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Archive for the ‘Joel’s Sunday Matinee’ Category


(by Joel)

Contains some spoilers. If you want a more concise and suggestive take on the film tune in on Tuesday; coincidentally, Allan has made Paris (under its French title) his next entry in The Fish Obscuro. Then check out the film itself (it’s not the most difficult of “unavailable” films to find) and read this. Or heck, just plunge in here and now, in the spirit of Rivette…

Paris Belongs to Us, France, 1960, dir. Jacques Rivette

Starring Betty Schneider, Giani Esposito, Françoise Prévost, Daniel Crohem, François Maistre, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Luc Godard

Story: Anne Goupil is slowly drawn into a mysterious and complicated plot involving her brother’s bohemian circle of friends, one of whom is directing her in a play. She slowly discovers that Juan, a young musician and supposed suicide, may have been murdered, either by the femme fatale Terry or a worldwide conspiracy of fascists…or both, or neither.

“I want to tell you that the world isn’t what it seems.”

- Philip Kaufman

“It’s shreds and patches, yet it hangs together over all. Pericles may traverse kingdoms, the heroes are dispersed, yet they can’t escape, they’re all reunited in Act V. … It shows a chaotic but not absurd world, rather like our own, flying off in all directions, but with a purpose. Only we don’t know what.”

- Gérard Lenz

“I speak in riddles but some things can only be told in riddles.”

- Philip Kaufman

• • •

Whether you find Paris Belongs to Us a richly original debut, a frustrating mess, or a bit of both depends on how you come at it. The first time I saw it I loved it, falling deeply under its spell; more recently it seemed somewhat more limp than I remembered, its ragtag assembly less charming, the aloofness of its allure more challenging (you must be willing to approach and enter it before it unfurls its tentacles and wraps you in its embrace). If you are in the right mood, Paris Belongs to Us intoxicates – and the ambivalence of its appeal reflects the nature of the conspiratorial mindset itself: to those prone to paranoia, all the loose and dead ends add up to form a complex puzzle that only the “in” can see – if you are lucid enough to step aside and maintain your skepticism, the bits and pieces fall apart and toxic anxiety is exposed as its own self-poison. Ironically, Rivette is able to capture the mood of the first mindset while himself embodying the second: this conspiracy belongs more to the imagination than reality, and Paris Belongs to Us is in part a cautionary tale about the dangerous allure and self-fulfilling prophecy of paranoia.

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(by Joel)

Cleo From 5 to 7, France, 1962, dir. Agnes Varda

Starring Corinne Marchand

Story: After a bad visit to a psychic, pop star Cleo Victoire (real name Florence) fears that her recent medical tests will offer a sentence of death. As she wanders the streets of Paris, flitting from rehearsals to sickbeds to restaurants to strolls through the park, the artifice of her persona and appearance is slowly stripped away, until only Florence is left to find out what fate has in store.

The visual touchstone of French New Wave cinema is a character wandering down the real-life streets of Paris, trailed by a handheld camera or preceded by a makeshift dolly: think Jean Seberg shouting “New York Herald-Tribune!”, Jean-Pierre Leaud playing truant, Bernadette Lafont pretending to ignore flirtatious overtures from a passing car, or Betty Schneider ducking into a cafe to discuss a mysterious disappearance with Jean-Luc Godard. This visual tradition traveled through time when Jules and Jim brought the New Wave spirit to prewar bohemia, parading down the period avenues and alleys, Truffaut’s big hit seemed to capture the restless motion of a whole generation at the dawn of a new, exciting era in art and life alike (although in its ending it contained foreshadowings of the frustrations, disappointments, and uncertainties to come).

Then “the walk” crossed the Channel in 1963 with Julie Christie’s daffy, free-spirited stroll through a Yorkshire town in Billy Liar, and it crossed the Atlantic when Liar‘s director John Schlesinger set Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman loose in a downbeat, grimy New York – by then, the sixties had taken a darker turn. (In 1974, Louis Malle would turn the French “city-walking film” on its head: rather than follow one character with a moving camera, he fixed the camera in place, allowing it to glimpse into the lives of all the passerby who crossed its path.) But no film more perfectly captures or fully explores the potential of this method than Cleo From 5 to 7, Agnes Varda’s second feature and her first fictional film since 1955′s Le Pointe-Courte, a documentary-narrative hybrid, which preceded the New Wave.

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Les Bonnes Femmes, France, 1960, dir. Claude Chabrol

Starring Bernadette Lafont, Clotilde Joano, Stéphane Audran, Lucile Saint-Simon

Story: Four shopgirls while away the daytime hours in tedium, then spend their nights prowling Paris, looking for fun, excitement, and perhaps true love – only to find predatory jerks, cowardly boyfriends, lascivious bosses, and a mysterious motorcyclist who stands in the shadows, watching all like a wise demigod – or a prowling tiger.

