Le Livre d’image [2018)

And so I’m back.

Sort of.

Maybe.

With Godard.

Can we go from back to front?

After having gone halfway from front to back?

More importantly:  WHAT THE FUCK DID I JUST WATCH?!?

I’m guessing JLG might relish such a reaction.

But really.

Le Livre d’image (The Image Book) is a thoroughly fucked-up film.

Music stops and starts.

Ok, standard Godard.

Images run and then go to black screen.

Again, standard Godard.

But something is further about this film.

Perhaps the most accessible touchstone would be the glitchy music of Radiohead circa Kid A and Hail to the Thief (to name my two favorites).

To wit:  Godard seems to be enjoying fucking with his audience.

Every possible convention of cinema is destroyed and frustrated by his anti-art approach.

It is Swiss.  It is dadaist (in a certain sense).

But it is stranger…

Which brings us to a crossroads.

Is Godard getting senile?

I mean, seriously:  is this the work of someone falling apart?

It may be.

There is an achingly-sad moment near the end when we hear that trademarked Godard narrative voice break up.

Coughing.

Too many cigars.

Almost 90 years old…

But there are other possibilities.

Indeed, The Image Book hearkens back to the Godard of his Dziga-Vertov years.

Extremely obtuse.

Painful cinema.

A cinema of cruelty (for Artaud).

We catch glimpses (literally) of Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

Yes.

There is a pessimism here.

But mostly a hard reality.

And yet, is it reality?

The Image Book is surreal…while being mostly in a stark cinematography.

A bit like Picasso’s Guernica.

But more boring.

Can I say that?

Boring.

When you’re 88 years old (like Godard), perhaps things move slower.

Perhaps you could call it “slow cinema”.

But it is FAST and boring.

Many cuts.

Many, many cuts.

Painstakingly (painstakingly?) spliced.

It seems.

Also seems random.

Aleatory.

I Ching.

John Cage.

But onto another aspect.

That of revision.

Revisiting.

The Image Book is to Godard’s oeuvre as Histoire(s) du cinéma is to film history as a whole.

Le Livre d’image could be said to be a sort of CliffsNotes to the work of Jean-Luc Godard.

But there’s just one catch.

You would need to know the oeuvre in its totality to really make much of this pithy summation.

So it is, in a sense, useless.

But it still speaks.

Galileo.

And yet it moves.

Godard is not dead.

Not yet.

And he should know that he will never die.

Not with the timeless body of work he has contributed to humanity.

And yet, that tobacco cough says otherwise.

To live in those lungs.

To feel the weight of mortality pressing down.

Le Livre d’image is a frustrating piece of work.

It has very little (almost none) of the lyrical poeticism that its predecessor Adieu au langage had.

Indeed, perhaps this is a purposeful “let down”.

Like Neil Young’s On The Beach or Lou Reed’s Berlin.

To extend the metaphor there, it is mostly like Metal Machine Music.

It is jarring.

Annoying.

It gets under your skin.

But it makes you think.

And perhaps that is the whole point.

Perhaps Godard is reaching for a new filmic language.

He may not be there yet, but he is reaching.

This is essential, cranky cinema.

The bleeding edge…

 

-PD

The Man Who Knew Too Much [1956)

Netflix seems to be down tonight.

I tried several times.  Several movies.  Several fixes.

And so it is only fitting that history should trump the ephemeral stages of technological development.

Yes, time for a good old VHS tape.

And not a film about which I’ve previously written.

While I have surveyed many of the early Hitchcock films, I never wrote about the original version of this film.

1934.

To my knowledge, this is the only film of Alfred Hitchcock’s early career which he chose to remake.

Just on this fact alone, it would seem that the story was either very dear to the auteur or that he couldn’t resist something about the plot.

Granted, the two films are considerably different.

Even on a surface level, the 1934 version was (of course) in black and white.

But this was a VistaVision, Technicolor production.

1956.

22 years later.

For better or worse, I was familiar first with the earlier version.

It is a film I should revisit.

But it was not what I would call a “home run”.

The one aspect of the original which one might miss in the remake is the presence of Peter Lorre.

But we must move on to the future.  The present.

1956.

Jimmy Stewart plays the leading male role.  A doctor from Indianapolis.

Doris Day plays his wife.

The action is set for a good bit in Morocco.

Specifically, Marrakesh.

Indeed, the beginning of the film is a sort of travelogue.

In other words, its a good excuse to show off the exotic locale in North Africa.

