A Book Review

on the set of Coney Island (1917)

There is no shortage of biographies and memoirs of the men and women who have shaped the cinema.  Ray Carney’s work on John Cassavetes is exhaustive and all encompassing, Richard Brody’s Jean-Luc Godard: Everything Is Cinema is a perfect mixture of the director’s personal life and his professional development, and Patrick McGilligan’s George Cukor: A Double Life is as thorough as thorough can be.  But the book in question is not a traditional biography.  This book takes the facts of a real life and endows them with a humanity that is absent from the official record of this life through the fictional invention of it’s author, creating a memoir that is supposed, and in reality, a novel.  The book in question is Jerry Stahl’s I, Fatty.

I, Fatty, as its title suggests, tells the life story of Roscoe Arbuckle.  Arbuckle, better known now for the scandal that ended his career, was one of the earliest and most influential innovators of screen comedy.  In the world of film literature Arbuckle, perhaps because of the infamy of his scandal, has been relegated to a footnote or a breezy chapter in a book on Buster Keaton or some extensive survey of the silent cinema as a whole.  Those writers of non-fiction, the good film historians such as Walter Kerr and Rudi Blesh, treat Arbuckle and his accomplishments with the appropriate reverence and respect without being concerned with the man who truly was “Fatty” Arbuckle.

I, Fatty by Jerry StahlIt is in creating a portrait of a man that Jerry Stahl excels; even if the man in his book is as much a fabrication as it is historical fact.  It is enlightening in its suggestion of a human being behind the “Fatty” persona.  To have the reader grapple with not only the facts already available in the works of Kerr and Blesh but the very concept that there was an emotional creature behind this famous persona who lived and felt the tumultuous events that we know made up Arbuckle’s life.  This suggestion is the real “food for thought”, the true success of I, Fatty.

It only helps that Stahl’s voice for Arbuckle is flawlessly consistent, imbued with the slang and jargon popular in the 1910s and 1920s.  It helps further that Stahl is very simply able to conjure a sense of time and space in his novel, making tangible the dusty back lots of old Hollywood, the worn out and rotting theaters on the vaudeville circuit, as well as the cold dank Kansas shack where Arbuckle was born.  It is these two principle elements that tie I, Fatty to our understanding of reality, an understanding that, if absent, would render Stahl’s rendition of Arbuckle a tasteless caricature.

Thankfully, I, Fatty works.  Though it may not be the definitive biographical work on Roscoe Arbuckle, it is the closest to it this reader has ever stumbled upon.

-Robert Curry

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Lulu In Berlin, The Supplemental Feature

Louise Brooks circa the 1920s

It’s not difficult to see why Louise Brooks remains one of the most captivating personas of the silent cinema.  Even in her day her look and her talent for acting on film were widely discussed, praised, and adored.  Her celebrity may even be so potent today that it alone is responsible for the deluxe editions of her two films with G.W. Pabst (released by Kino Video and the Criterion Collection respectively).  These two releases posses an abundance of supplements ranging from interviews with Brooks, latter day short films (Windy RIley Goes Hollywood of 1930 was directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle), and, on the Criterion release of Pandora’s Box (1929), Richard Leacock’s Lulu In Berlin (1984).

Lulu In Berlin is, at essence, a filmic analysis of Brooks’ life in and around the cinema with a detailed foray into what was the climax of that relationship; her collaboration with Pabst on Pandora’s Box and Diary Of A Lost Girl (1929).  In conversation with Brooks, Leacock prompts his subject to recall all of the anecdotes and personal reflections that make her own memoir Lulu In Hollywood such a delightful read.  But what Leacock is able to do in Lulu In Berlin that Brooks was not in her book is to deconstruct the visual aesthetic of Pabst.  To do this Leacock, like any sensible video-essayist, slows down sequences, freeze frames on notable compositions, and replays sequences of particular importance.  What Lulu In Berlin manages, that is entirely unique in my experience, is to couple the subjective recollections of a subject with an objective aesthetic analysis of another related subject congruently.