When, all at once, a new group of young filmmakers arrives on a national scene, there may share some common wellspring. In the U.S., it was often an apprenticeship under Roger Corman (Coppola, Scorsese, Bogdanovich, and Hopper all made early B movies with the prolific independent producer). In Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries, the new generation came through the state-run film schools; in the UK, the “kitchen sink” realists were usually documentarians before they made narrative features. In France, the situation was more incestuous than most. If you were to pick the ten or so major French filmmakers to emerge in the French New Wave, at least half of them came from Cahiers du Cinema, the fiery, controversial, and influential start-up film publication. In the late fifties, right around the time Cahiers editor and New Wave mentor Andre Bazin died, Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer all began work on their first features. It was Chabrol who hit screens first, with Le Beau Serge (about a young urbanite visiting the provinces) but Truffaut and Godard were the ones who brought attention to the movement, with The 400 Blows and Breathless. In some ways, Chabrol was the odd man out of the five.

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(by Joel)

Miraculous Virgin, Czechoslovakia, 1967, dir. Stefan Uher

Starring Jolanta Umecka, Ladislav Mrkvicka, Otakar Janda

Story: As bombs fall from the sky, a beautiful young woman wanders into the lives of several young artists and a melancholy middle-aged sculptor. They treat her as their muse. Yet before long, she is overwhelmed by their aggressive attention, and they are frustrated by her aloof resistance to their overtures.

An interesting element of the various European New Waves is their relationship with the recent past – namely World War II. I’ve often felt that the sixties were imbued with the displaced spirit of the forties, and that the cultural explosion and political upheaval of the era may have been impossible without the misery, death, and displacement of two decades before. This is not to say that the war played a huge role in cultural artifacts of the time; in some ways, the influence was indirect, in others displaced. In certain countries, for example the United States or Britain, the war was considered property of the older squares, and youthful revelers, rebels, or activists either satirized or ignored the earlier era’s sensibility. Elsewhere, the war haunted the cinema without necessarily being foregrounded: in France, it popped up in the films of Alain Resnais (about ten years older than most of the other New Wavers); in Italy and Japan, a sense of collective guilt fed into the bitterness with which young filmmakers scorned the societies of the past. Whatever the country, New Wavers tended to be born around the same time period, from the late twenties to the mid-thirties (some a bit younger in Italy, some a bit older in Britain), making them teenagers at the time of the war. This meant that most did not serve as soldiers, and would only have experienced the turmoil of the time to the extent that war came to them.

Czechoslovakia, in some ways, was spared the most brutal aspects of the war. Unlike Britain, Poland, Germany, or Japan it was not subjected to substantial aerial bombardment, one reason that Prague still remains the glistening city of the past, architectural jewels from earlier centuries still dominating its skyline. Yet this was precisely because the Germans didn’t need to bomb the Czechs – the country had already been handed over to Hitler by allies eager to appease, and Czechoslovakia was given the dubious honor of enduring Nazi occupation from months before World War II even began. Following the war, unlike the French, Italian, or British, the nation was not able to stumble towards a new sense of independence or democracy; it was occupied by the Soviets, democratic officials were killed, and a Stalinist dictatorship was installed within several years of the “victory.” In some ways, for Czechoslovakia, the war never ended. No wonder then, that World War II features so prominently in the Czechoslovakian New Wave (and here it makes sense to use the country’s full name, as Miraculous Virgin was directed by a Slovak, not a Czech). Some of its most famous films – including the Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains and The Shop on Main Street – take place during the war. The best of these (and the least well-known) is the phenomenal Miraculous Virgin – while the setting is ambiguous, the film is tormented by a sense of occupation, persecution, death, and collaboration. Its themes are universal, but the historical experience of this beleaguered nation is the context out of which Miraculous Virgin was born.

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(by Joel)

Daisies, Czechoslovakia, 1966, dir. Vera Chytilová

Starring Ivana Karbanová, Jitka Cerhová

Story: Bored with their lives, two young girls (Marie and Marie) go on an anarchic and increasingly destructive spree of eating, drinking, partying, ridiculing conventions, while burning, cutting, or stealing every object in sight.

…Though I’m not sure I’d call it a “story.”