Camels.  Veils.  [that one’s important]  The social tradition of eating with the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand.  While leaving the left hand in the lap.

All very edifying and exciting.

But Doris Day is suspicious from the start.

If we knew nothing of Hitchcock, we’d say her paranoia was unfounded.

But, in fact, it’s Jimmy Stewart’s ease which is the fateful misstep early on.

And so this movie is about suspicion.

Who can we trust?

In this age of anxiety (thank you W.H. Auden), everyone and everything is suspect.

The only true bliss is ignorance.

[and perhaps my only wisdom is that of paraphrase]

One thing which escaped me the first time I saw this version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (in the theater…lucky me) was a funny detail about Brenda de Banzie.

Yes, dear readers (and fans of Peter Sellers), Ms. de Banzie would later appear as the annoying, flamboyant Angela Dunning in The Pink Panther (1963).

Indeed, her role as the terror of Cortina (d’Ampezzo) was her second-to-last film.

But here she is a much more mysterious character.

I will leave it at that.

We get some interesting things in this film.

“Arabs” in disguise.

Which is to say, certain personages of the spook variety in brown makeup (and native garb).

One need not look very far back in history to find a poignant parallel.

Consider, for instance, the “Basra prison incident” of 2005.

I’m guessing that T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) would provide another example, though I am no expert on this matter.

As are almost all Hitchcock films, this one is a tense affair.

Doris Day, in particular, does a surprising job of portraying the personal terror of her character.

Perhaps most notable about this film is the musical component.

As an accomplished percussionist in my own right, I heartily appreciate Hitchcock’s attention to the intricacies of an orchestral percussion section.

Indeed, the film begins with a close-up of this little-featured “choir” (in addition to the three trumpets and three trombones at the bottom of the frame).

What is most remarkable is Hitchcock’s use of the musical score (in various permutations) to tell this unique story.

Funniest is the shot of the cymbalist’s sheet music.

It is nearly a complete tacit…save for one fateful crash.

I fondly remember (with some measure of anxiety) a time when I manned the cymbals for the overture of Verdi’s La forza del destino.

It was a similar affair.

Interminable waiting.

And if you miss your one crash?  Even in rehearsal?

Well, you are screwed!

The judging stares of oboists are enough to melt a man…

But the musical score appears elsewhere.

In the private box.

Perhaps a page-turner for an assassin.

Most vividly, Hitchcock makes the score come alive in a fascinating series of extreme close-ups.

It is like a very erudite version of “follow the bouncing ball”.

So yes…some of our action happens at the Royal Albert Hall.

In an interesting twist of fate, usual Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann garners copious screen time as the conductor…OF ANOTHER COMPOSER’S WORK!

Were it Beethoven, I’d understand.

But the piece is Storm Clouds Cantata by Arthur Benjamin (who?) and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis (not to be confused with [Percy] Wyndham Lewis).

And yet it is a moving piece.

The London Symphony Orchestra sounds lovely (really magical!) in their on-screen segments.

But the real Leitmotiv of our film is “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)”.

Speaking of magic…it is always a gossamer thing to hear Doris Day sing this song in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

I remember a time when I didn’t know this song at all.

Being in a studio with Corinne Bailey Rae and hearing a playback of her wonderful band own this song.

And my discovery of Sly and the Family Stone’s inimitable version (sung by Rose Stone).

But few movie music moments equal Doris Day in her Marrakesh hotel room singing “Que Sera, Sera…” with little desafinado Christopher Olson.

The only ones which come close are Rita Hayworth (actually Jo Ann Greer?) singing the Rodgers and Hart masterpiece “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” the next year (1957) in Pal Joey and Ms. Hayworth “singing” (actually Anita Kert Ellis) “Put the Blame on Mame” in Gilda (1946).

An interesting note about this version of The Man Who Knew Too Much…

It seems to be a sort of forgotten classic, wedged as it is between the first of my Hitchcock “holy trinity” (Rear Window, 1954) and the other two perfect films (Vertigo, 1958, and North by Northwest, 1959).

Actually, this was a period of experimentation for Hitchcock.

Our film most precisely follows the odd comedy (!) The Trouble with Harry (1955) and precedes the black and white hand-wringer The Wrong Man (released later in 1956).

But The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) should not be forgotten!

It is such a beautifully-shot film!

Robert Burks’ cinematography is divine.

And George Tomasini’s editing is artfully deft.

Like To Catch a Thief (which is actually on Netflix in the U.S. [last time I checked]), The Man Who Knew Too Much is a film which perhaps needs multiple viewings to be truly appreciated.

