Friday, September 21, 2012

Fragments of Cinephilia, Pt. III


Short thoughts on: The Honeymoon Killers • Forbidden GamesTout Va Bien & Masculin Feminin Moby Dick • Robert Bresson • Yasujiro Ozu and Early SpringMy Dinner with Andre • Stanley Kauffmann Sweet Movie

As I prepare a batch of fresh posts for the fall (a dozen new reviews are already written, with dozens more on the way), here are some more oldies but goodies. These sporadic notes and musings were originally comments on IMDb. Many of these thoughts led to longer conversations, and you can click on the date to see the original thread. Some of the responses are pretty interesting; in fact under the final fragment, on the extremely controversial Yugoslavian film Sweet Movie, I actually included some samples of the ensuing discussion (most of which I didn't see until now). And if you've viewed the film in question, I'd be really interested in your own opinion on the matter.

(See here for Pt. I and Pt. II of this archival project.)


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On whether "The Honeymoon Killers" (1970) should have stuck to the facts about its homicidal protagonists (spoilers):

The same thing occurred to me. I was not familiar with the story before watching the movie, but afterwards I read an essay on the actual history (included with the Criterion DVD). Apparently Fernandez was into voodoo, believing he had supernatural seductive powers, and Beck was raped as a child and suffered psychotic episodes. As you point out, they both had families too.

In an interview, the writer/director admits he fabricated negative qualities for the victims. Making one a daffy, cheap old lady and another a streotypical America First booster type, is basically pandering to the Leftist social criticism of the time. While the characters are somewhat humorous the trick is cheap & trite, even slanderous.

Actually, I thought the movie was interesting on its own terms, and obviously the author has to choose very carefully what he does and doesn't include. In its own way, the film's story is very focused and including all those fascinating biographical details would have diluted some of its power (although complexity adds its own power). And I give credit where credit's due...the murders are not at all romanticized, and our sympathy is entirely with the victims of the brutal violence (unless you're Marguerite Duras, apparently).

But I do think the broad characterizations of the victims distracts from the films status as a kind of anti-Bonnie & Clyde and plays into the hands of those who would see it as a wacky, countercultural love story (see one of the posters) or some kind of political statement, as if the drowning of a small child was a really hip way to stick it to the bourgeoisie.

Read the full discussion here.

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On the abandoned first and last scene of "Forbidden Games" (1952):

I watched the alternate opening and ending on the Criterion DVD. The children appear, dressed in old-fashioned garb in an idyllic location, opening up a book to read the "story" which is the film. In the end, the girl is crying and the boy pretends to read a happy ending which isn't actually there. I thought this actually heightened the tragedy of the film. Ironically, the framing device, with its stereotypical images of childhood and nature, appears more removed from reality than the "imaginary" story the children are reading. This somehow throws the dark complexities of the film proper into relief, and made it even more harrowing to me. Like waking up from a dark dream, and telling yourself it was only a nightmare when part of you knows it touched on a deeper, more troubling truth...

Did anyone else see this and agree/disagree?

Read this interesting response.

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On "Tout va bien" (1972) vs. "Masculin Feminin" (1966):

This is the only post-'68 film I've seen by Godard (not including Letter to Jane which was included on this DVD). Masculin Feminin is my favorite Godard too, but it's hard to compare it to Tout va Bien. Masculin Feminin takes a documentary, cinema-verite approach towards its fictional characters, treating them as if they were real people, interrogating them to discover their opinions and feelings. Tout va Bien continues this Godard tradition BUT it also highlights the falsity of its fiction in a way that Masculin Feminin does not -- by staging scenes so that their "phoniness" is immediately apparent and we are not tricked into thinking what we're seeing is real. It's a Brechtian technique which Godard had become very fond of as he became more political (I think Masculin Feminin was on the very early end of his eventually Maoist political awakening). To me, the greatest flaw of the film was how unconvincing the workers were; one can try to pass this off as Brechtian but ultimately that seems like a cop-out to cover up Godard's lack of identification with the proleteriat. He's obviously much more comfortable with the bourgeois intellectual character played by Yves Montand, and the M/F-like scene in which he answers unheard questions (presumably from Godard) is one of the more successful in the film. Basically, Tout va Bien's successes, in my opinion, lie where all of Godard's successes do, in his ability to twist the usual forms of cinematic presentation in a way which shocks the viewer. His strength is visceral and when he lapses into didacticism, that strength can be depleted. Masculin Feminin is definitely the better film because it's investigative; at 36 Godard still believed in the ability of the camera to discover some sort of truth. Whether or not that's a realistic belief, it does make for more rewarding movies.

