Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Film Capsule: Jacques Rivette's Paris Belongs to Us (1961)

Paris Belongs to Us (1961)
Directed by Jacques Rivette

Filmed over a period of years as the political paranoia of the 1950s gave way to the social and artistic retaliation of the 60s, the first feature by the one-time editor of Cahiers du cinéma plays like the spiritual commencement of the nouvelle vague, so prescient its perspective and sense of generational anxiety. Whether an outgrowth of this civil consciousness or simply a coincidental convergence of creative and cultural tides, the film even more impressively triangulates what can now be seen as Rivette’s primary thematic preoccupations. Amidst an eerily unpopulated Paris, a troupe of amateur actors rehearse Shakespeare’s “unstageable” play Pericles as gossip concerning a friend’s apparent suicide flowers into an invisible conspiracy of performative and political intrigue, leaving one idealistic student (Betty Schneider) to bear the weight of an ambiguous yet palpable post-war ennui. At once an urban morality play and a work of meta-cinematic interrogation, Rivette’s debut captures a city in the throes of transition as the past stubbornly yields to the demands of an evermore metropolitan modernity. (December 15, 6:30pm; December 18, 3:30pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Lynch/Rivette”) [BKMag]

Los Angeles Repertory Recommendations: December 2015


French master Claire Denis continues to work with a frequency rarely afforded her female contemporaries (whether in Europe or America), but her older films remain a rarity on the big screen, particularly in Los Angeles. It’s an unexpected delight, then, to see two of the director’s least appreciated films make their way to Cinefamily this month. A new 35mm restoration of Denis’ 1988 debut, Chocolat, has three remaining screenings (Dec. 4-6), while her 1996 film Nenette and Boni, receives a single-night showcase on Dec. 8 as part of the ‘La Collectionneuse’ series of classic French films. Together these two works encompass many of Denis’ thematic interests –– from the violence of colonialism, to the eroticism of the human body, to the nuances of feminine identity –– while likewise speaking to the depth and power of her ever-maturing and elusive stylistic vision.


For the past two months the UCLA Film and Television Archive has been showcasing some of their most beloved restorations –– everything from The Red Shoes to My Darling Clementine to Paths of Glory –– and the series continues through mid-December with some of its most tantalizing offerings. On Dec. 6, Barbara Loden’s seminal work of small-town neo-realism, Wanda, is appropriately paired with American iconoclast John Cassavetes’ debut feature, Shadows, while Dec. 11 brings together two even rarer works of micro-budget cinema: Billy Woodberry’s exemplary “L.A. Rebellion” title Bless Their Little Hearts and Efrain Gutierrez’s vital piece of Chicano heritage cinema, Please, Don’t Bury Me Alive!. And finally, closing out the series on Dec. 19 is an early-‘30s double bill of auteurist delights, with Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus –– starring Marlene Dietrich as a wife driven to unfortunate lengths to provide for her ailing husband –– proceeding the Ernst Lubitsch musical The Love Parade, featuring Maurice Chevalier as a philandering Count and Jeanette MacDonald as the Queen drawn in by the young man’s lascivious charm.


Buried amid the New Beverly’s genre and holiday-heavy December schedule is an essential 35mm double feature of lesser-known films from two otherwise storied eras of directorial titan John Ford’s unimpeachable career. Opening the evening on Dec. 30 is the 1934 WWI drama The Lost Patrol, starring Victor McLaglen and Boris Karloff as soldiers attempting to lead a splintered troupe across the Mesopotamian desert following the death of their commanding officer, while the back half of the bill is given over to the vivid 1955 Technicolor drama The Long Gray Line, in which Tyrone Powers’ reckless West Point protege is forced to personally and professionally mature on his way to becoming a storied military instructor.


