The Pillow Book

Peter Greenaway is an odd director. Never quite sure what he is going to do next, his films alternately bore me, freak me out, and enthrall me. I can never fully understand what I think of him even after watching his films several times. For example I have watched The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover several times, read countless articles about it, and thought about it but I still don’t know if I actually like it. The Pillow Book is going to be the same for me. I’m not sure how I feel about this film, but I will try to make sense of my confusion for you.

Basically the story is about a young troubled woman who has an obsession with calligraphy on her body. She can only get off by having someone write on her and that is the only way she measures a good lover. But when a young Englishman crosses her path and he ends up being a horrible calligrapher but a terrific lover in every other sense, she finds her passion for writing and creating poetry on other people’s bodies. Mix in a villainous publisher that has underscored her whole life with setbacks and an odd obsession with flesh and art and you get only a part of this film. It feels more like a contemporary art installation at MOMA instead of an actual film, it is hard to grasp onto the characters and their motivations. The images often abstract usually lent nothing to the character development, but helped establish a mood that was aggressively sexual and deliciously sumptuous.

Greenaway is a master at manipulating an image. He plays with different types of camera (including a crude digital camera years before digital became a common practice in Hollywood) movements, light, recreating art works, and the actors’ bodies to create a world that is completely his own. For instance there is a scene where the young woman in her pretentious apartment (It screams I am a famous model who appreciates modern art very loudly) writes in her pillow book. She opens her coveted cabinet that is filled with calligraphy supplies and begins to write. As she writes the characters appear on the wall and fade away just as quickly. This is done not through after effects, but through projections and color distortions. It is like a slide show that again would be shown in an art exhibit. At first it seems to just be another decoration in her apartment, but the characters soon become a part of the mood as she furiously writes about sexual encounters. It is a beautiful image. Another example of Greenaway’s ability to manipulate an image is the montage of Ewan McGregor and Vivian Wu reacting famous Japanese works of sexual positions. You see the image of the original work and then you see them forming that position. The images morph into each other until you are not quite sure if you are watching Ewan and Vivian or you are seeing an ancient depiction of sex. Both of these examples serve as a good introduction to the many manipulations he will put you through if you decide to sit down and watch this film.

I think I like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover more than this film for one reason: the actors are able to hold up next to Greenaway’s many tricks. Vivian Wu and Ewan McGregor seem to be lost in the collage that is this film. They melt anytime they are called to be both aloof and emotionally present. They can pull off the physical demands with the grace of an athlete, but when it comes to something as simple as saying “I love you” I don’t believe it at all. It might have been that Greenaway was too distracted by Vivian’s evident beauty and the things going on around her to notice that she needed more direction, or maybe he gave her too much direction but what ever the case she just sort of lies there and takes it without having any of the magnetism as Helen Mirren had in The Cook, The Theif, His Wife and Her Lover.

This film was an interesting experiment that I will definitely go back to again at a different time in my life. Maybe I will find something that I can really latch when I am older and wiser. Until then I only recommend this film to anyone who loves to watch emotionally stilted art experiments.

Living in Oblivion

Burning in a lot of people who talk about, think about, and watch tons of films’ loins is the desire to make a film of their own. They picture it being the greatest story ever told complete with Oscar worthy performances, before their time special effects, and cinematography that would be praised for decades afterward. They are at the center of the magic and it is their vision all of the time. They pick out the actors from a pool of thousands, they sit behind the camera crafting every single shot composition, they write draft after draft of their screenplay until it is perfect, and they spend hours in a dark room editing it so that everything comes together so smoothly. This is the fantasy of many, including me and yet it is completely unrealistic as this film, Living in Oblivion, will tell you.

Moving fluidly through dream and reality, Nick Reve wants nothing more than to finish the shot he is working on. But no matter how hard he tries, everything seems to get in his way. Relationships come to a crumbling apex, people get sick on sour milk, the actors can’t remember their lines or they stop the scene and throw in their own inane suggestions, the boom mike always seems to be in a shot and endless other problems that mount until he cracks. Because the first two sequences are dream sequences and the last sequence is real, Nick gets to crack three times, each one more painful to watch than the last. He tears up sets, points out the flaws of his crew and cast members, punches his famous leading man, cries, and says he is going to quit each time. But instead of quitting he soldiers on and gets his shot that he needs in a totally unexpected way. That is the magic of filmmaking. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong, but when everything goes right the victory is so sweet.

