Sixteen Candles [1984)

If you don’t believe John Hughes was a genius, see this film.

Seriously.

Because I didn’t believe.

Though Hughes made one of my favorite 1980s comedies (Planes, Trains and Automobiles), I didn’t really get it.

It being the John Hughes phenomenon.

While the cool kids had it figured out long ago, I was too contrarian to listen.

Now I get it.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is truly a special film, but Sixteen Candles is transcendent art.

Don’t laugh.

What would André Bazin make of this film?  Or Gilles Deleuze?  Or Christian Metz?

Who cares???

Well, I care…

But what’s important is what YOU make of it.

And in this case, what I make of it.

But let’s get one thing straight:  Molly Ringwald invented the archetype which Thora Birch and Kat Dennings would later appropriate in doubtless homage.

Which is to say, Molly Ringwald is otherworldly as an actress in this film.

It’s no wonder Jean-Luc Godard cast her in his wonderful, underrated, masterful version of King Lear (1987).

Quentin Tarantino famously claimed (à la Bob Dylan’s conflated biography circa-1962) that he was in King Lear, but Molly Ringwald was ACTUALLY in it.

But enough about QT and nix on the digressions.

So no, I am no Henri Langlois to claim that Sixteen Candles should be in MoMA’s permanent collection, but there is good reason to compare this film favorably to Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings of 1939.

But none of this shit really matters.

What matters is the part in Gedde Watanabe’s hair at the dinner table.

And even more so (big time)–> is the indescribable Anthony Michael Hall.

AT&T gets it.  Which means the seemingly wonderful Milana Vayntrub ostensibly gets it.

But I’m not sure the understanding flows both ways.

Because America has changed.

We are much closer to the year 1984 (as opposed to Orwell’s 1984) here in late-2016 than to any other period of American experience.

Yeah, Michael Schoeffling could only come from the Reagan era.

But he’s a great guy.  And a fine actor.

And Sixteen Candles teaches us a lot of stuff.

John Hughes, as a film philosopher, is precocious in his grasp of American society in the 1980s.

The outcast wins.

But the conservative wins too.

Really, everybody wins.

That’s what value-creation will do.

But let’s back to A.M. Hall.  This bloke…

What a performance!

And the real chemistry in this film is between Ringwald and Hall.

In the auto body shop.

And so what do we get?

Romance.  Misery.  And tons of fucking jokes.

We must congratulate John Hughes as much for his writing as his direction.

The previous year he had written National Lampoon’s Vacation starring Chevy Chase.

Years later he’d write a stellar reboot for the series in Christmas Vacation (also starring Chase).

You want more movies Hughes wrote but didn’t direct?  How about Home Alone? [check] Or Pretty in Pink (starring Ringwald)?  [check]

But let’s get another thing straight:  this was John Hughes’ fucking DIRECTORIAL DEBUT!!!

But none of this shit matters.

What matters is Molly Ringwald crying in the hallway.

What matters is Molly practicing her potential lines before reentering the dance.

Molly talking on the phone with the Squeeze poster on the wall.

Molly freaking out and taking flight over fight.

And immediate regret.

What films do this?

Perhaps in 1955 we would have looked at Rebel Without a Cause in a similar way.

And rightly so.

Sixteen Candles is its progeny of uncertain admixture.

Looking through the yearbook.

And seeing the one.

The one who burns in your heart.

In America, this is realism (couched in slapstick and screwball).

Molly Ringwald is the loser who wins.

And Anthony Michael Hall is the hopeless dweeb who also wins…by sheer force of will.

There are genuine moments of panic in this film (as soft as they might be) regarding missed communication.  Telephone calls.  House calls.

And it adds just the right touch of anxiety to keep this film catalyzed and moving along.

But what makes all this believable?  The supporting cast.

John and Joan Cusack (especially Joan, whose life make’s Ringwald’s look like a bed of roses).  And John’s future MIT roommate (it would seem) Darren Harris.

But there’s one of the crew which deserves a little extra credit…and that is music supervisor Jimmy Iovine.

The tunes are right.  The attention to detail is solid.

Sound and image merge (as Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller had impressed upon Godard that they should) into sonimage (a word Godard would use for his production company Sonimage).