A diverse selection of titles highlight a busier-than-usual month for the film program at LACMA. On Dec. 11, the museum finishes up their overview of Weimar-era German cinema with a digital restoration of Fritz Lang’s revered serial killer parable M, followed on Dec. 12 by a tantalizing 35mm presentation of F.W. Murnau’s silent chamber drama The Last Laugh. Meanwhile, the weekly Tuesday Matinee series features a quartet of Bing Crosby films, including the Dixieland Jazz chronicle Birth of the Blues (Dec. 8), the seasonally themed musicals Holiday Inn (Dec. 15) and White Christmas (Dec. 22), and, closing out the year on Dec. 29, the dark character study Country Girl, in which the iconic singer plays a washed-up alcoholic who uses his wife (Grace Kelly) as a pawn to keep his fading career afloat. [THR]

Film Capsule: Robert Bresson's Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)
Directed by Robert Bresson

“I’ll have my revenge.” So vows Hélène (María Casares) in the opening moments of the darkly sumptuous second feature by the then-emerging French artist and aesthete. Spurred by the cowardly admission of her lover Jean’s (Paul Bernard) lost passion, Hélène’s quest for comeuppance quickly grows perverse as she attempts to lure her former suitor into a doomed romance with Agnès (Elina Labourdette), a young proletarian whose salacious past would, if discovered, bring shame to any potential relationship. The ensuing drama––both coerced and manipulated by Hélène, to ultimately futile ends––enfolds not simply vengeful maneuvering and situational irony, but also social satire and spiritual consciousness, rendering what would otherwise be a traditional melodrama into a modern morality play replete with near-metaphysical implications. And in that sense, the film is less an outlier in Bresson’s increasingly austere catalogue than a clarion call for a new way of considering human behavior and the frame by which such fate is made manifest. (November 27, 9pm; November 29, 3pm at Anthology Film Archives’s “Jack Smith Selects [From the Grave)]”) [BKMag]

Friday, November 20, 2015

Best of the Avant-Garde 2015

This is the third iteration of this annual roundup of the year in avant-garde, and it has only gotten more difficult over that span to narrow down an entire twelve months of noteworthy accomplishments into an arbitrary list of favorites. For one, the term avant-garde, as broad and malleable as it’s ever been, is still a wholly subjective designation. Can a documentary be avant-garde? Can narrative shorts be avant-garde? Can widely travelled features be avant-garde? The answer is, of course, yes. So in the spirit of the proceedings, I haven’t placed any restrictions on the list you’re about to read, other than limiting it to eight selections, a number arrived at for no other reason than it happened to pop up on a few occasions as I began considering titles.

And this year, that pool of titles was larger than ever. I’ll certainly never claim any list to be definitive, but I will say that I watched more “avant-garde” films than ever this year: Essentially everything from Crossroads, Wavelengths, and Projections, with a number of select titles from Images and Ann Arbor and the odd regional program. Which is to say, a lot of excellent work was necessarily left out. So, before we begin, a quick tip of the hat to Scott Stark (Traces/Legacy), Eric Stewart (Wake), Mary Helena Clark (Palms), Ben Russell (Greetings to the Ancestors), Jonathan Schwartz (3 Miniatures), Lewis Klahr (Mars Garden), Blake Williams (Something Horizontal), Björn Kämmerer (Navigator), Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc (Sector IX B), Laida Lertxundi (Viva para Vivir), Margaret Honda (Color Correction) and Madison Brookshire (About 11 Minutes).

Feature: Natto Wada's Punishment Room (1956)

This piece was written for Reverse Shot's 'Unauthorized' symposium

Rewriting History
Natto Wada's Punishment Room

One of the great ironies of the auteur theory is that in its elevation of the director to the level of cinematic architect, it correspondingly neglects the efforts of its namesake initiate: that of the author herself. And in a primarily visual medium, the work of the screenwriter is of particularly precarious prominence. It’s much easier to appreciate the achievements of, say, a cinematographer or a visual effects team than it is to parse the contributions of what is ostensibly the emanating agent for all narrative cinema. Indeed, it can be difficult to quantify such influence on even a single film––for every Casablanca or Network, where the script is of equal, if not greater, notoriety than the more appreciable aesthetic aspects of the work, there’s a John Ford or Stanley Kubrick film of which little is noted with respect to its expositional elements. Attempting to trace a screenwriter’s sensibility over multiple films—to say nothing of a career—is, then, what we might call a potentially futile exercise in creative and critical categorization.

