Monday, April 29, 2019

Agnès from 26 to 41: Deceased Artiste Agnès Varda (part 1 of two)

Incorrectly dubbed “the godmother of the French New Wave” and (one she particularly disliked in later years) “the grandmother of the French New Wave,” Agnès Varda wasn’t an inspiration for la nouvelle vague, she was a functioning member of the movement, in “the Left Bank group” with Alain Resnais and Chris Marker. Her films existed in dialogue with the works of the other filmmakers, but she was one of them, rather than a remote “mother” figure.

Her own thoughts about her connection to the group can be found in the book Agnès Varda: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2014): “I was in the wave of the New Wave…. The baton was passed on in that way with some common tendencies, like making low-budget films with characters walking through the streets of Paris.” [pp. 116-17]

Her status as the only woman filmmaker in the group distinguished her, but what one is most struck by when seeing her films in a row is that they fell into two distinct categories: the documentaries, which had an optimistic, playful air, and her fiction features, which were downbeat and very honest about the emotional toll of loneliness and falling in and (more devastatingly) out of love.

She shared with the other New Wave filmmakers a knowledge of, and a passion for, the other art forms (she became a cinephile only after she made her first feature). Her background as a photographer informed her films, to the degree that one is still startled by the compositions and the way in which she favored both arresting montages that moved the pilot forward and leisurely traveling shots that provided atmosphere and indicated the duration of her characters’ journeys.
Varda’s fiction filmography was quite unique among the New Wave because her films belonged to different genres (and approaches to drama). She only made films when she wanted to — she was a working photographer throughout most of her life, and so made movies solely when she had a new story to tell.

One of the ways in which Varda was a pioneering figure is that she was the first to make a fiction feature (Resnais, Marker, Rivette, and Rohmer had already made their first shorts). La Pointe Courte, made in 1954, is most certainly the work of a talented photographer, as its narrative is primarily conveyed by the images.

It’s a hybrid work. One strand of the film overlaps with the work of the Italian Neo-realists — which Varda swore she never encountered until her editor on the film, Alain Resnais, pointed out the similarity of her work to films by Visconti, Rossellini, and Antonioni. This strand follows the daily lives of fishermen who catch shellfish in a lagoon that has been declared off-limits by the government (because its fish might be poisoned). These segments of the film are precise and documentary-like, and are the first time that Varda demonstrated one of her trademarks — finding amazing faces with which to tell her story.

The other strand concerns a woman (Silvia Monfort) who visits the small seaside town to tell her lover (an incredibly young and thin Philippe Noiret) that she wants to break up with him. These segments are the opposite of the neo-realist fishermen scenes and are instead filled with beautiful compositions — Varda was first and foremost a photographer until the Sixties — and some overripe dialogue (“We’ve lost the youth of our love.”).

Said Varda about this strand in the film: “I didn’t make it easy for the spectator to identify with them in a ‘warm’ way. Thus the coldness is the distance that I wanted between them and the audience. And one senses the photography since when one feels distance he becomes a voyeur and one looks at the image itself.” [ibid, p. 62.]

The scenes featuring the lovers are truly fascinating, in that they have the same tone as later parodies of Bergman – except, of course, for the fact that the classic Bergman visual style (and Antonioni’s equally “alienated” visuals) had not been forged in ’54 when Varda made La Pointe Courte. Bergman had already started his stylization with Summer Interlude (1951), Summer with Monika (1953) and Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) but was still rooted in more conventional modes of melodrama. 

Varda even uses the famous “two faces as one” diptych composition (with one subject turned to the side, as the other looks straight ahead) that became a signature shot in Bergman’s Persona (1966). Varda wasn’t quoting other films here, so she most surely was quoting photography (she was a working photographer at the time she made the film) and classical art (she studied at the School of the Louvre for four years).

The photographic quality of the visuals and the extremely melodramatic dialogue in Pointe makes for the kind of mannered filmmaking that is now drubbed by oh-so-hip film theorists, critics, and fans, but Varda’s sincerity is what “sells” the film, as uneven and schizophrenic as it is. She is clearly not kidding, and the experimentation she undertook led to the unforgettable visuals in her finest films.

Eight years later, Varda’s second feature, Cleo from 5 to 7, was released. Cleo is a work of assured brilliance that remains one of her best-known films. While its visuals mark it as a “Sixties movie,” the assured direction, soundtrack, and storytelling make it a timeless work that looks backward to French and American dramas of the Thirties and Forties but also ahead to the low-key character studies made by independent filmmakers in the years to follow.

