My ongoing project I've termed "Primer," or sometimes "Primer Two" (although I suppose now I've just finished "Primer Three"), a film education in which there is no class and no teacher and no set curriculum, just me going to a video store and scribbling down recommendations from friends or film articles or just happening to catch something interesting on Turner Classic. The idea began with "Rashomon," which I watched on TV for the first time several years ago, and thought to myself: "This is really good, I should actually go out and watch all those movies a person's supposed to have seen but never really sees." Unless you're a film buff. And now I am one, so...we're onto Primer Four, an advanced course. The last five films I watched wrapped up, effectively, my third course. My first was when I was in college, renting films like "The Seventh Seal" or "Knife in the Water" on my own. The second was begun with a hundred films, after watching "Rashomon" and "8 1/2" and thinking it should be the start of something, and I wrote essays about each film of the hundred, collecting them into a book so naive I don't want anyone to read it. Now I've finished five hundred, and these were the last six.
Pickpocket (France, 1959) * * * *
D: Robert Bresson
Out of the 500 films, Bresson quickly emerged as one of my favorite directors. The key was watching the revival of Au Hasard, Balthazar at the Wisconsin Film Festival a few years ago and being so moved by it that I didn't want to leave my seat to let the next audience in. One of his earlier films, Pickpocket is pure simplicity, like a silent. A man foregoes a day job for a life as a pickpocket, and we watch his obsessive activities with typical Bressonian detachment, but there's elegance and style everywhere. Of particular note is the scene where our pickpocket teams up with two others to work a train as it travels around Paris, and their cooperative efforts are so fast, so deceptive, that's a wonder Bresson's camera can keep up with the wallets, which move quicker than hockey pucks. I anticipated a breathtaking conclusion--since it's famous--but in fact what makes it memorable is its simple beauty. Yes, it could have been a silent film, one of the great ones; that it is made in the midst of the French New Wave, and puts Godard to shame by using older techniques, makes it all the greater.
Rashomon (Japan, 1950) * * * *
D: Akira Kurosawa
TCM just ran an evening with Mia Farrow introducing some of her favorite films, and this was the first; the others were Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel (which I already included in my Primer), Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, and Scorsese's Raging Bull. It was nice to revisit Rashomon; I was surprised at how much I'd forgotten in the space of a couple years. For one thing, it's almost a chamber drama: hardly anything happens. The central story involves a samurai, his wife, and a thief (Kurosawa's token actor, Toshiro Mifune). What exactly happens among them is never settled upon, as their accounts--Rashomon's entire narrative--conflict. Someone killed the samurai, but each character takes the blame, including the samurai, who claims he killed himself, when channeled through a medium. The framing device, involving travellers recounting the incident at the Rashomon gate, is only memorable for the use of rain, which Kurosawa lights magnificently as it rolls over the architecture and the characters as though personifying their misery. Meanwhile, the central story, to which we keep returning, becomes an obsession of the audience; essentially, we are the detectives, and we keep turning over the evidence hoping for a solution, which never comes.
Murmur of the Heart (France, 1971) * * * 1/2
D: Louis Malle
After this film was over, my wife said, "Well, it was better than 'The Squid and the Whale,'" and she's right. That film we both thought was good, but overrated and written with heavy doses of autobiography and belabored creative-writing-class metaphors; there might be just as much autobiography in Malle's Murmur of the Heart, but hopefully not too much. What's more, the characters actually seem human. As in Noah Baumbauch's film, the adolescent character has free-thinking, bohemian, hands-off parents, who encourage their children to confront adulthood a bit more quickly than they're prepared. But I found Malle's film much more absorbing and empathetic. There's no misanthropy here. Even the father, who gets the roughest treatment, comes off quite sympathetic in the final scene. The premise is that the youngest of three brothers is being ushered too hastily into the world of sex by his siblings--they drag him to a brothel, then interrupt the moment of coitus as a drunken prank. There's a constant feeling of chaos in his household; the parents are often absent, and the boys tease and taunt their maids, hold parties, replace Dad's prized painting with a forgery and then tear the reproduction with a knife in front of his sophisticate friends. Amidst all this chaos, young Laurent hardly has time to develop any crushes or sexual obsessions, and would rather read and listen to Charlie Parker records. When he's diagnosed with a heart murmur, he's taken to a health spa and accompanied by his vivacious mother, who's been cheating on her husband on and off, and now takes up with one of the spa's residents. Meanwhile, Laurent should be falling for one of the young, attractive women at the resort, but instead becomes sexually fixated on his mother. How this is resolved is shocking, all the more because it's somehow touching and meaningful. I don't know how he pulled it off. Maybe he didn't, and the whole thing is utterly immoral and I'm going to hell for liking this movie.