Consider the many DVD special features that one is most familiar with.  A celebrity, either director or actor, recalls the pleasuresLeacock and Brooks of making a film whilst, via jump cuts, the film in reference is often cut to.  The difference between these supplemental features on DVDs and blu-rays and Leacock’s Lulu In Berlin is their motivation.  Where Leacock presents an analysis that is two prolonged and intent on enlightening the audience as to the mechanics of a film and the experience of constructing those mechanics that make the film your average special feature is nothing more than a prolonged advertisement for whatever film happens to be in question.  Even some of the most informative special features, like those on Warner Bros. DVD release of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973), are, at their heart, commercials.

Leacock’s film of Louise Brooks, with all of its aforementioned merits, still would not likely to have been seen on a home video release if it weren’t for the fact that Louise Brooks is the subject.  In Barry Paris’ excellent biography on Brooks, Louise Brooks, Paris will, again and again, reassert this timelessness.  He points out that to many fans of the cinema today Brooks is more famous and recognizable than those actresses with whom she often competed, such as Clara Bow.  This observation, that is very true, was also shared by Leacock; who opened and closed Lulu In Berlin with the sequence pictured below.

freeze frame from Lulu In Berlin

-Robert Curry

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A Short Reflection On A Screening At International House

Mon Oncle (1958)

Last Friday I attended, with my brother, a screening of Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958) at International House.  What may appear to be an odd context to this screening, though not after a closer examination, was the fact that David Lynch had selected the film.  Lynch, with his reputation for dark and sexually violent films, is often overlooked for his use of slapstick, circumstantially motivated, as comic relief in his films.  One can easily see Tati’s influence, for example, in the blocking of the elderly bank attendants in the series finale of Twin Peaks; which also recalls a similar scenario at a hotel lobby in his film Wild At Heart (1990).  Lynch’s admiration for Tati is obvious, even if the influence of the latter is somewhat subtle.

The screening also afforded audiences a chance to further appreciate and contemplate the longevity of Tati’s film.  Presented to us, the audience, was a 16mm print of Mon Oncle, a cut of the film that had been prepared by Tati himself for distribution in Britain and the United States featuring some brief over-dubbing.  The contrast between this version and the now more familiar French language version highlighted the “silence” of the film.  In only one or two instances is the dialogue at all necessary.  And it is the “silence” of Mon Oncle, coupled with Tati’s satirical mastery, that enables the film to play today as fresh as it did more than fifty years ago.

However, upon departing the screening, one is left to wonder, as my brother and I did, why silent clowning has vanished from the cinema.  Considering the relevance and cinematic potency of such master silent comedians of the sound era as Tati, Pierre Etaix, and Jerry Lewis it seems a shame no one has stepped forward to fill those shoes.  Has that particular niche vanished?  Has society become too dependent on text and not upon the visual or representative?  In this age of high technology, which Tati predicted so long ago, I would assume the opposite were true.  Sadly, the analysis stopped there as my brother and I began discussing how delightful it would be if Albert Brooks were to return to directing and helm a film of silent clowning of his own.  Still, the question is an important one: where are today’s silent clowns of the cinema?

-Robert Curry

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Male Directed Feminism

Winston Churchill’s favorite film was That Hamilton Woman (1941). Directed by Alexander Korda the film exhibits all of the Romantic militarism and blind nationalism one would expect from a film made during WWII that was too prestigious a project to be burdened with blatant propaganda. All of that aside, the film represents a trend in period dramas that has its roots in the work of Jane Austen. This narrative trend focuses primarily on a female protagonist who is strong willed and hungry for independence but who finds herself restricted by the patriarchal societies of the day, and is forced to find her validation covertly. This is the principle narrative arc of That Hamilton Woman, whose protagonist, Lady Hamilton (Vivien Leigh), is a social climber who parley’s her acquired position (achieved through marriage) into a position of political influence, that she in turn abandons to begin an adulterous affair with Horatio Nelson (Lawrence Olivier), that results in her falling in rank right back to where she started.

