seldom given time to see everything. Even in films not so dominated by CGI, if the the actors’ faces and gestures come across and you can hear the line readings, that’s pretty much enough. Most of the rest is there to fill out the very wide frame.

“Wait,” I hear someone saying. “Thanks to Steadicam, directors use camera movements to sweep through space all the time.” Yeah, that’s just my point: They sweep through. We’re following characters’ backs or fronts, not exploring space as such. Very seldom do we get a chance to probe what’s revealed, except in carefully wrought movies like Sunset (which tease you into trying to discern what’s not even in focus).

Moreover, today the pace of the editing is so fast, even in an “intimate” movie like Booksmart, that the actors’ faces dominate everything. For fifty years many directors have been “shooting for the box,” shoving their actors into close-ups that will read on TV, now on computers and smartphones. Like the endlessly moving camera, the big heads and the quick cuts refresh the image often enough to hold our interest in a distracting environment.

Granted, most filmmakers now supplement their fast-cut, rapid-pan close-ups with an occasional landscape shot that can look pretty, in a calendar-image sort of way. Overhead shots, now facilitated by drones, swoop us through the towering corridors of The City or across a swath of forest in a way that is undeniably impressive. This convention doesn’t count, for me, as pictorial intelligence unless somebody like Tony Scott does something, however nutty, with it.

I’m not against these stylistic choices per se; every style is valid if it’s pursued with imagination, rigor, and delicacy. Nor am I suggesting that the other extreme, so-called slow cinema, is inherently more virtuous. Long unmoving takes can be paralyzingly dull. Ozu made fast cutting just as “contemplative” as Hou or Tarr, because he knew how to design pictures.

It’s just that the norms of intensified continuity and the “free camera” have overwhelmingly dominated current practice. It’s worth remembering other ways moving pictures can be. One way to do that is to revisit film history, and the work of Mizoguchi Kenji is an ideal place to start.

His Street of Shame (1956) is the subject of this month’s Observations entry on the Criterion Channel. In it, I invite you to join me in attending a master class in staging.

The theme is Mizoguchi’s perennial one, that of the ways in which women succumb to or resist their oppression in a patriarchal society. We’re in the Dreamland brothel, where five–eventually, six–women are working at the very moment the government debates eliminating prostitution. Mizoguchi shows how they both cooperate and compete, trying to quit, deploying different strategies for managing their clients, and just getting by. It’s all done through what Mizoguchi called the “hypnotic power” of carefully choreographed images.


A personal note

In a way, Mizoguchi made me a film teacher.

During the week of 25 September 1969, what could you have have seen in Manhattan? I Am Curious: Yellow, La Chinoise, Closely Watched Trains, Miracle in Milan, Hell’s Angels ’69, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Midnight Cowboy, The Killing of Sister George, De Sade, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, One Second in Montreal, <—->, Take the Money and Run, Alice’s Restaurant, Medium Cool, In the Year of the Pig, Easy Rider, Putney Swope, and programs of Kubelka and Jack Smith movies. There were many double bills on offer: The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country, Yellow Submarine and The Gold Rush, King Kong and The Lady Vanishes, Seven Samurai and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, Monterey Pop and Don’t Look Back, The Deadly Affair and Funeral in Berlin, Little Sister and Alice in Acidland, Lonesome Cowboys and Flesh.

Yeah, those were the days before cable TV, home video, and streaming.

In the city for only a few hours, I didn’t go to any of those shows. There was yet another double bill at the Bleecker but I could catch only one title: not Lola Montès (I would see that in Paris a year later), but Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff.

As a teenager I had read books about cinema (Welles, Hitchcock) and in college I’d written movie reviews and participated in a film club. Now, newly graduated, I was teaching high school. The only Japanese films I’d seen were the Kurosawa standards our club programmed. Despite planning for a career in high-school teaching, I thought about film most of the time. In the pages of Film Culture and Movie I had read about Mizoguchi.

I came out of Sansho with tears streaming down my cheeks. I heard two young men in the lobby talking about the film. Did they go to NYU or Columbia or some such place? All I know was that they loved Mizoguchi’s long takes, as I did. Somehow, those takes had to be connected to the way the movie hit me. I thought something like: I’d like to study this sort of thing.

I returned to my apartment and began figuring out how to apply to graduate school.

Mizoguchi was still largely unknown, certainly unappreciated. The New York Times didn’t get around to reviewing Sansho until it resurfaced in a later run. Roger Greenspun made up for the neglect with a a gracious note.

“The Bailiff” is a film of breathtaking visual beauty, but the conditions of that beauty also change–from the etheral delicacy of its beginning (before the kidnapping), through the dark masses of the Bailiff’s compound, to the ordered perspectives of Kyoto and the governor’s palace, and finally to the spare symbolic horizons at the end.

