April 24, 2017

The Criterion Collection finally has Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up out and in blu ray. While a blu ray Blow-Up has long been wished for by fans, I decided to take a look at the old DVD to see if there was a good reason to upgrade. Warner Brothers brought out a DVD in 2004. Today’s viewing confirmed that the DVD picture looks very good. There are also two special sound tracks: a music only and an excellent commentary track by Peter Brunette, author of The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni. These features are absent from the new Criterion edition.

What struck me, though, was how on top of his game Antonioni was in 1966 when Blow-Up came out.  Chabrol was then still groping along and did not master film construction until around 1980. The principle reason seems evident. Antonioni was a highly disciplined filmmaker who did all the work necessary not only so that each shot would be right but so that the film would come together. By contrast Chabrol is self-indulgent, putting himself ahead of his art. The Chabrol films, even if they unfold interesting ideas, are often wooden, clumsy or mannered. Chabrol’s motto seems to be that what is worth doing is worth doing badly, while Antonioni puts the art first. This does not at all mean that Antonioni has to suppress his personal vision.

There is another and perhaps greater contrast between the directors. More than any other of his films Blow-Up makes obvious how plugged into the cultural currents of his time Antonioni was. Perhaps this was from his origins in neo-realism, but he was able to travel to London to make his first foreign film and shoot exactly the right stuff. (I Vinti in 1953, made up of three shorts, did have a section made in England.) Chabol filmed his personal preoccupations, which put a cap on how high his films could rise. Chabrol films are always about some French not measuring up to some French conception of how they should be. As though Chabrol always said that he abhorred judgement and no one had a right to judge, that is what he does throughout all his films, so that there is a flavor of disingenuousness running through them all. The irony is that it is this quality that makes them so representatively French and therefore interesting artifacts. For what is more French than to be always judging and always in bad faith?


Á Double Tour

April 2, 2017

I have twenty-nine Chabrol movies in my collection, and the earliest one is Á Double Tour (1959), also released as Leda and Web of Passion. I find Chabrol’s films worth re-watching more than those of most directors. Á Double Tour seems to have mixed reviews, as some critics seeing it as an immature work with the director still feeling his way toward his mature method. This is perhaps because of a certain doubleness in the film, which I will explain later.

Being from 1959 the world of the film is a little hard to get into. The French propertied class targeted here dress up in suit and tie even to stay home and see no one. Other than the maid, the gardener and the milkman, no one does any work and the wine making estate magically runs itself. On the film’s excursions into the local town, we find a lingering third world feel, with the population divided into boulevard types who come out to be seen at church or in cafés, and a working class who hawk their wares in the market or crowd the sidewalks in provincial idiocy. Adapted from the novel The Key to Nicholas Street set in a New York small town, the film has lost its thriller origins and becomes a social and psychological commentary on a purely French type.

The characters are Henri Marcoux the “head” of the family, but really a passive wimp who berates his wife Thérèse with a long list of pejoratives: she is “old” (about his age) ugly (but better looking than him), stupid, etc. He has a son Richard, who lounges around the house in a suit and tie listening to classical music recordings which he has enough brains to appreciate but not enough appreciation to play on anything better than a cheap portable turntable. He also has enough libido to follow the maid Julie around the house, being a pest, but she has no use for this loser. There is also a daughter Elizabeth who is in the film to show the motivation and character of other players.

An artist, Léda, has moved into the house next door bringing a Hungarian friend, and probably former lover, named Laszlo Kovacs, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo as a typical Belmondo character (so he is probably just being himself). Laszlo, a drunk, a leach and a manipulator of women seems to like to set up situations among his acquaintances leading to conflict which he can enjoy watching play out, stepping in to stir things up when the action is lagging. He has introduced Léda to Henri with a view breaking up the Marcoux household. He also goes after Elizabeth and gets more or less engaged to her, as an opportunity to invade the Marxoux house and act as provocatively has possible, simultaneously outraging Thérèse and exposing Henri’s weakness and unwillingness to take any sort of stand, even to protect his daughter.

Henri’s real attraction seems to be for Laszlo, whom he will forgive anything, but he trails after Léda professing his love but not willing to leave his wife and her property. He does not care about the children. Léda talks about “our love” but hates calling it adultery as she knows other people would. She is less attractive than Julie or Elizabeth and not convincing as a siren, but is a sort of ideal for Henri. Chabrol treats their scenes in a peculiar manner which is a big part of the reason for some critics’ doubts about the film. Chabrol has them roll around in fields of flowers with cut-aways to closeups of blossoms. When they walk in the woods his camera pans the lush foliage and the upper branches of the trees, as though celebrating this wonderful romance, but the romantic treatment becomes self-parody, as theatrical and superficial as Henri’s attachment to Léda by which he conceals from himself his true nature. If Henri had any red blood he would have been after Julie, the hottest woman around, but who only attracts the attention of Richard and her shallow milkman boyfriend. Even Laszlo his not interested as Julie lacks the social standing to make her satisfying prey.

