Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Films I Love #44: Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)

Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window is not just a film about a murder mystery, but a film about voyeurism, about how and why we watch other people — and by extension, how and why we watch films themselves. It is one of the greatest of meta films, although it is on its surface not about the cinema at all. Its plot concerns the adventurer/photographer Jeff (James Stewart), who is confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg after an accident (brilliantly conveyed by Hitchcock, entirely visually, by panning across a series of photos and objects at the start of the film). Locked up in his apartment, Jeff is unable to work or move around much. So whenever he's not being visited by his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) or his glamorous lover Lisa (Grace Kelly), Jeff takes to spying on his neighbors through a pair of binoculars. Jeff's window faces the courtyard of his apartment complex, and from this vantage point he can see into the windows of his neighbors across the way. Through these portals, he catches glimpses of their lives in action, their daily routines and private little peculiarities. He doesn't see anything particularly fascinating in itself, other than the contortions of the statuesque blonde dancer across the way. Mostly, he just loves to watch. It has often been remarked that Jeff's experience mirrors that of the cinema audience, uniquely situated between passivity and activity: he is confined to one spot and given a choice of spectacles, and he turns his gaze on those corners of the image that he wishes to observe at any given moment.

One of these images turns out to be a murder mystery story, in which Jeff begins to suspect that one of his neighbors (Raymond Burr) has murdered his invalid wife. This story slowly comes together and begins to occupy more and more of Jeff's attention, causing him to fixate on his neighbor's often-darkened window, with the man's cigarette ominously sparking in the blackness inside. Jeff even enlists Lisa to help him in his amateur investigation. The actual thriller aspects of the film are almost inconsequential, however, in comparison to the simple pleasures of voyeurism that Hitchcock offers up here. The film implicitly makes its audience complicit in Jeff's peeping tom habits, unifying the protagonist's gaze with the audience's. We love watching, along with Jeff, as miniature narratives play out within all the windows across the way, fragments of people's lives. And at the same time, we love watching James Stewart at his wittiest and Grace Kelly at her sexiest, the voyeurism of watching movie stars be movie stars, an enthusiasm that Hitchcock, with his love of working with big stars, again shared with his audiences.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Short Hiatus

I will be taking a short break from blogging over the next week or two. I'm getting married, and will be happily busy away from the computer. There are one or two posts scheduled to go up automatically next week, but otherwise this blog will be pretty much inactive, and I won't be around much to answer comments or any other communication.

I'll be back eventually, though, so watch this space. At the very least, in early October you can look forward to the next installment of my Conversations series with Jason Bellamy, which this time around is scheduled to coincide with the "Pixar Week" event going on at The House Next Door from October 4 through October 10. Our conversation, which touches on recent Pixar features The Incredibles, Ratatouille and especially WALL-E, will be posted sometime during that time frame.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train

When the filmmaker François Reichenbach was dying, he told his friend, the screenwriter Danièle Thompson, that he was going to be buried in his family plot in the country town of Limoges, and that any of his Parisian friends who really cared would have to take the train to visit him. These words, so charged with meaning and feeling, became the centerpiece of Thompson's script for Patrice Chéreau's Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train. The title phrase represents a dying man delivering a last command to those he gathered around him in life, his friends, relatives and lovers: come see me, take a journey, because paying your respects won't be easy. The geographical displacement transforms the funeral and its aftermath into an adventure, into something grand and epic, freighted with meaning: it's like a pilgrimage, where the distance traveled adds to the spiritual and emotional impact of what's experienced at the destination. By delivering this commandment, Reichenbach's stand-in for the film, the "minor painter" Jean-Baptiste Emmerich (Jean-Louis Trintignant), turns his death into a test for his friends, an opportunity to bring them all together, a last game for him to play.

The film is thus a prolonged meditation on death, on friendship, and especially on families, both the ones we're born into and the ones we make for ourselves with those we meet in life. A huge, unwieldy cast of characters gathers at a Paris train station, finding one another through the bustle and chaos: various friends and enemies, ex-lovers and estranged friends, all of them bound together by complicated relationships. All of them also revolve around the common nexus of Jean-Baptiste, who in life seems to have been a much-beloved central figure in many people's lives, but also a figure of destructiveness, causing much pain to those around him, all these people now journeying so far for his funeral. Jean-Baptiste himself remains an enigma in the film, never present directly: he speaks on the soundtrack periodically, his voice preserved for a magazine interview, and he appears, silent and brooding, walking around his art studio in elegiac interludes that Chéreau inserts into the loose flow of the narrative.

Mostly, though, Jean-Baptiste is present in the stories and recriminations of the people attending his funeral. For his nephew Jean-Marie (Charles Berling), he was a "spiritual father," much preferred to Jean-Marie's real father, Jean-Baptiste's twin brother Lucien (also played, later in the film, by Trintignant). But Jean-Baptiste also determinedly injected strife into Jean-Marie's marriage to the drug-addicted Claire (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi), to the point that the couple is now on the verge of divorce, barely able to speak to each other. There's also Jean-Baptiste's ex-lover François (Pascal Greggory), traveling with his new lover Louis (Bruno Todeschini), who's instantly distracted by the appearance of the young, HIV-positive pretty boy Bruno (Sylvain Jacques), who has also slept with both François and Jean-Baptiste. Other cast members hang out around the fringes. The mean-spirited Thierry (Roschdy Zem), Jean-Baptiste's former nurse, drives his patient's coffin across the countryside, sometimes parallel with the train, while his wife and kleptomaniac daughter Elodie (Delphine Schiltz) ride with the others.

Nearly a dozen other characters drift through the film, part of this crowd traveling to Limoges for a man they all loved and hated in roughly equal measure. In the film's frantic opening scenes, Chéreau shows little concern for stabilizing the audience, instead letting his handheld camera bounce and jangle through the crowded station and train, picking out the faces of the principals as though discovering familiar friends within the chaos. Facts and details start to accumulate, stories start to take shape, hints of the past appear as bitchy rumors or harsh accusations, and names are thrown about with little concern for identifying anyone or making the relationships truly clear. It's an audacious opening, thrusting the audience into the midst of this well-established network. Chéreau simply lets the stories and characters emerge naturally from his dense, free-associative montage. Little details stand out: the charged glances between Louis and Bruno, the sprite-like smile of Elodie before she steals a pack of cookies, the frazzled urgency of Claire as she hastily prepares herself in a shaky train bathroom before going out to meet the others.

