Thursday, December 8, 2016

Jules and Jim - A Beautiful Love Triangle!

Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim is everything that a film should be: dynamic characters portrayed by enigmatic actors, cinematography that disarms the audience, lighting that places us immediately within the nexus of each scene, music that elevates, and dialogue that is both brave and funny.  Jules and Jim is all of these things but also wealthier and mightier than the sum of it's parts. There is an intangible something that I was trying to catch upon first viewing. Upon repeated viewings I realized there was no way to catch it; I had to let it wash over me - I had to simply experience it.

Catherine doing her best male impersonation in a race with Jules and Jim.
Released in 1962, this illusive cinematic journey begins in Paris before WWI and spans twenty-five years, telling the story of two very different friends. Jules (Oskar Werner) is a passive Austrian who has no luck with women. Jim (Henri Serre) is an outgoing French man who has luck with all women. The two are content in their roles until they meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). She is beautiful, capricious, malcontent, vindictive, and above all - absolutely charming. Both men fall under her spell, but instead of competing, the three of them form a truly unique bond. Director Truffaut called it "a triangle of pure love."

The captivating Jeanne Moreau as Catherine

Director Francois Truffaut (to the left) with Raoul Coutard (cinematographer) and Claude Beausoleil (camera operator)

A word or two about the cinematic language of Truffaut:

 A narrator  continually informs us in quick spars sentences of the inner workings at play in Jules and Jim. Truffaut accompanies the narration with quick cut montages and a camera that is always in motion. Locations change as fast as the dynamic between the three characters, who are in a constant state of flux and upheaval.

 Below is an example of Truffaut's ability to make a small scene monumental. Catherine dresses as a boy and calls herself Thomas while challenging Jules and Jim to a race on a bridge. 

In the tradition of The French New Wave, spontaneity was chosen instead of choreographed shots or rehearsed acting. While a script was adhered to, the actions of the actors were not blocked out. Truffaut instead allowed the actors to choose their choreography in the moment and then followed their lead with the camera. Adding to this, Truffaut used only real locations and natural lighting.  All of which created an immediacy and sense of natural ease, complimenting the fast paced story.
Henri Serre (Jim), Oskar Werener (Jules), Jeanne Moreau (Catherine)

Jules and Jim began as a debut novel by Henri-Pierre Roche written when he was seventy-four. Truffaut was a twenty-three year old film critic when he fell in love with it. The beauty of youth and experience co-mingle so flawlessly, there has not been another film like it since. This is a box of magic that once opened, cannot be put down. 


Roger Ebert's Review

 New York Sun review by Steve Dollar


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Feminine Cool! Vivre Sa Vie

Vivre Sa Vie ( released in 1962) was French Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard's third film and a deceptively simple one.  The title (translated as My Life To Live) is both an affirmation of life and a question. Is it possible to be a true individual? The story is of a female, Nana (played by Godard's wife Anna Karina), and follows her in twelve short chapters.  As were all of Godard's females, Nana is blase and somewhat detached from society, the men in her life are not important because they show her nothing worth paying attention to. 

Godard observes Nana's daily routines using a documentary feel that beautifully captures the subtle nuances that make up Nana as a person.  She doesn't always make good choices and her life is not a conventional one, but no one can seem to give her any useful help or advice. 

 Worth noting and paying attention to are Vivre Sa Vie's  unique and fresh dialogue scenes.The five minute opening scene between Nana and her estranged lover Paul is shot from the back of their heads as they sit at a counter having coffee. The activity of the cafe reflects in a mirror. So what we have are three different visuals; the backs of the heads, the action behind the counter, and the action in the mirror. During another conversation the camera simply strolls over to the right and displays the busy world of Paris through a cafe window. Roger Ebert had this to say about Godard's camera style: "His camera rotates 360 degrees, twice, and then stops and moves back in the other direction - just a little to show it knows what it's doing!"

Adding to the clever dialogue scenes, music drops in from nowhere at odd times, as if it were a Greek Chorus making Nana's journey to self both mythic and tragic . One of Vivre Sa Vie's iconic sequences is an extended dance scene capturing Nana with a handheld camera as she struts around a pool room defying three irritated men in her outburst of life. And it isn't just these three men she is defying, she is daring the audience to judge her.

Anna Karina and Godard's camera operator Raoul Coutard capture pure beauty in the following clip of Nana's dance scene:


Vivre Sa Vie opens with a quote: “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.” - from the essays of Montaigne, Book 3, Chapter 10. This quote works in the same fashion as the title. In reference to the film, Godard is both making a statement and posing a question; is this possible?
There is a childish joy inside Nana but Godard and his camera always remind us of the world outside waiting to steal it.

Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival

This is my fourth installment of The French New Wave movement. To read more about this check out my blogs on Elevator To The Gallows, Breathless, and The 400 Blows.

Inspired further reading:

Roger Ebert's review from his list of Great Movies 

Vivre Sa Vie: The Lost Girl by Michael Atkinson 

An Audacious Experiment: The Vivre Sa Vie Soundtrack by Jean Collet 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Fritz Lang and The Three M's


Germany in the 1920's . The Weimar Republic was a hub of artistic expression and the population eager for change in the aftermath of WWI. Filmmakers were creating a new cinematic language referred to as the German Expressionist Movement. Films applied askew camera angles, outlandish set pieces, eccentric characters, and stories that dealt with the landscape of the mind. Control, murder, paranoia, fear, madness, and betrayal were all reoccurring themes and no one expressed these ideas better than director Fritz Lang.

Fritz Lang on the set of M.

I have chosen three films that demonstrate Lang's themes and talent as a visual filmmaker. The Three M's, as I call them, are; Metropolis, M, and Ministry Of Fear. Lang is thought of by many film scholars as a prophet with spiritual and political insight. It is easy to see his vision of a world on the verge of collapse in these three films.

Sketch for the set design of M.

Lang's groundbreaking Metropolis (1927) showed audiences a society where the rich live carefree and gluttonous above ground while underneath, slaves toil endlessly to keep the machines of the great metropolis operable. Metropolis creates a stark contrast between the beautiful architecture of the elite society and the dark machine world of the slaves.

The underground slaves arriving for work in their smoke stack machine.

A robot made in the form of a human and surrounded by "circles" of power in Metropolis

  Geometry was central to Lang's style ; angles and shapes express feelings. Most prevalent are the repetition of circles that work against the sharp pointed lines of the buildings and interior set pieces. The characters are often surrounded by extreme inanimate objects or crowds of people, buildings or smoke filled machines, creating claustrophobia and the feeling that both the rich and the poor are trapped in these shapes and doomed to repeat their history. 

Cityscape for Metropolis which no doubt influenced the cityscape in Riddley Scott's Blade Runner (pictured below)

1931 brought the electrifying and horrific M, the story of a child murderer (Peter Lorre) and the hysteria created in a small town while authorities and criminals try to apprehend him. This was Lang's first film with sound and one in which sound becomes a character. Noises such as continuous whistling, screams, car horns and motors, off-putting crowd chatter jar our ears and disrupt the action. To shake our footing even further some of the main sequences are shown in complete silence.

The first shot of the killer in M, a shadow on his Wanted poster.

Camera angles are high and ominous or low and subjective, showing reactions of the peasant crowds and criminals when they encounter the police, who continuously try to reestablish their authority in a town gone mad with panic.

Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, serial child murderer in M.
In 1933 Hitler seized control of the Weimar Republic. Lang and other German filmmakers then emigrated to Hollywood where they formed partnerships with studios and changed the face of 1930's and 40's Hollywood. 1944's Ministry of Fear was indeed Fritz Lang's anti-Nazi statement and also a warning not to trust anyone in a position of power.   

Ray Milland as the helplessly trapped Stephen Neale in Ministry Of Fear.

The film follows Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) as he is released from a mental asylum in London and unwittingly wanders into a world of spies and Nazis. Clocks and other circles are used to alliterate the concept of time, as time becomes increasingly important throughout the story while Stephen Neale scrambles to clear himself of the mess he is in. 

A clairvoyant (Hillary Brooke) seems to seal Stephen Neale's fate at a seance.
Ministry Of Fear is unique as a mystery in that it is not a complex puzzle where all of the pieces fit together but rather a surreal nightmare where almost nothing makes sense. The hero is a victim and his contacts are duplicitous. Shadows creep onto white walls and characters emerge from dark backgrounds. No one and nowhere is safe.

Fritz Lang's influence on modern film:

M is used today in film schools as a blueprint for thrillers and a how-to for the pacing of suspense and tension. Metropolis can be seen in numerous works; Ridley Scott's Blade Runner(1982), The Wachowski's The Matrix (1999), Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985), and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey(1968). Fritz Lang's Hollywood career, along with fellow German exiles Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder, contributed to the core elements of what would become known as Film Noir.  Metropolis is now streaming on Netflix. M and Ministry of Fear can be purchased in stunning reissues by The Criterion Collection. 

