Tuesday, January 24, 2012

American Movies and the Politics of Idealism (Media Mondays at the JCC)

I want to thank Adam Nayman for the shout-out in his piece on these classes in The Grid. - D.D.

You like the movies? And you want to hear and talk about them? You should check out the eight-part series by veteran critic Kevin Courrier (Critics At Large), Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. As part of the Media Mondays at the Miles Nadal JCC every Monday, except for February 20th and March 12th, from 7PM to 9PM, Courrier will be connecting the changing zeitgeist from the sixties onwards with the Hollywood films that best encapsulates them. From John F. Kennedy assassination in 1963 all the way to Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009. No American presidential era will be left unexamined. Like the great new Stephen King book 11/22/63, Courrier starts the course off with one of the turning points in American history - the death of John F. Kennedy. The shooting that happened in Dallas and its portrayal and discussion on network broadcasting will have a large impact on the population and culture and there will be a rippling effect throughout the following eras. News footage and video clips from the eras are examined and, for someone that was born in '88, these clips and background are revelatory. Even though the course is on American idealism there is still something quintessentially Canadian about them. Courrier's tone and demeanor is that of the infectious Canadian friendliness along with a modest authority and a well-researched intelligence. While Courrier's background in journalism and music brings a comprehensiveness as it allows him to bring up many other aspects of the culture. While there is also something personal about the series as this is his selection and he has lived through these times in both Oshawa and Toronto, Ontario. From the two classes that I have attended the lessons have been on par with other zeitgeist film critics like Siegfried Kracauer, Robin Wood and Jim Hoberman. Particular images from films are studied to see how they resonate with a wider culture of the time and the filmmakers that have receive the most focus, so far, are John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn. All of these classes are for the preparation for a book Courier is writing, which I am sure would be fantastic, but there is just so much more that you get through the classes. If you are in the area you should definitively check them out.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Vivre le cinéma! Long live Positif! (Cannes Critics Week at the Lightbox)

"You like the movies: you also know that film is an art. It took fifty years for the professors to admit it; in another half-century students will be writing theses that attempt to reconstruct lost masterpieces. But whose fault was it that they disappeared? It is up to us to do something against the merchants of the mediocre." - Bernard Chardère

"It's in the darkness of the theater, again and always, where we will like to be." - Fabien Baumann

In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the Semaine de la Critique, Manager of Film Programmes Brad Deane, who was responsible for the great series Masks and Faces: The Films of John Cassavetes, organized 50 Years of Discoveries - Cannes Critics Week which will take place from January 18th to the 22nd at the Lightbox. Each critic will introduce one film of their choice that has premiered at the Cannes festival sidebar. Some noteworthy guests include Jonathan Rosenbaum (Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia) who will be introducing Anna Karina's Vivre ensemble (1973) Saturday, January 21st at 7PM, and Fabien Gaffez (Positif) who will be introducing Jean Eustache's Le Père Noël a les yeux bleus (1966) and La Rosière de Pessac (1968) on Friday, January 20th at 6:30PM. As well there is going to be a Higher Learning panel, Film Criticism Today on Friday, January 20th from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm.

For their sixtieth anniversary, there have been a few changes at Positif. First off, Positif recently changed publishers from éditions Scope in Paris to Actes Sud and the Institut Lumière in Lyon. Along with the move they have also slightly altered the magazines formatting and layout; as well the magazine is finally in color! On the subject of the Cahiers-Positif film reviewing one-upmanship at the blog Nightswimming, Edouard S. writes, "The eighties saw Cahiers catching up with Positif and, finally, if Positif is continuing to lead the way, the tendency is that of equilibrium."

What can you find going through the new issues from six-hundred-and-seven to six-hundred-and-nine? The filmmakers that they interview include Almodovar, Sorrentino, von Trier, Refn, Miller, Dumont, Wiseman, Soderbergh, Schoeller, and Ceylan. There are interesting comments on films like how Valérie Donzelli's La guerre est déclarée is "one of the years best French films," or on the filming techniques in Crazy Horse, "On the other hand the camera never places the spectator in a judging or voyeuristic position, it is more one of an admiring accomplice." The Bloc Notes are fascinating as Pierre Eisenreich contrasts scuba-diving with the film-going experience, "the strange feelings, to immerse oneself, and the aesthetic beauty." Michel Ciment writes an erudite and moving memorial for Raúl Ruiz. Positif champions the great actresses Tilda Swinton, Kristen Wiig, and Jessica Chastain. And the books reviews are thorough and vivid. Since these issues three new ones have come out and the films featured on their covers are Shame, Take Shelder, and The Descendants.

