Archive for the 'Books' Category
Self-portrait by Agnès Varda.
Sixty years ago, a twentysomething photographer released a film shot in an out-of-the-way French fishing village. Coming right after Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy and Fellini’s La Strada (both 1954), the result announced something new in cinema. Like those other works, it looked forward to the French Nouvelle Vague and the cinematic modernism of Antonioni, Bergman, and a host of other filmmakers.
But the status of Agnès Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1955) became apparent only with the most distant hindsight. It didn’t win big attention on the festival circuit, in the international market, or in the pages of highbrow film magazines. Denied a commercial release, La Pointe Courte circulated mostly in French ciné-clubs. In the early 1980s, when I saw it at the Brussels Cinematek, it was still a rarity.
Thirty years after La Pointe Courte, Varda’s career reached a new level. Vagabond (Sans toi ni loi, 1985), widely recognized as her masterpiece, remains one of the great achievements of that modern cinema she helped create. And she hasn’t exactly been idle since. There have been many films both long and short, including a biopic of her husband Jacques Demy in Jacquot de Nantes (1991) and the picaresque The Gleaners and I (2000); the fascinating autobiography Varda par Agnès (1994); and over the last decade a series of installations in museums around the world. She started as a photographer, became a cinéaste, and is now a plasticienne, a maker of painting and sculpture.
She is eighty-seven years old.
Agnès V., not B.
Our colleague Kelley Conway has just published an authoritative consideration of the work of this shrewd, unpredictable survivor. Reading Kelley’s book reminded me of that encounter with La Pointe Courte.
I had known Varda’s more famous works: Cléo from 5 to 7 (1961), screened at my college film society as the project of a New-Wave fellow-traveler; Le Bonheur (1965), which might be called Jules et Jim revisé et corrigé; One Sings the Other Doesn’t (1977), which got circulation among other feminist films of the period. These didn’t prepare me for La Pointe Courte’s daring mix of realism and minimalism. Varda wanted, she said, to make a film that was the equivalent of a difficult book, and for me she succeeded.
The film alternates sunny images of local life—fishing, net-mending, washing-up, a festival—with episodes in which a Parisian couple drift through the village, oddly detached from the life around them. The everyday scenes are shot in documentary style, but with a casual rigor suggesting Cartier-Bresson. Meanwhile, the couple talk in stylized compositions that could only remind me of L’Avventura.
No wonder Picasso was Varda’s favorite painter: she splits up the couple’s faces with cubistic zeal.
The disjunction between the actuality of a location and the abstraction of the couple’s anomie-riddled duet, often heard only as voice-over commentary, look forward to Hiroshima mon amour. (No wonder: Resnais edited the film.) I barely understood the French, but the film gripped me. It was of great historical interest, and it had its own stubborn vivacity. When Kristin and I planned the first edition of Film History: An Introduction (1994) I made sure it got in. In that year, forty years after it was made, La Pointe Courte was released on VHS.
Things change. Varda is now regarded as a living treasure of world cinema, preserved in excellent Criterion DVD editions, available for streaming on Hulu, and wrapped up in a vast cube, Tout(e) Varda (20 features, 16 shorts). Whatever she does in the future, we can at least take a long-distance measure of her accomplishments.
The dream of many writers on a single director is to cover it all: appreciative study of the films, background on how the films came to be, assessment of their immediate impact and long-range influence. But this breadth of understanding is very hard to achieve. Where are the documents? How do you get the filmmaker to talk?
Kelley has done it. Her book combines film analysis, historical research, and information drawn from Varda’s archives. Kelley can tell us how the films came to be, what Varda wanted to accomplish, and how they were received. To top it off, there’s a new interview with Agnès herself.
Les Demoiselles ont eu 25 ans (1993): Varda and Deneuve.
With a brisk practicality echoing that of her subject, Kelley has focused her lens tightly. You can’t quarrel with her choices: La Pointe Courte, the early short documentaries, Cléo, Vagabond, The Gleaners, two installations, and The Beaches of Agnès (2008). Her plan of attack is straightforward: scrutinize the film, then work backward to the conditions of production and forward to the film’s reception.The analyses are models of attention to story and style, images and sounds. Kelley pins down what intrigued me about the acting in La Pointe Courte, showing its debt to Brechtian distancing (a big influence on Varda). She goes on to connect the performances to the experiments in “flat” performance we find in Tati and Bresson at the same period. Kelley shows how many of Varda’s artistic strategies, such as whimsical puns and a love of digression, go back to her early documentaries.
