Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang [2014)

I bet you thought I stopped writing about film, right?

ūüôā

Me too.

Sometimes.

I think…

“Am I still a film critic?”

With all this Trump this and Trump that.

With these tableaux.

This lazy poetry.

But I am back with an actual film.

And it is a masterpiece.

But I don’t know what to call it!!!

It’s a Chinese film.

Sort of.

But not really.

Because it’s by a Brazilian film director.

But not just any Brazilian film director.

Someday I will get around to reviewing one of the best exemplars of¬†na√Įvet√© ever made.

Yes, one of the best FILMS ever made.

Central do Brasil.

Central Station.

A formative episode in my filmic life.

But back to this Chinese film directed by a Brazilian.

I didn’t even get to his name yet ūüôā

Walter Salles!

Yes…two masterpieces are enough to make an auteur!!

But we can’t use the Chinese title here.

For the film.

Under consideration.

Because that would be disingenuous (and we will get to Trump).

[Or we will try.]

{so much…stuff…in the world}

Let’s paint the picture…

Three Gorges…no.

We must wait.

Central Station was a fiction film.

A beautiful masterpiece which stretches even up into the sert√£o.

But¬†Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang¬†is a documentary…about a guy from Fenyang…named Jia Zhangke.

Messrs. Baggini and Fosl (Julian and Peter) would call that a “spectacularly uninformative sentence”.

And Kant, the less-colorful–less-candid “analytic proposition”.

But we hit an impasse.

The film I am reviewing is so little-known (apparently) that it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page.

Worse, it has a strange, butchered title on iMDB.

There it is called Jia Zhang-ke by Walter Salles.

Hmmm…

I must admit:  it appears some people in marketing over at Kino Lorber are dicking around.

But we press on…

Just who the fuck is Jia Zhangke?  And why should you care about him?

Well, first: ¬†he’s a film director.

And second: ¬†he’s as good as Jean-Luc Godard.

Did I just say that???

Yes.

I just put someone on an equal level with my favorite director of all time.

What’s more, a Chinese guy you’ve probably never heard of.

Of whom.

And what about this Fenyang business?

Well, let’s get out our maps.

First, we must find Shaanxi Province.

Northern China.

The capital is Xi’an.

But we must get to the more obscure.

Fenyang.

Home of our subject auteur:  Jia Zhangke.

So we don’t exactly know the title…here to there…from this platform to the next.

But we will say this.

If you are in the U.S., this film is currently streaming on Netflix under the title Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang.

Or something like that.

This is the confusion of a lack of standardization.

Where’s ISO when you need them…or Zamenhof!

Ok…so why should you watch a 105 minute documentary about a filmmaker of whom you have likely never heard?

Because Walter Salles compels you.

He says, “Watch my story… ¬†Pay attention to this little self-deprecating Chinese man. ¬†He’s a cinematic genius.”

Wouldn’t it be great if all artisans and artists helped each other out in such a way?

A filmmaker, age 57, decides to make a film about another filmmaker, age 46.

Actually, that is quite an honor.

That an older filmmaker would help in the career of the younger one.

So we heartily praise Salles for his mise-en-scène as well as his morals.

But then we hit another impasse.

Because words cannot express the brilliance of Jia Zhangke’s grasp on cinematic language.

And so, why should you watch this film?  I ask again.

Because it gives you an introduction (not dumbed down in any way) to the works of a contemporary film artist who is leading the cinematic medium into this new century.

Likewise, it gives you an introduction to Chinese film at the same time.

These aren’t kung fu flicks (for the most part).

These are art films.

Similar to Breathless

Born of the French New Wave.

But also born of Raj Kapoor.

Indeed, as a young boy…Jia Zhangke remembered an early film which extolled thieves. ¬†And it was this Indian film shown in China. ¬†And the Chinese kids remembered the melismatic melodies for decades…to rip off a shred and a few threads of a melody which bound them as enfants terribles.

Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang is a bit like Cinema Paradiso.

The big director returns home.

And there’s a sadness.

Maybe you can see your childhood home.

And hit the wall one more time.

You can imagine the family bed and the father’s desk was there.

And the books on shelves along here.

So many books.

That there is a sadness of being from Fenyang.

I feel it being from San Antonio.

