Hugo [2011)

It’s hard to imagine that perfection would be possible in 2011.

In this very uncinematic era ruined by technology.

But it takes a genius to produce art from tech.

And it takes an artist to produce art.

Martin Scorsese was well up to the challenge.

As the weirdo I am, The King of Comedy has always been my favorite of his films.

Rupert Pupkin spoke to me in a way that perhaps only the totality of Dr. Strangelove ever similarly did.

But Mr. Scorsese had the brass to undertake a project which should have been doomed if only by its trappings.

Films have tried and generally failed at relative tasks.

City of Ember, for example.

But Scorsese was not deterred.

Not least because he had the magical trump card:  Méliès.

Which is to say, he had the story to end all stories (as far as cinema is concerned).

The big daddy.  The big papa.

Papa Georges.

But first things first…

We must give credit to Asa Butterfield (who looks like a cross between Barron Trump and Win Butler in this film).

Butterfield is no Mechanical Turk.

Nay, far from it.

But automata (or at least one particular automaton) play a large role in Hugo.

And why “Hugo”?

Kid living “underground”?  Victor?  Les Misérables?

Yes, I think so.

And it’s a nice touch by the auteur (in the strictest sense) Brian Selznick.

[Yes, grandson of David O.]

We’re at the Gare Montparnasse.

Torn down in 1969.

Site of this famous 1895 derailment.

train_wreck_at_montparnasse_1895

If a picture is worth a thousand words, I’m up to 1,261.

But we press on…

Because Méliès was about dreams.

And Hugo is about dreams.

les rêves

And Scorsese has been “tapped in” to this magic at least since he portrayed Vincent van Gogh in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (Kurosawa-san’s best film).

I must admit…I was a bit confused for awhile.

Something told me Scorsese had transformed himself into Méliès.

It was only later that it all made sense.

Ben Kingsley.

I mean, Scorsese is a great actor (Van Gogh, etc.), but he’s not THAT great!

But I’m jumping ahead…

Sacha Baron Cohen is very good in a somewhat-serious, villain role here.

I fully expected the immensely-talented Cohen to “ham it up” at some point, but he instead gives a very fine, restrained performance which fits like clockwork (sorry) into the viscera of this exquisite film.

But let’s revisit Sir Kingsley.

What a performance!

The loss of a career (Méliès).

The loss of a previous life.

The fragility of celluloid.

All to end up running a pathetic souvenir shop.

Toys.

Very clever, but still…

Such a fall from grace.

Into such obscurity.

I can only compare it to the trajectory of Emmett Miller (which was so artfully documented by my favorite author of all time [Nick Tosches] in my favorite BOOK of all time [Where Dead Voices Gather]).

The speed at which technology moves has the potential to reduce the most eminent personage to mere footnote at breakneck speed.

It was so even a hundred years ago.

And the process has now exponentially accelerated.

But we are coming to understand the trivialization of the recent past.

We are holding tighter to our precious films and recordings.

Because we know that some are lost forever.

Will this vigilance continue uninterrupted?

I doubt it.

But for now we know.

Some of us.

That today’s masterpieces might slip through the cracks into complete nonexistence.

Consider Kurt Schwitters.

The Merzbau.

Bombed by the Allies in 1943.

Es ist nicht mehr.

Into thin air.

But such also is the nature of magic.

Poof!

Skeletons later evoked by Jean Renoir in La Règle du jeu.

Scorsese is a film historian making movies.

And it is a wonderful thing to see.

And hear.

Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre more than once.

As on a player piano.

With ghost hands.

And the gears of the automaton.

Like the mystery of Conlon Nancarrow’s impossible fugues.

I’m betting Morten Tyldum lifted more than the spirit of gears meshing in Hugo to evoke the majesty of Alan Turing’s bombe in The Imitation Game.

But every film needs a secret weapon (much like Hitchcock relied on the MacGuffin).

And Scorsese’s ace in the hole for Hugo is the Satie-rik, placid visage of Chloë Grace Moretz.

Statuesque as water.

A grin.

A dollar word.

The beret.

And the ubiquitous waltzes as seen through keyholes and the Figure 5 in Gold.