In a sense, Varda has never ceased to be a documentarist, since all her films depend on a process of research, exploration, and a personal viewpoint characteristic of the roving photographer. The book includes fresh information on two of Varda’s major multimedia installations, obviously born of her interest in found materials, gags, and unexpected juxtapositions. For one, Varda covered the gallery floor with 1500 pounds of potatoes and played the role of “Lady Potato.” Another exhibition included a reference to the grave of her beloved cat Zgougou. As described by Kelley, these installations are less narcissistic than they might seem, because Varda’s work has always been personal, derived from her perceptions of her subject. Even The Gleaners, which is at one level a denunciation of a society built on waste and inequality, is refracted through the filmmaker’s sense of aging. And though Mona in Vagabond is ferociously solitary, we meet her through Varda’s welcoming voice-over: “It seems to me she came from the sea.”
Another legacy of documentary: Kelley points up how even the fiction films spring from an attention to the specifics of a locale. “Part of Varda’s journey is regularly exploring a chosen region at length, waiting for ideas, emotions, and images to emerge.” That region might be a single Parisian street (L’Opéra-Mouffe, 1958; Daguerréotypes, 1975) or the fourteenth arrondissement (Cleo from 5 to 7). Like La Pointe Courte, Cleo is the story of a walk, this time purportedly played out in actual duration as a beautiful pop singer awaits the results of a test for cancer. Mona, in Vagabond, is another wanderer, and the wintry bleakness of southern France is as central to the action as whatever psychology we can find in her or the people she meets. The Gleaners and I searches out people who stalk the landscape and live off what they can scavenge. With modern cinema from Bicycle Thieves onward, Dwight Macdonald once noted, “The talkies have become the walkies,” but Varda has always embedded her footloose protagonists in the particulars of place.
Varda’s personal archive has given Kelley the opportunity to document the director’s creative process. The scripts are sometimes scrapbooks, with texts and images jostling one another. (Kelley offers an example in a 2011 blog entry.) The arrival of digital tools reinforced and expanded Varda’s method of free assembly. Out of a database of images, Varda erected the scaffolding of The Beaches of Agnès before starting her screenplay. She wrote, shot, and edited the whole thing in a nonlinear fashion. During the final stages, two editors worked busily in separate rooms. “I went from one to the other. On one side was Sète and Los Angeles, in the other room was Belgium and Paris.”
As for exhibition, crucial to Varda’s early films was a distinctive French institution. Varda had created her company to make shorts, but when La Pointe Courte grew to 80 minutes, it could not be distributed under those auspices without new investment. As a result, it found its main audience in the network of cine-clubs that had grown up after World War II. That network became activated to the maximum during the release of Cleo from 5 to 7. One of the side benefits of Kelley’s book is its explanation of the power that the ciné-club scene had achieved by the early 1960s.
Brandishing the slogan “Develop Film Taste, Introduce Masterpieces, Educate the Public,” an astonishing five hundred clubs with over two hundred thousand members showed thousands of films in the year that Cleo was released. Varda took advantage of this situation to promote her film, but Kelley goes beyond the simple marketing issue to point out that the clubs bolstered spectators’ appreciation of New Wave films. She draws on audience comments to show that the organizers guided audiences to talk about form, style, theme, and historical context. The clubs helped create the “demanding viewer” described by Alain Resnais: a viewer eager for challenging films that could bear comparison to advanced works in traditional arts.
Varda’s later films were absorbed into the mainstream commercial distribution/exhibition infrastructure, and Kelley is painstaking in plotting critical response to them. Near the book’s close, she traces how another institution shaped Varda’s work: the museum. Kelley shows how the emerging importance of installation art encouraged filmmakers like Varda and Chris Marker to create multimedia exhibits that were natural continuations of their poetic-essayistic documentaries. The installations seem to have encouraged Varda to take up the autobiographical compilation mode that yielded The Beaches of Agnès.
