What Does Robert De Niro Have To Say About The Vietnam War?

This film is much more radical than Greetings.  It deals with the obscenity of the white middle class.  And we are white middle class, Chuck and I and everybody we know.  So we’re making a movie about the white middle class.  And we’re using the blacks to reflect the white culture.  Because the blacks stand outside the system and they see what we are.

-Brian De Palma, 1970

Much of Taxi Driver arose from my feeling that movies are really a kind of dream-state, or like taking dope.

-Martin Scorsese, 1988

Perhaps by the 90s a sufficient time gap will have elapsed to allow filmmakers to approach the subject of Vietnam in a more detached, balanced, and analytical manner.

-Jonathan Rosenbaum, 1980s

still from Milestones (1975)

still from Milestones (1975)

for Dan Dickerson

The Vietnam War remains a difficult subject for the United States.  It is an ambiguous anomaly, devoid of any easy label or justification from the stand-point of a contemporary American perspective.  The most popular American films about the war, Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill (1987), Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) avoid the political aspects of the conflict as well as the Vietnamese experience.  These films prefer the traditional heroism of the G.I. action-drama popularized by the first two World Wars.  This prefered model mandates that the reality of Vietnam, the way it truly did happen and what it meant, undergo a severe filtering process so that it may accommodate the binary model of black and white, good and bad.  To say the least this is an irresponsible approach to history, even if that history is particularly ugly and embarrassing.

Perhaps the best film about the Vietnam War ever made in America is Robert Kramer and John Douglas’ Milestones (1975).  Unlike the other films I mentioned, Milestones does not take the battlefield unto its purview.  In total contrast the film never ventures outside the United States themselves, focusing exclusively on the experience of the Vietnam War in America.  Over the course of an epic 195 minute running time Kramer and Douglas construct a series of interwoven narratives with over a dozen characters, touching on every subject on the national conscious in 1975.  That is to say by not focusing attention on the Vietnam War, Kramer and Douglas have been able to paint the most accurate portrait of the United States and life therein during that traumatic conflict.

To juxtapose the American experience of Milestones is Chris Marker’s monumental anthology film, made in collaboration with Alain Resnais, Claude Lelouch, William Klein, Joris Ivens, and Jean-Luc Godard, Far From Vietnam (1967).  Far more cinematic than Milestones, Far From Vietnam pits the left of the French avant-garde against the Imperialist Western powers, creating a film whose sympathies and varying perspectives are aligned with those of the Vietnamese themselves.  In a sociological and political context what is so iconic about Far From Vietnam is that the film dared show in detail what Peter Davis’ Hearts & Minds (1974) only dared to allude to; the celebratory nature of American violence against the Vietnamese people.  In the American cinema the closest element to such depictions we have come from Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz in the form of monologues during the third act of Francis Ford Coppola’s post-Vietnam spectacle Apocalypse Now (1979).  But Coppola’s film is far more concerned with the literary motifs of Joseph Conrad and the conventions of the “war film” genre to delve to the political depths of Far From Vietnam.

Robert De Niro as Jon Rubin, 1968

Robert De Niro as Jon Rubin, 1968

Now one may be beginning to wonder where Robert De Niro comes into all of this.  Well, it is not my intention to discuss The Deer Hunter any further than I already have.  It’s Gilgamesh classicism and deceptive visual realism have little to do with Vietnam as far as I am concerned other than as a tool by which one can begin to gauge how the generation that experienced the war first hand began to censor its history in the media.  No, my focus will not be on The Deer Hunter.  Instead, I prefer two early Brian De Palma films, Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970).

Be it an aesthetic choice or a necessity, De Palma, like Kramer and Douglas, focuses his two films on the American people during the Vietnam war.  Yet, where Kramer and Douglas have constructed a somber narrative film deeply rooted in the realist tradition of American independent film, De Palma has gone instead for the madcap satirical stylings of Jerry Lewis.  The same fundamental truths about America at this time can be discerned from either Milestones, Greetings or Hi, Mom!, De Palma simply exaggerates these truths to comedic effect, taking the stance that Vietnam,  and all of its ramifications included, is an absolutely absurd venture.  De Palma is also not so heavily rooted in the cinematic traditions Robert Kramer represents, who is strictly concerned with inciting political reaction in his audience, evidenced by his film Ice (1968), which, coincidently, came out the same year as Greetings.  What De Palma sees in his approach is the possibility to play with the physical medium of film, manipulating the form to achieve effects that will only accentuate the humor and meanings in his two films, an ideology Lewis had demonstrated in his films since the late fifties.