Fritz Lang
For Further Reading:

These articles appear on The Criterion Website.

Paranoid Style 

The Mark of M 

On Fritz Lang in the 1940s 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Fellini's 8 1/2 (the reality in unreality)

 Federico Fellini's 1963 surrealist cinema masterpiece 8 1/2 lets us know within four minutes that we are in for a profoundly unique viewing experience. The first shot of the film's main character, Guido Anselmi, is from behind as he sits at the wheel of his car in an endless traffic jam.  The camera then moves with serene fluidity across the top of the car to show a bus. Passengers of the bus hang their arms from the windows lifelessly - we do not see their heads.  Inside of Guido's car a gas of some sort emits from the glove box. Guido struggles to get out of the car. Passengers of the other cars watch him with silent indifference. There are no car horns, no chatter, just silence.

 Guido kicks in the passenger window of his car and then floats above the traffic jam, spreading his arms like a messiah as he drifts through the clouds and above a beach, only to find a rope tied around his foot and at the end of the rope, on the beach, someone is flying him like a kite.
CUT TO: A dark room where a hand suddenly reaches up and a man YELLS! A doctor enters the room and we see Guido awaking from a nightmare. He looks haggard and exhausted. We learn that Guido is a famous Italian director retreating to a Spa for a sabbatical while he gets his frazzled mind together and attempts to prepare for his next film project. The length of his stay in unknown and his condition is obvious. He is a man in the verge of a nervous breakdown

Marcello Mastroianni as Guido

Fellini applied make-up and streaks of white hair to transform the handsome Marcello Mastroianni into the frail Guido. But make-up aside, the performance is all Mastroianni. As the frantic and overwhelmed Guido, greeted daily by hordes of people who have come to interrupt his sabbatical, Mastroianni is a joy to watch. Guido juggles his agent, his screenwriter, actors, and his producer - all of whom want to know what his next movie is going to be about and when it is to commence. The dilemma Guido faces is that he doesn't know.
Director Federico Fellini
 Fellini brings Guido's crumbling world of chaos to us in stunning black and white with a revolving camera in a constant state of motion. Actors parade into frame and out of view as the camera becomes a character; an objective and subjective viewer that doesn't show us reality but the reality of Guido's mind. The Characters from Guido's past interact freely with the characters in his present. Guido averts his attention from one to the other while the camera moves in whirling circles. When the women of Guido's life come to visit, they too are treated as equal and expendable characters in his life's film. His wife, mistress, and lead actress (also a mistress) enter and exit with the same importance. Guido cannot choose between them anymore than he can decide what his next project must be.
Claudia Cardinale as Guido's actress Claudia

Only Claudia, his leading actress, can see past the confusion and circus that Guido purposely concocts to divert his onlookers. Her eyes look at us the audience with a knowing, mischievous grin. Actress Claudia Cardinale, like Mastroianni, provides a wealth of information through her expressions. She is the only one who can see the real Guido, the Guido behind the director.  And as we the audience sense this, we can't help but wonder which Guido we are perceiving. Or, is there a "real" Guido at all? Maybe his unreality is actually him. A man trapped inside his own vision of what the world is. Such questions are only part of the fun. The real fun is the ride of 8 1/2 and it is a ride that doesn't slow down.
Guido the director
 Last year when I watched the Oscar Winning Birdman starring Michael Keaton, it was impossible not to think of 8 1/2. Keaton's character goes through a similar mid-life crisis/breakdown that is filmed with no distinct line between the real world and hallucination. Birdman captures the world of theater rather than the world of film, but the influence of 8 1/2 is undeniable. Director Alejandro G. Inarritu even uses Fellini's concept of a camera in motion to sever connections between illusion and reality.  8 1/2's influence can also be seen in the following recommended films:  Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, Woody Allen's Stardust Memories and Midnight in Paris, David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, David Lynch's Erasherhead, and Danny Boyle's Trainspotting. 

Michael Keaton and his "imaginary" Birdman self 
(8 1/2 is now streaming on Hulu!)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The French New Wave pt. 3 "The 400 Blows"


(French poster for The 400 Blows)
In the late 1950's  a group of young French directors (Francois Truffaut, Jean- Luc Godard, and Louis Malle) ushered in an audacious new film movement free of constraints and stale literary traditions. Rebellious in tone and brimming with artistic integrity,  these movies seemed to have no rules or structure. They were films about ideas and people, about places and busy crowds. They challenged religion and morals, inventing a new moral code to be measured against only one judge - the cinema. This artistic explosion become known as The French New Wave and would bring about universal change in both the way audiences perceived films and how filmmakers approached them. Truffaut is believed by many critics and film enthusiasts to be the true founder of the French New Wave movement, kicking everything off to a roaring start with his debut film The 400 Blows ( a vernacular of common phrases meaning, "to raise hell").