DVD Review: Julien Duvivier in the Thirties (1930-1937)

The first thing one notices upon encountering the world of Julien Duvivier is the mobility of his camera. Graceful and inquisitive, the French filmmaker's lens proved an instrumental tool not only in the formal conception of his films, but even more so in their narrative construction. Like many directors tasked with transitioning between the silent and sound eras of cinema, Duvivier was first and foremost a visual storyteller, a trait he didn't forfeit as he embarked on a fruitful career which stretched from the late-1910s well into the '60s. Though he was reluctant to capitulate to the mandates of sound, having made dozens of films over the decade prior, one rarely senses in his films from the 1930s an unsure hand, or detects a stubborn vision of cinema's evolving identity. In fact, his best work from the period so wholly integrates the converging capacities of the medium that it can be tempting to retroactively classify him as one of the progenitors of modern cinema itself.

Film Review: Gaspar Noé’s Love (2015)

Director Gaspar Noé’s reputation has been built on what one might generously deem the less dignified aspects of the human condition. If the Argentine-born filmmaker is by this point a “name” in international cinema, it’s in the most literal sense, as a headline-generating, controversy-stoking star of his own conception. Having already pushed the boundaries of violence, misogyny, and drug abuse (among other delightful subjects) in such purposefully provocative films as 1998’s I Stand Alone, 2002’s Irréversible and 2009’s Enter the Void, it makes a certain kind of sense that Noé would not only one day arrive at a full-blown sex flick, but at a full-blown 3D sex flick. In light of such considerations, that Love––née Gaspar Noé’s Love––fulfills all the titillating tenets of said genre is unsurprising; that it’s as simultaneously tender, touching, and even tasteful as its title implies is, for this filmmaker, the most shocking development of all.

Los Angeles Repertory Recommendations: November 2015


Less than six months after enthusing about the unlikely appearance of Jacques Rivette’s Duelle at Cinefamily, an even rarer work by the French new wave master is taking over the same venue for an entire weekend in mid-November. On Nov. 14 and 15, the thirteen-hour long Out 1: Noli me Tangere, one of the most infamously elusive, sought-after pieces of auteurist cinema, will screen in a new digital restoration, its eight parts divided over two days with designated bathroom breaks and a potluck of culinary delights to appease and appetize those brave enough to commit to such a gargantuan viewing experience. However, the film itself, a contemporary riff on Balzac’s History of the Thirteen starring a who’s-who of nouvelle vague icons (Jean-Pierre Léaud, Juliet Berto, Michael Lonsdale, and Eric Rohmer, among others), in its radical commingling of meta-cinematic improvisation and conspiracy theory dramatics, should provide more than enough visceral pleasures to reward the undertaking.


Nowadays John Cassavetes is most closely associated with the dozen films he made over three decades as a director, mostly independently financed works produced with a close group of friends and family. But Cassavetes also had a secondary career as an actor, which he maintained in order to fund his filmmaking and protect authorship over his work. Throughout November, the New Beverly Cinema pays tribute to Cassavetes the actor with a sixteen-film series featuring an array of beloved and less-recognized titles which speak not only to his underrated skills as a thespian, but also his collaborative acumen. Highlights include double bills of Andrew Stone’s The Night Holds Terror and Don Siegel’s Crime in the Streets (Nov. 4 and 5); Elaine May’s Mikey & Nickey and Giuliano Montaldo’s Machine Gun McCain (Nov. 11 and 12); Paul Mazursky’s Tempest and John Badham’s Who's Life Is It Anyway? (Nov. 18 and 19); Siegel’s The Killers and Robert Parrish’s Saddle the Wind (Nov. 22 and 23); and, finally, a two-night showcase of Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (Nov. 27 and 28).


Beginning on Nov. 13 at Laemlle's Royal Theater, digital restorations of two little-seen films by the veteran French filmmaker Agnès Varda will each receive week-long engagements. Made back-to-back in 1986 and ’87, both Jane B. par Agnès V. (never before released in the U.S.) and Kung-Fu Master star international icon Jane Birkin. Her self-reflexive role in the former finds Varda placing her muse against a number of surrealistic backdrops as they playact and deliberate on the role of the performer, while in the latter, as a kind of surrogate figure, Birkin plays a woman approaching middle-age who unexpectedly falls in love with a teenage boy. A contrasting pair in both style and subject, the films also work as companion pieces of a sort, outlining the range of Varda’s thematic interests as well as her deft touch when interweaving elements of fiction and nonfiction into narratives just exotic enough to feel strangely familiar.