What links Greetings and Hi, Mom! is not exclusively De Palma’s filmic sensibilities of the time, but the character of Jon Rubin played by Robert De Niro.  In the first film, Greetings, Rubin and his friends are determined to do three things.  The first is seduce young women, a trope of the underground film comedy.  The second is to uncover who is responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy, though they never get further than reading countless books on a variety of conspiracy theories.  The third objective is to dodge the draft.  For all of De Palma’s innovative POV shots and handheld camera work the film never escapes the innocence of its comedy.  The film’s approach to draft dodging is so light and comedic that it becomes indicative of the severity of the issue.  De Palma is simply unsure of how to parody the subject successfully so that his satire would truly mean anything, so the entire sequence becomes imbued with a suffocating paranoia.

Robert De Niro as Jon Rubin, 1970

Robert De Niro as Jon Rubin, 1970

Hi, Mom!, the sequel to Greetings, is a far more mature and darker piece of filmmaking.  Robert De Niro returns as De Palma’s protagonist Jon Rubin, though this time Rubin has recently returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam.  Thus Hi, Mom! is a dark comedy concerned with how a man reassimilates into a society from which he has been absent for two years.  Firstly, De Palma pits Rubin against the sexual revolution.  Never succesful with women in Greetings, it becomes doubly comedic in Hi, Mom! that Rubin choses to be a pornographer by profession.  Rubin’s scheme is to film on a cheap 16mm camera the sexual antics of the residents in the apartment building across from his squat.  So at once De Palma parodies the fetishism of James Stewart’s lens in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and alludes to Rubin’s role as a sniper in Vietnam, tampering with the POV shots of what Rubin sees through his camera to look like the view through a sniper rifle scope.  For De Palma the two signifiers are synonymous, indicating the degree of Rubin’s perversion.

However, Rubin is unable to capture any worthy sexual acts.  So, having chose a particularly lonely woman across the way(Judy, played by Jennifer Salt) as a victim, he poses as a suitor selected by a computerized dating service to take her out and, hopefully, seduce her.  To capture his plan on film, he has set his camera to begin running via a timer so that, after he has wined and dined her, his intercourse with her will be captured on film.  Needless to say Rubin fails at this.  The only result of his scheme is that he has acquired a rather needy girlfriend.

Rubin, now living with his girlfriend Judy, is still an outsider in American society.  In an effort to belong he joins a group of Black Power activists as an actor cast as a cop, thus beginning the most controversial section of De Palma’s film.  The “Be Black Baby” segment is visually different from either the primary narrative of Jon Rubin or the attempts at pornography Rubin has photographed.  In this segment De Palm shot handheld on black and white 8mm blown up later to 35mm.  In this way he employs the visual aesthetic of late sixties “social action” documentaries to capture his satirical indictment of Black militarism and the white yuppies who claim to sympathize and understand the Black Power movement.  “Be Black Baby” follows a group of upper middle class white people who, eager to undergo the “black” experience, submit themselves to a piece of avant-garde living theater.  The white audience is physically beaten, painted black, and then beaten again by Jon Rubin.  Then, after all of this violence, each comments how wonderful it was to finally understand what it means to be “black”.  As offensive as it is funny, the “Be Black Baby” segment scandalized audiences during Hi, Mom!‘s original release.

After his turn with “Be Black Baby”, Rubin is still a man isolated in a society he no longer understands.  This is when De Palma begins to hint at Rubin’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Every attempt at normalcy Rubin has made thus far has either been perverted or simply perverse to begin with.  Thus, for De Palma, PTSD is the catalyst for Rubin’s comedic exploits.  Rubin, seen at this point in the film reading militant literature and being inundated by media slogans, both for the Left and the Right, reading “take action”, begins to snap.  And snap he does.  Filling the laundry room in his apartment building with plastic explosives, he demolishes the building, killing Judy and countless others.  Now, De Palma cuts to the POV of a television camera as a reporter interviews witnesses and survivors of the “act of terrorism”.  Rubin appears in his army uniform, faces the camera and says “hi, mom!”.

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, 1976

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, 1976

Again, one must stress that De Palma has exaggerated the conditions of both veterans of the Vietnam war and the state of things in America for comedic effect.  However, these exaggerations are born out of a real truth, because if they were not, then Hi, Mom! would not have been funny or successful.  It also bares pointing out that the trajectory of Jon Rubin, particularly in Hi, Mom!, mirrors that of another Robert De Niro character, Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver (1976).  Rubin and Bickle are both veterans of Vietnam unable to find a place in their society after the war.  Each has a penchant for pornography and violence.  Where they differ is simple, in the execution of their narratives by the filmmakers who have authored them.  For Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader Travis Bickle’s story is one of loneliness and pain.  Rubin, though suffering the same symptoms, has more unorthodox ventures in his attempts at being proactive.  This unorthodoxy to Rubin’s narrative is what makes it comedic.  That both Taxi Driver and Hi, Mom! follow the same logic indicates a moral truth that America, during and immediately after the Vietnam war, was struggling to grapple with; how does one atone for what one has done?