There is much more in Agnès Varda than I can summarize, but I hope I’ve piqued your interest. For any lover of Varda, Kelley’s book is a must, and even casual viewers will learn things that will drive them to the films. Reading it led me to think about how Varda’s lack of cinephile culture (she emphasizes that she knew nothing of film when she started) allowed her to respond to stories more directly than did the Bad Boys of the Cahiers, who saw everything through a mesh of hundreds of other movies. I was also prodded to think of her as quite an innovator in narrative. She has given us the parallel structure of La Pointe Courte, the fantastic science-fiction plot of Les Créatures, the isoceles love triangle of Le Bonheur, the dual-protagonist structure of One Sings, and the network narrative of Vagabond, with Mona as a circulating object a bit like Bresson’s Balthazar.
From the delightful interview with Lady Potato herself, I allow myself just one spoiler:
KC: You seem to start your projects with considerable preparation but you also have a flair for improvisation. Do you see it that way also?
AV: Yes and no. Or no and yes, depending.
An earlier entry discusses a Kelley talk on La Point Courte. I discuss some ambiguous narrative cues in Vagabond in my updated “Art Cinema” essay in Poetics of Cinema, 166-169.
This has been a good publishing year for our colleagues at Wisconsin–Madison. Lea Jacobs’ book on filmic rhythm came out last winter; go here for our observations.
I didn’t plan it, but this has been the year of Wes Anderson on our blog.
After an entry on The Grand Budapest Hotel and its play with aspect ratios, I posted an analysis of Moonrise Kingdom (my favorite Anderson movie). Now comes a book from the indefatigable Matt Zoller Seitz that continues the work of his splendiferous Wes Anderson Collection.
Matt provides critical commentary, natch, along with many interviews with Anderson and his creative team. Some critics have a look-in as well. I add my $.02.
You can read more on Vulture here. Available from Abrams on 10 February–too late for the December holidays, but well ahead of Valentine’s Day.
City of Sadness (1989).
The books have been piling up again, and so I pass along some recommendations. This time the volumes are unusually handsome. Apart from what they say, these publications display how sumptuous a serious film book can be.
Particularly welcome, in light of the touring retrospective of Hou Hsiao-hsien films that began at MoMI on 12 September, is Richard I. Suchenski’s anthology of writings on and by the director. Hou Hsiao-hsien is packed with color illustrations and fully up to the standard of other publications from the Austrian Filmmuseum.
Some of our top critics and scholars have contributed essays. From Japan comes Hasumi Shigehiko on Flowers of Shanghai; from France, Jean-Michel Frodon on Hou’s collaboration with Chu Tien-wen; from Canada, James Quandt, eloquent as ever on Three Times. American scholars are here too. We have Jean Ma on The Puppetmaster, Abe Mark Nornes on calligraphy and frame space, Kent Jones on time in Hou, and James Udden on Dust in the Wind. Jim is author of the first English-language book on Hou and a contributor to this website. To these essays are added the unique perspectives offered by Taiwanese observers Peggy Chiao on City of Sadness and Wen Tien-hsiang on unmarried women in Hou. A wide-ranging introduction by Richard brings out virtually all the artistic, political, and cultural issues that have been raised by Hou’s body of work.
Unabashedly auteurist—and what’s wrong with that?—the collection adds even more value by including an interview with Hou and Chu, who supply precious information about the work-in-progress The Assassin. There are also statements by three distinguished directors: Olivier Assayas, Jia Zhang-ke, and Koreeda Hirokazu. Koreeda notes: “Life’s details (like eating) should be respected.”
We learn as well about the craft behind the artistry. We get a cascade of information from artistic collaborators, including cinematographers, sound designers, actors and others. For example, Tu Duu-chih, sound expert, says: “What [Hou] wants is a natural form of expression and he always manages the atmosphere to meet his needs. If he shoots a drinking scene, for example, he will select real dishes and alcohol and they must be delicious.” Delicious is a good word for this book too, an absolute necessity for every serious cinephile.
Birthday greetings to Vienna and Brussels
Speaking of the Austrian Filmmuseum, it celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year. To celebrate, it has issued a heavyweight, unorthodox boxed set, The Austrian Film Museum at Fifty. Director Alexander Horwath has done a monumental job in bringing a great deal of material together, creating not only a history of the Filmmuseum but a real contribution to international film culture.
