Friday, January 23, 2015

The Nouvelle Vague weekend

Here are brief notes on the movies we watched last weekend:

Le Beau Serge (Claude Chabrol, 1958)

There's nothing notably novel about this film called "the first feature film of Nouvelle Vague."

Le Beau Serge does present a peek into French country life, and there were a few interesting scenes. But in the end, the narrative falls flat as it works its way to a heavy-handed redemption/heroism story.

The most interesting aspect of this film was the strangely homo-erotic tone of the first half of the story, but it evaporated fast as the plot thickens. Anyways, according to a film scholar, these two men are merely an instance of a recurring pair of characters that represents two different sides of Chabrol himself.

Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)

I never really liked this film, but gave it a second chance. Here's the thing: this might have been a breath of fresh air in 1960, but is no more. My honest reaction to it, as a 21st century American viewer, is that this is an interesting film with its share of flaws. A work of professional critic and amateur film maker.

Let's face it. The film feels extremely awkward, especially in places where polished craftsmanship is required. Just look at the cop-killing scene. Even the famous jump-cuts are known to be a last-minute measure the director took out of desperation to fix the unintended slow placing. The film’s heavy reliance on, and overly explicit references to, other cultural artifacts—music, paintings, film, and philosophical discussion—may be appropriate, but is certainly sophomoric.

This must have been a notable work in the context of cinematic history. But I do have a sneaking suspicion that critics ascribe more intelligence to Breathless out of their reverence to its creator.

That said, I did enjoy  the scene in Patricia’s hotel room, for its intimacy, its beauty, and the gutsiness (for goes on and on and on). The literary quote in this scene seems to be essential to the character and the story as well. (When Patricia quote Faulkner’s line “Between grief and Nothing, I will take grief,” Michel says Grief is a compromise and he will take nothing.) This seen may be burdened by gratuitous allusions to existential philosophy, but even these are wonderfully done. I loved the shot where the young "ugly-beautiful" Belmondo beams under the focused gaze of Patricia, as Patricia’s soft piano music gives way to his jazzy tune.


A second view as well. The loose narrative still annoys me, I have to say. It does have a few good moments, but this lesser sibling of La Notte and L’Eclisse, I dare say just because this is my own blog, does not satisfy me. Anna is not the only thing missing in this film. I kept searching for some meaning in it, but find none. So I get it: the film is about vapidness--of the characters and the film itself!

But here is some wonderful illumination from the great Roger Ebert (with emphasis added by myself):

When "L'Avventura" was released, it became a joke to refer to "Antonioniennui." At its premiere at the Cannes festival, the audience booed, but it won the Jury Prize and became a box-office success all over the world. It was the most pure and stark of several films about characters who drifted in existential limbo. In America, it came at a time when beatniks cultivated detachment, when modern jazz kept an ironic distance from melody, when it was hip to be cool. That whole time came crashing down later in the 1960s, but while it lasted, "L'Avventura" was its anthem. 
I did not much connect with the film when I saw it first--how could I, at 18? These people were bored by a lifestyle beyond my wildest dreams. When I taught the film in a class 15 years later, it seemed affected and contrived, a feature-length idea but not a movie. Only recently, seeing it again, did I realize how much clarity and passion Antonioni brought to the film's silent cry of despair.
Why don't we have movies like "L'Avventura" anymore? Because we don't ask the same kinds of questions anymore. We have replaced the "purpose of life” with the "choice of lifestyle.” I used to think Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" was the saddest song. Antonioni can think of a sadder one: "More."

Histore(s) du Cinema

What a nut job. A good thing to put on your TV if you want a good laugh. Also, M. Godard seems to love the sound of his own voice.

But, I must say this film(s) present(s) a very interesting collage of images from film classics. Quite something to watch indeed.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Two movies involving infidelity

This weekend, S and I watched two movies that involve, as it happens, infidelity and death.

From the very first shot, Le Bonheur (Agnes Varda, 1965) impresses the viewer with its gorgeous cinematography. As it happens, the film's extravagant aesthetics cannot be more appropriate for this story, which leads the viewer slowly down the rabbit hole of the unsettling until the disturbing end. The writer/director Agnes Varda achieves this feat with a steady hand, and what I believe is perversely (and wonderfully) sinister gaze on life.

In discussing Le Bonheur, Agnes Varda mentions ‘a perfect-looking peach with a worm in it.’ What a perfect description of her picture.

The film's poetic simplicity and the complexity underneath it is nothing short of haunting.

La femme infidèle (Claude Chabrol, 1969), the French original of the American Unfaithful (Adrian Lyne, 2002), is a good thriller that features some excellent acting and splendid use of music.      

Thursday, January 8, 2015

That by which we live and die

While googling the name of the author whose short story I quite liked (Alix Ohlin), I found this book review dished out by one William Giraldi.