What I like about Positif is that you hear about many films first through reading the magazine; where reading the articles creates a palpable desire to then go see the films. It's choices aren't snob and there is an energy and individuality to their writing as they use criticism not as a bases to write synopses but instead as a literary genre - something a lot of English writing disappointingly does not do. Positif is just more in depth, knowledgeable and generous compared to a lot of the film writing going on. While La Maison de la Presse is still three months late (!!!) in getting the new issues (can someone fix this?) and Positif's lack of exposure, to say it quickly, severally isolates their line of inquiry in the world of English language film criticism. Positif continues to explore the contours of the future of cinema, even if sometimes it is at the risk of being out of sync with trends, and at the same time it continues to explore it's history (cf. Positif films) and thematic aspects of the seventh art. It is a benefit to contemporary cinema to have Positif around. People should come to the Lightbox to hear Fabien Gaffez talk.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Positif Films, since 1952. (two lists)

For anyone interested in the French film magazine Positif, here are two of their lists that are worth highlighting for a better understanding of their approach to film history and their taste. - D.D.

The most striking films of the decade 2000-2009 (Positif, February 2010, N.588)
1. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
2. Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2005)
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2008)
4. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
5. We Own the Night (James Gray, 2007)
5. Still Life (Jia Zhangke, 2007)
7. De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté (Jacques Audiard, 2005)
7. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
7. Sarabande (Ingmar Bergman, 2003)
7. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
11. Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)
11. Distant (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2004)
13. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)
13. Coeurs (Alain Resnais, 2006)
13. La Graine et le Mulet (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2007)
13. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
13. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar, 2002)
13. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)
13. Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000)
20. 2046 (Wong Kar-wai, 2004)
20. Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)
20. The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana, 2003)
20. Un prophète (Jacques Audiard, 2009)
24. Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2007)
24. Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003)
24. Oasis (Lee Chang-dong, 2003)
24. The Yards (James Gray, 2000)

For the thirtieth anniversary of Positif in May, 1982 (N.254-255) the magazine polled its critics on "what were the films that have had the biggest impact on you," since in the inception of the magazine in Lyon, 1952.
1. 2001, A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
2. Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1957)
3. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
4. 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1962)
4. Salvatore Giuliano (Francesco Rosi, 1961)
6. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
6. Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)
8. Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952)
8. The Barefoot Contessa (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1954)
8. Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)
8. Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959)
13. The Searcher (John Ford, 1956)
13. The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953)
13. The Traveling Players (Theo Angelopoulos, 1975)
16. Amacord (Federico Fellini, 1973)
16. L'Annee derniere a Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961)
16. Lola Montes (Max Ophuls, 1955)
19. Kings of the Road (Wim Wenders, 1976)
19. Wild River (Elia Kazan, 1960)
19. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
19. Senso (Luchino Visconti, 1953)
19. The Spider's Stratagem (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1969)
19. A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1953)
25. Andrei Roublev (Andrei Tarkovski, 1966)
25. Casque d'or (Jacques Becker, 1952)
25. Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda, 1958)
25. Written on the wind (Douglas Sirk, 1957)
25. Man of Marble (Andrzej Wajda, 1978)
25. Ma nuit chez Maud (Eric Rohmer, 1969)
25. Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)
25. Persona (Ingmar Bergman,1966)
25. Le Plaisir (Max Ophuls, 1952)
25. The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963)
35. A bout de souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
35. America, America (Elia Kazan, 1963)
35. Barry Lindon (Stanley Kubrick, 1976)
35. The Ceremony (Nagisa Oshima, 1971)
35. Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (Luis Bunuel, 1972)
35. Moonfleet (Fritz Lang, 1955)
35. Deliverance (John Boorman, 1973)
35. Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972)
35. La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
35. Fellini's Roma (Federico Fellini, 1971)
35. Splendor in the Grass (Elia Kazan, 1961)
35. The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, 1963)
35. Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978)
35. North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
35. Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959)
35. The Music Room (Satyajit Ray, 1959)
35. The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)
52. The American Friend (Wim Wenders, 1975)
52. The Exterminating Angel (Luis Bunuel, 1962)
52. L'Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)
52. Belle de jour (Luis Bunuel, 1966)
52. Le Carrose d'or (Jean Renoir, 1952)
52. Some like it hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
52. Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks, 1960)
52. Fat City (John Huston, 1972)
52. Le Amiche (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1955)
52. Incompreso (Luigi Comencini, 1966)
52. Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)
52. Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954)
52. The French Lieutenant's Woman (Karel Reisz, 1981)
52. La Maman et la putain (Jean Eustache, 1972)
52. The Go Between (Joseph Losey, 1971)
52. The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn, 1962)
52. The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovski, 1974)
52. The Godfather: Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1975)
52. Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)
52. Puzzle of a Downfall Child (Jerry Schatzberg, 1970)
52. The Trial (Orson Welles, 1962)
52. Providence (Alain Resnais, 1976)
52. Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman, 1955)
52. Les Vacances de M. Hulot (Jacques Tati, 1953)
52. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Modern Day Kandinsky (On Jean-Marc Vallée's Café de flore)

