Friday, July 29, 2011

Record Club #4: Drive-By Truckers on August 29

Drive-By Truckers - The Dirty South (2004)

The fourth installment of the Inexhaustible Documents record club has now been announced. Troy Olson of Elusive As Robert Denby has selected the 2004 album The Dirty South by Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers. The discussion will be taking place at his blog on August 29, so if you'd like to participate, all you have to do is listen to the album before then and show up to read his thoughts and offer your own comments.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Prowler

Joseph Losey's noir The Prowler opens with a shot that immediately tweaks the audience by placing the viewer in the voyeuristic position of a creeping pervert. The first shot of the film gazes through a woman's bathroom window as, inside, she dries herself off after a bath, putting on a robe. Her body remains teasingly just out of view beneath the window's frame, which functions like a cinematic frame within the frame, and Losey's camera, tracking slowly in to get a closer look, heightens the voyeuristic sensation of leering in. Then, the woman seems to notice the camera, looking out the window with concern and horror as she realizes that someone is watching her, and she quickly pulls the blinds shut, cutting off the view. It's not the camera she actually sees, of course, but a peeping tom whose perspective the camera had been taking. The titles roll then, and in less than a minute Losey has effectively signaled that, like all films about voyeurism, this too will be about the cinema, about those people out in the audience, watching eagerly from their hidden spots in the dark. The black humor of this set-up is made even more apparent when, after the credits, a pair of cops visit the frightened woman, and one insinuates that maybe she shouldn't have tempted the prowler by offering herself up for view like that, framing herself in the movie screen of the open window. After all, for a culture growing increasingly acclimated to the cinematic experience, peeping in on such living movies is second nature (and the woman herself is a failed actress, used to being watched).

But the real voyeur of the film turns out to be not the unseen prowler outside the window but one of the cops, Webb Garwood (Van Heflin), who is immediately attracted to the prowler's victim Susan (Evelyn Keyes) and begins aggressively courting her at night, after his shift is over. When Webb and his partner Bud (John Maxwell) first come to investigate the incident, Budd questions Susan while Webb remains outside, prowling through the bushes, looking into the house. The compositions suggest that he too is a voyeur, peeking through the windows, watching Susan from afar, and when he appears at the bathroom window, he startles Susan every bit as much as the original prowler had. Webb represents law and order in his crisp police uniform, but really he's an outsider, discontented with his life, feeling like he's watching other people's happiness and success while he's had nothing but "bad breaks."

Susan, it turns out, is from his hometown in Indiana, but while that fact draws the pair closer together, it also awakens a reserve of bad memories for Webb. He'd been a star athlete in high school, but his college scholarship had ended early after a quarrel with a coach, and his youthful dreams evaporated at that time. Unlike Bud, a model of contentment who loves being a cop, loves his wife, and loves his mind-numbingly dull rock-collecting hobby, Webb wants something more and can only dwell on all the missed opportunities and bad luck he's had in his life. Above all, he had the bad luck to be born poor and to grow up poor; while Susan grew up rich and married an even richer man, Webb was from the wrong side of the tracks and had to watch his poor father squander countless opportunities for improvement, settling for stable middle class mediocrity instead. Webb is an outsider in the spacious mansion Susan shares with her radio announcer husband; he looks in and sees the life he wants, the comfort and security he wants, maybe even the woman he wants.

The film's script, by Hugo Butler and an uncredited Dalton Trumbo, isn't exactly a model of sedate realism: it winds through multiple twists and turns and dramatic shifts in mood. The story is melodramatic and blustery, and its central romance goes through so many unconvincing reversals that it's hard to know what to think of the weepy, malleable Susan. A late revelation suggests that maybe this tonal confusion, too, is purposeful, since even Webb doesn't seem to know what he wants. Heflin, with his big, expressive eyes and perpetual hangdog look, is perfectly suited to Webb's chronic dissatisfaction and the sinister undercurrents that occasionally come bubbling up from deep within him, but Keyes delivers a much less satisfying performance that leaps wildly from one emotion to another. The film's shifts in locale and tone, however, are handled adroitly by Losey, whose direction of this lurid, intense material locates the proper balance of absurdity and tension.

Losey has an especially keen grasp of background diegetic sound, which he uses to comment on the images and foreground events of a scene. Susan spends her nights listening to her radio announcer husband, who ends every broadcast with the cheery sign-off, "I'll be seeing you, Susan." This turns out to be very convenient once Webb starts spending his nights with Susan while her husband is at work, since as Webb says, they always know where he is. The two budding lovers canoodle on the couch, lounging around together, laughing and kissing, and all the while the husband's voice murmurs away in the background, his words offering sly commentary on what goes on at his own house while he's at work, unaware. He describes the pleasure he feels when relaxing on an evening at home, being served a snack by his wife, and as he sets the scene, Susan lays out a tray of sandwiches for Webb, who leans back and lights a cigarette, the first tendrils of smoke wafting up into the foreground of the frame just as the announcer describes smoking his own first cigarette of the evening. Webb seems spooked, joking that he feels like the guy is watching them.

The announcer likes to babble on about his wife on the air, describing her cooking and their domestic contentment, and his happy words overlay the images of Susan and Webb having their fun in the time before that final sign-off indicates that the husband is on his way home. Later, the announcer's voice, played back on a record, has an even more sinister meaning, his affectionate sign-off now interrupted with the violent scratch of the turntable's needle being yanked out of the grooves.

It's obvious enough where all this is heading, but the inevitable homicide merely marks the film's halfway point, and the script has plenty of surprises left. Though the shadowy noir cinematography (by Arthur C. Miller) is effective and eerie in the Los Angeles scenes, the film really becomes interesting when the action shifts away from these typical noir locales. At one point, Losey signals the couple's decision to retreat into the desert with a fade to black, which is immediately followed with a gorgeous, haunting image of a car, isolated in the middle of a blank wasteland, kicking up dust in its trail as it cuts through the sand. The rocky western ghost town where the couple holes up is far from the usual noir haunt, and instead of shadows and grimy interiors (like Webb's cheap apartment from earlier in the film, with a silhouette target forebodingly hung on the wall) there's a grim, barren wasteland where nobody visits, "not even the coyotes" that are nevertheless heard howling plaintively at the film's climax. The way that Losey frames scenes of domestic idyll and hopefulness against this rocky and desolate setting suggests just how short-lived the film's cheerier moments are destined to be.