(Actor Jean-Pierre Leaud)

The 400 Blows was released in 1958. Truffaut was 27 and already in full form as a powerhouse filmmaker. What's astonishing about this film is it's simplicity and how engaging that simplicity is. The star is Jean-Pierre Leaud (playing 12 year-old Antoine Doinel), and the locations are his hovel of an apartment, the school he attends, and the chilly streets of Paris. Nothing in this film is done out of manipulation, no pandering or catering to baser instincts. What I found as a viewer, was not a depressing or morose portrait of a disparaged youth, but an exciting and heartbreaking adventure. I was spellbound.

The film opens with a series of moving shots around Paris accompanied by charming and whimsical classical music, as if we were in a car watching the city float by and perhaps anticipating meeting the characters that inhabit it. After these shots of magnificent buildings, homes, streets, and busy commerce the film takes us directly into a boring classroom where we meet Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud). Shot in black and white, the film draws us in to the world of young Antoine and never do we leave his viewpoint. Our first glance of him is an over the shoulder shot, at three quarter view and we don't really get a close up until 15 minutes into the film, where he stands dejected and looks to the side of the camera. The filming of Antoine is important because the camera simply seems to observe him and everyone else he engages with. As an audience we have "dropped in" to observe without judgement.  From school, Antoine journeys to a small apartment with his parents who are busy being unaware and disconnected. His mother is trying to look young and is having an affair. His stepfather tries to be "one of the guys" with Antoine, talking casually and not knowing exactly how to be a father.  The next day Antoine and a fellow classmate meet while both skipping school and together they wander the streets eventually passing the day at a movie theater. Truffaut takes care in holding on the shot of young Antoine being hypnotized by the movie screen. The director said that this film was taken from his own life and that cinema saved him from a life of crime.

(Director Francois Truffaut and his lead actor)
Antoine searches for a place to belong, someone to look up to. He has no mentors to speak of so he attaches himself to the famous French writer Balzac. Antoine lights a candle in front of a picture of Balzac and the candle sets fire to the picture. The fire spreads, sending his mother and stepfather into a panic trying to put out the blaze; a poignant scene that could be played for drama but winds up as comedy. The family resumes the scene by laughing and going to see a movie. Once again we see Antoine in a movie theater where his true connection resides. This is just one example of Truffaut's original approach in handling familiar material already immortalized by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist and Charlie Chaplin in The Kid..
(Antoine with his mother and stepfather)
Truffaut is indeed influenced by the iconic works of  Dickens, Chaplin, and even Alfred Hitchcock. He makes his love for Hollywood cinema known with interludes of romantic music and scenes of comedy like the one just mentioned. Even his camera work occasionally diverts from the freestyle  onlooker's viewpoint, moving into traditional perfectly framed Two Shots, Tracking Shots,  and Close Ups. Truffaut reminds us with these shots that we are watching a movie and the first rule of cinema is entertainment.
Near the end of the film Antoine has dipped his toes into the life of petty crime.  His parents have thrown up their hands and decide that only the police can handle him; his fate is left in the hands of a detention center. Antoine is then hauled away in a police wagon with hardened criminals. His destitute young face looks around with searching tearful eyes from behind the bars of the wagon's window (one of the first shots where Antonie looks toward the camera). Even in this shot, it isn't as though he is looking at us the viewer but to the world he is leaving behind.  This leads us to an exciting and uplifting climax with one of the most famous final shots in film. Antoine is running on the beach and does look directly into the camera and at us this time. He stops in a Freeze Frame Medium Close Up with a questioning look of rebellion and wonder. We have no idea what is in store for him and neither does he. Truffaut, with this single final shot, encapsulates the film's entire theme of what it means to not belong but to also not give up the search for meaning and hope.
The 400 Blows was a huge success at the 1959 Cannes film festival, where the  unknown actor Jean-Pierre was paraded on the shoulders of the prestigious French audience. The 400 Blows also began a brilliant career for Francois Truffaut who's following films continued to be brave and unrepentant in their honesty, yet playful and entertaining in their celebration of humanity. Truffaut's complicated love triangle Jules and Jim (1962) is also noted among the most influential films of the French New Wave.  Both Jules and Jim and The 400 Blows are streaming now on Filmstruck!
(Jean-Pierre being praised at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival)