Tag Archives: The Criterion Collection

A Pair Of Book Reviews

On Tuesday, May 9th, 2017 two stories broke on my facebook feed. One was from indiewire that detailed David Lynch’s “retirement” from making films (2006’s Inland Empire is to be his swan song). The second appeared courtesy of the Sydney Film Festival blog and explained why Martin Scorsese believes that the cinema is dead. If one is to take the statements of these two filmmakers at face value than the forecast for motion pictures seems to be pretty dire. However, it seems to me that both filmmakers are speaking with too much haste.

Desiree Gruber, David Lynch and Kyle Maclachlan in Paris

It is true that the mainstream of Western film production is relatively bankrupt. I myself have gone on and on about the irredeemable qualities of the current Hollywood franchises. Yet, this corner of the cinema, the one that dominates our media intake online and on television, represents only a fraction of what the cinema is today. One cannot gauge the current state of affairs in the cinema by using something like the Academy Awards or the Cannes Film Festival as a barometer. Films from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia all indicate innovation and progress in the tradition of such renowned filmmakers as Fritz Lang, Elaine May, Stanley Kwan, John Cassavetes, Ousmane Sembène, Nagisa Oshima, Alan Clarke, Béla Tarr, and Abbas Kiarostami just for starters. Not to mention the legions of underground filmmakers working in the U.S., Great Britain, France, Canada, etc. This, the underground, is where the majority of films are being made today (this leaves out, of course, the iconoclastic filmmakers still working within the mainstream that Lynch and Scorsese have given up on such as Jim Jarmusch, Andrea Arnold, Terence Davies, Atom Egoyan, Claire Denis, Charles Burnett, and Abel Ferrara; to name just a few).

As someone who works as an educator in the medium of film I can attest to a continued interest in the history of world cinema amongst my students. During this last semester I had a student who made weekly trips to his public library to rent Criterion Collection DVDs. I also had a student who, at age 16, had already made two documentaries and has decided she would like to focus on making some comedic short films. I was also fortunate enough to work with some acting students on two short film adaptations of works by Hal Hartley and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. So as far as I can see, the cinema is nowhere near dying off anytime soon.

In the interest of preserving the cinema I would like to recommend two books on the cinema. I often wish I could assign more readings to my students during the time I have with them, but the length, the specificity and some of the academic language of these books would render them inaccessible to my students in the context of the classes I teach. So I will relate some thoughts and reflections concerning these two publications to those who read this blog instead (which, to my delight, does include some former students).

Fassbinder and Thomsen

The first text I would like to address is Christian Braad Thomsen’s Fassbinder: The Life & Work Of A Provocative Genius. First published in 1991, Thomsen’s piece is unique in the realm of studies surrounding Fassbinder’s work in so far as Thomsen actually knew Rainer Werner Fassbinder quite well and can offer some qualified analysis of his films. The title speaks to Thomsen’s regards for Fassbinder and the text makes quite an argument in support of those regards.

Unlike the work of Wallace Steadman Watson, Thomsen succeeds in contextualizing Fassbinder’s work in the theatre within his filmography. Drawing on aesthetic and political similarities, Thomsen paints a clear portrait of Fassbinder’s artistic development in both mediums. Their mutual friendship also gives Thomsen some unique insights into the more psychological readings of films such as Fassbinder’s segment in the anthology film Germany In Autumn, In A Year With Thirteen Moons and other personal films. Thomsen also brings the importance of the novels Effi Briest and Berlin Alexanderplatz as narrative influences to clearer light, going so far as to identify character types outlined by these two novels that find their echoes as early in Fassbinder’s career as Love Is Colder Than Death.

The true highlight of Thomsen’s book is the close analysis of Fassbinder’s more avant-garde films and videos such as Bremen Coffee, Nora Helmer, The Journey To Niklashausen, Pioneers In Ingolstadt and Eight Hours Are Not A Day. These titles in particular are often overlooked in studies of Fassbinder.