The issue of atonement is not unique to the Vietnam war in the American experience.  Literature by the major players of every military conflict have reflected such sentiments as far back as the American Civil War and still further.  Even, at times, these sentiments have been articulated in satire similar to De Palma’s two films, consider Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple.  What is incredible about Greetings and Hi, Mom! is that, of all the films either Brian De Palma or Robert De Niro have made, neither have ever been as sociologically relevant again.

-Robert Curry

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Mélo: High Style & Emotional Content

Alain Resnais is a difficult figure to place within the world of the cinema.  He is most certainly an auteur, an intellectual, and a humanist all at once, imbuing his films with those characteristics.  Though it was early in his career when he established himself as one of France’s celebrity filmmakers with Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Last Year In Marienbad (1961), it was in the middle of his long career when Resnais’ films began to evoke a more mature and seasoned approach to the cinema that still concerned itself with the themes that have defined him as an auteur; time, romance, and loss.  The first film I have seen of his that displays both the theoretical thinker in Resnais and the emotive storyteller is Je T’aime, je t’aime (1968).  But by the time Resnais is making films in the eighties his aesthetic has become so refined, so subtle, that the nuance that once seemed impressive in Je T’aime, je t’aime, compared with Hiroshima mon amour, began to look blatant and broad in its strokes.  The only way to describe this refinement that occurred at the onset of the decade is simply that Resnais had mastered a balance between the emotional and the intellectual.

Melo

Resnais’ film Life Is A Bed Of Roses (1983) is an immensely complex film, weaving time, space, and narrative style simultaneously into a three prong narrative film that essentially tells the same fundamental story in three different filmic vernaculars.  What is, at an intellectual level, a complicated meditation on the function of storytelling in contemporary Western Society remains, superficially, an enjoyable romantic musical comedy.  But even this approach would be further refined in Love & Death (1984), eventually reaching the pinnacle of this aesthetic evolution in Melo (1986).

There had been a feverish energy to Life Is A Bed Of Roses and Love & Death that is absent in Melo.  Melo, by contrast, has the feeling of painstaking preparation and detail.  One may attribute this sensation to the long duration of scenes, heavy with hypnotic dialogue, or the theatricality of the framing and set design.  All of which would make sense since Melo is based upon a play by Henri Bernstein.  The fact that Melo, in Resnais’ hands, is transitioning from the stage to the screen accounts for the director’s approach.  For as much as the film is a triumph for the actors’ performances and Bernstein’s play, it is also fundamentally concerned with the illusionary effects of the theater on its audience.

Consider Resnais’ use of the curtain.  Each time a scene crossfades to this image the curtain is static, neither rising nor falling.  Allegorically, an audience’s mind associates the movement of the curtain as either a marker of the end of an act or the beginning of one.  Resnais denies this closure.  For Resnais what is important is not the kind of progression signified by the curtain, but more simply that a progression in narrative time has occurred.  This enables Resnais to move ahead, sometimes by years, in the film’s story without having to walk the audience through the details of what has transpired between one-act and another, relegating that duty to the context clues within the scenes themselves.  This approach to narrative ellipses, prevalent in the films of Ozu and Techine, has a distinctly theatrical heritage.  But unlike his peers, Resnais stresses the occurrence of the ellipse in time to his audience.

Resnais is faithful to the theatrical medium of the play not only in his approach to eliptical effects, but also in how he stages the film.  When I wrote before on Life Is A Bed Of Roses some months ago I discussed the artifice of certain “fantasy” segments.  In Melo these moments of a fantasy world do not exist, they are the constant norm.  The Brechtian notion that theater engages reality by imitating it is at the heart of this device.  However, its manifestation in the cinema of Resnais is far from the minimalist exercises of Malle’s Vanya On 42nd Street (1994) or Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Niklashausen Journey (1971).  Resnais prefers the lush sets of warm color and hand-painted night skies of Powell & Pressburger’s Tales Of Hoffmann (1952) or The Red Shoes (1948).  This cuts any physical connection out of the film between the reality of the audience and the reality of Melo.  Resnais takes this one step further by manipulating light not in the traditional sense of narrative film like in Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970).  On the contrary, Resnais embraces the theatricality of spotlights and fades, as if he is aware that to a film audience these technical devices are as likely to evoke images of the stage as they are to emote the dreamy whimsy of Arthur Freed’s MGM musicals of the forties and fifties.

Melo

All of this theatricality and the self-awareness its manipulations are indicative of would mean little other than a formalist exercise if it wasn’t for what Resnais does with it.  Like Last Year In Marienbad, Melo is an achievement in blocking and choreography.  The performers have been staged so that every effect and set piece is instrumental in its contribution not only to the actors’ performance, but the emotional potency of every scene.  The meticulousness of the arrangements in Melo rival even some of F.W. Murnau’s greatest dramas for their heartbreaking fragility and overwhelming sincerity.  When the artifice of a theatrical world like that in Melo is put to the service of the drama as opposed to the spectacle the drama of the narrative surpasses reality in its ability to effect an audience.  This is not Jean-Marie Straub’s cinema of the intellect, this is pure emotional filmmaking on par with John Cassavetes, though in an entirely removed cinematic style.