Hugo is the outsider.

Scruffy ruffian.

Meek.  Stealing only enough to survive.  And invent.

But always on the outside looking in.

Below the window (like in Cinema Paradiso).

Ms. Moretz’ world is lit with gas lamps.

And you can almost smell the warm croissants.

[Funny that a film set in Paris should require subtitles FOR PARISIANS]

Assuming you don’t speak English.

Tables are turned.

But Paris draws the cineastes like bees to a hive.

THE hive.

Historically.

And that is just what this is.

History come alive.

But another word about Ms. Moretz.

As I am so wont to say in such situations, she’s not just a pretty face.

Though they are faint glimmers, I see an acting potential (mostly realized) which I haven’t seen in a very long time.

The key is in small gestures.

But really, the key is having Scorsese behind the camera.

It’s symbiotic.

Martin needed Chloë for this picture.

And vice versa.

We get a movie within a movie.

And (believe it or not) even a dream within a dream.

Poe is ringing his bell!

Or bells.

“Lost dream” says Wikipedia.

Yes.

It is as bitter a music as ever rained into Harry Partch’s boot heels.

To have one’s life work melted down for shoes.

Rendered.

To click the stone of Gare Montparnasse.

In an ever-more-sad procession.

Méliès becomes the vieux saltimbanque of which Baudelaire wrote.

Such is life.

We never expected to end up HERE.

Astounding!

-PD

Heavy [1995)

Holidays are hard for many people.

Perhaps we think of who we’ve lost.

But also there’s the pressure of the days themselves.

Christmas.  New Year’s Eve.

Even times like the 4th of July.

I didn’t set out to write a heartrending post, but I don’t always know what it is I’m about to watch.

In general, Heavy is not a sad film.

It’s a masterpiece of minimalism.

Every shot…every movement in this movie is lovingly made.

James Mangold created a world which corresponds to the understated expressions of silent films as much as it does to the desperation of everyday life.

I’m sure some people have very happy lives.

But what Mr. Mangold has given us is a look at extreme awkwardness.

Loneliness.

Do you ever feel awkward buying something?

I do.

Every time.

It’s the interaction with people.

It comes and it goes.

But for our protagonist Victor, it mostly comes and stays.

I can’t recall an actor (Pruitt Taylor Vince) getting so much depth out of so few words.

No film I’ve ever seen handles shyness quite like this one.

Victor is a cook at his mom’s little tavern.

It’s the kind of place you’d find in Woodstock.

Kingston.  Poughkeepsie.  West Saugerties.

Though the setting is never named, these are what came to my imagination.

Those places that inspired Mercury Rev to create their masterpiece Deserter’s Songs and, before them, The Band.

But whatever this fictional town, it is positively not cool.

It is in the middle of nowhere.

And so a feeling of desolation pervades this picture.

Victor cares for his mother (played brilliantly by the late Shelley Winters).

They live together…just the two of them.

There’s a little dog.

It’s a quiet life.

Sure, it’s sad.

But it’s life.

Life goes on.

Every day.

Open the tavern.

Pay the delivery man.

Cook the pizzas.

Clean up the broken beer mugs.

It just so happens that the place has a waitress/bartender.

And the actress playing this role indeed had experience.

Max’s Kansas City.

That’s right, Debbie Harry.

Debbie plays Delores.

She’s just as feisty as you’d expect.

She doesn’t put up with any shit.

And so the world goes on.

Day after day.

Status quo.

But one day, a ray of light enters lonely Victor’s world.

Liv Tyler.

You can imagine.

Liv was 18 when this film was made.

Which brings us back to Woodstock proper.

Liv Tyler was born Liv Rundgren.

As in Todd.

It’s a complicated story, but this future actress/model knew Todd Rundgren (producer of The Band’s Stage Fright which was recorded at the Woodstock Playhouse in 1970) as father until well into her life.

Todd, of course, was also a resident of the area.  This was back in the days of Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Records.

Which brings us to another fascinating little town:  Bearsville, New York.

But Liv was obviously the daughter of Steven Tyler (lead singer of Aerosmith).

