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Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

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The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

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Archive for the 'Festivals: Wisconsin' Category

Alexander Payne’s vividly shot reality

 

Election.

Kristin here:

Both David and I missed almost all of this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival. I was in Egypt wearing my archaeologist’s hat and working on ancient statuary, and David was attending the Hong Kong International Film Festival. (See his reports, here and here.) Luckily we made it back just in time for Alexander Payne’s spring visit to Madison.

I first met Alexander at last year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna. He already knew who I was from having read Film Art: An Introduction, and we started chatting. We were in a small crowd outside the Arlecchino cinema, where a screening was running late. I asked Alexander what he had seen at the festival that he liked. He said he had come from a screening of Sjöström’s Ingeborg Holm and thought it was a masterpiece. Right away I knew that this man has impeccable taste in movies. (Alexander further proved this during his recent visit, saying that his favorite three films of Il Cinema Ritrovato were Ingeborg Holm, Naruse’s Wife, Be Like a Rose, and Rossellini’s Il Generale Della Rovere.)

Alexander is  a friend of Jim Healy, head programmer for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Colloquium screening series  and of the Wisconsin Film Festival. Jim seems to know half the people in the film industry as well as in the festival and archival spheres; he has already brought Tim Hunter and Joe Dante to campus. I knew he hoped to bring Alexander as well, so I put in a pitch for the idea, mentioning how enthusiastic the film students and buffs are in Madison and how he would enjoy speaking with audiences here, who would ask interesting questions. Luckily for me that turned out to be true, a mere nine months later. (Left, Alexander and Jim in a local Madison burger joint.)

 

Alexander Payne, cinephile

Alexander participated in a number of events here in Madison, some associated with the Wisconsin Film Festival and others with the Department of Communication Arts. These began with a session of our divisional film colloquium, which began with David and Alexander in discussion onstage (right) and then opened for questions from the faculty and graduate students.

The conversation began with Alexander recalling how he fell in love with movies, which he reckons happened at about the age of four. He watched mainly older movies. In those days there were rival houses in his hometown of Omaha. His father owned a restaurant in Omaha, and for some reason one of his suppliers, Kraft, gave him a regular-8mm movie projector. Alexander started collecting films, buying prints initially from the now defunct Castle company and later from the still functioning Blackhawk Films.

These included all twelve Chaplin shorts made a Mutual. Many years later, Alexander supported the restoration of the last of that set, The Adventurer. That’s what had brought him to Bologna. He introduced the film, which was shone as one of several new restorations in the Essanay/Mutual Project of the Fondazione Cineteca Di Bologna and Lobster Films. (See here for information on the project and program notes for this year’s screenings.) It was screened at one of the 10 pm programs in the Piazza Maggiore, with Sjöström’s The Outlaw and His Wife, also nearly restored.

Jumping back to Alexander’s progress as a cinephile, he became an undergraduate at Stanford, studying history and Spanish. From there he moved on to UCLA for an education in filmmaking, and “thought it was heaven.” He loved it so much that he delayed starting his filmmaking career and staying on to see more film’s in the famous Melnitz Hall screening room. In those days, 35mm prints were regularly shown, including nitrate originals. (Probably around ten years ago I saw a nitrate print of Trouble in Paradise there, being screened for a class. It definitely was heaven.)

There he recalls seeing such things as an Antonioni retrospective and Double Indemnity. When he was in his 30s, he fell in love with Italian and Japanese cinema. Now that he has reached his 50s, he has broadened his interests to study the films of Hollywood directors like Michael Curtiz and Raoul Walsh. He admires the conciseness of their films: “Film,” he says, “is a constant search for economy.”

Alexander’s love of Italian films was in evidence at one of the final events of the Wisconsin Film Festival. He had been asked to choose an older film that he could introduce and answer questions about afterward. His choice was Il Sorpasso (1961, Dino Risi). The auditorium at our local arthouse multiplex, Sundance 608, was packed with a very enthusiastic audience indeed. (Left, Alexander after being introduced by Jim Healey.)

The next evening, Alexander did the same for a screening of Nebraska at Union South. Again a full house, and again an audience eager to ask questions.

In between such events, we shared some restaurant meals. Alexander, Jim, and David sounded like some contrapuntal version of the Internet Movie Database, tossing titles, directors, and other film credits back and forth.

During these conversations, and indeed every other conversation we had with him, Alexander would pull out a small pocket notebook (though paper napkins sometimes substituted) and write down any intriguing-sounding title of a film he hadn’t seen. Not only a cinephile, but a systematic one.

Not surprisingly, during the colloquium discussion the issue of Nebraska being shot in black-and-white came up. David mentioned that Bong Joon-ho had said to him (while they were both jury members at this year’s Hong Kong Film Festival) that every director wants to make a black-and-white movie.

Given his love for older films, Alexander  considers that “Our great film heritage is black and white.” Inevitably, during the press junkets for Nebraska, reporters asked him why he made the film in black and white. What he wants to know is, “Why is that the first question?”

Alexander agrees with Bong: “I don’t think a director is really a director until he or she has made a film in black and white.” He approached Paramount with the idea of making Nebraska as a black-and-white film and argued that it would be viable because it had a low budget of $12 million. He adds that directors have faced the same arguments against black and white since the 1970s, as when Peter Bogdanovich was making Paper Moon. The TV contracts specify color.