And Jia Zhangke, all throughout this film, ideates thoughts which have now and then wisped in and out of my dreams.

Jia is very calm.  Thoughtful.  Serene.

A true artist.

And as he talks about the process of creation, I find him to be an exceptionally dedicated artist.

We hear about Xiao Wu (1997).

Pickpocket.  Starring Wang Hongwei.

I mean, this bloke…Wang… ¬†His clothes hang on him in almost a magical way.

He’s a good-for-nothing bum in the Chaplin mold, but still puffing away like Belmondo in¬†Breathless.

But Jia was right.

It’s the gait.

The way Wang Hongwei walks.

Body language.

Brilliant!

And the shots we see of Platform are really moving.

It’s like being from a place like Kiruna, Sweden.

Gotta get there by train.

Up past the Arctic Circle.

And the kids…they don’t have a lot of entertainment.

Maybe even the sight of a train.

But in China…………….far more vast.

These remote places.

Like the Three Gorges area where Jia made Dong and also Still Life.

But the joke’s on me.

Because the whole world knows Jia Zhangke.

The whole world of cinema.

And me, with my insular approach, not so much.

Because Jia won the Palme d’Or in both…wait.

We have the wrong envelope.

Ok…so maybe he’s not that well know.

His films have been screened in competition at Cannes, but no hardware yet.

With the exception of his Golden Lion from Venice.

But none of that matters.

What matters is that he’s making great films.

What matters is that he has the potential to best us all.

This was a very moving film for me.

Because it speaks to the obstacles of life.

Of the unhappiness.

Of the solitude which must be for creations to ferment properly.

To mix metaphors, we need the darkness in which to screen our masterpieces of light.

We cannot screen them in a glass house…at 2:30 p.m.

Finally, this film will give you invaluable insights into the recent history and current state of China.

All the people on Weibo (like Twitter).

The market system which has been kicking ass since the 1990s.

And crucial periods such as 1976-1989.

The restructuring period right after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

WE NOW JOIN PAULY DEATHWISH NEWS NETWORK…IN PROGRESS: “…

Xi Jinping.  His father purged in 1963.  His father jailed in 1968.  Xi was sent without his father to work in Shaanxi Province in 1969.  [The remote province from which film director Jia Zhangke hails.]

This was a time of immense violence in China.  Being purged.  Being jailed.  Being sent to the countryside to work and be re-educated.  All of this was suffused with violence.

So when President Xi got the message from President Trump himself that the U.S. had just launched 60 Tomahawk missiles into Syria minutes earlier, President Xi was met with the shock of surrealism…a perfect steak…beautiful ladies…the glitz and glamour of Mar-a-Lago…and the throat punch of an actual tiger. ¬†No paper.

“Get North Korea in line, and fast!” ¬†Would have been the message.

So that, in these times, to truly appreciate that which is unfolding around us, we need directors like Jia Zhangke.

These are our new philosophers.  Our new poets.

Thinking about social media.

Fooling around with it.

Inventing new artistic forms.

And finding new types of loneliness.

And desperation.

Jia came from a very poor area.

He loved his family very much.

The Chinese don’t like violence.

We Americans don’t like violence.

See this film.

Then get back to me on¬†Dereliction of Duty¬†ūüôā

-PD

El Crítico [2013)

Fucking masterpiece.

A fucking masterpiece.

God damn…

It’s not often that a movie strikes me this way.

I had every reason not to even WATCH this film.

The premise was too perfect.

Too good to be true.

In English (and on Netflix in the U.S.), it is listed as The Film Critic.

But we pay our respects to international films even if the template of our website goes haywire in so doing.

El Crítico is an Argentine-Chilean coproduction.

Sounds like a wine, right?

Well, this beats any Malbec I’ve ever tasted.

I cannot say enough good things about this picture!

First things first-Hern√°n Guerschuny is a goddamned genius.

From the very start of this film we get the Godard whisper…that voiceover which started (si je me souviens bien) circa 1967 with¬†2 ou 3 Choses¬†que je¬†sais¬†d’elle.

The majority (80%?) of El Crítico is in Spanish, but the remaining 20% (in French) makes all the difference.

We have an Argentine film critic, played masterfully by Rafael Spregelburd, who thinks in French.