In effect, it moves from easy poetry to difficult poetry. Its impulses, which are profound but not transcendental, follow an esthetic program that is also a moral progression, and that emerges, with supreme lucidity, only from the greatest art.

People talked that way then, with good reason.


Choreography all the way down

I didn’t see much Mizoguchi in the years following. There wasn’t much available. (And Ozu was unknown to us.) I did see Ugetsu and Street of Shame, though they didn’t grab me as fast as Sansho had. Fairly soon, though, New Yorker Films and Audio-Brandon made prints of other Mizoguchi titles available. I started using Mizoguchi films in my teaching, and the more I studied them the more I admired them. I was also inspired by critics Robin Wood and Noël Burch, who sought to explain the emotional and cinematic force of this filmmaker.

I began studying Mizoguchi’s films, traveling to Europe to see them all and make frames from prints. Eventually that work would inform my chapter on his staging in Figures Traced in Light. Although there he bested me two falls out of three, I think that discussion made some headway in analyzing his unique visual strategies. I tried to develop those ideas further in an online supplement to that chapter and in the blog entries “Secrets of the Exquisite Image” and “Sleeves.”

More skilfully and subtly than nearly anybody else, Mizoguchi arranges bodies in space to create powerful pictures. Yet his gorgeous shots aren’t just decoration. He never lets the images, elegant as they are, distract from the dramatic issues arising among the characters. The result, I argue, achieves the sort of “hypnotic power” that Mizoguchi claimed to seek.

In Mizoguchi, I suggest, a fairly dense image “becomes a story” as its elements start to mingle and separate out, letting our eye discover (with guidance) a drama as it emerges. A situation precipitates out of a rich mass of material, and the result is an accumulating tension  that’s at once dramatic and pictorial. He evidently learned a lot from von Sternberg, but I think this thickening-and-release dynamic of story and style is reminiscent of Hitchcock or Lang as well.

The students were right: Mizoguchi is a master of the long take. The long take, he said, “allows me to work all the spectator’s perceptual capacities to the utmost.”

But we shouldn’t think of this technique in the sort of marathon-competition terms people apply to long takes nowadays. (The current example is Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.) Today’s long takes are often virtuoso traveling shots. While Mizo made wonderful use of camera movement, he knew the power of stillness. He showed that you can just clamp the camera on the tripod (or the crane) and sculpt the action in front of it.

Among Mizoguchians, there are some who find his later films stylistically  compromised.  Genroku Chushingura (1941-1942; below) and Loves of the Actress Sumako (1947), with their far-off figures and impeccable, “all-over” compositions, merge austerity and density in ways almost inconceivable today.

Given this radical approach, his greater reliance on closer views in the 1950s work can seem a step backward.

But Mizoguchi was a pluralistic director from his earliest days forward. As I try to show in Figures, he fitted his visual design to the needs of a scene, and even the most severe films draw on diverse techniques. Street of Shame shows his endless resourcefulness in enriching three-shots and two-shots and singles. He found choreographic possibilities at every shot scale, with small gestures and glances becoming as important as characters shifting around the set. In the last shot of the last film he made, a single darting eye commands the image and carries the drama.

Given the sustained shot, Mizoguchi fills it and drains it, re-fills it and thins it out and channels it to a climax, all with a graceful, unobtrusive choreography always driven by the emotions pulsing through the scene. I go back constantly to Philippe Demonsablon: “He emits a note so pure that the slightest variation becomes expressive.”


Mizoguchi works in melodrama. Some directors, such as Sirk, take intense situations and amp them up. But Mizoguchi, like Stahl and Preminger, is always banking the fires. His style presents hot emotions in a cool way, betting that detachment and restraint give the emotions a sort of stark purity. If more filmmakers studied his work, who knows what kind of cinema we might have? I hope you have a chance to check in on this entry.

We’re grateful as usual to Peter Becker, Kim Hendrickson, Grant Delin, and the whole fine Criterion team, and to Erik Gunneson of the UW Department of Communication Arts.

Street of Shame is also available on a generous Criterion Eclipse DVD set. Some years back Masters of Cinema series gave us beautiful Blu-ray transfers of many Mizoguchi films. The Street of Shame edition has a fine feature-length audio commentary by Tony Rayns. Alas, the set including the film has apparently gone out of print.

Robin Wood’s influential essay on Mizoguchi is “The Ghost Princess and the Seaweed Gatherer,” in Personal Views: Explorations in Film (Gordon Fraser, 1976), 224-248. Noël Burch’s revisionist account of Japanese cinema is To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in Japanese Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), where chapter 20 is devoted to Mizoguchi. (The book is available online here.) Roger Greenspun’s review, “‘Bailiff’ Returns,” appeared in the New York Times (17 December 1969), 61.

