Letter to Jane [1972)

Fucking goddamned brilliant.

It is not surprise.  An exclamation without an exclamation point.

It is a reaffirmation.

That Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, in 1972, could dismantle the entire system imposing ill upon the world.

If their critique was not inclusive enough to include the shortcomings of communism, we must forgive them somewhat.

It really doesn’t matter that this film operates in a Chris Marker manner.

It was the right form to address a picture.  In fact, the spirit is much more akin to Antonioni’s Blow-Up.

The ontology of the image.

André Bazin.

This is the world from which Godard and Gorin emerge.

But the key touchstone may indeed be, as the filmmakers say, Uncle Bertolt.

Brecht.

Truth simple.  Telling the truth difficult.

Dziga Vertov.

Lenin.

It is a revelation to hear Godard speaking English.

Yes, there are no subtitles here (unless, perhaps, you are French and don’t understand English).

That makes this an especially important film for the English-speaking world.  Like British Sounds.

But most importantly this film encourages intellectual scrutiny of mass media.

Scrutiny of photographs.  Scrutiny of captions.  Scrutiny of context.

I think, therefore I am.

This is the acting default which we are told emerged (with sound) in the 1930s of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Beware of pity (advises Stefan Zweig).

A town without pity.  Gene Pitney.  Pithy.

No filmmaker has been more bold, in every way, than Jean-Luc Godard.

But his collaborators deserve their due for standing by him.

Gorin.  Anne-Marie Miéville.

So many ways to be bold…

To show the futility of 3-D.  Actually, to show how mundane superheroes are.

Just one aspect in the latest installment of brilliance (Adieu au langage).

His latest, Letter to Jane, Histoire(s) du cinema

They all smash to bits flailing failures like San Andreas.

It’s as if the master is saying, “Just think for a minute.”

But the master, JLG, dove into thought and grabbed handfuls of paradoxes.

That is the true artist.

That is the eternal man.

It makes me a bit emotional.

What dedication!

From Roxy the dog all the way back to Michel Poiccard.

It is hard to focus on just one episode in this immense body of work.

That said, the true message of Godard is elusive because his fame (and infamy) overshadow the meaning conveyed.

But his work says…carry on.

-PD

Cine-tracts [1968)

A beginning, middle, and end.  Not necessarily in that order.

I skipped ahead because I forgot about the Internet.

I disappeared.

And now to write on the sad, hopeful history of change.

To write about the slums of Paris.  There will be slums.

I am not making much sense unless you have read me before.

I can assure you that it is not a put-on.

No, I cannot string together two sentences.

Does that make me stupid?

Of course not.

It’s negotiable.  Relative.  Subjective [ahh…].

This, then, is a film review.  All articles on this site take advantage of this form in one way or another.

Adherence is a matter of self-calibration.

I have found the form for me.  Which is to say, it depends on the film.

And so what is Cine-tracts?

Try the purge function.  Check the deletion log.

Not a very straightforward answer.

Well, these were some short, silent films made by various directors in response to the events of May 1968 in Paris.

The reason I didn’t review this “film” earlier is that I forgot to check the ether for free content.

It’s a bit dodgy.  You never quite know what you’re getting.

On any account, I found about 75 minutes of these cine-tracts and watched the whole, soundless lot.

Jean-Luc Godard’s touch was apparent.  Whether or not Jean-Pierre Gorin was involved at this early stage, I am too lazy to check.  Chris Marker is said to have participated.  That certainly seems plausible given that the mode of creation involves still photos rather than moving pictures.

Ah, but the pictures do move.  Or rather, the camera’s motion creates an illusion that the still pictures are moving.  Indeed, their relationship to the camera is changing.  Distance.  Perspective.  Renaissance.  Light.  Shadow.

These cine-tracts play like what they likely were:  short, encouraging films for the students and workers who were rebelling against the times.

There are some ingenious directorial devices here and there, but generally the message (both literal and symbolic) takes precedence over imagination and invention.  To be sure, the filmmakers involved were politically engaged and apparently zealous in their dedication.

And so now it is hard to recall that Spring of ’68.  I was not there.  I have tried to put myself there.  Because many important currents converge in Paris 1968.