Café de flore (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2011)
**** (Masterpiece)
Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de flore, which recently played at the Lightbox with Vallée in attendance as part of Canada's Top Ten, is a blessing. When there are so many movies that come out already looking like standardized products, a work as original like Café de flore dispels of convention and in its rebirth leaves only essences and feelings behind. Café also proves the long-standing suspicion that Vallée is actually an auteur as he not only directs the film but he also wrote the screenplay and edited it – look carefully and you can spot him in a signature cameo. After the screening, Vallée mentioned that after completing The Young Victoria (2009), a film that he didn’t have total control over, he wanted to make something edgy. And edgy – hell, I would describe it as dangerous! - is what you get in Café as Vallée’s powerful imagination is on view.

Like the other great Québécois director Denis Côté (cf. 3 + 4 + 1), Vallée’s approach to form is similar to that of Modernist painters and, more precisely, to Wassily Kandinsky’s Impressionist-style paintings from his Munich period. The unlikely comparison offers striking similarities. What these two artists achieve is the creation of abstract visual expressions built from stylized forms that are imbued with symbolic meaning. When Vallée cuts the sound and all you see are figures presented in decisive moments showing unrestrained feeling alongside Doctor Rockit’s catchy track Café De Flore - the effect is that of ecstasy.

There is something free and lyrical to the rhythm and melody of Café that creates an unreal mood and a self-contained world. When Antoine (Kevin Parent) jumps into his swimming pool and some water lands on his daughter’s foot it seems to connote an unexplained spiritual connectedness between the two. Kandinsky was also interested in theosophy, the occult and religion as elaborated in his important essay Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Vallée’s concern with the spiritual bleeds throughout the entire film through representational and abstract forms, the casting and editing, colour and lighting, music and sound. Vallée seeks the essence beneath appearances, where the actions are drowned in style, in hope of sharing unbridled feelings, substance and life. - David Davidson

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A New Start (Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere)

Title: Road to Nowhere (2011)
Director: Monte Hellman
Studio: Monterey Video
Price: 26.95$
“To begin with a proposition: Monte Hellman and Abel Ferrara are the most important working American directors. And if anything could be said to link these two otherwise very different artists, it is surely their lack of neuroticism, their ability, in a culture dominated by the life-denying obsessions of consumerism, to unblinkingly confront the beast in its lair without being captivated by its insidious charm.” – Brad Stevens (Cahiers du cinema, N.648)

“They called them minor classics of anguish and despair.” – Leo (Stanley’s Girlfriend)

One of the biggest disappointments over the past year in the Toronto film scene is that Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere never received a first-run theatrical release or even a one-off screening. This sucks. He deserves better. It was the one film that I and a few others were most looking forward to seeing on the big screen. It has been fifty-three years since Hellman first started making films with Beast From Haunted Cave in 1959. Since then, he has made only ten films, which range from great to masterpieces including Ride in the Whirlwind (1965), The Shooting (1966), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Cockfighter (1974), and Iguana (1988). Many of his projects failed to get off of the ground, while others got compromised. This places him in the tradition of people like Orson Welles, who also faced similar difficulties. Hellman has been on hiatus from feature film-making since Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! that came out in 1989, meaning that audiences have been waiting twenty-one years for this new feature. And what came out in theaters instead? A lot of crap. For example, from this year, there is The Trip, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Transformers 3, New Year’s Eve et cetera. Why an ambitious and fascinating movie like Road to Nowhere did not get distributed is beyond me. I heard Entertainment One was going to distribute the film, but that never materialized. Whatever. You can buy the DVD at the Bay Street Video. It will do.

Road to Nowhere is a puzzle film that is full of temporal leaps. It is hard to easily summarize, as you are not always sure whether you are watching events happen for the first time, or if the film crew is preparing a shot, or if the scene is only being acted, or if something is happening alongside all of this. But here goes, Road to Nowhere begins with a young woman Laurel Graham (played with finesse by Shannyn Sosasmon) leaving her partner after they murder a cop. The man then takes a plane and crashes it into a lake. This “true story” is the subject of the film the director Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) and his script writer Stephen Gates (Rob Kolar) are going to adapt for their film Road to Nowhere. But, apparently, the rumor is, through the inquiry of a blogger Nathalie Post (Dominique Swain) and an insurance investigator Bruno Brotherton (Waylon Payne), the deaths are assumed to be a set up for insurance fraud.

