Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Cahiers interview with Brian De Palma ('82)

One of the gems from 1982 at Cahiers du cinéma are its two Made In U.S.A. issues from April and June (N.334-35 & N.337). The former has a Manny Farber painting on its cover while the latter has a still from Wim Wender’s Hammett.

These issues were a major initiative at Cahiers to return to writing more about a popular American cinema that was dropped for them in the Seventies where instead they were writing more political and theoretical texts. These issues are of great cinephilic interest not only for the information and perspective, but also as historical documents.

In the opening editorial, Vingt Ans après, Serge Toubiana writes, "With this Made in U.S.A. issue, Cahiers is returning to a tradition of special issues dedicated to American cinema that was inaugurated in 1954 (N.54), continuing in 1963 (N.150-51) and that has been subsequently dropped over the last 20 years." In the editorial Toubiana elaborates on the actualities of filmmaking in both France and in America, and what these possibilities mean for the future of cinema.

In the first issue there are features on prominent American auteurs. In this section there are interviews between Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader, Brian de Palma and Serge Daney with Jonathan Rosenbaum, Peter Bogdanovich and Olivier Assayas with Bill Krohn. There are also interviews with producers and technicians, guest contributions by Todd McCarthy and Lise Bloch-Morhange, an interview with Manny Farber, a visit to the Zoetrope Studies, a trip to Budd Boettichers, a text by Sam Fuller on White Dog, Cahiers Critiques on recent American films (e.g. Pennies from Heaven, They All Laughed), and an American-focused Le Journal section.

In the second issue there are interviews with Michael Cimino (“one of the most passionate interviews ever published in Cahiers”), Wim Wenders, Milos Forman, one between John Landis and Jack Arnold, and a round-table with some of Hitchcock's set designers. There are also texts on Westerns by Olivier Assayas, on dramaturgy by Michel Chion, interviews with some American actors, an essay on the state of American film criticism by David Ehrenstein, an interview between Andrew Sarris and Serge Daney, and a round-table between some New York film-critics (Geng, Hoberman and Rosenbaum).

The Cahiers filmmaker that is conspicuous by his absence, though he is frequently mentioned within the issues, is Steven Spielberg. This omission might have had more to do with the filmmaker's unwelcoming public relations than it did a lack of interest on Cahiers' part.

The following is the De Palma interview with Daney and Rosenbaum which I consider perhaps one of the best, and most important, interview with the filmmaker, since it would cement the importance of De Palma at Cahiers, which was initiated a few issues earlier with Douchet décortique De Palma (cf. my translation), and who is still being championed today.

The interview is from Cahiers du cinéma Presents: The Hollywood Interviews (Berg, 2006), while I translated its original introduction.

New York. "Yes, what happened to you guys?" This is the first response that Brian de Palma gave us. How could, Cahiers du cinéma, miss my films for ten years? A serious questions. We are embarrassed. Of course, since Jean Douchet encouraged us to dissect De Palma (Journal des Cahiers, N.326) and since I attended a frantic projection of Blow Out, with Travolta in presence, I know that our injustice towards De Palma will be unmasked. It is a matter of months, weeks, and days. That's it.
I didn't really expect that in the current American film landscape - flabby and full of itself - a film by De Palma, even bloody, morbid and dirty, was - paradoxically - a breath of fresh air. What asphyxiates the young tycoons of the American cinema, is their love of an already finished cinema, of the finished product, for their hyper-culture.
What makes a film of De Palma breathe, is this pleasure to create, an inheritor of the mineur of yesteryear's American cinema. De Palma creates a film like Hitchcock, but between the two words it is "creates" that is the most important. And because it must be said De Palma is really different from Hitchcock, I think the opposite and would say that I find in him the qualities of the older Hitch, read the first Hitchcock, from the British period. There's even the same funny mixture of the cinematographic kitchen (an aspect "amateur filmmaker," tricks, formal structures, a taste for rhetoric, a positioning for the viewer - and therefore a morality) and of a sociological kitchen (trivial scandals, a direct naturalism, themes of urban life, and crimes that are always sexual). 
It is the mixture of these two types of kitchens that make the films of De Palma, to use the qualitative sense, popular. He lives in the heart of the contradictions that made Hitchcock. His films please the large public and the cinephiles, displeases the establishment, and create a kind of cult. De Palma, of course, doesn't worry too much about this. He chases the major commercial success with the same obstination that he puts into not waiving his creative process.
His life has order, and his time is precious. On his desk, there is a gridded paper that is used as a calendar. On the wall nearby there is a neon sculpture that evokes Phantom of the Paradise. We feel that the filmmaker needs to capture all the energy of a true Babel or of a modern Babylon. New York, justly. - S.D.