Is it inappropriate to called Cine-tracts a Godard film?  Perhaps.  But the opposite end of the spectrum would deprive us of this diary-like glimpse into the auteur’s mind.  You want to understand Adieu au langage?  Start here.  Or continue here.  Even end here.

There is no shame in being poor.  Scarcity has made it difficult.  A small concern.  Not definitively growing.

The key to understanding Cine-tracts is to be found in everyday life.  Poor, sad routine.  Run-down dross of capitalism.  The ass of capitalism looks strikingly like the ass of communism.

Donkey.  Camel.  BMW.

Yes, the world markets are sensitive to bullshit.  And each magnified ramification comes home to the poor Joe.  Average Joe.  And Jane.

Joe and John Doe and Jane Smith can’t seem to escape the high school algebra problem in which they are frozen like insects.

Joe Schmoe.  A very prestigious family.

And therein lies the problem.  A bunch of nobodies.  All they can offer is a peach.  Or a glass of water.  Or a near-worthless coin.

There’s no movement to join.  Will you start a movement?  In real politics (not the pap which passes for such in the houses of congresses) the only victory is death.  Man does not want to hear an uncomfortable message.  Your type has already, long ago, been profiled.  You don’t fit in this world.  There is no future for you.  As even Orwell seemed to intimate in 1984, a Winston Smith who lives must compromise.

And so what happened to Godard?  What happened to the fire of May 1968–that zeal which seemed inextinguishable?  What happened to the hippies?  What happened to the revolutionary socialists of the ’60s?  Did they merely switch drugs?

To conflate the participants of May 1968 in Paris with American hippies is problematic.  Are there similarities and commonalities?  Sure!  But the cultural backgrounds of the two groups were quite different.  This difference persists.  France and the U.S.A. are further than opposite sides of a common coin.

From the standpoint of language, I am probably more qualified to comment on American hippies (though I am much too young to have first-hand knowledge).  A gross simplification would seem to indicate that the idealism of the American counter-culture gave way to a nihilism (and finally to assimilation and general diametric abandonment of youthful principles).

But history is always open.  That spark…that archetype of socialism…that magical motif can be applied to any political movement…in that history may be all but written, yet it is never more than a pathetic extension of the actuarial tables.  The only insurance of life is to live while alive.

-PD

Charlie Bartlett [2007)

There is a battle on between history and life.  And one of those battlegrounds is at the movies.  It is a storied fight between the little punk shit Bob Dylan and bearded, august Johannes Brahms.  1955 brought us Rebel Without a Cause which displayed what is truly at issue.  Can a piece of art (an artifact) speak to teenagers and still be timeless?  The history of cinema has proven the answer to be a resounding “yes.”

Nicholas Ray was one of the directors most admired by the French New Wave…particularly by Jean-Luc Godard.  Wim Wenders would celebrate the brave auteur as he passed from one world to the next in Lightening Over Water (1980).  But what is most enduring is the spirit Ray and other prescient filmmakers evinced–that spirit which lived on in John Hughes’ cult film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).

That brings me to the film in question.  When I first saw Charlie Bartlett I had a pretty unspectacular life.  I had just seen Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and fallen in love with Kat Dennings.  I had to see more.  I even went so far as to buy The House Bunny as a new release…just to get a few more minutes of this enigmatic actress.  Now that I have blown whatever street cred I had remaining as a film critic, I might as well fess up to having done a similar thing when I fell in love with Thora Birch after seeing Ghost World.  Yes, I forked out to buy Dungeons & Dragons (2000) on VHS.  Yikes!

When I first saw Charlie Bartlett, the teenage drama-comedy genre conventions struck me as mostly trite and hackneyed.  In a word:  hollow.  But my reappraisal of this film couldn’t be more different from my first impression.

The world of art films tends to speak its own cinematic language on screen.  At times, the overly-precious, self-conscious products come off as caricatures of better films.  In Ghost World, a classic awaiting its proper place in film history, Terry Zwigoff perfectly frames this empty art film posturing by referring to a nonexistent picture called The Flower That Drank the Moon.  It sums up the disconnect between the world of Cannes and the world at large.  Want to see Godard’s new film Adieu au langage at your local movie theater?  Good luck!