That Hamilton Woman

Korda’s film does not take this narrative in the direction of “cautionary tale” as G.W. Pabst did with his film Pandora’s Box (1928), choosing instead to celebrate Lady Hamilton’s unabashed defile of convention in the name of true romance. In this, one can find a sensibility that would later be dubbed proto-feminist by film scholars in the seventies, whose concerns were with how male filmmakers conducted their telling of cinematic stories with a female protagonist. Though Korda’s motives certainly do not reflect the political motives of feminism, but rather a romantic approach to British history essential to the morale of his country during wartime. Nonetheless, Korda does prove that a film with a “proto-feminist” sensibility has a mass-market appeal, and is capable of drawing audiences from a wide range of demographics. A similar film, though not nearly as refined or nuanced as That Hamilton Woman, is Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns. What films like these represent is that women, while at home during the war or left to administrate domestic affairs after the war, were becoming a demographic unto themselves.

The social ramifications indicated by That Hamilton Woman’s success would come to full bloom in the sixties when the Hollywood studio system crumbled and feminism became a fully realized political movement. The films of this era by Agnes Varda, Barbara Loden, Chantal Ackerman, Vera Chytilova, Lina Wertmuller, and Elaine May created a cinematic codification that was easily recognizable to audiences as feminist. The most obvious difference between, let’s say, That Hamilton Woman and Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) is the absence of the masculine gaze. This will become of tremendous importance, as the mainstream moves to adopt the feminist demographic as it’s own. In doing so, the major Hollywood conglomerates will create an aesthetic of pseudo-feminism that reverts to the visual dialect of Korda’s That Hamilton Woman, where the masculine gaze will be prevalent and the narrative structure will at the least be designed to shame women for their feminist ideologies.

An excellent case in-point of the pseudo-feminism I am writing about is The Good Mother (1988). Directed by Leonard Nimoy after his success directing two installments of the Star Trek film franchise at Paramount, the film focuses on Anna Dunlap (Diane Keaton), a single mother with progressive socio-political ideas who is attempting to incorporate sex education into her daughter’s up bringing from an early age. A conflict will arise when Dunlap’s ex-husband sues for custody of the child when he learns that Anna’s boyfriend Leo (Liam Neeson) let the child touch his penis.

The Good Mother

In addition to the objectification of Keaton’s naked body in her many sex scenes with Neeson, The Good Mother instills in it’s audience a political message detrimental to the feminist ideology; that if a woman institutes a progressive education of sexuality with her child, she runs the risk of losing the child. This is social shaming, pure and simple. The film works only to inhibit feminist progress by shaming, and to a lesser extent, vilainizing those ideologies by implementing a style of narrative the pushes the social parameters of a patriarchal society on the feminist protagonist. In terms of narrative mechanization, The Good Mother is the inverse of That Hamilton Woman, but with a distinctly contrasting end result.

The de-feminization of the cinema would become even more aggressive as the nineties progressed. Women filmmakers such as Nora Ephron hide their feminist ideologies behind easily accessible genre conventions while Hollywood passes anti-feminist rhetoric for pro-feminist ideology. Hugh Wilson’s First Wives Club (1996) epitomizes this. When the three central figures (all first wives played by Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, and Bette Midler) are finally able to assert themselves and function independently away from their former spouses, their first order of business is to exact revenge on their male counterparts. In this the vilainization of female independence, and in turn feminism, is explicit and morally corrupting. The films resolution is even more detrimental by establishing that once peace is made between the first wives and husbands, their mutual happiness is dependent upon the women becoming willingly subservient to new male counterparts.

First Wives Club

Why are men so threatened by feminism? Why are these contemporary films for women made by men and designed to propagate anti-feminist rhetoric? The answer is that men find films made by women for women elusive and/or inaccessible. That more money is made from a wider demographic appeal. So to this day women, more than any other social group, remain the most marginalized in the cinema.