Cahiers: We’ve never interviewed you for the Cahiers du cinéma. It’s time we made up for that.
Brian De Palma: Yes. What were you up to?
Cahiers: Let’s begin with a general question. It seems that a lot of the political and social preoccupations that were in your first films have become less important in your later ones. And yet you seem to be returning to them – in Blow Out, for example, and in your project Act of Vengeance, based on the murder of Joseph Yablonski, the reformist head of the United Mine warriors, and his family in 1969.*
De Palma: Yes, that’s true. A lot of the movies I was making in the 1970s were fashioned, they had a kindof style. But now we are in the 1980s, I’m forty years old and I’m trying to include certain political features as I did at the end of the 1960s. But, because of economic problems, it’s difficult to make political films in the States and to make them pleasant, understandable or interesting.
C: Was Greetings successful?
BDP: Yes, but a lot of political films that were successful in the 1960s would not be now. At the time the Revolution was all the rage and everyone was more or less interested by everything that was against the Establishment. But it was cheap to do and the American film industry had a huge amount of money at its disposal. Small budget movies are rarely successful in the States. Three years ago I made Home Movies, which cost about $300,000. Ten years ago I would have needed $25,000 to make a small budget moves. It’s a hundred times more now; I don’t know whether it’s because of inflation or simply because the cost of films has changed. To make a film and distribute it cheaply is more or less impossible.
C: Do you think videocassettes will change that?
BDP: Certainly. I hope very much so, because I can’t imagine what a young directors can do now. It’s difficult to finance a film independently and almost impossible to release it. Who are the young directors, ten or fifteen years younger than us, who will go through a movie industry that doesn’t encourage them to make experimental or revolutionary films or any other sort? In my opinion the worst thing you can say about films nowadays is that they are television films. What interest is there in releasing them through the cinema?
C: Of your own films do you prefer the ones that were financially independent?
BDP: When, like me, you have had a certain success in the film world, it doesn’t really matter whether you are financed by the studios or not because there aren’t the same sorts of control as when you are a young director. When you have made a name these problems don’t exist.
C: Had you reached that stage with Carrie?
BDP: Sure. I’d already made Get to Know your Rabbit for Warners, but I was young and I had nothing more to give.
C: Last night I saw One from the Heart [Francis Ford Coppola, 1982] and I had the impression that even to tackle a small subject with a more or less non-existent story a lot of money is necessary and that this money should be visible on the screen. And perhaps that’s what the American cinema is suffering from today. It has to cost a lot of money and sometimes that isn’t evident.
BDP: When you speak of somebody like Francis Coppola that’s something quite different. Can see what you mean. You’re talking about a kind of capitalist snowball that grows and grows, but with Francis I think it’s different. I’m a bit surprised and I talk with my friends about it all the time. Important directors like Coppola, Bogdanovich or Friedkin, who were superstars at the start of the 1960s, are now making films costing a lot of money that have been commercial flops whatever their artistic merits. And yet they are so important that it’s like “The Emperor’s New Clothes”: they hold court, they live in grand houses always full of people; everything is filtered and watered down so that they have no negative feedback: they are geniuses, billionaires…
C: It’s like being in government.
BDP: Precisely – to the extent that you are so well protected that you don’t have to face up to what isn’t working in what you are doing. I think Francis’s problem is that everything he makes somehow has to be a masterpiece. In One from the Heart there’s all this technical rubbish. And Francis is a past master when it comes to manipulating the press and the media and being seen everywhere. But I seriously think that the American system destroys creative talent. It’s what has happened to these filmmakers, it’s because they are so isolated that they have no way of knowing where they are at. It’s interesting to note that the American film industry and the importance of directors are often linked to the big studios. The director is now God and the driving economic force, so there are no more limits, no more barriers. And the result is excess – like those unbelievable castles of mad emperors. It can happen to any one of us and it scares me because these people have talent.
C: And what have you done to avoid this danger?
BDP: Various things have saved me. First of all I’ve never had a big success – all my successes have been modest ones, and I’ve always had to fight for the films I’ve wanted to make. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have had those problems if I’d had a major success. But personally I often see what’s not right. I don’t look for shelter. I make myself watch those of my films that have not worked to see what was wrong with them.
C: Do you think film criticism is useful?
BDP: Oh yes, absolutely.
C: Could you give an example?
BDP: It’s always been said that I don’t have good scenarios. For Act of Vengeance, the film I’m making, I decided to hire a good writer. We’d work together, I’d let him write it and we’d see what would happen. I think I’ve got a good scenario. Whether I can get a good film out of it is another matter.
C: Do you think there’s a contradiction between your way of making a film an d good scenario? There’s always a difference between having a good scenario that has to be illustrated and introducing more physical elements, as Hitchcock did. It’s the same struggle as there was at the time of the New Wave when people said “ good scenario doesn’t really matter.”
BDP: It’s the old struggle between form and content, and for all major stylists it dominates everything. Basically there are two possible directions. On the one hand, the film is original because what I believe to be its substance is its visual form. On the other, in a film like Carrie, I can indulge myself in the most baroque style, but then I’m obliged to remain in the world of high-school girls. That keeps my feet on the ground. I don’t drift off into a Ken Russell type world where there’s no real or emotional basis to hang onto and where he just has to float. I’m not against that, but the problem is that in breaking up the narration you forget the audience. I used to be a great fan of Godard, but I find it difficult to see his films again now. From the point of view of styles what he’s done is very good, but it’s like cubism. When you break the form down you realize there’s something odd about it – at least, I do. Can you really hang these paintings up in your house and live with them? Or do you say to yourself “It’s a fabulous, amazing idea, but now I’d like something that’s a bit closer to me.” From an intellectual point of view what he does is very powerful, it’s a bit like Eisenstein. Some of his films were marvelous, but I never watch Eisenstein movies at home. I prefer Howard Hawks. There’s always seems to be struggle between genius and stylistic innovation on the one hand and the essential ingredients of story-telling on film on the other.