Once in Limoges, the film settles down into an explosive melodrama, as all these people, many of whom haven't been in the same room with one another for years, are reunited, bringing up old fights and jealousies, as well as further opening the cracks in their current relationships. It's all tense and brilliantly acted, and Chéreau navigates these unstable conversations and arguments with his fluid camerawork, sometimes gliding gracefully through a scene, letting the rigid blocking define the relationships, while at other times cutting fast and ragged while the handheld camera spins and shakes to follow the action. Thompson's script deserves a lot of the credit as well, for saying so much between the lines, leaving important matters unspoken, but also knowing how to have the characters just blurt things out without allowing it to verge into naked exposition. There's a wonderful scene, late in the film, where a phone call between François and Louis, with Bruno listening in, becomes a beneath-the-surface conversation between François and Bruno instead, with the former indirectly apologizing and explaining himself, letting his ex-lover know why their relationship fell apart. It's all handled subtly, with discrete exchanges of closeups and pointed dialogue that seems to be directed at Louis but delivers an entirely different meaning to the eavesdropping Bruno.

There's a similar grace and subtlety in the treatment of Viviane (Vincent Perez), a transsexual once better known to the assembled guests as a man. Now she drifts, mysterious and strange, through the crowd, unrecognized, provoking murmurs of wonder about who this stranger could be. Chéreau communicates this mystery in the way he has her move, her hair falling around her face, through the Emmerichs' palatial but decaying family home, and then pulls aside the curtain of mystery in a series of scenes, late in the film, where Viviane increasingly bares her soul to Claire in intimate conversation, and then literally bares her/his body for the camera. She arrives late but winds up being one of the film's most fascinating characters, particularly during an unlikely seduction/flirtation between her and the melancholy Lucien, who comes alive, free of the weight of the past, when talking to her.

This lovely, powerful film boasts a wide assortment of strong performances, as well as Chéreau's self-assured direction. He deliberately montages together the tightly cramped Cassevetes-like improvisation of the messier crowd scenes with formalist deep-focus shots, complex tracking movements in which characters are constantly moving in different directions, the camera following different ones at different times, and those stark, silent intervals in the dead man's studio, reminders of the film's triggering personage. His soundtrack is equally bold, encompassing a broad array of pop songs, many of them sung in English: Jeff Buckley, Portishead, Björk, Nina Simone, even Cake's deadpan, halting cover of "I Will Survive." These musical choices are sometimes absolutely perfect: the late appearance of Portishead's gorgeous "Western Eyes" is wonderfully suited to Chéreau's slow track along the exterior of the Emmerich house as the lights are put out in one room after another. At other times, however, the soundtrack is invasive and distracting. The taste in songs is impeccable, and there's no arguing with the quality of the music in general, but the way Chéreau uses it sometimes causes the music to sit uncomfortably against the images rather than really enhancing and supporting them. Using Jeff Buckley's "Last Goodbye" for an otherwise moving scene where the train's passengers see Thierry's car speeding along on a parallel road, carrying Jean-Baptiste's coffin, is certainly too spot-on, too obvious and sentimental a choice. The music sometimes becomes like a pop radio collage layered over the images, slightly muted to allow for dialogue, then clumsily bursting back to full volume when the characters aren't speaking. In a film that's otherwise so nuanced and perfectly pitched, the occasional distractions of the soundtrack definitely stand out.

On the whole, however, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train is sublime and exciting. Its filmmaking is visceral and intuitive, fluidly shifting gears as required, encompassing a wide variety of approaches to the expansive, Altmanesque drama that comprises its core. Chéreau's approach is as bold and free-spirited as his title's ultimatum, suggesting a challenge: either love this film, in all its messy excitement and excess, or get off the train.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Nénette and Boni

Claire Denis' Nénette and Boni is a low-key, understated family drama, blending fluidly between observational pseudo-documentary scenes of lower-class life and the characters' stylized fantasies. The title characters are Nénette (Alice Houri) and her brother Boni (Grégoire Colin), who have been separated from one another for years, following their parents' divorce: Nénette went to live with her con man father (Jacques Nolot), while the older Boni went to live with their mother, carrying on alone after her death. Boni lives now in a big house that's he allowed to become rundown, sharing it with his friends as they deal in stolen goods, run a pizza van, and dream of something better. Nénette, meanwhile, has run away from home after discovering that she's pregnant, and she winds up running to the only place she can think of, to her estranged brother's house. This strained, difficult reunion is at the heart of the film: the pull of family, the desire for connections and stability and someone to care for you. Nénette and Boni are both essentially alone, without real support. Boni is living a minimal existence in a house that never seems to have any food, where even the pet rabbit has to scrounge around for bits and pieces, and Nénette, with her undependable criminal father, isn't much better off (especially considering the subtextual hints of incest and the film's pointed refusal to identify the father of her child).

They are fending for themselves, but they offer to each other the only real hope of finding some real family, some real support. Nénette is struggling with her burden, unready and unwilling to become a mother to her baby, but at times she nearly becomes one to Boni, watching over him as he sleeps, mashing up bananas and feeding them to him when he feels ill. There is a nascent maternal quality in her that she directs at her brother even as she tries to ignore the baby growing inside her. At the same time, her presence awakens an unforeseen nurturing quality in the immature Boni as well. He's an oaf and a horny teenager, obsessed with the neighborhood baker's wife (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi), immersed in fantasies of rape and domination in which he can be a very different person than the shy, quiet boy he actually is. He's a self-absorbed jerk, and his initial dismissive reaction towards his sister is very much in character, but eventually her persistence wears him down, and in his own weird, awkward way he actually begins to care, to protect her — at one point, in a bit of foreshadowing of the over-the-top denouement, he actually wards off their father by shooting at him with a BB gun.

The film is episodic and languid, drifting through these aimless lives. Denis is always attentive to the way people live their lives day to day and minute to minute, and that is especially the case here, with this film's emphasis on poverty, struggling for money and food, loneliness and disconnection. It's a true urban film, and a modern one as well. It's about a city where no one knows anyone else. When Boni first sees Nénette early in the film, he simply looks at her and then passes by her, as though he doesn't know her; and as far as the audience is concerned, he doesn't. There's a sense of how difficult it is to get to know people, to really connect. Later in the film, Boni meets the baker's wife, his ultimate fantasy, while she's out shopping, and unexpectedly she latches onto him as a familiar face "from the neighborhood." It's apparent that she's happy to see him, that she's just eager for some human connection amidst the holiday rush of Christmas shopping, the anonymous crowds crushing in around him. She's even flirtatious with the younger man, but he can only stare blankly at her as she nervously chatters to fill the silence. Denis holds a closeup on his glassy stare, a faint ghost of a smile dancing across his lips, for an uncomfortably long time, driving home just how empty his earlier bravado was, just how far he actually is from the crass, nasty persona he's imagined for himself. He's locked up inside of himself, unable even to hold a conversation with the object of his desire.