Alexander wanted to shoot Nebraska on film, but the only black-and-white stock available had an ASA of 200, which would not be effective for night shooting. He had to shoot digitally and add contrast and grain afterward to get a film look.

He definitely regrets the loss of film, which he considers superior to video: “I think flicker will always be superior to glow.”

Alexander says he is a big fan of the 1970s because he was a teenager at the time. He thinks that a lot of films made then and released into regular theaters could not be shown today outside arthouses. Films then were judged by their closeness to reality, not their distance from it. For him, “There’s just a consistently fine product being turned out between The Graduate [1967] and Raging Bull [1980].”

It was the period when a generation of filmmakers came to prominence, filmmakers who today are the grand old men of Hollywood. David pointed out that Alexander has often been mentioned as part of a later generation that included such directors as Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. Alexander agreed that there was the “Class of 1999″ that included films like Election and Fight Club (putting David Fincher in the same group). He says of these directors, “We’re friendly enough.” But he envies the Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas generation because they were able to help each other out in filmmaking. His generation doesn’t socialize much, though he said he had seen Soderbergh recently.

 

The Milos Forman of Nebraska

For anyone who had been unaware that Payne comes from the vast territory in the middle of the USA that encompasses the Midwest and Great Plains and is generally known as Flyover Territory, his latest film makes that point clear. He was born and raised in Omaha, and still lives part of the year there. As he explained in the colloquium discussion, “I’m one of those people in the arts who are interested in exploring where they’re from.” This is not to say that all of his films are set in Nebraska, but four of the six features take place there, explicitly or implicitly.

Citizen Ruth has not identifiable setting, as far as I could tell, though its milieu is clearly centered in small-town life in the country’s midsection. It was shot in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha. Election doesn’t stress the fact, but close shots of newspaper stories reveal that its story is set in Omaha. Warren Schmidt lives there as well, and his road trip to his daughter’s wedding takes him to Denver and brings him back home. Payne’s next two films were set in quite different parts of America: Sideways in San Diego and California wine country and The Descendants in Hawaii. Nebraska chronicled David Grant’s journey with his father Woody from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, taking in several rural and small-town locations along the way.

Each story mixes humor and pathos, including both satirical swipes at locals and great affection for them. It’s hard to pin down their genres. (The Internet Movie Database classifies About Schmidt as a comedy/drama and Nebraska as an adventure/drama.) In the colloquium, Payne remarked of Nebraska, “I call it my own Czech Republic. I get to make Milos Forman films about it.”

It is a cliché to say that the settings in which a film’s action takes place become a character in the drama, but Payne’s films really do manage to keep us aware of the surroundings to surprising extent. Payne says that when he discusses a film with his cinematographer and production designer, he says he wants “Vividly shot reality.”

Vivid can simply mean beautiful, and there are many such landscapes, as in The Descendants:

But it need not mean that. The choice of framing in the opening scene of Election, with the fence in the foreground and the school crouched ominously high on the hill tend to make it look like a prison:

Emphasis on locales can be created by something as simple as a slight wide-angle lens that adds dimension to a house, making it more prominent within its surroundings, as in The Descendants, About Schmidt, and Nebraska, where the vegetation framing the building, ranging from lush to ordinary to sparse, help define the homes of the main characters:

     

To achieve the desired vividness, Payne often chooses to use real interiors, even if that limits the types of set-ups he can make. The result can be busy but spacious and attractive, as in The Descendants:

Or the constraint can turn to an advantage, as in the confined arrangement filmed from a television’s point of view for the “That Impala you used to have …” long take in Nebraska:

This latter scene exemplifies something else that Payne considers crucial for achieving realism: the addition of extras and small roles, often played by non-actors found in the area where location filming is occurring.

Alexander sometimes uses symmetry to make a fairly ordinary locale more vivid, as in these planimetric shots from Sideways and About Schmidt:

    

Vivid shots can make a thematic point, as in The Descendants. Shots of Matt and his daughters being driven through their unspoiled ancestral land lead to a view of them being driven up to the sort of elegant resort that could be built on that land if they sell it. The second shot is pretty and well composed, but the juxtaposition with the series of shots that preceded it should make us sense it as slightly menacing as well:

    

I’ve stuck mainly to long shots here, since that’s where the vivid realism tends to come. There are many unusually close views of characters as well, which contrast with these long shots. There we tend to get the psychological side of these films, which are basically character studies. This contrast may be what gives Alexander’s films a sense both of place and of intense concentration on characters.

 

Alexander Payne, storyteller

We all know that Oscar wins and nominations don’t always go to the actual best films of the year. But they do reflect something about the reputation of a filmmaker within the industry. Alexander has had two films nominated for best picture: The Descendants and Nebraska. That these nominations are not simply the result of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s switch to a ten-nominee best-picture category is reflected in the fact that he has been nominated for best director three times: Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska. He and his co-writers have also been nominated three times for best adapted screenplay: Election, Sideways, and The Descendants. The only film which Payne did not co-write, Nebraska, received an nomination for best original screenplay, by Bob Nelson. All these nominations produced two wins, for the screenplays of Sideways and The Descendants. Clearly Alexander is recognized in Hollywood as a fine storyteller.