Her masterstroke with Cleo is the way in which the title character (played by Corinne Marchand) is sketched. As the film begins, she is a self-absorbed pop singer whose life is subsidized by a sugar daddy character we (and she) see only briefly. By the midpoint of the film, though, we sympathize with her as she awaits the results of a test for cancer.

She is radiantly pretty and incredibly spoiled, but Varda’s camera assumes her POV as the film moves on — in quiet, beautifully shot scenes where she wanders the streets and cafes of Paris — thus softening our perspective on the character. Varda noted: “From the looked-at subject she becomes the looking subject.” [ibid, p.73] “… the entire dynamics of the film centers on the moment this woman refuses to be this cliché, on the moment when she no longer wants to be looked at, but wants instead to look at others and becomes the looking subject.” [p. xiii]

Her bonding with a nerdy soldier (Antoine Bourseiller) waiting to go to the Algerian War makes her fully sympathetic, as he, too, is facing possible death and has no control over the situation. And the way she eventually learns of the test result is so arbitrary and tossed off by the doctor that one definitely gets the feeling of chance ruling all our lives.

The sequence that links Cleo decisively to the other debut features of the New Wave is the moment when Cleo watches a silent comedy with a friend. The cast of the film-within-a-film includes Jean-Luc Godard, his muse Anna Karina, Eddie Constantine, and Jean-Claude Brialy.

Varda’s next feature was the equally tightly scripted Le Bonheur (1965), a devastating depiction of a thoroughly “ideal” family. The visuals are superb, but even more impressive is the economy of Varda’s storytelling and the beautiful way she delivers each character’s perspective.

The film integrates visual experimentation into the story of a happy family. Francois, a young husband-father (Jean-Claude Drouot) travels to another city for work and falls in love there. He believes his happiness has been doubled, but we know that his newfound formula for bliss will harm one of the women he loves (never mind his two kids). His girlfriend in the other town (Marie-France Boyer) is aware that he’s married, but when his wife learns about the other woman things are changed forever, and the “perfect family” is transformed (but looks and behaves pretty much the same — one of Varda’s more brilliant strokes).

While this tale is being told, Varda utilizes a palette of primary colors, fading to these colors in between scenes. She also uses the same graceful camerawork that was in her first two features, with the camera pirouetting around the characters.

Varda was thus experimenting visually as Godard was at the same time, but in the service of telling a very linear story. What does the story mean? Those who look to connect the lives of artists to their work could relate the film's plot to the fact that Jacques Demy, Varda’s husband, was bisexual, and thus Le Bonheur can be seen as a covert allegory about sharing one’s lover and the inevitable heartache that must occur. (In her 2008 film The Beach of Agnès, she revealed that the split between the two around the turn of the Eighties occurred because Demy left her for a man.)

Le Bonheur brings up issues about the Varda-Demy union. First is the unspoken fact that Varda’s output was more consistently top-notch. After The Pied Piper (1972), Demy lost his footing and recovered it only once with the uneven but absorbing Une Chambre en Ville (1982). The films that are not available in the U.S. on disc are indeed remarkably disappointing, from A Slightly Pregnant Man (1973) to the dismal Orpheus update titled Parking (1985) and Three Seats for the 26th (1988). (I made a point to see each rarity when they played at a complete Demy-fest at the Film Forum a few years back, and the effect is that of a very sad and a very steep downslide in quality.)

The other factor relates to the tone of their work. As can be easily seen, Varda placed melancholy and loneliness at the forefront in her films, while Demy’s upbeat, beautifully designed masterworks of the Sixties have an underpinning of great sadness that lurks behind even the happiest of veneers. For instance, his happiest-ever musical, The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), has a jarring subplot in which a murderer is on the loose in the town. Varda’s best films are, by comparison, “smaller than life,” with sadness placed front and center. There is thus a greater sense of illusory fantasy in Demy’s films and a reservoir of true emotion in Varda’s.

Those who prefer looking at an artist’s work on its own, without connections to the author’s life, will see in Le Bonheur a knowing comment on the “free love” concept (which hadn’t reached its peak “summer of love” visibility yet but had indeed been a part of the “beat” lifestyle for several years before the film). It also is a way of bringing attention to the lives of supporting characters in a drama – although Francois feels certain that his having two loves makes everyone happy, we are constantly aware that there are other people who will be affected by his decision (and the wife, whose seamstress business is run from the family apartment, is a supporting character who is seminal to the plot but gets less screen time than the lover).