The Prowler is a rich and idiosyncratic noir that explores the archetypal noir themes — greed, violence, ambition — in some unusual ways. The actual prowler of the opening, it turns out, is incidental to the story, a plot device and a red herring. The real prowler, the real creep, is the outsider who so desperately wants what he can only look at from afar, the guy who waits in the darkness, watching and desiring but separated from what he sees by seemingly insurmountable barriers. Webb's voyeurism is a matter of class, primarily; he looks at the wealth and success of others and he wants what they have. Perhaps Losey is suggesting that the cinema works similarly by presenting visions of glamor and beauty to dazzle audiences, who watch from the darkness, voyeurs who desire the purity and wonder of what's up on the screen, the window through which they peer.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Record Club #3: Sam Amidon

Sam Amidon - All Is Well (2007)

The third discussion for the Inexhaustible Documents Record Club takes place today, over at Carson Lund's blog Are the Hills Going To March Off?. The conversation this time revolves around the album All Is Well by modern folk singer Sam Amidon. Carson has started things off with a great lead post, and everyone who's heard the album is invited to join the discussion with their own thoughts. So head on over to Carson's place for what's sure to be another great discussion.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Out of Sight

Out of Sight is the way sexy, charming, steamy star power movies are supposed to be. Steven Soderbergh's witty, beautifully filmed adaptation of an Elmore Leonard pulp novel is a throwback to classic Hollywood's casual stylishness and verbal sparkle, the kind of film that Hollywood isn't supposed to be capable of making anymore. The film is built around the mutual attraction between unrepentant bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney) and the US marshal, Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), who's trying to catch him. Or, more accurately, it's built on the charm, attractiveness and rapport of the two leads, who are at their most naturally charismatic here, radiating the self-assurance and sexiness that makes them irresistible both to each other and to audiences. Theirs is a mad love, a lunatic love built on seductive banter, utterly unbelievable in any conventional sense: why would a smart, capable woman dedicated to the law fall so deeply in love with the man who represents her complete opposite? But then again, why not? Clooney and Lopez are so attuned to one another, so comfortable in one another's presence onscreen, that the unbelievable is rendered not only plausible but unavoidable, fated, totally logical.

This romance arises from the time the pair spends in a trunk together after Jack kidnaps Karen during his escape from prison. This scene is the most iconic and oft-cited of the film, and justifiably so, as Soderbergh keeps his camera inside the trunk with the dirty, mud-smeared escapee and the elegant, reserved marshall, all dolled up and glamorous after a birthday dinner with her dad, ready for a date with her FBI agent boyfriend. A red light overlays the pair, and the cramped space of the trunk enforces their physical intimacy. Later, remembering the moment, Karen will tell Jack, "you kept touching me, feeling my thigh," and she sounds wistful, nostalgic, fondly recalling the time he kidnapped her. Soderbergh captures Jack's hand in closeup, tapping idly on Karen's hips, feigning casualness but obviously lingering a bit over the curved thigh beneath her skirt. Karen lays in the trunk with her back to her kidnapper, her curves pressed against him, seeming as relaxed as though she's just hanging out at home, although whenever she hears a police siren pass by her eyes grow alert. They chat amiably about crime and the law and the movies, their banter leading them towards a discussion of unlikely screen love stories, such as the one they're obviously about to enact.

Soderbergh's old-school stylishness is well-suited to this charming criminal love story. Nearly every frame pops with brilliant colors, and Soderbergh associates particular colors and images with certain moods and themes. The scenes of Jack and his partner Buddy (Ving Rhames) in prison are awash in the yellow jumpsuits of the prisoners, and the color-coding helps clarify the otherwise unannounced leaps into prison flashbacks. The present-tense scenes in Miami, on the other hand, are full of bright pastel hues: lurid orange walls, the red Hawaiian shirt Jack chooses as a disguise. A trip to Detroit for the film's second half is announced with a shot of a blue-tinged street scene, smoke drifting from a manhole cover, a grimly urban noir landscape that ushers in the outbursts of violence that punctuate the final act.

After Karen gets separated from Jack during his escape attempt, there's a sequence that turns out to be a dream in which she visits Jack's hotel, gun drawn, to find him lying naked in the bath, his eyes closed. Soderbergh emphasizes the orange walls, and shoots through the louvers of a nearby window as Karen creeps into her prey's hotel room. Then Jack grabs her, pulls her into the bath with him, and there's an indescribably sexy shot of her sitting on top of him, fully clothed, in the tub, kissing him and sinking into the water with him. It's a dream, but Soderbergh's style is so lurid and romantically overblown to begin with that it's as plausible as any of the things that actually do happen in the film. The film is itself a dream, a romantic fantasy, and he merely calls attention to that fact by throwing in an actual romantic dream like this.

Soderbergh's romanticism reaches its peak during the central love scene in which Jack finally catches up with Karen again, and they get to play out a real version of that dream, although the reality feels every bit as dreamlike. Jack finds Karen at a bar, just as he'd imagined during their first meeting, when he wondered aloud what would've happened if they'd met under different circumstances, like in a bar. He shows up like a vision after Karen has been hit on by a pair of determined advertising agents, the very opposite, in their professional respectability and conventionality, of bank robber Jack. Behind Karen, a huge glass window reveals snow falling, large fluffy flakes tumbling down in slow motion, and as Jack appears the bar around them becomes fuzzy, the city seen through the bar window as a blur of colored lights in the background. Jack's initial appearance is as a reflection in the window, and Karen turns towards him as though half-expecting that he won't be there, that she was just imagining his ghostly form superimposed over the nighttime city and the snow. Soderbergh's cutting cleverly draws out the moment, making the audience wonder, too, if Karen is just dreaming again; it takes a few more shots for the pair to appear together in the same frame.

They speak in hushed voices, as though they're hiding in plain sight, afraid of being caught, their desire aroused even more by the forbidden, furtive nature of their romance. Soderbergh captures their faces in beautifully lit closeups, their eyes shining, shy smiles constantly seeming to flutter at the edges of their lips. The actors have never looked better or seemed warmer or more natural; they are captured here at their best, flirting with one another, their characters flirting with one another, it hardly matters. It's delightful, and sexy as hell. It's some kind of glossy ideal of what love is supposed to be like, not the painfully banal notions of love advanced by so many other Hollywood romances but a real, deeply felt attraction that expresses itself in every least gesture, every word, every glance.

Their conversation is intercut with a scene in a hotel room afterward, as Jack and Karen eye each other from across a hotel room, taking turns stripping, Jack taking off his shirt to reveal a muscular chest, Karen slipping her dress over her head to reveal a shapely body in a bra and panties. Their bodies don't communicate as much as the looks they give each other, though, those intense stares from across the room. Then, and only then, does Soderbergh restore them to the intimacy they shared during that earlier trunk scene, as they come face to face in bed, their faces in profile and shadowed, a freeze frame holding them in place just inches apart. All the while, the snow continues to drift down in the background, and the light in the room is gorgeous and moody, enveloping the lovers in the romantically exaggerated hues that their mad love seems to require. Soderbergh will subtly evoke this scene again towards the end of the film, when the criminals' plans have gone awry and Karen, of course, comes face to face with Jack again, this time with a gun in her hand, facing him down as criminal and pursuer. Behind Jack, a large window frames a glimpse of the midnight blue night, with fluffy snow falling as it had on that other night.