For more on the place of Japanese directors in film culture, you can try this entry on Kurosawa and this one on Shimizu.

Street of Shame (1956). The sign reads “Cooperative Association Members” and “Confidential Membership.” Thanks to Steve Ridgely for the translation.

May 31 2019

The 5th Nitrate Picture Show

A woman walks into her bedroom to the absurd sight of a cow laying on the bed, and she diligently ushers it out of the room as if it’s a regular occurrence. This is one of the many surrealist images found in the Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí film L'âge d'or (1930), which was projected on screen at the George Eastman Museum’s Dryden Theatre in a rare context the first weekend of May. On the front of the image: the many scratches and marks of a well-played print that travelled through Europe and the United States with Henri Langlois from the Cinémathèque Française, who sold the print to the museum following financial difficulties while touring the United States with it and other films. Behind the image, the silver nitrate film base—that incredulous, highly flammable and volatile material associated with disaster and phased out of production by the 1950s. The stories of theater fires, vault fires1 and films lost to history due to poor storage in the early days of filmmaking are forever etched into the lore of cinematic history, but in the right hands, and with the correct environmental specifications, nitrate film can actually be quite stable, offering a glimpse at cinema’s teleology prior to the introduction of safety and acetate film stocks. This print of L'âge d'or hasn’t been screened to an audience in decades, and, due to the gradual shrinkage of nitrate prints over time, this may also have been the last time it could safely pass through a projector.
Frame enlargement from L'Age d'Or (Luis Bruñuel, 1930) 
To refer to the Nitrate Picture Show as just being about screening a volatile format again just for the sake of it would be a disservice to the festival’s wider connective tissue. Beyond the careful art of projection and the safety protocols necessary to pull off such a feat of presenting these prints again, the three-day festival is a celebration of the audiences, archivists, projectionists, institutions, and historians who make this cinematic experience whole. The audience are regularly encouraged to applaud the projectionists, and the festival staff is populated by practitioners of the museum and the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation who helped facilitate tours, workshops, and insightful conversations. And in the catalog, alongside historical quotes about each film, several lines concerning the physical condition of each print outline the frailty of the Nitrate Picture Show’s presentations, with many of the prints being less than 1% shrunk—the amount deemed safe for projection.  
Partner institutions including MoMA, the Library of Congress, Academy Film Archive, UCLA Film and Television Archive, the Kansallinen audiovisuaalinen instituutti in Helsinki, the Austrian Film Museum, and the Swedish Film Institute also provided films for presentation, allowing for a wider selection of prints beyond the George Eastman Museum’s already fruitful collection. The prints were further accompanied by insightful introductions from related practitioners, containing reflections and historical contexts. The fruits of these collaborations particularly shined during the “Nitrate Shorts” program, where the first-hand footage of war and a patriotic American voiceover of John Ford’s newsreel about conflict in the Pacific, Battle of Midway (1942), wildly contrasted against the colorful stop-motion exterior of Tulips Shall Grow (1942) by European emigre George Pal, which soon gave way to reflect upon the Dutch peoples’ traumas of Nazi invasion.
Frame enlargements from Tulips Shall Grow (George Pal, 1942), top, and Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947), above.
The dynamic range of each nitrate print is something that makes viewing them uniquely different to modern film bases for sure, whether they are black and white or in colour. Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947) feels truly at home in the silvery hues of a black and white nitrate print given its film noir lighting, and the animated shorts such as Swooner Crooner (Frank Tashlin, 1944)—found in the shorts program—were so vivid in their color range that it almost feels like a crime that further animated films couldn’t live in that iteration of cinematic materiality. In many ways, a large bulk of the festival’s appeal is devoted to witnessing how prior audiences witnessed cinema, but there’s a reflexive element that comes into play as well. Audiences aren’t afraid to laugh and pick apart the absurd moments in L'âge d'or2 nor the gender expectations of prior decades that now feel outdated and cringeworthy when revived in other films at the festival. An easy concern about the Nitrate Picture Show would be that it is unable to offer films past the 1950s and therefore might risk enforcing a sense of blind nostalgia, but in reality, the festival often allows the audience to re-examine the socio-political dynamics found within cinematic past.