Apart from Citizen Ruth and Nebraska, all of Alexander’s films are based on novels. In the colloquium discussion with David, he said he prefers adapting novels, which are ready-made stories. He doesn’t have the original ideas, but he can deal with them almost like a documentarian filming an imagined reality. Most of the novels have been based on the authors’ own experiences, and most of them are regional. “You can find a world and have a dialogue with it.”

His sources are generally not well-known novels. None of the Jane Austen-style prestigious literary property here. Neither Election nor Sideways had been published at the point where he decided to adapt them. The Descendants was not a well-known book. As his first project out of film school, Alexander and Jim Taylor, who would collaborate on several scripts, wrote an original one about a retired man in Omaha. When no one in Hollywood was interested, they went on and made Citizen Ruth and Election. Once Election became a critical, if not a commercial, success, they were able to move on to a more ambitious project. In the late 1990s, Louis Begley’s novel, About Schmidt, was suggested to them as a possible vehicle for Jack Nicholson. They derived some elements from it, combining them with their earlier script. It was, by the way, Alexander’s most expensive film at $32 million, half of which went for Jack Nicholson’s fee.

[Thanks to Jim Healey for clarifying About Schmidt's origins; this paragraph has been re-written to incorporate the information he provided.]

Clearly he values the tight unity and narrative economy that are characteristic of the studio age of Hollywood filmmaking: “You want your screenplay as streamlined as possible.” That doesn’t mean following a formula, however. He considers that the screenplay manuals that have been so influential, like those of Syd Field and Robert McKee, “destructive.” He dislikes their blanket generalizations. David pointed out that Matt’s voiceover narration in The Descendants is used to provide exposition, but then tapers off at about the midway point. Alexander responds that manuals claims that voiceover should not be used, but that if it is, it should either be used throughout or only at the beginning and end. These strictures he considers absurd. (Interestingly, many classic studios films start with a voiceover that doesn’t return at the end.)

During the colloquium discussion, Alexander remarked, “I like films which are entertaining and charming.” It’s a generalization that could apply to classical studio filmmaking, and it applies to his films as well. These are well-made films made on the whole along classical lines. Their main characters have goals, struggle toward them, meet obstacles, and usually follow an arc at the end of which they have a sudden realization.

Those goals, struggles, and growth also follow a pattern that one could point to in making a case for a thematic consistency in Alexander’s work. These are mostly films where characters struggle against some misfortune or obsessive hatred and eventually come to some sort of reconciliation with their situation.

Warren Schmidt deals with retirements, the death of his wife, and the marriage of his daughter into a family that disgusts him. He concludes that his life has been an utter waste, and yet a sudden realization that a casual act of kindness  has made a difference to another person (a six-year-old orphan in Africa whom he has “adopted” through a charity) rescues him from his despair.

In Sideways, Miles cannot accept that his ex-wife has left him and is about to remarry, and he also hopes to find a publisher for his unwieldy, long novel. Only after he accepts both the failure of his marriage and the impossibility of publication can he move on to a possible new romance. In The Descendants, Matt overcomes his rage over his comatose wife’s infidelity in time to bid her a sincere, grief-filled farewell before she dies. In Nebraska, David Grant struggles to convince his father Woody that his delusions, perhaps brought on by increasing dementia, are absurd, but he finally realizes that humoring the old man is a kinder approach for all concerned.

Election, being an early work, largely avoids this pattern. Jim conceives a hatred for Tracy that he never overcomes. He manages to pull himself together after the failure of his marriage and his firing from his high-school teaching post, finding a new romance and a modest job as a guide in a New York museum. Still, his last glimpse of Tracy as an apparently successful assistant to a major politician is resentful and dismissive, as he continues to view her as he had during her candidacy for student president. Here there is no reconciliation in the main plotline.

The films also tend to follow a well-balanced structure that at least sometimes conforms to the four-part structure I have outlined in Storytelling in the New Hollywood and in this blog entryElection, for example, has a major turning point that comes halfway through: Tracy notices that one of her posters has begun to peel off the wall (see top), and her struggle to re-attach it leads her to lose control for once and destroy her opponent’s posters. It’s a moment that Jim could legitimately use to disqualify her as a candidate, but his own incompetence and her cleverness and ruthless resistance of his accusations ultimately lead to his failure and her success. The Descendants has a well-balanced four-part structure as well.

There is also a playfulness about these films that fits Alexander’s “entertaining and charming” description of classical films. Both Election and About Schmidt, for example, contain inserts showing the protagonists’ absurd visions of themselves as wildly successful, Jim as a Marcello Mastroianni-like sophisticate and Schmidt as a business tycoon:

     

What about the future? Alexander revealed that after Sideways, he and Taylor embarked on an original screenplay, which now has been revived as a current project. It would be a big-budget, effects-driven film. If the project comes to fruition, he dreads the prospect of doing storyboards for the first time. His devotion to historic films remains unchanged, however. He plans to be at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, where we hope to catch a meal with him and go on throwing favorite titles back and forth.


Why do reporters start by asking why Nebraska is in black and white? Having studied press junkets for The Frodo Franchise (see the section on frequently asked questions, pp. 123-132), I suspect that the studio is behind it. Basically publicity departments plant a small number of subjects they want reporters to talk about in the press releases, EPKs, and other items they use to guide the press. Reporters batten onto these as the things their readers would be most interested in, and they ask about them and write about them ad nauseum. All this means that filmmakers have to suffer through this same limited repertory of questions dozens, perhaps hundreds of times, struggling each time to say the same thing in a different way. The price of fame.