On Nov. 22, Los Angeles Filmforum presents a tantalizing selection of vintage films which cinematically respond to the JFK assassination in a variety of personal and provocative ways. Along with pioneering vérité filmmaker Robert Drew’s Faces of November, a document of President Kennedy’s funeral as told through the faces of his friends and family, there will be two films––Report and Television Assassination––by experimental icon Bruce Conner, a rare screening of Robert Russett’s collage animation Under the Juggernaut, as well as a hybrid piece entitled The Eternal Frame, in which director T.R. Uthco and the Ant Farm collective reenact the events originally captured by the camera of Abraham Zapruder at the site of the actual assassination. The evening, hosted at Filmforum's usual home at the Egyptian Theatre, will then conclude with a reading from Don DeLillo’s Underworld and an edited presentation of the Zapruder Film itself. [THR]

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Film Capsule: Frederick Wiseman's Model (1980)

Model (1980)
Directed by Frederick Wiseman

This mid-period standout by the veteran vérité filmmaker brought to the field of fashion and design the same curiosity and critical eye which so exactingly excavated such earlier, sociologically significant environments as basic training camps, welfare offices, and psychiatric wards. Locating a symbiotic method of craft and visual conception in the work of affluent media and advertising artisans, Wiseman is able, with nary a deviation from his observational methodology, to construct both a consumerist exposé and a working allegory for the cinematic process itself. Capturing the day-to-day bustle of photo shoots, dress rehearsals, and runway campaigns, the film nimbly yet thoroughly notes the behind-the-scene efforts of those who work to turn blank subjects into glamorous enigmas. And like many of the director’s New York chronicles, Model holds an equally detailed peripheral interest, documenting Ed Koch’s Manhattan as it transitioned from the post-punk squalor of the late 70s to the new-wave facade of the impending 80s. (October 24, 3pm at the Museum of the Moving Image’s “Frederick Wiseman’s New York”) [BKMag]

Film Capsule: Maurice Pialat's Le garçu (1995)

Le garçu (1995)
Directed by Maurice Pialat

The final work by the great French filmmaker scaled back the narrative and thematic immensity of his two preceding landmarks, Van Gogh and Under the Sun of Satan, opting instead for a return to the highly personal, familial-minded interests of his formative years. Starring the director’s long-time surrogate Gérard Depardieu as a middle-aged philanderer simultaneously navigating obligations to his young son (played by Pialat’s own son, Antoine) and the affections of both his ex-girlfriend (Géraldine Pailhas) and current lover (Fabienne Babe), the film instills autobiographical detail into a casually nimble temporal framework, compressing a lifetime of broken promises and emotional transgressions into a painfully recurrent present tense. With his uncommon sense of intimacy and ability to keenly negotiate the nuances of human behavior, Pialat unfolds an unassumingly devastating tale of misplaced passions. The film’s final image, a moment of tear-stained resignation to an impossible plight, is as stirring an artistic encapsulation as any, and one last poignant flourish in a career defined by them. (October 18, 7pm at the Museum of the Moving Image’s Pialat retrospective) [BKMag]

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A Love Letter to Chantal Akerman

This piece originally appeared in issue 60 of Little White Lies. Chantal Akerman subsequently passed away on October 5, 2015. 

I fell in love with Chantal Akerman somewhere between East Germany and Moscow. Not literally, of course, though it may as well be, so evocative and transportive is her 1993 masterpiece D’Est. Essentially a visual diary of the Belgian director’s travels across the former European communist bloc, the film (whose title translates as ‘From the East’) in many ways encapsulates the many modes and methodologies with which Akerman worked throughout the most prolific phase of her career (which this work could further be said to mark the end of). Composed primarily of meditative tracking shots captured as sequenced tableaux through unidentified urban and countryside locales, D’Est documents with an outsider’s eye a very specific moment of cultural transition, as the thaw of the Cold War opened to a newly liberated, modern iteration of Soviet society.