Thomsen’s weakness as a writer, and this may be due to the fact that the text is translated from Danish, is in the prose style. There are a number of instances where the language is casual, lending the text an air of amateurism that I am sure is quite unintentional. This style maybe appropriate for the anecdotal elements of the book, but it reads poorly in the sections of concentrated and deliberate analysis of specific works. That said, while Thomsen’s book is a highly informative and accessible piece of literature on the subject of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it is not as exhaustive in its presentation of information on Fassbinder as The Anarchy Of The Imagination, published by PAJ Books in 1992.

Ms. 45

The second publication I will address exists on the total opposite end of the spectrum of the literary discourse of the cinema. Nicole Brenez’s Abel Ferrara, published in 2007 as part of the University Of Illinois Press’ series on contemporary filmmakers, is an entirely scholarly piece of writing and represents the best of what film academia has to offer in the way of auteurist theory. The structure of Brenez’s book is to present a close analysis of Ferrara’s films in the first half, ending with a second half that is a transcription of a question-and-answer session following a screening of the film ‘R Xmas at the highly regarded Cinémathèque Française in 2003. By structuring her text in this manner Brenez allows her subject to support her own interpretations of his work in his own words, though in a less detailed and more casual conversational context.

Brenez’s book looks at all of Abel Ferrara’s films from Driller Killer to The Blackout in varying degrees of detail. The films that receive the most attention are Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, Bodysnatchers, The Funeral, New Rose Hotel, and The Blackout. Brenez’s exhaustive and highly specific analysis of these films is singular in film scholarship. The kind of thorough and detailed readings Brenez offers us of Ferrara’s films cannot be found elsewhere. Abel Ferrara is a filmmaker who is, for the most part, largely ignored within the discourse of film, often surfacing as a topic of interest in a limited capacity primarily in general overview studies of American Independent Filmmaking and its history.

Perhaps the most delightful portion of Brenez’s work on Ferrara is her analysis of the “time image” in relation to The Addiction. Brenez very successfully argues that the shared traumas of war and genocide in the 20th century are in fact what prompts the highly allegorical vampirism of The Addiction’s narrative. Not only that, but she successfully ties in the commentaries on society found within Bodysnatchers and King Of New York as being earlier iterations of the same social analysis found in The Addiction. Likewise, Brenez’s investigation into the modes of character duality in Ferrara’s Dangerous Game, Bad Lieutenant, Ms. 45, The Funeral and The Blackout is equally as impressive.

Brenez is wise in her analysis not to look to hard at Ferrara’s filmic influences. Often these kinds of studies on specific filmmakers become bogged down in the auteurist trap of tracing influences as a kind of aesthetic genealogy.  The weakness of Brenez’s book is that, for a few readers at least, the language is extremely academic and the prose highly refined and elaborate.

John Huston, Orson Welles, and Peter Bogdanovich
In conclusion I would like to return to the catalyst for this piece and discuss briefly my approach to writing this post. Originally I was going to open this piece with a quote from Orson Welles taken from This Is Orson Welles  concerning the nature of film in academia. But given the bleak forecastings of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese I think that the discourse that these two publications represent as well as the example of Orson Welles will dispel any anxieties surrounding the future of the cinema. Consider that these publications represent only a minute sampling of the literature on the subject of film. Then consider that Orson Welles spent the last decade of his life trying to complete a number of films that remain unfinished and yet he never lost hope nor did he ever give up. The cinema is alive and well, without a doubt.

-Robert Curry

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Rivette’s Histoire de Marie et Julien

I started to write this piece back in November, but put it off for some reason.  Since Rivette’s passing it seemed appropriate to finish it.