Though the festival undeniably speaks to the cinephilic and the nostalgic, it’s at its strongest when it brings more difficult historical records into focus. Alongside the different approaches to tackling war on screen in the shorts program, one of the first prints on the table at the festival’s “Nitrate Touch” sessions—where attendees could handle various nitrate films up close—was of the U.S. Army production Atomic Blast at Nagasaki (1945), with an aerial view of the bomb’s cloud post-detonation on display in a cinematic format that is often lauded and referred to as vivid, yet the act depicted is of condemnable genocide. The print’s presence is a reminder that, however much we fetishize the materiality of film, we can’t look away from the fact that cinema has often been utilized by militaries to document war and genocide, and that its just as important to come face-to-face with those moments as it is to watch a piece of classic Hollywood or avant-garde French cinema. After all, the festival is built upon archival practice, and one of the most important aspects of preservation is the retention of the uglier moments of history alongside those that are designed to entertain and comfort us.
Top: Deborah Stoiber holds up a 1900 Lumiere Brothers’ print at the Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center. Above: Todd Gustavson stands with an operational Lumière Cinématographe. 
More proximate, the festival and the museum’s ties the legacy of George Eastman and Kodak in Rochester are omnipresent (the nearby Eastman Business Park spans 1,200 acres), and many of the objects on display in the Nitrate Vault, Technology Vault, and the Nitrate Touch sessions interface directly with early cinematic achievements, technological changes, and cinematic figures. Before I’d even sat down to watch a film I’d been to the Technology Vault underneath the museum, where curator Todd Gustavson screened The Kiss (William Heisse, 1896) through a Lumière Cinématographe that had been modified to work with a LED lamp, before showing off the many cameras, projectors, and other objects that the museum houses. I’d also been to the Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center, where preservationist and the festival’s Technical Director Deborah Stoiber showed off a 1900 nitrate print of a Lumière brothers film, with single sprocket holes on either side of the image. As someone with a keen interest in early cinematic developments, those two experiences were incredibly significant, embracing a heightened dialogue with cinema’s materiality. And at other points during the festival it was rewarding to see peoples’ specific interests in portions of cinematic history also flourish. This included looking at a print of the casting call trailer for Search for Beauty (1934) during the Nitrate Touch sessions alongside another attendee with an enthusiasm for classic Hollywood, who effortless fired off a list of actresses who successfully auditioned and then appeared in the Paramount project.
Top: A nitrate print of Market Scene, City of Mexico (Edison Manufacturing Co., 1898). Above: A Technicolor nitrate print of Forever Amber (Otto Preminger, 1947)
The Nitrate Touch sessions were not only a chance to see something rare, but also an opportunity to see certain changes and processes that aren’t immediately visible in the conventional viewing experience. It was these moments where the emotional and technological edges of the cinematic experience come into view. With the print of Market Scene, City of Mexico (Edison Manufacturing Co., 1898) that was on display, the smaller sprocket holes found on Edison’s film stock opposed to Eastman’s offer a glimpse of what it was like before the film industry reached a degree of standardization, and each frame’s primitive looking edges highlight the literality of the term “motion picture.” On other prints, specific edge codes3 give away places of origin, years of production, and/or how close the print is to the originating one.
There were also several Cinecolor prints on display, something which digital media will never transmit the density and color range of. Consisting of emulsion on both sides in order to combine the two-color channels filmed simultaneously in-camera, the Cinecolor prints show the rainbow-like reflections that you sometimes see in soap suds as they’re flexed under a light. The festival screened two print of this type: the comedic western The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (Preston Sturges, 1949), where several moments—notably the title cards—look as if the film wasn’t a transparent material at all but rather a dense canvas, and the Lowell Thomas-narrated Gardens of the Sea (Movietone Adventures, 1947), in which Coral Reef fish take their place as logical nominations for the Cinecolor system to have been tested on. In both examples, shots with a prevalence of certain colors become somewhat of a less appealing sight due to the limitations of the two-channel system and its nature of shifting hues outside of those it can ontologically capture, but retrospectively become charming insights into how cinematic practice was adapting. 