Throughout the film, Denis explores her central characters through small details, through the accumulation of such telling moments, as well as incidental observations, like the momentary shot of Boni and one of his friends playfully dancing to hip-hop while serving pizzas. There is also, as usual with Denis, a real sensual quality to the imagery, both in the gorgeous Agnès Godard-lensed street scenes and vistas, in the fantasy interjections, and in the moments of surprising, unusual sexuality scattered throughout the film. At one point, Boni kneads a ball of dough with the urgency of a lover's caresses, moaning and letting out sexual exclamations as he thrusts his fingers into the dough, beating and molding it in his hands and then finally thrusting his face into it in sexual exhaustion. In an earlier scene, he holds his pet bunny, that symbol of fecundity, in one hand, while thrusting his other hand into his boxer shorts. These incongruous outbursts of sexual feeling suggest Boni's out-of-control teenage hormones, his inability to channel his sexual impulses into acceptable outlets.

In contrast, throughout the film Denis inserts silent, lyrical interludes between the baker's wife and her American husband (Vincent Gallo), who if one such interlude is to be believed, was a sailor who stayed on in France to marry a French girl and become a baker. These scenes are outrageously exaggerated visions of a happy marriage, conjured up possibly from Boni's mind as a corrective to his own damaged existence and that of his sister. The baker and his voluptuous, sexy wife represent for Boni a kind of ideal, and he imagines them meeting and falling in love, having sex, having a baby together. Boni himself sometimes appears in these fantasies as well but his presence is ephemeral, as though even in dreams he can't really imagine himself coming between this couple. It doesn't matter that the real couple doesn't really warrant Boni's rapturous vision of them — they bicker, and the woman is often heavily made up and crass, as well as flirting suggestively with Boni when she meets him outside the bakery — all that matters is that Boni imagines them as a fairy tale perfect couple, happy and well-adjusted. Certainly nobody else in this film meets that description.

As a whole, Nénette and Boni is an interesting smaller work from Denis, evincing her usual concerns — sensuality, race and class — and exploring them in a decidedly relaxed, minor key. The film's observational subtlety is anchored by the fine, naturalistic performances of the leads, as well as the more stylized depictions of Bruni-Tedeschi and Gallo, whose worldly vivaciousness provides a contrast to the inward-looking siblings. The film simply meanders along, dealing as it does with growing up, with stumbling towards maturity and the dangers of falling back into the trap of immaturity. It's as poetic and elliptical as all of Denis' films, but lacks some of the punch and passion of her best work, and it's sabotaged by the melodramatic outbursts of the final fifteen minutes. Still, it's a typically fascinating film from a director who's always worth watching.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

In the Mirror of Maya Deren

Maya Deren is a legendary figure in avant-garde cinema, a true visionary who completed just six short films in her brief life, but whose reputation has endured on the strength of this small but utterly original oeuvre. Martina Kudlácek's documentary In the Mirror of Maya Deren is an attempt to grapple with this tremendous legacy, to trace Deren's eventful, complicated life, to explore the ideas and preoccupations at the heart of her cinema, to gather the testimonies of those who knew her, who were affected by her incandescent passion and energy. All of this comes across beautifully in Kudlácek's film, which is a true ode to its subject, a poetic assemblage of reminiscences, fragments of film, excerpts from Deren's finished works, and audio recordings of her voice, delivering lectures on filmmaking, voodoo, art and philosophy.

Deren's work as a filmmaker began with Meshes of the Afternoon, made in 1943 with the help of her then-husband, the experimental filmmaker Alexander Hammid. This epochal film, nearly on its own, is responsible for Deren's legacy: it is a trancelike psychodrama, steeped in the logic of dreams and nightmares, populated with doubles and mirrors and an eerie sense of danger and sensuality intertwined. Kudlácek's film touches on the making of this short, but her focus is not necessarily on the details and intricacies of the filmmaking process — this documentary gives little sense of Deren at work, only momentary glimpses of her process behind the camera. It is not a behind-the-scenes documentary, nor is it a comprehensive biography, though it veers closer to the latter. Kudlácek seems chiefly concerned with getting as close as possible to a vision of who Deren was, what her creative philosophy was like, what she thought about and imagined when she was creating her visionary works. The film follows the arc of Deren's life, tracing her biography, often filling in details with onscreen texts that describe pivotal events — childhood background, marriages, divorces, moves, publications. But these are facts, only, and the interviewees who Kudlácek includes in the film, all of whom knew Deren very well, rarely talk about the facts of her life. Instead, they discourse on her personality, on what made her special and what made her films special, on her ideas, on her mystical and spiritual qualities.

It is fitting that a poetic, evasive figure like Deren should be treated to such a poetic, evasive biography, one that establishes certain basic facts but is much more concerned with the ephemeral and the sublime. Kudlácek's own voice never enters the film; she never offers her own commentary but allows everyone else to speak, to offer their own individual commentaries on who Deren was and what she represented. The voices here range from Hammid to future IMAX filmmaker and personal friend Graeme Ferguson to fellow avant-garde filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas to Film as a Subversive Art author Amos Vogel to the performers who appeared in Deren's dance films to the Haitian friends she made on her many visits to that country, working on a film she never completed. These people offer many contrasting visions of Deren: personal reminiscences, admiration for her commitment and craft as a filmmaker, and in many cases expressions of her supposed mystical and even magical power. Brakhage tells a story about the diminutive Deren, possessed by a Haitian god during a ritual, actually throwing a refrigerator across a room, and the Haitian painter André Pierre tells about a time when Deren disappeared from a boat only to reappear floating way out in the ocean, singing.

All of this, like everything else in the film, is presented without comment, as one more indication of the legends and stories that have accumulated around this extraordinary figure. There is a certain amount of pretension in Deren, in her mysticism and her speeches about filmmaking. Sometimes in her filmmaking as well: Brakhage laments that her final film, The Very Eye of Night, was misunderstood by practically everyone, but the film itself is tiresome and inscrutable, consisting entirely of negative-image dancers superimposed upon a field of stars. As with most of Deren's work, there's an elaborate intellectual justification for everything here — something about myth and the movement of "celestial bodies" — but unlike in her earlier work the film itself is largely inaccessible without the benefit of this context. Whatever meaning Deren intended for the dreamlike Meshes and At Land, or the rigidly choreographed earlier dance films like Ritual in Transfigured Time and Meditation on Violence, the films themselves have a sensual and visceral quality that goes beyond mere conceptual games.