-Robert Curry

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Casual Observations & Off The Cuff Ideas

During the last few weeks I have begun again a survey of the cinema focused upon the “alternative” of cinematic expression.  This is not a scheduled nor customary revisit, rather it is almost motivated exclusively by the demands of a new project.  In this case a short film that functions as an anthropological video essay that is entirely the product of my own invention titled Three Sisters.  Though Jean-Marie Straub’s particular brand of cinema has little to do with my own recent work, it was the cinematic inventions of he and his wife, Daniele Huillet, that were of uncanny interest to me personally.  I must confess that I do not feel intellectually equipped to properly analyze or debate a majority of their films in writing.  Nonetheless, their contribution to the cinema at large is as immeasurable as that of Jacques Rivette or Mark Rappaport, though all of these filmmakers seem to go on ignored, for the most part, in this country.  But what struck me in particular about Straub and Huillet’s films was not just their anti-nationalism or reflexivity, those are simply by-products of the mechanisms functioning within their cinematic language.  Rather, it was how the two fundamental mechanisms of cinema itself, sound and image, were stripped down to their absolute minimum so that only in their repeated convergence could anything decipherable be communicated to the audience.  This reduction in the mechanisms of cinema has been the work of a fifty year career for Straub and Huillet, and is, perhaps, best exemplified in the films Chronicle Of Anna Magdalena Bach (1966), Sicilia! (1998) and Une Visite au Louvre (2004).

straub & huillet

When one considers the critical impact of these films one is struck by the degree of objectivity achieved by these films in terms of how they present narrative, character, and object.  Most dynamic in terms of contrasting opinions whose convergence results in an objective presentation is Une Visite au Louvre.  The camera, or eye of the film, majestically caresses the forms housed within the Louvre with an awe for artistic achievement and cultural evolution whilst the soundtrack consists of a recitation of Joachim Gasquet’s critique of the particular works shown, as suggested by Cezanne, that vary from praise to condemnation.  Thus the viewer, while contemplating the differing ideas and opinions suggested by the film, must inevitably draw their own conclusions.  This is a cinema that demands the participation of its audience.

This demand on the audience is self-aware and part of Straub and Huillet’s objective as filmmakers.  Like Brecht, or Straub’s own mentor Robert Bresson, Straub believes that the cinema should stimulate ideas in its audience.  Of course, any critic could see how more traditional films that are far less structuralist, essayist, or theatrical than Straub’s could stimulate an audience’s collective intellect.  Look at what Fire (1998) did to India when it was released.  But those films are simply “matter”, to use Straub’s word.  To better elaborate, in 1975 Straud told the magazine Enthusiasm “When you leave (Michael) Snow’s film (Rameau’s Nephew By Diderot) and see the end of Citizen Kane-on the TV screen admittedly-then you have the impression that that doesn’t function anymore”.  What Straub goes on to say, paraphrasing a little, is that the cinema of Citizen Kane and a majority of narrative feature films use the “matter” of sound and image to create an illusion containing an idea, and that the function of this mainstream cinema is to sell the idea to the audience.  In the quote above, Straub advocates a cinema where the “matters” are pinpointed in their convergence so as to have the effect of stimulating the audience so that, as a result, the audience manufactures its own subjective ideas with regards to the subject of the film.

It is in creating a cinema around this principle that has kept Straub and Huillet from being identified with any particular artistic or national movement in the cinema.  Their expressions in film have remained entirely their own and have kept them among an elite of what I would consider truly innovative cinematic iconoclasts beyond critical categorization such as Chantal Akerman, Jacques Rivette, and Chris Marker.  But this is the cinema at its most cinematic and, therefore, inaccessible.

-Robert Curry

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I Don’t Kiss: Andre Téchiné’s Films About Youth

J’embrasse pas (1991) is the culmination, in many respects, to a long meditation on the psychological turmoil of youth, a meditation that has undergone a number of revisions from film to film before finally expressing a definitive subjective perspective on “the rite of passage” which has obsessed cinema artists since the early twentieth century.  Written by Andre Téchiné (who also directs), Isabelle Coudrier-Kleist, Michel Grisolia, and Jacques Nolot, J’embrasse pas works as a kind of exorcism for the film’s director, who, since Rendez-vous (1985), has obsessively revisited the same motifs time and again, enabling Téchiné to construct a new narrative pattern to probe more deeply and succinctly into his thematic concerns with the masterful and humanistic Wild Reeds (1994).  These three coming of age films each represent a dynamic advancement in Téchiné’s directorial style and a further refinement in the articulation of themes that bind these three films together.

Juliette Binoche as Nina in Téchiné's Rendez-vous (1985).

Juliette Binoche as Nina in Téchiné’s Rendez-vous (1985).