This film can act as a cautionary tale about the horrors of low-budget filmmaking, but I choose to look at it as the main reason you should get into independent filmmaking. Despite all the setbacks, the restrictions, the accidents, and the sleepless nights, if your film comes out to be half as good as this one, it is totally worth it. You might not reach iconic status, or make a healthy living at it but attempting to make a film is a rush that is evident in every frame of this film. I tried not to give too much away about this film, because I believe it is an experience that everyone thinking about making a film should watch and I don’t want to spoil it for you. Happy watching.

Le Bonheur

So I bet that you are getting fed up with me loving on Agnes Varda. If you have been following my French New Wave series, then you know that I have ragged on such amazing directors as Truffaut and Godard for some less than stellar films. You are probably muttering to yourself when you read my Varda posts that I will give her a pass for everything because she is an icky woman (Eww). But this my friends is not true. I am here to tell you today that I do not like everything Ms. Agnes Varda has ever done. Just like every other filmmaker I adore (and I adore Ms. Varda along with Mr. Truffaut and Mr. Godard) there are some missteps in their oeuvre. Le Bonheur is definitely one of those missteps.

Le Bonheur looks stunning. The cinematography captures this forested part of France so well I just want to hop on the plane and go there right now. However the cinematography that creates a sense of playfulness does not translate well to the story being told. It is basically about a man who loves his life with his wife and children and small job at a small carpentry store. But although he seems to be happy, he decides to have an affair with a woman he meets at the post office. He wants to be happy with both women in his life. He tells his wife and she seems to have accepted it until she is found the river dead. The woman that he was having an affair with now becomes the wife and she takes over everything the dead woman was doing without any hiccup whatsoever.

Again if you have been reading me for a little while here, you will probably guess my big problem with this film. For such a feminist director, Varda definitely goes back on her assertions that she made in her previous films both documentary and fiction with this film. I did not have a problem with him having an affair and wanting them to be able to live happily together. Some people are just wired like that and he seemed to be coming from a genuine place, but I had a HUGE problem with his wife dying and the other woman just taking over like those were her kids all along. Nobody is sad about the dead wife, nobody questions the place of the woman in the children’s life, and nobody doubts the husband’s sanity. There is no tension, no drama and nothing to really latch onto. Varda seems to say that a wife is a wife is a wife and every woman is interchangeable. It is frustrating to hear this from her.

The other problem I had with this film is the performances. Both the wife and the other woman are wet blankets.  The wife has some interesting scenes where she is working out a problem she is having with a dress, but she just sort of lies there and takes it in more ways than one. The same goes with the other woman. You could tell that each person in this film had little to no acting experience something that is not obvious in other Varda films. If the cinematography were not breathtaking in places, I would have shut this film off about fifteen minutes in. I was so incredibly bored by their daily routines. I actually tend to like to see the daily comings and goings of a character, but only if it adds to their character psychology in some way. The most famous example of this is of course Akerman’s magnum opus, Jeanne Dielman. But these depictions did nothing but add surface details that did not seem to matter.

I give you one Varda. Do not disappoint me ever again. This is your only warning… I’m just joking you will always be super cool to me!

The Deer Hunter

The seventies were an interesting time for American cinema. A number of circumstances came together including  access to drugs, crumbling studio systems, foreign and classic cinema as a vital way for movie theaters to make money, and the emerging popularity of film schools to make upstarts like Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Allen, and Altman have fruitful and successful careers. Never before did a film like the Taxi Driver (about a deranged man who drives a taxi and sees himself as a vigilante) become a success. Producers were throwing money at these whippersnappers hoping they will save their studios with their complicated stories, dark heroes and stark visual aesthetics. This is how Michael Cimino was able to make such a personal, dark and long film. He was given free rein and it paid off for the producers and the studio backing him. It won the Best Picture Oscar for 1978 along with piles of other awards and was a box office smash. It is still cited today as a major influence on most war films, but does it hold up?

For me (and this is my personal blog and therefore I can only express my own feelings and not anyone else’s) the film does not hold up in the way I was expecting it too. Before you track me down and shoot me with your excellent marksmen skills you Deer Hunter fans, let me explain myself. I have a major problem with the switch from gritty realism (the plant, the relationships at the bar and at the wedding reception, the war scenes in Vietnam) to melodrama (which mainly means the whole Russian Roulette thing). It feels so forced to me. I feel like they did not have to experience something so blatantly over the top in order to feel damaged psychologically by the war. You could just show scenes of fighting, killing women and children, seeing your fellow fighters die and this would be plenty of material for someone to go crazy experiencing. I feel like the Russian Roulette angle though may happen in real life just perpetrates that the Vietnamese were deranged and therefore should be stopped by the morally upright Americans. There is not one sympathetic Vietnamese character either from the south or the north in this film. This may seem like a minor detail in such a sweeping movie, but the whole film hinges on these characters’ experience in Vietnam and maybe giving the Vietnamese some humanity would at least explain why they are obsessed with such a violent betting game.