Thus, when Deren's voiceover is heard describing her films in lectures, speaking over images from her own films, it is undeniable that the images possess a power and beauty that cannot be captured in words, not even the words of the filmmaker herself, whose explanations for her every choice fall short of the ineffable quality that made her films truly great. Kudlácek's film is fascinating for providing a glimpse into Deren's thinking, into her creative process, but ultimately all these words can only be a glimpse, dwarfed by the mysterious power of the films themselves. In the Mirror of Maya Deren also proves valuable for its insight into Deren's collaborative process, for the way she would draw in multi-talented people to work with her. Although she worked entirely outside of the conventional Hollywood system of her time, she was also distinct from most of her contemporaries in the avant-garde, including Brakhage and Mekas, who tended to be solitary figures making personal films on their own, with just a single camera and their own two hands. At one point, Brakhage himself is shown at work on the film Water for Maya, his tribute to Deren, and it's a very different working method from Deren's expansive, collaborative ventures: Brakhage sits alone, holding a filmstrip up to the light, carefully dabbing paint onto the strip.

In contrast, Deren worked with crews; never traditional crews, in the usual sense, but free-floating ensembles where people would come and go, doing whatever needed to be done on the set. Her first film was made in collaboration with Hammid as co-director and co-star, and on subsequent films she would often include choreographers and musicians as key collaborators, their contributions as integral to the finished work as her own. It's telling that she viewed her dance films, especially, as interactions between the dancer's body and the camera, two equal partners creating a unified motion together. This is especially apparent in the way these films frequently play fluidly with a sense of space and time, cutting together shots so that a dancer may start a motion in one place and complete it somewhere altogether different, bridging space and time with the arc of a leg.

Kudlácek's film is especially good when dealing like this with the formal qualities of Deren's cinema, the way she would use her editing to transcend a limiting, realistic view of the world. That's perhaps why, as Mekas describes it, she was contemptuous of his improvisational, naturalistic method of shooting, preferring art that is planned out, that has a definitive form and meaning. Kudlácek herself subtly undermines her subject here, though. Right as Mekas is talking about the value of improvisation and random footage, and Deren's dim view of such spontaneity, Kudlácek inserts some of her own footage, of an Anthology Film Archives employee accidentally stepping into a shot and then ducking back out abruptly. It's as though the documentarian is silently making her own position known, gently underlining Mekas' point with this quirky little moment.

Perhaps it's also because of Kudlácek's sympathies for improvisation and accident that the film's best moments consist of archival footage that Deren never assembled into a finished work. Kudlácek samples generously from Deren's hours of Haitian footage, and there's a joyous energy and unpredictability to this material that belies Deren's own ethos — who knows what the Haitian film would have been like had she actually ever made it, but her footage from her trips there has a spontaneity and raw beauty unlike anything in her more lyrical established oeuvre. The same is true of a phenomenal outtake from Ritual in Transfigured Time, in which Deren herself throatily sings a folk ballad while dancers twirl about, their bodies thrusting together in openly sexual ways, smiling and laughing with the same unselfconscious openness seen on the faces of the voodoo dancers. In the Mirror of Maya Deren is a valuable, fascinating documentary, cutting to the heart of one of avant-garde cinema's most beguiling and interesting figures.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Films I Love #43: La belle noiseuse (Jacques Rivette, 1991)

La belle noiseuse is a late masterpiece from Jacques Rivette, a typically haunting and enigmatic study of the mystery inherent in artistic creation, and the ways in which art and life inform and bleed into one another. The film centers around the aging and increasingly unproductive painter Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli), who is rejuvenated by the appearance at his country estate of a young woman named Marianne (Emmanuelle Béart), who inspires him to begin painting again. The film is sensuous and quiet, slowly exploring the developing relationship between the painter and his muse through lengthy, nearly silent scenes in which Frenhofer poses the nude Marianne into stiff, contorted poses, molding her body, frantically trying to capture her essence. Throughout these scenes, the only sound is often the scratch and scrape of Frenhofer's brushes and pens on paper and canvas, and Rivette frequently points his camera for long stretches of time at the painter's work area, tracing the progress of his art from a blank page to a developed sketch. The film's rhythms are slow and measured, appropriate for a document of the artistic process, the slow carving out of a creative statement from paints and inks on a plain white expanse. Forms and ideas take shape slowly, and the longer Frenhofer paints, both artist and model become more confident, more emotionally invested in the work — Frenhofer finds his passion for painting reawakening, even taking over his life, while Marianne develops from an introspective, nervous model to a passionate, deeply engaged collaborator, sharing in the demands and rigors of Frenhofer's art.

Rivette's deliberate pacing and careful eye lend themselves well to this exploration of creation. His camera circles the protagonists, lingering on Béart's nude form as though it was a statue, staring at Frenhofer's canvases and sketchbooks as the painter's ideas take shape, all of it accompanied by the distinctive scritch-scritch-scritch sounds that, by the end of the film, are subconsciously associated with artistic creation. Although the center of the film, and its heart, is dominated by the lengthy, intense scenes between Frenhofer and Marianne, ancillary characters linger around the edges, affected in various way by the all-encompassing passion of this artistic collaboration. Frenhofer's wife Liz (Jane Birkin) is increasingly driven away, shut out, conscious that Marianne is replacing her as her husband's muse: at the height of his passion for his art, Frenhofer even pulls out a long-abandoned painting of Liz and begins reimagining it, painting over it with images of Marianne, striving to create his masterpiece. Meanwhile, Marianne's immersion in Frenhofer's art causes her to neglect her own lover, Nicolas (David Bursztein), who is left to chat with the disconsolate Liz and his friend Magali (Marie Belluc). Rivette's film not only traces the process of creation and limns its mystery and magic, but examines the effects of such intense creativity on those who surround the artist and inspire his work.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


[This post is prompted by The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club, which will be spotlighting a different blogger-selected film every month. This month's selection is courtesy of Pat Piper from Lazy Eye Theatre. Visit his site to see his thoughts on the film and to join the main discussion.]