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On how to make a movie of "Moby Dick":

The film would have to be made by a thoughtful, meditative director, someone like Terence Malick, except less placid and with a more temperamental, tumultuous style. If Peter Jackson got anywhere near this project, it would be roughly equivalent to the Antichrist rewriting the Gospels...

I disagree with the poster who said the only way to approach this novel in film format is to distill the melodramatic elements...I think the metaphysical content (which is what the book has largely been celebrated for) could be conveyed in a more experimental fashion, the memorable words being translated into images, sequences, sounds...of course, to present the whale and the wide-ranging spectacle, major funding would have to be supplied.

A big-budget avant-garde film...I guess I'm daydreaming again...

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On my mixed feelings about the cult of Robert Bresson:

I'll throw my lot in with the others on this board -- Bresson's sense of humor (if he has one) seldom comes across and indeed, his persona and directing voice often come off as arrogant.

I read a quote recently saying that there were very few directors no one could ever label "pretentious", Mizoguchi and Bresson being two (was Ozu the other? I can't recall). I can't concur with that statement. Au Hasard Balthazar fascinates me (I waited years to see it, and when I did was disappointed, but it's grown on me since) and A Man Escaped and Pickpocket work really well as spare narratives. But there's something sinister about the way Mouchette is treated -- held up to abuse and ridicule until her sacrifice is supposed to cleanse us, the viewer, who up to then have been voyeurs, rather than participants, in her suffering.

And the cult around him annoys me - the whiff of self-satisfaction, the coldness in his austerity, and the way his followers get away with making statements like J. Hoberman's "If you don't get Bresson, you don't get cinema." Again, I'm not trying to dismiss him altogether -- he's a great, unique filmmaker and I like much of his work. But I think the films needs to be subjected to more intelligent and nuanced criticism than they are at the moment.

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On whether or not Yasujiro Ozu is a "transcendentalist" (spoilers for "Early Spring"):

I am writing this immediately after viewing Early Spring for the first time. This movie was, to me, one of Ozu's most mundane - and I don't mean that as a put-down. Up to now I've seen A Story of Floating Weeds, Late Spring, Tokyo Story, Tokyo Twilight, and Floating Weeds, all of which were quiet films dealing with relatively simple things, yet all seem larger than life compared to Early Spring. True, there is the adultery and the death of a friend, but more so than any other Ozu film I've seen (and admittedly there's still the vast majority left) it is about the slow, steady stream of daily life, the office, the marriage, the responsibilities, the disillusionment, the weariness.

Which leads me to my question: is it fair to call Ozu's cinema "transcendental" as Schrader and other critics do? To me, it is not at all about transcendence but resignation and stoicism in the face of life's withering disappointments and trials. Yes, there is a lyricism to his films and catharsis here and there but compared to most other movies, I really don't think "transcendental" is the proper tag.

Anyone else agree/disagree?

(By the way, I agree with the comment on the main page which mentions "Sopranos" - I've been re-watching it since the series finale and it's amazing to what extent the Mafia aspect exists just to sex up a show that's as much about doing the laundry and taking out the garbage as it is about killing people).

Read the full discussion here.

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Confronted by dozens of posts on "My Dinner with Andre" (1981) asserting that the title character's stories were "boring," I disagreed:

Crazy perhaps, self-indulgent certainly (as he himself says halfway through the dinner) but certainly not boring! The character reminded me of people I've known who come off somewhat flaky, but are redeemed by their sincerity. Andre didn't do all these "live" theatrical events for the sake of being different or original but in pursuit of some spiritual truth. Wally is certainly far more secular, if that's the right word (and I think it is) than Andre but I'm not sure his reactions in the first half are entirely embarrassed and uncomfortable. I think he's a bit fascinated too - actually, I think he's ambivalent. Some of his comments, questions, and reactions early on strike me as honestly compassionate towards and interested in his friend, with others do seem cold and calculated to insulate himself from this crazy person. Actually, the most subversive moments in the movie were when the characters would say something about really committing to their lives, recognizing the humanity of really living, and then the waiter would come up to take their plates and they would awkwardly ignore him. I agree that the staging, shot structure, and editing are superb and that Louis Malle's direction is subtle but great.

I liked Waking Life but I also agree that there's more value to having real characters offer these questions and insights, which come out of their own life experiences, rather than creating human mouthpieces to spew philosophical thoughts which supposedly spring up out of a vacuum, devoid of any context.