-PD

Yang Tidak Dibicarakan Ketika Membicarakan Cinta [2013)

By the grace of God I bring you this film review tonight.

Last night I was not feeling well enough to write.

And so I am happy to give you my first review of an Indonesian film.

It is a wonderful piece of cinema and is available on Netflix in the U.S. currently as What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love.

I will just say this.

Any film which includes a character sneezing his glass eye out of his head is ok by me.

Which is to say, this is a pretty strange film.

But it is not strange in an uptight, contrived, David Lynch sort of way.

Perhaps it is the basic situation which makes this film quixotic.

The bulk of the “action” takes place at a “special” school (as it is called in the subtitles).

The beautiful young people at this school all struggle with visual impairment.

There is, however, one very important character who is sighted yet cannot hear.

[We will get to him in due time]

When I tried to watch this film last night, I was not feeling very well (as mentioned previously).

And so in my debilitating moments of bubbling, dull panic I was trying to first situate this film culturally.

There was some blurb about a Dutch film fund.

And the real bit of text at the head of the film which threw me off the scent:  a reference to the Busan film fund.

Knowing Busan, I figured, “Great!  I am watching a South Korean film.”

I felt somewhat comfortable marginally knowing the cinema tradition in which I had just entered.

But as I saw women and young girls in Muslim garb, I began to question.

Indeed, even on tonight’s complete viewing, it was only 3/4 of the way through the film that I realized I was watching an Indonesian production.

Call me stupid.

Fine.

But this is not a cinema (nor a language) with which I have any experience.

It was only when I saw Jakarta on the side of a bus that I felt fairly confident where the story had been set.

So yes, this is an Indonesian film in Indonesian (or dare I say Malay).

The scope and breadth of this language is not altogether clear to me, but it seems that Indonesian is a “register” (in linguistic terms) of Malay.

Being the dunce that I am, “register” seems an awful lot like “dialect”, but I’m sure most linguists would roundly dismiss this generalization.

Perhaps “jargon” is a better synonym for “register”.

In any case, Malay (of one type or another) is spoken by about 290 million people worldwide.

But we will stick to the term Indonesian (as per the language).

Our whole film is in that language (except for one line in Javanese).

Javanese, unlike Indonesian, is not a form of Malay.

It is quite distinct.

But on to the movie!

First we must pay our respects to the highly-talented director:  Mouly Surya.

Based on a cursory search, this would be Mr. Surya (Mouly being far more common as a male name).

Ah…but thank God for research!

Our director, in fact, is MS. Surya.

She is a 36-year-old native of Jakarta.

But really, male or female, this is an obvious work of cinematic art.

What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love isn’t perfect, but it’s frighteningly close.

Which isn’t to say it’s frightening.

It’s not.

But it’s a film which sneaks up on you.

Cineastes may be familiar with the term “slow cinema” which has been bandied about here and there especially in recent years.

There may be some of that here…like when the character Diana combs her hair exactly 100 times.

[I was sure she was going to stop at 88…that number being good luck in Southeast Asian cultures]

Indeed, we are with the character for a seemingly interminable session of hair-brushing at her “boudoir”.

However, that is one of the few times where the “slow cinema” idea has our film run astray temporarily.

Other uses of the technique (an extreme of Deleuze’s “time-image”?) are quite effective and evoke the loneliness of sightless life.

Granted, no two lives are the same.

But the Indonesia pictured in our film is not an economic wonderland.

Quite the opposite.

It is a rather humble school in which students have very basic accommodations.

And as is so often the case, economic struggles exacerbate and compound coexisting problems.

But don’t get me wrong:  it appears that the students portrayed actually have it very lucky in the context of their nation (all things considered).

Arguably the star of the film is Karina Salim.

Her situation is one of ballet lessons…and a doting mother.

That said, her roommate has a family which is struggling economically.

It is a strange juxtaposition.

But let’s focus on Ms. Salim.

Her acting is really fantastic.

Whether she is blind in real life, I know not.

But her portrayal of the character Diana is in the great tradition of pathos which touched on the works of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

The French adjective pathétique.

In English, we (if I may speak for us English speakers) tend to regard pathétique as descriptive of poetic pathos.

Deep expression.

And that is exactly what Karina Salim exhibits in her delicate acting throughout this film.

Her character, Diana, is right on the cusp of womanhood.

And in a very moving set of sequences, we see her quietly preparing her underwear for the week.