I feel like this film in places feels bloated and pretentious. For instance that wedding reception was painfully long. The only three reasons that this sequence exists is to illustrate that these men are from recent immigrated families, they like to get drunk and Robert de Niro’s character has a crush on his best friend’s girl. All of these things were made explicit in earlier more put together sequences. I seriously almost fast forwarded through this sequence. I felt like Cimino was just in love with his ability to create boring dialogue and force multiple groups of people to do complicated dances. This film is could easily have been a half hour shorter and made the same impact. Did we need scene after scene of Robert de Niro’s character acting awkward after his return from Vietnam? The hunting scene and the scene where he sees his friends putting together a welcome back party would have been excellent and his anxiety would have felt more heightened.

I must not go any further without acknowledging that all of the performances were amazing. Christopher Walken acting normal (for the first half at least) is fascinating in itself. I could watch seventies era Robert de Niro all day everyday. His actions are so subtle, his embodiment of his character so complete that I would have a hard time believing that he had never hunted before. Even his delivery of grandstanding speeches (such as the one shot speech which I have heard again and again without realizing that it was from this film… I have hunters in my family.) that would feel forced and annoying in anyone else’s hands feels right for his character. Of course it is always a pleasure to watch Meryl Streep perform and although you can tell from John Cazale’s body language that he was sick he still puts in such an odd performance that is hard not to be drawn to him every time he is in the shot. Cimino got lucky with his cast. Each one was and is amazing in their own unique way and can deliver even the most obvious and boring of dialogue (such as the cringe worthy scene outside the bar where John Savage’s character declares his love for his impending wife in such an obvious way) and make it  really mean something.

This film represents a common problem in viewing not only films but listening to music of the seventies. The bloated pretentiousness of the creators makes me want to gag sometimes and that might be coloring my view of this film. (In fact I know it probably is) I feel like if Cimino had understood the concept of an edit than he would have made a smarter film. It may come off as cutting for me to write that but I think it is true. He had all the ingredients, his ego just got in the way for him to mix it up just right. It was a hard lesson for Cimino to learn, and learn he did after Heaven’s Gate went down in a horse killing hell fire. The poor guy. He has a lot of talent and I hope that he will be able to get a chance to get a big project again.

Cleo from 5 to 7

I have rewritten this blog entry so many times but I am dissatisfied every time with it. How can I accurately describe how much impact this film has had on my life as a critic, an artist, and as general lover of film? It is an impossible feat, but I guess I will try.

Cleo from 5 to 7 is on the surface just about a young woman awaiting medical test results, but bubbling underneath this simple story is something that is infinitely more complex. The film meditates on the position most beautiful (and even ugly) women are forced to endure every day when they exhibit talent at something. She is coddled by everyone around here, made to think less of her talent as a singer, and even the fact that she is sick is mocked by people surrounding her. All of this has made her into nothing more than a child. For the first forty to forty-five minutes of the film, she is seen by the people who see her. Her assistant treats her like a child, her collaborators pull tricks on her and then tell her she has no real talent, and her lover only stops by for a few minutes but in that time manages to destroy all the light in her face. During this first forty minutes, she is elaborately dressed in the girliest of clothing. Getting sick of how she is treated she sheds her silly accoutrements and leaves her apartment. The last portion of the film the world is seen through the her eyes. She watches people interact with each other at a crowded cafe, sculptors make art at a studio, kids enjoying themselves on the lawn and finally the sick people and their families on benches at the hospital garden. In these images she finds herself. She understands that it is not always all about her, but it is about the world as a whole. It is about meaningful connections and relationships with people who see you as an equal as opposed to a plaything. This is illustrated by the relationship she forms with a solider that is being shipped off to Algeria. Their relationship is marked by genuine care for each other and the troubles they are going for. He escorts her to the hospital so that she does not have to hear the results alone and she sees him off at the railway station so that he can say goodbye to someone. Their relationship is poetic in its idealism. At the end this build up to whether or not she has cancer does not really matter anymore. She knows that she has the strength to fight what ever comes.

I love this film because it gives hope to me in ways other feminist films do not. Most feminist films are kind of stringent in its themes and in its outcomes. For a good comparison film I would suggest comparing this to Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. In Jeanne Dielman, the protagonist’s only way out of her crippling situation in life is to kill and even that is no real release. Although Cleo is faced with uncertain circumstances, the hope is evident in her face in the closing shot. I would recommend this film to any woman who is facing uncertain times and see if she is not moved by it (of course assuming that she can get past the whole black and white and subtitled aspects something that impedes a lot of people’s viewing experiences).