Read an interesting response here.
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This one's not me, it's a quote I found from the New York Times review of "My Dinner with Andre" (1981):

Vincent Canby wrote:

At times ''My Dinner with Andre'' suggests a reunion of Christopher Robin (Mr. Gregory) and Winnie-the-Pooh (Mr. Shawn) 30 years after each has left the nursery to pursue separate careers in the theater. Mr. Gregory, older, originally more practical, has sought truth in ways that must strike a lot of us, including Mr. Shawn, as crazily if wonderfully self-indulgent.

Mr. Shawn's Pooh, however, is just what you might think Pooh would grow up to be - still filled with wonder and curiosity about mundane things, capable of finding joy in daily tasks of utmost banality, thinking that a trip to the top of Everest to find oneself is somewhat expensive when he, Pooh, is convinced he might find himself quite as easily in the cigar store next door. Wally, like Pooh, is also candid enough to say at one point, with polite exasperation, ''I really don't know what you're talking about.''

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On Stanley Kauffmann:

How many living critics can start a recent column with this phrase?

"On the morning of August 24, 1927, a few weeks before I started high school"...?

P.S. And five years after I wrote this, he's still going strong...

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On the scene in Dusan Makavejev's "Sweet Movie" in which a woman strips down and fondles young boys:

Honest question about the striptease...

If the little boys had been little girls and the female seductress a male, how would you and other audiences react to the scene? What does this say about us, the filmmakers, and the scene itself?

here are some of the responses I received:

MovieInYourFace: "I totally agree. If that were the case I would say this movie would still not be released and banned in even more areas.

I think it was a pretty f'd up scene anyway... and not because I'm bourgoise - or whatever this movie labels those offended as - it's because it's done simply for the cause of offending."

mianda72: "Well they weren't and I'm not sure it would be any more or less incendiary if they were. The scene itself isn't about sexuality, it's about corruption. That scene (along with Ms. Canada's REBIRTH from the suitcase on the Champs Elysee) is one of the central metaphors of the film, that is to say how subversive ideologues (communists) prey on the idealism and naivete of the youth. The scene crosses the line of provocation into antagonism that's for sure.(as I'm sure was Makavejev's intent)"

potatochip007: "All of you are projecting your own fears and insecurities onto this one scene instead of looking at this movie as a whole. You are being uptight, and just now reading all of your comments generally weirded me out about our society.

While this is just a meaningless message board on a website that few read anyway, I just want anyone who might be reading this who feels differently and are outraged from the poorly expressed opinions here, you are not alone.

Throwing around terms like "molested" and "harmful", that's the real harm.

All of you, seriously?? Seriously. You weren't even there. And this is what you're getting from this movie here? This is what you are concentrating on, what you are taking away?

Ugh, I give up."

TheManInOil: "Who cares what it's "about"? Nothing justifies a woman getting naked with kids, caressing them suggestively, opening their pants, shoving her naked crotch in their faces and saying "You can *beep* me if you're lucky." Nothing."

Read the full discussion, including more comments here.

2 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

And yet another altogether marvelous round-up to bring on some cherished recollections here on this overcast Saturday afternoon in the NYC area.

As you may remember, I have always considered the remarkable, indestructible Stanley Kauffmann (still writing for THE NEW REPUBLIC at 96, but heck Harper Lee'as older sister Alice Lee is still practicing law at 101) as my favorite critic, and yes you frame his amazing run quite well there. I don't always agree with him, but always a revelatory read for all kinds of reasons!

Ozu a "transcendentalist?" Perhaps. But I choose to describe him simply as a screen humanist, perhaps the most celebrated in Asian cinema with S. Ray close.

I adore EARLY SPRING. I did not at all care for SWEET MOVIE, though the same director's THE SWITCHBOARD OPERATOR is masterful. As you may remember I am not a huge Godard guy, but these two are very fine films (MASCULIN FEMININ and TOUT VA BIEN) And heck who doesn't love THE HONEYMOON KILLERS? Ha!

Another masterful post my friend!

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah, you're on much safer ground calling him a humanist. As for Sweet Movie, I don't state my own perspective in the sample above but I'm pretty sure I've only ever fast-forwarded through 2 scenes ever, and both of them were in Sweet Movie: the seduction scene because I objected not so much to the content as to how it was shot, and the food orgy because it was just too gross haha.

I'm sure Alice is a great lawyer, but I'd be pretty nervous hiring a centenarian attorney, wouldn't you?