The film has a lot to recommend it besides this stylish romanticism, of course. Soderbergh has assembled a cast of gifted comic actors who anxiously flit and dodge around the central couple. The colorful criminals and lawmen who provide the film's detail and its heist plotting include Dennis Farina as Karen's father, Steve Zahn as a stoned and hapless would-be robber, and Luis Guzman as an alternately sinister and silly criminal whose scene with Catherine Keener's Adele starts out threatening but abruptly becomes surprisingly comic. Michael Keaton shows up for another very funny cameo, reprising his role as federal lawman Ray Nicolette, the character he played in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, another Leonard adaptation. It's a nice nod, because while Soderbergh's film strikes a very different balance from Tarantino's — tilting more fully towards romance and away from tragicomic violence as compared with Tarantino's much darker vision — the two films have in common their moodiness and their commitment to slow-burn pacing and sharply defined characters.

In fact, Out of Sight is best summed up by a small, subtle moment that occurs between its two central characters without a word being spoken. At one point, Karen is tagging along on a raid meant to capture Jack and Buddy. She's staking out downstairs while the rest of the federal agents storm the robbers' room, but while she's waiting in the lobby she notices, across the room, Jack and Buddy standing in an elevator, its doors about to close and take them down to the parking garage. She raises her walkie-talkie to her lips but then pauses, and lets her hand drop away as she simply watches until the door close. Soderbergh cuts away from the closeup of her to show Jack, as the doors are closing, tentatively raising his hand as if to wave, not the cocky, show-off wave of a cheeky movie criminal, but the genuinely confused wave of a guy who's acting nervous around a girl he really likes. It's a funny moment, but not as broadly funny as it might have been if Soderbergh had exaggerated the gestures or played it a little differently. This way, it's not broadly comic but natural and genuine, an expression of the pleasant confusion that these two soon-to-be lovers feel when in each other's company. That repartee, visual and silent as well as verbal, is the essence of Out of Sight, and it's that warmth, that real spark of attraction and wit, that makes it such a special and delightful film.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Wonder Ring/Reflections On Black/Sirius Remembered

Stan Brakhage made The Wonder Ring at the request of fellow avant-garde filmmaker Joseph Cornell, who wanted to document the Third Avenue elevated train in Manhattan before it was torn down. The resulting film is a silent testimony to the strange beauty to be found in even the most blighted urban relics and the dignity of the people who inhabit them. There's even something spiritual about Brakhage's images of trains and the people riding them. Seen through Brakhage's eyes, the girders of the train platforms become stained glass windows with bright light streaming through the geometric spaces between the steel beams. A simple train journey through the city becomes a ghostly ride through an amorphous realm where people and places seem to be perpetually in the process of fading away. Brakhage achieves evocative superimpositions through the reflections of figures and buildings in the train's windows, strange hybrid compositions where reflections and refractions bring together disparate spaces into a single composite image. Brakhage points his camera out at the city through the warped glass of a window as the train slowly rumbles along, and the resulting images of the buildings outside seem to waver and morph as though the city was underwater, the train a submarine passing through the rippling waves.

The effect is dazzling and hypnotic, an unforgettable experience that creates a work of great beauty, overflowing with nostalgia for something that's not even gone yet. There's great sadness in this film, a sense of loss that's communicated by all those ghostly figures, traveling around the city in an eerie haze, their forms blurry, superimposed over one another and over the landscape around them. Brakhage's images are cloudy but also somehow precise, a tension that manifests itself beautifully when, late in the film, his camera focuses on a train window where the dirt and scratches on the glass create striations in the glass, little furrows of yellowish grime or scratched markings. The view through this glass is obscured, and everything outside is blurred and warped by the marks, but Brakhage renders the marks themselves with crystalline clarity, as though these obstacles are the point rather than the view they are ostensibly blocking. Brakhage focuses on the minutiae in order to examine the world and all its objects with an eye towards the beauty, pathos and resonance of even the simplest and most utilitarian of structures. This train line had outlived its usefulness to the city's planners and leaders, and as a result it was being erased, but Brakhage, in looking at this soon-to-be-ghost, locates the aesthetic beauty that goes beyond mere utility.

Reflections On Black is a thoroughly uncharacteristic film from Stan Brakhage, though it is characteristic of his early psychodramas, made in the early 1950s before he moved away from even the suggestion of narrative to explore more abstract and purely visual realms. This film is especially unusual in that it is overtly informed by genre in a way that Brakhage's work almost never was. The title of Reflections On Black reflects Brakhage's interest in studying the absence of color and all its implications, but in retrospect it almost seems as though the film is reflecting on black as in noir, presenting a distilled essence of the film noir in these portraits of emotionally troubled couples in shadowy spaces. Brakhage's film, made during the era in which the film noir (though not yet named as such) dominated Hollywood B pictures, provides an avant-garde corollary to the shadowy tragedies proliferating in the mainstream. The film opens in abstraction, alternating pure black frames with images of shadowy figures moving through shadowy exterior spaces, evoking B movie cinematography and the iconography of the trenchcoat-wearing mystery man.

From there, Brakhage moves into a more concrete scenario, a wordless story of a man cheating on a woman with another woman, only to be discovered in the act by the other woman's other man. It's an archetypal scenario, barely developed, a template for Brakhage's shadowy study of this familiar plot. As in his other psychodramas, the narrative is melodramatic and emotionally basic; his real concern is finding a visual language to convey the intensity of the emotions at the core of the story. It's no wonder, in retrospect, that he quickly abandoned narrative more and more in subsequent works, since the vestigial plot is so clearly not what interests him. Instead it's all about the gestures, the quiver of lips, the flailing of hands, the slow, almost mechanical motion of two lovers descending into bed together as though falling in slow motion.

The film's soundtrack, provided by Brakhage, is a musique concrete sound collage of piano, industrial clatter and hum, children's voices, and other noises and musical fragments arranged into an abrasive accompaniment to the shadowy images. Sound was another element Brakhage would soon largely abandon in stripping the cinema down to what really interested him, and it's telling that here the soundtrack, like the plot material, seems extraneous and unnecessary, added on because it was expected rather than because it really changed anything. What really matters here is the primal way in which Brakhage riffs on this stereotypical B movie situation, climaxing with a mysterious and haunting shot in which the man's eyes are scratched out with a rapidly fluctuating blur of white lines drawn directly on the frame, as though Brakhage was suggesting the way in which his later, more fully developed cinema might explode unexpectedly out of this early ancestor.

