Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on February 25, 2014
Since 2001 the Museum of Modern Art has hosted “Documentary Fortnight”, a series devoted to formal innovations in non-fiction filmmaking. It’s where talking heads go to die. This year’s edition includes twenty features and a passel of shorts from twenty countries, covering a wide range of styles and subjects. I was taken with two documentaries that take wildly different approaches to the observational form. The Mother and the Sea is an immersive ethnographic study of pioneering Portuguese female fishing captains, while Campaign 2 (non Will-Ferrell division) is a run-and-gun vérité portrait of a Japanese city council election. Running through February 28th, Documentary Fortnight is a one-stop-shop to witness the future of the non-fiction form.
My most anticipated title was The Mother and the Sea, the latest ethnographic deep dive from Gonçalo Tocha. At the beginning of his 2011 documentary It’s the Earth, Not the Moon, he promises to “to film everything we can” of the Portuguese island of Corvo, the westernmost point of Europe. That 3-hour epic captures the past in the present, as the history of the island emerges through dying out traditions and the reminiscences of its oldest inhabitants. Corvo was once a major whaling outpost, as well as the repository of local wisdom ranging from cheese mongering to hat knitting. Tocha tries to extend these traditions and incarnate memories through his patiently wandering camera, where static portraiture of residents conjures up whole histories in a glance. In The Mother and the Sea he takes a similar approach to the small coastal Portuguese village of Vila Chã, though with a narrowed focus. Tocha is fascinated by the group of 1940s women who became captains of small fishing boats. He claims they were the only women in the world to captain their own ships at the time, their ages ranging from 16 to 60. He can only find scraps of published memory in the library stacks, consisting of a few articles and one heroic photo of the women standing at attention.
If you look up the word “self-indulgent” in the dictionary, I wouldn’t be surprised if you find that the definition is a TCM blogger who commits three entire weekly posts to a French director whose films are almost never even shown on the channel, and whose work is orthogonally situated to the tastes of the target audience. Well, self-indulgent I may be, but there’s more to the story of Claude Chabrol than I managed to fit in the last two weeks.
I’ve mentioned that Chabrol is one of my favorite directors, but that alone isn’t quite justification to come back for thirds—the reason I’m still on a Chabrol kick is that this last piece of the story deals with the central questions of what constitutes artistry and authorship, in ways that matter far beyond any appreciation just of one man’s body of work (no matter how extraordinary that body of work may be). This is about the endless stupid (and endlessly stupid) alleged schism between great movies and commercial pap.
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on December 1, 2013
I was going to write about The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), because it’s screening tomorrow on TCM and, also, because the latest Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), opens theatrically this coming Friday. Instead, I got stuck on the Inside Llewyn Davis poster. There is something about its composition that I find very striking. To notice it, you’ll have to ignore the top and bottom, which are lame in the ways that most movie posters are routinely lame: emphasizing celebrity names up top, and then all the normal credits at bottom. The middle section, however, is inspired. I can’t stop looking at the cat. There are several reasons for this, and the first is due to the sight-lines, which immediately reminded me of the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) painting by famous German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. It’s a classic example of a visual construction where all the lines lead to the center. Except in Friedrich’s case the lines of the natural landscape converge on man, whereas with the Inside Llewyn Davis poster, the sight-lines provided by the New York City streetscape converge on the cat. I think this is great because, in my humble opinion, any movie poster is immediately improved with the addition of a feline presence. Since our furry little friends are said to have nine lives, in this post I’ll be looking at how cats have been depicted throughout cinema in nine different categories. [...MORE]
For many, the term Nouvelle Vague is virtually synonymous with its twin axes, its most famous practitioners, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. But if Truffaut and Godard were destined to become the famous names of the lot, Claude Chabrol was there first.
It was his 1958 film Le Beau Serge that launched the movement, and it was he who financed much of the early New Wave productions. But it was not quite as perfect an inauguration to Chabrol’s own career, for reasons that were not immediately clear.
What was immediately clear was that the earth had moved. Le Beau Serge took home a prize at the 1958 Locarno film festival, but it was the picture’s popular and commercial success that truly spelled the start of something big.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 26, 2013
This tongue-in-cheek quote from director Christian Petzold identifies the severe economy of style associated with the “Berlin School” of filmmakers, now receiving a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Petzold, Thomas Arslan and Angela Schanelec each attended the Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin (dffb) in the early 1990s under the tutelage of Harun Farocki and Hartmut Bitomsky. The three directors made recalcitrant, intensely observational genre films as a reaction to the 1990s “cinema of consensus” in Germany, as described by Eric Rentschler. The end of East Germany became the fodder for comedies like Go Trabi, Go (1991), along with the sober historical dramas that continue to this day (Downfall, The Lives of Others). This first generation of “Berlin School” directors instead wished to focus on the dislocations of the present, whether of the influx of Turkish immigrants, or internal displacement wrought by the shift from socialism to capitalism. Other directors with similar interests, who did not attend the dffb (including the editors of Revolver Magazine, Benjamin Heisenberg and Christoph Hochhausler), were later grouped with Petzold, Arslan and Schanelec as the “Berlin School” of filmmaking, which would produce the most critically-acclaimed German films since the “German New Wave” of Fassbinder, Herzog and Schroeter. It is a critic’s construct, first coined by German reviewer Merten Worthmann, and perhaps has led to the films being ignored in the United States. While “New Wave” suggests the vibrancy of youth, “Berlin School” elicits visions of pedantic schoolmasters chastising viewers with ruler thwacks to the wrist.