-Robert Curry

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David Bowie On David Bowie: The Music Videos For Boys Keep Swinging & Ashes To Ashes

Boys Keep Swinging

Today it’s widely accepted that David Bowie is and was one of the most influential and talented artists in the popular music industry. Though it’s only recently that Bowie’s talent for creating and manipulating personas is becoming a subject for closer critical examination. Throughout his career Bowie has employed a variety of self-presentations, reflecting not only the aesthetic shifts in his music but also coming trends in popular culture. Although contemporary critics are only now beginning to assess Bowie’s talents in this vein and their influence on artists like Madonna and Lady Gaga, Bowie himself was the first to question and probe his role as a cultural “chameleon”.

In 1979, with the release of Lodger and the close of a successful run of three art-pop albums recorded in Germany and France, David Bowie turned his scrupulous mind to his own public persona and art. Having turned thirty a few years before, Bowie sought to create a reflexive visual text, employing the help and guidance of esteemed video artist and director David Mallet. Mallet, like Bowie, had become ensconced in the neo avant-garde sweeping central Europe at the end of the decade. It would be these influences, from Joseph Beuys to Klaus Nomi that would enable Bowie and Mallet to realize their reflexive intent in the form of the Boys Keep Swinging music video.

Boys Keep Swinging is a straightforward song off of Lodger that satirizes the machismo of English punk, juxtaposing masculine signifiers with a homoeroticism derivative of the novels of Jean Genet. The visual accompaniment devised by Bowie and Mallet depicts David Bowie’s Thin White Duke persona of 1975 and 1976 (Young Americans and Station To Station) performing with a trio of female back-up singers. The format of this artificial performance makes several visual references to the revived burlesque and cabaret cultures blossoming in West Berlin around the time Bowie produced Iggy Pop’s The Idiot in 1977. But the most significant allusion is one to Bowie’s own past, directly referencing the famous interview with Melody Maker in 1972 to promote Ziggy Stardust in which Bowie confessed to being gay (though this statement had later been revised to bisexual). As the video enters it’s musical outro, the three back-up singers are each revealed to be Bowie in drag.

The significance of this is two fold. Ever the student of human sexuality, Bowie indicates the non-existence of the sexual binary, indicating that each polarity is present in the single individual. Reflexively, this sequence indicates something Three Bowies In Dragmore personal and more involved in the Bowie persona as well. If Bowie is both male and female, then he is neither straight nor gay, but an entity of sexual fluidity. Thus, Bowie abandons once and for all the ambiguity of his 70s personas, an act that pre-dates its verbal equivalent by nearly a decade. The manner in which Bowie achieves this, in drag, also serves as a kind of self-parody. When Bowie first began to embrace the glam rock aesthetic of Marc Bolan late in 1971, he was often criticized by critics for presenting himself as a woman, revealing a dose of homophobia in the British music press whose scandalizing of Bowie served Main Man’s publicity department very well.

The cultural criticism and reflexivity apparent in Boys Keep Swinging is essentially a warm-up to the more masterfully executed and aesthetically complicated Ashes To Ashes music video of 1980, which again re-teamed Bowie and Mallet. This time the song itself is a piece of reflexive art that dispels the romanticism of Bowie’s Major Tom character in his first hit song Space Oddity (a song Bowie re-recorded late in 1979 on the song’s tenth anniversary as a Japanese single).

ashes to ashes

Whilst the song debunks Bowie’s first public character persona, the music video employs a series of visual tactics to push that intent further. In the vein of the infant New Romantic movement, Bowie casts himself as Pierrot, a reference to his days with Kemp but also as a means to equate his public persona with that of the bumbling pantomime. In essence, Bowie reveals and stresses the fact that his “characters”, from Major Tom to Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, are nothing more than performance, a means for escape. David Bowie the private human being and mastermind behind these presentations remains elusive in the visual dialogue of the video, and therefore endows the video with the potential to be a kind of invitation to Bowie fans to join in on the fun of his next persona, which, as it turned out, was the bleach blonde pop singer of the Serious Moonlight tour.

The significance of self examination in public represented by Ashes To Ashes is a distinctly postmodern device, though it’s influence cannot be understated.