Stan Brakhage's Sirius Remembered is a film about death, about the material facts of it and, perhaps, about the possibility of spiritual transcendence hidden within it. The film's images consist solely of footage of a dead dog lying in the woods, first surrounded by brown-hued fall decay and then in winter snow. The images are rapidly edited together into a repetitive, looping framework so that the film conveys the impression of death from many angles rather than ever lingering on a single view or a single perspective. The image of the dog's black, unseeing eye does recur repeatedly, however, alternately centered within the image so it disconcertingly seems to be staring out of the film, or placed in a corner so it slyly glances up or down at the rest of the image. Sometimes, the eye seems to be staring out of the frame from within the clutter of superimposed imagery that surrounds it and frames it. The fast pace of the editing places the emphasis on the passage of time, the blending of one season into another, the slow process by which the dog's earthly remains begin to return to the soil.

As is often the case with Brakhage, this film is all about texture, as the camera whips across the surface of the dog's hair, visually rhyming it with the tangle of twigs and leaves surrounding the body. At one point, the camera repeatedly pans upward, from the dog lying amidst the browning foliage to the pale blue sky with a few bare treetops reaching up. The movement suggests the passage of the spirit out of the earthly plane, away from the rot of the earth towards, well, something: heaven, transcendence, the spiritual plane. The effect is not as visceral (in any sense) or as provocative as Brakhage's aesthetic, inquisitive approach to death in films like The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes, but Sirius Remembered is still an interesting and formally compelling short that attempts to encapsulate death, to document the materiality of death while acknowledging the limits of such an earthbound perspective.

Monday, July 18, 2011

35 Shots of Rum

In 35 Shots of Rum, Claire Denis captures the slow, quotidian rhythms of life for the working class people living in a particular apartment block in Paris, especially the train conductor Lionel (Alex Descas) and his student daughter Jo (Mati Diop). There are dramas in these people's lives, but they are small-scale, domestic dramas, rooted in discontent, restlessness, race, class, and the unspoken but powerful desire for a different life. The film's incidents are mostly intimate and subtle. One night, Jo buys a rice cooker, and when her dad comes home he reveals that he bought her one as well; no doubt she'd told him about it but hadn't expected him to remember. She just smiles, thanks him, and doesn't tell him about the duplication. The subsequent shot of Jo holding the rice cooker she'd bought, still in its box, and smiling warmly, suggests everything one needs to know about the close, affectionate relationship between father and daughter.

Denis builds the film's emotional foundation from such small, casual moments. The film is slow and soft, narratively slack and drifting, qualities that give its actual dramatic incidents a greater heft for arising out of the steady pulse of ordinary life. This is the work of a director self-assured in her own style, settling into the comfortable rhythms of her characters with a profound sense of quietude. The film opens with the hushed, gentle music of Tindersticks — Denis' longtime musical collaborators — softly caressing the sensual images of trains and train stations that introduce the film. The soundtrack mirrors the film's visual aesthetic in its simplicity and ghostly beauty: pastoral flute, the hesitant strum of acoustic guitars, the occasional barely noticeable humming of vocalist Stuart Staples. In the opening scenes of the film, the camera looks out the front of a train at the tracks stretching out before it. The passengers are ghostly reflections in the windows of the train cars. The train enters a tunnel in the daytime and when it emerges, Denis cuts to gorgeously lit nighttime images, trains passing in the darkness lit up inside with yellow and pale blue hues, apartment blocks similarly illuminated, their windows like banks of tiny televisions in which silhouettes stretch or walk by or smoke while leaning out the window.

Denis has always had an intuitive feel for such temps mort. Here, she invests much of the film's emotionality and sensuality in a handful of evocative set pieces that represent breaks from the day-in/day-out routines of these people's lives. Lionel and Jo look forward to going to a concert with their neighbors Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué) and Noé (Grégoire Colin), but when they actually set out on a rainy night in Gabrielle's taxi, the car breaks down, stranding them far from the concert. Instead, they go to a bar where they dance and drink, and Denis lingers lovingly over the little gestures and glances that pass between the characters, as when Lionel desires the pretty bar owner and Jo dances with Noé, who has long shyly wanted her without quite daring to make his feelings known. Gabrielle and Noé represent the steady, subtle pull of other people tugging at the father/daughter bond, but Jo and Lionel continue to cling to one another, resisting the appeal of love and romantic companionship. Jo's mother is dead, and in her absence father and daughter have been self-sufficient, relying only on one another, though with Jo now grown, presumably on the verge of graduating from college, it's obvious that this arrangement can't last forever. Noé wants Jo, and so does her classmate Ruben (Jean-Christophe Folly), but still she retains her quiet, isolated life with her reserved father, who so rarely says anything. Lionel, for his part, pushes away, sometimes cruelly, the gentle but persistent advances of Gabrielle, who, as a letter that Jo finds reveals, has pursued Lionel for many years.

Another key scene is Lionel and Jo's visit to a German woman (Ingrid Caven) who seems to be the sister or friend of Jo's mother. They go to see her, and Jo speaks with her in German, while Lionel simply sits quietly, perhaps not understanding very much, perhaps just maintaining his customary silence. Afterward, father and daughter visit Jo's mother's grave, then sit by the beach in their van, watching the wind whip through the tall grass by the shore, watching children walk by in the pink dusk light, holding lanterns and chanting a song, celebrating some holiday. It's a lovely, sensual moment, coming towards the end of the film, and it has an air of finality, as though father and daughter are finally coming to terms with the necessity of change.

That's also the meaning, perhaps, behind the titular 35 shots of rum, a rite which is never explained but which seems to represent a break, a way of marking some great change. There's a sense of sadness in it, but not quite the desolation that's found in the similar climax to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Merchant of Four Seasons, which seems like a subtle reference point here. Caven's presence, certainly, seems like a nod to Fassbinder since she was an actress very much associated with his work, part of the company of actors who he regularly cast in his films. Denis is also dealing with the idea of giving up on life, and Lionel's coworker René (Julieth Mars Toussaint) provides an example of the despair and loneliness that could be waiting for the similarly aged Lionel if he chooses to give up on life as René does. Instead, the shots of rum represent for Lionel, not suicide or despair but a kind of melancholy celebration, an acknowledgment that his daughter is growing up and preparing for a life of her own, and also an acknowledgment that there could still be a life for him in the wake of her departure. The film's final shot economically suggests the splitting of their one life, as father and daughter, into two independent lives, with an elegant visual metaphor that refers all the way back to the early scenes of the film.

