Sunday, November 4, 2012

Jean Renoir, the Boss: The Rule and the Exception

Remember how I said I would try to blog about the New York Film Festival? Turns out I was pretty busy (what with watching all those movies and managing law school). Then, on top of all that, I got sick. Now it's been almost over a month since the Festival ended and I have yet to blog about it. Until now...

During the Festival, I went to see the third and last part of a documentary about Jean Renoir by Jacques Rivette called Jean Renoir, the Boss: The Rule and the Exception (1967) as part of the Cineastes de notre temps program. Cineastes was a French television series of documentaries on great filmmakers created by actor (Paul in Vivre sa vie) and film critic (best known for his writing in Cahiers du cinema in the 1950s) André S. Labarthe. I know what you're thinking: "a documentary about one of the greatest filmmakers ever by one of the greatest filmmakers ever and a Cahiers critic? It doesn't get any better." But it does. Mr. Labarthe himself attended the screening, gave a brief introduction, and answered questions from Richard Peña and the audience.

According to Mr. Labarthe, there are two kinds of filmmakers: those that capture the world as it is and those that try to create their own world. Labarthe saw fit to have Rivette direct this documentary on Renoir because they are both part of the former. They both start with a general idea and allow things to develop as is. Jean Renoir planned the scenes for The Rules of the Game, but they often did not end up as he anticipated. Both Renoir and Rivette are willing to allow life and the world to unfold itself in front of the camera. Rivette recorded endless hours of footage for Jean Renoir, the Boss and created a three-part, multi-hour series out of what was intended to only be a one hour long documentary.

Another great film I saw as part of the Cineastes program of the NYFF was Jacques Rivette: The Night Watchman. Mr. Labarthe asked Serge Daney, one of the greatest French critics, to make a documentary on Rivette. He refused, but then accepted the job of interviewer when Claire Denis was hired to direct. Denis mirrors the directorial style of Rivette and allows life to develop in front of the camera as Daney and Rivette discuss art, cinema, and life. In one scene, Rivette and Daney lost in conversation wander into traffic and walk on the road as cars impatiently follow behind them hoping they will soon get out of the way. Of note is a discussion about Rivette's tendency to disappear between films and completely lose touch with all his personal relationships until he returns to make another film. Jacques Rivette: The Night Watchman is an indispensable record of the method, cinematic ideas, and personality of one of the world's greatest filmmakers and one of the world's greatest critics. The entire documentary can be viewed for free here.

P.S. The great Jean Eustache edited Jean Renoir, the Boss.

P.P.S. Mr. Labarthe made the observation that Truffaut = Renoir + Hitchcock and Chabrol = Renoir + Lang.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

On the AV Club's Best Films of the '90s & Sexism

Let me start by saying that I like the AV Club's Best Films of the '90s lists, which can be found here, here, and here. I vehemently disagree with many of their selections, omissions, and rankings, but such is the nature of "best of" lists. Lists are inherently ridiculous when it comes to discussing artwork, but they do serve a purpose as guides for others and debate starters so I appreciate the time and effort the AV Club into their list.

I would like to comment on the complaint levied by some that the list is sexist or at least does not include a sufficient amount of films by female directors. I'd like to dismiss the former and focus on the latter. To examine the latter allegation I compiled a list of films from the '90s that are considered great by trusted film critics. These critics are Dave Kehr, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Catherine Grant (of Film Studies), Adrian Martin, Jonathan Rosenbaum, David Phelps, and Daniel Kasman. This list consisted of 214 films. It could be rationally argued that all of these films belong a "Top 50 Films of the '90s" list. I found that 21 of these films were directed by women (or at least had a female director).

This means 9.813% of the great films of the '90s according to these critics were directed by women. Thus one would expect 4 or 5 of the films in the AV Club's list to be directed by women. However, none of the films on their list are directed by women. I would attribute this to structural sexism in the world of cinema rather than the AV Club.

Note: I do not know exactly how this percentage relates to other decades. So far I have found that the percentage for the '80s is 12.069%.