The moment of her first menstruation is a cause for secret celebration.

Indeed, she shares this ascent to adulthood with only her mother…on a joyous little phone call which we overhear.

Which brings us to culture.

We almost feel embarrassed knowing this intimate detail of character Diana’s life.

But American films are so much more explicit in so many ways.

Perhaps we are shocked because the reality of womanhood is rarely addressed in Hollywood movies.

And so we see that Hollywood still has taboos.

In this age in which anything goes, honest depiction of mundane-yet-visceral life realities (such as menstruation) are all but absent (save from a film like Carrie [1976]).

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this particular kind of honesty about femininity onscreen.

But what the hell do I know?  I’m a dude.

So let’s back to the film.

While Ayushita is very good as Diana’s roommate, it is really Nicholas Saputra who is the other star of this film.

His character is a deaf punk rocker.

[Let that one sink in for a second]

Every day he has a different shirt.

The Sex Pistols.  Led Zeppelin (?!?).  The Clash.  Joan Jett.

He definitely has the best hairstyle in the film.

[A strange zig-zag bleach job which I’ve never seen previously]

His character Edo is a social engineer par excellence.

Yes, there is some trickery in this film.

But it is not malicious.

Or if it begins as malicious, it is transformed into something quite beautiful.

[think Amélie]

But here’s where things get really strange.

There is really no decorous way of putting this, but there are a few characters in this film which pop up from time to time…AND I HAVE NO IDEA WHO THEY ARE!

There is a rather tasteless meme going back generations that all Chinese people look the same to a Westerner.

[And, perhaps, all Brits (for instance) look the same to a Chinese person]

But, again, there are some characters in this film which seem to be playing out some subplot which escaped me completely.

Indeed, I have so rarely seen anything like it that I can only associate my confusion with that felt by so many in relation to the surreal Howard Hawks narrative in The Big Sleep.

Granted, in our film this is a very minor element.

But it is still disorienting.

Was there some series of edits which mangled this film?

Can I really not tell one Indonesian person from another?

I don’t know.

You’ll have to see it for yourself.

And explain to me exactly what is going on.

For instance, does the blind character Andhika somehow learn how to drive a Vespa around town?

And is he cheating on Diana?

Or is Diana cheating on herself?

Are there two Dianas?

Again, a few scenes completely lost me.

But they do not ruin the general continuity of this film.

If anything, they add a mercurial charm to the whole affair.

And so I wholeheartedly recommend this film which portrays a side of life on which many of us are completely uninformed.

Visual impairment.  Braille.  Hearing impairment.  The difficulty of asking a clerk at 7-Eleven, “what kind of cigarettes do girls buy” in sign language.

And there is beauty in this world.

The appreciation for just a glimmer of sight (however blurry).

And yet, the difficulty of EVERY SINGLE TASK.

Most of all, this is a love story.

Two love stories (at least).

[not counting the extraneous players which pop up here and there]

But it is a very, VERY unique love story.

For me, it is an incredibly moving film because of the acting of Karina Salim and also Anggun Priambodo (who plays Andhika).

So take an adventure to Jakarta.  Capital of Indonesia.  World’s fourth-most-populous country.

While Indonesia is approximately 87% Muslim, this film portrays a diversity of religious devotion.

Indeed, while one student prays, another listens to a radio play (as one would have heard in the days of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce on The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes [1939-1946]).

Indeed, this scene of overlap…with religion in the background (the praying student) and learning in the foreground (listening to a lesson?  or just a bit of entertainment for the girls who live at this school?) is one of the most fascinating from a visual and cultural perspective.

I cannot pretend to know what is going on in all of the footage.

And so an expert on education for the visually impaired in Indonesia would perhaps be able to elucidate some of the more esoteric aspects of this film.

In the meantime, enjoy!

-PD

Incompresa [2014)

This is the longest movie I’ve ever watched.

Not really.

But at one hour and 46 minutes, that’s not a good thing.

To feel like it’s taking forever.

Which is not to say this is a bad film.

It’s not.

It’s a very good film.

With a very disturbing ending.

Yes, I’m warning you.

Don’t (like me) get sucked in by all the cuteness and expect our still-mediocre filmmaker to give you a good ending.

But maybe I’m wrong…

Let’s investigate.

First, Asia Argento is a very talented filmmaker.

But she’s still mediocre.

There are two main problems with this film.

The editing (as in cut some of this superfluous shit out) and the ending.

My guess is that Argento could not bear to see any of her precious footage cut (to any significant degree).