We have long included an example from Election in Film Art, where we quoted Alexander as a way of showing that directors deliberately set up patterns of motifs.

About Schmidt.

The Maestro of Chagrin Falls

A fan’s tattoo, from Dear Mr. Watterson (2013).

DB here:

Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, was probably the best cartoon draftsman since Carl Barks and Walt Kelly. His versatile line could be thick or thin, fluent or jagged. His coloring was rich, his layout experimental in the Herriman vein. His energetic picture stories provided zany humor and an unsentimental look at childhood imagination. If Schulz treated kids as miniature adults, complete with obsessions and neuroses, Watterson saw Calvin as an adolescent in a child’s body, a rebellious teenager-to-be surrounded by adversaries and fools. Schulz’s Peanuts kids suffer in thin, wriggly lines, but Calvin’s mood swings from rage to rapture are rendered by manic exaggeration in the classic cartoon tradition. Meanwhile Hobbes, contrary to his name, exercises a gentling effect, becoming a tolerant Superego to Calvin’s Id.

Watterson was the Pynchon of cartoondom. His studio in Chagrin Falls, Ohio yielded a solitude rare for a publishing celebrity. He almost never appeared in public and seldom answered mail. In one of his rare public gestures, he criticized  syndicate power, the tired old strips put on life support, and the scramble for licensing deals. Accordingly, he permitted no merchandising beyond book collections. Any Calvin and Hobbes toys or T-shirts or decals you see around you are DIY handicraft. After ten years Watterson simply halted the strip, an abnegation that drove his millions of admirers to despair. And he has remained reclusive.

Dear Mr. Watterson, which won a Golden Badger award at our Wisconsin Film Festival, sprang from Joel Schroeder’s fondness for the strip. He realized early on that interviewing Watterson wasn’t in the cards. So he set out to find ordinary readers who would testify to their love for Watterson’s creation. He found plenty of eloquent ones, but the movie is no mere fanboy indulgence. Schroeder’s travels took him to many of today’s top cartoonists, from Berkeley Breathed to Stephan Pastis, as well as critics and syndicate executives. By outlining the shape of Watterson’s achievement in comics history, Dear Mr. Watterson mutes its admiration with regret, and not merely because Watterson quit at the height of his popularity. The film shows that, as one interviewee puts it, Calvin and Hobbes is very likely the last great comic strip.

Why? The conditions of publishing have a lot to do with it. As newspapers got thinner and smaller, the space allotted to comics shrank. Complex compositions and spacious storytelling became difficult in the slots allotted to Sunday strips, while the daily panel formats were minuscule. Only the sketchiest drawing survives the reduction. The squeeze was starting in Schulz’s day: Peanuts was the beginning of the “minimalist” look of Cathy and Fox Trot.  Watterson’s bold drawing style and appetite for scale posed problems for publishing. Ironically, as Schroeder pointed out in his Q & A, the sort of freedom and flexibility Watterson sought would become available a decade later on the Net.

Something else suffocated comics creativity. Just as tentpole films need an array of ancillaries, a successful cartoon demands the womb-to-tomb merchandising that Watterson foreswore. Children need to be hooked on the franchise before they can read. Garfield clothes and toys introduce infants to a pudgy beast that will stalk them throughout their lives, on lunchboxes and calendars and mugs and mousepads and refrigerator magnets and TV shows and “Is it Friday Yet?” placards for office cubicles. Watterson realized, I think, that being surrounded forever by leering images of cute creatures was one version of Hell.

Schroeder, a graduate of UW—Madison, has made a smart, touching movie. It deserves wide circulation and even, I should say, a PBS airing. It’s at once a tribute to a fine artist, a probe into comics history, and a revelation of how integrity can be maintained in the era of Monetization. Turning down hundreds of millions of dollars, Watterson in effect said something that almost no one imagines possible today: I don’t need that much money.

One observer comments that when Calvin and Hobbes ceased, many critics expected its fan base to dwindle, because it wouldn’t be maintained by all the spinoffs. Instead, parents pass down their Watterson paperbacks as family heirlooms. Fans have the lavish three-volume compendium of the strips, which is selling briskly on Amazon, while school libraries are replenishing their holdings of the slim anthologies. Our children are following the adventures of the hyperkinetic brat and his imaginary tiger in the best way: By reading books.

P.S. 2 May: Chris Blunk of Through a Glass Productions writes this followup:

Coincidentally, this past Sunday I met John Glynn, who works at Andrews/McMeel promoting their properties to Hollywood (such as Garfield and Over the Hedge). He was at the Free State Film Festival in Lawrence, Kansas where he showed the Sundance-boosted Small Apartments, also based on an Andrews/McMeel property. He was the first person I’d ever met who has any kind of semi-regular contact with Watterson. Though Watterson retains nearly all ancillary rights to his characters, A/M-Universal consults him on book printings, electronic distribution, etc.

While there were several tidbits that thrilled a fan like me, one item he mentioned particularly pertained to your article. He claimed that traffic at the Universal comics website (www.gocomics.com) is by and large driven by the Calvin and Hobbes classic – i.e. rerun – strips. The majority of visitors to all other comics on the site – including popular current strips like Get Fuzzy, Pearls Before Swine, Dilbert, etc, – arrive through Calvin and Hobbes.

