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October 11, 2014
David Kalat
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How Not to Stay Awake, French Style

Once upon a time I was very tired. More to the point, I was very tired in Montreal.

Julie and I were in Montreal for a child-free vacation, and we were so happy to have some time to ourselves we hadn’t done much planning. On arriving in the city we just looked around at what was going on, and saw that the Art Museum was going to be showing Marcel L’Herbier’s Fantastic Night (1942). I’ve been fascinated by the history of French horror and sci-fi films, and at the time I was considering fleshing out my chapter from Fear Without Frontiers into a book of its own—catching an actual 35mm print of this treasure was clearly must-see territory.

But how to spend the day leading up to it? Why, the Montreal Beer Festival, of course! And after a full day of sampling Canadian microbrews and eating sausages, we decided to burn off some of the woozy haze by walking to the Art Museum—some 4 miles away. We got there to find the Museum screening room’s AC was on the fritz, making the theater toasty. And so, warm and boozy and tired, we settled in to watch a B&W subtitled movie about a man who can’t stay awake. Hoo boy.

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KEYWORDS: Fantastic Night, La Nuit Fantastique, Marcel L'Herbier
COMMENTS: 4
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Renoir Noir: Night at the Crossroads (1932)

LA NUIT DU CARREFOUR (1932)

 

“Every detail, every second of each shot makes La Nuit du carrefour [Night of the Crossroads] the only great French thriller, or rather, the greatest French adventure film of all.” -Jean-Luc Godard, Cahiers du Cinema (December 1957)

Night of the Crossroads was the first film adaptation of Georges Simenon’s phenomenally popular Inspector Maigret novels, and was lent a thick, hallucinatory atmosphere by director Jean Renoir. Yet, sandwiched as it is between Renoir’s classics with Michel Simon, La Chienne (1931) and Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), it has escaped much serious critical attention. It does not even get an entry in Andre Bazin’s collected writings on Renoir. Anthology Film Archives arranged a very rare screening of the feature this past weekend, with Simenon’s son John in attendance to discuss the production beforehand. It’s a traditional whodunit, except all of the motivations are missing. Instead of attributing the crime to a single perpetrator, the whole town becomes culpable through their xenophobia and greed. As Renoir’s character Octave says in The Rules of the Game, “everyone has their reasons”. To that Night of the Crossroads would add, “for murder.”

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The Malaise of the Ghetto: LA HAINE (1995)

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It’s about a society on its way down. And as it falls, it keeps telling itself: “So far so good… So far so good… So far so good.” It’s not how you fall that matters. It’s how you land. – LA HAINE (1995)

In light of recent events at home and abroad it seems strangely appropriate that TCM will be airing LA HAINE (aka HATE;1995) on Sunday night. This low-budget film written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz chronicles 24 hours in the lives of three friends of different descent, an Arab (Saïd Taghmaoui), an African (Hubert Kounde) and a Jewish man (Vincent Cassel) who have befriended one another in the harsh climate of the suburban French ghettos on the outskirts of Paris. Facing discrimination, poverty and a lack of opportunity the three young men turn to drugs for escape and impulsively get caught up in the civil unrest and rioting that plagues their troubled neighborhood. While it’s easy to appreciate the film as a snapshot of the social tensions that continue to erupt in Paris today, the emotional message at the heart of LA HAINE actually speaks to a much wider demographic and the film has understandably struck a chord around the world. For better or worse, this modern day classic expressed the frustrations of a generation and many marginalized young people of all nationalities have continued to discover the film since its initial release and embrace its street-wise aesthetic.

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What’s your favorite color?

Be careful who you marry.

Be careful who you marry.