Once Upon a Time in the West (U.S., 1968) * * * *
D: Sergio Leone
I haven't seen much of Sergio Leone's films; in fact, I think the only one I've watched in its entirety is A Fistful of Dollars. What's wonderful about Once Upon a Time in the West is that Leone didn't want to make it at first--he'd completed his "Dollars" trilogy with Eastwood and was ready to move on before he got dragged back into the West again (kind of like his protagonists, who can never leave their bloody pasts behind)--and Leone walks away with what must be one of the greatest Westerns ever made. It's also great to watch this without having a clue as to what it's about. It takes about an hour--maybe longer--before it establishes its plot and its central characters emerge. For the first twenty minutes, you get what's essentially a prologue, as three killers sit at a train depot waiting to murder the man who gets off the next train. That man's Charles Bronson, unfortunately for them. Then we cut to a farmstead in the middle of the desert, and a man and his three children, all getting ready to meet daddy's new wife, about to arrive from New Orleans. They don't make it; Henry Fonda (!) turns up with a posse, and slaughters all of them. A new storyline: the wife (Claudia Cardinale) shows up, has no one waiting for her, and so heads toward the farmstead; stopping at a depot, she meets Bronson, who always announces his presence with a harmonica, and Cheyenne (a brilliantly cast Jason Robards), a criminal who's just escaped from prison--he arrives looking for a way to break his handcuffs. Cheyenne and "Harmonica" (Bronson is essentially Eastwood's "Man with No Name" character) develop a relationship that might swing from uneasy respect to sudden bloodshed at any moment, but as the story progresses, all three characters--Cardinale, Bronson, and Robards--form a tight bond as they struggle to protect the farmstead from Fonda and the millionaire who stands behind him. The story is played so simply that the viewer's impressed when a rather complex story does emerge (Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, of all people, are credited alongside Leone for the plot). And the film stretches to almost three hours not because there's a lot of incident, but because each scene plays with the stillness that might proceed a shootout, and every gesture, no matter how banal, carries the weight of a finger-twitch toward a trigger. Despite one absurdity in the film's conclusion (it involves the fate of Cheyenne), this film's unquestionably a masterpiece of the genre, albeit a branch of the genre which Leone and Sam Peckinpah took far afield from John Ford and Howard Hawks.
Broken Blossoms (U.S., 1919) * * *
D: D.W. Griffith
I find it hard to rate D.W. Griffith. Really I want to give this film two-and-a-half stars, but the art of critiquing Griffith is the art of cutting slack. Yes, it was 1919 and melodrama in cinema was in its infancy. Yes, although there really isn't a love affair between Lillian Gish and the "Yellow Man" (her Chinese guardian angel, after she's beaten and bruised by her abusive pugilist father) isn't really there, it was daring for its day simply because it suggested an interracial relationship. And yes, the accomplishments of D.W. Griffith, here as in Birth of a Nation (the sins of which Broken Blossoms hopes to atone), are almost invisible to a modern viewer's eye. But part of me wants to say, "So what?" You watch Griffith to receive an education on the evolution of early cinema. I am not so certain that his films are "masterpieces," however, because they are not immortal. His racial politics are still naive and patronizing, and I suspect they might have been in 1919 to many, as well, since there were Asian actors available who could have taken the role of "The Yellow Man," instead of the obviously Caucasian one who was cast. The most interesting aspect of this film, to me, was its use of hand-holding title cards, each underlining to the audience the heightened nature of the emotions involved. Amazing to think that within a few years, directors such as Murnau, Lang, and Chaplin would transcend Griffith's art (in Murnau's case, by working toward abandoning the title cards altogether). Griffith should be taught in film courses because of the history they contain (although not of the history Griffith tries to tell, particularly in the hazardous, loathsomely hateful Birth of a Nation); outside of the classroom, there's no use for the guy. I'll take Sunrise, by Murnau, over this any day of the week.
Celine and Julie Go Boating (France, 1974) * * * *
D: Jacques Rivette
On the other hand, I've just converted to adulation of Jacques Rivette. Not that I'd seen any of his films before this one. I read an article last week about the revival of his twelve-hour epic Out 1, rarely screened since its premiere because of its excessive length. I decided I'd seek out his shorter (three-and-a-quarter hours) fantasy, Celine and Julie Go Boating, because I'd heard it was a must-see for fans of foreign film, and also because the plot was described by the New York Times critic as "a haunted house of stories." In fact, it is exactly that: a story about a haunted house that contains stories within it. As our story opens, Julie (Dominique Labourier) is sitting on a park bench attempting to trace a magical symbol in the dirt with her shoe; she has a book on magic in her lap, which she studies intensely. When a stranger, Celine (Juliet Berto) walks past and drops her scarf, Julie tries to catch up and return it--a pursuit that lasts more than a day and quickly resembles Alice's desperate chase for the White Rabbit (not the last Lewis Carroll reference in the film). She returns the scarf to no effect, except that Celine then begins to follow Julie, who is a librarian. When Celine turns up at Julie's apartment, they begin living together, and eventually begin to mix their identities and trade them. Celine breaks up with Julie's boyfriend. Julie turns up at a magician's audition in Celine's place. They both become obsessed with a mysterious house from which Celine recently escaped. It seems that if you arrive at the house at a certain hour, you can gain admittance; but when you leave, you won't recall what passed, only flashes of someone else's life and the murder of a small child. They concentrate their attention on the house and begin to experiment with it. Celine enters, emerges hours later with hard candy in her mouth; when they suck on the candy, they became passive viewers of the history of the tenants of the house: a widow, his daughter, and his would-be lovers, who are attempting to run off with him and force him to break the vow he committed to his dead wife. So obsessed do Celine and Julie become with the mystery of the haunted house, that they become convinced there must be a way to penetrate the past and rescue the daughter from her killer, whoever that might be. All of this is handled with Beckett-like dialogue, ecstatic comedy, and bursts of vividly surreal moments. There will be times when you haven't a clue as to what's happening, but if you stay with it, you'll be rewarded by a satisfying, delightful conclusion. A mess, and a glorious one.
So my 500 are done.