A promotional still of Rebecca from the George Eastman Museum’s archive. 
The most popular film at the festival was Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), the director’s first Hollywood production. Hitchcock as auteur has a draw of course (as does Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, and most David O. Selznick productions), but the screening also created a dialogue with historical context, production changes, and the edges of the cinematic experience through Stoiber’s introduction of the film and the inclusion of several screen tests from the museum’s collection. The chosen print was one of three held at the Louise B. Mayer Conservation Center and came with the United Artists titles that were changed in later distributed prints, and Stoiber outlined Hitchcock and Selznick’s strained working relationship and the changing of the adapted book’s homicide to a suicide to adhere to the Motion Picture Production Code’s standards. 
The screen tests provided the most interesting glimpse into the production of Rebecca, and part of that power lies in the fact that too often these types of filmmaking ephemera are relegated to a behind-the-scenes featurette hidden on home video releases. Watching them in a cinema with a large audience is an entirely different and far more engaged experience, especially given that one of the screen tests of Joan Fontaine sees her wearing the famous red dress from Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), which was in production around the same time, and which the Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center famously holds the Technicolor camera negatives of. Fontaine, suffering from the flu and reluctantly bought in for the tests, incited the audience into laughter throughout the silent footage with her various eye rolls and frustrated movements. Meanwhile, the auditioning screen test of Anne Baxter, who was 16 at the time, prompted discussions on how inappropriate it would have been for her to be cast in the Fontaine’s role. Several of the tests also exemplify Hitchcock’s role as an auteur, with two reading from the script but carrying none of the director’s trademark sense of tension, nor the final film’s gothic atmosphere, due to being overseen by others and taking place early in pre-production.
When Rebecca was finished and released in 1940, the screen tests surely meant very little to those involved, as they didn’t represent the completed film. But they were fortunately preserved, allowing festivalgoers to view them in different contexts decades later, whether that’s seeing the film’s connections to Gone with the Wind and Baxter—with the crew likely unaware of their future successes at that time—or the various “what-if?” scenarios that arise while viewing them. All that wouldn’t have been possible without the work of practitioners like Stroiber. The Rebecca screen tests perhaps exemplify the wider connective tissue of the Nitrate Picture Show best.
Various cameras held in the George Eastman Museum’s Technology Vault 
In many ways the festival is an experiment around the questions of “what does it mean to care for an image that is volatile?” and “how can preservation interface with the practice of film festivals?”—both of which create different answers depending on your own personal interests in cinematic past. Those questions are largely addressed through a heightened sense of temporality, and an emphasis on enjoying the lasting effects of sharing that particular volatile print with an audience. It’s unlikely that the Dryden Theatre attendees nor anyone else will see those specific prints projected ever again, and the festival even plays on that fleetingness by announcing the films on the first day of the festival and saving a further unannounced film for its closing “Blind Date with Nitrate.”
It’s easy to see the Nitrate Picture show as an antithesis of many contemporary film festivals where emphasis is placed on the new and emerging while subsequently, and awkwardly, glossing over the fact that many of those same films never receive distribution for wider audiences, thus potentially squandering their chances of repeat viewings and historical assessment decades later. But more aptly, the festival’s strength is that it offers an experience that runs parallel to other festivals and which makes something out of the fact that it ontologically cannot show films produced after 1950. Amid a busy world of film-viewing that increasingly becomes about instantaneousness and festival programs full of clashes and rushing between venues, it’s refreshing to attend a small festival where value is placed on all of its attendees being at the same screening to lend their eyes to a unique print, and where the sometimes fleeting materiality of cinema is amplified.