C: By the way, Godard is one of your fans. He told us two years that the only recent American film he had seen recently was The Fury.
BDP: Yes, I know. I read that somewhere. I’ve always admired Godard a lot. I was absolutely bowled over by Weekend [1967]. But when his films are being shown I don’t make any effort to go and see them.
C: Maybe that’s because a lot of what he invented or created has been copied and become commonplace.
BDP: Exactly. D.W. Griffith is another example like Eisenstein and Welles. When you study film you go see their work and are surprised. But their films are not the sort you would have at home. Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941] isn’t shown all the time.
            You can fast-forward others and study scenes that you particularly like, but from a purely emotional point of view I don’t find this be as effective as The Searchers [John Ford, 1956].
C: Don’t you think that during his English period and for part of his American one, Hitchcock had a kin d of golden age when it was possible to work on style without losing the primitive and popular aspects of his films? One of the reasons why Cahiers are increasingly interested in your work is because you’ve kept some of that without copying or plagiarizing Hitchcock, you’ve tried to keep the same quality of being simple and basic in you style and in what you produce. This seems to be just about unique in the American cinema today.
BDP: Yes, but at the same time Hitchcock was a consummate businessman. He’d exploited television before people realized its potential importance and he made a lot of money. As far as I’m concerned the key to the American film industry is its capitalist side. We can admire what the French, the Italians or the Germans are doing, but it’s not us, and I think that when we try to copy them it’s disastrous. Over here we make cars, sewing machines and mixers, and we work and sell on grand scale. It’s like that and I don’t think we should change.
C: But like Hitchcock you’ve got this very pessimistic philosophy that goes with this idea – this English idea that there is something sinful about business.
BDP: Basically I think that, in spite of everything that has been written about Hitchcock, when he sat down and thought about the film he was going to make, he said to himself “Will it really be interesting? Will it scare them? Am I going to get them?” It’s as if he was saying “Are they going to buy this Ford?” That’s basically how he thought of his films. Critics and university people can say what they like about the Catholic symbolism in his films. What really motivated him was “How can I make ten million dollars with one million?” In my view, that’s the American system. As far as style is concerned, Hitchcock never lost sight of the ultimate object of the film. I put all my craziest ideas about style into Carrie, but I never forgot that it was about a girl who absolutely hated her fellow pupils and killed everybody. That was what drove the film. I think the problem for the independent director is that he says to himself “Shit! Shit the studios! Shit the public! I’m an artist and what I want is to enjoy myself.” Maybe he can do that, but perhaps no one will want to see his film – and in the American system it’s very difficult to get over that because we live in world where you have to succeed. People read Variety not the Cahiers du cinéma. That’s the world we live in. How many people are interested in what’s happening in the back of beyond? Everyone says “Pauline Kael gave me a good review, and I couldn’t care less what the population in some God-forsaken place is doing,” but it’s not quite true. I think what really matters is the number of people you want to attract.
C: Why do you live in New York rather than in California?
BDP: The problem with California is that you’re right in the middle of this industry and you don’t have the necessary distance from it. I think economic imperatives dictate to a certain extent what you want to do but they shouldn’t dominate. In Hollywood they are too prominent. You are always being examined and judged to see where you are at, how much your last film made, what your next one is going to be. And it has an effect. You start to say to yourself “Perhaps I ought to make Barbara Streisand’s next movie.”
C: When I saw Red [Warren Beatty, 1981] recently I felt that audiences are increasingly taken in by American films less and less. They don’t manipulate them or trap them any more. That, for me, is style – games. And the more this happens the more I feel the cinema is loosing something vital. But this refusal to play the game – which comes from Godard or Straub – is already something. But Reds is neither one nor the other. It’s like the pages of book being turned.
BDP: That’s just another example of the effect of capitalism on the artist; he becomes his own bank. We don’t have artistic sensitivity one the one hand and commercial sensitivity on the other any more, we have the two at once. That’s why there are so many directors who’ve run out of steam at the age of forty, like Bogdanovich and Billy Friedkin. What’s happened? They’ve made a few good movies and now they make these odd films that have no interest, not even an aesthetic one. It’s sad. I often think about that.
C: Do you feel isolated?
BDP: Not really. I’m still trying to hit the jackpot. I still want to have the kind of huge success we we’ve been talking about.
C: Apart from Cassavetes and a few others like you, there are very few filmmakers who succeed in showing the pleasure they have in making films.
BDP: I think in some ways you can see in John and me the absolute happiness there is in trying to find the money to a movie!
C: And what’s more, you often show people who are in film or who are interested in technique like the kid in Dressed to Kill or Travolta in Blow Out. It’s like a mirror that reflects the pleasure of working at technique in film – like sound, for example.
BDP: Yes, were only too happy to be filmmakers. We don’t have the feeling that it’s a heavy burden to communicate with humanity. I don’t have the feeling I’m writing The New Testament each time.
C: Don’t you have projects that you dream about but you’ve never been able to realize?
BDP: Yes, of course. Act of Vengeance for example, the film about the murder of the Yablonski family. I’ve been trying to make that for seven years. Most of my projects take three or four years. For me, it’s never easy. Perhaps that’s what’s saved me.
C: What has an experiment like Home Movies meant to you?
BDP: That was always a disappointment. I tried to teach in a college how to make small budget films like I did fifteen years ago. We made a film and had a lot of difficulty in finding a distributor; it didn’t go well and it was never widely shown. It’s always the same story. The students probably learned more from the fact that it wasn’t a commercial success than they would have done if it had been hugely successful.