-Robert Curry

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Life Is A Bed Of Roses

            La vie est un roman (1983) opens in 1914, just before the outbreak of WWI. Count Forbek (Ruggero Raimondi) has assembled his closest friends, a collective of France’s most esteemed aristocracy, for the dedication of his proposed utopian city that he calls “The City Of Happiness” to his fiancé Livia (Fanny Ardant). As Forbek’s friends begin to applaud, the camera takes the viewer into the model of this proposed paradise. As this tracking shot of “The City Of Happiness” continues, the background fades to black, and then erupts in bright flames and explosions as the Great War desolates the land. Then there is a cut to a shot, which evokes Arthurian legends in which a cloaked handmaiden escorts an infant child, presumably the heir to the throne, from a castle laid siege. This sequence continues as the maiden emerges from a secret passage out of a tree in the midst of a forest. As the maiden exits the frame, a car drives by in the distance, introducing a third time period as well as a narrative, though this time in a contemporary France. This will remain the structure of the film, a triptych of narrative and location concerned with exploring not only the imaginative history of “The City Of Happiness”, but also the basis of the condition that society has defined as happiness itself.

            La vie est un roman is the second film Alain Resnais directed from a script by Jean Gruault, following up the critically acclaimed film of Henri Laborit’s life Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980). Stylistically, La vie est un roman is a return to philosophical debate in the narrative form, though this time in the genre of the musical. Like all good musicals, La vie est un roman relegates the breaking out into song to moments of personal revelation and emotional duress. Resnais sees to it that the visual component of the cinematic dialect of musicals is uncharacteristically underplayed, preferring static wide shots to the boisterous camera moves of either Stanley Donen or Vincente Minnelli. Even the close-ups of characters in song are static, and devoid of any and all traces of choreography. This unusual tactic immediately repels the audience, reminding the viewer that the world of La vie est un roman is as fictitious as it is physically two-dimensional. The result is unpredictable, but it could be construed that by removing the viewer temporarily from the narrative of the film serves the purpose of a catalyst designed to stimulate an objective reading of the lyrics sung, which in most cases convey the thesis of a scene or the illuminating of a suspected subtext.

the fantasy section of the film

the fantasy section of the film

            The visual dialogue of La vie est un roman is even more complex. The Romantic medieval section of the film is rich in cinematic and painterly quotations, utilizing small sets with matte paintings in both the foreground and background, lending these scenes, where there is undoubtedly singing in a Wagnerian fashion, the artifice of live theatre. Fantasy is the rule of the day, following a trend of post-modern films whose sense of the fantastic and concerns with the classical are derivative, visually speaking, of Fritz Lang’s epic Die Nibelungen (1924). Resnais’ simplistic staging of his fantasy sequences negate the gravitas of these post-modern fantasy films, be it Eric Rohmer’s Percival le Gallois (1978) or Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s Winifried Wagner und die Geschichte des Hauses Wahnfried von 1914-1975 (1975), evoking simultaneously the Czech Fairytale films of the previous decade.

            Forbek’s portion of the film, set in the twenties, makes a number of references both in terms of narrative, set design, and costume design to the serials of Louis Feuillade [Fantomas (1913-14), Les Vampires (1915)]. Resnais’ purpose in this is clear; for similar to his design of musical sequences, Resnais insists that the audience immediately recognizes and confronts their respective assumptions pertaining to the mechanisms of a particular genre. By alluding to Feuillade’s films Resnais guarantees that the audience will invest their suspension of disbelief into a familiar world, albeit a fictitious one. The tropes of Feuillade’s serials also serve as signifiers to a few stylistic expectations on the part of the audience, primarily with the melodramatic and Gothic qualities of the genre.

            In juxtaposition to these more fantastic elements is the seemingly realist world of contemporary France. Of course this reality, despite the modern wardrobe and technology, inhabits the same space as Forbek’s narrative. This section of the film is set in “The City Of Happiness”, now a school whose primary objective is to educate children via the children’s own imaginative powers. At the moment the narrative in this section of the film begins, attendees of a conference on imagination in education are beginning to arrive at “The City Of Happiness”. The realistic world of contemporary France links to the other narratives not just spatially, as in the case of Forbek’s narrative, but physically. On several occasions the children at the school will run or dance through a scene focused on the adult characters and the camera will follow them, cutting to a match on action in the Romantic world of Arthurian legend, where the children quickly exit frame. This tactic links the artifice of the two fantasies discussed above with the more realistic primary narrative, equating all three equally as fantastic inventions of the cinema. The other equalizer being, of course, the musical element prevalent in all three narratives.