So I am not complaining about the découpage (editor Filippo Barbieri does a fantastic job…especially in the palimpsest intro), but rather the montage (in the French sense).

The ending is a cheap stunt.

David Bowie predicted such excess on Ziggy Stardust…

I will leave it at that.

But suffice it to say that Asia Argento put her heart and soul into this film.

And much of it (most of it) is magical.

This was in spite of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s overwrought, tacky performance.

Charlotte is a wonderful musician.

One of the best alive.

I adore her music.

But she is a terrible actress.

Even so, Argento should have reined in Gainsbourg’s diva performance considerably.

Yet nothing can take away from the true magic contained in Misunderstood (this film’s title on Netflix).

Maybe it’s not Gainsbourg’s fault.

Maybe the role called for a soulless bitch.

But we’ve seen Charlotte in other dire films (like Melancholia).

For all of Asia Argento’s imperfections as a filmmaker (and there are a few), she is like Orson Welles compared to the utter shite that Lars von Trier churns out.

Not to mince words, but “von” Trier has to be one of the worst filmmakers working today.

And so let’s get to why Argento marginally succeeds with this film.

The answer is so very simple:  Giulia Salerno.

Salerno must have been about 13 (or younger) when this film was shot [though she is ostensibly nine years old…in the context of the story].

Her acting, really, is a revelation.

The entire movie revolves around her.

She and her cat Dac.

It’s a sad story.

But Aria [Salerno] makes everything joyful.

Ah, the resilience of kids!

I was blessed with wonderful parents growing up.

Aria’s parents in this film are reprehensible in just about every way imaginable.

There is something of a Les Quatre Cents Coups to this tale.

Aria wanders back and forth.

With her little pet carrier (for the cat).

She has no stability.

Indeed, she ultimately has very little love at all.

I don’t want to spoil the story for you.

But here are the takeaways.

Asia Argento has the talent to become a world-class filmmaker.

This was an admirable and artful first effort.

It is a very special film.

Now it’s time for her to stop surrounding herself with ass kissers.

She’s not an auteur yet.

[I don’t care who her father was!]

Giulia Salerno has the brigtest future imaginable as an actress.

She is now about 15 years old.

And she’s already put a performance like this under her belt.

I hope that Hollywood and the cinema of her home country Italy take notice of her incredible thespian gift.

And I will give Argento one more compliment:  she sure shocked the shit out of me with that ending.

And though it was trite and tasteless, it didn’t completely ruin what was a very fine film.

Indeed, the editor needed for the bulk of this film would have lopped it off forthwith (if they were at all worth their salt).

-PD

Spalovač mrtvol [1969)

This is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen.

The Cremator.

Directed by Juraj Herz.

Even if you are familiar with the Czechoslovak New Wave, this film will still take you by surprise.

It is a mélange of times and themes.

And truly a horror story.

But there is a Brechtian detachment at work.

This would explain labels such as “comedy horror”.

It’s perhaps more absurd and surreal than it is funny.

But it is certainly frightening.

A very creepy piece of cinema.

Everything revolves around a crematory official/director named Kopfrkingl.

That name alone is enough to jar the most languid viewer at each pronunciation.

Historically speaking, this was not a successful film upon release.

No, it was too weird to be incorporated into the Czechoslovak communist pantheon moving forward.  And so the world would have to wait until 1989 to get a look at this thing.

The whole film feels like a dream.

A bad dream.  With some particularly vivid violence.  [Or vintage violence.]

Mr. Kopfrkingl is a truly, outrageously delusional man.

And he only becomes more so as the film goes on.

Modern viewers might notice a bit of Eric Cartman in Rudolf Hrušínský’s performance as Kopfrkingl.

Seen behind an iconic ribbon microphone, Kopfrkingl invokes the manic strains of Hitler and we feel the sick surge of idiocy grab hold of our dear cremator.

The strangest part of Kopfrkingl’s delusion is his obsession with Tibet.

It makes me wonder whether David Lynch saw this prior to Twin Peaks?

Thubten Gyatso dies, and Hitler comes to power.

1933.

Based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, this tale must be seen to be believed.

There are short-circuit edits akin to Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker. 

Indeed, director Herz is himself Jewish.

Truth be told, there have been few films which deal with the Holocaust as effectively (if obliquely) as The Cremator

Every shot of Hrušínský from the back evokes the Peter Lorre of M. 

This is a thoroughly fascinating cinematic experience.

 

-PD