Les Carabiniers [1963)

Iskra.  И́скра.  Spark.  Good film criticism requires a spark…something which separates it from run-of-the-mill recounting.  Our society is so impoverished.  Apparently Wikipedia didn’t put any of its recent fundraising money towards their article on The Caribineers [sic].  Nay, I had to stray to the rival IMDb to find what I was looking for.  I know how Wiki works (more or less).  People contribute information, at various levels of veracity and artfulness, to topical articles about which they feel at least an interest if not an expertise.  Perhaps IMDb works the same way.  I’m not sure.  One thing is sure in my book:  Wikipedia is the more powerful tool and, just as importantly, it is artfully austere–the Bauhaus of digi-pedias.  IMDb is not lacking in breadth (as concerns film), but it is clunky and feels like a really shitty version of amazon.com.

Business.  Amazon has owned IMDb since 1998.  I’ve gotten some great stuff from Amazon…some of it at a good price.  But Wikipedia does has a different feel, and for that it is to be commended.  It is the utopia ideal at work.  And that tangent brings me to the name.

Odile Geoffroy.  IMDb claims she was in Vivre sa vie as well as Les Carabiniers.  Perhaps.  It appears to have been quite a small role.  I do not recall it.  But at least IMDb (Amazon) gave me her name.  The same cannot be said for the woeful, woeful Wikipedia article titled The Caribineers.

Why Ms. Geoffroy?  Because her part in Les Carabiniers is anything but trivial.  Iskra.  Spark.  Из искры возгорится пламя.  From a spark a fire will flare up.  Yes, the brutes of Les Carabiniers really have a tough time offing Ms. Geoffrey’s character…even with a white handkerchief over her perfect, blond visage.  It’s the only way.  Her beauty is too strong for the base, lecherous soldiers tasked with shutting her up.  And then she begins to speak…

Yes, she has a mind.  She is not a mindless Venus–nor a venal Cleopatra.  But they shoot her anyway.  In fact, it takes a magazine full of bullets to finally keep her synapses from firing; her limbs from moving.

And so we have another political film from Jean-Luc Godard.  Again, like Le Petit soldat which preceded it by release but not creation, the political slant is not really towards a particular faction (as far as I can tell).  In other words, the Marxist-Leninist spark is just that:  a quick, tentative reference to something which was perhaps still taking hold in Godard’s mind.

What we do get is an anti-war film along the lines of Renoir’s La Grand illusion, but with the gritty realism of Rossellini’s first post-war films.  Roberto’s spirit is inextricably woven into the fabric of Les Carabiniers.  Albert Juross portrays the idiocy of war as well as Catharine Ribeiro portrays the pretty spoils of mo-bil-i-za-tion.  The latter (Ribeiro) would enjoy a long career as an iconoclastic singer.  Which brings up another point:

where was Anna Karina?  Belmondo?  It might have seemed at the time that the Karina-Godard synergy had abated.  Nothing could have been further from the truth of what followed.  Some of her best starring turns for Godard lay ahead of her, but this strange film served as a bit of punctuation for Godard…almost a continuance of Le Petit soldat.  It bears mentioning that of his first five features, only Une Femme est une femme had been in color.  This from the auteur who was to yet shortly give the world Pierrot le Fou and Le Mépris.

Les Carabiniers is really rather a dense film to dissect.  I think Pauline Kael and Susan Sontag would be aghast at having been cited on such a paltry Wikipedia article as The Caribineers.  It is to Godard’s credit that this seldom-mentioned classic from his oeuvre poses a problem in breadth for being even beyond the scope of a time-on-my-hands blogger like me.

-PD

Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux [1962)

This.  This was the film which started it all for me.  My fatal love for cinema.  You must excuse me if I write in the tone which Godard employed.  It is one of the most complex branches of his filmlanguagetree.  And you must excuse me if I dabble Joycean here and there.

Really, it all started with a book by James Monaco called The New Wave.  Once upon a time my paperback copy had a cover.  I believe I paid 50 cents for the book…maybe 25.  But that cover is long gone and now my copy begins with page five.  Ah, but it is all so clear in my memory.  It was bathtub reading.  My first successful experiment with this was a few years previous when I’d read Henry Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion during a particularly impoverished time.  Unemployed and discouraged, I had given up hope of finding gainful employment and, rather, resorted to afternoon baths with the erotic anarchy of Miller to keep me company.

And so it was…about four years ago, that I made Monaco’s book my mental edification during absolutions.  Yes, the book would inevitably get wet, fall in the water…even on the edge of the tub…but as it died, I lived.

