Monday, October 30, 2017

#612: Boudu Saved from Drowning

Directed by: JEAN RENOIR
1932, TSPDT Rank #555

Boudu Saved from Drowning, one of Jean Renoir's early sound films, shows the master French director at his most anarchic. He is aided in his all-out skewering of 1930s French bourgeoisie by Michel Simon, the larger than life actor who most modern cinephiles will know best as Père Jules in Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, as well as the humiliated painter Maurice Legrand in Renoir's second sound film, La chienne. In this film, Simon is Boudu, a shambling wreck of a tramp who is rescued from attempted suicide by a middle-class bookseller named named Lestingois. But instead of being grateful to his savior and benefactor, Boudu scorns Lestingois' condescending hospitality and wreaks havoc upon his home in a satirical farce which leaves none of its characters unscathed.

A notoriously difficult actor to work with, Simon once stated that Renoir was one of only three directors that understood him (the other two being Jean Vigo and Sacha Guitry). Boudu was clearly an equal collaboration between the two - Simon created the singular title character (with large doses of inspiration taken from his own personality) and Renoir contributed the poetic visuals and light narrative flow, which dull the edges of the film's razor-sharp satire somewhat... at least for modern audiences. Contemporary French audiences were less subdued by the finer points of Renoir's craft, becoming so scandalized by Boudu's complete disregard for bourgeois order that the police were called in to shut the film down within three days of its premiere.

While Boudu may have lost the incendiary power that it once had, it still gives viewers today a unique glimpse of Michel Simon firing on all cylinders and Jean Renoir beginning to demonstrate his mastery within the sound medium. It's a buoyant and enjoyable film, even if Renoir doesn't give us any easy answers about the characters and their moral standing - instead rendering conventional morality meaningless and encouraging us as viewers to find our way without it.

#611: East of Eden

Directed by: ELIA KAZAN
1955, TSPDT Rank #544

East of Eden is an ambitious Hollywood adaptation of John Steinbeck's career-defining novel about a conflict between fathers and sons which unfolds across multiple generations. Elia Kazan's film adaptation only tackles roughly the final third of the novel, which diminishes the story's scope but allows Kazan to evoke a melodramatic effect out of some of the novel's more minute details instead of attempting to capture the entire narrative arc of Steinbeck's novel. However, the introduction of James Dean in his first starring role has made this film almost as legendary as the novel.

Dean is extremely expressive throughout the film, both physically and emotionally, becoming a sort of walking id exploding into the often predictable world of 1950s Hollywood. Most people who comment on this film see Dean's presence in the film as being overpowering and out of control. But his performance can also be seen as the cinematic equivalent of Elvis Presley's infamous performance on The Ed Sullivan Show - an uninhibited and infectious clarion call signaling the dawning of a new era. Without him, the film might have risked becoming an above-average melodrama with a cast of well-trained actors, but with Dean in the lead role, it became a flawed but powerful suggestion of what screen acting could be. He brought submerged feelings to the surface and used Hollywood sets as a platform for the exorcism of personal demons. It's a startling performance, but one which rings true nevertheless. Dean would refine his abilities in his next two films (Rebel Without a Cause and Giant), but East of Eden allows viewers today to see the raw, unpolished potential that he exhibited in his first major film role.

Monday, October 23, 2017

#610: Pépé le moko

Directed by: JEAN DUVIVIER
1937, TSPDT Rank #990

Pépé le moko is probably one of the most influential films of the 1930s. In Hollywood, it inspired a shot-by-shot remake called Algiers, which starred Charles Boyer in the iconic role played here by Jean Gabin, as well as Hedy Lamarr in a star-making role. Years later, Warner Bros. adapted the story yet again into the screenplay that became Casablanca - one of the most famous romantic films of all time. But Pépé le moko's influence extends far beyond these obvious remakes, as it helped to create the distinctive style which would later be adapted by Hollywood and eventually become known as film noir. The ominous use of light and shadow, the colorful cast of low-lifes, the cynical slang language, and the world-weary criminal who finds his downfall in a romance with an unattainable woman - all of these elements would become familiar features of many a film noir, but they were first crystallized here.

Of course, this is also the film that secured Jean Gabin's status as the foremost icon of prewar French cinema. As Pépé, he is both stylish and brutish, witty and cruel, usually unsentimental but hopelessly nostalgic for earlier days in the streets of Paris. His performance is both simple and evocative - a template for many similar characters in countless later films. It's also a timeless portrayal of French ideals of masculinity and romance, which ironically became essential American values in the films noirs of the 1940s and '50s. So while Pépé le moko may not be the artistic equal of other French films of the era by the likes of Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo and Marcel Carné, it may be more culturally significant than any of those films, as the film which simultaneously defines both prewar French cinema and the roots of Hollywood film noir.

#609: Accattone

Directed by: PIER PAOLO PASOLINI
1961, TSPDT Rank #540

Accattone - a born thief and a reluctant pimp - is the low-life character who provides the focus for Pier Paolo Pasolini's bold debut feature as a director. Right out of the gates Pasolini's directorial vision was one of unvarnished beauty and originality. He alternates sweeping panoramic shots of his characters alone in a variety of wide open spaces (city streets, barren fields, courtyards) with closer handheld shots of the characters walking together. The style is striking and poetic, elevating a story would seem to be prime neorealist material into something that's closer to baroque tragedy (aided by the melancholy strains of Bach throughout the film).