We are thus privy to his internal monologue throughout the film.

For anyone who writes about motion pictures, El Crítico is indispensable.

Priceless.

Just right.

[not even a pinch of salt too much]

Dolores Fonzi is really good, but Se√Īor Spregelburd is outstanding.

Spregelburd plays a Godard-obsessed film critic (are you seeing why I like this?) whose fumbling attempts at romance stem from his total immersion in cinema.

Guerschuny deftly interpolates scenes which are “meta-” in the same sense that¬†Cinema Paradiso was essentially¬†a film ABOUT film.

And I am a fan of this approach.

It worked perfectly for the greatest artistic creation in the history of mankind (Histoire(s) du¬†cin√©ma) and it works exceptionally well for Guerschuny’s film [of which James Monaco and¬†la Nouvelle vague I think would be proud].

Guerschuny, like his main character Tellez [Spregelburd], wants to explode the genre of romcom.

Yes, you heard me right:  romcom.

And it thus places¬†El¬†Cr√≠tico in the same tradition as Truffaut’s¬†Tirez sur le pianiste and Godard’s¬†Une Femme¬†est¬†une femme.

But something happens to our protagonist Tellez.

And something, I suspect, is in the heart (!) of director Guerschuny.

This is, in fact, a film about appreciating¬†na√Įvet√©.

It is a postmodern idea.

And an idea dear to my heart.

It’s quite simple, really…

I can appreciate Arnold Schoenberg as much as AC/DC.

Abel Gance as much as Napoleon Dynamite.

The idea is that pretentious films (and film reviews) can become just as tiresome as trite, Entertainment Weekly boilerplate.

Does that magazine even still exist?

I don’t know.

It’s an honest question.

In fact, I wasn’t even sure I had the title correct.

It’s supermarket-checkout-lane film criticism.

But it’s not worthless.

Sometimes the most esteemed, erudite film critics become blind to the beauty around them.

They don’t give simple movies a chance.

On the other hand, there are a ton of crappy movies out there today.

But El Crítico is not one of them.

But let me tell you about the secret weapon of the film under consideration:

Telma Crisanti.

Without her, this movie fails.

Not miserably, but the fa√ßade falls apart. ¬†And then the superstructure…

Ms. Crisanti plays¬†√Āgatha, the 16-year-old niece of our film critic Tellez.

It is she who plants the seed within Tellez’ mind that romantic comedies can be sublime.

But the salient point is this:  the masses are not dumb.

I will stand by Thomas Jefferson on this point till the bitter end.

And so The Film Critic speaks to young and old.  And middle-aged.

It is about miracles.

But it is real.

Simply put, this is the Sistine Chapel of romcoms.

Or, what Michelangelo would have done with the genre.

Simply stunning!

-PD

Chronique d’un √©t√© [1961)

Capture capture capture.

Always capture the emotion of what you’ve just seen.

You have to take a piss?

It can wait.

[ok, sometimes it can’t]

But here it must wait.

Because Chronicle of a Summer is beyond the level of masterpiece.

For so long, I wanted to see a film of Jean Rouch.

Et voil√†…ici!

Joined by another genius = Edgar Morin.

Where Nuit et brouillard fails, Chronique d’un √©t√© succeeds.

The reality (yes) of the Holocaust is in Marceline.

Marceline who does not want to sleep with an African.

Marceline with the concentration camp tattoo.

Marceline and her memories of her dear papa.

In this moment, the Holocaust becomes true.

We believe it…because it is not the same bullshit propaganda we have heard a million times.

Propaganda meant to amplify a truth can actually succeed (fail) in negating a truth.

Such is with the Holocaust.

It is where Spielberg fails with Schindler’s List.

It’s the Titanic of Holocaust historiography.

Titanic might be a good film (I believe it is), but it is certainly not cinema.

It is popcorn viewing.

That’s what Spielberg (of Jaws) did with the Jews.

He knew no other way.

He made a pop song out of Berg’s Violin Concerto.

Not even that.

Worse.

But Rouch (rouxsch) and Morin (more on, not moron) do the opposite.

Here we see all the techniques which would dominate the work of Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s.

And Godard has admitted the debt to Rouch.

Ethnography.

What is that?