Even the cassette spitting unspooling tape onto the pizza turntable is perfect.

The cassette?  Fear of Music by Talking Heads.

Yes, Brian Eno.

And yes, “Young Americans” as they leave the driveway on the way to the wedding before the famous “au-to-mo-bile” scene.

David Bowie.

Even The Temple City Kazoo Orchestra doing Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G minor…briefly. [which lets our minds drift to Chaplin’s The Great Dictator]

Everything is right sonically.

The band instruments on the school bus.

The Dragnet quotes.

The gongs for Long Duk Dong.

“Lenny” by SRV in the car.  Half a car.

It’s so very sweet.  And sotto voce.  And real.

It’s a mix.  It doesn’t intrude.  You gotta unlock the passenger door to your heart to let this film in.

And a little Billy Idol as Anthony Michael Hall negotiates a Rolls Royce and a prom queen.

So rest in peace, John Hughes.  And thank you for this film.

Et je vous salue, Molly!  Merci for the film.

And thank you Anthony Michael Hall for capturing my youth and bottling it up.

Thank you Molly for capturing the one I loved and bottling up all the quirky, quixotic things which I cannot see anymore.

It is the immortality principle of film.

John, Molly, and Anthony…three geniuses of film.

I am profoundly grateful.

-PD

Madame de… [1953)

The last romantic.

Staggering into the 20th century.

We would like to think it was Brahms, but no…1897.

It is perhaps more like Rachmaninov.

You will get the better recordings with that spelling.

Deutsche Grammophon.

Staggering into the 20th century with a morose remembrance.

Born in 1873.  Died in 1943.

How disorienting.

To be 41 when WWI started.

We don’t know with which powers we are fooling.

And so the only way to watch Max Ophüls’ masterpiece Madame de… is to imagine.

It takes imagination to be unhappy.

The great generals are actually incapable of unhappiness.

Up early every morning.

Drinking raw eggs.

Running 10 miles.

And so the last romantic in this film is none other than the Italian director (but here an actor) Vittorio De Sica.

And the cynic who melts is Danielle Darrieux.

I will say quite plainly, sometimes boring films are the best.

It is counterintuitive, but I will provide one theory as to their efficacy.

The boring film takes a long time to “play out”.

It is an older style of filmmaking–an older style of storytelling.

They say Frederick the Great didn’t think much of Shakespeare.

In some ways I don’t blame him.

Freddie.

But don’t get me wrong:  much art of the past lacks the pizzazz we are used to as humans in the 21st century.

And so if you give this film a chance, you might just wind up as a resurrected being.

I’m being awfully cryptic.  As always.

I don’t want to spoil it.

This is merely a letter from the heart.  Tear it up and let it snow in the breeze.

Little pieces of paper from the train window.

Letter never sent.  R.E.M.

 

-PD

Prenom Carmen [1983)

If Jean-Luc Godard had never made another film after 1983, this one would have been his best ever.  It is that good.  But perhaps you doubt?  Let me tell you why I believe this to be the case.

This may have been the film where Godard really nailed down his mature style.  Really, there is no putting a date on such things.  He has continued to progress to the current day.

But let us focus on a few salient elements.

Beethoven.

The sea.

One might expect a French (Swiss) director to pick Debussy and call the elements connected (we refer here to the orchestral piece La Mer).  But Godard was always very analytical.  And so Beethoven is a more natural choice.

But what Beethoven?  Which Beethoven?  It is the string quartets.

Must it be?  It must be.  It must be.

Godard began (continued?) to make films more like a composer than a movie director.

The art film genre allowed him to do this.  And in many ways he formed and shaped this genre from the beginning.

To call art films a genre is generally not in keeping with standard film criticism practice.

But I don’t care.

If it helps to call it a genre here, then so be it.

But does it help?

It makes no difference (as Rick Danko sang).

But let us not neglect the ocean…the sea.

“I salute you, old ocean,” as Lautreamont said in Maldoror.

Indeed, Godard has some of that proto-Dadaist perversion in this movie.  Perverse, as opposed to perverted.  Both.

What is remarkable beyond Beethoven and the sea is Godard as an actor.

That’s right, Godard himself plays a prominent role as (what else?) himself.

It is really a caricature of himself.  Or is it?