Emmanuelle Beart

Marie in the afterlife

There has been a lot of discussion around Rivette’s films lately, a kind of renewed interest or mass discovery by a new generation.  Lincoln Center recently hosted a parallel retrospective of Rivette’s work along with the films of David Lynch, and a few months afterwards the Criterion Collection announced that they would be releasing their first Jacques Rivette title Paris Belongs To Us (1961).  If one wanted, one could even turn the clock back a few years to when International House screened Celine & Julie Go Boating (1974) to trace the gradual acceptance of Jacques Rivette into the mainstream of the American “movie-buff”.  That isn’t to say that J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum haven’t been praising Rivette for decades.  The point is that American distributors have not been ignorant to the fact that the demand for Rivette films on home media has called for very little supply.  Luckily, Rivette’s films are readily available in Region 2 editions from BFI and Artificial Eye.  If you are like myself, that is where you will go to get your fix.  Which brings us as to how I was able to see Histoire de Marie et Julien (2003).

Histoire de Marie et Julien is as deceptive and unpredictable as its title is mundane.  Rivette introduces his audience to a narrative concerning the blackmail of Madame X only to refocus the film onto what was seemingly a subplot at about thirty minutes into the film.  From there the two plots interconnect in the most bizarre fashion until the narrative has become one of the supernatural, a romantic ghost story or an ethereal fairytale for adults.  In terms of his work as a screenwriter the narrative complications and adjustments to emphasis hardly rival those of Out 1 (1971).  That said, Histoire de Marie et Julien manages a fluidity to the sudden shifts of the script so as to render any relationship to genre almost undetectable.  In a 1968 interview with Cahiers du Cinema Rivette himself stated “These are films that tend towards the ritual, towards the ceremonial, the oratorio, the theatrical, the magical, not in the mystical so much as the more devotional sense of the word as in the celebration of Mass.”  Similar to Kenneth Anger in this way, Rivette sees his formalist exercises as a ritual of cinema; a stance he again would reiterate in his writings on Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966).

Histoire de Marie et Julien also continues Rivette’s tradition of creating a duality between his female protagonists, a stylistic trope present in almost all of his works.  But what is more interesting to myself is his ability to elicit such genuine and emotionally frank performances from his leads Emmanuelle Béart (Marie) and Jerzy Radziwilowicz (Julien).  The intensity of the relationship depicted by these performers recalls Rivette’s work in La Belle Noiseuse (1991), which, coincidentally, also starred Emmanuelle Béart.  Rivette has stated a tremendous admiration for John Cassavetes’s work with actors, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Rivette didn’t learn something from Cassavetes’ films.  Still, Rivette is not particularly thought of as an “actor’s director” the way one would consider Cassavetes or Robert Altman.  This is an oversight, probably brought on by the fact that Rivette is such a gifted formalist.  When as early as the development stage of Rivette’s Les Filles du Feu project he is writing about the use of actors in his work, how to push the boundaries of acceptable modes of performance in the cinema.  When one begins to analyze the performances in Rivette’s films it becomes clear that the art of acting is always a primary concern, be it in the more natural vein of La Belle Noiseuse, the lyricality of performance in Histoire de Marie et Julien or the artifice of performance in Celine & Julie Go Boating.

Historie de Marie et Julien

Marie and Madame X (Anne Brochet)

Rivette’s films are complicated, intricate, and spiritual evocations of the cinema’s powers.  Hopefully, with his passing, more of Rivette’s works will become readily available.  A wider appreciation from American audiences is long over due.  And who knows, if Rivette can find an audience in this country, why not Werner Schroeter next?

-Robert Curry


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Supply & Demand In The American Cinema

            It’s widely known, just as it is widely reported, that the primary motivation of any financial endeavor is profit, and such is the case with Hollywood. Films of a certain cost are designed to recoup their expense not only from ticket sales, but also by franchising into other markets. Independence Day (1996) had toys, video games, and books, following a model popularized by George Lucas, who may have learned a thing or two from Disney’s Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier (1955). But these tie-ins and franchises have become so prevalent in our culture today that they go by almost unnoticed, and the effects these marketing strategies, and Hollywood’s approach to the cinema as a whole, are rarely analyzed for their effects outside of the market place.