Lindsay Anderson's If.... is a harsh, uncompromising nightmare vision of British society as a culture unhealthily obsessed with tradition, locked into brutal, nearly fascist rituals and a blind, cowering respect for authority. Set in a British boys' college where the discipline is draconian and completely without rationale, the film examines the peculiar pressures placed on young men in a society where militaristic virtues such as loyalty, obedience, servitude and conformity are held up as the example. This school establishes a rigorous chain of command, selecting the most obedient of the older boys as "whips," who then become disciplinarians, keeping the younger boys under control. The result is that the school seems structured not so much for real education as for indoctrination and control — the only thing these boys are learning is that, in order to get by, they must learn the rules by rote, parrot back what they're told, never question orders, never think for themselves. Anderson juggles multiple storylines throughout the first half of the film, showing the way the school is run from multiple perspectives.

Jute (Sean Bury) is a new boy in the school, and he provides the newcomer's perspective in the early scenes, looking at the chaos around him with wide, terrified eyes. He is quickly taken under the wing of another boy, who impresses upon him the importance of obedience, of learning the rules quickly and being able to pass the complicated tests that will be imposed upon him. Jute is the film's icon of innocence, a usually silent and cherubic witness to the horrors around him, confused and disheartened by what he sees, unwilling to be shaped into the cold, brutal thing that this place seems design to churn out. There are other boys drifting around the film's edges, too, mostly stock types like a scrawny loser who's constantly being beaten up, a fat kid, and a quiet intellectual who generally buries himself in his telescope or his studies. But the film quickly centers itself around the school's trio of rebellious outcasts, the three friends who refuse to conform, who refuse to bow politely before the pointless discipline and cruelty of this place. Mick (Malcolm McDowell) is the de facto leader of the trio, with Johnny (David Wood) as his best friend and co-conspirator, and Wallace (Richard Warwick) as their somewhat slow-witted, dopey buddy. These three boys have the only reasonable reaction to the absurd regulations of power-hungry whips like Rowntree (Robert Swann) and Denson (Hugh Thomas).

Anderson presents this college as a nasty, suffocating place, piling on one infuriating incident after another until it seems obvious that something has to break, that no one could sustain this much tension and pressure. There is more than a hint of the absurd here, too. The whips are fey and masochistic, fingering their canes as though they'd really love to use them at any moment. They shout at the students to stop talking even before anyone has talked, as though always anticipating some minor infraction over which they can exercise their power. They survey their fellow students in the lower levels like military drill inspectors, advising them to cut their hair, making sure they're docile and ready for bed at the proper time, and capriciously confiscating any trivial item they deem unnecessary. The teachers are no better. The headmaster (Peter Jeffrey) is a pompous elitist who seems to fancy himself an education reformer, adapting to new times, when in fact his school is run like a barbaric Middle Ages prison. He leads the whips around the grounds at one point, boldly orating about the necessity to encourage creativity in young minds, to enlighten the next generation, to prepare them for life. His words are hypocritical, of course, considering his audience — the brutish thugs whose job it is to beat and suppress the younger students — and his spiel about education is especially empty when contrasted against the scenes in actual classrooms.

The teachers, for the most part, barely engage with their students. A professor of mathematics marches around the room intoning abstract phrases about geometry, lessons that can have no real meaning without demonstrations and diagrams, and yet he randomly stops every so often to ask a student if he understands. Then, even if the poor boy says yes, he slaps him in the head, or molests him in some way, at one point worming his hand inside a boy's shirt to caress his chest. Anderson's style is exaggerated and absurd, presenting these shocking, over-the-top images side by side with more naturalistic and conventional presentations of college life, the brutality and oppression of students guided by pointless rules. The result is metaphorical more than realistic: Anderson views education as a process of molesting and deadening the minds of the young, so he presents the education system in his film as literally abusing and violating the children it's supposed to be teaching. Only one teacher here even tries to engage his students, talking about the power of fascism and asking the students if they believe that fascism arises because of one powerful, evil leader, or because of a whole society of docile, casually evil people. As if to prove his point, the students simply stare back at him, uncomprehending.

This question is a central theme of the film, particularly in its final acts. The film slowly slips more and more into an absurd, surrealistic dreamworld in its second half, particularly after Mick and Johnny go out on a trip to town. The two boys steal a motorcycle, riding through the lush, open green fields of the countryside, laughing as the speed blurs their faces; it's a potent image of freedom in a film where these boys are hemmed in on all sides by oppression and a denial of free will. At an empty offroad café, the two boys meet a young girl (Christine Noonan), a waitress who will turn out to be a pivotal and mysterious presence, gently nudging the film into the spiraling surrealism of its denouement. At first, her confrontation with Mick and Johnny is utterly prosaic and nearly silent, as the boys snarlingly order coffee and Mick tries to grab her for a kiss, getting violently slapped for his efforts. But then the tenor of the scene abruptly changes, as the girl begins seducing Mick; they act like tigers, snarling and clawing at one another, rolling around on the floor tearing at their clothes, until suddenly their clothes disappear altogether and the girl is biting Mick's arm. The whole interlude is over as suddenly and inexplicably as it began: a lurid and transitory dream vision of animalistic sexual release. It's a true down-the-rabbit-hole moment, signaling the film's increasing departure from reality into a netherworld of dreams and nightmares.

The girl, who periodically reappears without explanation as an icon of freedom and sensuality for the three rebel boys, leads them into the final act of the film, in which the school is taken over by militaristic fervor. Generals and bishops visit, along with distinguished men and women dressed up for some pomp and circumstance, while the students, now dressed as soldiers, march around in formation, chanting and playing tightly controlled war games with paintball guns and firecrackers. This, Anderson suggests, is what this kind of oppressive conformity is grooming people for: to be soldier-automatons, ready to die for God and country, always willing to obey, never questioning orders. Only Mick, Johnny and Wallace really stand out, refusing to go along with this absurdity: while they lounge around in exhaustion, bored with this ritualistic violence, other students teach each other the "scream of hatred" that's yelled out when charging one's enemies. Then, just as these war games are starting to die down, the three boys begin shooting real bullets at the administrators and teachers, finally shooting and then bayoneting a priest in a general's garb. Absurdly, the boys are given a slap on the wrist for this offense, and asked to apologize to the dead man's corpse, which is kept in a wooden drawer in the headmaster's office and sits up to shake their hands before lying back down, playing dead. Obviously, the film has departed from reality by this point, increasingly existing in a fragmented fantasy in which these boys are finally able to strike back at their oppressors, using the headmaster's much-vaunted creativity and imagination to fashion an alternative world, one in which they're actually free.