Ethnic and graphs?

Might be some false cognation in there.

But yes:  this is a film from the social sciences.

Morin, the sociologist.

Rouch, the anthropologist (always mentioned as an “ethnographic filmmaker”).

It you want to see a film that doesn’t suck, see this one.

It has everything.

But it is not forced.

It is Paris, but it is also Africa (C√īte d’Ivoire, Belgian Congo, colonial Algeria, jungles, leaves over the “sex” [genitals]).

Yet, all of this is merely talked about.

We are taken there by dialogue.  Language.

Immigrants.  Africans.

High and low.

A Renault factory.  Saint-Tropez.

Up and down.

Youth happy because the sun is shining and they are young.

Elderly who have lost their spouses or siblings.

Down and up.

Immigrants from Italy.  Depression.  REAL FUCKING DEPRESSION.

But beauty.  La bohème.  Attic apartments.

Bullfighting.  Rock climbing.  Bananas.

Fruit and //furniture forgeries.

Cooked books.  Accounting irregularities.

Leisure.  The revolution of doing nothing. [or at least something surreal]

You can’t just buy one book and expect to have it tell you “how the French think”.

No, my friends…

You must work at it.

You must study for years.  Study a culture.

And that’s what I’ve done with the French.¬† Because I love them.

 

-PD

 

Viaggio in Italia [1954)

We push ourselves so hard.

For what?

So that we may see beauty.

For me, it’s this.

Though I can barely hold my eyes open, I see it.

I see what Godard saw when he was just a lad.

A very mature film from Roberto Rossellini.

But by mature, we don’t mean sexual.

Actually, more nuanced than that.

A celebration of woman as human being.

A celebration of Ingrid Bergman as auteur.

Just as much as her husband, the director.

It’s there.

The collaboration.

And it’s unlike any other film I’ve ever seen.

Perhaps…

she fell in love with his genius.

The war trilogy.

We have talked about the great films.

Just after WWII.

Rome, Open City.

Germany, Year Zero.

And enfin…

Paisan.

[in not quite that order]

These are our English names.

But Journey to Italy is a weird feast of linguistic absurdity.

“…you shameless hussy”.

It’s like this, see…

George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman are British,

but they’re speaking Italian.

This was so the Italians didn’t have to read subtitles.

But then George says to a prosititute,

“I don’t speak Italian” (or something)

in English…WHEN HE’S BEEN SPEAKING ITALIAN FOR THE FIRST HOUR OF THE FILM!

And then there’s the Italian tradition of postproduction.

No live sound.

In this film, no ambient noises.

It’s like George and Ingrid are touring Italy in a fucking Tesla Model S!!

And a bit of dialogue.

And a clip-clop and a cloche.

Get out of the way, donkey cart!

Such that at a certain point, we wonder whether Roberto was exploding not only genre (to reference James Monaco), but the Italian version of “the tradition of quality” against which the French New Wave set themselves so polemically.

ūüôā

It’s possible.

“Do you think I’m insane,” asked Elon Musk.

No, of course not.

You’re South African like me.

But at the heart of this film (this is a film review, right?) are the same marital arts (!) which made Benatar sing love is a battlespace.  What?

Before Godard and Karina, it was Roberto and Ingrid.

And the tension rubs.

Gimme friction, said Tom Verlaine.

And Paul Verlaine said some stuff which was ignored.

And Rimbaud shot his hand.  Or ran guns.

Back when Abyssinia.

Main point is this is beautiful film.

Plain simple.

And it’s no accident Mr. and Ms. Joyce.

 

-PD

 

Au Hasard Balthazar [1966)

If life has no meaning, then do not continue to the next sentence.

Thank you.

For those of you still reading.

You must excuse my reliance on 1/3rd of the trivium (to the detriment of the remainder).

It must be rhetoric which I employ.

Like a donkey.

No.

It doesn’t work that way.

But for those of us in poverty and misery.

How do we express our futile existences?

By affirming their meanings.

Their meaningfulness.

You have not worked your whole life for nothing.

You worked to survive.

But you survived for others.

You loved.  You cared.

You were curious.

Too curious to let the human race go.

And so, slow and easy does it goes [sic]…the autumn of your years.

Perhaps.