C: You made it at Sarah Lawrence College where you made your first film, and it seems that there are lots of things that are like those in your earlier films.
BDP: Yes. They have a lot in common. Except that the first film was made in 1963-4 and the second in 1978-9. What’s dreadful is that exactly the same thing happened – it was a commercial flop – but it was a valuable experience. What surprised me was that I made the movie for $300,000 and nobody in the film world bothered about it. My reputation wasn’t much use, apart from getting a few extra meetings. And I can say that it was ten times worse than before. Ten times! I had the idea when I went into universities with different films. I would ask the students who the directors were of the films they were going to see, and they looked at me wide-eyed – they didn’t know a single one. So I said to myself, who are these people? Maybe they need a course on small budget films. After that a few of my students went on to make small budget films and that’s good. But it made me realize how difficult it is –worse than I had imagine.
C: Among those of your films that have not been successful are there any that you prefer?
BDP: Hi, Mom!, for example. At first it was shown at Loew’s State in New York, the worst place you could find for this film, because the distributor thought it was one of those anti-establishment films, which was not the case at all. It was a very strange film. Phantom of the Paradise was billed as a rock opera extravaganza and it made no impression on the rock world, or the horror film world – in fact on no-one.
C: In Paris it enjoys a kind cult.
BDP: Yes, I know. And my biggest disappointment is Blow Out. It was brought out in the middle of summer as an adventure and action movie. It was shown at a bad time and in a thousand cinemas. It’s an unusual political film, full of meaning and very carefully constructed, but it didn’t do well. I was stupefied when critics said it was a bad suspense and horror movie. Nobody understood it. Audience didn’t like either the character played by Travolta or the film. In the United States the distribution cost were eight million dollars or so, which is disastrous for a film that cost so much. I avoided developing the love story in this film because I didn’t think the character would be interested in it. But that’s what the public expects it seems when you have John Travolta and a pretty girl If I’d made more of the fact that he falls in love with her and by mistake puts her in danger maybe the film would have been more successful. I hesitated a great deal but thought that that wouldn’t interest him. He was only interested in what obsessed him and his problem was that he always relied on his skill to solve his difficulties. That’s more or less how I see people. With the trio of John Travolta, Nancy Allen and Brian De Palma that film cost eighteen million dollars, but if I’d made it for five million and with unknown actors it would have been better. The various bits of the film didn’t match my ideas, at east from an economic point of view. I could have realized my idea for four million. I didn’t need all that show and fuss. It’s a typical example of capitalist excess. I can make a big action and adventure film, but it’s not right for this story. It wasn’t made for that. It’s rather an intellectual reflection on the Watergate climate.
C: Let me ask you a question about Obsession, which is the film of yours that I prefer. I’ve heard it said that Paul Schrader felt a bit betrayed by the changes you made to his scenario. Is it possible tot say that he felt just as betrayed by the work of Bernard Herrmann? According to what I’ve read this film can be considered a three-way collaboration between you, Herrmann and Schrader.
BDP: When I’m preparing a film I put everything on cards and I build up sequences like that. When I did it for Obsession there was a whole third part that didn’t work.  It only repeated what had happened in the past by projecting it into the future and it was no longer in what Paul Schrader called the cut version that finally appeared. And when I laid the film out I said “We’ll never manage this third part, the public won’t understand.” I’d already thought that. When Benny read the scenario he said “That’ll never work,” which only confirmed what I felt. And my suggestions didn’t please Schrader. He said it was only the ending that gave the film any value and if we took it out we would have a kind of television melodrama. It was big mistake and I was pathetic. And then I read that he had said that I had ruined his big project.   In my opinion Obsession works, and Taxi Driver [Martin Scorsese, 1976] works. None of Schrader’s films work because when he is left to himself he can’t sort out his structural problems. It’s when you have directors like Martin Scorsese or me who know how to get something worthwhile out of these stories that they are successful. I’ve been rather bored by this business, but I hope his flops will make him realize that he is not the structural and formal genius that he thinks he is. It’s another example of a director’s megalomania. I remember, when he showed Martin and me a tape of Hardcore [Paul Schrader, 1979] we suggested a lot of changes, and the film came out more or less as it was on tape. There was a period in our lives, or perhaps because we were poorer, when we listened to what was said to us. We appreciated constructive criticism. Unfortunately that’s no longer the case today. The only ones who are still open to this way of working are George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. It’s unbelievable what Steven and I passed on to George for Star Wars!
C: Do you show your films to Lucas and Spielberg?
BDP: The last time I did was with Home Movies. But the problem is that we live in very different places. That’s what success is: you run all over the world. Lucas and I are planning to make a film together with Spielberg, and that would be good. This collaboration between directors is something I miss, and Steven is one of the few who are open to it. Me too. We all started like this in the early 1970s, but we don’t do it any more. It’s a shame.
C: After Phantom of the Paradise, which I like a lot, are you tempted to make another musical comedy?
BDP: I’ve thought about it. I like that, but nobody has really made a successful rock film. Rock-and-roll had a powerful influence and there must be a way of using it in a movie. It’s one of my ideas.
C: What do you know about your public?
BDP: You have the public of your successes. Movies that work create a public for that kind of film. When I make films like Carrie, The Fury or Dressed to Kill a certain number of people come to see them. But when I make something different like Home Movies or Blow Out again I think I would do it differently, because I think have lost some of my audience. It’s the same for Phantom… I thought that Dressed to Kill would be demolished by the critics because of its similarity with Psycho [Alfred Hitchcock, 1960], but, on the contrary, I received, one of the best lot of reviews of my career. I was really surprised.