Laszlo, in spite of constant prodding for Heni to “pack has bag and leave”, cannot bring about the breakup of the Marcoux household, but the tension becomes too much for Richard. He heads over to Léda’s house and after viewing her knickknacks and meeting her decides that she possess a talent and beauty that make him and his mother ugly losers by comparison who cannot compete with her for his father. After a “mad” scene with ranting and making faces (shot with mirrors and admired by critics as a Hitchcockian moment) he strangles her. We only see this in a confession flashback, so the action but not the scene launches the who-done-it phase of the movie. It is Julie who finds the body as her boyfriend somehow can’t bring himself to ask for his empty milk bottles back (adding to the list of wimpy characters) and persuades her to do it for him. Laszlo has meanwhile brought a Hungarian pal into the house who is also a drunk and a moocher if not the aggressive jerk Laszlo is, and the pal witnesses enough of Richard’s return from Léda’s house to figure out what had happened. Laszlo then goes into an even more aggressive and bullying phase until he extracts a confession from Richard.

Laszlo has failed to break up the Marcoux household; Henri no longer has someone to leave his wife for but instead a romantic memory to delude himself with. Richard has been turned into a murderer and his life, if he had one, ruined. Tragedy has been brought into the family, Léda is dead, and Laszlo is left with some self-righteous posturing as the one whose concern for justice exposed the murderer. So where is Chabrol in all this? Was he groping along making an inconsistent mess, or is there a deeper reading where the professed goals of all the major characters are different than what they were really working for and ended up with? Á Double Tour is Chabol’s third film, following Les Cousins which is considered one of his better ones. If Chabrol was in 1959 the same cynical, even atavistic, personality he was subsequently, he could have made the second type of film naturally by following his own inclinations about the material.


April 2, 2017

Just retired and now I am watching lots of films again as well as reading.

Across four and a half decades

July 9, 2012

I just watched the Blu-ray of Across the Universe, the musical featuring the troubles of the Vietnam-war era youth to the music of the Beatles. It struck me as a well-made movie and yet far removed from the era it depicted. Lucidity and clear thinking were alien to American youth of the time, and nothing shows it more than the cant that filled their speech. “Hey man, that’s a heavy trip man, blah, blah, blah.” Watch Woodstock and pay attention to the interviews. Plus there was a generational resentment at the time, where the previous generation was accused of hypocrisy and phony values that had landed the sixties generation in a mess that demanded a total break with the past. In its justification we can admit the the period of the movie was before the wave of fuzzy-headedness peaked around 1970, but still the success of The Graduate with its detestation of the Mrs. Robinson generation shows that the the generational resentment was already cresting in the movie’s period. So with its directness and simplicity Across the Universe  felt wrong. It was made with the sensibilities of another time.  The leaders of the campus radicalism (and this is something the movie seems to get right whether by design or accident) were pre-Beatles, pre-hippie people from a time when articulated theory still mattered, and by the period of the movie in graduate school. I remember when I started graduate study that the manager of the campus bookstore told me that book sales crashed with my generation. I was about a year ahead of my cohort, and the phenomenon had been around for about a year, so it was the generation graduating from college in 1972 and high school in 1968 who were the last to show an interest in ideas.

As it happens, I had just finished Richard Wolin’s The Wind From the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s. Once again I am impressed by the great divide between the American scene in 1968 and the intellectual ridden French events of May and following on. People in America were reading Marcuse, which seems the closest analogue, but the French nonsense did not take effect here until much later, and by then nobody who was interested in anything with relevancy paid it any heed. By then it was just a game for useless professors and their graduate students (who were mainly trying to figure how with get though life with enough income to buy fancy wines, but without have to work a real job).  While the French students obscessed with how to achieve solidarity with the workers and thus become authentic, their American contemporaries, to the extent that they had adopted the sixties ethos, wanted to distance themselves as far from Joe Sixpack as possible. (See, e.g. Joe.)

Across the Universe reflects that divide as its awareness reaches no further than Liverpool, and it only crosses the Atlantic because it is a musical based on Beatles music. Vietnam is an unpopulated cartoonish montage of previous Vietnam war movie clichés. The real universe of the movie is that of media imagery and movie quotations. It is a celebration of pop-media memories of the sixties.

Icons of Nature

June 5, 2012

I took another vacation through the National Parks. Arches was not intended to be on the itinerary, but I got to Utah early and fit it in. I was there in the late afternoon and decided to go all the way to Delicate Arch instead of using the distant viewpoint.

When I reached it I found the photographers already starting to gather. Apparently, if you call yourself a photographer there are now some scenes that are mandatory, one of which is a sunset photograph of Delicate Arch. As soon as some motorcycle clowns got out of the way, I took some pictures and cleared out, but on my way back down I got to observe something more interesting. A steady succession of people was coming up the steep path, speaking French, German, Italian, Spanish, various Slavic languages, Japanese and Chinese. They were all on their way to experience Delicate Arch at sunset. Many were hauling photographic equipment such as tripods. The Japanese instead of tripods had big telephoto lenses. Not they it would do them any good. On the typical digital camera 50mm is about the limit of what you want on a lens. If you go much beyond that you can’t get the whole arch in the frame.