Pasolini's affection for characters living on the margins of society is apparent here - as the film progresses we begin to feel a strange sort of detached sympathy for Accattone, a character that steals from the helpless (including his young son), cheats his low-life friends, and exploits a small number of helpless women in order to eat. Our sympathy for Accattone is seemingly derived from his inevitable downfall (which a group of his so-called friends constantly predicts in the manner of a Greek chorus) and the debilitating pangs of conscience which haunt him. In Pasolini's hands, he is almost a martyred figure - someone who will never be able to fit into society, his own vision of a good life, or be worthy of a place in heaven. This hard-edged outlook on modern life is tempered by Pasolini's love of classical form and style, resulting in a film which may have been born from the ashes of neorealism, but which ended up signaling the emergence of a new kind of Italian cinema.

Friday, September 29, 2017

#608: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring

Directed by: KI-DUK KIM
2003, TSPDT Rank #887

Ki-Duk Kim is one of the most controversial directors to emerge from South Korea in recent years, making his mark in the early 2000s with a run of disturbing films about cruelty and violence such as Bad Guy and The Isle. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring was an oddity among this group of films, winning international acclaim and festival awards for its apparently simple tale of a Buddhist monks' journey from childhood to adulthood and, eventually, spiritual mastery.

However, there are a number of disturbing themes in this film as well, which are sometimes masked by the beautiful cinematography of a floating temple and the surrounding forested valley which serve as the film's only settings. In fact, the film's seasonal structure suggests that human nature is cyclical, as well as inherently cruel and violent, even when carefully fostered in a peaceful environment of piety and isolation. The young apprentice tortures animals in the first part of the film, eventually giving in to the temptations of lust and murder, and although he is eventually able to purify his soul through elaborate rituals of self-punishment, his own apprentice is later seen to have inherited the same cruel impulses as he once had (although the versions of the film shown in Western countries only hint at scenes of animal cruelty cut from the original Korean version of the film).

Those who found spiritual solace in the film may have missed the harsh undertones hidden beneath the film's serene and beautiful surface. Kim doesn't take Buddhism literally here (he was raised Christian), instead using it as a symbolic framework for a meditative and disquieting examination of human nature and making many of the films' rituals up himself as a sly inversion of Buddhist teachings. The film has proved successful in the West as an exotic Asian import, but it may take more time for the film's true meaning to be grasped by a wider audience.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

#607: Performance

Directed by: NICOLAS ROEG & DONALD CAMMELL
1970, TSPDT Rank #178

Nicolas Roeg made his directorial debut with this mind-bending psychological thriller, together with his co-director Donald Cammell, who wrote the script, while Roeg took charge of the film's cinematography. As such, the credit for this film, especially its complex themes of identity and the repercussions of performance, should go as much to Cammell as to Roeg, although the fact that Roeg went on to have a much more notable directorial career (with much of his work building upon this film) has led him to be given most of the retrospective credit for it.

Certainly, the stylistic make-up of this film was unlike anything that came before it, which is likely Roeg's doing. He employed audacious cross-cutting throughout the film, while using primitive visual effects to convey abstract psychological themes in a very uncanny way. The presence of Mick Jagger and Stones girlfriend Anita Pallenberg also elevate the film, giving it a dose of rock 'n' roll energy and wild-side flair that conventional British actors wouldn't have been able to convey. Jagger's musical performance in the film isn't all that spectacular, but it performs an important narrative function and allows Roeg and Cammell to make proper use of their famed star.

The other music in the film, provided by Jack Nitzsche, Randy Newman, and others, is uniformly excellent - giving the film a unique, earthy feel which complements its groundbreaking visual style. This unusual confluence of elements has made Performance a veritable cult classic, but Roeg and Cammell probably also deserve a fair amount of credit for liberating films from the burden of linear, reality-based narratives. While others, such as Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni, had tread this ground before, Roeg and Cammell did it here in a particularly arresting and immediate way, resulting in an uncanny film that has influenced many of the most adventurous filmmakers of the past few decades, while continuing to confound expectations today.

#606: The Green Ray

Directed by: ERIC ROHMER
1986, TSPDT Rank #350

Eric Rohmer was a master at exploring the minutiae of human nature, the tiny details within his characters' interactions that hint at some hidden truth not usually discussed or even acknowledged. In The Green Ray, Rohmer eases the viewer into a character study of Delphine, a lonely young woman who finds the prospect of summer vacation unbearable, as she has no one to share it with. At first she just seems indecisive and flighty, but eventually we realize that it's something deeper. She leaves Paris to three different vacation spots, and each time finds herself alone with nature - not comforted, but instead made even more aware of her isolation. These quiet scenes are the most powerful moments in the film: the frame becomes filled with rich greens and blues, and Delphine's inner feelings can be sensed as she moves through the beautiful landscapes in a somber recognition of her empty emotional state.

But Rohmer chooses these moments carefully, never wallowing in them or forcing them upon the audience. Instead, the effect is subtle and fleeting, and the viewer is otherwise given plenty of occasions to watch Delphine in various attempts at social interaction, searching for something to hold on to, attempting to make connections with those around her. Then, Delphine overhears a discussion of Jules Verne's novel The Green Ray, and the rare light effect to which the novel (and the film) owes its title to. This phenomenon is never fully explained, acting as a mysterious force as the film moves towards its conclusion.

While the conclusion is abrupt and ambiguous, it gives the film the feeling of a parable, from which the viewer is meant to draw their own conclusions. Was there value in Delphine's journey, or was it all merely a random series of disappointments followed by an equally random moment of satisfaction? Is there hope in the film's final scene, or is it merely a mirage, to be followed by more misery? Rohmer doesn't answer these questions, leaving the viewer with a feeling that Delphine's journey is only just beginning, and that there's no real resolution in life - only a collection of fleeting moments that we must attempt to make sense of in retrospect.