* Act of Vengeance was eventually made for TV by John Mackenzie (1986).

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Oxbow Cure

The Oxbow Cure is reminiscent of some Bergman dramas (The Passion of Anna): the characters retreat to a remote location, private fears are openly discussed, and the heavy existential themes are represented visually through the harsh weather.

It’s about a woman Lena, who has a spinal injury, and she leaves the city for a remote cottage, to treat her illness. There she starts a routine that includes exercises, walks, and cooking. She’s in touch with her father, who is hospitalized, and is dying. One night, she hears barking; following the noise she finds a trapped dog that she rescues.

The performance by Claudia Dey is exceptional; appearing both vulnerable and persistent as she treats her illness, and fearless as she walks through the forest. These scenes are filmed with a hand-held camera, and are both frightening and elegiac. The noises are especially harrowing as natural sounds, like, snow crunching and wind blowing, are reminders of Lena’s fragility. And the score by Lev Lewis goes from orchestral piano and strings to a P.J. Proby songs.

The Oxbow Cure is Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis’ follow up to Amy George, which is suburb drama about a teenager with a crush on a next-door neighbor. It might appear like a grand departure, but there are still some similarities. In Amy George Jesse has a photography assignment, and The Oxbow Cure begins with Lena taking pictures at the cottage. The walks through the woods in Amy George are heightened a ten-fold in The Oxbow Cure. And similar to how Jesse was seduced by Amy in Amy George, there is a beckoning in The Oxbow Cure that needs to be seen to be believed.

I’m not going to spoil any more of its mysteries. I’ll just say that The Oxbow Cure goes into some unexpected territory, gains in ambience from a theatrical setting, and richness through multiple viewings. What are these bold filmmakers going to do next?

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Oxbow Cure at the Lightbox (Opens August 23rd)

The Oxbow Cure is having its Toronto premiere and starts its theatrical run on Friday August 23rd at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 
Recommended Reading:

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Are the Delorme years Cahiers du Cinéma's Yeezus?

The massive gray U.S.S. Enterprise is crashing towards earth. Its fate is unsure. It’s on fire and smoking. Behind it there is a blue sky filled with white clouds. This is the cover of the June 2013 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma and its title reads, Galaxie – J.J. Abrams.

Have they lost it? Why is Cahiers, one of the world’s best film magazines, championing such a mainstream production?

This is obviously a stupid question, because, if anyone knows anything about their history, let alone their recent years, would know that they’ve always championed mainstream films, and this cover continues to illustrate their youthfulness and iconoclasm.

In the last few years, under Stéphane Delorme, Cahiers also championed Abrams' Super 8, being probably the only magazine to take it seriously. A large "8" adorned that cover to correspond with the Événement Abrams and many of their critics considered Super 8 a Masterpiece (cf. J.J. Abrams est-il le nouveau Spielberg?), which is a rare evaluation for them.

In this new issue the Événement is La galaxie J.J. Abrams (18 pages). It includes Cyril Béghin’s great essay J.J. Abrams, which mixes biography with film analysis and elaborates on Abrams' career as far back as his early screenplays and television work (e.g. Forever Young, Felicity and Lost) highlighting his unique position of creating non-pretentious joyous pop fictions, his unique style that is part post-Spielberg and part pastiche, and his independence through his production company Bad Robot. Béghin also interviews Abrams “Design, inevitability and resolution,” and provides an annotated filmography, La boîte à fictions.

“For Abrams, experimenter of all forms of contemporary storytelling, the Stark Trek mission more than fulfilled all expectations,” begins Vincent Malausa’s review of Star Trek: Into Darkness, La tête dans les étoiles. After describing the films aesthetic, tone, work in genre, rhythm, politics, homages etc., Malausa brilliantly concludes by describing what makes Abrams important:
“Abrams renews with an idealism, innocence and a filmmaking finesse something that is particularly precious in the context of the actualities of Hollywood […] In light of the recent John Carter by Andrew Stanton, which was a box-office catastrophe for Disney, the smallest mistake that these super-auteurs make reinforces the zero-risk policy of the major studios. In this situation, J.J. Abrams is a major filmmaker, because, in fact, he links the Marvel system (by way of building his films within a dynamic franchise) and that of an auteur cinema, which is problematic in Hollywood.”
Malausa contributes a lot to the Cahiers ethos. In this issue Malausa also has a great Voyage article, Sur les traces de John McTiernan: McT le Disparu. (cf. Comment John MacTiernan a-t-il réinventé le cinéma d'action hollywoodien?) and has previously done one with Hong Sang-Soo. Malausa regularly has one Cahiers Critique in each issue, among other pieces, and, to cite examples from the last few years, he writes about action films (e.g. Django Unchained, Scream 4), an alternative mainstream cinema that has both style and depth (e.g. Monster University, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, Meek's Cutoff, Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol), auteur films (Cronenberg, Nichols, Hark), and certain art-films (e.g. Mystery, The Island, Avé, Habemus Papam).

This interest in mainstream Hollywood for Cahiers is in reaction to an academicism of certain art films and the state of French cinema. One could easily cite Truffaut's famous article Une certaine tendance du cinéma français as a general precursor.  To strengthen the reasoning behind this point, Cahiers' Cannes coverage illustrates their multifaceted thoughts on the current state of affairs regarding cinema.

Since Frédéric Boyer was fired from the head programmer at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes in 2011 after serving there for two years, Delorme, who also programs there, went from being supportive and optimistic about the festival (“Every year, there are the same laments: Cannes does not look to good this year. While they play the best movies that will come out in the following year.”) to using their coverage as an outlet to critique the academicism of certain art films, along with the negative effects of the curation of them -  joining the Cinema Scope editorial line of institutional critique. This, in short, describes their Cannes 2013 Événement, which includes 8 pages of critiques, from a variety of their writers, to 10 pages of stylish photographs of the actors and directors that they liked from the festival (e.g. Seydoux and Exarchopoulos, Kore-eda and Zhang-ke, Novak etc.).

The Cahiers Critique section in this issue is used as a side-bar to their Cannes coverage as it highlights some films that premiered there. It includes Frances Ha, L’Inconnus du lac, The Congress (all of which are, review + interview), Only God Forgives, People Mountain People Sea and Before Midnight. All of the other films released that month in Paris, which are worth reviewing, were included in their Notes sur d’autres films section. In their Le Journal section there is their standard Variety style highlight of industry news and a partial film-history section through the reviews of old Cahiers films (e.g. DVDs, exhibitions etc.).