So in addition to being propagated through handed-down book collections, as you pointed out, Calvin has managed to attract new fans and dominate comics circulation even in the new frontier of the web that grew into being long after Watterson’s retirement. And this with no new strips published in the past 20 years.

He told a couple other anecdotes that were similarly surprising. Such as a time in the early 90s when Spielberg was involved in some animation projects (Tiny Toon Adventures, Family Dog, Animaniacs, etc) and made inquiries about the rights to Calvin and Hobbes. According to Glynn, Watterson turned down a direct phone call with Spielberg himself reasoning they had nothing to discuss.

Thanks to Chris for his thoughts and information, and for reading our blog.

P.P.S. 16 July 2013: Gravitas Ventures announces that it will be releasing Dear Mr. Watterson on theatrical and VOD in November.

Dear Mr. Watterson.

Spring comes, bringing movies for Badgers

Good Bye (Mohammad Rasoulof).

DB here:

The thirteen years of our Wisconsin Film Festival have furnished plenty of high-definition moments. I’ll never forget Roger Ebert facing a crowd of a couple of thousand in the Orpheum Theatre to introduce A Hard Day’s Night, or Michael Snow explaining Corpus Callosum to a couple of hundred of the devout in our Cinematheque. We sponsored the first retrospective of Hong Sang-soo’s work—after he had made only three films—and he came along. Hundreds of young filmmakers have visited Madison with their independent works, while we’ve also sponsored some wonderful restorations of classics. Somehow spring always arrives right on time as people line up, chatting, to pass from sunshine into the darkness of our local movie houses, or to the many coffeehouses and pubs near the venues.

Some years the festival has clashed with the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and it’s always been awkward for me to leave Madison for the Fragrant Harbor. But this year, number 14, I can happily stay at home and let the festival come to me.

Roger Ebert and Meg Hamel, Wisconsin Film Festival 2006.

You can see what’s on offer here. Our programming team has gone the full distance for us.

This year’s guests include the distinguished experimentalist Phil Solomon (three programs, one curated by him) and Dan Levin, cognitive scientist and part-time filmmaker , who’s paying tribute to Joel Gersmann in a movie called Filthy Theater. We also have James Schamus of Focus Features. You know him as the award-winning screenwriter of many Ang Lee films and a founder of the Good Machine company, a bastion of bold independent cinema in the 1990s. His New York Times profile is here. James is giving a talk, “My Wife Is a Terrorist” on Thursday at 7:30, and it should be quite something: a narrative analysis of his wife’s Homeland Security file, including, he promises, meditations on redactions.

I thought I’d use today’s entry to signal to Madisonians, and anybody else who’s interested, some of the films that we’re showing that I’ve found worthwhile. In some cases, I supply links to write-ups on this site.

Monsieur Lazhar is a warm drama given astringency by its sudden bits of realism. The mysterious title character takes a teaching post in a primary school and must negotiate between corridor politics and students’ personal problems. Just enough sweetness, just enough toughness, and just enough of an uncertain ending to put it squarely in the Tradition of Quality. That isn’t meant as a complaint.

For me The Devil, Probably is second-tier Bresson, which means first-rate anybody else. People tend to forget that this spiritual director, his eyes supposedly lifted to the clouds and mists of holiness, was also resolutely secular. He was fascinated by young people and their way of being in the world, from the boyish Country Priest to the hapless Mouchette. Moving with the times, he gave us this reflection on post-’68 disenchantment with where things were going. I should see it again. Everybody should.

Good Bye (aka Goodbye) has a bit of Bresson about it. It’s an austere film concentrating on a woman lawyer forced out of her profession and up against a plethora of problems. Her past and present unfold gradually: Every scene has two levels, usually a mundane action that gradually yields hints about her husband, her unborn child, and her plans to leave Iran. A scathing portrait of a culture of bureaucracy, bribery, and surveillancer (the film was smuggled out of the country), Good Bye will stay with you. Kristin talks about it here.

Current, in my view wholly justified, admiration for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy should bring people to The Deadly Affair, Sidney Lumet’s intelligent version of A Call for the Dead. All have had their say about Guinness vs. Oldman as spymaster George Smiley, but what about a 57-year-old James Mason in the role? This time around the sexual jealousies underlying the recent Tinker Tailor are brought to the fore (the title is a pun), with Harriet Andersson as a ravishing Ann Smiley.

Another Brit retrospective item is Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well? Kristin spent a whole blog on this surprisingly grim study in complacency overcome by offhand heroism.

One of the very best films we saw at Vancouver last fall was Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (above), which we discuss a little bit here. Somber and mesmerizing, it coaxes you to pay attention. My kind of movie.

Action pictures are a universal genre; every culture makes some good ones. The French have been at it longer than most, and a happy result is Sleepless Night. A cop (is he dirty or just working undercover?) has to rescue his kidnapped son from a drug dealer. It was a neat idea to stage action scenes in a jam-packed disco-cum-casino, complete with glitterballs and zebra-skin doors, so our scruffy protagonist must hurtle through masses of the hip rich. There’s a kitchen-utensil fight according to Hong Kong rules: Use everything to hand as a weapon, and don’t stop until everybody collapses in pain and exhaustion. Lots of handheld work, but mostly coherent, with an admirable fondness for precise matches on movement. Kinetic fun, and wall-eyed for Hollywood.