In volume one, Aufbrechen (Setting Out), Eszter Kondor provides a history of the institution, with emphasis on its emergence the 1960s and 1970s. Volume two pays homage to Béla Balázs with the title Das sichbare Kino (The Visible Cinema). This is a plump anthology of texts, pictures, and documents from the museum’s history. Given the fact that Peter Kubelka was curator for many years, you’re not surprised to find a letter from Michael Snow and an email from Ken Jacobs. But I didn’t expect an interview with Groucho Marx (letter appended) and correspondence from Don Siegel. This volume also includes a complete record of programs at the museum.
Volume three, Kollection, is a visual treat. It gives us a short history of film in fifty items. The survey includes The Unfinished Letter, a 22mm Edison film ca. 1911-1913, outtakes from Murnau’s Tabu, Morgan Fisher’s site-specific Screening Room (1968), Kurt Kren’s leather jacket, Chuck Jones’ What’s Up, Vienna? (1983), and frames from Norbert Pfaffenbichler’s dizzying Notes on Film 03: Mosaik Mécanique (2007).
The texts in all of the books are in German, but there are so many posters, photos, sketches, diagrams, and storyboards (one by Vertov) that you learn merely by browsing. These volumes are a must for research libraries with a focus on film.
No less idiosyncratic is another anniversary volume, this one from the Royal Film Archive of Belgium, now known as the Cinematek. It was founded seventy-five years ago and, as if by cosmic convergence, it holds 75,000 film titles. But the book, 75000 Films, isn’t a celebration of this particular museum. It’s a book about film archiving in general. As curator Nicola Mazzanti puts it in his introduction:
Film archiving is already changing and in a few years will be very different from what it is now. New skills, new machines, new people. As no book like this one exists about film archiving we wanted to make sure that at least one is published before the picture changes completely.
What will change? Chiefly, the sheer tactility of the work.
Inspecting a film to check its conditions and its history is all about a physical relation with the material. While winding through a reel of film your fingers run along the edges to feel imperfections and damages. One bends a piece of film to assess its brittleness, caresses a splice to check its resistance. . . .
In other words, it is a precise, careful, dedicated and highly specialized work that often is as tedious as rewinding hundreds and thousand of reels (by hand, as electric motors are often dangerous to the film). An uneventful process until you stumble upon a lost film or a camera negative or perhaps just a beautiful copy in which the colours are perfectly preserved. And the beauty of those images takes your breath away, the thrill of the discovery repays you for all the hours of boring inspections.
To capture both the routine and the exhilaration, Nicola let three photographers document, without constraint, what they saw behind the scenes of the Cinematek. Xavier Harck, Jimmy Kets, and Marie-Françoise Plissart took their cameras into the vaults, the work spaces, the projection rooms, even the loading docks. The images are gorgeous and radiate the touch and heft of reel after reel, can upon can, in profusion that evokes Resnais’ Toute la mémoire du monde.
Along with the photos are three essays about film archives. They are personal reflections on cinematheques and their place in film culture. Dominique Païni writes (in French) about how access to films changed during his years as director of the Cinematheque Francaise. Erich de Kuyper, filmmaker and novelist, reflects in Flemish on guiding the Amsterdam Film Museum and creating the programs there. I contributed a piece in English that tries to fit my personal research work into broader trends of film archiving. My essay is elsewhere on this site.
The age of impresarios
Langlois is the dragon who guards our treasures.
In spring of 1973 the New York Times announced that a city board had approved the leasing of a building that would house the City Center Cinematheque. This was to be the American counterpart of the Cinémathèque Française, and Henri Langlois was to be its director.
Langlois’ project was as vast and flamboyant as the man himself. An old storage building under the Queensboro Bridge, on First Avenue between 59th and 60th Streets, would be converted into a cathedral of cinema. I. M. Pei would design the new building. (One sketch is above.) There would be three auditoriums, a staff screening room, an exhibition space, a restaurant, a bookstore, and a flower market. Programs would draw upon Langlois’ archive of 60,000 titles, and there would be screenings from morning to midnight, offering as many as fourteen films a day. Langlois predicted that attendance would surpass a million a year.