Just to give a taste of this acerbic review, here is his final paragraph:

Ohlin’s fiction will be shelved with the pop lit and never with Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro, not because of her leaden obsession with pregnancy, dating and divorce, or any inherent bias in the publishing industry, but because her language is intellectually inert, emotionally untrue and lyrically asleep. The more genuine argument to be had concerns the writer’s “moral obligation to be intelligent” — in John Erskine’s immortal coinage —and, by extension, the moral obligation to write well, to choose self-assertion over mere self-expression, to raise words above the enervated ruck and make the world anew. Every mind lives or dies by its ideas; every book lives or dies by its language. (Emphasis is mine)

Nobody will condemn Giraldi for inert language! But certainly, flamboyance of language cannot be the only virtue of a literary work, or even the most important one for that matter.

Something I like about fiction is its potential to do so many different things, and to be good in its own unique way. Some books earns its keep with its cutting language, others seduce with gorgeous prose. Yet others are brilliant with their ideas, or compelling for the insights they offer. This, I think, is why Henry James granted that the only obligation for a work of fiction is to be interesting.

The short story by Ohlin that I liked may not be a beacon of incisive prose, and may be fraught by its share of clichés (Yes, there was an unwanted pregnancy, and practicing the piano on paper with keys drawn on it), but how delicately it renders the matter of human heart, how acutely it observes the minute throbs of emotion in those clichéd moments in our lives.

And those, I dare to say, are the qualities that often make the heartbeat of a good story.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

This solitary artisan shall avoid frivolous solemnity

I finally read this article shared by a Facebook friend a few days ago. This sharply-written essay chronicles the evolution of "the artist” throughout history, from being an artisan, to being a solitary genius, a professional, and finally, an entrepreneur. This is a smart,insightful and persuasive article, if not particularly helpful for me, myself being neither in a position to pursue the professional route nor particularly entrepreneurial.

Tracing a few links from it, however, I came across this site, which could be helpful for me. I just started reading a few segments, and the following passage from “Lighten Up” by Graeme Wood caught my eyes.

“Relentless solemnity is a dangerous temptation for any writer who wishes to be taken seriously. 
The opposite of seriousness is not humor but frivolity. And frivolous solemnity ... is a bad way to write.”

I've been aware that I should be careful about being frivolously solemn. But I can only wish I were funny...

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The sleep of reason brings forth monsters

S and I finally made the Goya exhibition at the MFA today... and stood in the long line for the special exhibit. (How wonderful and annoying this is at the same time! Anyways, at least we didn’t have to wait for hours outside like the time when there was a Chihuly exhibit.)

Goya has always struck me as being anachronically modern (and experts confirm my suspicion). He seemed to have been doing what the artists of the 20th centuries were doing--working with concepts and ideas as the main material. He also strikes me as quite a writerly painter, with his propensity for dramatic story-telling, poetically dense symbolism, and almost journalistic approaches he sometimes took.

 Yard with lunatics, 1789

What more can one do?, from The Disasters of War, 1812–15

Although this Boston exhibit did not include some of my favorite pieces, it was well worth the long wait in the line to walk through his works for an extensive review. And the way the exhibit was curated by theme (e.g., human frailty; balance vs. imbalance and change; redemption; problem of power) was quite interesting and illuminating.

Some of my favorite Goya not on the Boston exhibit

One particular picture still stays with me long after we returned home. That is his famous print entitled, “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.” 

This beautifully constructed image accompanies a even more fascinating statement, which seems so beautiful, so right and so wrong all at the same time.

The sleep of reason brings forth monsters...

But does the sleep of reason always bring forth monsters? (Does it bring forth only monsters for that matter?) Is the sleep of reason the only culprit for the invasion of monsters? Is reason the only defense, or even a proper defense, against the monsters? Is reason and monsters mutually exclusive? Do reason and monsters sometimes collaborate?

Do some monsters deserve a place near us?

Friday, January 2, 2015

Self as Theater

Birdman, somewhat baffling as it was, is one of the best films I watched in 2014. I might say this is, essentially, a story about the artist’s angst. (Now I can go to bed, having reduced the two-hour film with all its complexities to a single short phrase.) But a big part of what interested me was the film's portrayal of the backstage, with all its perils and struggles.

Before Birdman, there was The Last Metro by François Truffaut. The 1980 film featuring Catherine Deneuve told a story of an actress/theater owner who puts up a show every night in the Nazi-occupied Paris, with her Jewish husband hiding in the theater’s cellar and directing plays through her. Talk about a metaphor...

If The Last Metro’s backstage reminded me of the inner self hidden behind the social, presented version of the self, Birdman’s backstage reminded me of the dark chaotic part of the mind that strives to put together the best version of one’s self, which is not so much a faux veneer as the state one aspires and endeavors to achieve.

The stage may be where the magic happens, but it is the mystery of the backstage that some of us are truly drawn to.