This film is a good indication on whether or not you will like Agnes Varda. She expands on themes she sets out on this film and also repeats a lot of devices that originate here including using the radio as more than background noise but an indication on the character’s preferences, the constant talk about trees, and placing her story in a journey scheme. Her characters are active not only psychologically but also physically. If you loved this film than I suggest you journey on sister. Otherwise abandon ship before the waters become more treacherous. She will only get more obscure from here on out.

La Pointe Courte

Agnes Varda is the next director that I want to cover in my French New Wave series. I could have done other directors before her, but I personally like her more than I like Chabrol, Resnais, or any of the other directors. For me I am writing in order of my fascination with them. Of course Godard and Truffaut should be the first two that anybody talks about when talking about the French New Wave, but after them it is a crap shoot. Agnes Varda represents for me an example of the refreshing aspects of the French New Wave. Mixing documentary realism with existential questions, her films focus not just on privileged people but also on the real problems that faced the French poor during the time of the films. You will see this all the way through her films from La Pointe Courte to The Gleaners and I and beyond. Alive and well, Agnes Varda still produces work that is highly original today. A veritable feminist badass, Varda represents the only woman director able to have the distinction of being a part of the French New Wave.

La Pointe Courte was the first film she ever made. Conceived when she was 25 and about five years before the blockbusters, Breathless and The 400 Blows, La Point Courte juxtaposes a couple’s troubles with that of a small fishing village. Although at times the fishing village’s problems seems to be more pressing, Varda gives the more private problem of a relationship falling apart just as much weight. Employing non actors for the fishermen’s parts and shooting in only natural light with a small camera, the film feels more like a documentary than a work of fiction.

What is interesting here is not necessarily what is being said, but how it is being said. Varda amped up the sound so you never hear the couple get softer as they are pulling away from the camera. The music is played in elliptical sound bites and are samples from the folk songs that the sailors play at the climax of the film. All of this doesn’t seem revolutionary, but in reality it is. She plays with your sense of hearing in ways that was unheard of at the time. As you hear the couple say very unemotionally that they don’t love each other anymore, you hear the blast of the clarinet from the folk song. The clarinet gives the lines an emotion that is not felt from their voice alone. What this couple is experiencing is dramatic for their relationship, but is not dramatic for the rest of the world they are living in. The fishermen are more concerned with evading the law, forcing the Board of Health to see it their way, and putting food on the table. But to the couple this means nothing to them. They see the decay of the village, the need for more money and resources but they are so wrapped up in their relationship problems that they care nothing about it. The problems of the private life are separate from the problems of the social life. This is what Varda aims to illustrate here.

La Pointe Courte is a fascinating sketch of a way of life that is not usually seen in films. You could say that the Italian neo realism portrayed people who are similar, but I would have to disagree. While in Italian neo realist films, the subjects are usually tragic creatures who are continually crushed by the system, in this film although they are being crushed by the government, the fishermen still find a way to lead a full and engaging life that includes water jousting, eating good food, and dancing the night away. Although as one character says “dancing does not alleviate the problems, it just makes it more tolerable.”

Just like the villagers, the couple’s problems are not solved and yet you can tell that by just talking them through it has made the problems more tolerable.

Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia is a small epic. I don’t mean this as anything more than a compliment. So many epics get bogged down with too many storylines, complicated action sequences where the viewer can’t understand what is going on (I am looking at you Transformers), or costume design to be considered a success. This film takes it subject matter of a British solider deciding to lead an Arab revolt and made so simple that even a child could understand it (whether or not they would want to sit still for almost four hours is another matter). This simplification however does not make the subject matter any less interesting.

Based on the myth of T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia stars Peter O’Toole in the title role as a young, crazy Englishman in love with the desert. At one point Prince Fasil (played by the monumental Alec Guinness) commented that “only Englishmen fall in love with the desert. Real Arabs fall in love with trees and water. There is nothing in the desert.” This comment describes Lawrence so well. He is so in love with the Middle East that he will do anything in order to stay in it. Prickling at the thought of going home to Britain or even obtaining an advancement in rank, he prefers to be among the tribal people fighting for their freedom and eating crazy amounts of dust. Although the Arabs wonder at his motivations, they are soon won over by his devotion and ability to travel long distances without complaining. In fact he suggests feats that would kill regular people, but he accomplishes them with just his lonely camel and his two servants. He shows compassion about the price of human life, but as the film progresses this distresses him more and more. At one point he found that he actually got a thrill from killing two people who were close to him. Through trials and tribulations, Lawrence becomes a hero to the Arab and British people alike. He also becomes a modern-day myth in American newspapers thanks to a journalist who travels around with him and photographs a British man in an Arab uniform. But all of these victories belie a sense of incompleteness and a developing need for bloodshed.

Watching a man appear in the horizon and slowly move towards the camera is made incredibly fascinating by the cinematography. The whole film seems to pause when an enemy or upon waiting for Lawrence to reappear with his fallen comrade and all you see is gorgeous desert. I want to make sure that I say here that Freddie Young deserved the Oscar and maybe possibly to be made director of everything in the world forever and ever for his work here as cinematographer. Something that I found fascinating when I started research on the making of this film was that Mr. Young used a 482mm Panavision camera lens to film the character Sharif Ali emerge from a mirage. The lens was especially constructed for this shot and has never been used ever again. The whole film was also shot on 70mm, one of the last films to be shot at this cumbersome width. (Many films are shot at a lower 32 or 38mm and then upconverted to 70mm prints after production.) This might seem dry to you but to me it is fascinating.

I only have one regret with this film. I wish I could have seen it in a movie theater. My television tragically too small in order to be totally overwhelmed by this film. I bet when people first saw this film projected n all of its 70mm glory, people were dazed for days afterwards. That is what I want to be. I hope my beloved art theater shows it soon.

The Last Metro

Although Truffaut made two more films before dying way too young from cancer, The Last Metro is seen as his swan song. Combining his love of theater, film, stories of his childhood, and complicated human relationships,this film may say more about Truffaut as a person and an iconic director than anything he has done since Day for Night. Involving his ex mistress, Catherine Deneuve and her frequent co-star Gerard Depardieu, Truffaut crafted a film surrounding a theater company during Nazi-occupied France. Due to the regret and remorse over the role that France played during World War II (being a haven for Nazis and all), this was not popular subject matter. However Truffaut took the stance that we should not regret what happened to us in the past, we should just show it so that future generations can learn from it. That is exactly what he did with this film.

Following the pre production and production of the first play that the company puts on after the founder goes into hiding for being a Jew, the company has to deal with finding a lead, obtaining a permit, financial concerns that threaten to shut the doors everyday, and harsh reviews based solely on the founder’s ancestry and the director’s sexuality. All this to make a beautiful play to keep people’s minds away from the destruction and chaos surrounding them. Catherine Deneuve stars as Marion Steiner, the stage actress who is forced into the manager position after her husband goes into hiding underneath the theater itself. She deals with the many pressures of not only performing, but managing and keeping a very dangerous secret in ways that can seem to be very selfish and cold. Gerard Depardieu stars as the new lead. There is more to his character than just an actor. He is a resistance fighter who meets secretly with this shady man and plans a bombing in protest against the unlawful treatment of the citizens of France. In fact each person in the film is playing a part in resisting the Nazis and Vichy dictatorship. Some people resist the common thread by just being who they are (like being gay or bisexual), or by more overt options like hiding people or bombing popular places.

It has been difficult for me to construct this blog post and convey how I feel about this film. I think it is because I want to talk about so many different things, but I don’t know how exactly to word them, so I will revert to a dumb statement and say that this film is a masterpiece. It doesn’t judge any of the characters in any way. It just shows how different people can experience oppression in different ways which I found refreshing. Just because to us, the critic seems to be a villain because he collaborates with the Vichy government and he produces slander that airs on the radio stations every night and in the newspapers everyday, doesn’t mean that Truffaut necessarily sees him as a villain. It is just one way of coping. When people get scared, they justify any means to stay alive. Truffaut asserts this idea again and again throughout this film.

The look of this film is phenomenal. Purposely made to look like a theater set with flat buildings, fake cobblestone roads, and not natural lighting, the sets make the action feel even more real and relatable at least in a “what would I do in this situation” way. The sepia tones of the cinematography makes it feel dated without many other hints (of course besides costuming there are no other indicators of it being 1942). It also makes the film feel warm and inviting despite it being about a very serious time in France’s history.

I feel like this is a good film to end the trajectory of Truffaut’s film career on. I know by doing this I am willfully leaving out his last two films, but there are both hard to find and not reviewed very well. Instead I choose to remember Truffaut going out on a high note. This experience of watching Truffaut’s films felt very different from me watching Godard’s work. While even when I liked Godard’s stuff I still had to work hard to understand what he was going for, Truffaut is a more intuitive director. You know that he succeeded or failed at least in your mind by the time the time marker turns over to five minutes. It is kind of refreshing. I will miss you Truffaut. I will be moving onto someone one else next week. Stay tuned to find out who!