My own encounters with Langlois, brief though they were, came at just this moment. I needed to see several French silent films for my dissertation work, and in 1972-1973 I wrote to Langlois asking for permission to visit his archive. Thanks to Sallie Blumenthal, we made contact and he gave me permission. In July, during the summer of Watergate, I arrived at the Cinémathèque. An expansive Langlois welcomed me and gave me a tour of the Musée du cinema, which had been somewhat prematurely opened. Jean-Louis Barrault’s costume from Les Enfants du Paradis was draped on a coat hanger nailed to a wall. During my two months in Paris, thanks to Langlois and Mary Meerson, I saw several rare films on Marie Epstein’s viewing table.
I have sometimes wondered if my stay there was an accident of timing. Perhaps as a young American I benefited from Langlois’ high hopes for his transatlantic alliance. Pressed by money problems in Paris, he could imagine that the American branch of the Cinémathèque would vindicate his vision of a motion picture museum without walls: films circulating everywhere, films shown all the time, no film too minor to merit attention. Had the City Center venue come to fruition, it would have overshadowed the Museum of Modern Art, Manhattan’s temple of cinema history. But the project collapsed fairly soon. It required private financing, and during the recession and the oil crisis money was hard to come by.
Langlois’ American adventure is just one episode in the tapestry presented in another archive-related anniversary volume: Le Musée imaginaire d’Henri Langlois. Edited by Dominique Païni, this de luxe production accompanied the Cinémathèque’s massive exposition from April to August. If Langlois were still living, he’d be 100 this year, and the sumptuousness of this catalogue is in part a testimony to what he accomplished. He helped make cinema equal to the other arts in cultural significance. But the enterprise is not too serious: Païni has made the volume’s emblem the famous shot, taken by an unknown hand, of Langlois in the kiss-my-ass salute.
The menu is familiar. There are informative essays by various hands, interspersed with illustrations and documents. But the execution is extraordinary. Reminiscent of 1920s publications, on rough paper and with decentered blocks of type, this square volume seduces you into sustained browsing. Moreover, it contains reproductions of artworks related to Langlois and his institution. We have works by Beuys, Chagall, Duchamp, Fischinger, Léger, Matisse, Miró, Picabia, Richter, Severini, and Survage—all connected, somehow to Langlois and cinema. There are frames from Le Métro, a 1934 film by Langlois and Franju., There are guest-book signatures, catalogue covers, correspondence, and much more.
The catalogue of the exposition is accompanied by a slender but no less ingratiating biographical chronology, festooned with still more images. Mais qui est ce Monsieur Langlois? opens with a striking portrait by Henri Cartier-Bresson and ends with the telegram sent by Jean Renoir after Langlois’ death in 1977. “We have lost our guide, and now we feel alone in the forest.”
I met Langlois in the days of rivalry among archives, a good deal of it triggered by him. If you were welcomed to Archive X, and word got to Archive Y, that venue would shun you. Surveying these books, I was struck by their quiet assumption that archives must collaborate on projects and share their treasures. After Langlois, archiving became more cooperative, more routinized, more professional, and–Langlois and his allies would say–more boring. We may not need dragons now. Perhaps, though, we had to go through the turmoil of the Age of Impresarios in order to appreciate why collecting films was so important.
Henri Langlois. Photo by Pierre Boulat.
Phil earns his groundhog halo.
Back in 1999, my book Storytelling in the New Hollywood (Harvard University Press) was about to be published. It was an attempt to suggest that, contrary to the talk of “post-classical” or “post-Hollywood” norms having taken over American filmmaking, the most important classical principles that had been at work since the 1910s were still going strong.
I outlined those principles in the opening chapter, discussing character goals, deadlines, dialogue hooks, unity, and the like. I also argued that, based on my analysis of many films from the 1910s to the 1990s, the vast majority of features followed a structure involving four large-scale parts, or acts–not three, as the popular Syd Field model would have it.
To do that, I analyzed the techniques of ten films usually considered to be models of unified, sophisticated narrative structure: Tootsie, Back to the Future, The Silence of the Lambs, Groundhog Day, Desperately Seeking Susan, Amadeus, The Hunt for Red October, Parenthood, Alien, and Hannah and Her Sisters.