And so my assertion is this:  Charlie Bartlett is a masterpiece.  Is it as good as Ghost World?  No.  Is it as good as Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist?  Not to these eyes.  But is it a classic which got swept unjustly into DVD cut-out bins?  Yes.  And here’s why.

Jon Poll kept a million pieces in balance.  His direction, while not perfect, should be commended with the highest accolades.  The screenplay by Gustin Nash goes a long way towards giving this film in a daunting genre a chance at being timeless.  The fact that the movie grossed just under half of its budget (a $6 million loss) should be welcomed by MGM as a blessing.  This film will be reborn in the history yet to be written.

Hope Davis gives a nuanced, touching performance as Charlie’s mother.  Anton Yelchin, as Charlie, is beyond fantastic.  It is a performance which requires multiple viewings to appreciate.  Robert Downey, Jr. gives a real piece of his soul to this film which was unjustly overlooked by the world.  Tyler Hilton manages to channel Adam Baldwin from another criminally underrated flick My Bodyguard (which just happened to feature Joan Cusack’s first substantive role).

Kat Dennings is remarkably good at such a young age.  She manages to cheer the hearts of all of us who perhaps identify a little too much with Kip Crombwell (Mark Rendall).  Rendall is shockingly adept in his miniscule role.

Perhaps the funniest aspect of this review is that I am clinging lustily to a piece of nicotine gum as I write this.  That’s just how life works.  Though it only figures into Charlie Bartlett as a mini-MacGuffin, it sets up a pivotal scene.  But nothing measures up to Downey and Yelchin by the poolside.  What to do when life has gone to shit…  A single father losing his teenage daughter…  The overtones are almost right out of Knut Hamsun (though the subject matter be unrecognizably morphed).

Substance abuse is at the forefront of this film, yet it is alcohol which finally precipitates a climax.  The emotional lift is brought via Dennings singing a song in the school play.  It is delicate and honest.  We have been made to relate to Downey’s struggle to find himself.  He just wasn’t cut out to play “bad cop.”  And that is the overarching crux:  the bad cop (Downey) jealous of the good cop (Charlie).  The wrong career can destroy you…and it does so from the inside out.  It’s not worth the extra money.

But the most important role (and element) of this entire film?  Dylan Taylor as Len Arbuckle.  You see, Charlie rides the short bus to school.  Bartlett is seemingly oblivious to the differences between the mentally and physically challenged and himself.  Peas and carrots.  Charlie Bartlett has a good heart…and an angel notices.

-PD

Daydream Nation [2010)

This film had a lot to live up to by bearing the same name as Sonic Youth’s best album.  I was afraid I would either hate it or love it.  Turns out, my experience with it was much more on the positive end of the spectrum.  The viewer “in on” the title might be, like I was, reassured a bit early upon learning that one character is named Thurston (in honor of Thurston Moore, guitarist/vocalist with previously mentioned band).  This film is a nice try…and I mean that in the most complimentary way.

Around the time of Godard’s film Le Gai savoir (1969), its auteur started to ideate the concept of “essay” in a particularly French way by having his characters go back to a sort of year zero (which, ironically, never occurred in Western calendar chronology).  The etymology of essay (from French essayer) can be described as “to try” or “to attempt.”  It was really even earlier that Godard started to feel this need to “start from the beginning” in order to express ANYTHING true AT ALL…around the time of 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (1967).

In Daydream Nation we know ostensibly little about Caroline Wexler (Kat Dennings) until she makes explicit late in the movie to let us in on her true personality.  But that’s not really accurate.  The film betrays the script.  It is little wonder then that Godard at age 83 himself no longer uses a script (i.e. Adieu au langage).  “The script can only be written after the film is finished,” he said recently in an interview.  And he even means after editing!

But let’s be clear:  the script under consideration is excellent.  References to Atom Egoyan and the Algonquin Round Table don’t hurt!  Yet, these deft drops of name are merely the spice to what is genuinely a well-written piece of drama.

And let’s be even more clear:  director Michael Goldbach did an excellent, excellent job.  I just feel that his best filmmaking might be ahead of him.  That is not at all a bad thing.  Were there no indications of greatness herein, there would be little upon which to base a future hope.