Rendez-vous concerns a would-be actress, Nina (Juliette Binoche), who migrates to Paris from rural France.  In Paris, she encounters a career minded man bound to society’s expectations named Paulot (Wadeck Stanczack), and his roommate, the free-spirited actor Quentin (Lambert Wilson).  Nina quickly falls for Quentin, but when he dies suddenly and her life seems directionless, Quentin’s former mentor and director Scrutzler (Jean-Louis Trintignant) takes her in and gives her a legitimate acting career.  This rather simplistic account of the plot to Rendez-vous already reveals motifs that recur in J’embrasse pas, albeit with a more refined understanding of character.

Just in terms of plot points, both of the central characters in Rendez-vous (Nina) and J’embrasse pas (Pierre, played by Manuel Blanc) are native to the more rural French countryside and have migrated to metropolitan Paris to pursue careers as actors.  Both also adopt the former mentor of a close companion, whose part is played by a veteran of the French cinema (Jean-Louis Trintignant in Rendez-vous and Philippe Noiret in J’embrasse pas).  These two narrative devices are expressive not only of traditional motifs of the coming of age story, but also of the succession of one generation to another and the differences between them.  In this respect one can sense the direct influence of Yasujiro Ozu’s Early Spring (1956) and Tokyo Twilight (1957).  Though not just in how Téchiné handles his juxtaposition of generational morality clashes, but in his employment of ellipses in time.  In terms of narrative duration, J’embrasse Pas demonstrates a more masterful approach to the Ozu aesthetic, particularly with the film’s brief epilogue.  Rendez-vous is more subtle, moving ahead in time out of necessity to perpetuate Nina’s narrative from her grief over Quentin and to the tutelage of Scrutzler.  However, Téchiné would master this approach to narrative time in Wild Reeds, employing a number of ellipses throughout the film.

Narrative structure is not the only similarity between Rendez-vous and J’embrasse pas.  Both films make use of similar character types, excluding the archetypal mentor figures.  These types are manifested in each film in very different ways that speak to Téchiné’s approach to both sexual awakening and sexual identity, two themes that define and unify his entire body of work.  First, there is Nina.  Nina begins Rendez-vous as a naive yet flirtatious young woman on the verge of her sexual awakening.  That “awakening” coincides with the deterioration of her naivety when she is seduced by Quentin.  Interestingly, she stays the course, she becomes an actor and follows the guidance of her mentor figure.  Pierre in J’embrasse pas varies slightly.  His sexual awakening occurs in opposition to homosexuals and homosexuality; specifically the homosexuality of his mentor figure Romain.  Pierre does not meet his love interest until forty minutes into the film, and they do not unite as lovers until the film’s final act.  Largely this is due to Téchiné’s revision of how he perceived these character types.  Pierre embodies the traits of both Nina and Quentitn in Rendez-vous.  Thusly, the external conflict of Nina and Quentin becomes Pierre’s internal conflict.  So it is not so much a matter of an outside influence affecting or directing Pierre, but an internal force.  Time and again Pierre will reject one thing only to be spun off into a collision course with something else that he will later reject.

Pierre & Ingrid

Pierre & Ingrid

The supporting characters in each film also undergo a transformation of archetypes as Téchiné progressed from Rendez-vous to J’embrasse pas.  Paulot, by the time he encounters Nina at the conclusion of Rendez-vous, is a bitter man, gone are all of his traditional Romantic inclinations, replaced by a base carnal urge.  In J’embrasse pas, Pierre’s love-interest Ingrid (Emmanuele Beart) undergoes Paulot’s transformation in reverse.  Though first it’s important to note Pierre’s psychological trajectory.  His rejection of Romain is indicative of his rejection of his own homosexuality from which the film gets it’s title, J’embrasse pas (English title: I Don’t Kiss).  Pierre, determining that he is too “stupid”, gives up on acting and becomes a male prostitute who will only masturbate in front of clients for 1,000 francs.  It is as a prostitute that he meets and forms a bond with Ingrid.  At this point Ingrid, also a prostitute, is jaded and cold.  She warms to Pierre after his demonstration of compassion, having intercourse with a man for the first time without money changing hands.  Her awakening, therefore, is a Romantic one.  In contrast, Pierre seeks only to posses Ingrid, just as her pimp does, mistaking ownership for love.  It is this behavior by both parties that prompts Ingrid’s pimp to intervene violently.

These incidents in J’embrasse pas indicate Téchiné’s own perspective of Pierre as a young man without a clear sense of self who strives, via ownership of other people, to come to a sort of “self-definition”.  Nina’s journey to self is the inverse, born out of an acceptance of those around her she slowly grows, existing more symbiotically than parasitical.  In the climax of Rendez-vous Nina sleeps with Paulot, prompting his own re-evaluation of self much in the same way Pierre effected Ingrid, stirring the romantic within.  This self-martyrdom is absent in J’embrasse pas.  After Ingrid’s pimp intervene’s, beating and raping Pierre, Pierre joins the army, like his brother, turning his quest for self into an obsessively cyclical vendetta.