Daisies opens and closes with images of war. The opening credits intercut the grinding mechanisms of wheels and cogs with shaky aerial footage of bombardments. The film ends suddenly with one last image of a (Vietnamese?) countryside being strafed, along with the slow-boiling, deadpan tribute of the filmmaker to her would-be censors: “This film is dedicated to those whose sole source of indignation is a messed-up trifle.” The visual carnage is appropriate, for seemingly contradictory reasons. On the one hand, it gives a real-world analogue to the devilish destruction unfolding throughout the movie, and perhaps suggests that the aggressive but not physically violent behavior of its heroines could eventually lead in this deadlier direction – or at least that it’s part of the same continuum, selfish decadence leading to bloody chaos. On the other hand, there’s an apocalyptic tenor to the war footage, which contrasts sharply with the free-spirited bonhomie of our leading ladies – the suggestion is that this ugly world is what they’re rebelling against. Seen this way they are the embodiment of the contemporary countercultural ethos, thumbing noses at conservative social forces be they masked as American imperialists or Stalinist bureaucrats.

And on yet another hand (anatomically incorrect perhaps, but in the spirit of a film which shatters all rules of propriety and perspective) the documentary authenticity of those fleeting shots casts a gloom over the completely and flagrantly fabricated playfulness of the protagonists, giving it an unreal and desperate air. So perhaps there is no direct relationship (either positive or negative) between the world’s war and the girls’ anarchy, but rather a tension unresolvable in their favor – this grim reality lends a certain fragility to their antics, justifying their aggression and threatening their larks with an air of impending doom. All of these interpretations are, of course, valid but ultimately interpretations are – if not beside the point – at least after the fact. This is a film to be experienced more than “understood” – a wild ride through colors, cuts, iconic images, jagged suggestions, lavish set pieces, roundabout dialogue, and alarmingly incessant and aggressive noises (the sound collage “score,” mixing speedily-played classical compositions, random sound effects, and avant-garde atonal exercises, is as much a part of the experience as anything onscreen). It’s a tale told by an imp, full of sound and fury, signifying everything.

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(by Joel)

Loves of a Blonde, Czechoslovakia,1965, dir. Milos Forman

Starring Hana Brejchová, Vladimír Pucholt

Story: A young woman sleeps with a charming young pianist, but when she pursues him to Prague, she discovers that he did not take their romance as seriously as she did.

The title, like so much else in Milos Forman’s second feature, is gently ironic. With its plural “Loves,” it suggests a worldly figure, a free-spirited sixties girl who rounds up loves, and lovers, with a sense of carefree fun. At the same time, “a Blonde” implies a symbolic woman more than an actual one, probably a silly girl who falls in love and breaks hearts without knowing her own power and/or foolishness. Well, the blonde in Loves of a Blonde, Andula (Hana Brejchová), is rather foolish. And in the course of the movie, she does upset and befuddle at least one boyfriend, by recoiling from him without telling him why. Yet at film’s end, she has had only one real lover, and it was her heart that was broken, not his. Most importantly, Andula is not Julie Christie sent to Prague – not a swinger, but a dreamer, a naïve young woman who is not responding to a new freedom but reacting to a lack thereof. Just as the Prague Spring would flourish for a brief period, before Soviet tanks re-imposed a totalitarian regime for another two decades, so Andula’s season of hope is short. When we last see her, she is back in the factory toiling away, sad and quite alone. Though Loves of a Blonde is a comedy, and a very funny one, at its core is a tragic (albeit still romantic) sense of life.

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(by Joel)

The Sunday Matinee is a series exploring various national cinemas of the 60s – Italian, British, Czech, and French. Usually, the approach is film by film but this week is an exception. This admittedly rather long essay takes a wide view, not just of the two films in question, but of the British New Wave as a whole, and how these particular movies relate to it. Both reviews contain spoilers.

This Sporting Life, UK, 1963, dir. Lindsay Anderson

Starring Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts

Story: Frank Machin, a working-class bloke made local hero in a rugby league, tries to establish a relationship with his widowed landlady, but neither of them can escape their past – she because of her suicidal first husband, he because the patriarchs owning his team never let him forget to whom he owes his success.

• • •

Billy Liar, UK, 1963, dir. John Schlesinger

Starring Tom Courtenay, Julie Christie

Story: Billy Fisher uses imagination to get him through a life filled with boring dead-end jobs, multiple fiancées, and crushed hopes, but his active fantasy life is challenged by Liz, a free spirit who pushes him to live out his dreams in the real world, rather than in his mind.

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The Sunday Matinee, focusing in turn on three films from the 60s cinemas of Italy, Britain, Czechoslovakia, and France, will continue on this site through the end of the year. Despite today’s early posting, the pieces will usually appear Sunday at 2pm EST.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, UK, 1960, dir. Karel Reisz

Starring Albert Finney, Rachel Roberts, Shirely Anne Field

Story: Arthur Seaton spends the week working in a factory, and the weekend winning drinking contests, sleeping with a co-worker’s wife, and generally pissing off everyone in sight.

