Finally watched Juliet of the Spirits after hearing about it for forty years and wanting to see it. I could never bear to pay Criterion’s price for the DVD, but finally got it cheaper. I must say that it is not nearly as confusing and difficult as I had always heard. Supposedly the line between fact and fantasy was indistinguishable, and this was some sort of philosophical point Fellini was making. The line seemed clear to me. It strikes me that Fellini was a man with a lot of cinematic talent, but somewhat deficient in the sense of what to use that talent for. Yesterday I watched Goodbye, Dragon In (Bu san) by Tsai Ming-liang, 2004. Now there is a film that is hard to get into. Oddly enough, I watched it right after Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, where Godard sometimes does the same thing, of holding on a shot with nothing happening in it. I liked Goodbye, Dragon Inn a lot more. And about that, one little comment. People complain that it is too static, and that the shots are held way to long. Well, not as long as I have looked at still pictures, that were about as interesting, and both Godard and Tsai Ming-liang seem to want to shows us stuff. This is what home video is good for. You can’t watch films like these with other people, unless you know a different kind of people than I do. (And I have watched Last Year At Marienbad four times.)
Some DVDs of movies have been issued with a commentary track by critics or film historians that are very illuminating. Most commentaries are not. The worst seem to be those that involve the actors, and commentaries by directors are generally not the best ones, and often are worthless.
I have been trying to come up with a list of DVDs (or Blu-rays) that have a commentary track that is able to genuinely open up the film to the viewer and teach a lot about movies and how to watch them. Here is my list so far:
Alex Proyas, Dark City, commentary by Roger Ebert
Michelangelo Antonioni, Blow-up, commentary by Peter Brunette
Claude Chabrol, Les Biches, commentary by Wade Major and F. X. Feeney
Claude Chabrol, Le Boucher, commentary by Howard Rodman and Terry Curtis Fox
Claude Chabrol, La Rupture, commentary by Howard Rodman, Terry Curtis Fox and F. X. Feeney
Claude Chabrol, Une Partie de Plaisir, commentary by Dan Yakir and Ric Menello
Many film noir discs have commentaries by film historians. I have not put together a list of the good ones (and they vary a lot).
What other discs should be on this list?
I watched this yesterday too. I took a vacation day, which was a good choice because it snowed all day and the roads were a mess. Also I caught a cold, so I am drinking hot chocolate with brandy in it and writing about movies.
I had let Donnie Darko sit on the shelf a long time. It looked to be one of those unpleasant films I have to be in the right mood for, and I thought this especially after I watched the disc with the extras. There are two versions on the disc, the Director’s Cut and the Theatrical. I watched the Theatrical. It turned out not to be so bad, because basically it is a teen movie and rather shallow, so it doesn’t put the view though much of anything. The main character is a teen with schizophrenia who has hallucinations related to the idea of time travel. In the end he reverses time and makes a whole series of unpleasant events which we see in the movie to not have happened by getting himself killed in the beginning. The point seems to be that it does not matter whether this was all in his head or was real, because you are not supposed to think like that.
So it is a movie for the everything is text and reality is constructed teen generation. The extras on the second disc try to bring this out, by presenting interviews with the fans, many of who are in England where the film reached cult status. Donny knows he is crazy and likes it. He has a manic grin when he going to do something he knows is crazy. The disc of extras that come with the movie is like the filmmakers manic grin. The makers are proud of the unbalanced teens who because obsessed with the film, and stalk the actors, etc. The English fans attribute the films popularity to their being much more sophisticated than Americans. But the movie isn’t sophisticated. One only has to watch with the commentary track on by the people who made the film. It is on the level of “Hey dude, remember that, it was cool, huh?”‘ Sometimes a movie hits a generation at a time when their cultural experience is echoed in the film to the extent that they feel it speaks for them. The English teens at the turn of the millennium happened to be at that point for this movie. Otherwise it is a teen movie: it has the Buddies, the Bully, the Girlfriend, the Dork Who Is Picked On, the Obnoxious Teacher That The Teenager Is Smarter Than, and so on.