The Lolita element to this film is not entirely believable…at least not at first.  Something about the mise-en-scène (young adult comedy/drama genre conventions) prevents us from believing that Kat Dennings is really that perversely Machiavellian.  The Monica Lewinsky element, while funny, is frankly ludicrous.  Yet, here the script betrays itself.  We know much more about Caroline Wexler early on than she seems to think we know.  This brings into question the form (literary/dramatic) of the work as well as the tired narrator cliché which has become ubiquitous in its present from since American Beauty.  This enters into the arena of “nice try”…because I am thoroughly convinced that Michael Goldberg can do better.

Josh Lucas does a nice job of going from eliciting our sympathy to creeping us the fuck out.  It is in the latter that director Goldberg excels at casting aspersion on this character’s innocence in the serial killings which are plaguing our film’s small town.  There is an elegance in the thrilling suspense which nicely pays back in homage any debt it might owe to Hitchcock.

Ted Whittall plays Caroline’s icy father.  Poor Thurston, the slacker suitor, can’t even get a foot in the door (literally).  It takes the wonderful Andie MacDowell as Thurston’s mother to break down Mr. Wexler’s curt, cynical exterior.

Reece Thompson really blooms into a strong presence over the course of the movie.  Even as an actor, he seems hopeless early on, but his contribution to this film should not at all be overlooked.

The true star, however, is Kat Dennings.  She deserved to be in a film where she gets to romp around to Sonic Youth.  Her acting is up to the task of sharing an editing table with Lou Reed’s “Lady Day” from his best album Berlin (1973).  An ambulance can only go so fast, but the text message generation (SMS=save my soul, says JLG) can put its highest hopes in this young actress from Bryn Mawr, PA because she is already as timeless as Neil Young’s “Expecting To Fly.”  Writers, director, and actress prove themselves worthy of that Buffalo Springfield song which all but wraps up this film as it ascends to a final high.  After all this doom and gloom, I’m ready to see Kat on the beach.  She deserves it.

-PD

To Catch A Thief [1955)

The first time I saw To Catch A Thief I was not overly impressed.  Seemed like simply a 106 minute postcard, but oh how wrong I was.  This is another Hitchcock masterpiece and, if not Vertigo-caliber, it should at least be considered in the same league as Alfred’s own excellent remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

The whole gang’s here…  Cinematography by Robert Burks, editing by George Tomasini, music by…ok, not the whole gang…but most of them.

Grace Kelly is simply stunning.  When she first kisses Cary Grant, it is almost a heart-stopping moment–bursting with elegant sexuality.  Grant, for his part, was never better for Hitchcock (outside of North by Northwest).  And if the colors of mourning (to paraphrase Godard) made Notorious (1946) a less-than-vivid depiction of Rio de Janeiro, all sins are forgiven in this VistaVision take (breathtaking) on the French Riviera.  I can’t let those poseurs at Cannes have all the fun this week 🙂  I am home studying.  This is your dossier.  And there was only one film worth seeing this year anyway:  Adieu au langage.

Brigitte Auber gives a nice performance as the snotty enfant terrible and, though she herself is a pretty sight, Grace Kelly never looked better on film than in the “fireworks and diamonds” section of our film.  Indeed, Hitch knew the power of the Kuleshov effect as well as anyone and the cinematic intercutting of this scene places him with the greats of film editing like Eisenstein (though let’s not forget Tomasini…the credited editor).

Perhaps there is no stronger tie among Hitchcock films to la Nouvelle Vague than this panoramic view dans le Midi–especially to Truffaut (considering his book on Hitchcock…though it didn’t appear till 1967).  The fact that this film contains so much spoken French (sans subtitles) makes it unique in the director’s canon.  Grace Kelly herself would marry Prince Rainier III of Monaco not but eight months after the premiere and retire from filmmaking in her new role as the Monégasque Princess Grace.

Edith Head’s costumes were never more perfectly worn than by Miss Kelly (especially the white gown against her honeyed skin in the fireworks scene).

Most of all, this film should be considered among the essential Hitchcock along with the three perfect films (Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest) [not forgetting the parallel perfection of Psycho].  Most, if not all, the secrets of filmmaking are contained in the work of cinema’s Beethoven:  Alfred Hitchcock.

 

-PD