Road to Nowhere has some great scenes, the acting is good, and the clothes people wear is really seventies. The Balsam Mountain Inn in North Carolina where the film is predominantly set has a quintessentially American feel, just like the desolate highways in Two-Lane. As well the Tom Russell song Road to Nowhere is just as moving, and central to the story, as the Kris Kristopherson song Me and Bobby McGee was to Two-Lane, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Road to Nowhere is also Hellman's ode to the films he loves, just like Scorsese’s Hugo is an ode to the early French silent cinema of Georges Méliès. In Road to Nowhere, in his hotel room Mitchell lies in his bed with Laurel very comfortably and watches movies, including The Lady Eve, Spirit of the Beehive (“A fucking masterpiece!”), and Bergman’s Seventh Seal (“It never so looked so good”). For attentive viewers, sitting on the TV stand is a copy of the Criterion Collection edition of Two-Lane Blacktop. And there is also a Contempt-like director cameo by Hellman as the cameraman while the crew is filming the flying plane. (corection: the cameraman is Josep Civit, not Hellman.)

There is also a focus on the behind the scenes activities that happens during the making of a movie. Like the nights out where people are passionately talking at a bar, the creative difficulties for the directors in orchestrating the crew, or enjoying the other pleasures of being out on the set. When Mitchell discusses his particular approach, it seems like it is coming right from Hellman as elaborated in the most recent interview book on him, Emmanuel Burdeau’s Monte Hellman: Sympathy for the Devil (Capricci). While some of the backstage stories shown of Mitchell filmmaking seems like they derive from Hellman’s own life as described in Brad Stevens’ essential Monte Hellman: His Life and Films (McFarland). This is personal filmmaking. Even to the extent that the residential scene in Los Angeles are even set in Hellman’s actual house – similar to what Cassavetes did in Love Streams. And Hellman’s dog Moxie is in it too!

Road to Nowhere is continuing Hellman’s 2000s work that started with Stanley’s Girlfriend, which was part of the omnibus Trapped Ashes from 2006. Stanley’s Girlfriend is a short fictionalized account of a young Stanley Kubrick and his friendship with Leo, a filmmaker of an exploitation horror flick The Strangler. There is Stanley (Tygh Runyan), a young Leo (Tahmoh Peniket), and an older Leo (John Saxon), with the femme fatale love interest Nina (Amelia Cooke).The references to Kubrick includes the mention of his “brilliant” racetrack movie, Stanley goes to New York to work on a WWI film (Paths of Glory), and there is footage of his work space full of photographs and props of the unrealized Napoleon project.

Though they don't have the typical Hellmanian scenes of people expressing themselves through gestures or people walking against a desolate landscape, what is unique to Stanley’s Girlfriend and Road to Nowhere is the casting of Tygh Runyan as a surrogate for Hellman. Because of his likeability, wit and intelligence Runyan is brilliant in these two films. Through Runyan’s youth, and that he is playing a director who is still early in his career, Hellman is able to directly speak out to the audience about his thoughts on his career, unrealized and dream projects (“I want to make a film that lasts twenty-four hours”), and broach contemporary cinema. It is almost like he is creating a parallel career to his own. When Mitchell is watching Leonardo DiCaprio on television, the shot expresses that Hollywood and Hellman are in two separate worlds.

But where was the turn for all of this? I think the key film in discussing Hellman’s late career is Better Watch Out!, as this direct-to-video horror film seems to anticipate his latest two projects. Especially as both Stanley’s Girlfriend and Road to Nowhere end on a note that owes to the grisly slashers of Sean Cunningham and Tobe Hooper. It is this return to the horror genre that seems important in discussing the late work of the directors that emerged out of the 1970s American New Wave. Which brings to mind the famous Bill Krohn quote, “If our [American] cinephilia is a religion, it’s of sublime terror and of alien worlds.” Similar to Francis Coppola’s Twixt, Wes Craven’s Scream 4, Joe Dante’s The Hole, and George Romero’s Survival of the Dead – it seems like horror is the last escape. When Mitchell snickers, “Well, I don’t believe in God”, the point is that even amidst the surrounding violence, you can still crack a joke and be serious. With all the injustices and corruption going on in the world, some self-lacerating humor can do us all some good. - David Davidson