            The medieval portions of La vie est un roman are the most simplistic. Visually, the camera is static in every shot of these sequences. In terms of narrative, detail and development are hardly needed because simple signifiers will do. The narrative tells of a King sent into hiding as a child until he reaches adulthood. At which time he becomes a great warrior, slaying first a lizard creature and then reclaiming his throne from a would be King by leading a peasant revolt. At which time the rightful King and hero of this narrative marries a princess, is crowned, and declares to all of his subjects that the “age of happiness” has indeed arrived. This is a very simplistic fairytale meant to suggest the crux of all legends in Western culture; freedom is happiness. By restricting this portion of the film to a two-dimensional narrative, La vie est un roman is able to pinpoint a primal understanding in mankind and therefore in the audience that will contrast with the more complex definitions of happiness that the films other two narratives suggest.

the Count Forbek section of the film

the Count Forbek section of the film

            Count Forbek’s narrative centers around his megalomaniac aspirations to achieve utopia after the architect of his “City Of Happiness” is killed in the trenches of WWI and his lover Livia has married another. Still determined, Forbek completes as much of his “City Of Happiness” as his money will allow, inviting his remaining friends, including Livia and her husband, to come live with him once it is completed. Upon the arrival of Forbek’s guests, he makes a strange proposal. Forbek appeals to his friends to undergo a transformation that will return their psyches to infancy so that they may experience only those stimuli that approach “true happiness”. Forbek reveals that his intention is to first rid his friends of all sensations of pain, then, he intends to unleash his procedure onto the world. Forbek’s process is made up of a pulpy mixture of Eastern mysticism and Jungian psychology, which, keeping with the genre, proves lethal to one of those undergoing the process. However, unbeknownst to Forbek, Livia never drank her potion and has retained her adult consciousness. Once she is aware that the guest who has died is her husband, Livia attempts to rescue her friends, but fails, leaving her to confront Forbek. It is in this pivotal scene that Forbek reveals his intent to create a harmonious global state of “true happiness” to Livia. Livia, repulsed by this idea, maintains that it is her individuality and freedom that give her happiness, even if it comes at the expense of other’s misery. Enraged, Forbek attacks Livia, though she repulses his attack with a blow to his head.

            The Forbek narrative complicates the final thesis of the medieval portion by raising the moral question if it is worthwhile to achieve happiness at the expense of others. This line of thinking is at the heart of the contemporary narrative centered at the conference for “Education Of The Imagination”, which for all purposes functions as a sort of dating game for the participants who continually pair off into couples. The concerns of this narrative are not as transparent as the previous two I have discussed. Firstly, there is the question of imagination as a means to happiness, the act of retreating into one’s intellect to escape the pain of reality. This concept is epitomized by the character Elisabeth (Sabine Azema), who, having recently lost both of her parents and a lover of two years, retreats into the romantic fantasies of a young girl. She directs these imaginative fantasies first onto Robert (Pierre Arditi) and then Walter Guarini (Vittorio Gassman). In the end, she selects Walter as the manifestation of her romantic delusions, primarily because of his romantic nature, though that has already been proven to be nothing more than a means to an end for him.

the portion of the film set in contemporary France

the portion of the film set in contemporary France

            Elisabeth is at the center of another ideology; is it acceptable to give a physical life to one’s imagined happiness? This concept is first breached when she presents a model, much as Forbek did, of her student’s idea of an ideal school, which is as much a theme park as it is a museum. In her presentation of this model, Elisabeth sings of love, freedom, and individual growth. The conference reacts in pandemonium, chastising Elisabeth and arguing that by granting a physical reality to something imagined, imagination stifles, falters, and ceases. This counter argument cuts to the heart of Elisabeth’s romantic projections onto Walter as well as the career dilemma of Robert, who decides after Elisabeth’s presentation to quit being a teacher and become a clown. For like Elisabeth, Robert, having realized his imagined happiness as a teacher, has become unhappy (though in Elisabeth’s case she presumably drifts from long term relationship to another).