To make the film even more complicated on a dramatic level, Varda took the unusual step of casting a real couple – Jean-Claude and Claire Drouot and their kids as the family in the movie. This is discussed in the supplements on the French DVD release of the film. Jean-Claude was a professional actor, best known for a French action TV series titled “Thierry la Fronde.” He happily notes in a present-day interview with Varda (conducted in 2006) that he has been married to Claire for 42 years. He says that “paradoxically, the film has invited us to succeed as a couple and family.” He also notes that his character was indeed “selfish” about his own desire.

Claire was a non-professional who was cast by Varda to create an air of verisimilitude. She notes that her personal reaction to the plot was “I just [hoped] it wouldn’t happen to me!” The startling ending of the film, where the husband’s mistress is now his wife and she participates in an idyllic picnic with Francois and the children, was discussed by Varda in interviews. Most viewers take the scene in which the wife is found drowned to mean that she committed suicide because of her husband’s newfound love. Varda, in fact, left open the fact that she might have died by accident. Boyer says that she thinks “[the wife] just fell in,” but Claire Drouot, who played the role, responds quickly, “I don’t!”

Varda's next feature, Les Creatures (1966), is a fascinating work and yet doesn't quite gel for me, so it will factor into future discussions of her work and not this one. It does, however, illustrate the point about Varda's features being unalike Les Creatures is a sci-fi scenario that was, as she once noted, the one film she made that had major French stars in it (Deneuve and Piccoli —the latter also starred in her equally adventurous but uneven One Hundred and One Nights) and was her biggest flop at the box office.

Varda and Demy both made features in L.A. in the late Sixties while both were there to discuss making studio-backed films. Demy did indeed get a contract — his Model Shop (1969) is a sorta-sequel to Lola that has some wonderful views of L.A. at the time it was made. Varda went her own way and did an independent feature funded by producer Max Raab.

The resulting film, Lion’s Love (1969), is one of her most curious creations, a time capsule of the period it was made in that it is filled to capacity with ideas and statements about art in the movie capital of the U.S. Varda’s own, stalled conferences with studio execs are presented as problems endured by legendary underground filmmaker Shirley Clarke, who plays a variation on herself (but enduring Agnès’ real-life problems).

I’ve written about the film twice and so I will include here my summation of Lion’s Love in a review of the Eclipse box of Varda’s California films, as it appeared on the Disc Dish website.

The centerpiece of the box is the wonderfully messy fiction film Lions Love (… and Lies) (1969). Feeling inspired by the times, Varda made a Warhol-esque (or, more accurately, a Morrissey-esque) improvised feature. The resulting time capsule is by turns abrasive and brilliant.

The plot, such as it is, involves a menage a trois between three hippies, played by the co-librettists and lyricists of Hair, Jerry Ragni and Jim Rado, and Warhol superstar Viva. They are visited by underground filmmaker Shirley Clarke (playing herself), who is in L.A. to make a deal with a major studio to shoot her first mainstream movie.

It is never expressly stated onscreen, but the most intriguing aspect of the picture is that Varda let loose three NYC chatterboxes in sunny, laidback L.A. The above-mentioned “plot” is nowhere as interesting as the film’s many tangents, which include a number of car trips in which we get an eye-catching view of L.A. in 1968 — thus linking Lions Love to Model Shop (1969), the contemporaneous film by Varda’s husband Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) that also gives the viewer a terrific driving tour of Southern California.

Movie buffs in particular will be fascinated by the Hollywood car-tour sequence narrated by film historian Carlos Clarens, which includes an amazing exploration of the posters and stills available in Larry Edmunds Bookshop.

The most valuable segment of the film, though, is one that was not anticipated while the film was initially conceived: our three loquacious protagonists wind up glued to their TV, watching the news coverage of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, the ensuing TV tributes to Kennedy, and his televised funeral. Given the way that celebrity deaths are now covered in the era of 24/7 news networks, it’s chillingly prescient to hear Viva say at one point that our “national pastime is televised death.”

To be continued…

As a finale for this part of the entry, I give you a video posted just the other by Varda’s production company, Cine-Tamaris, a compilation of Agnes dancing (yes, there will be disco!):

Friday, April 19, 2019

Happy Easter!