Liv didn’t find this out till age eight.

Back to our movie…

Into lonely Victor’s life walks a new waitress whose real life genes were those of lippy Steven Tyler and Playboy Playmate Bebe Buell.

That’s no ordinary gene pool.

But this is no ordinary romantic comedy.

In fact, it’s not a romantic comedy.

It’s not funny.

It’s deep.

[He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother]

Because Victor is a portly fellow.

And this bothers him.

It’s something he tries to ignore, but living at home with mom…and being fat…and being shy…

It’s enough to give a guy a complex.

And this is not a rich family.

No psychiatrists here.

Just get up and go to work every day.

Cook breakfast for mom.

Feed the dog.

Go to the little grocery store.

Get some eggs and orange juice.

So I wasn’t sure what I was getting with this movie.

But I’m so glad I watched it.

I wouldn’t really call it an uplifting story, but that’s not the point.

It is cinéma vérité in the truest sense.

And the world needs these kinds of films.

There are no explosions.

Maybe there’s not even a happy ending.

I will leave that for you to discover.

But there are certainly very few cliches.

And so this picture spoke to me in a very deep way.

To reach out to anyone on the Internet who might be reading this.

This is a film about problems.

Not crippling problems which require literal crutches, but crippling all the same.

Pink Floyd summed it up as well as anyone when they sang about “quiet desperation”.

It may be “the English way”, but it’s not a uniquely British phenomenon.

I hate to talk about the “human condition”…because I fear I will sound like one of the putzes who pens the elevator pitches which adorn every film on Netflix [who writes those things?!?], but James Mangold did something very significant with this film.

Even the music is subtly artful.

We can thank Thurston Moore for that.

And so little harmonics and behind-the-bridge pings give depth to Victor’s struggles.

It’s quietness.

Standing by the staircase.

Staring up.

Is mom coming down?

Will the dog come eat his food?

There are heroes in this world.

And sometimes they are right under our noses.

Victor is one of those.

 

-PD

Chronique d’un été [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 voilà…ici!

Joined by another genius = Edgar Morin.

Where Nuit et brouillard fails, Chronique d’un été 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 (Côte 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

 

L’Atalante [1934)

The world is one big heartbreak.

This film reminds me of that.

I had seen it before.

But I hadn’t lived enough.

Life had never been that hard.

As it is now.

I don’t know what poetry is.

Maybe heightened language.  Anguish.

Languid.

God’s pace through the heavens.

This was one of the few Jean Vigo films.

The auteur of auteurs.

Because he directed little.

A bit like Anton Webern.

In that regard.

Vingt regards.

You know the story.

I shan’t count down from twenty.

I’m sorry.

But at least I can relate to Michel Simon.

We’ve been all around the world.

Not really.

But not bad.

And in our cabins with our trinkets.

On this ghost ship.

We ply the harbor.

To have such sad conversations.

And such optimism.

Yeah…

Michel Simon with his monkeys.

Meenkeys.

A bit like Nerval and the lobster.

But here he has cats.

And that is all too appropriate.

Yes, even Élie Faure saw (and appreciated) this film.

James Agee admired the work of Jean Vigo.

You can only get as sad as Jean Dasté when you’ve loved (and lost) someone as beautiful as Dita Parlo.

I’m not alone in feeling that way (apparently).

But it doesn’t make it any easier.

To be among one’s own leafless trees.

Floating down the Seine.

Never allowed to dock.

Nothing but tragedy.

 

-PD

La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2 [2013)

Sometimes we wonder whether the sadness is worth it.

In our epic lives which seem unbearable.

We only wanted a laugh for a second.

But we’ve felt too much.  Seen too much.  Too knowing.

All week long.

Misery.

And I have a letter in my heart.

But she won’t read it.

Won’t respond.

I am too sad to live.

Like Poe.  Like Baudelaire.  Especially.

Sitting for long hours in the café which really isn’t a café.

It’s a class struggle.

I can’t afford to be sad.

And I can’t afford not to love you.

This is Blue is the Warmest Color by Abdellatif Kechiche.

He.

Takes his time unwinding this story.

So delicate.  As lovers with mangoes.