When the British New Wave hit cinemas in the early 60s, with its unprettified portraits of working-class life, it was seen as part of an overall cultural trend, already predominant in literary and theatrical works (from which many of these films, this one included, were adapted): the rise of the “Angry Young Man.” In Look Back in Anger, he’s a snarling young Richard Burton, lashing out at his lover yet displaying a wounded pride when she lashes back. Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner spots him at a borstal, where Tom Courteney runs from authorities until the authorities actually want him to run, at which point he stops. This Sporting Life tackles Richard Harris on the rugby field, A Kind of Loving traps an upwardly mobile Alan Bates in an unwanted marriage, and A Room at the Top locates Laurence Harvey’s insecurity and exploits it through a frustrating relationship with an older, wealthier woman. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning may be the purest take at this iconic figure, unfettered as it is by the apparatus of an athletic narrative or the demands of an equal female protagonist (Roberts and Field, both excellent, are definitely supporting characters here). Yet Albert Finney, as Arthur Seaton, does not initially seem as bitter, desperate, or frustrated as any of those other furious youths – as his opening narration informs us, “I’m out for a good time – the rest is propaganda!” And indeed, in the picture above we see him grinning after falling down a flight of stairs, drunk as a skunk but flush with victory after out-drinking a sailor. Sprawled out on the floor, he couldn’t seem happier but make no mistake: he’s angry as fuck. (more…)

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The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, UK, 1962, dir. Tony Richardson

Starring Tom Courtenay, Michael Redgrave

Story: Colin has been sent up for robbing a bakery, but to his surprise he finds himself being handed advantages and privileges at the reform school. As it turns out, he’s a talented runner and the school director hopes he will help defeat a prestigious public school in an upcoming race.

First things first, the timing of this entry is no accident. This morning the New York Marathon kicks off – so good luck to all the runners, particularly my friends Patrick and Morgan. Secondly, tributes aside, it should be noted that this is in many respects an anti-sports film, both in the sense that it thumbs its nose at “sports film” conventions, and because it views competitive athleticism itself with severe antipathy. But more on that by the by. When we are introduced to Colin, he’s pulling double duty, running and narrating just like Fabrizio at the start of last week’s entry, Before the Revolution. There the similarities more or less end. Whereas Fabrizio was politicized in theory but distanced from any sense of class struggle, Colin – without necessarily articulating it in explicitly political terms (save for a few somewhat clumsy “consciousness-raising” lines of dialogue) – views his entire life as one long struggle against authorities and class constrictions. “Running’s always been a big thing in our family,” he tells us in the opening narration (during which, unlike Fabrizio, he runs away from the camera rather than towards it). “Especially running away from the police. It’s hard to understand. All I know is that you’ve got to run. Run without knowing why, through fields and woods, and the winning post’s no end even though barmy crowds might be cheering themselves daft. That’s what the loneliness of the long distance runner feels like.”

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(Originally an entry in the “Sunday Matinee” series)

by Joel Bocko

Before the Revolution, Italy, 1964, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci

Starring Adriana Asti, Francesco Barilli

Story: In Parma, a young Communist feels torn between his romantic hunger for life, the security of his bourgeois background, and his ideological duty to the cause. Meanwhile, he carries on an affair with his emotionally unstable aunt.

The opening scene of Before the Revolution, or Prima della rivoluzione as it’s more poetically known in Italy, stands among the most elating passages in cinema. You can’t quite pinpoint how this works; trying to relate the alchemy of these moments in typed prose, my fingers tie themselves in knots. Bertolucci, only twenty-two when he shot the movie, would go on to direct more lush, illustrious sequences especially once he began to use color. But somehow here we feel we are getting closest to the pulsating consciousness powering his vision – a sensitivity and sensibility swooning with the pregnant possibilities and numinous actualities of the moment. What exactly do we see? Close-ups of Fabrizio (Frencesco Barilli), our hero, which loom like wall-sized portraits, even on a small screen; soaring overhead shots of Parma as if Bertolucci began to run through his hometown and in his enthusiasm sprouted wings and began to fly. What do we hear? Fabirizo’s neurotic narration, a mixture of lush language and furious, uneasy denunciation, underpinned by Ennio Morricone’s lush, heart-bursting score – fully invested in its sense of operatic intensity, and as unashamed of it as Fabrizio is wary. This film then is a sensuous experience, maybe even first and foremost, but it is also a film of ideas, and a dialectic exists between Fabrizio’s notions and his feelings (as well as amongst the various feelings themselves).

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