The Funhouse TV show this weekend will continue my pattern of exploring terrible modern-day Xtian propaganda cinema, but the blog needs a dose of the old Easter Blasphemy as well. So I hereby resurrect (ouch) this clip, which has meant so much to so many people. Especially the guy to whom it happened.

I was very glad to capture this item from a Spanish-language "Funniest Home Videos"-type show. Was equally glad it won a prize on the show (as I'm sure was the winner).

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

More reviews of those little silver discs...

You will notice that the vast majority of these reviews are very positive in nature. For the record, I will note that I lean these days toward reviewing things that I suspect I will love or am curious to see. (I wrote for several decades about movies that were mere commercial pap.) When it comes to defining things I enjoy, we return to the Funhouse specialty: “high art to low trash… and back again.”

One of Brigitte Bardot’s most serious (and successful) performances was in suspense-master Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La Verite (1960). The Criterion release includes much information on Clouzot’s career, and his heavy penchant for terrorizing cast members (including his wife Vera).

More gems from the Dick Cavett archive emerge. In new sets from S’more Entertainment called “Inside the Minds of…” are a selection of interviews he did with comedians on his “later” shows (on PBS, USA, and CNBC). 

The wonderful character study Mikey and Nicky (1976) might not be the sort of genre-inversion it’s touted as by film critics on the Criterion release of the film, but it’s still a wonderfully acted crime picture with a (literally) killer ending.

Another underrated gem from post-WWII France, Panique (1946) by Julien Duvivier is a powerful story of a man unjustly accused of a crime.

Chris Marker’s The Owl’s Legacy (1989), from Icarus, is a sublime miniseries that explores the lasting influence of the ancient Greeks. It’s more linear and “normal” than most of Marker’s work, but it still has some beautiful moments and brilliant insights into the modern world (courtesy of a long-gone civilization). 

Fassbinder’s long-missing miniseries Eight Hours Are Not a Day (1972) finally got a release in the U.S. and while it is (again, that phrase) a lot more “normal” than his other work, when it focuses on a working class family’s struggles to get by, it is terrific (although a little more of Kurt Raab’s weirdness would’ve been beneficial). The Criterion release contains much background info on the series (including a discussion by participants on how it was cancelled after five shows, when it was supposed to run eight).

Star/co-scripter Chris Elliott and director/co-scripter Adam Resnick spend a good deal of the time putting down their film Cabin Boy (1994) in the supplements found in the new Kino Lorber release of the film. They’re wrong — the film might have been a personal failure for them, but it now has a well-earned cult and is far better than its initial, vicious reviews indicated.

Terrence Malick’s lyrical, abrasive, and mind-altering Tree of Life (2011) is found in two 
different versions in the new Criterion release of the film. One is the theatrical version, while the other is a re-edited version with 50 minutes of unseen footage.

Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water (1994) has a bravura party sequence utilizing a great number of early Seventies hits from American, British and European musicians. It’s a beautifully choreographed scene that all but dwarfs the rest of the film, which is certainly good but not as kinetic as the party sequence.

The exemplary Criterion box Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood includes the six films that Marlene Dietrich made in America with her mentor and Svengali, the stunningly talented Josef von Sternberg. The box includes many extras that explore several issues, from the fashion-related (Marlene introducing men’s pants as a garment option for women) to the deadly serious (the backlash in post-war Germany that plagued her, because she supported the Allies in the war and not her Fatherland!).

Francois Ozon’s Double Lover (2017), from Cohen Media, is a taut thriller that becomes predictable in the third act but has the same ominous edge that was found in Ozon’s best suspense dramas (See the Sea, Criminal Lovers).

The Arrow box set Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years.Vol. 2. Border Crossings: The Crime and Action Movies contains five crime pictures that foreshadow Suzuki’s great Sixties mind-blowers, with taut storylines, fragmented visuals, and absolutely stunning visuals.

Another beautiful working-class parable from Aki Kaursimaki, The Other Side of Hope (2017) is a second (after his sublime Le Havre) tale of immigrants attempting to assimilate (and to remain) in Finland.

Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse (1991), one of the finest films about the artistic process — and about the relationship between artist and model — comes back into print in the U.S., thanks to Cohen Media.

In the Seventies, Robert Altman had a run of stunning, startling films. Stunning because of their originality and innovation, startling because he leapt from genre to genre, reinventing each one as he went. Images (1972) was his take on the suspense thriller — it’s a dream film that blurs the character’s identities and probes the dreams and fantasies of its lead character (Susannah York).