To wit, Godard plays a director who has gone crazy.

Early on we see him in an insane asylum.

There is something slightly frightening and menacing about him from time to time, but generally he is hilarious.

Humor.

This film is replete with humor.

But it is not a comedy.

Sometimes a comedy of errors.

And so, Carmen?  Yes, like Bizet.  We remember Brahms being so taken with this opera.

Was it the music or was there perhaps an attractive alto in the production?

Alto.  Viola in French is alto.

And who is our alto?  Only one of the greatest actresses to ever live:  Myriem Roussel.

I must at this point beg forgiveness from the universe for not even mentioning her in my review of Passion.

I blame Wikipedia (as I always do).

I admit laziness (as per usual).

Frankly, I knew it was her in Passion by the poolside.  It is a small-but-striking role.  Mainly because she is nude.

It is all very artistic, yet I see why Godard would cast the beautiful Roussel in revealing roles over the course of several films.

Yet here, Myriem is merely a violist.  The viola in my life.  Morton Feldman.

But it is neither Godard nor Roussel who carry the bulk of the dramatic action here.

For that we must credit Maruschka Detmers and Jacques Bonnaffé.  The acting from these two players is outstanding!

Detmers plays the titular Carmen.  Indeed (keeping with the hanging sonority), it is Detmers who spends a fair portion of this movie nude.  But, to Godard’s credit, so does Bonnaffé.

But this is not just a gratuitous European pseudo-art film.  This is the real thing.

The most beautiful moment occurs during a bank robbery.

A struggle for a gun.  A man and a woman.  Carmen.  She has robbed the bank with a band of professional thieves.

And Joseph (Bonnaffé)…the gendarme responding to the violent robbery.

He leaves his post in front of the bank and exchanges gunfire with the trigger-happy gang.

And so it is that Carmen and Jo (Joseph) struggle for an automatic weapon.  Both having been shot.

They crawl over each other.  Win at all costs.  To lose is death.  High stakes now.

And climbing over each other in spurts of faint energy, they abruptly stop and begin passionately kissing.

They give up.

It is the moral.

Ah, but they DON’T give up!  They join forces.

And so Joseph goes from cop to thief.  All for love.

Lust.  Love.

Oh no, I’ve said too much (as Michael Stipe once intoned).

But no…

Carmen needs to pee.  Joseph has tied her wrist to his using his necktie.  [What kind of gendarme doesn’t have handcuffs?]

And so they stop at a shitty roadside gas station.

The moral of the stop:  even France and Switzerland have shitty roadside gas stations.

Away from the tourists.  Off the beaten path.  Where people actually work for a living.

And we have the most poignant scene.  The most bizarre.  A fat man has pocketed a jar of baby food (?) and proceeded to the restroom to eat it lustily with his fingers.  Put another way, here’s a poor schmuck whose life at this moment (for one reason or another) has been reduced to shoplifting to sustain his life force.

And the poor schmuck gets a treat.  Carmen needs to pee.  So does Joseph.  Joseph won’t untie her.  And so she uses a urinal.  And the shoplifter continues to make slobbery sounds as he licks his fingers while eating baby food in front of the bathroom mirror…nonplussed by the action.  But he sneaks a peak…ah, whatever.  He is entirely involved in his “meal.”  Somehow this scene makes sense of the whole universe.  It is hilarious, disgusting, and believable.  The mark of genius is on this film throughout.

I must add one last thing.  Just when the strains of Beethoven have become commonplace–just when the crossfaded splosh of waves has been drowned out by our psyches…it is at this point which Godard throws us the most gut-wrenching curveball:  “Ruby’s Arms” by Tom Waits.  Bonnaffé hugs the TV…resting his weight on the crappy 80s hotel console…and the screen is tuned to snow…static…fuzz…phasing lines of nothingness.  Between channels.  And as the song plays, Bonnaffé caresses the screen…caresses what might have been.

It is a most touching evocation of lovesickness.

Carmen is fond of repeating the line from the American movie, “If I love you, then that’s the end of you.”  She may not work at a cigarette factory nor dance the habanera, but she is still the prototypical femme fatale.  Yes, Jo…love is a rebellious bird.

