Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Fragments of Cinephilia, Pt. V

Monday, January 4, 2016

Fragments of Cinephilia, Pt. V


If you're looking for further details on the Maya Deren video I just posted on YouTube, here is the blog post mentioned at the end.

Short thoughts on: Fists in the Pocket • Michael Medved • Goodbye, Mr. Chips • Russian Ark • My Night at Maud's • Claire's Knee • Paris Belongs to Us • 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her • Jean-Luc Godard • Europa '51

I've become a broken record on this subject, but I swear that within a few weeks I will have a huge backlog of Monday posts, more than I know what to do with - including a video that relates to the above picture. January is going to be very busy (although the work is mostly done, I'm waiting for other sites to cross-post). Unfortunately at this moment an interview, a guest post, at least four videos, and a podcast appearance are all waiting in the wings rather than in the bag. (That said, I did finally upload the "Cinepoem" video I blogged about back in November.) So I'm turning to one of my old standbys today, the archival of my old IMDb comments, where my online film commentary began. I've done this four times before, each time moving a bit further into the past. Some of these comments are actually almost a decade old, so be advised that they may no longer reflect my opinions (hell, I even left in some of the typos!). In many cases they represent my first engagement with the work in question, as a 23-year-old hungry for as many cinematic experiences as he could devour.

In fact 2006-07 was in many ways a peak viewing period for me; I was falling back into cinephilia after many years of caring more about music than movies. Most of the topics below relate to mid-century European films, particularly French filmmakers like Rohmer, Rivette, and Godard. Some of these films I loved, some I did not, but all of them seemed to me worthy of discussion - and still do. I would like to hear your thoughts as well, if you've seen these films (and if you haven't, I hope this serves as encouragement). Did Fists in the Pocket surprise you? Is Europa '51 too didactic? Does Goodbye Mr. Chips need a stronger narrative throughline? Is Rohmer subtly encouraging us to criticize the protagonist of Claire's Knee? Is Godard an incredibly consistent genius, an emperor with no clothes, or a hit-and-miss experimenter? Let me know what you think, and I'll let you know where I do and don't agree with the old me.

On Fists in the Pocket (major spoilers!); six years later, this was the subject of my first narrated video essay (comment from October 17, 2006):

Yes, I know what you mean. I felt relief when it turned out he wasn't going to drive the car off the cliff, even laughing, and thinking he was a comic character, a morbid dreamer who luckily doesn't have the ability to follow through on his romantic inclinations. But then he killed the mother. Up to the last minute, I thought he might hold back as he did before. Even after this, though, I found myself in sympathy with him and the sister, seeming so free and happy as they threw out the window all the old things cluttering their life. It was only near the end that I realized what I was actually watching...the self-realization of a fascist. Anything that stands in the way of his feeling free (yes, I know he claims to seek his brother's liberation but ultimately he's the one who feels repressed) he will get rid of, seeking only the glory of self-gratification. But of course in the end he's just as crippled as the rest of them and his own lack of mercy inspires the same in his sister. Really an excellent film, veering from comedic to disasterous, charming one second, evil the next (often both at the same time). I'm glad I stayed up for it.


On Michael Medved, in response to someone who claimed that he is only criticized because he is conservative (October 23, 2006):

Very odd that you mention Ebert as an "amoral" critic...he is more easily morally offended by a film than most of his peers (I'm thinking of his no-star review of Blue Velvet) just not in the facile way Medved is.

What annoys film buffs about the man is that he pretends to be one thing, a critic, when he is in fact something quite different, a moralist. He judges films by what he deems their sociopolitical good -- and in fact, in this way he's little different than a do-gooder liberal or a die-hard Marxist who can only judge a film by the "good" it accomplishes (that "good" being some sort of social progress, a critique of the capitalist order, or an affirmation of "traditional" values depending upon the critic).