Some of W.C. Fields’ classic Thirties pictures were reworkings of his silent features like It’s the Old Army Game (1926). This particular silent, released by Kino Lorber, has some gags he later reworked with dialogue and some that function perfectly as visual gags (including one involving a baby gagging on a diaper pin). All that, and the usual Fields adorable, virginal young woman character is played here by Louise Brooks!

Finally, Fassbinder fans can see one of the finest lead performances he ever gave (in a film he didn’t direct). Volker Schlondorff’s Baal (1969) keeps Brecht’s text but moves the action into the present and includes some very memorable imagery, most of it inhabited by the perpetually swaggering Fassbinder as the charismatic, degenerate antihero.

The Arrow box set Jean-Luc Godard + Jean-Pierre Gorin: Five Films, 1968-1971 fills in the gap in Uncle Jean’s DVD-ography by offering a set of all but one of his “Dziga-Vertov group”-era films, beautifully restored and put into perspective by great visual and print documents.

The 1967 anthology feature The Oldest Profession offers different filmmakers’ takes on prostitution, with the most notable inclusion being “Anticipation” by Godard. His last collaboration with Anna Karina, it is a post-Alphaville slice of poetic sci-fi. 

Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years, Vol. 1: Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies features five early films by Suzuki that are mostly conventional compared to his later cult films. There are small seeds of the later stylistic “fever” he displayed, though, and the films are very watchable melodramas. 

Eight Films by Jean Rouch, an invaluable box from Icarus, gives American viewers a crash course in the work of this fascinating ethnographic filmmaker whose films are not strict documentaries but are instead a fusion of documentary, fiction film, and outright fantasy, concocted by Rouch in tandem with his casts of African non-professional performers. The best film in the box is hands-down Petit a Petit (1971), a wonderful, plotted film about African businessmen on the loose in Paris trying to figure out how to build a giant skyscraper in their home country.

Pennebaker’s landmark 1967 rock doc Monterey Pop was re-released both in its theatrical version and in a big box set with more concert footage.

Melville’s much copied Le Samourai (1967) was re-released with additional supplements. The film is a masterpiece, possessing an influence that grows with every passing year.

After several decades, Fellini’s final film The Voice of the Moon (1990) finally got an official U.S. release by Arrow. The film may not be Il Maestro’s finest, but it still has beautiful moments and a touching lead performance by Robert Benigni.

The superb filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa made his “foreign language” debut with Daguerrotype (2016), shot in French (and released to streaming platforms by the wonderfully titled studio “Under the Milky Way”). The film is a suspense drama about a photographer’s assistant who falls in love with his boss’s model (who also happens to be his boss’s daughter).

Orson Welles’ later films are exemplary models of how to make movies on low budgets. One of the best “lessons” in this regard is his visually arresting adaptation of Othello, made over a three-year period in two different countries (Italy and Morocco) with various and sundry budget limitations and cast difficulties blighting the production. Welles still came up with a masterpiece (released in two different cuts, in both 1952 and ’55) that perfectly catches the tone of Shakespeare’s work.

Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) stands not only as a razor-sharp depiction of upper-middle class radicals but also foreshadowed the feeling of youthful rebellion that led to the May ’68 riots in Paris. The Kino Lorber re-release includes some fascinating supplements.

John Garfield gives a terrific performance in the noir drama The Breaking Point (1950), an adaptation of a Hemingway story. The film offers much evidence as to why Garfield was such a revered performer (especially by other actors) and the way in which noir dread crept into even the most esteemed literary adaptations.

I have a lot of trouble with Michael Hanneke’s cinema, but his work with Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher (2001) produced one of his best films and one of her best performances.

Albert Brooks succeeded with both critics and at the box office with his “yuppie road picture,” Lost in America (1985). The Criterion release contains an interview with Albert, which is honest (but fans of his comedy were hoping he would do an audio commentary for the picture).

Robert Bresson ended his career on a grim and beautifully innovative note with L’Argent (1983). The film is of a piece with his earlier work but also features a fascinating view of the modern world, which seems to indicate that Bresson had had his fill of mankind, and felt we cannot be truly redeemed. (And yet the film is one of the most engaging of his post-Sixties works.)

It’s great to see the works of the least-seen (in the U.S.) member of the French New Wave, get official U.S. DVD/Blu-ray releases. Arrow’s The Jacques Rivette Collection is a good sampler of his “mid-period work,” with Duelle (1976) being the best film in the collection.