Nobody’s listening.

Praise be to God!

I can’t.

Reveal myself to the world like that.

For it is Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux who have made the perfect film.

Real blood and real tears.

Cinema demands it.

From under the shadows of Godard, Kechiche.

Don’t let it scare you away.

Persevere!

Because this film was wholly deserving of the Palme d’Or.

It’s not a lesbian love story.

It’s not even really a love story.

It’s loss.

Walking away.

Lonely like Anna Karina or Louise Brooks.

Heels clicking pavement.

She couldn’t get close to anybody.

And when she finally does?

It’s devastating.

Devastatingly beautiful.

But devastating.

So many tears in this orgy of Frenchness.

Like Verlaine and Rimbaud.

“You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go”

I’ve seen one actress do it (Anamaria Marinca).

But I’ve never seen two actresses do it.

Together.  Like Ginsberg and Corso.

Perhaps.

Ouroboros.

Really, it’s just Exarchopoulos.

I could say the name a million times.

Thank you.

Typically French.

Untypically thorough.

Kechiche.

Tunisia.

France.

Greece.

There’s joy in those tears.

Because acting doesn’t permit this.

Cinema doesn’t permit this.

It’s not The Brown Bunny blue.

Blue is the coldest color.

Timing.

Pacing.

Nothing.

And beingness.

What?

Exarchopoulos.  Exarchopoulos.  Exarchopoulos.

And [poof!] she appears 🙂

Teach me something I don’t know.

The birth of the world.

The middle movement Mozart clarinet concerto like Breathless.

I’m too tired and my French isn’t good.

I’m literally at the end of breath.

But don’t go…

Stay a moment longer.

And linger.

Stay with me with the damned.

What can I offer them?

When my troubles have been so mundane.

No.

Love vastly, hurt immensely.

Learn the real life.

Of Arabic and real estate and dreams destroyed.

I will never be a movie star.

God damn it.

We just want our spark in a bottle to be found.

Our quark.  Her quirk.

Hair all down in her face.

Don’t get me started…

It’s not the Bond girl who fascinates.

It’s the girl of the winding arcades…

Straight and narrow.

Zaftig.  Not the svelte punk.

Lots of spaghetti like Gummo and a chocolate bar through the tears.

My God…

What did I just witness?

Sex is the least important aspect of this film.

Titillation misses the point.

It’s that connection that she so dearly wanted.

This is the loneliest job.

 

-PD

 

 

City Lights [1931)

Just when you think you can’t go on anymore, and then something happens.

That is a miracle.

Little miracles.

Right place at the right time.

Preparation meets opportunity.

Luck.

If the horseshoe works…if the rabbit’s foot is effective, then you want some extra help going into the ring.

And if the luck is bad, you try to wipe off the effect as with an unwanted kiss.

It’s very hard saying anything enlightening right now.

I’ve trudged up a steep hill.

Today I hit a little plateau.

But it feels like I’m back at the bottom.

Because tomorrow is back to the salt mines.

Ah, but I am lucky.

Right?

I am not a pooper scooper in life’s parade…picking up after the animals.

At least, not literally.

But it all comes down to a rather simple concept.

We go back to where the flower girl was.

We went to jail for her.

And now is only absence.

Time has passed.

And so we wander the streets.

I am the laughing stock.

Easy to pick on.

Try to preserve some decorum.

Bring a laugh to the young people who have futures.

I will not tell you the rest.

Because it is coded in film language.

Why did Charlie act so nice?

Why did he do the right thing?

Why did he go above and beyond?

It was for love.

In real life we may fail, but we too are geniuses of love.

We have gone the extra miles.

And that lost love…as sad as Górecki’s ridiculously-dense counterpoint from his third Symphony.

Sorrowful songs.

Nothing can hurt that bad.

Driving.  Alone.  Empty.

It is all part of “life’s rich pageant,” as Peter Sellers so poignantly said.

It is the same with Chaplin, Sellers.  We laugh, but we are crying.

And so “perchance to dream”…REM sleep.

Tomorrow the birds will sing.

We must keep telling ourselves that until it’s true.

 

-PD