For the fans Donny Darko is a superhero character. It does not matter if it is all in his head. The superhero no longer needs the meta-narrative of the planet Kripton, Jorel, and whatnot. It is just an experience he lives through and the choices he makes. If you watch it in Blu-ray maybe you can share enough to be a superhero too.
I ordered The Entertainer at the same time as the Expresso Bongo DVD, as I thought they made a pair. It came yesterday. This one has much better acting and direction than Expresso Bongo. There is also a basic difference in viewpoint. Expresso Bongo deals with a kid breaking into the recording business who is much exploited by his agent and the record producer. To a degree he joins the corruption, but his agent warns him that if his fans detect any hint that he is looking down at them and is merging into the establishment he will lose his audience. It is, after all, the rebel without a cause era and the music of rebellion when it is any good. The sappy religious song he has to sing to get his second hit contradicts this story line because that audience would only be alienated by it. Bongo is conflicted in its treatment because the satire requires the star to have the role of victim, to make everyone else look worse, and but also to be part of the corruption to complete the satire of an industry corrupt from top to bottom. The movie never finds a balance. Another theme is the passing fads and music crazes and the folly of those who stake their identity on these short careers.
The Entertainer puts the artist at the center, and makes him the architect of his own corruption. We have three generations: a grandfather from the old comic song music hall days, the middle generation played by Laurence Olivier doing a Noel Coward type who performs with continuous suggestiveness and gender ambiguity oddly prized by that supposedly straight generation, and the youth generation. This has many representatives: there are tacky show-stage Elivis type acts which Olivier’s character, Archie Rice, won’t even hire, there are his children who stay out of the business or only play a backstage role, and finally the audience. The young people in the front row keep asking each other, “Does he think he is funny?”
Rice is both the performer and the con-artist who gets others to go along with his doomed productions, now long out of fashion. And he is always ‘on’, working the cast, his family, the crowd in the bar. One gathers that we are to infer that this is what his art is also, a con on the audience. For his part Rice needs to be drinking or be in front of an audience. He will not give it up, and he will not listen to those who try to tell him that it is all over. He won’t listen because he really understands what it is that they want to say, and has already rejected that advice.
The film is very well done, but it probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know. It reminded me of those fifties and sixties singing group guys who always show up on public television during pledge week.
Long ago I had for a short time a roommate who, while totally conventional in his outlook on things, liked to go to unusual movies. Then he would come back all pumped up to tell about them. One of these was Wise Blood (which I have yet to see; I doubt it is better than the Flannery O’Conner novel), another Return of the Secaucus 7. It seemed from his telling that it was one of those generational movies where old friends get together and come to terms with how they have lived out their goals. A couple weeks ago I saw the DVD for sale cheap, so I picked it up. I expected to be annoyed, but at the same time to have some insights, even if skewed, to kick around a bit.
I got nothing of the sort. The DVD has an interview with the aged filmmakers which shows why. They are inwardly unchanged even now and, bitter about the generations that came after them (when the slogan of don’t trust anyone over thirty became don’t trust anyone under thirty), aspire only to pass on the sixties torch to their new hope, the euro-trash who riot at IMF and world trade meetings, and who they hope will watch the movie.
The characters are university weekend radicals who would get arrested at big well-publicized protests, and in between enjoyed a life of drugs, promiscuity and hedonism, while looking down at all the more conventional people. So this sixties generation thing was mainly a matter of language and lifestyle that made a particularly sharp break with the previous generation–not only of that of their parents but of the student cohort before them. The sixties went from suits and ties to ripped jeans and tie-dyed tops. The radical style change made everyone see themselves as totally transformed. Most students, in fact the great majority, never took their focus off getting grades, graduating, getting a job, and starting out in life. But for the rest who took the sixties pop culture as the definition of their identity, a great bond was formed with those who went through this change with them. This movie is about them.