The book was not intended to be a screenplay manual as such, though I know it has been used in some classes and by some aspiring screenwriters.
Ordinarily the press would have asked me to name some prominent film scholars who could be asked to write blurbs for the cover. It occurred to me, though, that it might be better in this case to take each chapter and send it to its director and to its main screenwriter and ask them for blurbs instead.
That turned out to work pretty well. Several didn’t answer, and other answered too late to be included. I ended up with three blurbs of which I am very proud, from Ted Tally for The Silence of the Lambs, Susan Seidelman for Desperately Seeking Susan, and from Harold Ramis for Groundhog Day.
Ramis’ recent death prompted me to dig out that old file. He had written back to my editor not with a sentence or two to use as a blurb, but with a page-and-a-half letter on the subject; it included a blurb down toward the bottom. It’s a letter that reflects how kind and smart Ramis was, and how much he had thought about writing and narrative–even though the process of writing screenplays was probably largely an intuitive one. It shows that he knew something about academic film studies, even if he had some “quibbles” with them. I certainly never meant to suggest that everything I pointed out in the films I analyzed was intended by the director and/or screenwriter. I would say that everything I pointed out was a result of their skill and experience. Even when something happens by accident during filming, someone has to decide whether or not to keep it in.
Rather than just sticking the letter back in the file, I thought I would share it with you. Having a little more of Ramis available can’t be a bad thing.
Thanks for sending the chapters of Kristin Thompson’s book Storytelling in the New Hollywood and please convey my thanks to Ms. Thompson for including Groundhog Day among the “modern classics.” My only quibble with scholarly film analysis is the occasional tendency to read more significance into certain details than was actually intended, or to think that certain accidents of production, on-set discoveries, or improvisational dialogues were planned and scripted. I realize, from a Deconstructionist point of view, it hardly matters what I think anyway, so let me set aside my minor quibbles and congratulate Ms. Thompson on her new book. If you would, please pass this letter along to her.
I am not a student of screenwriting so I’m afraid I can’t comment intelligently on Ms. Thompson’s theoretical model. Certainly, the fact that most movies are about two hours long will determine to a large extent the length of the set-up, the placement of the crisis, the climax, and the denouement, but rather than look at films in terms of “acts,” I prefer to think in terms of “actions,” as if the narrative line were a string of pearls, dramatically linked, each taking the audience forward to the next point. If any particular action doesn’t advance the plot or contain some new information, it doesn’t belong in the narrative. As a writer I generally proceed more intuitively than structurally. As Ms. Thompson suggests, I suspect that most of us have simply absorbed the classical film structure during our formative years as members of the audience.
When I was hired to write my first Hollywood screenplay, Animal House, the producer handed my collaborators and I paperback copies of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and said, “This is what a good screenplay looks like. Just do that.” More than twenty years later, my only useful conclusion about structure is that nothing will work if you don’t have interesting characters and a good story to tell. One can argue for or against the three-action structure, but, whether or not there are consistent rules about the :well-made” screenplay, it’s already true that there are more well-constructed, formulaic screenplays than there are good ones. Also, one must always keep in mind that Hollywood films are almost invariably rewritten by additional (though not always credits) writers. One writer may be thought of as strong on structure, good for a solid first draft, another may be known for his dialogue, others for punching up action or comedy. Also , the Hollywood writer is always responding to script notes from studio executives, story departments, his producers, the director, and from his principal actors. In this convoluted and often tortured process, it’s sometimes impossible to attribute the final screenplay to the calculated intentions of one writer or team, and it’s often left up to a panel of Writers Guild arbiters to determine screen credit.
I didn’t intend to write such an inflated letter but there’s a lot to say on the subject and I have a considerable amount of experience.
If it’s useful to you, you may quote me as saying that Ms. Thompson’s insightful analysis of Groundhog Day and of the screenwriting process in general should be fascinating to both writers and audience alike. More thoughtful writing and more discerning audiences can’t help but lead to better movies, and this informative and provocative book is a step in that direction.
Best of luck on the publication of Storytelling in the New Hollywood and please feel free to contact me if you need any further comments.
Harold Ramis as Allan “Crazy Legs” Hirschman (SCTV, “Indecent Exposure,” 1982).