Another spring.

Hope.  Eternal.

Robert Bresson slips a note under our door.

A key.

At first viewing it is dull.  Ugly.

Like a donkey.

Yes.

But Bresson knew Beethoven.  Concision of expression.

Economy of means.

It is no wonder that we hear Schubert throughout this film.

And no wonder that Schubert is Philip Glass’ favorite composer.

Those ostinati.  Figured bass.

Even simpler than Alberti.

More like a rail fence transposition.

Or a Caesar shift cipher.

Ostinato.  Obstinate.

Like the donkey.

But I have patiently borne the humiliation.

I am still a youthful beast of burden.

And yet I know my hooves.

I am a genius.

A four-legged mathematician.

Give me three digits…and a single digit.

And I multiply.

I fecundate the field with feathery flowers.

Four digits.

Do I hear five?

With a memory like an elephant.

A stare like a tiger.

And a harangue like a polar bear.

But look how he shivers.

The donkey.

So humble as to not say a word.

Perhaps it was the wisdom of salt.

Salt of the earth.

A wise ass.

Yes, forever in trouble.  With my pride.

Getting kicked in the rump.

But these are really nasty assaults.

The other side of James Dean.

François Lafarge as Gérard is a real asshole.

Not enough love at home.

Feels a need to punch donkeys.

[pause]

Quite literally…the world comes to life through Bresson’s filmmaking.

Prostitutes pop up.

Pimps prance and preen.

But here we have “merely” sexual assault.

A first step in losing the ability to feel anything.

Numb.

And we have rape (through allusion, of course).

Gérard toots his horn.

Literally.

The other side of the James Dean coin.

The underside of Jean-Paul Belmondo.

A disproportionate riposte courtesy of the one filmmaker with the balls to be simple.

So simple.

On first glance it is nothing.

A donkey.

But live a few years.

And then revisit.

It is a novel.

It contains everything.

We can’t catch it because it doesn’t pop out at us in color.

One way would be to say that no one has ever looked more sad on screen than Anne Wiazemsky here.

Before Godard.

Perhaps a first conversation.

A nervousness.

It was through Wiazemsky that Bresson told this tale.

To teach the New Wave.

They hadn’t learned all the lessons yet.

He wasn’t done speaking.

The quiet tone of an old man…

I want to tell you more more more.

But this is best secret.

To appreciate the simple things.

Before they are gone.

The patient animals.

So gentle in their existence.

Not presuming.

Not running.  Not hustling.

The pack-animals.

We know this look.

In cats.  In dogs.

This wisdom.

We laugh at their carefree insolence.

But they have shown the way.

Such resilience!

Such love…

And we are taken in.

Our hearts are melted.

Yes.

Few moments in cinema feel more lonely than the end of Au Hasard Balthazar.

It is almost unbearable.

The quiet dignity of humanity being shamed.

How could we ever forget our love.

For even a second.

When we rub two sticks together at such an eyelevel perspective, the meaning of life is very clear.

But unutterable.

 

-PD

Detective [1985)

How do you get that much emotion into a film review?  In order to start saying things again, we must stop saying things as we have been saying them.

Year zero.

As much as I might like to find fault with this film, I cannot.  Not really.

What for some directors would be their masterpiece is for Godard merely another step in the journey.

We get used to genius.

We expect perfection.

But let us descend from the cosmos to discuss the film at hand.

No…on second thought.

It is the prolongation of the opening titles.  Not like James Bond.  It is not a formulaic gun-barrel sequence.

It is merely (merely?) the opposite of diminution.  Augmentation.  A fugue.

There are too many words to remember.

And so Godard takes his sweet ass time telling us about the players.

Quite a cast.

If we come in blind (and cold), each addition piques our interest further.

Was it Alain Sarde who put together this troupe?

Perhaps he only wrote the checks?

No no…it is better to discuss how Godard used this extensive cast.

A cast of thousands.  Mahler Symphony #8.

Wikipedia.  Poor pathetic Wikipedia.

But maybe not.

If you are accustomed to mainstream fare, this picture may appear to have no plot.

It is the pacing.  The cuts.  Montage?

No.  No diatribe.

On to the cast.

Jean-Pierre Léaud.  How long had it been?