Ten years have gone by, and these characters are trying to go on being what they were, and feeling the strain a bit. They haven’t learned anything in that time, and have not doubted their fundamental choices, but only whether they dumped this or that boyfriend or girlfriend too late or too soon. Anybody who was of the same type as these characters will feel an emotional response to all this, and there are enough to make an audience for an independent film. It is not as though these people are rare or exceptional like 19th century artistic bohemians. By the end of the fifties riffraff could attend universities and get white color jobs, just because the economy had long before moved away from farm labor and was entering the post-industrial service industry and government leach phase. Five of these characters are government leaches. Two “teach” high school, though as they admit there isn’t education going on, two work as staff for a politician and another is a drug counselor.
The filmmakers, though, are just happy to show the radicals get together, get in tough with their feelings, and keep the commitment to being sixties people. For this they need each other. Apart, without their shared group experience, the memories and the experience seem less real. And that is about all the point there is to this film. But if you weren’t part of that scene, why should you care?
I got Kino Video’s DVD of Expresso Bongo. I had been reading Pauline Kael and she said “Expresso Bongo, a satire on entertainment crazes, specifically rock-‘n-roll, is the best British comedy since the days of Jessie Matthews, Sonnie Hale, and Jack Buchanan.” (I Lost It At the Movies) Everyone in the film is a caricature, unreal in his exaggeration, which takes the bite out of any satire. A very young Cliff Richard is in here, and one can appreciate how well he cloned Elvis for the British. Unfortunately it was not the best side of Elvis; the movie Richard is like the movie Elvis, except for his first performance which does have some energy in it. From the rest it is impossible to see how the rise to stardom depicted here is supposed to have happened.
The other loser is Flickering Lights. This is a Danish buddy movie in which a gang of inept thugs, fleeing with some loot, buy a restaurant and settle down, inexplicably humanized by the desire to have a place of their own. Capitalism saves! Also they fit in because it turns out that the people of rural Denmark are losers just like them. They name their restaurant Flickering Lanterns, which is the Flickering Lights of the title. The studio did not think much of the movie either, not even bothering to make the DVD anamorphic. I gather that Anders Thomas Jensen, who made the movie, sees Denmark the way Gerrison Keillor views America, with a contempt disguised as affection so that he can market his product.
Lately I have been collecting Godard films, mostly because the prices have come down, especially in the used DVD market, from the unreasonable levels where the Criterion Collection kept them. Last night I finished watching Alphaville, which I had started in 1975. The clods I was with then insisted on walking out of the theatre early in the movie, and as they had the car it was either go with them or be stranded in Evanston, Illinois.
Godard strikes me as a poseur, and as someone who literally did not know what he was doing. The Criterion discs have many extras, and sometimes one can get Godard’s own take on the characters. Then I watch the film and they are not at all what Godard thought they were. Godard was completely caught up in the delusions of the sixties, and while he changes these with the cultural seasons of the era, he could not break free until the cultural flow had broken them down for everyone else as well.
The illusions of the sixties centered around the notion that through various recycled ideologies and quasi-ideologies a new generation was finally able to break free of “the system” and live authentically. Side by side with 19th century Marxism (already shown to be obsolete by Nazi post-modernism) were various “youth culture” romanticisms of back to nature or mystical escapism (as through drug experiences). Godard films repeatedly depicts those who achieve some such gnosis and drop of the system.
So while Godard makes his sociological critiques and “exposes” the reality of his era, he actually exemplifies it, and that is what makes his films worth watching. Also he does not drag in old baggage from the fifties (“proven formulas” and clichés) to insure commercial success as the studios did with their films, so his view into the sixties is that much cleaner. Godard was onto these things before films like Blow-Up or Performance where we already feel we are seeing a redigestion of things that have been around for a while and have played out. That is, the later films depict something that has found a popular following separate from the people who created it and were driven or had a reason to do so.
Studio Canal is bringing out in Blu-Ray films previously licensed by Criterion. Those who have seen it say that Studio Canal’s Ran is a step backward from the Criterion DVD, with a low quality transfer. Soon out will be Contempt, and wonder if it will be just as poor.