The paradox, of course, is that having been themselves created by an atmosphere of cruelty and violence, the only freedom they can imagine is the freedom to wage war. The film's final scenes are a horrific vision of anarchy and destruction in which the rebels and the authorities (the latter represented, cartoonishly, by stereotyped authority figures like generals and bishops, as well as a knight in armor) go to war, everyone handling submachine guns as though they were born to. This anarchic finale suggests burning everything down to start anew, but Anderson's vision is more nuanced than Mick's punk rage. There's a moment earlier in the film that suggests a more utopian possibility for change, when Wallace's graceful exercises on a high bar halt a gym class, as the younger students, including the gay Phillips (Rupert Webster), stare at him in awe and admiration. The scene is staged in languid slow motion, as the younger students watch the fluid movements of the older boy as he spins around the bar, his body curling up and unfurling like a jackknife. There's a sense of wonder in this scene, a sense of real connection, that presents an alternative to the violence, hatred and disconnection that's everywhere else in this film.

This scene, like many others dotted throughout the film, including the café scene, is shot in black and white, which Anderson randomly intersperses with the color footage, creating disjunctions that call attention to the film's essential unreality. This approach separates Anderson's If.... from its obvious black and white influences, Zero For Conduct and The 400 Blows, the seminal French films of youthful rebellion and authoritarian oppression. Anderson nods to those films, but tweaks their verité aesthetics by often setting his most disjunctive and surrealist scenes in black and white, reversing the usual conventions about black and white stock versus color. Elsewhere, during a church service that's shot in black and white, Mick looks up briefly and sees a stained glass window in dazzling, brilliant color, a sudden vision of spirituality and clarity to offset the numbing banality of this college. This is a startling, utterly original film, a potent and unrestrained critique of a society seemingly teetering on the brink of fascism. Anderson is spitting in the face of the establishment, crafting a film as rebellious and revolutionary as his proto-punk protagonists.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The TOERIFC discussion of If.... starts now

Pat Piper at Lazy Eye Theatre has just posted his writeup of Lindsay Anderson's If.... for the latest installment of the Oldest Established Really Important Film Club. For those who have participated in the film club before, you know the deal; head over there now! For those who haven't joined in previously, you're welcome to start participating now. This film club has no set membership, and everyone is welcome. If you've seen If...., just go read Pat's piece and then post your own thoughts in the comment section. There should be an active and fascinating conversation going on there all day today, and beyond, for as long as people keep stopping by to contribute. I'll be back tomorrow with my own post-discussion review; in the meantime, go here to join the conversation.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Indomitable Leni Peickert

The Indomitable Leni Peickert is a loose, half-hour sequel to Alexander Kluge's second feature film, Artists in the Big Top: Perplexed. This shorter work, seemingly assembled from leftover footage from the longer film, continues the story of the circus owner Leni Peickert (Hannelore Hoger) after she first abandoned her idea of a radical circus in favor of a job in television. It opens where the previous film left off, at a TV station where Leni and her friends have gathered as employees, attempting to infiltrate the corporate establishment with their own revolutionary ideas. This radicalism is somewhat undercut by the way that Kluge deliberately shoots down the low-cut blouse of one of these young revolutionaries, the camera eyeing her cleavage and then panning down, to the text she's reading, and then back up again, finding her sexuality ultimately much more interesting than her radicalism. This lascivious camera movement is then mirrored in the young radicals' plans to create "sex education" movies that somehow change the world by categorizing and numbering the sexual positions — after all, the Hindus have 365 positions already, one vapid would-be filmmaker says, and wouldn't it be better to have even more?

Even more than its predecessor, The Indomitable Leni Peickert is an inquiry into what all this chatter and ideology actually means; Kluge seems to be wondering, how much actual substance is there in all these half-baked 60s ideas about sex, free expression, equality, peace, love and all that good stuff? Is the sex film made by Leni and her friends a real expression of sexual liberation, or is it just as exploitative and perverted as Kluge's own ostentatiously ogling camera move? In any event, despite its title, The Indomitable Leni Peickert finds the titular heroine even more besieged and overwhelmed than in her first appearance, less able than ever to fulfill her ambitions and really create a lasting and important statement. She's always putting things off, dithering and delaying, telling herself that she's building foundations, that she shouldn't rush. Her plan for TV is a very long-term one, to eventually become the head of a station; in the meantime, she's just been promoted to manage the building's heating system. Later, she's fired from the station and returns to the circus, but only for commerce this time, abandoning her ambition to make a challenging new kind of circus: now she only wants to make money at it. Soon enough, she grows disillusioned with that as well and quits, or at least says she quits: in a typical example of Kluge's clever use of voiceover, the omniscient narrator announces that Leni has quit the circus and then, without acknowledging the contradiction, continues to talk about her working for the circus.

This disconnect between talk and action is at the heart of these two films, which is probably why Kluge, following earlier French avant-gardists like Godard and Debord, has so radically separated sound and image here. He allows the two halves of the cinema to exist independently, sometimes commenting upon one another, sometimes syncing up, almost as if by accident, but more often going their own separate ways.

Although in many ways The Indomitable Leni Peickert seems like simply an extension of Artists in the Big Top, utilizing the same style and exploring similar themes, it does differ in that it's more of a straightforward narrative film than its predecessor. Despite its disjunctive audio and its habit of narrating events from a distance, the film tells its story succinctly and with relative directness. The one notable exception is the denouement, which montages together classical drawings and paintings, taking Leni's struggles to a symbolic plane: through a progression of still images, these paintings tell a story of oppression and struggle between authoritarian forces and the rebellion of the masses. It's a clever way of universalizing the film's story. It transforms Leni's personal struggles — with artistic expression and with maintaining her individuality against smothering capitalistic constraints — into the larger story of the common people throughout history. It also unites Leni — and by extension, Kluge — with the artistic lineage of the West, with the artists who documented various populist uprisings of the past. This sequence suggests the interplay between art and reality, with the former both documenting the latter and echoing down through history to eventually have an influence on reality as well.