And Claude Brasseur!  Christ!!

But we really start moving with Johnny Hallyday.

Once upon a time…

(should start)

I (me)…I was in some city…I believe it was Quebec.¬† Quebec City.¬† Qu√©bec.

I had a room at the top of the world for the night.  I believe it was the 22nd floor.

Enough to make you shit yourself…

And in the morning, there we were…a band apart.¬† Bleary eyed, perhaps.

And out comes Monsieur Hallyday.

And the press clicked away.  The hands went up to shield the bright lights.

And all I was impressed with was that he’d been in a Godard movie.

This one.

But let us not forget Nathalie Baye.

She is extraordinary here.

Brasseur is very strong.

Hallyday is surprisingly perfect.

All of these pop stars in films by the former nouvelle vague

But let us really focus on the viscera.

Emmanuelle Seigner.

I have written about her before in relation to Berlin:¬† Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

Yes.  She is indispensable here.

And Julie Delpy.  With the licorice stick.

(that would be, clarinet)

Poorly documented.

Actresses age.  They become harder to distinguish from their former selves.

A stage of facial age.

But really the star (STAR)…(STAR) is Aurelle Doazan.

Sometimes it is her legs.  We study every shot in every Godard film.

The market for films.  The clearing prices.  For rare cinephilia.  Paraphernalia.  Saturnalia.

Alea iacta est.

Les jeux sont faits.

The sound.

All bets are in.  The die is cast.

The games are done.

Have been.

Godard here makes an art of either A.) saying nothing at all, or B.) saying everything that can possibly be said.

We happen to know he improved.

This experiment.¬† AGFA.¬† Audio Cassettes……….Video Cassettes.

Making an entire movie in a hotel.

Just deliver the equipment.

Arriflex.  Mitchell.  Panavision.

Schubert.  Liszt.  Honegger.

François Musy.

The engine is rattling.  Abandon ship.

-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

Une femme est une femme [1961)

I don’t know if it’s a comedy or a tragedy, but it’s a masterpiece.¬† So says Jean-Claude Brialy near the end of this film.¬† This is, indeed, a complex turning point in Godard’s filmography.¬† It is important to note that Godard made a film in between Breathless and A Woman is a Woman (Le Petit soldat), but it was banned by the French government because it focused on torture (as part of the ongoing Algerian War).¬† What is obvious is the dramatic shift from the stark noir of Breathless to the candied colors of A Woman is a Woman.

But there are many things strange about this relatively “normal” film (relative as regards Godard).¬† There is a sexual, existential tension between Anna Karina and Godard the director which is played out in a complex quasi-real paradox of a love triangle.¬† Bear with me…¬† Brialy and Belmondo are both symbols, but at times it seems that Belmondo is a symbol for himself.¬† Brialy is more obviously the “Godard” character.¬† Knowing the history of Karina and Godard, it might seem rather premature for them to be having relationship problems, but that’s why it is essential to note that her first film as Godard’s muse was Le Petit soldat.¬† [It would eventually be released after Vivre sa vie as his fourth film (and, importantly, after the Algerian War had ended).]

I would go so far as to say that Godard is weirder in this film (last I checked, the only of his films available on Netflix=his most lasting contribution to the mainstream) than Jodorowsky is in The Holy Mountain.¬† That might seem to be a stretch, but again:¬† bear with me.¬† Jodorowsky, while brilliant, is over-the-top in such a way which harkens back to the earliest of avant-gardes…the films of Dali and Bunuel.¬† Godard, on the other hand, while seeming to “play the game” to a certain extent was in actuality creating a new language.¬† Just the first few moments of A Woman is a Woman alone are enough to indicate as much.¬† The role of sound and music in this film is paramount.¬† While perhaps little noticed, Godard (together with the music of Michel Legrand) had developed a sort of audio jump cut.¬† He would use this device to greatest effect in the opening credits of Vivre sa vie.¬† The inexplicable stops and starts in both the soundtrack and the ostensibly synchronized sound (dialogue and such) serve to once again make the viewer subtly ill-at-ease (just as Breathless had done visually).