Speaking of Hong Kong, there’s one of Johnnie To’s latest, Life without Principle. This story of intersecting destinies during the European financial crisis spurred me to comment at some length here. To is, in my immodest opinion, one of the best directors working anywhere today, and a chance to see his recent work is really splendid. We have a 35mm print, and I’m tempted to go back and see it a third time.

Klown’s outrageous bad manners are perhaps a little too calculated, but this Danish dramedy from Lars von Trier’s company does catch you up. Laced with jokes about pedophilia and manly touching rituals, it seems at first glance a rough-edged bromance. Two pals and a nephew go on a canoeing trip aiming to end at an upscale brothel. After a string of slapstick disasters, the thing looks ominously like it might end in hugs and cheerful tears, but the biggest sting comes in the last few seconds. With a funny, offhand performance by musician Bent Fabric and a walk-on by Jørgen Leth (himself no stranger to outlaw sexytime).

Testosterone to the bursting point is no less on display in Policeman, a bristling, brutal examination of male bonding among Israeli cops. Although it builds to an incendiary action sequence, it’s mostly a study of how people of all classes and political cultures acquire an appetite for violence. Kristin wrote about it here.

Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea is a low-key, haunting piece. A portrait documentary? Semi-autobiographical fiction? Experimental film? All three, I guess. And in glorious black-and-white 16mm, which Rivers processes himself. Kristin gives it thumbs up here.

Finally: No film can portray the state of a country at a moment in history, but you’ll be thinking a lot about how today’s Russia might work after you see Elena. A character study of a woman whose ruthlessness is made reasonable and even sympathetic, a thriller centered on how to keep your enemies close, and a sociological study of the haves and have-nots in rapacious capitalism.

Because these are outstanding movies, several are listed as sold out. But some seats have been kept aside, and inevitably some who bought tickets won’t show up. The festival staff tell me that there will be a wait line for each show, and they’ll try to get everybody in. Me, I hope to watch at least a dozen programs, and I’ll try to blog about some in the afterglow. See you there?

Sleepless Night (Nuit blanche; Frédéric Jardin).

It takes all kinds

Kristin here—

How many directors are there whose bad reviews just make you more eager to see their new films? I’m not at Cannes and haven’t seen Jean-Luc Godard’s Film socialisme. But I’ve read some negative reviews, mainly those by Roger Ebert and Todd McCarthy. Now I’m really hoping that Film socialisme shows up at the Vancouver International Film Festival this year. (Please, Mr. Franey? I promise to blog about it.)

As you can tell from my writings, I’m no pointy-headed intellectual who won’t watch anything without subtitles. I love much of Godard’s work and have analyzed two films from early in what a lot of people see as his late, obscurantist period (Tout va bien and Sauve qui peut (la vie) in Breaking the Glass Armor). But I also love popular cinema. If I made a top-ten-films list for 1982, both Mad Max II (aka The Road Warrior) and Passion (left and below) would be on it.

Of course, those are old films by most people’s standards. Godard’s films have gotten much more opaque since I wrote those essays. I wouldn’t dare to write about King Lear or Hélas pour moi. That’s partly because I don’t speak French, though a French friend of ours has assured us that that doesn’t help much. Here Godard thwarts the non-French-speaker further by not translating the dialogue. Variety‘s Jordan Mintzer describes the subtitles that appear in the film: “To add fuel to the fire, the English subtitles of “Film Socialism” do not perform their normal duties: Rather than translating the dialogue, they’re works of art in themselves, truncating or abstracting what’s spoken onscreen into the helmer’s infamous word assemblies (for example, “Do you want my opinion?” becomes “Aids Tools,” while a discussion about history and race is transformed into “German Jew Black”).” Mintzer’s review provides a long description of the film; he mentions how baffling it is but doesn’t offer any real value judgments on it. Like other reviews, though, it piques my interest in the film.

Since Godard has increasingly moved into video essays, I’ve not kept as close track of him. But I always look forward to seeing his occasional new features on the big screen. The man has a mysterious knack for making beautiful images out of the mundane. How could a shot of a distant airplane leaving a jet-trail across a blue sky be dramatic? Godard manages it in the first shot of Passion. (I won’t show a frame from that shot, since it depends on the passage of time for its effect.) His soundtracks are dense and playful. Every few years the man cobbles together an incomprehensible plot based on rather tired political ideas and turns out something so visually striking that it might as well be an experimental film. I’m willing to watch and listen hard without assuming that I’m obliged to strain to find a message. McCarthy comments, “More personally, I have become increasingly convinced that this is not a man whose views on anything do I want to take seriously. [...]” Did we take his views all that seriously back when he was a Maoist? I didn’t, but La Chinoise is a terrific film.

That’s not my point, though. As Ebert’s and McCarthy’s reviews both mention there are devotees of Godard who will most likely enjoy and defend Film socialisme. Ebert: “I have not the slightest doubt it will all be explained by some of his defenders, or should I say disciples.” McCarthy says that Godard is one of an “ivory tower group whose work regularly turns up at festivals, is received with enthusiasm by the usual suspects and then is promptly ignored by everyone other than an easily identifiable inner circle of European and American acolytes.” (McCarthy’s review is entitled “Band of Insiders.”)

I’m not sure what’s wrong with being devoted to Godard, even to the point of defending films that may be obscure or even maddening. I personally haven’t enjoyed his more recent theatrical releases like Forever Mozart and Éloge pour l’amour as much as his earlier work, but they’re still better than most Hollywood, independent, and foreign art-house films. The man is pushing 80 and not likely to change, so live and let us acolytes live.