A few years ago I made a poorly-thought-out attempt to pay tribute to Chabrol here in this blog, by (what was I thinking?) focusing on his worst film. OK, so that didn’t work. But I’m coming back to Chabrol, this week and for the next few as well, to try to give the man his due. Tomorrow night, TCM is screening Chabrol’s first two features—and while both are terrific, they’re as different as chalk and cheese.
As far as I’m concerned, Claude Chabrol launched the French New Wave with Le Beau Serge—and then he went and ran off in a different direction away from the very movement he helped found. For aficionados of the New Wave, here is a seminal work—for aficionados of Chabrol’s own unique brand of cinema, here is a frustratingly unfamiliar work.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on October 8, 2013
In its 51st edition the venerable New York Film Festival is testing its boundaries. While still a small, tightly curated affair compared to the industry bacchanals of Toronto and Cannes, they’ve been slowly increasing their scope. There are 36 official selection entries this year, thirteen more than 2011, and have expanded the Revivals and Views of the Avant Garde sections to the point where they could stand on their own. A mammoth Jean-Luc Godard retrospective is also running concurrently with the festival. The official selection was heavy on the Brits this year (with four, although I didn’t see any), and otherwise tried for their usual balance of star power (Captain Phillips) and experimentation (Norte, the End of History, all of Views).
The Centerpiece screening was the world premiere of Ben Stiller’s The Secret World of Walter Mitty, the second adaptation of James Thurber’s short story, following the 1947 Danny Kaye vehicle. Stiller’s directorial outings, from The Cable Guy (1996) to Tropic Thunder (2008), have been dark and masochistic comedies about pop culture’s corrosive power. Mitty, on the other hand, is a nostalgia piece, mourning the transition from analog to digital. Having little relation to Thurber’s moody miniature, Stiller’s Mitty takes the daydreaming office drone and shunts him into a world-hopping, mountain climbing journey of self-discovery, kind of a middle-aged male’s Eat Pray Love. Where Thurber’s story ends with Mitty fantasizing about his own demise, Stiller’s closes with all of his dreams coming true.
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on July 11, 2013
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on July 4, 2013
Throughout the month of July TCM is spotlighting the films of François Truffaut. Every Friday night viewers can tune in at 5PM PST or 8PM EST and expect to see a well-rounded selection of the French director’s films hosted by film critic David Edelstein.
I never met François Truffaut but I’ve long felt a sort of kinship with the man and his movies. 25 years ago I wept through my first screening of THE 400 BLOWS (aka Les quatre cents coups) and a few years later I was introduced to Truffaut’s film criticism when I stumbled across a beat-up & battered copy of The Films in My Life at a used bookshop. I eventually learned more about the director who helped usher in a New Wave of French cinema and today Truffaut and his films feel like old familiar friends that I’ve grown-up with and appreciate more with each passing year. But writing about them can be difficult because many of Truffaut’s films are tied to difficult and often painful experiences in my own life.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on June 4, 2013
The history of Japanese cinema can never completely be told. It is estimated that 90 percent of its pre-1945 film output was lost or destroyed, the silent era razed in the 1923 Kanto earthquake, and Allied firebombing in WWII incinerating the rest. One of the most tragic casualties of this cultural obliteration are the films of Sadao Yamanaka, of whose 27 features only 3 survive. A galvanizing figure in the 1930s, he was a passionate cinephile and member of the Narutaki Group of Kyoto that sought to modernize the jidai-geki, or period drama. His films bring the heroes of pulp novels and kabuki theater down to earth, into sake bottle level views of the everyday lives of the working poor. They speak in modern Japanese, in dialogues modeled after his drunken late night conversations with the Narutaki Group. He wrote, “If what drinkers say is lively when utilised in a film, I may insist that drinking is part of my profession.”
He took flak for turning the popular nihilistic samurai Tange Sazen into an irritable layabout, but he gained fans and friends from peers like Yasujiro Ozu. He died at the age of 28 as a military conscript in Manchuria, from an intestinal disease. The scrupulous Masters of Cinema label (the Criterion Collection of the UK) has released his surviving works in an essential two-DVD set (make sure you have an all-region player): Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot (1935), Kochiyama Soshun (1936) and Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937).
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