Sunday, December 05, 2010

Jean-Pierre Melville the Jazz Musician

I love this quote from Bertrand Tavernier about Jean-Pierre Melville's crime films. I think he nails the high artistry Melville achieves, even though he is not as philosophically oriented (or wordy perhaps?) as some of the Nouvelle Vague contemporaries in the middle '60s.

TAVERNIER: "...those films I will not say are philosophical, but they are like thoughtful reexamination of a genre, like a jazz musician would take a standard by Gershwin and redo it in his own way. He is taking-- He's taking This Gun for Hire, combine it maybe with one or two other films, and he makes his own version. He is playing part of the melody, but in such a way that it's-- he has taken different chords, playing with different kind of harmonies, yet you have the melody." - Tavernier in 2008 on an interview on the Criterion DVD for Melville's Le Deuxième Souffle (1966).

While many Melville films have enjoyed quite a high profile, such as Le Samouraï (1967), when I see one as incredible as this (Le Deuxième Souffle), I wonder why it has been relegated to the shadows for so long-- and I then wonder how many other awesome Melville films are out there that we still can't see...! I don't think this film was even on VHS, so this really is a treat of a release. Check it out now!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Back of the Class

I am still finding this parody commercial from the comedy troupe "back of the class" hilarious:

Here are some of their other highlights:

This last one may be only sporadically funny, but extra credit for the lovingly re-created '80s-style video:

Friday, April 30, 2010

New Breathless (1960) Trailer

Here is Rialto Pictures' new trailer for Jean-Luc Godard's immortal Breathless (À Bout de souffle) (1960). Subscribe to their YouTube channel...!

It's perhaps a bit sillier than the real movie, but I think it hits all the right nostalgia points for fans of the film. The print looks pristine (at least via YouTube) and the cinematography beautiful, despite Godard making Raoul Coutard shoot it with almost no lighting equipment.

This is one of those prints that makes me think they have made it look better than it did when it came out. This is for the 50th anniversary re-release. Does that make anyone feel old?!

New theatrical trailer for Godard's BREATHLESS, produced in 2010 (for the film's 50th anniversary re-release) by Robert Warmflash Productions for Rialto Pictures. Inspired by Godard's original 1960 French trailer, the new trailer was written and directed by Rialto co-president Bruce Goldstein and edited by Arthur Carlson. The voice-overs are by Marie Loisier (programmer of the Alliance Française in New York) and Sébastien Sanz de Santamaria.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

John Brahm and the Locket (and Nicholas Musuraca)

Ever since Cahiers du cinéma, Andrew Sarris and the auteur theory passed out of its heyday, it has been a not infrequent pastime of some to canonize overlooked directors and shoehorn them into the hallowed pantheon of the all-time greats. Among the frequent nominees is one John Brahm, who I am here to say is overrated and belongs just a notch outside the canon and is at best a serviceable mainstream director, a craftsman. The definition of an “auteur” in classical terms is someone who, despite working in the Hollywood studio system, exhibited a consistent and strong personal style and vision throughout their films. Directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks.

The Locket (1946) has its moments, for sure. But what is missing is a compelling through-line from beginning to end of a deeply felt, intensely emotional personal involvement by the director in the story—and in this case it’s in a purportedly in-depth portrait of human psychology. Here the psychology of the femme fatale is merely a tool of the plot. The director is not interested one jot in the human syndrome that makes this lady tick (if it’s the writer’s fault, it seems the great auteurs managed to get what they needed out of the material, nine times out of ten). And it is in this fertile ground that greater auteurs would have found the real meat.

In fact, it is in comparison to Hitchcock that Brahm’s vision suffers the most in comparison. I felt a lack of dramatic excitement when Nancy and Dr. Blair come back from their restful visit in the country, and he suspects her of stealing a necklace. Dr. Blair tries furtively to look in her purse on the train, and then in the apartment. The “twist” is (for now) that he finds she has not stolen it, and he is crestfallen for having doubted her. But, boy, compare Brahm’s push in on the purse in the train scene to any dramatic push-in by Hitchcock, and you will feel a tremendous lack of excitement. (The close-ups to the money in Janet Leigh’s purse in Psycho, imbued with deep psychological and dramatic weight.) The push-in with Hitchcock occurs at moments of high drama, often when the audience is aware of some critically important information. Perhaps in Hitchcock we would have seen Nancy steal the necklace and winced with glee as Dr. Blair (unaware instead of suspicious) narrowly misses seeing it time after time. And instead Nancy is the one on pins and needles, desperate to avoid being caught, until..... In Hitchcock, the focus would have been on Nancy’s psychology—on the intense desire to cover up the guilt—a deep psychological guilt beyond the act itself (maybe I’m harping on Psycho). But in Brahm she’s la-di-da, a calm customer, and the scene is in the realm of Hollywood plotting and not deep auteurist psychology or human interest.

Despite this, the movie is entertaining and has moments where the plot winds its screws tightly and to good effect. The complex flashback structure is fun, and it’s not too often you see such a lengthy flashback within a flashback—within a flashback!—and so well done that you do not lose your place and are fully engrossed in each realm. Here the Hollywood craftsmanship is in full sail—but not the art, not the auteur. So in the end, the drama uncoils a bit and its hold on the viewer slackens. Lacking a strong underlying interest by the director in anything but the story—the plotted structure— I would imagine most discerning viewers will feel dissatisfied.