35 Shots of Rum is a warm, touching movie with a deeply humanistic concern for the lives of people whose mostly uneventful lives are, in fact, rich with emotion and internal activity even when the surface seems placid and narratively inert. It's notable that both Gabrielle and Lionel are involved in transportation, getting people to where they need to go, while their own lives outside of work remain static and solitary. It's notable, too, that virtually everyone in the film is black or of mixed race, and there are very few signs of Caucasian French people. The film's casting suggests the racial isolation and separation of this society: even in school, Jo takes a class about Third World economics that is, naturally, taken mostly by black students. It is as though, as immigrants or descendants of immigrants in this country, they remain in their own little world, cut off from the larger populace of native French white people. At one point, as René and Lionel are discussing growing old and losing relevance, Denis pointedly cuts away to an elderly white woman sitting alone on the train nearby, as though to suggest that some things are universal, and indeed there is little in the film that explicitly addresses race. It's just a subcurrent, an unavoidable fact of the characters' lives, though the absence of much integration with the dominant culture is another indication of the isolation and separation that Jo and Lionel feel. Thus, their personal disconnection from life and other people becomes a representation or reflection of their larger racial and cultural disconnect from the society in which they live.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers

Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, the documentarian Les Blank's goofy, eccentric ode to garlic in all its forms, isn't quite an informational piece about garlic, though it does include some history and scientific info about the "stinking rose," nor is it a how-to-cook-with-garlic feature, though there's some of that, too. Instead, it's a loose and appropriately earthy film that takes more of a free-wheeling approach to garlic as a tasty seasoning but also as a symbol for traditional ways of life, as a route into conversations about modern agrarianism and mass farming, and as a way of articulating a certain attitude towards life. That attitude is, of course, one of freedom, self-confidence, a rejection of the "puritanical" American value system. One of the people Blank interviews, the founder of a garlic appreciation society, who wears a floppy hat shaped like a head of garlic, speaks passionately about how garlic represents an enthusiastic embrace of life and a lack of fear about social niceties. Again and again Blank's garlic enthusiast interviewees characterize garlic as rooted in traditional values, as representing the opposite of "civilization." One man speaks of a 17th century food critic who opposed garlic and advocated for bland dishes, and the contempt in his voice is palpable. "Can you imagine eating dinner with that guy?" he asks, his red-rimmed eyes growing shifty and widening in horror.

For his part, Blank remains slightly aloof from the goofier passions of particular interviewees, instead embracing the value of garlic as something wild, untamed, in opposition to the increasing conformity and self-consciousness of modern society. Blank plays back a mouthwash commercial that emphasizes the fear of garlic breath, and several of the garlic lovers in the film have adopted a slogan in response to such campaigns: "fight mouthwash, eat garlic." Garlic represents tradition as opposed to modernity and social niceties, and it's through this theme that Blank touches on the shift in farming from small-level agrarianism to the corporate mega-farms that today dominate vegetable production. The film was made in 1980, and it's somewhat sad to see the various advocates of small, independent farming, still believing that it's possible that the corporate model might not win out.

One farmer who Blank interviews grows only a little garlic and admits that he's not a garlic fanatic, so he seems to be in the film mainly because he's the most eloquent proponent of small-scale independent farming, with everything grown organically without use of pesticides. Today, the idea seems quaint and it probably did then, too, but despite the farmer's relative disinterest in garlic Blank suggests that garlic is the ultimate symbol of this kind of do-it-yourself agrarianism. His many shots of garlic dishes being prepared emphasize the work that goes into preparing garlic: peeling it, separating the cloves from the head and often chopping them or mashing them into tiny bits. This work, this intimate hands-on connection with the stinky, messy food, is part of the pleasure of cooking and eating. Garlic thus becomes a symbol for a larger idea about resisting corporate pre-packaging, resisting the lures of ease and convenience that alienate people from the processes of farming, cooking, and even eating itself. Perhaps to reinforce this point, Blank makes the morbid joke of showing some piglets suckling at their mothers, then shortly after shows the dead pigs being sent to a restaurant and prepared. Many of the dishes being made don't do much if anything to divorce the meat from the animals that produced it: the pigs are cooked whole, as are many fish, their mouths stuffed with whole heads of garlic.

Blank, typically, is just as interested in the folk music that surrounds the food festivals where these garlic-heavy foods are prepared and served. A Spanish man shows how simple sandwiches of garlic and tomatoes nourished poor people during times of strife in his home country, then dances and sings to the accompaniment of vigorous flamenco guitar, snapping his fingers and holding aloft a wreath of garlic. Numerous other folksy bands are represented as well, their music accompanying the many scenes of Blank documenting how a particular garlic dish is prepared. Blank's willingness to divert from the film's primary subject injects his own personality, his own enthusiasm, into the work; he even opens the film with a gap-toothed woman (another of his obsessions) telling a story about how much her mother despised garlic. The woman is Irish-American and suggests that garlic isn't typically an Irish herb, but the rest of the film is pretty inclusive in documenting how different cultures and types of cuisine use garlic: in Italian and Chinese cooking, in pesto sauce, in barbeque, to stuff chicken, to cook fish or squid, or even in some cases on its own, as in the baked whole garlic head that's served at one garlic festival.

The film is often funny, and Blank seldom misses an opportunity to point out an idiosyncratic or silly detail — like all the T-shirt aphorisms about garlic or the stand at one festival selling a "pet garlic" on a leash for some unfathomable reason — but he never seems like he's mocking his subjects. Like his friend and peer Werner Herzog (who appears here speaking about his film Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, seemingly baffled as to why Blank is asking about garlic) Blank seems to enjoy enthusiasm and passion for their own sakes, and his interest in the ephemera of garlic is contagious. He spends a great deal of time simply admiring the preparation of delicious-looking garlic-heavy dishes, until the distinctive odor of cooking garlic nearly seems to waft out of the screen. But more than that Blank suggests that what we choose to eat, and how we think about food, is a big part of what defines our identity. Thus garlic becomes a symbol for independence, playfulness, love of life, and the earthy hippie values of previous generations, still then just barely hanging on. Blank's film embodies these qualities and celebrates them, finding a great deal of metaphoric complexity in a simple herb.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Paid To Love

Howard Hawks' Paid To Love is one of the director's early silent films, made before his style really crystallized during the transition to talkies. The film revolves around an utterly silly plot: the poverty-stricken imaginary kingdom of San Savona is trying to get a loan from the American banker Peter Roberts (J. Farrell MacDonald), but before it can, the King (Thomas Jefferson) must marry off his son Prince Michael (George O'Brien), who is more interested in cars than women and whose perpetual bachelorhood represents a threat to the kingdom's stability. The King and Roberts thus try to find a woman to attract Michael's attention, an "alarm clock" to wake him out of his disinterest in love and sex. After a trip to Paris, the King and Roberts locate the performer Dolores (Virginia Valli), who acts like a wild woman in Parisian bars to entertain gullible tourists, and they decide that she'll be perfect to seduce the Prince and draw his attention to the pleasures of women.