Film Capsule: Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson's The American Dreamer (1971)

The American Dreamer (1971)
Directed by Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson

Filmed during the editing of his infamously outré Hollywood disaster The Last Movie, this captivating docu-fiction portrait of director Dennis Hopper at the peak of his drug-fueled, quasi-mystic phase of ass-backward fame and fortune is both companion piece to a ceaselessly fascinating film and a standalone revelation all its own. Capturing Hopper at work and play in the New Mexico desert, the film consists primarily of stream-of-conscience insights and inanities from one of cinema’s great charlatans, here elevating his persona into the pantheon of acid-fried geniuses. Episodes of the director waxing philosophical on the artistic process (at one point off-handedly comparing his sure-to-be-misunderstood latest to The Magnificent Ambersons) sit side-by-side with orgiastic displays of group foreplay and creatively cleansing experiments in public nudity. Hopper’s natural charisma and slyly self-reflexive nature turn what could be a mess of pretension into a revealing mediation on creativity and the precariousness of inspiration. (October 11, 5pm at BAM; Q&A with Schiller follows screening of new digital restoration) [BKMag]

Los Angeles Repertory Recommendations: October 2015


In a month with no shortage of horror titles to choose from, a selection of potentially more startling discoveries are on offer in the UCLA Film and Television Archives’ retrospective of the great French filmmaker Jean Grémillon. Running from Oct. 17 to Nov. 21, the series surveys the breadth of the poetic realist’s career, from early silent experiments to his eloquent dramas and short documentaries of the 1940s and ‘50s. Each evening features one treasure or another, but the rarities hold the most promise for adventurous cinephiles, particularly the Oct. 18 presentation of the proletariat parable Maldone, and an Oct. 25 double bill of early ‘30s social indictments La Petite Lise and Daïnah la métisse.


Cinefamily’s annual Halloween bonanza plays host throughout October to any number of cult and outré efforts from the golden age of VHS shlock. Two of the month’s sub-programs, however, feature particularly unique offerings. First, the ‘Unseen! Unscreened!! Obscene!!!’ weekend brings with it the likes of such self-explanatory efforts as Hack-O-Lantern and Night Feeder. Highlighting the weekend, however, is an Oct. 10 screening of the restoration of the surreal 3D strangler classic The Mask, from Canadian director Julian Roffman (era-authentic “Magic Mystic Masks” will be provided). Later in the month is the ‘Ladies of the ‘80s’ series, a three-day, eight-film selection of thrillers directed by women. An Oct. 24 quadruple-bill of Humanoids from the Deep, Slumber Party Massacre, Sorority House Massacre, and Stripped to Kill is the obvious centerpiece. But just as enticing is the following night’s (Oct. 25) double-feature of Jackie Kong’s Blood Diner and Genie Joseph, Thomas Doran, and Brendan Faulkner’s Spookies, a notoriously troubled work which has lived on far longer than anyone involved could have anticipated.


This season’s Halloween selections at the New Beverly impressively run the gamut from horror comedies to giallo thrillers and back again. But most enticing is a generous serving of genre offerings by big-name auteurs, presented, as always on 35mm. On both Oct. 7 and 8, a pair of early David Cronenberg classics, Shivers and The Brood, will screen back-to-back, followed on Oct. 14 and 15 by two of George A. Romero’s most underrated films, Day of the Dead and The Crazies. Elsewhere, on Oct. 25 and 26, you’ll find John Badham’s Dracula and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, a pair of remakes which arguably outpace the originals. And finally, on Halloween night, Oct. 31, three of the most influential: Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon, Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls, and Romero’s genre-defining Night of the Living Dead.