Monday, August 19, 2013

Post-Grad Dilemmas

Everyday Is Like Sunday, which is named after a Morrissey song, is a breath of fresh air. It's about a depressed post-graduate, who is trying to find a job, and his roommates, a couple whose relationship is on the rocks. Its portrayal is free of the condescension and use of stereotypes that are so prevalent elsewhere. Instead, it attempts to honestly portray the characters with depth and generosity, with the end result being somewhere between Cassavetes and Curb Your Enthusiasm. The performances by its lead actors David Dineen-Porter, Adam Gurfinkel, and Coral Osborne are all really good (especially considering none of them are professional), and the local Toronto settings - whether a shared apartment, a park, or one of the city's many bars - provide a social setting for the actors to respond to. Its short-comings are typical of many independent features (e.g. awkward ADR, dramatic annoyances) and one can talk about its production problems, but it is the positive qualities that outweigh the faults. After a sold-out premiere at the Carlton, its great after-party, and positive reception in the local press, the point is that Everyday Is Like Sunday is a film that got noticed and its director Pavan Moondi is someone to look out for. With Every Day is Like Sunday the Toronto DIY now has its Heartbeats.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Everyday Is Like Sunday at the Carlton (Aug 16 - 22)

Everyday is Like Sunday will have a week-long theatrical run at the Carlton Cinema from Friday August 16th to Thursday 22nd. For more information on Everyday is Like Sunday see its website.

Recommended Reading:

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Paradise Alley review by Leos Carax

Which film references come to mind when watching Holy Motors? When Denis Lavant is running on the treadmill shooting a machine gun, he's channeling Sylvester Stallone's Rambo. When Mr. Merde is in the Père Lachaise Cemetery devouring flowers, the act is a near-replica of one from Jean Renoir's The Diary of a Chambermaid. When Lavant finally gets home, the monkeys recall Nagisa Oshima's Max Mon Amour. And when Edit Scob puts a mask on at the end, it is a direct ode to George Franju's Eyes Without a Face.

But the film amounts to much more than just film references; in the Cahiers (N.680) review of Holy Motors, Jean-Sébastien Chauvin writes, "The idea that haunts the film is less the death of cinema (which the opening dream of a movie theatre would suggest), than that of beauty itself... With Carax, who is a good Romantic, life is lived for the beauty of the gesture. Because life doesn't have inherent meaning, all that is left is precisely this gesture that can convince to carry on."

Around the time of Holy Motors' release in France, Cahiers championed it: Carax elaborated on the different Lavant mutations in a guest contribution Sacrers Coeurs (N.680), they reprinted Serge Daney's Libération review of Mauvais Sang (N.679), situated Carax within a poetic history of French cinema (N.682), voted Holy Motors the best film of 2012 (N. 684), and used it as a point of reference for the new generation of young French filmmakers (N.688).

This isn't the first time Carax has appeared in Cahiers. The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum brings up Carax's early Cahiers career in his article, The Problem with Poetry: Leos Carax,
"Still in his teens (he was born in Suresnes, France, to a French father and an American mother in 1960), Carax made half a dozen critical contributions to Cahiers du Cinéma in 1979–80, shortly after starting to make his first short (which was never completed). He began with a passionate defense of Paradise Alley, Sylvester Stallone’s first film as a writer-director, then went on to publish one film festival report (Hyères, including a celebration of a Robert Kramer retrospective), a brief réportage on the shooting of Godard’s Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie), an article about a program of new and old Polish films at the Cinémathèque (Zanussi, Skolimowski . . .), a terse put-down of the French feature C’est Encore Loin l’Amérique, and a brief review of Stallone’s Rocky II."
Carax has more of an affinity with Cahiers as a favoured filmmaker than as a critic - first with Boy Meets Girl, and then Mauvais Sang. The release of Mauvais Sang coincided with Olivier Assayas' Désordre, and Cahiers dedicated an Événement to them (N.389), arguing that they represent a renewal of cinema for the '80s generation of French filmmakers. In the editorial Vive La Crise!, it is written  "Rarely has the French cinema has had such potential to renew itself." In his review of Mauvais SangSur la Terre Comme au Ciel, Alain Philippon proposes how to talk about Carax: "One must, in order to speak, re-give a strong sense to some words, which have become corrupt and have lost their power, especially: poetry, inspiration, a flash of creativity, in one word: emotion." The peak of the Carax-Cahiers connection is the full issue they dedicated to Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (N.448).

The following is an original translation of Carax's review of Paradise Alley (N.303). On the review of Paradise Alley, Rosenbaum writes,
"The most important of Carax’s critical pieces is undoubtedly the first. Fascinated with both the pessimism and the nightmarishness of Stallone’s 1978 feature (no doubt assisted by the film’s French title, La Taverne de l’Enfer) — a grim wrestling story about three grown orphan brothers in Hell’s Kitchen in 1946 — Carax writes about both the plot and the film’s texture as if he’s recounting an orphan’s nightmare, clearly responding to both the physicality and the bleak finality of Stallone’s vision in spite of the movie’s humor and its happy ending [...] One can’t say that Carax was the only critic to have responded to Stallone’s style (see, for instance, Richard Combs’s perceptive review in the March 1979 Monthly Film Bulletin), but the nature of his response as a teenage critic in relation to both the physicality and nostalgie de la boue (taste for lowlife; literally, “yearning for the mud”) of his subsequent movies is still worthy of notice."
Paradise Alley bears influence on some of Carax's films, notably his most sober and autobiographical film Pola X (e.g. the limping, reclusive older brother; the Chaplinesque gags), and in the remote setting of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. - D.D.
La Taverne de l'Enfer, Cahiers Critique by Leos Carax (Cahiers, September '79)

What will follow are a few phrases about a good film that was poorly released, and which was not even discussed.