-PD

Le Petit soldat [1963)

“La photographie, c’est la vérité, et le cinéma, c’est vingt-quatre fois la vérité par seconde.”  It is one of the most famous quotes in the history of cinema and likewise among the most often quoted in relation to Godard, yet it is a line in a film…this film…and it is delivered by the character Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor).  And so, there is some distance from the auteur…perhaps very little , but yet it exists.  This is just one of the odd disconnects about this brilliant film.

The synopsis on Wikipedia presents another right off the bat.  Bruno is a deserter from the French military, yet he is working for French intelligence in Geneva.  On the surface this seems irreconcilable, yet a bit of thought opens up several possibilities.  First, the “French intelligence” under consideration might be an organization not wholly sanctioned by the French government.  We hear of these dark organizations often.  Rogue branches.  Rogue networks.  Informal connections.  Perhaps even an entire parallel government (or, at the very least, intelligence apparatus).  Second, we must take the film’s context to ascertain the indisputable fact that Bruno Forestier isn’t entirely a free agent.  In other words, his record is being used against him to greater or lesser extent to blackmail him into performing dirty deeds (assassinations) for this intel branch (asset by coercion).  Again, this certainly isn’t without precedent in real world situations.

But perhaps the greatest dissonance, though nuanced, is presented in something Jean-Luc Godard himself wrote in 1960.  As this film was banned in France for three years, this written explanation would predate the film’s release by the same number of years.  It can be found in the Simon and Schuster Modern Film Scripts version of the action (1967, English translation by Nicholas Garnham).  In this short piece, Godard explains his take on the film.  The focus is on realism.  Cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who had been a war photographer in Indochina, was integral in conveying Godard’s vision by way of a handheld camera (as opposed to the large Mitchell camera which he used on his next film Une Femme est une femme).  The auteur likewise makes reference to “whip-pans, over- and under-exposed shots, one or two blurred ones,” etc. in dissecting his own mise-en-scène.  The beginning of this introduction apparently comes from issue no.109 of Cahiers du cinema.  More importantly, what follows in this introduction delineates his focus on stubborn freedom.  It is in this concept which Godard manages to declare that Le Petit soldat “is not politically orientated in a particular direction.”

This was not something I had previously noted in prior viewings, but I can see how Godard might claim such.  Indeed, Bruno Forestier is a very conflicted character.  In some ways he is the noble version of Michel Poiccard from Breathless.  Both have a strange, tenuous grasp on ethics.  Nihilism abounds in both, yet Forestier’s brand almost comes off as a noir Buddhism.  It is little wonder that Godard would later dedicate one of Histoire(s) du cinema‘s chapters to Clint Eastwood.

Bruno Forestier is far from perfect, but in that condition he is still charming and likable…even heroic to a certain extent.  There is no doubt that Rossellini’s Roma città aperta loomed large as an influence for the torture sequences of our film.  It might even be said that this Godard film is more poignant now (with respect to torture) than it has ever been.  Bruno is subjected to a method not unlike waterboarding.

But there are other pithy quotes such as, “…killing a man from a distance, I think it’s dishonest.”  This almost begs to be compared to the drone strikes which have become sadly ubiquitous in our upside-down world.

Yet, amidst all of this painful reality, Godard manages to outdo himself in artistic name-dropping.  Paul Klee is referenced multiple times (Swiss artist, movie set in Geneva).  We sympathize with Bruno Forestier partly because he is artistic (a photographer).  “And Veronica, are her eyes Velasquez grey or Renoir grey?”  So muses Bruno about Veronica Dreyer (Anna Karina).  This was, in fact, her first film for Godard.  Dreyer is no doubt an homage to Carl Theodor Dreyer (Danish actress, Danish legend/director).  The artistic references are almost comical at times…such as when Jean Cocteau’s novel Thomas l’imposteur is improbably brought into play.

One final thought.  Maurice Le Roux’s music plays a vital role in setting this film apart from anything Godard had done in his first four films.  The dense, clustered piano textures play like Henry Cowell improvising on Brahms. After the tides of Manaunaun, that Irish god of motion, wash Veronica’s fate ashore Lake Geneva, we get the biggest shock of all: Bruno behaving like Meursault from L’Étranger.  The final disconnect comes from recalling that Bruno told Veronica he detests Camus.

-PD