Alongside thematically, if not necessarily seasonally, appropriate screenings of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (Oct. 16) and Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (Oct. 17), this month’s Tuesday matinee series at LACMA features many less recognized Hollywood horror pictures. Three of the films––The Wolfman (screening Oct. 6), Ghost of Frankenstein (Oct. 13), and Weird Woman (Oct. 27)––star Lon Chaney Jr, paired along the way with such names as Bela Lugosi, Ralph Bellamy, Evelyn Ankers, and Claude Rains. Between these, on Oct. 20, is Son of Dracula, directed by the great journeyman filmmaker Robert Siodmak, who, as in the best of these films, elevates a potentially tired concept into the realm of the truly morbid curiosity. [THR]

TIFF 2015: Wavelengths Features

Visual artist Mark Lewis’ first feature, Invention, is something of a quintessential Wavelengths selection. Considering the section’s modus operandi, it’s not surprising that every couple of years would bring with it a film indebted to the program’s namesake work. A Canadian working in the realm of media art, Lewis has wisely made little attempt over the years to forsake allegiance to his most celebrated artistic compatriot, avant-garde figurehead Michael Snow. And while certainly a descendant of Wavelength (1967), Invention is perhaps of even more direct stylistic lineage with another of Snow’s major works, namely La Région Centrale (1971). Like that landmark of structuralist cinema, Invention uses the cinematic frame to reshape the viewers perception of space, time and the environment through which the camera, as a physical object, tilts, twirls and travels in unencumbered motion.

TIFF 2015: Wavelengths Shorts

Film festivals, by their very conception, are inherently curatorial endeavors. Particularly with regards to a festival as sprawling as the Toronto International Film Festival—this year celebrating its 40th anniversary—such program initiatives and individual delineations can prove imperative in negotiating the sheer number of films on offer. In the case of the festival’s experimental Wavelengths program, and in specific the Wavelengths shorts programs, these curatorial efforts are concentrated—even heightened—by the narrow interests they serve. This year’s programs, spread across four nights over the festival’s first weekend, above all else continued to exemplify lead programmer Andrea Picard’s continued attention to the art of curation, not simply in the typically stellar selection of films, but also in the careful grouping of works within individual programs. The program’s first evening, for example, while featuring films from artists both young and old, from a diverse array of cultural and cinematic backgrounds, proceeded in beautiful synchronicity, with each film speaking to one other in alternately subtle and overt fashion.

Film Review: Pedro Costa's Horse Money (2014)

This piece originally appeared in issue 61 of Little White Lies

Pedro Costa’s Horse Money, the Portuguese filmmaker’s first fiction feature in over eight years, crescendos with an intensely cerebral 20-minute sequence set inside an elevator in which a flood of dialogue works to collapse an entire history’s worth of personal and political tragedy in one virtuoso display of accumulated aggression. Undeniably bracing, the scene––a slightly reworked version of Costa’s 2012 short Sweet Exorcism (originally featured in the Centro Histórico omnibus film)––is but the final and most violent example of the film’s foremost allegorical conceit, that of indoor space as physical manifestation of repressed cultural memory. In Costa’s cinema, the act of representation is an act of exorcism in itself––or, as he put it in an interview with Cinema Scope magazine, a means to fully leave the past behind: “Some people say they make films to remember. I think we make films to forget.”

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Film Capsule: Roberto Rossellini's Fear (1954)

Fear (1954)
Directed by Roberto Rossellini

Befitting its title, this psychodrama, the fourth of five collaborations between Rossellini and his then-wife Ingrid Bergman, trades much of the metaphysical mystery of the pair’s prior projects for a visceral immediacy, transposing years heavy media scrutiny into a self-reflexive thriller. Bergman plays Irene Wagner, the privileged wife of a German scientist (Mathias Weiman) whose extra-marital affair turns ugly when her husband’s former girlfriend (Renate Mannhardt) begins to blackmail Irene in a display of apparent jealousy. This tangled web of infidelities unfolds before a backdrop of post-war Munich, cinematically reconstituting the industrial wasteland the director so memorably detailed in his earlier Germany Year Zero. With his wife as both muse and instrument of ideologic intensity, Rossellini was, in less than a half-decade’s time, able to redefine notions of neorealism, conceive of an integrated moving image infrastructure which Gilles Deleuze would later term the “time-image,” and, with Fear, offer an economical but unmistakably passionate rejoinder to the tired tenets of the genre film. (September 9, 7:30pm at MoMA’s Ingrid Bergman centennial) [BKMag]