Tangential Festival Notes! (Godard, Straub, Cronenberg)

A groggy John Huston welcomes you to today’s equally confused post. He’s an interview subject in Peter Lennon’s Rocky Road to Dublin (1967), an acidic documentary portrait of 1960s Ireland. Lennon wrote a series of articles for The Guardian about how the Catholic Church and their Republican government cronies were choking off the cultural life of his country, and he adapted his polemics to the screen with the help of regular Godard cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Intimate and barbed, Coutard’s handheld camera nudges its way into bustling pubs, sparsely attended hurling matches (soccer was banned as a “foreign sport”), and the backyards of splenetic Irish authors.  Recently released on DVD by Icarus Films, it’s a unique inverse of the silent “city symphonies” made famous by Walter Ruttmann. Maybe call it a city (and country) evisceration.

So why trot out Huston now? Lennon’s film was the last one screened at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival before Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut shut it down to support the general strike which was occurring outside its doors. There’s a short “Making of Rocky Road to Dublin” included on the disc, and there is footage of a Peter Lennon arguing with Godard and Truffaut at the screening to allow the doomed discussion of his film to continue. All of which is a rather long-winded preamble to talk about this year’s Cannes Festival. Of all of the coverage I’ve been reading, by far the most entertaining has been that surrounding Godard’s latest provocation, his new feature FILM SOCIALISME.

The fun began when The Independent reported that the film would be subtitled in “Navajo English”:

as in old Westerns where the Native Americans spoke in choppy phrases. Because the drama takes place on a cruise ship where no one speaks the same language, Godard has fashioned his subtitles concisely to say the least. If a character is saying “give me your watch”, the subtitle will read “You, me, watch.”

This is both hilarious and conceptually apt, and will make initial screenings of the film difficult to parse for mono-linguists like myself. Critics will have to work for this one. Manohla Dargis and Ben Kenigsberg take their (provisional) shots at the NY Times and Time Out Chicago, respectively. Dargis charts out a structure: cruise ship-gas station-cities and a hint of a theme, taken from an interview at Telerama.fr: “the Americans liberated Europe by making it dependent.” The full interview with Godard, conducted by friend and former collaborator Daniel Cohn-Bendit, has been translated by Craig Keller at his blog Cinemasparagus.

Kenigsberg focuses more on the visuals, of a “woman reads Balzac at a gas station while standing next to a llama”, and says it is “stunning to look at—memorable images include a man lecturing to what appears to be an empty auditorium and a boy in a Soviet shirt conducting a phantom orchestra”, but considers it more “tossed off” than his previous essay films (recently Notre Musique (2004) and In Praise of Love (2001)).

For a thumbail reaction internationally, the Letras de Cine blog has been posting number ratings from critics worldwide, and FILM SOCIALISME has the highest average ranking (9.36 out of 10) out of every film polled (Manoel de Oliveira’s highly anticipated THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA is in second with a 8.73). In any case, it’ll be a long wait to see it in a U.S. theater, which is why I was thrilled to see Dargis link to Filmotv.fr, which is streaming the film for 7 EUR through tomorrow. However, it doesn’t look like it is accessible to people in the U.S. (and Spanish critic Miguel Marias said it wasn’t working for him in either, in a comment at Cinemasparagus).

Godard canceled his press conference appearance with a characteristically enigmatic fax to festival head Thierry Fremeaux, as Dargis reports:  “‘problems of the Greek type”’had prevented him from attending and that he would go to his death for the festival, but not one step more.’”

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Some rare screenings this week as the Migrating Forms festival rolls on in NYC. First was a trio of recent shorts from Jean-Marie Straub, Artemis’s Knee (2008), The Itinerary of Jean Bricard (2008), and The Witches-Women Among Women (2009). Bricard is the last film he made with Daniele Huillet, his long-time collaborator and wife who passed away in 2006.  For context and analysis of these works, Richard Brody’s laudatory short piece at The New Yorker is the place to start. He has a handle on the source texts (by Cesare Pavese, Heinrich Schulz) and music (Mahler), that my circumscribed education has…circumscribed.

The most striking work for me is Jean Bricard, which opens on an epically long take of a camera riding along on a boat. As it passes a autumnal B&W landscape of skeletal trees dotted with bulbous nests, one expects it to resolve itself as a simple, starkly beautiful  landscape film (shot by Irina Lubtchansky and her brilliant late husband William). But then there is a jolt of humor, as the boat passes two consecutive arrows, each pointing in opposite directions. This graphic comedy rouses one out of reverie and into the story they tell, which emerges in voice-over from Mr. Bricard, a French Resistance Fighter during WWII who was recorded by sociologist Jean-Yves Petiteau in 1994. The film slowly reveals itself to be about decay and loss. As Bricard recalls an uncle who was murdered in the high grass by Vichy forces, Straub-Huillet circle round the abandoned Coton Island where he lived, framing the sunken cafes and muddy shorelines of a river raised, re-directed and polluted, essentially destroying the island and relocating its inhabitants. History and geography both show the scars of time.

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The last item on my viewing list is an early David Cronenberg feature, Stereo (1969), also part of Migrating Forms. It’s a resourceful piece of no-budget sci-fi that utilizes the Brutalist architecture of Scarborough College in Canada to its fullest extent. Long corridors, slanting windows, and slab-like structures are the rather ascetically imposing settings for some telepathic experimentation. Cronenberg shot the film with no synchronous sound, recording a lengthy voice-over of doctors’ reports, analyzing the actions of the “patients” on-screen. These subjects are college-age kids given ESP on the operating table, and thrust into the habitrail of the campus to study the possible development of a new kind of language and family units. The voice-over informs us that a couple of the patients have had their larynxes removed in order to further force the issue of ESP language formation.

The structure an ingenious way to save on sound costs, but the voice-over eventually falls into tedium, and the frequently striking compositions of men fading into the architecture becomes the sole force of the film. The narrative loses drive, but Cronenberg never loses the lack for conjuring uncanny images. A curio, but one well-worth seeking out. It’s available as an extra on the Blue Underground DVD and Blu-Ray for his raceing film, Fast Company.

2 Responses Tangential Festival Notes! (Godard, Straub, Cronenberg)
Posted By Richard Harland Smith : May 25, 2010 1:54 pm

Thanks for pointing me towards Stereo which I’ve been wanting to see for decades now. Probably somewhere along the line I knew it was on the Fast Company DVD but it got lost in the shuffle somewhere.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : May 25, 2010 1:54 pm

Thanks for pointing me towards Stereo which I’ve been wanting to see for decades now. Probably somewhere along the line I knew it was on the Fast Company DVD but it got lost in the shuffle somewhere.

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