The main theses of both films deals entirely with the relationship one has with the acceptance of one’s self as a means to define that self.  It isn’t mere coincidence that the protagonists of Rendez-vous and J’embrasse pas are aspiring actors.  Téchiné uses the profession as an allegory, particularly in Rendez-vous, for the emersion of one’s identity in the identity another chooses for one’s self.  It is this submissive requirement of Western Society that Téchiné is rallying against; it is why Nina outgrows Scrutzler and why Pierre surrenders unto it.  Over time, between 1985 and 1991, Téchiné’s view had clearly grown more pessimistic.

J'embrasse pas (dir. Téchiné, 1991)

By the time Téchiné made Wild Reeds his entire approach to the subject had changed though his main sociopolitical message and its accompanying motive had not.  For unlike Rendez-vous and J’embrasse pas, Wild Reeds is an ensemble film where ellipses in time are as common as the narrative’s shift in focus from one character to another.  There is also the very different approach to plot.  Where Rendez-vous and J’embrasse pas follow a single character’s emotional and physical journey, Wild Reeds never changes locations and uses the journeys of the films characters as stepping-stones, a cause and effect if you will, from one character to another as one journey begins and another ends.  The visuals are also strikingly different.  The heavily saturated colors of the Paris nightlife are replaced by cool earth-tones, evoking Wild Reeds‘ pastoral location in rural France.  Wild Reeds also uses the camera movements, dramatic pans and tracking shots, to evoke the budding sensuality and sexuality of the film’s characters much like in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1929).  These aesthetic developments evidenced in Wild Reeds show Téchiné as a more mature and calculated filmmaker, able to move beyond the narrative tropes and character types that he had employed for so long.  That said, it was Téchiné’s own journey there that was so fascinating and should not be missed.

-Robert Curry

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Wrapped In Plastic

Twin Peaks (1990-91), the brainchild of creators Mark Frost and David Lynch, has, in the last decade, risen above cult status.  In part this is due to Lynch’s Oscar nominated Mulholland Drive (2001), and part to the various DVD releases of the show and its streaming on Netflix.  Only a few weeks ago plans to revive the show were announced via Twitter by Lynch himself.  Indeed, almost all of the success of the show, be it when the show originally aired or today, is attributed to David Lynch, and occasionally Mark Frost.  But in the interim, between Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and and the release of the Twin Peaks Gold Box, it was the fanzine Wrapped In Plastic (1993-2005) that nurtured interest, merchandising, and critical debate around the show and its creator’s other projects from Lost Highway (1997) to Storyville (1992).

back issues of Wrapped In Plastic

Phenomenon like the Twin Peaks resuscitation is rare in film and television.  Perhaps the greatest example of a fan motivated revival is the franchise Star Trek, whose initial six features were the result of a decade long campaign by fans to bring the original television series back.  It’s too early to tell whether Twin Peaks will spark the sort of fan base and coinciding franchise that Star Trek did, but it is undeniable that the responsibility for any “rediscovery” of Twin Peaks by the public is due to Wrapped In Plastic and its readers.

Wrapped In Plastic was not an iconoclast of its genre, nor was it that consistent in its writing.  It did, however, fill an unlikely niche by bringing Twin Peaks to its fans in print for 75 issues.  Typically the format was quite standard for a fanzine; a cover story, an essay or two, some brief reviews on projects by Twin Peaks’ cast and crew, and then the letters section.  Wrapped In Plastic also covered Chris Carter’s X-Files, linking it thematically and aesthetically to Twin Peaks a number of times.  By incorporating articles and occasional cover stories on X-Files the fanzine was able to broaden its fan-base.  It is essential to put into context the function of the fanzine at the turn of the 21st century when such periodicals were primarily found in the then obscure comic shop and therefore had to compete with fanzines for Star Trek, Star Wars, Charlie’s Angels, Vampirella, Battlestar Galactica, James Bond, etc.  The already insular nature of those frequenting such shops provided a tight sense of community to the Wrapped In Plastic reader, prompting events designed to mirror Star Trek and comic book conventions but aimed at Twin Peaks.

Wrapped In Plastic No. 60This end of the Twin Peaks culture, its true “cult”, has not yet broken onto the social media platforms of the show’s newest fans.  In fact it is hard to get a handle on its function and very nature outside of the back issues of Wrapped In Plastic.  This gets to the very heart of “cult followings” in the age of cyber-space.  Fanzines like Wrapped In Plastic have been replaced by blogs, much like this one.  But these blogs do not come with the built in distribution direct to a niche audience that a printed fanzine comes with.  Thus communities like those built up by Wrapped In Plastic are slow to transition to social media, often suffocated by legions of new fans posting and blogging about the same subject.  This also furthers the novelty sensibility of a conference or festival held by fans beyond the reaches of the internet.  Consider the anarchist free-for-all of Twin Peaks blogs on tumblr in contrast to Radiohead and Sonic Youth blogs which function with a clear cohesion and sense of community.