There's an obvious gay... well, it can't even be called a subtext it's so obvious. The clear implication initially is that Michael is gay: a bachelor, uninterested in women, who prefers to do guy things like fix cars and shoot at target ranges. In one early scene, he's contrasted against his cousin, the lascivious ladies' man Prince Eric (William Powell, delightful as ever even without the use of his voice). The two men enter the throne room in turn, each of them passing a pretty maid in the hallway. As each man passes, Hawks playfully inserts a closeup of the maid's legs below her skirt as she sashays past. Eric of course turns his head to look, so the closeup suggests his lecherous point of view, admiring the female beauty he sees everywhere (earlier, his face is hidden for the first few moments of his first scene by the girl who's passionately kissing him). Michael, however, seems blithely unaware of the maid and her legs, so when Hawks cuts to the closeup of the maid's legs, it's no longer a point of view shot but a reminder of what the Prince is missing as he walks by, barely looking at the maid. Michael seems totally oblivious to female charms, but naturally all it takes to change him will be a glimpse of the right woman, and immediately he'll fall in love.

The film's premise is the stuff of goofy sex comedy, but Hawks only delivers on the promise of sexy mayhem in small, concentrated bursts and some particularly effective sight gags. For the most part, the physical comedy is stiff and unfunny, and the film's pace is a little on the languid side for such a lightweight comedy. Hawks' slapstick is inert, though there are early signs of his interest in a comedy of humiliation, especially in the scene where Roberts is discomfited by his inability to straighten out his uncomfortable-looking suit for his first meeting with the royal family.

The film is at its best in the isolated moments when it displays bursts of naughty invention and sly humor. In one scene, Eric waits in hiding for Dolores, who, through some tortuously set up misunderstandings, has been seducing him instead of Prince Michael. As Dolores walks into the room, not noticing Eric sitting in the corner, she begins undressing, and Hawks keeps cutting between tantalizing glimpses of undergarments and flashes of fabric being pulled off and Eric, sitting quietly in the corner, leering and, hilariously, peeling a banana, suggestively touching its tip as he watches. It's one of those jokes so blatant in its symbolic sexuality that one can hardly believe the filmmakers dared, and those moments, though spread out thinly through this film, represent its best bits.

Hawks' style is simple and direct, though hardly static. He makes interesting use of slow pans and tracking shots, subtly suggesting connections and characters' thoughts with movements of the camera. In one scene, Dolores has arrived at Michael's home unaware that he's the man she's being paid to seduce — because, of course, the conventions of such romances require that the bad girl genuinely fall in love with the man she's planning to con. It's a rainy night and her car stalls out, and after a struggle through the mud and steep slopes outside she collapses at the Prince's doorstep. When she wakes up, she's naked in bed, a sheet draped across her body, and the camera pans around the room from her point of view, taking in the sight of her clothes strewn around the room, on the floor and draped on chairs, until finally her gaze settles on Michael. Without a hint of overt sexuality or nudity, this pan economically suggests the mental picture that's certainly running through Dolores' head at this point, of this stranger undressing her and slipping her naked body into bed.

Paid To Love represents a time when Hawks was still more or less a novice director rather than the fully formed master he'd develop into soon after the switch from silents to talkies. The mostly functional intertitles occasionally contain a wry pun or punchline, but the bulk of the film's humor is visual and physical; Hawks' gift for verbal banter couldn't really develop in text form, particularly since so many of his best later films featured torrents of words in a constant, fast-paced rush. This film isn't even as indicative of the director's future direction as the marvelous A Girl In Every Port, though there are certainly hints, here and there, of Hawks' sensibility forming even at this early point. For that, and for its moments of unsubtle sexual humor, it's worth seeing for Hawks' admirers, though the director's true breakthroughs were still several years ahead of him.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Traveler

The Traveler was one of Abbas Kiarostami's earliest features; the director himself considers it his first true feature. In a direct, pseudo-documentary style, the film chronicles the adventures of the young schoolboy Qassem (Hassan Darabi), an undisciplined kid who plots to run away to Tehran to see a big soccer match. The rough, grainy black-and-white aesthetic of the film gives it the impression of an observational documentary shot in working class neighborhoods; its schoolboy looseness and rebellious humor recall the French youth dramas of Jean Vigo and François Truffaut. Qassem is a bad kid who coasts through school, rarely paying attention in class, never doing his homework, repeatedly failing all his classes. He cares only about soccer, whether he's running around town playing pickup games with gangs of similarly rowdy kids, or splurging all his money on soccer magazines (which promptly get taken away by his teachers because he reads them in class).

His parents are ineffectual, as demonstrated in a shrilly funny scene where Qassem's mother visits the school to check up on her son and gets scolded and reprimanded by the principal for not doing enough to curb her son's lack of discipline and disinterest in school. Qassem's mother is constantly yelling at him, but he simply dodges out of the house to go play soccer; as she tells the principal, she can't read or write herself, so she's unable to help him with his work or even check that he's doing it. Kiarostami is hinting at the difficulties of developing a respect for education among working class people who are mostly uneducated. The generation gap is widened when people with no learning send their children to school, but in Qassem's case it seems that he's not likely to advance very far beyond his parents' station despite his education. If his mother is unable to do much to help, his father seems simply disinterested: his mother keeps threatening that his father will beat him for failing, but in actuality the father sits quietly, listening patiently to his wife's complaints about their son's problems, and never saying a word or doing a thing.

Class is a big part of the film. The bulk of the first half is dedicated to Qassem's attempts to scrounge up enough money for a trip to Tehran for a big soccer game. He calculates how much he'll need for a bus ticket, a ticket to the game, and some cab fare, and then starts scheming to gather the money. He outright steals a small sum from his mother, but the rest he tries to get together by selling whatever broken trinkets he can find. Kiarostami emphasizes the haggling with local shop owners, the difficulty of slowly building up a little money. In one scene, Qassem uses a broken camera — which he had earlier failed to sell — to pretend to take pictures of kids coming out of school, charging them a few cents for each photo, and planning to tell them later that the pictures didn't come out. Qassem's scheming is alternately sad and funny, and in this scene it's the latter, as the kid gets into his role, bantering with the subjects of his fake photos, calling one girl a "cutie" and joking with a mother who poses with her baby.