1. The 1937 Fox vault fire and the 1965 MGM vault fire led to the loss of the only known copies of several films.
2. Amongst the film’s ‘set pieces’; a man kicking a dog, a man shooting a child (twice) after an innocent prank, and a woman releasing sexual tension by sucking on a statue’s toe.
3. The meanings behind edge codes were a notorious trade secret in prior decades but now act as an invaluable guide for preservationists.

Close-Up on Virgil Vernier's "Sophia Antipolis"

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Virgil Vernier's Sophia Antipolis (2018), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from June 3 – July 2, 2019 in MUBI's The New Auteurs series.
If there’s one thing we can say for sure about the forever shifting cinema of Virgil Vernier is that it’s indefinable. In his previous feature, Mercuriales (2014), Vernier showed a friendship of two fiercely independent young women, against a vivid portrait of desolate corporate streetscapes. Where some filmmakers may venture into extensive character development, or stretches of dialogue, to inveigle against the 21st century capitalist morass, Vernier instead lets urban landscape speak mostly for itself—and a myriad of social and urban-planning ills, such as the ravaging of communal feeling in most big cities, and the physical emptying out of previously robust residential areas, with the economically underprivileged pushed out further from the affluent zones. All these transformations are already a fait accompli in Vernier’s work. This is why the landscapes in his films may not immediately strike us as French—they are corporate globalized wastelands, stripped of distinct culture or soul.
Vernier’s latest feature, Sophia Antipolis, is also permeated by communal and urban alienation, with places hinting little at their past once they’ve been transformed into uniform corporate blocks and banal glass towers. The title itself refers to an actual technology park in southern France, between the cities of Nice and Cannes. In the film, the park scenes are mostly nocturnal. By night, these endless vacant lots and office spaces attract vandalism and crime: A body of a young woman of Latin descent is found scorched in a garage.
This plot element could suggest a gripping suspense drama, but Vernier isn’t one to construct a narrative that resembles any recognizable genre. Instead, his instinct seems to be to relish each small scene’s situational richness, and to marvel in the unexpected juxtapositions of cinéma-vérité storytelling and more oblique imagery. Rather than drive with characters, Vernier bounces around—first from a few very young women who show up at a plastic surgeon’s for a consultation, desperate to have breast implants, then to two middle-aged women who bond over a meeting of a spiritual sect and a confession about a young daughter who ran away; and on to a group of security guards who do self-defense sessions in spare time and volunteer as nocturnal guards in their area, which they believe to be under-protected by the police. We must then trust that these disparate narrative threads and characters—each presenting a unique dilemma of contemporary living—will eventually coalesce. Luckily, it is easy to trust Vernier. His camerawork is understated yet confident, and his reliance on striking non-professional actors and eerie, keenly observed scenes are a powerful hook.
Let’s take a sequence—easily the most memorable in the film—in which the self-elected neighborhood “angels” train and then go out on a night patrol. A young black Frenchman is among the volunteers. He joins at the urging of his friend, a security guard, but the training session, meant to prepare the guardians for such real-life threats as robbery and rape, quickly turns to something a lot more slippery. When his fellow trainees haze the young man by taping him to the ceiling with a masking tape, and then let him go, to stroll alone outdoors, with the tape still glued to his clothes and disjointedly mumbling about their insidious laughter, it isn’t at all clear just how far the line of decency has been crossed. Are his fellow-in-arms vigilant, or are they vigilantes? Where exactly does one draw the line? In a later scene, when that same young man participates in the group’s raid on a private home—most likely of an immigrant, whose mug shot is taken together with his legal papers—the threat and intimidation echo the humiliation that the young volunteer had suffered at the hands of his racist colleagues.
We do eventually piece together the puzzle of the scorched victim, when the plastic surgeon is meaningfully linked to her past, as is the young girl whose mother has been so emotionally wrought after her running away that she joined the spiritual healing group. But even then, the story still continues to be one step ahead of us; the pleasure of watching it lies in embracing its mysteries. In my favorite moment, the young black man is shown posing on a rooftop with a peacock feather in his hair, in a sunlit shot—possibly at Sophia Antipolis, though it could be elsewhere, in a more distant past. The image may not mean anything strictly speaking but it hints at exhilarating possibilities. Here is light, in a place that’s been smothered by darkness. Here is an affirmation of individuality and warmth, where most characters have been governed by the ruthless herd mentality. Here is also flirtation, delight, in place of the constant fear of trespassers, others.
This moment notwithstanding, Sophia Antipolis is conceived in a minor key. Its profound unease borders on existential malaise. In this sense, Vernier shares some affinity with the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, or with the apocalyptic prose of the British writer J. G. Ballard. Haneke’s The Seventh Continent (1989), Funny Games (2007), and even White Ribbon (2009) all occupy a similar psychological terrain, as does Ballard’s High-Rise (1975). Unlike Haneke, however, Vernier isn’t interested in climactic denouement, and his stories are a bit like Emily Dickinson’s famous dictum, “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” We may not get much sense of character when it comes to the film’s individual protagonists, but enough to glimpse the quintessential paradox of human relationships: Vernier’s characters are capable of deepest love—they speak of it often enough—yet their need for safety and protecting loved ones leads them to discriminate and to oppress. All this is terrifyingly human, the more terrifying the further it gets from the straightforwardly sadistic bend of Funny Games, and into the shadowy territory of moral ambiguity. Violence is always just barely under the skin for Vernier’s characters, and it creeps up on them in a flash. In Sophia Antipolis, when the volunteer patrol raids a makeshift refugee camp, at least one of them clearly acts against his better judgment. Indeed, once we convince ourselves that the world is damned and only we can save it, we move a step closer to trumping solidarity with others. Vernier’s uncompromising vision of breached social contract, and his novel, fractal storytelling make him one of the most vital European directors to have emerged in the past decade.

Designated Survivor – Staffel 2 (2017/2018)

Der „Designated Survivor“, der „Eingeplante Überlebende“ ist jenes Mitglied der amerikanischen Regierung, das zum Beispiel bei der Ansprache des Präsidenten zur „State of the Union“ nicht zugegen ist, sondern an einem sicheren Ort warten muss, damit im Falle einer Katastrophe nicht die gesamte US-Regierung samt der Parlamentarier auf einmal ausgelöscht wird. Die nach dieser Person ... weiterlesenDesignated Survivor – Staffel 2 (2017/2018)

Under Childhood: The Self-Love of "UglyDolls"