1946: Three brothers, the Carbonis, New York city wops, adult orphans, who share the same miserable housing in one of the poorest areas of the city: Hell's Kitchen. Cosmo (S.Stallone) is a hustler, always on the lookout for money that would allow him to leave the neighborhood and become famous; Victor (V for Victory) delivers ice-blocks, his build is just as impressive as his unalterable good spirit - and we'll see at the end that he isn't stupid; Lenny is the oldest, who was crippled in the war, tormented, he knows life (and death: he's an undertaker). It's story is just about this... Cosmo tries to convince Victor to become a professional wrestler in a private boxing ring, the Paradise Alley (of the film's original title). With the money that they would win from the fights, the three brothers could finally move out of this poor neighborhood. Victor would do anything to help his brothers, but Lenny doesn't like the idea: every night, it would mean that his younger brother risks being disfigured for life. Yet he finally accepts and even becomes Victor's manager - renaming him "Kid Salami". Every fight is a victory for the Carbonis, and the money accumulates. But Cosmo and Lenny, go from being brothers to becoming enemies: they both love the same woman and, most importantly, they are in disagreement in regards to the career of their protégé. It's now Lenny who is pushing Victor to fight, more and more, and for more money and stronger opponents, all the while Cosmo would prefer to stop it all before their brother becomes a wreck. For the first time, Victor takes responsibility: he says that he is finished with the ring but agrees to one last fight. Against the frightening Frankie the Thumper (who is in the Stitch Mahon gang, enemies of the Carbonis) for nine-thousand dollars, which is all of the money that they have raised. The fight is terrible, but Victor emerges victorious and the Carboni brothers are reunited.

The press-book indicates that the first version of the script written by Stallone in 1970 was a lot darker. Despite its constant sense of humor and its derision, despite its optimistic ending, the realized film resembles a long nightmare. The neighborhood and nighttime scenes, the lighting, its fixed shots (there is practically no camera movements) and violence (too frequent), all participate to a mise-en-scène that is codified like a nightmare. On this point, the image (a success) is clear; from rooftop to rooftop, Cosmo and a member of the Mahon gang are racing; the scene is filmed at night, slowed-down, and edited into fixed shots; each alleyway that they jump over (shot from the position of the street), offers a reverse-shot, a trou d'air that tempts the runner; their faces are deformed by the exercise. And all the shots of the film share a similar style, an effort to push towards extremes, but slowed down, empty and struggling. We ask ourselves more and more, employing more and more strength - to the point of  laughable exaggeration - but the fixed shots keeps us on location. The characters struggle to reach the end of each scene and Stallone's camera never helps them, on the contrary. Lenny must make it through the dance hall with his cane in hand to recover the woman that he lost; Cosmo cannot get home without being harassed (slowly) by some thugs (which we never really see and that he gets rid of by blindly hitting them: the entire neighborhood is a vast nightmare); Victor is forced to arm wrestle the strongest opponents, he has to carry a huge block of ice up an endless staircase, without counting all of the fights that he goes through (from scene to scene, his face is always getting worse). In Stallone's cinema, each scene is either won or lost. 

Paradise Alley is an orphan's nightmare (see again Laughton’s extraordinary The Night of the Hunter if you want to grasp what's an orphan film: the spectator’s identification can’t be more profound than with the character of the orphan, the child alone in the dark). The parents are dead and the kids are grown up, aged: the "You look old tonight, brother" which is said twice, is the harshest thing said in the film. The characters just repeat themselves, like in a bad dream: we are all bad boys and our parents would not be proud. Stallone adds: but at least we stay together. After his victory and right before the closing credits, Victor embraces his brothers, exclaiming, "I like it better when we are brothers." This optimistic ending takes a lot of nerve. Cosmo, Lenny, Victor, each one has their turn to be the "brain". This union is their raison d'être. Just like the enfants du placard - half-orphans - they share family and childhood secrets: (Lenny knows how to make Victor invincible, by whispering a few words in his ear.).

The only way to stay brothers, is to bet on winning together. Not to fight a war but, for example, to have a wrestling match. And it is the scene of the final match, where Victor and Frankie the Thumper fight intensely, each one for their family. Each of the two bodies take many hits, some of them right in the face. The catch of the whole situation, just like it's with cinema, is that it's rigged and we know itStallone takes his pleasure - a pleasure that is first, childish - to film this trick for what it is. His film is a great film; it's cinema. And if people did not go to see it, they have lost a good opportunity to love the cinema.

Leos Carax

Monday, August 12, 2013

Film Tumblrs

Bits of Business:
Route One USA/Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind
Under the Sun of Satan/Putty Hill
Predator (John McTiernan, 1987)
Event Horizon (Paul W.S. Anderson, 1997)
Lundi, je présente mon film à l’avant-première parisienne
Greed - Erich von Stroheim, 1924
The Shooting - Monte Hellman, 1967 
AI: Artificial Intelligence - Steven Speilberg, 2001
Nouvelle Vague - Jean-Luc Godard, 1990
Autumn 3:
Éloge de l’amour / Lincoln
Experimental Cinema:
A Married Couple (Allan King, 1969, Canada)
Blues Igloo:
Exterior Night (Mark Rappaport, 1993)