First came Truffaut.  Enjoyable enough.  I rented all of his films I could find and imbibed the criticism of Monaco.  Then came Godard.  I had probably seen a bit of Sympathy for the Devil as a kid.  “What is this pretentious shit?!?,” I must have thought at the time.  Indeed, delving into Godard can be a shock in many, many ways.  Much later (as a young adult) I saw my first JLG film proper.  Week-end.  I was blown away by its brilliance, but still I didn’t equate the cerebral invention as specifically Godardian.  No, I chalked it up to the brilliance of the French in general…along with Renoir and Truffaut.

It would take many years before I returned to French cinema.  Girls came and went.  I changed dwellings often.  And as I started to read Monaco’s chapter on Godard I noticed an ad in the Austin Chronicle for a showing of the film in question:  at the University of Texas student union ballroom.  And it was free!

And so I strode off into the night and paid to park my car…it must have been December…a cold night if I remember.  I sat amongst what, at the time, I didn’t realize to be film students.  The whole concept was foreign to me.  It didn’t even register that UT had a film department.  I was a professional musician.  I knew music.  That was it.

And then it started.  “Somebody better check the projector,” I thought (as the sound seemed to sputter in stops and starts).  Something’s not right here.  Is she moving?  Yes!  You can see her lips move.  Wait, I just saw her blink!

And so Godard ushered the world (including Susan Sontag, back in the day) into his third feature film.  Hot off the unexpected success of Breathless and the 180 turn that was A Woman is a Woman, Godard again turned the tables on audiences.  The stark noir is reminiscent of Godard’s first film, but the mood is…moody.

This is, without a doubt, my favorite of Godard’s classic-era films.  I think it is the best movie he ever made.  His great work is Histoire(s) du cinema, but that is really other as Roland Kirk might have said.

We see Godard challenging himself here…filming actors from behind (multiple times throughout this picture).  After two features, he seemed ready to push, push…farther.  But along with these dodecaphonic experiments, there is still the magic of chance (?) like the woman emerging from the alley across the street, running as if late (while Anna Karina and mate play a leisurely game of pinball [another motif, that]).

This entire website owes its visual stamp to the third tableau:  La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.  Karina sits in a movie theater, perhaps trying to forget her woes, and (to paraphrase Neil Young) she falls in love with an actress…playing a part she could understand.  The mysterious Renée Jeanne Falconetti…who only appears in this film and two others according to IMDB (one being a short, the other a blank page on Wikipedia)…  Suffice it to say that “Falconetti” (as someone in the theater (Godard?) can be heard to say during the silent scene-within-a-scene) is known today almost exclusively for her role in this Carl Th. Dreyer masterpiece from 1928.  As Anna Karina watches Falconetti and Antonin Artaud (also an actor in this film), she is brought to tears in what is the most cinematically delicate and gossamer-perfect moment of Godard’s entire (ongoing) career.

Karina is fantastic in this film.  The cinematic language employed obscures the pathos of her performance somewhat.  We don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Indeed, in the ending segment of the whole film (think Magazine’s “Shot From Both Sides”) I let out a nervous laugh upon first seeing this in the theater as if I was Joan of Arc in the hands of Jacques Rivette (her funeral, my trial).  It’s amazing though how this movie hits me differently now with some years under my belt.  For all its panache, this really is a sad, sad story.  But in homage to B-movies, it doesn’t take itself too seriously…fumbling over itself like Chaplin bleeding to death.

I can’t/won’t discuss every aspect of this timeless Fabergé egg, but one scene bears mentioning above all the rest:  Nana’s dance.  It is Anna Karina at her best…trying to pretend she’s in a musical and not in a drab neorealist sob fest.  It is Michel Legrand at his best…providing the swagger of a Gainsbourg instead of the syrup which he poured on Demy’s fairy tales.  And it is Jean-Luc Godard at his best…making sure the billiard balls click during the pregnant pauses of a go-go, ye-ye number which otherwise would have seemed overdubbed. Even if it was, they still click.  That is the magic of cinema in the hands of Godard.  It is the jazz of foot traffic…the gambler’s audacious framing of everyday life.

-PD

Hard Times [1975)

Pauline Kael may have written about this film, but ultimately Susan Sontag’s recognition of Godard’s Vivre sa vie is more important to my philosophy of film criticism.  I mention Kael because she certainly championed director Walter Hill and for that I commend her.  I am even inclined to gravitate towards Andrew Sarris instead of Kael (though both seem mostly inconsequential to my understanding of cinema).  I eye aye. 