I don't at all fit the stereotype you lump Medved critics into, and I don't think many other people do either. First of all, what in the world are you talking about when you say the people Medved critics uphold as good reviewers "don't place too much pressure on Hollywood to really provide quality". Huh? If anything, the more celebrated critics are much more critical and aware of Hollywood sensibilities than Medved, who whines about sex and violence but can't seem to see the different between a film that presents these elements within an artistic context and one that cynically uses them to make money.

The idea of Medved standing on one side and the "Hollywood establishment" on the other is a completely false dichotemy. The real divide lies between exploitative crap (which can include family films, by the way) and films which are trying to be something more (which can include the kind of films Medved rants against).


On the 1939 version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (October 31, 2006):

To me the main problem was that the movie didn't quite have a "point." Or rather, it had some broad ones - that a teacher can love his students like his own children, that people can change and improve, that there's something comforting about the repitition of the school year, etc - but not a more concrete one to guide the plot along. I do not believe that all films must have strong narrative arcs, but if they are not going to imbue each scene with a sense of discovery or naturalness (and this film does not - indeed most films do not, save the work of the great directors) it would be nice to have something else drawing us along.

But the scene on the mountaintop was nice (suspension of disbelief required, of course) and I actually found Donat's performance warm and sympathetic - though the white hairs and conviction of the performance seemed to bear an inverse relationship.

I think in an entertainment film, one which doesn't really try to captivate us with art, simplicity or spectacle are the cardinal virtues: draw us along with a clean, straight goal in mind or impress us with something visually (and I'd rather filmmakers use the first than the second, which is rather a cheaper way of hooking the viewer).


On Russian Ark (November 3, 2006):

Well, of course films can have a perfectly legitimate technical or historical justification and this film DOES deserve respect for pulling off this ambitious stunt, so that's enough of a "point" in itself. However, I agree, that ultimately a film's worth is determined by more than its technical accomplishment and historical value. So is Russian Ark "boring"? I was engaged most of the time, but then I have an interest in Russian history and history in general. I think you're a bit too harsh in dismissing it but I will concede that ultimately its main worth is to be found in its technical feat...I would not say the film is boring (or "booooooooring!!!" as you describe it), nor is its story great or amazing but rather, interesting, as one reviewer on this site describes it. It's a perfectly acceptable and compelling complement to the technique.


On My Night at Maud's (November 17, 2006):

I have to disagree with your final statement which I think is a pretty common view among filmgoers these days. The "We've seen it all before" sentiment. To me (that is to a 23-year-old who, for mathematically obvious reasons was not alive in the 60's) a film like this is diametrically opposed to reality TV, paradoxical as that may sound. Whereas reality TV takes real people and turns them into caricatures, fictional-seeming stereotypes we can peg in 2 seconds, a film like this takes the author's creations and fleshes them out into lifelike individuals.

To my eyes, the mainstream - and I use the word loosely - cinema of the past 40 years (or perhaps 30) has been a constant regression. While the technology improves (and I use that term loosely as well, given the complete phoniness of most CGI), everything else has seen a marked decline.

What was truly innovative about the films of the French New Wave was their life force, embodied by radical technique, new approaches to narrative, and naturalistic performances. The superficial aspects of the movement have been soaked up to be sure, but the classics still shock and provoke because what was really so important about them has been completely cast aside.


On Claire's Knee (November 28, 2006):

This is a great movie, as much for the way it plays with the point of view and our sympathies as for the beautiful scenery, engaging dialogue, and the way it captures a summer month in the country. Putting aside questions of sexual morality (i.e. are the girls too young for the protagonist?) do you find the protagonist's actions moral or not?

I lean towards the latter, mostly on the basis of his behavior with Claire. The other girl, the one who appears to be foolishly and naively in love, actually turns out to be wise for her age and oddly enough, her and Brialy play like equals. My feeling is that he's dishonest throughout, but steps over the line when he toys with Claire's emotions in the end, making her cry just so he can touch her knee. Yet the tentativeness of his expression and the sensuality of the moment almost make up for this.