James Monaco had it right when he talked about the Nouvelle Vague exploding genres from the inside out.  Godard here chooses the American musical.  I could go on at length, but I will keep it short.  No one has dug deeper into themselves time after time to give the viewer a truly novel and thought-provoking experience than Jean-Luc Godard.  Understood on a strictly intellectual level, it is fascinating.  Viewed over the course of a long, persistent career, it is truly touching.

-PD

The Birds [1963)

Death from above.  That is the key to this movie.  But it is only one key.  It unlocks one very important door, but others remain locked.

I credit Jean-Luc Godard with finding this key.¬† In Histoire(s) du cin√©ma Godard draws a visual analogy between Hitchcock’s birds and WWII bombers.¬† This is the key which unlocks a very important part of the mise-en-sc√®ne.¬† The¬†scene Godard¬†chooses is that of the children running from the school.¬† Hitchcock was in his early 40s when the London Blitz raged on for 37 weeks.¬† At one point the capital was bombed for 57 straight nights.

But Hitchcock was not in London.¬† In March of 1939 he was signed to a seven year contract by David O. Selznick and the Hitchcocks relocated to Hollywood.¬† In April of the same year his film Rebecca was released.¬† It would be Hitchcock’s most lauded film till his canonization by the French New Wave.¬† Rebecca won, among other awards, the Oscar for Best Picture (then known as Outstanding Production).¬† The story was by Daphne du Maurier (whose novelette “The Birds” would form the basis for the film in question).

Foreign Correspondent would be released not long before The Blitz began (Mr. & Mrs. Smith at its height).  By the time Suspicion was released later in the year (1941), The Blitz had been over for some months.

So what?  The story was by du Maurier and Hitchcock was a successful filmmaker in Hollywood during The Blitz.  The answer is mise-en-scène.  Only a boy from London (Leytonstone, Essex) could have made birds so terrifying.  Perhaps.  We must remember that the Allied bombing of Hamburg (to use just one example) killed (in one raid) about 42,000 Germans:  approximately the same number killed over the entire 37 weeks of The Blitz.

To further stray…how would a resident of present-day Baghdad handle the filming of The Birds?¬† Or a citizen of northwestern Pakistan?¬† Or a civilian in modern Afghanistan?

To be sure, this is a horror film.¬† It is the only Hitchcock film I have seen which approaches the archetypal status (in that genre) of Psycho.¬† Hitchcock made a career of suspense–of thrillers.¬† The Birds is sheer terror.

Unlike many of the horror films by lesser directors which followed in the decades to come, The Birds succeeds is being both creepy and artful.¬† This tenuous balance is perhaps best epitomized in the scene where Tippi Hedren smokes a cigarette on the bench in front of the playground.¬† In a film with no proper soundtrack (save for the squawks and warbles of Oskar Sala’s Mixtur-Trautonium), it is the children’s voices singing “Risseldy Rosseldy” in the background which makes this scene both so spooky and so timeless.¬† Composer Mauricio Kagel would employ a similar effect (the use of children’s voices) in his haunting composition entitled 1898 (from 1973).

As an added irony, the special effects shots of the murderous birds were achieved through the indispensable help of Walt Disney Studios.¬† Indeed, it’s a small world after all.¬† And that, in some strange way, might answer the most pressing question of all:¬† why?

 

-PD

 

The Maltese Falcon [1941)

Bogart is our “three day stubble” hero–our five-o’clock shadow warrior.¬† “Tough without a gun,” said Raymond Chandler.¬† Indeed, Bogart as Sam Spade herein disarms a couple of gun-wielding punks through his ingenuity alone.¬† Quick movements.¬† Think fast.

In a tough profession one must roll with the punches.¬† Bogie’s partner is murdered?¬† Life must go on.¬† Extra space on the signage?¬† Put my full name:¬† Samuel Spade.

Yes, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) is indispensable.  John Huston turns in an astounding film for a first-time director.  But the whole enterprise is carried by Humphrey.

There is a reason why Huston was slighted by the French New Wave and Bogart was not.  Huston was not at all a bad director.  It was just that the discrepancy became clear when the brilliant Bogart was placed at the disposal of Howard Hawks or Nicholas Ray.  One needs only watch another juggernaut debut (Breathless by Godard) to see the esteem which Bogie accrued with the French film culture which would give intellectual validity to American films previously considered mere pulp entertainment.

 

-PD