Qassem finally gets the money he needs by selling the soccer equipment that he and his friends had saved up for; he gets only a small fraction of the money they'd paid, but it's enough for his Tehran trip. In the second half of the film, Qassem finally makes his trip to Tehran, riding by night on a bus, its light cutting through the eerie darkness. Once there, however, he experiences nothing but further delays and problems in his quest to get into the game, waiting in a ticket line for hours only to just miss the cutoff before they stop selling tickets. He finally does get a ticket from a scalper, and enters the stadium through the rush of the crowds only to find that he's gotten there way too early and must wait for three boring hours before the game even starts. His conversation with an older fan suggests some of Qassem's alienation: he has few friends and sees himself as an outsider, a country boy who the city kids would never want to have anything to do with.

This note of melancholy infuses the broad irony of the film's ending. One of the film's final sequences is a dialogue-free, near-silent dream sequence in which Qassem imagines himself back in his hometown, suffering the punishments and disapproval of his parents and teachers, as well as the hatred of all his classmates, who he'd schemed against and cheated in order to make this trip. In one of the most striking sequences, Kiarostami holds a closeup of Qassem's face as he lays on the ground, screaming and thrashing around as the other students beat him and drag him along the ground. They're clustered all around him, their faces masks of anger, their eyes cold and staring. He sees his mother among those in the crowd observing his torment, her face hidden behind a wrap, only her eyes looking on, just as earlier she'd watched as a teacher beat the boy at her behest for stealing money from her. After the low-key humor and disarmingly casual aesthetic of the rest of the film, this dream sequence stands out for the way it suddenly externalizes all of Qassem's previously hidden insecurity and fear, the emotional turmoil churning within this disobedient, insolent kid.

The Traveler is a lovely, quietly moving film with some unexpected moments of sharp visual poetry. In one scene, Qassem looks through a camera's viewfinder at his friend as the other boy tries to convince him to sell the camera for a cheap price; the image in the viewfinder is cloudy and washed out, as though the other boy is far away rather than right next to his friend. Later, when Qassem finally gathers enough money for his trip, he celebrates by leaping onto the back of a horse-drawn carriage, sitting on the rear of the carriage as it speeds away, leaving his friend behind. Kiarostami draws the moment out into a poetic celebration of motion and speed, focusing on the horses' hooves, the look of pleasure on the boy's face, the shadow of the carriage's driver moving along the ground as the horses pull the vehicle onward. It's a crucial moment, and Kiarostami beautifully communicates the sense of freedom and accomplishment that Qassem feels at this point, finally liberated from his working class context, his disciplinarian school, his seemingly uncaring parents. This, and not the actual (and disappointing) trip to Tehran, is the real climax of the film, the real heart of Qassem's story. His youthful yearning for freedom, his desperation for something of his own, is vividly felt through Kiarostami's calm, stripped-down aesthetic.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Martin Scorsese's Italianamerican is a charmingly off-the-cuff documentary that captures the director's parents, Catherine and Charles, talking about their lives and the lives of their own immigrant parents. The film is an utter delight from start to finish, full of the wit and vitality and obvious love of talk that these people bring to their unscripted conversations about the past and the lives of Italian immigrant communities in New York. Scorsese set the film in his parents' own home, where they're totally at ease, not tempering their effusive personalities a bit for the camera. There is no artifice here, no attempt to disguise the fact that a movie is being made. In the opening scenes, Scorsese shows himself walking around the living room, then stepping behind the camera to watch his parents hash out where they're going to sit on the couch (a running gag is built around Catherine's jokes about Charles not wanting to sit too close to her). Scorsese then tries to coach his mother into giving him an introduction about the tomato sauce recipe she's going to prepare on camera. Instead, she asks him again and again what he wants her to do, and then, in a very funny moment, tells him what he should say, unable to resist acting like a mother, giving filmmaking advice to her son the director. Scorsese finally nudges her into actually demonstrating the sauce recipe, and the camera follows her into the kitchen, where she jokes about the hard meatballs of some of her friends — "you throw them against the wall and it cracks" — and then laughs abashedly, saying she shouldn't be talking that way.

Scorsese leaves it all in, letting the seams show. Later on, as he and his parents converse around the dinner table, they eat pasta and drink wine as though it's just an ordinary meal, as though the camera just happens to be there. At one point, Scorsese's hand reaches into the frame from behind the camera with a fork to pick at a bowl of salad on the table while his parents talk. It's all so casual and offhanded, adding to the atmosphere of family closeness.

The setting is perfect, too, an obviously cramped but homey apartment that, it gradually emerges through Catherine and Charles' stories about their childhoods and their early years as a couple, is actually an upgrade for them. Catherine talks about living in an even smaller apartment — only three rooms — with her parents, nine siblings and, eventually, her aunt and uncle and their child. They made the most of the space, too. Catherine talks about how they even used to make wine in her family's apartment, keeping the barrels of fermenting grapes in one of the rooms where they slept. She looks around her as she talks about this, as though imagining how they managed to fit so many people and do so much in such a small space, and a sad, wondering smile crosses her lips. It's wonderful: there are so many shots and moments here where one can see Scorsese's parents mentally returning to previous eras, their eyes shining with the reminiscences, fondly smiling as they remember how their lives used to be.

Through their funny, charming stories, there emerges a portrait of the Italian-American experience in New York, and indeed the experience of all lower-class immigrants struggling to make lives for themselves in a new land. The cramped apartments, the large families, the kids working as soon as they're old enough rather than continuing in school, the wife supplementing her husband's income with sewing, the cooking, the sense of community: it's all told with such obvious love and tenderness and joy that the hardships and struggles don't seem nearly as important as the love of life and the hard-working values of these people.

Scorsese obviously knew what he was doing in choosing his own parents as his subjects. In front of the camera, they are surprisingly loose and open, bantering and bickering with one another, laughingly ribbing one another the way only a long-married and still close couple can do. They have a real way with words, an intuitive verbal skill that makes them an absolute delight to listen to. Their stories are, in some ways, about poverty and immigrant slums, but their tone suggests only happy memories, and above all an abiding respect for the values embodied by previous generations, values that they strive to carry on in their own lives. It's a vivid portrait of this lifestyle, achieved almost entirely through their evocative words; Scorsese occasionally cuts in archival family photos, but mostly the camera remains trained on Catherine and Charles. This is a verbal movie, a movie that celebrates the art of storyelling and the personalities of the people telling the stories. Catherine and Charles represent a particular way of life, and their way of talking, their relaxed, self-confident way of being, will be familiar to anyone who has ever had parents or grandparents from similar backgrounds. They embody traditional gender roles — at one point, Charles jokes that while everyone knows men are better cooks than women, cooking is simply not the man's job — but at the same time they have great respect for each other's hard work, and they spar and joke with one another as obvious equals. The way they take turns telling stories, filling in details, occasionally stubbornly disputing one another on facts, suggests their level of comfort and familiarity with one another.