There is simply something intrinsically communal about picking up a fanzine, an immediate sense of belonging, reassuring one’s self that there are other people in the world with like-minded interests.  The power of print, in this fashion in particular, is largely responsible for the hardcore punk scene of the eighties that sparked bands such as The Minutemen, The Replacements, Beat Happening, and Sonic Youth.  Personally, it was this sense of belonging that I felt when I bought my first issue of Wrapped In Plastic from Steve’s Comic Relief with my allowance in 2002.  And, for me at least, that notion of Twin Peaks as a wider community of fans is absent from blogs.  So the benefits of Wrapped In Plastic have been two fold.  Firstly it provided a communal platform for fans and, secondly, breathed new life and interest into the landmark television show.

-Robert Curry

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Protest, Police Brutality, & The Documentary Film

After the shooting of Michael Brown, and all of the incidents that followed, it seems a poignant time to take stock of America’s relationship to its police officers.  In general, this reflection tends to lend absurdity to the Romantic notions of law enforcement perpetuated by Dirty Harry, Die Hard, Columbo, and Lethal Weapon.  In fact such scrutiny has befallen American law enforcement that the very label of “law enforcement” has become a joke.  This is precisely why I have turned to the cinema for an examination of how America has interpreted it’s relationship with police in the last century.  To do this I have preferred the documentary to the fiction film primarily to avoid the unique relationship the American public has with its Romantic depictions of cops, deciding that this particular relationship was better suited to a different essay all together.

The Sixth Side Of The Pentagon

The Sixth Side Of The Pentagon

The first film I would like to address is also the oldest, Chris Marker’s The Sixth Side Of The Pentagon (1968).  Marker’s film captures the fervor of the Yippies’ protest of the Vietnam war at the Pentagon on October 7th, 1967.  This non-violent protest rapidly devolved into a confrontation with MPs and police, of which the most popular account is surely Norman Mailer’s often self-critical Armies Of The Night.  For my purposes the history comes second to the presentation of the facts that make-up the history.

Almost naturally, Marker’s film covers the initial conception of the protest in New York, then follows the Yippies to Washington DC to levitate the Pentagon.  In this way, once the violence breaks out between police and demonstrators, the viewer intuitively sides with the radical left.  To further reinforce this strategy Marker uses several cut-aways to news footage of Vietnamese civilians mutilated by either bombings or napalm.  All of the while authority figures, such as the MPs and police officers, are regulated to a kind of faceless mass bloodying all those who clash with it.

In opposition to Marker’s obvious liberal spin on his footage is Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s The Weather Underground (2002).  The Weather Underground represents something unique in almost all American political documentaries, objectivity.  Part of this may be accounted for by the subjects’ cynicism, and part of it in the structure chosen for the film.  For unlike Marker’s film, The Weather Underground chooses to intertwine both the narratives of the radical Weathermen and the conservative law enforcement agencies tasked with apprehending them.  The method of intercutting back and forth between the Weathermen story and the FBI story is powerful, particularly when, in contemporary interviews with the persons involved, neither the once radical nor the former FBI men sound all that different in terms of their rhetoric of today.  In fact, both sides of the conflict seem to exhibit total disbelief in their former lives, spanning some fourteen years between 1968 and 1982.

The Weather Underground

The Weather Underground

Siegel and Green’s representation of violence is also democratic.  If The Weather Underground shows its audience an instance of one of the Weathermen’s bombings, then that will be countered with an instance of FBI injustice or police brutality.  Unlike Marker, Siegel and Green’s thesis is not dependent on a victim/victimizer relationship between subjects, but looks to determine how one side’s violence fed another’s, perpetuating in cyclical fashion an endless stream of attack and counter-attack.

Siegel and Green’s approach is superficially at work in this third film, Jason Osder’s Let The Fire Burn (2013), but is undermined by the subtextual void created by Osder’s lack of commitment to explaining to his audience the very nature of MOVE, the supposed protagonists of his documentary.  Similarly to The Weather Underground, Osder insinuates that violence begets more violence (or in most cases the suggestion of potential violence beckons realized counter-violence).  However, Osder’s film does not inform the viewer of any of MOVE’s intentions nor any motives.  So it becomes a matter of speculation as to the emotions the film draws from its audience as being politically motivated or simply propagandist in nature.  More often than not, when a filmmaker negates essential details in a documentary it is to disproportionately represent either side of a conflict, relegating the intention of the film beyond the simple cinematic journalism, albeit liberal, in The Sixth Side Of The Pentagon and The Weather Underground.