The Indomitable Leni Peickert is thus much more than a simple coda to Artists in the Big Top. It extends the longer film's themes into a broader social and political context, making explicit a few of the connections and ideas that were merely implied in the earlier work.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Artists in the Big Top: Perplexed

Artists in the Big Top: Perplexed was Alexander Kluge's second feature, an unusual collage film that deals with the frontiers of human possibility, with the problems of creating art that truly pushes boundaries and broaches uncomfortable subjects to an audience largely unwilling to hear about anything unusual. Naturally, the film is in part about Kluge's own dilemma. Taking the circus as an unlikely metaphor for all artistic pursuits, Kluge is wrestling here with central issues: how to create art when audiences want merely to be entertained, how to balance art and commerce, how to find the proper medium in which to express one's ideas. On a narrative level, the film is about Leni Peickert (Hannelore Hoger), the daughter of a trapeze artist, who desires to create her own circus, a circus that would reinvent the form and express new, revolutionary ideas through performances with animals, acrobats and clowns. But describing the narrative does little to describe the actual texture of Kluge's film, which is comprised of a collage of improvisatory fragments and brief scenes, while on the soundtrack various competing narrators tell stories, recite philosophical ideas, laugh and read dialogues as if from plays, with identifications for the speakers. The audio frequently cuts off in midstream, and it is only sporadically synced to the actual onscreen images, instead flowing languidly in and out of sync. Sometimes a scene will start with two characters speaking to one another, but as they continue speaking, Kluge cuts away to something unrelated, or else cuts in footage where the characters simply stare blankly into the camera, while on the soundtrack their voice continues on. At other times, Kluge's jump cuts wreak havoc with the flow of time and reality, as when the glasses on the face of a journalist appear and disappear between sentences.

These multiple voices create a democracy within the film, in which no single narrative voice is dominant, and the audience's own experience of the film is privileged. The evidence of the film's construction is frequently evident, in scenes that cut off abruptly, the actors breaking into laughter or stammering incoherently as they lose track of their lines and respond simultaneously to the conditions of production. Kluge leaves these moments in. At one point, Leni's business partner Von Lupetow (Bernd Höltz, also the sound man) is eating a sandwich, stuffing it rapidly into his mouth. He laughs, spitting the food, and the scene cuts off, only to return to a straight-faced continuation, as though nothing had happened. The damage is done, though, and the rest of the scene can only be taken with a self-conscious smirk, aware of the shattering of the artifice. Elsewhere, when a female voice questions a story about a sex-starved astronaut filling up a vase with semen upon his return from space, a male narrator admits, "the story is exaggerated to emphasize the point."

These disjunctive techniques are appropriate for a film that's all about the issue of audience participation and audience connection — Kluge wants to foreground the effect of artistic techniques on those who experience an artwork. There's an undeniable playfulness to the way Kluge toys with artifice, presenting a loose patchwork that is all-encompassing enough to include both the opening's color, faux-documentary footage of Leni's father Manfred (Sigi Graue), the grainy newsreel inserts that appear throughout the film, and the crisp black and white of Leni's own story. There's play, too, in his chosen metaphor, in the idea of using the circus as a vehicle for expressing grand ideas. Leni's circus, like her father's proposed radical circus, would include animals suspended from the roof of the tent, barrier-breaking acts in which wild elephants seem to charge at the audience, and an absurd, theatrical staging of the assassination of an emperor, with all the participants wearing animal masks. It's all about confrontation, about presenting challenges to passive spectatorship. Just as Kluge's non-diegetic sound and jittery editing rhythms challenge conventional responses to a narrative film, Leni's revolutionary circus would challenge audiences to find new ways of thinking about this kind of entertainment.

Of course, implicit in this exploration is the possibility that challenges like this can push an audience too far. One of Kluge's interests here is the tension between giving an audience what they want and remaining true to one's own ideals. Ultimately, Leni's circus falls apart as she realizes that her ideas are impractical, that they can't be communicated in any real way to an audience, and that her vision is being diluted with the ideas of others, her collaborators on the project. It's a film about artistic disillusionment, then, about failure, and Kluge is open to that possibility as well. His own work is open-ended, not so much a finished project as a compendium of raw material, assembled by patchwork procedures that could result in a theoretically endless number of possible films. (The evidence of this is apparent in the short sequel, The Indomitable Leni Peickert, which seems to have been assembled in an analogous fashion from leftover footage.) Kluge knows that the upshot of artistic experimentation is the risk of losing the audience, and his resulting film is sometimes entertaining, sometimes boring or baffling, at other times enlightening and insightful, but always above all a challenge, a starting point, a call for serious thought about artistic expression.

His own starting point is announced at the very beginning, with a montage of newsreel footage from a 1939 Nazi rally, which included parades and elaborate pageantry. In light of the remainder of the film, it's obvious that Kluge is calling attention to the tremendous power of spectacle as a vehicle for expressing ideas (or ideology) in a populist form. He's implicitly suggesting: if the Nazis used performance and entertainment so effectively, could the same means be put to use in order to express anti-fascist ideas, anti-totalitarian ideas? Leni fails in her quest, but the film's answer is not so much a definitive no, so much as a "why not try?" It's the effort that counts here, the effort of grappling with the obstacles to art.

Initially, it seems like it's only money that's holding Leni back, that if she only had the resources she could express herself freely. So she experiments with various compromises and negotiations with capitalism, trying to gather the necessary funds while maintaining her independence, eventually concluding that it's impossible. Then, when a sudden inheritance — a deus ex machina inserted by Kluge as a way of working through his schematic diagram of the artistic process — allows Leni to pursue her dream unhindered by monetary woes, she discovers a whole new set of barriers: the disconnect between theory and practice, the difficulties of collaborating, the challenge of communicating with an audience. It's a rebuke to the tired old excuse that one could really make a statement if only one had the money (or if only anything, really). Kluge is advocating action, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, and the scenes of Leni's radical pals endlessly debating and tossing around ideas might be seen as an implicit critique of all the empty talk floating around among leftists in 1968, none of it adding up to much at all.

Indeed, the film ends with Leni, disillusioned with the circus, taking a job in television instead, essentially capitulating to the corporations, although she tells herself she's doing it in order to one day control the TV station for her own ends. The film ends on this skeptical, critical note, but Kluge retains his optimism about the potential power of art, best expressed in the repeated declaration that work without an ultimate goal or meaning is worthless. Extrapolated to art, Kluge seems to be saying that art made merely as spectacle or entertainment is empty, and that the best art has something to say, even if it perhaps says it incompletely or clumsily: the goal is what counts. This doesn't suggest an anything goes egalitarianism, however, so much as an encouragement that everyone should try, should do their best, should like Leni attempt to make something big and dangerous and original, even if everything falls apart in the process.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Don't Look Back

D.A. Pennebaker's seminal documentary Don't Look Back remains the startling work it was upon its release: not only a revolutionary cinema verité approach to a rock tour, but one of the most intimate glimpses possible of the perpetually elusive Bob Dylan. The film was made on Dylan's 1965 U.K. tour, a pivotal moment in his career, as he began to move away from the folk movement from which he'd emerged. He'd just released Bringing It All Back Home, which featured rock instrumentation on its second side, a source of some controversy among his rabid folkie fans — at one tour stop here, a couple of young schoolgirls nervously tell him that it doesn't sound like him, that it sounds like he's only goofing around. In fact, it was no joke. This would be Dylan's final acoustic tour, and when he returned to England in 1966 it was for the electric tour that yielded one outraged fan's accusing cry of "Judas," a legendary moment. Pennebaker couldn't have known all this was coming, but it must have been apparent that Dylan was poised on the brink of something. The film captures an artist in flux, trying on different identities, experimenting with a playful sensibility that sometimes bleeds over into perversity and willful obscurity.