Italianamerican is a remarkable documentary that emphasizes how vital and exciting a simple, well-made film can be just by placing compelling subjects in front of the camera and letting their stories slowly emerge. The disarming casualness of the film adds to its effect, keeping the Scorseses in their own home, interacting with their own son as their son rather than as the man behind the camera. The film's brilliance could only be produced by this intimacy and familiarity. It is a truly homemade film, and a film about homes, about families, about heritage and history.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Partie de campagne

Jean Renoir apparently left Partie de campagne unfinished, but to watch the film as it exists, assembled into a 38-minute short from the footage he shot before abandoning the project, one would never guess. Based on a Guy de Maupassant story, it is a sumptuous, sensual, subtly moving film that extracts great and surprising pathos from a simple situation. The family of the bourgeois shopkeeper Dufour (André Gabriello) takes a weekend trip to the country for a picnic, a day of relaxation for the women and fishing for the men. Dufour brings along his wife (Jeanne Marken), his daughter Henriette (Syvlia Bataille), his old, deaf mother-in-law (Gabrielle Fontan), and Henriette's fiancé Anatole (Paul Temps). While there, a pair of local young men decide to seduce the women in the party, setting their sights on Sylvia and her mother, while the shopkeeper and Anatole remain oblivious, concerned only with a day of fishing.

It's a comic set-up, and Renoir plays it as such for much of the film. Anatole especially is a comic figure, an utter dunce who looks and acts like a dim-witted Stan Laurel to Dufour's blustery Oliver Hardy. Dufour is constantly lambasting his future son-in-law for his stupidity, and the young man simply cringes and whimpers and accepts the verbal beatings. He's obviously a poor match for the pretty, dignified Henriette, who's sensitive and sweet and loves the sensual pleasures of the countryside. Renoir, for his part, is clearly aligned with Henriette's wide-eyed appreciation of the world around her. Renoir's filmmaking is dazzling and intoxicating, wrapping the viewer in the sunny, warm atmosphere of a country day. As the party arrives at a small country inn and begins setting up for their picnic, Renoir cuts away from the bourgeoisie to the country folk, the innkeeper and his employees and friends, as they prepare to serve the guests. The young boatmen Henri (Georges d'Arnoux) and Rodolphe (Jacques Brunius) sit inside, eating and talking, with the more outgoing and sexually voracious Rodolphe trying to convince his friend that they should pursue a dalliance with the women among the new arrivals.

His chatter is unconvincing to Henri, who insists that his philandering days are behind him, but Rodolphe's point is made more emphatically when he throws open the window behind the two men, framing the idyllic scene outside as though it were a painting hanging on the wall. The two men in the foreground go out of focus as Renoir brilliantly frames the scene outside, a brightly lit rectangle of pure summer joy centered as a smaller frame within the film frame. Henriette and her mother swing back and forth outside, the sunlight filtering through the trees and dappling the ground with alternating spots of shadow and light. The exterior landscape is crisp and clear and invigorating in comparison to the gray fuzziness inside the inn; it's an invitation to languish in the sensual pleasures afforded by nature. Renoir's closeups of Henriette as she rides the swing are especially ravishing, as the girl smiles and laughs, her face rushing up towards the camera and towards the sky, towards the sun that beats down on her, bathing her in light.

The film meanders along in this way, lingering on scenes of beauty and peacefulness as the two young men begin their seduction against the backdrop of this natural splendor. The film is often light and funny, as the flirty, vivacious Madame Dufour instantly takes to her obvious counterpart, the predatory ladies' man Rodolphe, despite the latter's desire for the younger girl. Henriette is instead paired up with the sensitive, quiet, romantic Henri, and during a beautifully filmed boat trip, these two romances wind towards their inevitable conclusions. Henriette is especially attuned to nature, delighting in the details of life and vitality that she finds everywhere in the country. She admires a caterpillar and wonders at the richness of the tiny lives that scurry everywhere through the grass beneath her feet. Do these bugs also feel joy and sadness as people do, she wonders aloud; it is obvious that she is a girl who feels deeply and intensely, and it's hard to see what the oafish, oblivious Anatole, who virtually ignores her and wants only to go fishing, can have to offer her.

That's why, despite the film's rich humor and sensuous beauty, there's a strong undercurrent of sadness and despair running beneath its surface. Henri and Henriette spend a wonderful day on the river, as he rows her upstream towards a secluded spot where they sit together, listening to a nightingale's song, and inevitably wind up kissing amidst the reeds and tall grass. The sequence ends with a rainstorm that seems to portend the return of sadness after this brief respite of pleasure and holiday atmosphere. The wind begins to blow, shaking the trees and the reeds by the water, and the surface of the river ripples to life with tiny droplets of rain bouncing off the water, creating thousands of tiny pinprick splashes. Renoir's camera floats across the surface of the water, pulling back as though leaving this country idyll behind. This day of sunlight and celebration is over, the clouds have drifted in and the rain is falling. A title card announces that several years then pass, and that in the meantime Henriette has married Anatole.

It's possible that this sudden leap forward indicates the part of the film left unfinished, but if so the omission is only to the benefit of the film's effect. The passing over of several years of undoubted boredom and marital complacency suggests just how much was washed away by that storm, and just how fleeting the pleasure of that riverside dalliance was. After the text fills in the intervening years, Renoir returns without pause to the country river where the earlier picnic had taken place, as though no time at all had passed. The place is as beautiful as ever, and Henri still drifts along the river on his boat, but his reunion with Henriette after these missing years has a very different tone, poignant and regretful, infused with longing for what once was and might have been. It's a moving, mournful ending, cut with an undercurrent of dark humor as Henri watches his onetime lover row away, Henriette at the oars while her useless husband languishes in the boat's prow. It's the opposite of the way in which Henri once rowed her to this secluded spot to seduce her, and as he watches her row away, partially obscured by the leafy foliage overhanging the river, this last little comic touch becomes almost unbearably sad. What a wonderful, rich, warm, intelligent movie!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Record Club #3: Sam Amidon on July 25

Sam Amidon - All Is Well (2007)

The third installment of the Inexhaustible Documents Record Club has now been announced. Carson Lund of Are the Hills Going to March Off? has selected the 2007 album All Is Well by the indie/folk singer Sam Amidon. The discussion will be taking place at Carson's site on July 25, so if you're interested in participating, listen to the album a few times before then so you can join the comment section.

Previous installments of the record club are now listed in the sidebar of the Inexhaustible Documents site, and both albums selected so far have prompted lively and interesting discussions. As Carson says in his announcement, this album is likely to prompt a similarly impassioned response.

If you'd like to promote the Record Club, you can display the banner below by pasting the code onto your own blog.

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