Not coming to a theater remotely near you

I’m not here to defend Godard—not yet, anyway. But on May 19, Roger posted an essay calling for more “Real Movies” to be made, essentially narratives based on psychologically intriguing characters in situations with which we can empathize. He doesn’t say so, but I suspect this idea was inspired in part by his reaction to Film socialisme. His examples of real movies are some of the films he’s enjoyed this year at Cannes. I haven’t seen those, either, but I’ve read enough of Roger’s writings and been to Ebertfest often enough to know he loves U. S. indie films like Frozen River and Goodbye Solo. Excellent films with fascinating characters, but they and most of the foreign-language films that get released in the U.S. play mostly at festivals and in art-houses, both of which tend to be confined to cities and college towns. I’m sure that such character-driven films would be more likely than Film socialisme to get booked into art-houses, but they wouldn’t wean Hollywood from its tentpole ways.

Even the films that play festivals and arouse great emotion and admiration in the audiences will seldom break through into the mainstream. There simply aren’t enough of those art-houses.

As with many of Roger’s posts, “A Campaign for Real Movies” has aroused comments from people complaining about the lack of an art-house within driving distance of where they live. Jeremy Chapman remarked:

But Roger, if they did that (“Real Movies”), then I’d return to the cinema. And those in charge of the movie industry have proven again and again that they don’t wish to see me there. They’d rather show regurgitated nonsense to people so desperate for some distraction from their lives that they’ll go even though they know that they’re watching rubbish.

If any of these films you mention play nearby, then I shall see them. But they won’t. Instead I’ll have the option of Avatar II or some remake of a movie that was quite good enough (or not) the first time it was made. I love the movies, but I’m so over the movie industry (at least in the US).

Talking to regulars at Ebertfest, one hears time and again that some of them journey across several states to have a quick, intense immersion in films that haven’t played near their homes. Similarly, many who post comments on Roger’s essays refer to having been limited to seeing indie and foreign films on DVDs or downloads from Netflix.

I completely sympathize with that problem. Even with Sundance’s six-screen multiplex and the University of Wisconsin’s Cinematheque series and Wisconsin Film Festival, most of the movies David and I see at events like Vancouver or Hong Kong don’t play here. Sundance has to book pop films on some of its screens to allow them to bring art films to the others. Right now Iron Man 2 and Sex in the City 2 are playing there, alongside The Secret in Their Eyes and Letters to Juliet. If that’s what it takes to keep the place going, then so be it.

However much people decry the crassness of Hollywood—and there’s plenty of it to go around—or denounce audiences who only go to the latest CGI spectacle, the simple fact is that the market rules. Indeed, if there were a truly free market, we probably would see far fewer indie and foreign-language films. Film festivals are supported largely by sponsors, and the films they show are often wholly or partially subsidized by national governments. The festival circuit has long since become the primary market for a range of films that otherwise never reach audiences.

That may sound terrible to some, but consider the other arts. Some presses only publish books they hope will be best-sellers, while poetry and other specialist literature is relegated to small presses whose output doesn’t show up in Barnes & Noble. That’s very unlikely to change. Amazon and other online sales have been a shot in the arm for small presses, just as Netflix has made it far easier for people to see films they probably would not otherwise have access to. (Our plumber told me the other day that he had been watching a bunch of recent German films downloaded from Netflix. Well, that’s Madison, as we say; high educational level per capita. But most people have the same option, if they wish.)

Art-houses are scarce in small cities and towns, but such places are not likely to have opera houses either, or galleries with shows of major modern artists, or bookstores which offer 125,000 titles. (As I recall, that’s what Borders claimed to have when it first opened in Madison. Now they seem to be working on that many varieties of coffee.) Opera or ballet lovers are used to traveling to cities where they can see productions, and serious Wagner buffs aim to make the pilgrimage to Bayreuth at least once in their lives.

David and I are lucky. It’s vital to our work to keep up on world cinema, so now and then we travel to festivals and wallow in movies for a week or two. Quite a few civilians plan their vacations around such events, too. We’ve run into people in Vancouver who say they save up days off and take them during the festival. Naturally not everyone can do that, but not everybody can see the current Matisse exhibition in Chicago (closes June 20) or the recent lauded production of Shostakovich’s eccentric opera The Nose at the Metropolitan. I really wish I had seen The Nose, but I don’t really expect the production to play the Overture Center here.

To some people, film festivals might sound like rare events that inevitably take place far away, like the south of France. Those are the festivals that lure in the stars and get widespread coverage. But there are thousands of lesser-known festivals around the world, dedicated to every genre and length and nationality of cinema. For those who like to see old movies on the big screen, Italy offers two such festivals, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (silent cinema) and Il Cinema Ritrovato (restored prints and retrospectives from nearly the entire span of cinema history; this year’s schedule should be posted soon). Last month in Los Angeles, Turner Classic Movies successfully launched its own festival of, yes, the classics. Ebertfest itself began with the laudable goal of bringing undeservedly overlooked films to small-city audiences, specifically Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. It was and is a great idea, and it would be wonderful if more towns in “fly-over country” had such festivals.