The fathers of the blockbuster on the set of Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom.

The fathers of the blockbuster on the set of Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom.

            If one compares the cinema to other forms of art such as painting, one finds that the cinema is severely lacking in regional dialects or aesthetics. There has been, since the advent of the blockbuster, a unifying series of styles that have come in and out of vogue, essentially restricting audiences’ filmic literacy to these accepted aesthetics. These aesthetics themselves have found prevalence, and have therefore become stylish trends because of their marketability, due to the management of film studios and distributors as corporations and not curators of art. When audiences reacted positively to Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998), a slew of films were made that resembled that film in some way. Similarly, Miramax’s acquisition of In My Left Foot (1989) resulted directly in the acquisition of In The Name Of The Father (1993). Both instances represent this trend in American cinema explicitly. This is not entirely new, but as the internet spreads positive criticism of once hard to find films like Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970), why are so many movie goers allowing Hollywood to dictate which films are imported to this country?

            The Criterion Collection released a box set earlier this year that was curated by Martin Scorsese and represented the first instance that many of the films contained within were available in this country. Each film represents a unique cinematic voice indigenous to a world beyond our borders. This is nationalist or regionalist cinema, one a smaller portion contained within the other. Such imported expressions are almost verboten in the American theatrical market because their ability to fill seats or spark a franchise is as uncertain as it is untested. These circumstances are a testament to the ignorance of the American moviegoer, and perhaps every moviegoer in the Western World.

A once obscure Czech film has found a mainstream following.

A once obscure Czech film has found a mainstream following.

            Regional cinema is all around us. Filmmakers toil unrecognized in every corner of the world, yet their work is lost to the general public because of an inability to meet a marketing quota. Online streaming and distribution offer an array of options, but the industry is still primarily focused on the festival circuit. Like all businesses Hollywood and American film distributors will only meet supply with demand. As an audience the American public must therefore demand that foreign regionalist films and even domestic regionalist films find wide spread theatrical distribution.

-Robert Curry

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“I am not nostalgic”: Agnes Varda’s Last Film

In America, Agnes Varda is a filmmaker with an undeservingly minute position in how film is understood and taught, theoretically and historically.  Until The Criterion Collection helped to popularize a number of her films with a boxed set, her name rarely escaped the footnotes of a Jean-Luc Godard biography or an essay of Jacques Demy.  Her position in the arena of World Cinema should be much grander, and arguably equal to that of her husband Jacques Demy, or her close friends Jacques Rivette, Alain Resnais, and Godard.

It is indisputable that Agnes Varda’s background as a photographer has informed all of her films.  Her primary concern as a filmmaker has always been with the ability of film, as a medium, to manipulate the experience of time.  This same theme that has been at the forefront of her work since Cleo de 5 a 7 (1962) is the theme of her latest film, a sort of self portrait disguised as an autobiography, Les plages d’Agnes (2008).

Unlike most autobiographical film documentaries, Les plages d’Agnes does not represent the subject as a character, but rather the character of the subject.  If one compares Werner Herzog’s film My Best Fiend (1999) with Les plages d’Agnes, several things quickly become apparent.  Firstly, Herzog has always portrayed himself in the public as a “German Romantic”, and he adhere’s to this selfimposed charicature throughout My Best Fiend.  In contrast, Varda presents her self as she is, surrounded by the artificial as manifest in excerpts from her narrative films that depict autobiographical representations of herself or through set pieces manufactured to recreate different locations as they appeared when she first experienced them.  Secondly, Varda is not drawn to the past as a means to convey an entertaining narrative the way Herzog is.  Instead, Varda recounts past events and significant people as a means to reflect on her life and her art circa 2008.  This last stylistic division helps to pinpoint the debt of Varda’s films to her career as a photographer in the fifties.  The films of Agnes Varda are always concerned with documenting the present, the original intent of photography.