I liked the ending as well, where he rides off, pompously content that he has manipulated everyone to his advantage and then we stay with Claire, seeing, just for a moment, how her life continues and how the stain of this man's arrogance is lightly washed away. Keep in mind I'm not implying he was some villain in a black hat; on the contrary, we're encouraged to sympathize with him throughout and the film is all the more brilliant for it. But Rohmer gives us just enough distance to allow us to question his behavior and rationale for it.

Probably my favorite of the Moral Tales so far, though I still have to see Love in the Afternoon


On Paris Belongs to Us, which I just re-watched for the Lynch/Rivette series (November 29, 2006):

Two thoughts: yes, the movie's amateurish but if it had slicker production values would it be better? The humorous scene in the theater comes to mind as a possible answer to that question.

I checked some of the reviews and saw that some critics find it difficult, too obscure, pretentious, etc. It's funny which films and directors we find "difficult" and which we don't. I found this film, my first Rivette, engrossing and stimulating, whereas other directors considered more accessible - like Renoir - have often left me cold on first viewing. (It took a few repeats before I warmed up to The Rules of the Game and I think I still prefer The River). Rohmer's another example. Supposedly a character in Night Moves describes his films as "like watching paint dry" - and I can be a restless viewer, but I've been enchanted by the three feature-length Moral Tales I've seen.

Anyone else as excited by this film as I was?


On 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (November 29, 2006):

What do you think of other Godard films? I'm a big fan but was not especially smitten with this one though it had its moments (the Pan Am & TGA bags over the head, the kid's dream about the Vietnamese, and the swirls in the coffee cup come to mind). It seemed like most of what it did well was already done better and more engagingly in Masculin Feminin. Also, the star was more grown-up and colder than his usual girlish protagonists, whose energy normally collides with Godard's intellectual severity to create the sparks that make his films so exciting. I thought it was funny when he repeated the Bardot bit from Masculin Feminin, but replaced her with a Nobel Prize winner. But even that was more of a riff on his M/F stylistics than anything else.


On Jean-Luc Godard's controversial reputation and the motives of his admirers and skeptics (December 25, 2006):

A lot of Godard fans are elitists. And a lot of Godard critics are faux populists waving their stick at the "emperor with no clothes" while patting themselves on the back for the courageous honesty. And then there's plenty of people in both camps who are just being honest to their own opinion. I'd say all should try to understand the other's point of view, though perhaps it's easier for a Godard fan to understand why someone wouldn't like a Godard film than vice-versa (I mean how many Godard fans like EVERY SINGLE one of his movies? Godard's one of my two or three favorite directors and yet film-by-film he hovers around .500 for me...though admittedly his misses and mixed bags are fascinating too).


On Europa '51 (March 13, 2007):

I just saw Europa '51 and was worn out by the end...and not in a good way. I'll have to suspend ultimate judgement on the film, as the version I saw was terribly dubbed, but if the dubbing was at all accurate than this was one of the more didactic films I've ever seen. It's certainly my least favorite Rossellini, though he isn't one of my favorite directors in general (I did like Flowers of St. Francis a lot). By the way, I am a great admirer of directors like Dreyer, Bergman, Ozu, and Antonioni and am open to all kinds of filmmaking. I was with Europa '51 in the beginning, thinking it struck an interesting balance between the personal drama and the larger historical backdrop. But by the end, with the speeches constantly delineating the movie's themes, I'd lost interest. Too bad. My immediate reaction is that Rossellini took his somewhat perverse "cinema as anti-cinema" ideas too far but again, perhaps I need to see the Italian version. I love the Cahiers du Cinema crowd and their fierce, if occasionally mystical, theories of vision in the Cinematheque...but I don't think I share their love of Rossellini.

I haven't seen Europa '51 since, although I did subsequently quite like Voyage in Italy and Stromboli, and may have warmed up to Rossellini's style more than in 2007. More importantly than the vagaries of my impression, this comment sparked 42 responses, mostly an in-depth back-and-forth between two individuals (neither of whom was me), and the conversation is definitely worth reading if you're interested in the auteur, or in other subjects that emerged, like Paul Schrader's theories in The Transcendental Style in Film. Check out the entire thread.

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