Jonas Mekas, Lost Lost Lost (1976)
Today the terrain of self-presentation is built upon digitally mediated hypervisibility. At any given moment, you are (or should) strive to be noticed and recognized, whether on your Instagram or your secret Instagram, on your Stan Twitter account or your YouTube channel. We could think of social media as a democracy that enables self-expression, but there is an artistic process through which the voices of the masses are altered. The most popular of these curated individual brands (or individuals as brands, or “online influencers”) present themselves to the public through video blogging. But considering the films of Sadie Benning (who herself was a teenager when she filmed herself in her bedroom, speaking into a small camera), Naomi Kawase, Jonas Mekas, and so on, vlogging is a continuation of a filmmaking tradition.  
And just as a film festival or an art gallery screening a work by Mekas or Benning might profit from ticket sales and marketing campaigns, the vlog is entangled in the embrace of art and economy. Within these online spaces, the link between the young artist—if not just a filmmaker, the young vlogger is also a makeup artist, skincare aficionado, aspiring musician, or other hobbyist—and their anonymous audience is much more intimately felt because engagement is immediately calculated and often monetized. The appeal of the medium (technically speaking, a camera placed in front of a speaking person) is its promise of something real. Among American children, YouTube stars are more popular than Hollywood stars, with teens admiring their more “candid” disposition and “lack of filter,” despite the hefty endorsement deals that sponsor these videos.  
James Charles, "No More Lies"
It is not that the vlog corrodes the child’s true self with multiple online personas, or that the artificiality of the form prevents children from being authentic. The self is already a constructed being that contains multiplicities. But as a commodity, the vlog functions as a prop in the performance of authenticity for authenticity’s sake. The recent public spat between “YouTubers” Tati Westbrook, James Charles, and Jeffree Star, for example, consisted of all parties posting screenshots and videos of one another’s private encounters, each attempting to beat the others by the sheer amount of raw honesty they can offer. And when “being real” is the only end goal, self-love becomes a shallow act of accepting this “real” self as it is in the present moment—this is just who I am and how I feel, deal with it—rather than as an instrument for moving forward. What is obscured is self-efficacy, defined by psychologist Albert Bandura as one’s belief in “their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance” established as goals, whether as specific tasks or behavioral shifts. In and of itself, self-love facilitates self-evaluation without requiring any commitment to change. Self-efficacy, however, pairs self-evaluation with a consideration of external structures and events as they continue into the future. By looking beyond yourself, you learn to love not only who you are today, but also who you can and will become tomorrow.
A short clip precedes Kelly Asbury’s UglyDolls in which musician Pitbull (who voices a dog named Ugly Dog in the film) praises the film’s ambition to reassure children that life is more than just “likes” and “followers.” He mentions that to do so, UglyDolls has redefined the term “ugly” as an affirming acronym: U Gotta Love Yourself. The four-word phrase implies a rewriting of vocabulary, but the execution of the sentiment in the film is riddled with compromises that aim to please and not to challenge viewers (frequently, in children’s cinema, the two are considered mutually exclusive by an underestimation of young people’s intelligence) by disrupting any preconceptions.  
UglyDolls begins in Uglyville, where all defective plush dolls are discarded—literally thrown out of a pipe—by a Draconian toy factory (its owners are unknown). The inhabitants refer to themselves as Ugly Dolls, but do not know of the pejorative origins of their namesake. One of these chipper critters, Moxy (Kelly Clarkson), believes that one day she will find her place in a child’s home, unaware that she has already been deemed a botched product. What could be an opportune segue to introduce the meaninglessness of beauty standards and the possibility of a self-love unchained to the physical body is disrupted by the contradictory conclusion that actually, being ugly is okay, and that the title should be a source of pride. The lesson of UglyDolls is not that these rules of beauty are false, or even that true beauty can be found elsewhere—in the mind, for instance. Moxy and her friends leave Uglyville in search of a better life, but their path leads the group to the Institute of Perfection, a training center where dolls prepare to be purchased by children. As implied in the film’s opening sequence, which depicts multiple assembly lines where dolls are either packaged or sent to the furnace, the “perfect” dolls of the Institute are who the “ugly” dolls could and should have been if not for machine error.
Though they are taunted and mocked by their pretty counterparts, the Ugly Dolls work hard to prove that a child can still love an ugly doll. They, of course, win; their victory is predictable only because every toy, whether “pretty” or “ugly,” is still a product of the same factory. The toys of Uglyville together declare their “flaws”—glasses, freckles, blemishes, nothing that a child should be taught is innately wrong—make them special. But to agree with the factory that deemed them defective is already an act of compromise. The other option would be to develop an alternate standard of identification altogether; instead, the Ugly Dolls hold to being ugly until the very end, when the dolls all make peace and rename their unified state “Imperfection” (a diluted synonym for “ugly”). But again, does naming a group after the very word used to classify their lower status do anything to re-write the glossary? Oddly enough, the suggestion that the toys must toil in a gymnasium to earn the love of their human overlords is also never questioned. Though the toys are agents tasked with discovering their innate value as thinking beings, their journey is weighed down by the over-emphasized authority figures that they are eager to impress. They have the agency to choose to compete to be the best toy a child has ever had, but not enough to exit the factory.
If Asbury’s intention was self-critique, then the film overwhelmingly succeeds; it paints with broad strokes a method of shaming (very young) victims into owning the falsehoods waged against them and names this procedure self-love. To compare, in Guy Ritchie’s remake of the 1992 film Aladdin, which retains a majority of the original film’s music and dialogue, Aladdin (Mena Massoud) sings that even if soldiers and guards were to see his poverty and call him a “street rat,” he cannot buy into their lies: “If only they’d look closer / Would they see a poor boy? / […] They’d find out / There’s so much more to me.” The ambiguity of the “so much more” is not a mystical acceptance of the unknown (whoever I really am, who is to say?) but a guarantee that a new knowledge exists outside of the lexicon of an imposed language, that you could love yourself as a being beyond what you are known as now. 