Screening this week as part of the TCM Imports lineup is Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s (1941 – 1996) Three Colors trilogy. As a film exhibitor I have very fond memories of showcasing Kieslowski’s work. Both The Double Life of Veronique (1991) and the aforementioned operatic triptych made Kieslowski a huge arthouse hit who would pack the joint every time. Proof of this was to be found in The Decalogue (1988), a collection of 10 one-hour films made for Polish television. Nowadays when anyone can order up the package on a DVD box set it might not seem such a big deal, but back in the ’90s when I screened all of these on 35mm it was a rarity, and people came out in droves to watch them all. Let that sink in for a moment; a 500 seat auditorium was getting packed by people coming out to watch Polish television.  [...MORE]

Alain Resnais: Gone Home to Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad. Photo Courtesy Rialto Pictures.I had originally planned to write a light-hearted post about Las Vegas to go with TCM’s airing of Ocean’s 11 until I heard about the death of Alain Resnais, one of the original French New Wave filmmakers. And, though I know my post will get lost in the many obits and tributes to Resnais, and a nod to old Las Vegas would likely have appealed to more readers, I wanted to write about the director who expanded my understanding of what film could be. Most film instructors and cinephiles remember seeing their first New Wave movie, usually at an age when they begin to check off the titles on that list of masterworks they intend to see. For many, it is a playful turn by Truffaut or an exercise in cool by Godard, but for me it was the cinema’s most enigmatic puzzle, Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad.

I first saw Marienbad in a film class. I found it difficult to get my footing in the story, which seemed to circle around itself. It was like waking up from a dream to discover I was in another dream. At a large, luxurious hotel, a woman referred to as A is approached by a man called X, who claims that they had met last year at either Frederiksbad or Marienbad. At first, A, who is at the hotel with M, her current husband or lover, denies that she knows X. But, X continues to persuade, seduce, and influence A until she begins to believe that the two did have an affair last year at Marienbad. Is X lying to A for his own agenda, or has A suffered a trauma that has caused her memory to fail? Is M a cruel or supportive husband, and what is the meaning behind the game of sticks he constantly plays. Some of the scenes seem to be the thoughts and fears of the characters, but the real and the imaginary are not clearly distinguished. I was immediately pulled into the intrigue of the characters, haunted by the melancholy mood, impressed with the austere black-and-white cinematography, and challenged by the insanely ambiguous narrative. After class, my peers and I pondered the meaning of the movie; I knew that if I could only figure it out, I would understand the mysteries of a sophisticated adult world just out of reach to me. [...MORE]

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February 22, 2014
David Kalat
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Jean Renoir’s Less Grand Illusion

There’s a risk in peaking too early.  Just ask Jean Renoir—one of the greatest names in cinema history, whose prolific career was eclipsed by its first act.  Having made too many masterpieces as a young man, he set a bar he could never cross again.  And nowhere is that clearer than in 1962’s delightful The Elusive Corporal—lively, gorgeously photographed, briskly paced and full of memorable incidents, richly characterized, and fantastic on just about every level—except for not being The Grand Illusion.  As if being not quite as perfect as The Grand Illusion constitutes some kind of sin.  But there you have it, folks, a glorious film that would have made the career of almost anyone else, but forgotten and dismissed because it (gasp!) wasn’t a masterpiece.

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KEYWORDS: Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir, The Elusive Corporal
COMMENTS: 6
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December 7, 2013
David Kalat
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Unpure Chabrol

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.

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KEYWORDS: Claude Chabrol, Eurospy
COMMENTS: 4
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November 30, 2013
David Kalat
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Claude Chabrol: a primer

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.

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KEYWORDS: Claude Chabrol
COMMENTS: 4
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November 23, 2013
David Kalat
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Claude Chabrol – Beyond Criticism

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.

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KEYWORDS: Claude Chabrol
COMMENTS: 4
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Diabolique vs. Scream of Fear

I was gonna call this week’s post “2 Girls, 1 Swimming Pool” but decided against it.  But inspired by TCM’s upcoming screening of one of my all-time favorite thrillers, Henri Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique (AKA Les Diaboliques), I’m taking the opportunity to celebrate the twisted artistry of this gloriously macabre picture–and taking stock of one of its many knock-offs.

Clouzot’s is a dark and cynical cinema, devoid of hope and happy endings.  Which is unsurprising, since that is an equally apt description of Clouzot himself.  “All his work has been surrounded by an air of scandal and affront,” writes Roy Armes, “and the shooting of all his films is conducted in an atmosphere of bitterness and recrimination.  His own urge to dominate is perhaps reflected in his urge to dominate is perhaps reflected in his characters who seek outlets for their lust, hatred, and violence.”

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