The manner with which Varda populates Les plages d’Agnes with artificial representations derives from her fascination with the human experience of memory and duration.  The set Varda had built to replicate her house as it appeared around the time she first met her husband Jacques Demy was designed from memory.  This replication can never achieve an objective likeness, only a subjective one.  And, as if to add some humor to this illusion, it is during this sequence that Varda introduces Chris Marker (1921-2012) into the film.  Marker’s presence is only felt in voice over, accompanied by a visual representation taking the form of a giant cartoon cat.  Marker’s questions for Varda further restate her conceptual roots in the avant-garde, having worked very early in her career with Alain Resnais and Marker himself.  Not only does this help illuminate her concerns with memory and duration, but serves as a jumping off point from where Varda begins to describe her work as an installation video artist.

Les plages d’Agnes opens with Varda and her assistants installing an installation of mirrors on a beach in North Belgium, not far from Varda’s birth place.  Intrestingly, Varda does not address her work with installation at the beginning of the film, she waits half an hour, and then peppers additional details in various sequences after that.  Varda is not nostalgic (as she’s so fond of reminding us).  And although the film is full of autobiographical information, it is not all that concerned with that information.  The fact that the mirror installation is close to her birth place is not mentioned by Varda for some time, preferring to concintrate on describing the task at hand.  This is the basis of the film’s linear construction.

Les plages d’Agnes is designed as Agnes Varda’s own personal stream of conciousness account of a day in her life.  Varda segues from one topic to the next, linking each with a vague similarity involving theme, color, names, locale, etc.  By doing this, one is forced not to examine Varda’s life as a journey from beginning to end, but as a living thing, with no clear trajectory and no objective logic.  In fact, one could very easily compare the topical shifts of Les plages d’Agnes to the narrative leaps and bounds of Resnais’ Last Year In Marienbad (1961).

The intimacy a film of this kind affords between subject, filmmaker and audience is entirely unique.  Les plages d’Agnes gives the audience the sensation that they are traversing the mind of the artist as the film occurs, while in reality this manipulation has been carefully planned, staged, and edited to achieve this result.  But the illusion of this shared experience still exists, and makes the audiences association with the subject much more organic than that between the audience and Werner Herzog in My Best Fiend.  Herzog is not interested in a shared experience or the illusion of one with his audience in My Best Fiend, his intent is to communicate a history as he remembers it, a confession if you will.  But the difference in cinematographic mechanics between Les plages d’Agnes and My Best Fiend are essential to illuminating Varda’s significance as a filmmaker.  The experience of Varda’s film is “fact”, or at least the closest thing to fact that the cinema will allow.  Meanwhile, My Best Fiend is a fiction.  Herzog’s film only brings the audience information concerning himself and his muse Klaus Kinski via the soundtrack of the film, and the film image.  Les plages d’Agnes achieves something closer to fact because it does everything Herzog’s film does in addition to employing montage as a means to convey the psychology of its subject.

Yet, the most satisfying part of Les plages d’Agnes has little to do with the theoretical aspects of Varda’s film, but derives exclusively from her “testimony” in the film.  When ever Varda offers the audience either a clip from a film, a minute fact, a story involving a production, etc, it becomes clear how intentionally anthropological a filmmaker she is.  Early in Les plages d’Agnes, Varda is describing why she loves the beach, and escorts the audience to all the seaside homes she had as a child.  And at everyone of these seaside towns there are people who know her, from her childhood or later, and every town is also the location of one of her early short films.  Varda then goes on to describe that with all of her narrative films she was attempting to capture the space and essence of a place within the frame.  This revelation forces one to reassess almost all of Varda’s filmography, from La Pointe Courte (1955) to Lions Love (1969) and all the way to Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000).

-Robert Curry

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