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Indy's Troubles

The year is 1936 and the setting is a remote forest in Peru, South America. The jungle goes on forever and mountains punctuate the blue sky. This is the story of the famous adventurer Indiana Jones whose looking his usual scruffy self as he's wearing his famous outfit: a brown leather hat - just like the one John Wayne wore in Rio Bravo - and his well-worn black leather jacket. Mr. Jones and a team of locals are searching for the Chachapoyan Fertility Idol which is hidden in one of the Hovitos' cave. Indy doesn't know if he should trust this group. Should I trust this group? A few of these guys look suspicious. Will they betray me? It has happened before in the past. There are around five or six of them along with a few donkeys that are carrying their supplies. Schreeek! Someone trips over the root of a tree, and then picks himself up. Was that a gun tucked in his belt? Beep beep. Chir chir. What is that noise? What can be out there hidden in the forest? The Hovitos are a dangerous tribe and everyone is sure that they are nearby. While Indy's group is trekking through the jungle they are regularly looking throughout the forest to make sure that they are safe and not being following. Walking. They keep on walking. Two of the group members find an arrow prodded into a tree. "They would have killed us already if they knew that we were here," says one of them. I've been in situations like this before. Not even close to nervous. Jones, who is leading the way, does not even break a sweat. They arrive to a pond. Indy takes out an old crumpled map from his pocket and is inspecting it. But so what does he see from the corner of his eye? Oh no! One of the guys from his troupe is about to pull out his gun to shoot Mr. Jones to steal the map! There is now way that this is going to happen. There is no way that this is going to happen! Indy then quickly grabs his whip, which is neatly rolled up on his waist, and disarms the treacherous traitor. Who then runs away. Was that ever close. Boy! Was that ever close. They keep things moving. And they finally arrive to the old Mayan cave. There is a frightening statue at it’s opening: a scary face with sharp teeth and its tongue sticking out. There is a hole in its mouth. Thwack thwack. Thwack thwack. What is that? And then one hundred bats fly out of the Mayan statue's mouth - scaring some of the less thick-skinned members of Indy's troupe. After everyone has calmed down, Mr. Jones is speaking to his primary guide Barranca: "This is it, this is where old Foreststone cashed in." "Was he a friend of yours?" "A competitor. He was good, he was very very good." "Seignior, nobody has come out of the cave alive. Please..." That doesn't faze meLet's just hope that there aren't any snakes. Boy do I hate snakes! Barranca does not convince to faze Mr. Jones. So off they go. They are making their way through the cave. What is that I feel on my back? Indy turns out and sees a petrified look on Barranca's face, who is looking at Mr. Jones’ back, and he realizes that what he was feeling is half-a-dozen of giant tarantulas on his bag. Smoothly, with his whip, he taps them off. But what does Indy notice when he sees Barranca? There are even more tarantulas on him! Barranca looks scared! Indy firmly gets the spiders off of him, which comes as a big relief too him. Seeing a light coming through a hole into the cave, Indy gets suspicious and tells Barranca to not go near it. Sneaking under it, and then testing if it is a trap, by placing his hand quickly into it, reveals that it was, and sharp steel spikes spring out of the walls. A few feet later, they discover the dead corpse of Indy's old competitor Foreststone. They slowly make their way through the cave, jumping over a large hole in the ground by having to swing off of a branch with Indy's whip. They finally arrive to the end of the cave, into its final compartment where they can see the golden idol. But Indy knows that it can't be this easy. Just like in the picture Land of the Pharaohs, Indy suspects that the room is rigged with traps. He is weary about making a step: after uncovering some dirt over a tile on the ground, he presses it, and sees that it activates arrows to be shot. "Stay here," says Indy. "If you insist, seignior," says Barranca. Indy gets to the idol. It looks like a hybrid between pharaoh and a beetle. In a swift gesture, Indy snatches the idol and replaces it with a bag of sand. Whoa. That was too easy! Crack. Boom. Crash. The idol display slowly lowers and then the wall behind it crumbles and the cave is falling apart.  Time to make a run for it. Indy is scrambling out of the cave while letting all of the booby traps go off. Barranca would betray him once they get back to the large hole that they would need to jump over: "Give me the whip," says Indy to Barranca after Barranca jumped to the other side. "Throw me the idol, there is no time to argue," says Barranca. Indy throws the idol. "Adios seignior," says Barrana, before he would get killed in one of the traps on the side. Indy is able to jump to the other side of the hole, with difficulty. That was a close one. And then he sees a giant round boulder sliding down a ramp right over him. This is a bad moment for Indy, how is he going to make it out of this one? Going around a corner, running, hazardously checking behind him to see how he is doing, getting mixed up in a bed of cobwebs, he finally jumps out of the side of the mountain, rolling around in the dirt, stones and scrubs. Whew! But what happens then: his rival René Belloq who speaks Hovitos is there with the local tribe and demands the idol. Knowing that he has lost this particular round, Mr. Jones gives Belloq the idol and, when Belloq is distracted with it, he then runs away. Indy's friend Jock Lindsey should be waiting nearby on a water-plane. Indy yells to him, "Start the engine, get it up," as he is being chased by a gang of Hovitos, who are shooting poisonous arrows at him. But Indy is able to escape, right at the last minute, getting onto the plane. It was good to be able to get out of that one! I've got to teach class tomorrow! ghrr... ghrr... Oh no! "What is that?," asks Indy. Not a snake! "That's just my pet snake Reggie," says Jock. Indy makes it out of Peru, still in one piece, but the scene ends with him screaming, "I hate snakes!"
This ingenious opening sequence from Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark would become a template for the openings of all of the other Indiana Jones films. The series is a classic of the action adventure genre, which goes all of the way back to the silent film cliffhanger serials, all of the way to the present, with such great recent additions like Andrew Stanton’s John Carter and J.J. Abrams' Star Trek: Into Darkness (whose opening is an ode to this one from Raiders). As part of a fun contest to pick one Spielberg film for the summer of 2013, along with Paul Bullock and Will Sloan, I nominate Raiders of the Lost Ark.