But besides the photographers there were many others on what appeared to be a nature pilgrimage. Old people were heaving they way up the slick rock with their canes, giving each other boosts. They were determined not to miss this experience.

So evidently there are now internationally recognized nature icons that people will cross the world to experience. In spite of the masses of Germans at the Grand Canyon, you don’t get the same sense there, as the Canyon is so big, and people can experience it from many locations.

Delicate Arch, on the other hand, is a very locally restricted experience. First one must go up the steep trail, then on a narrow ledge around a rock formation that blocks the view of the arch from below. Then there is a small area from which to view the Arch, and where everyone was trying to stake out a position for the sunset experience.

The existence of global nature icons presupposes a global cultural media that publicizes and canonizes, as it were, these locations. This suggests that an interesting project would be to catalogue these locations and come up with the criteria that account for their selection. These then are a category in a larger group of objects: painting that the whole world recognizes, movie scenes that everyone has seen at least stills of, and so on. Notice that we don’t list novels everyone has read. This is not just because many people don’t read much, but because the novel is extended in time as the Grand Canyon is extended in space and does not reduce to a single scene or image. The closest we get is poetry where a single line or couplet can contain a concentrated impact or can stand for the whole poem.

But notice the cinema is different. It is extended in time like a novel, but still what everyone recognizes are certain specific shots. In this way we see that movies consist of moments in a way that verbal narrative does not.

Korea takes the lead

June 5, 2012

Lately I have been watching a lot of Korean TV dramas. For some reasons it would be interesting to understand better, Korea has been moving up as a leader and provider of pop culture. Certainly the technical reasons are obvious. Korean dramas are made with style while preserving a contemporary edginess. There are good production values with the ability to provide sets, locations, good photography skilled script writers–enough to turn out the video at a rate the exceeds the ability of any one viewer to keep up with it. In short it is rather like the situation that prevailed in the Holywood studies during their so-called Golden Age. Why this happened in Korea with so much of the rest of the world still grinding out cheap trash it to me the most interesting question.

Besides this, one can observe in these dramas a sort of convergence of world culture with at lot of Euro-American cultural values now taken as common places. At the same time there seems to be an emerging Asian style that suggests a self-confidence and self-direction rather than imitation of foreign popular forms. Along side of this convergence there is still a lot of Koreanness to these dramas, which adds greatly to their interest to someone like me who is drawn to understanding the dynamics of different cultures. Dramas of this sort rely on a lot of clichés and caricatures, to set up the situations. This might seem a shortcoming to the more sophisticated members of the home audience, but is precisely what is fascinating to the outside viewer, because they are things that would not work to motivate and move things along in a foreign drama, but show the unique aspects of Korean attitudes. 

There seems also to be present in Korean drama some of the same antagonism toward traditional culture and values that the European and American media have long exhibited. There are frequent efforts to insert homosexual themes and other taboos, to condition people to their acceptance. This shows the hand of a certain self-regarding elite in effective control of Korean organs of popular culture. 

There also seems to be a preoccupation with identity. Drama after drama involves some switched at birth scenario where eventually DNA testing comes into play to resolve people’s true identity. But then, if circumstances turned their lives upside down until then, how real its this “natural” identity that is finally revealed? Similarly, class differences are constantly played off: the arrogant, corrupt, spoiled families of the corporate elite, vs. the downtrodden, but also vice-ridden (drunks and gambling addicts) poor who never get a fair chance at escaping their situations. Yet, as vile as the rich are portrayed to be, there is always a sense that that is what everyone wants to be. 

Religions are taken in rotation. Buddhist, animist, Protestant and Roman Catholic identities seems to be assigned by quota. Religion is seldom a determining factor in behavior, however, and often comes across as a bit silly. The drama consensus is that it is not really important. So class and family membership especially as it relates to wealth and power are important to identity, but not religion. 

Returning to the question of Why Korea now? it appears that the Koreans have some idea of a dualism in their identity. They are still an ethnic nation-state yet the Korean diaspora has also made them a world-people with a constant coming and going from abroad. Unlike a third-world country, the homeland side of this dualism is strong enough to maintain this polarity. Korea draws people back not just as a place for nostalgia, but as a center that is powerful, dynamic and with prospects to offer. It appears that this dynamic has affected the production of popular culture. And now it also affects its export, as Korean drama has become popular world-wide. 

Margot at the Wedding

June 23, 2011

I watched Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding yesterday. It belongs is the same general class as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe as an unflinching look at the mode of life of our cultured betters. It’s about the sort of people that writers and directors of “serious” films would be intimately acquainted with.