Here is a list of the 21 films that met the criteria and the critics that endorsed them:
- An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990) (Dave Kehr)
- Jacques Rivette: The Night Watchman (Claire Denis, 1990) (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky)
- No Fear, No Die (Claire Denis, 1990) (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky)
- Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (Fax Behr, George Hickenlooper, and Eleanor Coppola, 1991) (Catherine Grant)
- Night and Day (Chantal Akerman, 1991) (Adrian Martin) (Jonathan Rosenbaum)
- The Famine Within (Katherine Gilday, 1992) (Jonathan Rosenbaum)
- Proof (Jocelyn Moorhouse, 1992) (Dave Kehr)
- D'Est (Chantal Akerman, 1993) (Jonathan Rosenbaum)
- The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993) (Dave Kehr)
- U.S. Go Home (Claire Denis, 1993) (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky) (Daniel Kasman)
- Blush (Li Shaohong, 1995) (Jonathan Rosenbaum)
- Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995) (Adrian Martin)
- A Great Day in Harlem (Jean Bach, 1995) (Jonathan Rosenbaum)
- Von Heute auf Morgen (Jean-Marie Straub & Daniele Huillet, 1997) (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky)
- Divorce Iranian Style (Kim Longimotto & Ziba Mir-Hosseini, 1998) (Jonathan Rosenbaum)
- The Apple (Samira Makhmalbaf, 1999) (Jonathan Rosenbaum)
- Beau travail (Claire Denis, 1999) (Daniel Kasman) (Catherine Grant) (Jonathan Rosenbaum)
- Holy Smoke! (Jane Campion, 1999) (Dave Kehr)
- Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay, 1999) (Catherine Grant)
- The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999) (Catherine Grant)

Note: Adrian Martin submitted Night and Day as one of the ten greatest films ever made on a Sight & Sound Poll. However, as Sam Adams of the AV Club noted, it is only available on VHS in the US and Denis' US Go Home has never been released in the States.


Saturday, September 29, 2012

Review in Brief: Femme fatale

Tonight I will be watching the latest Brian De Palma film, Passion, at the New York Film Festival. In preparation, I watched Femme fatale. Here's a brief review:

Femme fatale begins with a close-up of a screen playing Double Indemnity. As the camera zooms out we realize that Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn) is not only watching the screen, but perhaps also studying actress Barbara Stanwyck. This sets out a couple of the themes of the film: how we watch screens and how screens affect us. Throughout the film, people watch each other as if everyone was the star of their own movie and act as if they were a character in a movie. This is particularly true of a paparazzi photographer and artist played by Antonio Banderas who uses his acting skills to manipulate others and yet falls for one of Laure Ashe’s false, cinematic personas. De Palma’s beautifully fluid camerawork and editing communicate a lot of the story through visual cues most notably in the astounding heist sequence that takes place early in the film. De Palma’s great sense of rhythm and Ryûichi Sakamoto’s playful music make it, arguably, one of the most engrossing heist sequences in the cinema. (Brian De Palma, 2002)


Friday, September 28, 2012

The Master

One of the first images we see in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” is a close-up  profile of Joaquin Phoenix. He is wearing a white helmet. We study his face – something we’ll get plenty of opportunities to do throughout the movie. We then see him on a beach with other Navy sailors. They celebrate. World War II is over.

The first hour of “The Master” is wonderfully dynamic. Anderson elegantly communicates both the exuberance of the American soldiers at the end of the war and the debilitating effects the war has had on them. We are introduced to Freddie Quell’s (Joaquin Phoenix) neurosis when he attempts to have sex with a sand sculpture of a woman.

After the war, Quell finds a job taking photos at a department store. One of Anderson’s most dazzling and beautiful camera movements occurs here when we are introduced to Quell’s current love interest, played by Amy Ferguson. In a single shot, the camera follows Ferguson as she sensuously glides through the store attempting to sell a fur coat. As New Yorker critic Richard Brody noted, the dance aptly captures post-war capitalist lust in addition to conveying Quell’s desire to have sex with every woman he meets.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this film is Joaquin Phoenix’s wiry and contorted body. His cheeks are sunken and his eyes hidden within his cavernous skull. When he speaks, he tilts his head up and we are made all the more aware of his scarred lips. The most memorable images in this movie may be of Phoenix resting his thin arms above his comically high-waisted pants.

After assaulting a customer, Phoenix loses his job. He stows away on a cruise ship and encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a Scientology-esque cult. Hoffman, with his face often sweaty and flush, plays up the vaudevillian skills and charisma a cult leader such as Dodd must posses in order to be successful. At this point, the film moves from open expanses, such as the beach and the department store, to cramped spaces – mostly rooms either on the ship or in a home – that are composed largely of static close-ups.