What Pennebaker's restless camera captures, more than anything, is a man whose personality is always shifting; Dylan is almost always performing in some way, always trying on different guises, covering up what he's thinking with strings of non sequiturs, turning interviews back on the interviewers with probing, unanswerable questions of his own. Pennebaker's handheld camerawork is perfectly suited to examining such a slippery figure; when Dylan bobs and weaves, figuratively speaking, the camera is with him, subtly zooming in to probe the intricacies of his face, his expression, trying to reveal what might be hidden behind his ever-present dark sunglasses. What Pennebaker seems to find is a guy who contains multitudes, who's many different things at different times. In unguarded moments, he sometimes seems like a kid — Dylan was 24 at the time — hanging out with friends, goofing around, telling jokes. At one point, listening to a jazz band, Dylan and several friends don dark glasses and snap their fingers, aping beatniks, laughing as they drop "hip" phrases. The Dylan who appears in interviews is someone else altogether, confrontational and aggressive and gnomic in his pronouncements. In one of the film's most prolonged scenes, a British journalist comes into the dressing room before a show and finds himself drawn into a battle of wits with Dylan and his friends, who are constantly challenging the guy, asking him questions about himself, basically asking him to defend his very existence to them.

It's amazing, and reveals a certain antagonistic streak in Dylan, a tendency to go on the attack, to prevent anybody from understanding him or pinning down anything about him. Pennebaker, by simply observing, by letting his camera unobtrusively weave through the scene, getting a rough fly-on-the-wall perspective on the singer, arguably understands much more than almost anybody else who Dylan encounters over the course of this film. He gets Dylan's need for mystery, for myth, and recognizes it as a bit of an act. He's also perceptive enough to see a different Dylan, the charming, bashful young boy who's so polite with an older British woman who comes to pay her respects, enthusing about his songs and earnestly asking him to come stay at her country mansion. There's a moment, towards the end of a particularly ornery and provocative "interview" with a reporter from Time magazine, when Pennebaker's camera zooms in on Dylan's face, capturing the bemused, playful smile dancing across his features as he answers a few questions. It reveals his famed aggressiveness towards the press as a bit of a joke, a put-on, a game to create a certain persona — Dylan's having fun with it, enjoying the clash as a sport.

If Pennebaker's film is enlightening about Dylan the man, it remains even more worthwhile for its portrayal of Dylan the musician. In rehearsals, in ad-hoc jam sessions at house parties, on stage, in loose songwriting sessions at a piano, Dylan always seems utterly focused, utterly alive, never simply tossing something off. His energy and passion for his music is obvious. If the public Dylan was always changing, always playing games, there's something dead-serious about Dylan the musician, which made that schoolgirl crack about Bringing It All Back Home kind of sting; he shrugs it off with a joke but the annoyance shows through anyway. The film is alive with Dylan's music, with snippets of concert footage; he rarely gets to play a whole song through, but Pennebaker collages together more than enough music to capture what it was like to see Dylan live on this tour. He sings through the first three verses of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" at one point, and Pennebaker films it in a closeup, because Dylan's face is very much alive when he sings, seething with the bitter irony of the lyrics. Dylan's best songs hurt, they're dangerous: the story of rich tobacco farmer William Zantzinger and poor maid Hattie Carroll is unforgettable to anyone who's heard it, because Dylan doesn't just tell the story, he brings its images to life, and he infuses it with the depth of his own outraged emotions. When he sings this song in Pennebaker's film, his face communicates everything that the lyrics do, the heartache and acute sense of injustice.

What's remarkable is that this is true even of Dylan's more elusive later songs, after he abandoned this kind of topical rant. The film closes with an equally heartfelt rendition of "Love Minus Zero/No Limits," one of Dylan's best songs from this era. Its poetic evocation of love isn't direct or representational like Dylan's earlier songs, and its images are figurative rather than visual, but it's obvious that it is no less deeply felt, that its emotions well from somewhere deep inside. The final moment of music in the film, the penultimate shot before a chatty, informal car ride, is accompanied by Pennebaker's most ostentatious camera move in the whole film. The camera, behind Dylan, floats aloft towards the high rafters of the theater, looking down at the musician within a small circle of pure white light at the edge of a dense darkness, and then the camera looks up, out at the house lights as the final notes of the harmonica fade away. It's a gorgeous moment, as mysterious and strangely poetic as anything in Dylan's songs. Pennebaker has a lyrical sense that's sometimes lost or ignored in his frenzied, off-the-cuff backstage camerawork, but that's readily apparent in his soulful closeups and the more formalist austerity with which he films Dylan's concert appearances.

Pennebaker is equally interested in Dylan's musicianship offstage, in the way any gathering with his friends might suddenly burst into song, with Dylan or Joan Baez or anyone else who happens to be around. (Though an interlude with Baez where she sings a few Dylan compositions inadvertently winds up as further proof of Dylan's artistry; despite her lilting, lovely voice, there's no escaping just how boring Baez is, how flat and lifeless her performance is, how lacking in Dylan's crucial energy and passion.) Pennebaker also evinces some curiosity about the character of Dylan's manager Albert Grossman, who with his bushy black eyebrows and big glasses and noncommittal expression is in some ways even more gnomic and inscrutable than Dylan himself: who knows what this guy is thinking? There's an enlightening scene where Pennebaker films the merciless negotiations Grossman conducts with several British promoters for a few shows, hammering away until he gets the tremendous sum he wants for Dylan. Throughout it all, Grossman shows no expression, no trace of anything; he's almost creepy, like a mob boss delivering ultimatums.

The point of the scene is obvious, of course, Pennebaker's not-exactly-revolutionary suggestion that it all comes down to commerce, that beneath all the artifice, on at least one level, Dylan's just another pop star. He's what the kids are listening to this month instead of the Beatles, as one newspaper article has it. That's part of it maybe, but Pennebaker seems to know it's only part, that there are many parts to Dylan, which is why Don't Look Back is structured as such a collage of public and private, performance and backstage, "in character" and out, rock star and folk singer and pop idol and just a guy enjoying himself and doing what he wants. All of these things are in Dylan, and all of these things are in Pennebaker's film as well.