            Wish fulfillment and the means be which it is achieved provide the fundamental thesis of the contemporary narrative of La vie est un roman. Resnais makes it clear that within a society it is impossible for the collective whole to find happiness, just as it isn’t always possible for one to be happy without others paying a price, even if it be a small one. For Resnais, happiness is a limited experience, restricted to only a few moments. But it is clear that in Resnais’ mind, these moments comprise a majority of who one is and in what direction one takes one’s life. It’s interesting, in terms of a sociological context, that at the time Alain Resnais made La vie est un roman France had entered into a new age of political conservatives. Resnais’ desire to make this film seems to be out of a desire to navigate a direction away from oppressive politics and the anonymity of popular conformity. Likewise, Resnais’ films had become widely criticized for not being optimistic enough or too opaque by many French film critics, indicating the kind of reception such ideas were to receive in France at the time. Regardless, in terms of style and content, La vie est un roman remains one of the most optimistic and escapist films in the long career of the late Alain Resnais.

-Robert Curry

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Define David Lynch

            Currently, Philadelphia is immersed in the art and films of David Lynch. PAFA and the Prince Music Theatre are both host to career spanning retrospectives that demonstrate not only Lynch’s outstanding gifts as a visual artist but also his versatility. Lynch’s fine art varies from sculpture to collage to painting; each medium touched by his unique sensibilities and interests, just as his films are. Where Lynch’s fine art is manifest in a variety of mediums, his film work spans a number of genres, though this aspect of his filmography seems, to me at least, to be generally under played by both critics and fans alike.

Lynch

Lynch on the set of Twin Peaks

            Today, David Lynch’s most popular works are Twin Peaks (1990-91), followed by Blue Velvet (1986), Mulholland Drive (2001) and The Elephant Man (1980). Of these titles, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive are genre pictures; thrillers to be exact. Lynch has manipulated the thriller genre to explore themes that are not conventionally associated with thrillers, thereby making the films both deeply personal and to an extent less accessible than his other films. The popularity of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive is due largely to their Academy Award nominations and high critical profile. Whereas Twin Peaks found a new legion of fans via the popularity of its DVD box set on web based social media, thusly canonizing the short lived show as a staple of hipster culture. The Elephant Man is Lynch’s most mainstream drama, adhering to the popular mechanisms of the filmic biography. What makes The Elephant Man distinctly the work of Lynch despite these genre mechanisms is the cinematography by Freddie Francis coupled with the sound designs of Alan Splet, which in conjunction recall Lynch’s first feature Eraserhead (1977).

            Eraserhead is the first of two films by Lynch that can only be categorized as personal filmmaking, the second being Inland Empire (2006), since not only are they so heavily indebted to the visual palette of his fine art, but because their worlds are so insular, as if Lynch has captured images from his subconscious onto film. In contrast to Wild At Heart (1990) or Lost Highway (1997), two films completely concerned with narrative function, Eraserhead and Inland Empire evidently function in a totally different vein of the cinematographic langue. In an even starker contrast to these two avant-garde epics is Lynch’s family film The Straight Story (1999), released by Disney.

Lynch & Montgomery

Lynch reviews lyrics with Jocelyn Montgomery in the studio

            It’s clear that Lynch fits Andrew Sarris’ model of auteurism, but the diversity of these works, without even bringing Dune (1984) into the argument, is a testament to a kind of fluency of the cinematic language that one typically reserves for Howard Hawks or Fritz Lang. Like the giants of the studio era, Lynch has the uncanny ability to successfully make a genre film whilst imprinting the film with his own identity. It’s doing David Lynch a disservice to categorize his work as a filmmaker, be it avant-garde, experimental or surreal. Lynch is exclusively none of these things. Yet more and more audiences are pigeonholing him as one thing or another. Why not simply call David Lynch a filmmaker or an artist?

-Robert Curry

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