Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Bresson’s little donkey

Lotsa good stuff from the beach vacation, already fading from memory: I’ll start with the Criterion disques—for all of you Netflixen out there, note that the essays printed on the DVD notes are considerately provided, free of charge, by the good folks at Criterion (and linked, below, in the discussion)…

Au hasard Balthazar box
Au hasard
Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

It’s funny: I associate children and animals so much with commerce that I instinctively run the other way when I get close to a movie that traffics in cuteness (I’ve never seen this one, for instance, despite impassioned recommendations from several friends). But Au hasard Balthazar’s use of the donkey as a dramatic reflector is moving and complex, its muteness and our natural faunal empathy have contributed to a rich matrix of meaning on the role of Balthazar (named for the Biblical magus). The most captivating of these involve casting the donkey as Christ, a nod to numerous religious allusions in the film (including the first scene, where children baptize baby Balthazar with water and flowers), which tells the beast’s life story.

This elegant infrastructure doesn’t begin to address the look and feel of the movie, either: from Bresson’s natural, lyrical style to his preference for untrained actors, from his framing techniques that focus on a portion of his “models”—his preferred term for actors—or the animal, to his minimalist score that captures the music of the donkey’s braying, AhB is a quiet and moving marvel.

Extras include an interesting television show from the late fifties that features an interview with the director, as well as testimomials from cinematic and literary lions from the French pantheon, including an hilarious Godard, heaping praise on the master and looking every bit the beat hepcat. Also included: an essay by James Quant.

Short Cuts box
Short Cuts site
• Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993)

After the theatrical release of P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia—a flawed film that I admire immensely—one of my talking points was something along the lines that Altman didn’t feel for his characters in Short Cuts, whereas Anderson loves his. (The connection between the two films was recognized immediately, of course, both set in the Southland with interlocking storylines and a cataclysmic event that marks the each film’s climax; now we find that the two directors shared the set for the eighty-year-old’s Prairie Home Companion, for which Anderson is available to the studio for insurance in the event that the master falls ill.) I got it wrong then—Altman operates at a distance, often nudging the viewer into a voyeuristic state (a strategem that works well in a social study, or an examination of alienation, or a snappy, humorous take on a subculture: think pieces of Nashville or even Dr. T.; 3 Women; and The Player, respectively—even as his style suffers in contrast to Anderson’s earnestness and manic energy while observing the constellation of stars that form the text fot both Short Cuts and Magnolia. As disconcerting as the plague of frogs is for some folks, Altman’s earthquake is sillier and less believable. Included in the Criterion package: an essay by Michael Wilmington.

F for Fake box
F for Fake site
• Orson Welles’s F for Fake (1975)

Much is made of this film’s literary form, which Welles is said to have characterized as a “new kind of film,” one that others, since, have dubbed a visual essay; FfF proves novel and largely entertaining, befitting its charming narrator, magician, director, and chief raconteur. (The film’s opening—chock full of jump cuts, color, and pulchritude, the latter supplied in abundance by Oja Kodar, Welles’s mistress—stands out, as well as the sight of Welles, comfortably ensconced in a booth at La Méditerranée [a Parisian restaurant] dismissing one carnivorous main course for a second of lobster.) If the punchline is a little tired, or we see a little too much of Ms. Kodar, the ride is a good one. See also: an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum from Criterion’s package.

Casque d’or box
Casque d’or site
• Jacques Becker’s Casque dor (1952)

Becker’s perfect period piece par Paris is the kind that makes you itch when it starts; it seems as though it should be boring. Slowly, though, one is captivated by the prospect of a relationship between the central characters, a young Simone Signoret and her reformed-gangster lover (the viewer is never tempted to stray); of course things will end badly for both of them, but not before we soak up the Belle Époque ambience, and experience the joy and sorrow of doomed love. The director works with perfect economy—he was an assistant to Jean Renoir before WWII, and the maître’s influence shines through. A gem; Criterion includes an essay by Philip Kemp.


The others:

• Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore (1971), counted by the director himself as his best, shows him at his most self-aware: Fassbinder casts himself as the director’s assistant, ably illustrating the capriciousness of the filmmaking endeavor. Filmed in Spain after the completion of the filmed-in-Spain, sauerkraut-western Whity, ‘Holy Whore’ has the great, shambling feel of a good party, a pedigreed 1960s look (with the great director foreshadowing a sound eighties fashion-sense in his white suit/black shirt/white tie), with a dollop of shaggy-dog comedy where actors are constantly shattering glassware in anger, disgust, or simply for the hell of it. The lampooning is punctuated with striking visuals, particularly when the camera ventures from the hotel lobby (on the veranda overlooking the sea, or asea, or driving about town): not particularly good, but very entertaining.

Bonus essay: Luc Sante on Fassbinder for Slate.

• Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) suffers from Klaus Kinski’s mania, a mania that doesn’t read well compared with other actors for the duration, despite some great scenes (including the storied Machu Picchu opening, plus the madness of Aguirre at the film’s end, where Kinski is babbling at monkeys and slaying Peruvian natives on a shoreline raid). The narrative seems to argue for all ‘river’ movies (cf. Apocalypse Now), where the existential dread increases, palpably, as we stay on the water.

• Herzog’s Cobra Verde (1987) is super-flawed and super-weird, but strangely compelling. The last collaboration of Herzog and Kinski, and a film that both men were disappointed with, Cobra Verde tells the story of the titular bandit, one Francisco Manoel de Silva, based on Bruce Chatwin’s Viceroy of Ouidah. The early scenes—detailing de Silva’s journey to his involvement in Ghana’s slave trade—are particularly good, and the frame of Kinski standing in the ocean, looking to his eventual destiny, is beautiful and poignant.

Seijun Suzuki’s Underworld Beauty (1958): the Sin City of the fifties, handsome and forgettable.

• David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979) is akin to a collaboration between John Carpenter and Roman Polanski; elements of schlock meet psycho-thriller à la Rosemary’s Baby; watchable.


Blogger John K said...

Thanks for this list, Bill. I rented "F is for 'Fake'" not too long ago. It's a curious film, too clever for its own good, a virtual smoke-and-mirrors of Wellesism that sort of wearied me after a while, though it has some tasty bits, and Welles's charm and brio go a long way. But it felt like much ado about...if not "nothing," then about a very little something. The sound quality on the DVD was sketchy at best.

2:27 PM  
Blogger bill said...

Agreed, John--there are plenty of passages where one grows weary of the "very little something," to be sure. (But I was smiling quite a bit, too.)

Next is L'Éclisse, so I can understand the Vitti commentary!


3:41 PM  

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