It seems safe to say, given the example of William Gazecki’s Waco: The Rules Of Engagement (1997), that the audience’s sympathies would not go out to the abominable Philadelphia Police Department but rest squarely with the MOVE members.  After all David Koresh manages to come off as the victim of the ATF in Gazecki’s film simply because his crime was far out weighed by the ATF and FBI’s intentional mass murder of innocents; so why doesn’t the same apply to Let The Fire Burn?

One cannot say for certain Osder’s motives for his omission, though it certainly wasn’t out of necessity; Philadelphia burned several blocks of row homes to kill the members of MOVE, begging the question of Osder’s film “how much overkill does it take to get the sympathy of a jaded American audience?”  What is undeniable about Osder’s film is its outrage at the racism of Philadelphia officials and police officers, setting it apart drastically from The Weather Underground and The Sixth Side Of The Pentagon which dealt almost exclusively with white liberal activists.  But Osder’s obvious assumption that an audience, that will inevitably be racially mixed, would side with a militant police force out for blood over a defenseless house full of men, women and children, be they black or white, is a serious mis-step suggesting a more directed political agenda.

Let The Fire Burn

Let The Fire Burn

Despite the differences of these three films, as well as their merits and failings, each indicates a suspicion of authority and an outrage at violence.  That the moments recorded in these films seem to have slipped the minds of the average American prior to each film’s release is, in my opinion, the epicenter of the biggest problem in America today; ignorance.  And it isn’t cultural or political ignorance, but an ignorance of America’s history.  If the lessons of these three films were remembered by everyone everyday, even if one only experienced the event through one of these films, then more articulate and exact conversations could begin around American legislature, ultimately resulting in some kind of reform that would take America away from the precipice of violence and intolerance.

-Robert Curry

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Socialist Realism In It’s All True

Welles in Rio to shoot the Carnival as the centerpiece to his third film It's All True, of which Four Men In A Raft was the final episode.

Welles in Rio to shoot the Carnival as the centerpiece to his third film It’s All True, of which Four Men In A Raft was the final episode.

So much has been written on the films of Orson Welles, finished and unfinished, that it hardly seems necessary to contribute to that discussion at all.  But having revisited It’s All True: Based On An Unfinished Film By Orson Welles (1993), a few observations struck me as fairly obvious that were nonetheless relatively ignored by the authors of the film; Bill Krohn, Myron Meisel, and Richard Wilson.  Yet it is possible that the motives for avoiding a confrontation with the aesthetic of Welles’ footage derives from Wilson himself.  Having, for many years, served as an assistant to Welles and Mercury, Wilson perhaps thought it best to continue to preserve with a certain fervor the image of Welles as a staunch patriot, and reinforce the rhetoric of blind admiration that has come to encompass Welles as a filmmaker since the advent of New Hollywood in the mid-sixties.

The primary concern of this piece is not with the majority of It’s All True, which in my opinion is a fine documentary that presents a well detailed account of Welles’ production and initial concept for the film.  Rather, the concerns of this short essay remain distinctly with the filmmaker’s “reconstruction” of the last episode in Welles’ film, Four Men On A Raft.

Four Men On A Raft

Orson Welles’ Four Men On A Raft

Four Men On A Raft is concerned with two thematic elements.  The first is the simple narrative that begins with a love affair between a fisherman and a woman.  Shortly after the fisherman and the woman marry, the fisherman dies.  At which point four fisherman determine that they must bring their grievances to the capitol in Rio with the hope that changes will be made to the conditions of their everyday working life.  Narratively speaking the film begins with a fiction that metamorphoses into a re-enactment of historical fact (the journey to Rio).  The second thematic concern is a visual one.  Like Dovzhenko and Eisenstein, Welles presents the inhabitants of his narrative as a mass.  Individuality, or a breaking off from the mass, is only achieved when the hero (or heroes in this case) have determined to take matters into their own hands.  Even in Welles’ presentation of the mass there is a clear Socialist Realist influence, particularly in the long funeral procession.  When this visual mechanism is then applied to Welles’ narrative structure it becomes clear where the allegations of communism were coming from.  Four Men On A Raft is indeed a beautiful film, but it is far more political than its re-constructors would have the viewer believe.

Alexander Dovzhenko's Earth (1930)

Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930)

Prior to the reconstruction, It’s All True goes to great lengths to present Welles’ project as a kind of humanitarian effort, which is clear.  However, in aligning himself with the collective working classes of Brazil in his films, and in his effort to present them sympathetically to an international viewing public, it becomes almost necessary for Welles to adopt the vernacular of Social Realism.  The fault in the presentation of the reconstruction is that the filmmakers do not explore Welles’ relationship with Social Realism as a cinematic aesthetic.  Instead, it’s ignored for reasons, one would assume, that have to do with allegations  that Orson Welles was a communist.  Welles was not.  Any biography could tell you that.  But since Richard Wilson died before It’s All True was released it is unlikely that another film will ever be able to illuminate nor articulate Welles’ debt to the influence of Soviet filmmakers.

-Robert Curry

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