I think some who try to kickstart a new auteurist appreciation are perhaps imbuing the films with a deeper psychological interest than actually exists is in them. This may come from training in film school (or books), where it does take education and guidance to learn to interpret what lies beneath the surface of, for instance, a Hitchcock film. But it is possible to misapply those same analyses with a less careful eye to similar scenes and similar plotting and draw some lines between underlying points that aren’t really there if one is to be honest and look closely.

I felt a similar swell of auteurist anointing for Brahm I think from my friend Dennis and perhaps some American Cinemathèque programmers vis-à-vis Hangover Square, in which I had a similarly enjoyable time at the movies, but still felt this same lack mentioned above. Brahm just does not bear comparison to the great auteurs. (And dare I quote Dashiell Hammett: “Literature, as I see it, is good to the extent that it is art, and bad to the extent that it isn't, and I know of no other standard by which it may be judged.”)

Nicholas Musuraca’s (or is it Brahm’s—I haven’t seen enough of his yet) lens choice is claustrophobic. Bear with me, I’m new to focusing on lenses, and I’m taking a beginner cinematography class, but it seems the choices resulted in a narrower field of view, which I believe means they are in most cases longer lenses (not the longest, but longer than “normal” 50mm). One only has to look at the lighting to confirm this was a strategy. Characters, more than most movies are crowded in by sharp shadows, delicately placed at all points around their heads, frequently with shadows cutting into their faces. The film is frequently bathed in darkness, and a number of times it dips well below normal Hollywood standards (at least for scenes in drawing rooms and studio apartments). One might assume art class students need light to draw by, but here it is very dimly lit.

I wanted to write about Musuraca, since it’s the first time I’m watching with an eye towards learning cinematography. Just briefly, it was too dark—my VHS copy was murky, perhaps this is not fair—and I think this style choice went a few steps beyond the needs of the scenes. There were some beautiful shots—her final wedding walk close-up was great. But overall the film was too claustrophobic. There was not a good enough mix of wider shots, and I don’t think a closed-in style was called for here—or at least it could have been saved for the most critical scenes. The film doesn’t sit entirely comfortably in the realm of film noir, although it would be hard to designate it otherwise. But it almost seems that Musuraca was desperate to make it a noir against the needs of the scenes themselves. I think in better noirs, the lighting is justified by the locations (like in Asphalt Jungle). Nevertheless Musuraca is extremely creative, and the looks he got are pretty stunning and seemed difficult to achieve. And they were distinctive, not like any other cinematographer’s.

Last note, I’ve been reading about Method acting a tiny bit (and doing some acting myself), and Laraine Day’s performance left something to be desired. She was acting in a formally professional way, not in a deeply psychological way. Often she seemed to be acting without enough regard to her partner in the scene.

This film recently played at the American Cinemathèque's 12th Annual Film Noir festival, so perhaps some readers out there would care to share their two cents' worth.

(Thanks for bearing with this meandering review. I felt it was better to write something messy than nothing at all.)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Buster Keaton At Work

Here is an interesting item from Kino International's YouTube page.

They have put side-by-side two alternate takes from Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).

Usually we only see this kind of "artist at work" stuff on the Chaplin bonus features, so this is a first at least for me.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Killer (1989) trailer

Whenever things are slow, it's nice to post an action-packed trailer to wake everyone up...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Crazy Filmmaker? Or Is He Onto Something?

I'm not sure what to make of this set of videos from my friend, filmmaker Jeffrey Goodman. (Like Truffaut and Godard, we used to hang out at the American Cinematheque for amazing screenings and discuss them afterwards.)

Here he posts info about his forthcoming film "Peril" about which we know very little, and he hopes to get us personally interested and involved. (He mentions that in independent filmmaking "DIWO"—"Do It With Others"—is replacing "DIY".)

It is all part of his commitment to fully explaining the process of what goes into getting a film made and what happens after the film is done, which you may find invaluable. For example, his blog at MovieMaker magazine, called "Adventures in Self-Releasing," details great info about his attempts at deal-making and self-distribution for his prior film, The Last Lullaby, starring Tom Sizemore.

These videos below are actually tapings of live U-Stream chats that he holds regarding his upcoming film "Peril." So, what do you think, is this guy crazy, or is he onto something? In any case, I think we should applaud him for his commitment to sharing and educating.






Jeffrey also has a compelling story about how he used his experience selling Brinks security systems (!) to go out and raise money for The Last Lullaby (anecdote around minute 2:00):

PS - Here is the Facebook page of the new movie Peril

Sunday, April 11, 2010

"Fancy Rollerskater" by Ansel

I really like this song by a band called Ansel.

The video is directed by one of my film teachers.

Music video for band Ansel song "Fancy Rollerskater". Directed by Matthew Harrison. Edited by Johannes Weuthen.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Dash to North Pole (1909 Extract)

A bit of the goodness that is a benefit of subscribing to the BFI's YouTube channel:

This film footage of the Ziegler North Pole expedition was reissued in Britain by Charles Urban in 1909 when all things Polar were of almost obsessive interest to the British film-going public. This film shows an early American attempt on the North Pole filmed by expedition leader Anthony Fiala. It shows the expedition ship S.S. America travelling through pack ice and attempting to land and features shots of the expedition members with their dog sleds on the ice. (Bryony Dixon)

The 13th British Silent Film Festival takes place at Phoenix Square, Leicester 15th - 18th April 2010, where a host of rare and re-discovered films from the archive will be on show. For more information, visit