Let this suffice to lay the groundwork for what is auteur Walt Hill’s first film.  I have a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Hill because I was fortunate enough to once work with him.  He shook my hand and looked at me with a grandfatherly gaze of transference (or so it seemed).  Never had I been surrounded by Panavision cameras and the whole thing really made an impression on me, but the biggest impression was made by Hill’s kindness.

So I am unequivocally biased as concerns his oeuvre.  That said, this film isn’t perfect.  The script girl missed a big anachronism right off the bat:  an electric diesel locomotive.  Oops.  Set in the Great Depression, there are plenty of steam trains in this period piece, but the first train engine we see hadn’t yet been invented.  I credit my father with the keen eye (and rely on his expertise as a lifetime railroad man).

Also bad is James Coburn.  I LOVE James Coburn, but he is not particularly good in this flick.  I will mention The Carey Treatment till my dying breath as an example of his depth as an actor (especially when juxtaposed with his equally brilliant portrayal of Derek Flint).  Not sure what the problem was.  Perhaps he played the character in question just as Hill wanted, but it is really not a great use of his talents. 

Now for the good news.  Charles Bronson is magnificent in what is really an astounding picture for a first-time director.  Furthermore, we see the New Orleans which Hill would return to in Bullet to the Head (2012).  The two films even share a finale:  a face-off in a cavernous warehouse. 

Hill’s direction of the taciturn Bronson makes the whole thing a terse masterpiece.  As befits its concision of expression, I shall stop here.  Bravo Mr. Hill!

-PD

Notorious [1946)

The key in Ingrid’s hand.  The ring on Grace’s finger.  It’s not her key.  It’s not her ring.

Rio is beautiful…even in black and white.  Only Hitchcock could make it so.  Christ of the Andes.  The greatest creator of forms of the 20th century.

Icy.  Pithy.  Notorious is stoic Cary Grant.  And this shall be a terse dispatch.

It’s a very fine vintage…1946…1940…1934.  I pity the sommelier assigned to this house of horrors.  God forbid he pick the 1934.  You can tell, old man, when a seemingly-polished chap makes a completely inappropriate choice of wines.  Strangers on a train bound for Zagreb.  Yes, a keen eye for detail is certainly not to be underestimated.

T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) knows every trick in the book.  When to bluff.  When to kiss.

It is only when matters of the heart come into play that the C.I.A. has no official manual.  It will never be declassified.  Because it doesn’t exist.  The manual is Petrarch.  Shakespeare’s sonnets.  The manual was written long ago.  It is no secret.  Only a mystery.

We will kill her off slowly, they say…on the installment plan.  She will gargle in the rat-race choir.  Until Devlin comes with his pointed threats to bluff with scorn and Claude Rains is left like a groom standing at the altar…except it’s not his wedding, it’s his funeral.

It’s the way they killed Sindona in Voghera.  Poison in the coffee.  C.A.B.A.L.  It’s not a Fleming invention.  Far older than that.  And I.G. Farben…not a fanciful name plucked from Hitchcock’s imagination.

Mata Hari.  Theda Bara.  Arab Death.

MacGuffin.  Mackintosh.  Scotland Yard.

This was the first time Hitchcock was really in charge.  Byb-bye David O. Selznick.

Ben Hecht.  Clifford Odets.

This is really loose crap.

That’s a quote.  ” ”

This is a puzzle, dear friends.  This is your dossier.  Jigsaw.  Fragmented.

It is Vivre sa vie.  The back of a head only.  Cary Grant’s black hair.  A man, as yet, with no name.

Susan Sontag was on a different mission.  We defer to Cahiers du Cinéma.  To Henri Langlois.

These are our agents.  Our “Wild Bill” Donovans.  Our O.S.S.

She may not sniff it through a cane on a supersonic train, but it still makes me laugh.  Murnau more now than ever.

A full 360°.  The subjective, drunken camera.  We have suspicion of Grant from the start–is that fizzy aspirin or a glowing glass of milk?

The con man exploits your trust.  What was the bait?

It is like Dostoyevsky.  We feel sympathy for Norman Bates just as we do Raskolnikov.

Yes, sometimes…Mother Sebastian, we are protected by the enormity of our stupidity.  Forrest Gumption.

The key was stolen.  The key brought such luck.  The key was passed on.  And now, Mr. Hitchcock, the key has been returned.

Thank you.

 

-PD