The films we don’t see

Usually when someone calls for more support of independent or foreign films, there seems to be an implicit assumption that all those films are deserving of support, invariably more so than Hollywood crowd-pleasers. If a filmmaker wants to make a film, he or she should be able to, right? But proportionately, there must be as many bad indie films as bad Hollywood films. Maybe more, because there are always lots of first-time filmmakers willing to max out their credit cards or put pressure on friends and relatives to “invest” in their project. There’s also far less of a barrier to entry, especially in the age of DYI technology.

True, the indie films we see seem better. By the time most of us see an indie film in an art cinema, it has been through a pitiless winnowing process. Sundance and other festivals reject all but a relatively small number of submitted films. A small number of those get picked up by a significant distributor. A small number of those are successful enough in the New York and LA markets to get booked into the art-house circuit and reach places like Madison. Yes, some worthy films get far less exposure than they deserve. But many more films that would give indies a bad name mercifully get relegated to direct-to-DVD, late-night cable, or worse. On the other hand, most mainstream films, no matter how dire their quality, get released to theaters. Their budgets are just too big to allow their producers to quietly slip them into the vault and forget about them.

The winnowing process for art-house fare happens on an international level as well. A prestige festival like Cannes dictates that a film they show cannot have had a festival screening or theatrical release outside its country of origin. Programmers for other festivals come to Cannes and cherry-pick the films they like for their own festivals. Toronto has come to serve a similar purpose, especially for North American festivals. Some films fall by the wayside, but the good ones attract a lot of programmers. These films show up at just about every festival. By the way, that kind of saturation booking of the year’s art-cinema favorites at many festivals means that the distributors are more and more often supplying digital copies of films to the second-tier events. Going to festivals is no longer a guarantee that you’ll be seeing a 35mm print projected in optimal conditions. At the 2009 Vancouver festival, I watched Elia Suleiman’s The Time that Remains twice, because it was a good 35mm print and I suspected that I’d never have another chance to see it that way.

To each film its proper venue

There’s no way that every deserving film will reach everyone who might admire it. Condemning the crowds who frequent the blockbusters won’t help open new screens to offbeat fare. If someone loves Avatar, as long as they keep their cell phones off, refrain from talking, and don’t rustle their candy-wrappers too loudly, as far I’m concerned they can go on believing that this is the best the cinema has to offer. Simply showing these audiences a film like A Serious Man, say, or Precious isn’t going to change their minds about what sort of cinema they prefer. To break through decades of viewing habits, such people would need to learn new ones, which takes time and effort. People’s tastes can be educated, but the odds are usually against it actually happening.

Finally, in defending art cinema against mainstream multiplex fare, commentators often cite Avatar or Transformers or the latest example of Hollywood’s venality and audience’s herd-like movie-going patterns. Yet every year major studio films come out that get four stars or thumbs up or green tomatoes. Last year, we had Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Up, Inglourious Basterds, Coraline, and a few others that were well worth the price of a ticket. All of them did fairly well at the box-office while playing in multiplexes. Some readers might substitute other titles for the ones I’ve mentioned, but to deny that Hollywood is bringing us anything worth watching seems blinkered. As I said in 1999 at the end of Storytelling in the New Hollywood, where I criticized some aspects of recent filmmaking practices, “In recent years, more than ever, we need good cinema wherever we find it, and Hollywood continues to be one of its main sources.”

Ultimately my point is that in this stage in cinema history, international filmmaking has settled into a defined group of levels or modes. Hollywood gives us multiplex blockbusters and more modest genre items like horror films and comedies. They bring us the animated features that are among the gems of any year’s releases. Then there are the independent films and the foreign-language ones which together form festival/art-house fare. There are also the experimental films, which play in festivals and museums. The institutions that show all these sorts of films have similarly gelled into specialized kinds of venues suited to each type. A broad range of films is still being made. There are some few really good films in each category made each year. The question is not how many worthy films are getting made but how much trouble it takes to see them.

None of the current types of institutions is likely to change on its own. What will make a difference is the growing possibilities of distribution via the internet. Filmmakers who get turned down by film festivals can produce, promote, and sell their movies via DVD or downloads. True, recouping expenses that way is so far a dubious proposition; it’s probably easier to get into Sundance than to do that. As I mentioned, digital projection may make some festivals less attractive to die-hard film-on-film cinephiles. On the other hand, in some towns opera-lovers who can’t get to the big city now can see a digital broadcast of a major production each week at their local multiplex. Not as exciting as a trip to the city to see it live, but a lot cheaper and hence within the reach of a lot more people’s means. All sorts of other digital developments will change movie viewing in ways we can’t yet imagine.

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Jim Emerson has been covering the Film socialisme battle of the reviews on Scanners, with quotes and links to the ones I mentioned and more. He also demonstrates that people have been baffled by Godard since Breathless, with reviews that “are, incredibly, the same ones he’s been getting his entire career — based in part on assumptions that Godard means to communicate something but is either too damned perverse or inept to do so. Instead, the guy keeps making making these crazy, confounded, chopped-up, mixed-up, indecipherable movies! Possibly just to torture us.” He offers as evidence quotes from New York Times reviews over the decades.

Eric Kohn gauges the controversy and offers a tentative defense of the film on indieWIRE.

For our reports on various festivals, see the categories on the right. We discuss Godard’s compositions, late and early, here and his cutting here.

David Bordwell
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comments about the state of this website go to Meg Hamel.