May 30 2019

Rushes: "Ad Astra" Trailer, Coming-of-Age Outfits, First Reformed: Godzilla

Barry Jenkins by Liz Seabrook for Little White Lies
  • Barry Jenkins is set to direct a film about the life of the late Alvin Ailey, the choreographer considered one of the most important of the twentieth century.
  • A wonderfully lush and eerie trailer for the 4K restoration of Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, which opens in theaters on July 5.
  • The BFI and the Royal Astronomical Society have uncovered the very first film of a solar eclipse, captured by British magician Nevil Maskelyne in 1900.
  • One century after the solar eclipse was first captured on film, arrives the first trailer for James Gray's Ad Astra, which stars Brad Pitt as an astronaut searching for his missing father—who was involved in a government project on extraterrestrial life—in space.
  • The official trailer for Carlos Reygadas's Our Time, starring Reygadas and his wife Natalia López as a couple caught in a love triangle. Read our interview with Reygadas regarding Our Time here.
  • NEON has released the first trailer for Julius Onah's Luce, based on the play by J.C. Lee. The film follows a high school student, adopted from Eritrea, whose affinity for violence attracts the suspicions of his teacher.
À Nos Amours (1983)
  • For Ssense, 9 writers share their fashion essentials from coming-of-age films, from the one-piece swimsuit of Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl to the striped t-shirt in Maurice Pialat's À Nos Amours.
  • In an examination of Tate Taylor and Octavia Spencer's horror film Ma, Doreen St. Felix writes that the film, like many misfires of our current moment, "is so busy making a spectacular event of its existence, it neglects to attend to its meaning."
  • "I used to reflect on my younger self and think about a girl who didn’t know what she was doing. [...] The hardest part was discovering that, fundamentally, I hadn’t changed that much." Joanna Hogg describes the process of recalling feelings and memories into the present, in an interview with BOMB Magazine.
Elaine May by Brigitte Lacombe.
  • Elaine May interviews Kenneth Lonergan in a conversation that begins with a series of scrambled e-mails and continues into a discussion of feminism, favorite foods, and fate.
  • The filming of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is detailed in a new book by poet W.K. Stratton. In A.S. Hamrah's review of the book, he posits that because "almost all the Americans involved [...] had seen action in the Second World War, the film can be read as a crypto-reenactment of the violence they witnessed and its subsequent trauma."
  • Abel Ferrara discusses Tommaso, his collaborative relationship with Willem Dafoe, moments of self-reflection upon his career, and creative freedom.
  • Beatrice Loayza considers Nobuhiro Suwa's The Lion Sleeps Tonight, which stars Jean-Pierre Léaud as an aging actor, and "marks another Léaudian interpretation of the ways in which cinema can inform death, and vice versa." The Lion Sleeps Tonight is currently receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI from May 28 – June 26, 2019.
  • Andrew Northrop reports from the 5th Nitrate Picture Show, "the George Eastman Museum’s unique festival in Rochester, NY [which] curates and projects movies printed on the volatile film stock."
  • Dom Nero of Esquire imagines a world where Reverend Toller of the First Reformed Church anticipates Godzilla's apocalyptic invasion of earth. "Will Godzilla forgive us?"

Assassination Nation (2018)

„Bildet Banden!“ Feministinnen wissen: Alleine bekommt man das nicht hin, so wie die Männer sich unterstützen, vom Old Boys‘ Network bis hin zum Sportverein, so hat frau nur eine Chance, wenn sie nicht allein ist. Und wenn die Umstände es erfordern, dann bildet sich halt aus der Clique, die in der Freizeit zusammenhockt, über Jungs ... weiterlesenAssassination Nation (2018)
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