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January 16, 2016
David Kalat
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The Fall and Rise of Max Linder

There’s an autographed photo of Charlie Chaplin, inscribed “To the one and only Max, “The Professor”. From his disciple, Charlie Chaplin. May 12th 1917.”

The “Max” in this scenario was Max Linder, the seminal French comedian.  Chaplin was often stingy about acknowledging his debts to his various collaborators and peers, but he was never shy about praising Linder.  When Max Linder, died, Chaplin shuttered his studio for a day out of respect.

Linder’s influence extended far beyond Chaplin, though.  His screen comedy laid the groundwork for the entirety of the silent comedy era that followed: he made films full of absurd sight gags and slapstick, grounded in character and driven by farcical situations.  There’s scarcely a comedian who came in his wake whose work does not bear an overt and demonstrable debt to Linder’s.

That being said, Linder’s films are not nearly as well known as you’d expect given that background.  Some of his best works show up on TCM from time to time and are available on DVD; some of his pioneering early shorts are available on a Blu-Ray box set from France—true, true.  But being available and being watched are two different things.

Linder’s legacy is clouded, you see, by the unsettling facts of his life.  If I tell you “Max Linder is a genius of comedy, go see his films,” your next question is going to be, “Sounds great—tell me more about him.”  At which point, this whole conversation takes a sudden dark turn, and that’s the problem.

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KEYWORDS: Max Linder
COMMENTS: 6
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FANTOMAS
December 5, 2015
David Kalat
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Claude Chabrol vs. Fantomas

It was a little over 100 years ago that the writing team of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre first began cranking out Fantômas mystery novels for a voracious European public. To keep apace with the relentless publication schedule, Souvestre and Allain traded writing duties. They would playfully build impossible cliffhangers before handing off to one another, daring the other to concoct a solution. It was perhaps the first commercial application of the Surrealists’ famous “exquisite corpse” game.

Over the years, the Fantômas character has appeared in a frenzied array of movie adaptations of differing degrees of quality. Arguably the most faithful adaptation to date is the 1979 TV miniseries–not necessarily the best, mind you, but the truest to the books. And as it happened, the authenticity extended behind the scenes: the producers decided to hire two visionary filmmakers to direct alternating episodes, in the spirit of Allain and Souvestre’s gonzo writing habits.

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KEYWORDS: Claude Chabrol, Fantomas, Jean-Luis Bunuel
COMMENTS: 8
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November 14, 2015
David Kalat
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The Story of Chabrol

They called Claude Chabrol “the French Hitchcock,” but this was always more a marketing hook than a meaningful comparison. Alfred Hitchcock made crowd-pleasing suspense thrillers; Chabrol made vicious satires disguised as suspense thrillers. For decades, Chabrol had been crafting spiky, embittered dramas simmering with disgust for humanity in general and the French bourgeoisie in specific.

And in 1988, he took aim at Nazi-occupied France. That was impressive enough, but the bullet he fired was a tangled, M.C. Escher-like self-referential puzzle surfing waves he’d set in motion two decades earlier.

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KEYWORDS: Claude Chabrol, Isabelle Huppert, Landru, Story of Women, Violette Noziere
COMMENTS: 5
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PICKPOCKET

Pickpocket - French Poster

(Editor’s Note: Pablo Kjolseth unexpectedly found himself on the road assisting with Cory McAbee’s latest film project, so he handed over the reigns for today’s post to Michael J. Casey, film critic and reporter for The Boulder Weekly.)

Above all things, cinema is a style. Movies are a glorious and exciting exploration of the human condition, but without style, the images simply hang to the screen, failing to be anything more than a light flickering on a blank canvas.

That’s why those who crack the code are so lauded, and few have been as voraciously lauded as the French director, Robert Bresson (1901-1999). Though he only made 13 features over the course of four decades, every one of his films bear a signature style, the mark of a master. Of these 13, TCM is showing five of his most acclaimed works on Sept. 25, and though all of them explore Bresson’s thoughts on style, cinematography and spirituality, none convey his ideas quite like his 1959 masterpiece, Pickpocket. [...MORE]

Unusual Commentary Tracks

 

Terror of Frankenstein

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with Tim Kirk, producer of Room 237, The Nightmare, and other titles. We talked about commentary tracks because he is releasing something called Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein. The normal order of business would be to simply re-release Terror of Frankenstein (Calvin Floyd, 1977), and then add a commentary track as a bonus. Sadly, the only existing elements that remain for Terror of Frankenstein are sketchy at best and not worth revisiting in and of themselves. A serendipitous conversation, however, between Kirk and Terror of Frankenstein star Leon Vitali opened the door to a mysterious world behind Floyd’s surprisingly faithful adaption of Mary Shelley’s story. Given Vitali’s work with Stanley Kubrick, he is already the subject of a few conspiracy theories himself, but what Vitali reveals in his commentary track to Terror of Frankenstein suggests that method-acting can go too far. It might even lead to murder. [...MORE]

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November 8, 2014
David Kalat
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Comedians in cars, getting French-style coffee

Jacques Tati’s Trafic is a comedy gem that tends to get lost in the shuffle. Setting aside the tendency for this thing to be mistaken for a similarly titled but completely unrelated drama a about drug smugglers (that extra “f” makes all the difference in the world) the 1971 swan song for Tati’s “Monsieur Hulot” character was poorly reviewed on its original release. Compared to the other Hulot films it is a curiously narrative effort by Tati—although the film’s languid Tati-esque pace caused contemporary reviewers to miss that aspect.

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KEYWORDS: Jacques Tati, Trafic
COMMENTS: 6
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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]

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