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Archive for December 19th, 2010

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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As with film, you can’t always judge the quality of an album just by the publicity it receives. Often the most brilliant work goes unnoticed by mainstream audiences. But in the case of the incredibly underrated album Herbstlaub, it was even overlooked by some in the electronic music community back when it was released in 2005. Clocking in at under 40 minutes long and with six songs total on the CD, Marsen Jules’ debut album (he had two previous MP3 only releases) had no traces of beats or any kind of vocals. It also had a German title, Herbstlaub, meaning “fall leaves,” which are strikingly illustrated on its cover. That  description is accurate because the music within creates an atmospheric aura of some fog bound autumnal place. Actually, it made me think of some remote part of Iceland or Point Reyes on the coast of California where John Carpenter filmed the 1980 horror film The Fog.

With most experimental ambient electronic music, the ability to transport you to a different place is a key factor in its success. And Jules’ music does an excellent job of building a specific mood and sending you on a journey. One Saturday afternoon while getting ready to go to a wedding, I realized I had some time before putting on my suit and leaving my apartment. I decided to play only 20 minutes of music to relax myself before I departed for yet-another boring, by-the-numbers legal union. I quickly choose to play the first Marsen Jules album, which I had yet given myself a chance to listen to. So I laid down on my coach expecting to get just a brief glimpse into his music before I shut it off and moved on to my scheduled commitment. Instead, I closed my eyes and found myself in this far-off land. The album was so effective with its ability to weave a spell on my surroundings that I couldn’t move and was literally glued in place. I had allowed the full 40 minutes to pass until the very end, completely disregarding the tedious reality that was waiting for me. Sure, I ended up being slightly tardy to the party… but it sure was worth it in the end.

What does Herbstlaub sound like you ask? It combines actual classical instrumentation with all sorts of electronic laptop-generated sounds. Unlike my previous ELECTRONIC MUSIC entry by Gas/Wolfgang Voigt, the classical instrumentation is less vague and sounds more focused and concrete. I’m not sure if Jules actually hires an orchestra, like Ryan Teague does for his 2006 Coins And Crosses album, or if he just features the classical samples more prominently. The mystery of not knowing is just fine with me—and his relative obscurity might make finding an answer difficult anyway. The music has some similarities to Arvo Part and Steve Reich as well. It’s like Modern Classical and Ableton Live programming sliced and diced and served with a giant heaping of Brian Eno/Harold Budd ambient music of the 70’s. The seasonal feel of the compositions work to great effect as the thick washes of sound never relents in its profound beauty. The filtered mass of audio would make Phil Spector blush and take notice.

Herbstlaub holds within its digital grooves six short symphonies of contemporary music. This kind of art can only be made in the here and now, since computers are its necessary ingredient and modern technology its lifeline. Yet, somehow Herbstlaub sounds timeless and free of the constraints of one particular era. It deserves to be better known and perhaps the future will be kind to this neglected masterpiece. I jumped in one weekend afternoon and have never left its warm embrace.

Marsen Jules has since gone on to release three more albums since his spellbinding CD debut. Les Fleurs, Golden, and Yara (which was one of his two MP3 only releases before 2005) are all worthy followups that deserve to be better known.

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(Japan 1995 111 minutes)

Director Yoshifumi Kondo; Screenplay Hayao Miyazaki, Aoi Hiragi (comic); Music Yuji Nomi; Cinematography Kitaro Koska; Voice Acting Youku Honna (Shizuku), Kazuo Takahashi (Seiji); Editing Takeshi Sayama; Art Direction Satoshi Kuroda

by Stephen Russell-Gebbett

Whisper of the Heart is a story of love between two teenage schoolchildren, a girl who dreams of being a writer and a boy who longs to be a professional violin maker. It is the first and only film by the late Yoshifumi Kondo, who was seen as heir apparent to Studio Ghibli’s Miyazaki-Takahata crown.

When it comes to the depiction of young love in film, or indeed in reality, we know the form. There are concerned parents who see the relationship as an obstacle to self-improvement and a distraction from exams. The teenagers are more often than not patronised – even, subtly, by the film-makers themselves – with the perception that their love is a phase, a hollow rite of passage, an emotional development they are neither ready for nor have true understanding of : ‘You don’t know what love is’. Those couples are forced to build a cocoon around themselves to shut the world out. They are forced to display the signs of ‘immaturity’, i.e. headstrongness and selfishness, to hold on to what they have.

Whisper of the Heart is one of the most refreshing films you are ever likely to see because it rejects all convention to treat this love with the unswerving respect that it deserves.

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