Though this second half has its strengths (Hoffman and Phoenix’s great performances, Anderson’s non-judgmental treatment of Quell and Dodd, and even more 1950s pants depicted in grand 70mm detail) it fails to live up to the promise of the terrific first hour. The dynamic, visual storytelling of the first half becomes a languishing, close-up and repetition-driven second half. However as Mubi critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky wrote, “there’s at least an hour of a masterpiece in there.”

This article will be published in the October 1st issue of The Commentator.


50th Annual New York Film Festival

The 50th Annual New York Film Festival begins for me tomorrow evening with Brian De Palma's Passion. I plan to write some brief reviews of each of the films I see during the festival. Here's what I'll be watching during the festival:

Passion (Brian De Palma)
The Satin Slipper (Manoel de Oliveira)
You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet! (Alain Resnais)
Jean Renoir, The Boss: The Rule and the Exception (Jacques Rivette)
Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)
Differently, Molussia (Nicholas Rey)
The Blind Owl (Raul Ruiz)
Jean-Pierre Melville: A Portrait in 9 Poses (Andre S. Labarthe)
Catherine Breillat: The First Time (Luc Moullet)
Night Across the Street (Raul Ruiz)
Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas)
Lines of Wellington (Raul Ruiz & Valeria Sarmiento)
Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman (Chantal Akerman)
Philippe Garrel, Artist (Etchegaray)
Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (Pedro Costa)
Tabu (Miguel Gomes)
Shohei Imamura: The Free Thinker (Rocha)
One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch (Chris Marker)
HHH, A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Olivier Assayas)
Jacques Rivette: The Night Watchman (Claire Denis)
Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Capsule Review: "A Corner in Wheat"

One of the most densely packed short films of the silent movie era, "A Corner in Wheat" (DW. Griffith, 1909) is a cogent and evocative critique of an entire economic system in just fifteen minutes. The film's clashing montage depicts the differing lifestyles and interactions of two economic groups: the rich and the poor. The actions of a wheat speculator who goes on to become a wheat monopolist deprive the poor of food. However, he too meets an unfortunate end when he falls into a wheat silo. Griffith conveys the plot and ideas of the film entirely through images. Of note are the images that bracket the film. The former of these shows two laborers working a wheat field. The latter, capturing the consequences of the wheat monopolist's actions, shows only one, even more downtrodden laborer working the field.  "A Corner in Wheat" is available for free on YouTube, here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Greatest Films List (SM)

Sight & Sound has laid its cards on the table, and now we must all follow suit.  Right then.  I like the idea of a tier system (see TP's post just below), but I'm too afraid I'll omit or misclassify something crucial and be branded forever with the mark of Kane.  So here are 36 or so masterpieces that eternally and immutably belong on my top shelf.  All the usual disclaimers apply, plus many others (haven't had my coffee yet, I'm an Aries, probably didn't get enough love in my childhood, etc.)  Here goes something.

[In alphabetical order.]

Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Herzog, 1972)
Annie Hall (Allen, 1977)
Brief Encounter (Lean, 1945)
Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942)
Children of Paradise (Carne, 1945)
Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)
Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
City Lights (Chaplin, 1931)
Days of Heaven (Malick, 1978)
Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944)
The Earrings of Madame de... (Ophuls, 1953)
Fanny and Alexander (Bergman, 1982)
Five Easy Pieces (Rafelson, 1970)
Goodfellas (Scorsese, 1990)
La Grande Illusion (Renoir, 1937)
Ikiru (Kurosawa, 1952)
Jules and Jim (Truffaut, 1962)
The Lady Eve (Sturges, 1941)
The Last Picture Show (Bogdanovich, 1971)
Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962)
Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, 1937)
Nashville (Altman, 1975)
The Night of the Hunter (Laughton, 1955)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928)
Paths of Glory (Kubrick, 1957)
Sans Soleil (Marker, 1983)
The Searchers (Ford, 1956)
Sherlock Jr. (Keaton, 1924)
Sherman's March (McElwee, 1986)
Singin' in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, 1952)
La Strada (Fellini, 1954)
The Third Man (Reed, 1949)
Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)
Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 1969)
Winter Light (Bergman, 1963)