21 July 2006

current cinema: Les Poupées russes

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starring: Romain Duris, Kelly Reilly, Audrey Tautou, Kevin Bishop, and Cécile De France
written and directed by: Cédric Klapisch
NR, 125 min, 2006, France


When last we saw Xavier, he was fresh from a year studying abroad in Barcelona and running full-speed from a cushy job with the realization that he didn’t want to spend his life as a corporate drone killing time until retirement. Instead, he wanted to be a writer who said profound things and positively affected the world around him. Five years later, his novel is unpublished, he’s ghostwriting memoirs for celebrities who “can’t put two words together” and harboring an unrequited love for his ex, Martine (Audrey Tautou). Not exactly the sort of success he envisioned, but as far as aspiring writer’s go, he’s somewhat ahead of the curve.

The first chapter in Xavier’s story, L’Auberge espagnole (2003), was essentially Friends as a European film. Needed a place to stay in Barcelona, he moves into an apartment occupied by six people from six different countries. They all become fast friends despite their differences, but when the year is over, they all lose touch. Xavier’s first novel recounted this story to us, and his next novel, Les Poupées russes, written largely in the bathroom of a train, covers the events leading up to William’s (Kevin Bishop) marriage to Natacha (Evguenya Obraztsova), a Russian dancer.

Several members of the Barcelona crew make only token appearances in Les Poupées russes, as the story largely revolves around Xavier and Wendy (Kelly Reilly), who have teamed up to write a English language sequel to a sappy French TV movie. In the process, they fall for each other, but not before Xavier, in his fractured methods of storytelling, tells us of romances with sales clerks, supermodels, and everything in-between.

Actually, it’s that fractured storytelling that elevates Les Poupées russes above the plethora of French films about young love. Xavier has a habit of writing the same scene several times, trying it out the way every writer does, and director Cédric Klapisch seems to delight in showing us as many of the drafts as he can. So, when John Edward, the French TV protagonist, runs into the always difficult situation of his lovers discovering each other, we see John Edward’s explanation. Then, we see different ones. He has a twin brother. He has amnesia. The women change. He changes. Mostly, it’s effectively played for comic effect, but later the technique proves some dramatic worth as Xavier attempts to reconcile with Wendy.

In my opinion, one of the major flaws with L’Auberge espagnole was that it had a tendency to be unfocused and trite. Klapisch had a penchant for throwing in cinematic flourishes that did little but “look cool” and served no real purpose in the film. Like many young filmmakers[1], he seemed to be in love with style over substance. Call it the Guy Ritchie influence, if you will. But this time around, Klapisch shows a much better grasp of his medium. The flourishes aren’t nearly so gimmicky. The effects, for the most part, serve to advance the story. It’s easy to see a Jean-Pierre Jeunet influence at several points, and his storytelling has moved from Ritchie toward something more like Bergman or Paul Thomas Anderson. Essentially what we’re seeing is a filmmaker mature before our very eyes.

It seems clear enough that Klapisch’s goal with the character of Xavier is to turn him into the second coming of François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel–an ambitious feat, to be sure. But what might be interesting is if he uses the rest of the Barcelona crew to branch out into their stories, to explore love through the eyes of all Europe, in a way. Regardless, the potential is there for Klapisch to have, in twenty years, series of films vaults him into the discussion of great filmmakers. The individual films themselves may not be masterpieces, but something tells me the Xavier story, seen as a whole, could become great cinema. The state of film in the world indicates that the next twenty years or so could have some interesting, character-driven multi-film sagas that serve as a wonderful contrast to Hollywood’s penchant for superhero franchises. Here’s hoping Klapisch is up to the task.

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[1] The problem being that he isn’t exactly a young filmmaker, per se. He’s old enough and smart enough to know better.

10 July 2006

shot by shot through L'Attente (part 1)

What follows is an experiment of sorts, a shot-by-shot analysis L'Attente, the short film I made earlier this year. Generally it was well-received, but I think it can be better, so I'm going shot-by-shot through it to determine where changes can be made for the better, as the writing process will help me figure out things that endlessly tweaking never could. Is the whole thing shameful self-promotion? Probably. But if I'm going to do it anyway, it may be of interest to the casual observer. It should be noted that I've never done this type of analysis before, so forgive the mistakes of a beginner. You can watch the entire film here. The stills are grabbed from the quicktime file, so may not be the best quality.

Any and all suggestions and criticisms (or gushing praise) would be greatly appreciated. Oh, and the location no longer exists, so re-shooting anything is not an option.

L'Attente

L'Attente1

00:00: Room audio comes up over the production logo with a voice that says (subtitled in French) "We are rolling...". The logo has the look of scratched film stock and is shaking a little bit.

As far as openings go, this is pretty basic. The scratches on the logo[1] give the impression the film is either set in the past or meant to invoke films of the past, but in this case it's the latter. The voice of the director is an odd choice, but is intended to establish the natural (and intentionally primitive) sound for the remainder of the film. The subtitled French tells the audience that the use of language may be different from the expected. Unless, of course, you happen to see it in France.

L'Attente2

00:05: Fade up on two people in a sparse diner. The off-camera voice says "Action", the actor in the foreground lights a cigarette, and the camera moves over to this shot:

L'Attente3

The initial camera move is intentionally pointless, as it emphasizes that the film knows it's going to be rough around the edges. First shots are full of information and quite often the most deliberate thing in the entire film, so to start with a camera move that accomplishes nothing actually accomplishes quite a bit. It increases the margin of error the audience is likely to give the camera movement later on and indicates that this is a film that perhaps isn't to be taken too seriously. The inclusion of the director's "Action" is more evidence of the same.

As for what's in the frame, we have a basic set-up: two people in a nondescript diner that could effectively be anywhere from Paris to, say, Pittsburgh[2]. There's no tell-tale signs of what's outside those windows. The characters are both wearing clothes and hair that could theoretically exist anywhere in the last 70 years. The footage is in a grainy black and white, as you'd expect from the logo and is entirely hand held. The foreground actor (our hero) is smoking and appears to be about to do something when we cut away while the other one is nearing the end of a rather large book. The ending shot tells us that our dynamic is going to exist primarily between these two characters, and that the one in the foreground is clearly our man.

L'Attente4

00:16: The credits, all scratched and shaky read (in French, no subtitles): "Montagne d'or Studios présentent//une production de d press//un filme de lucas mcnelly//avec daniel stiker/matt reed//scénario joshua edenhofer/lucas mcnelly/matt reed/stephen vesolich//dialogues lucas mcnelly/matt reed//musique le futility parade//montage et photographies lucas mcnelly//mis en scène lucas mcnelly". Then the title card with small legal info at the bottom. The titles finish with this descriptive card, which roughly translates to "This is the tale of one man's suffering for coffee and the quest for God. It could be anyone. It could be you..." A traditional French love song plays over the credits.

So, in case there was any question, we now know for sure we're watching a French film. We've got scratchy titles in french with a french love song and a title card that "explains" the setting. They read like the titles for any number of films by Godard, Truffaut, or Renoir. An observant audience member, based solely on what we've seen so far, could correctly assume that this is a film that deals with a French New Wave style and mentality, meaning we should expect some existential themes, odd editing, basic camera setups, long takes, and a general disregard for the rules and conventions of classical cinema. The film may or may not hit all (or any) of those notes, but the important thing to note is that it is invoking that spirit for a reason, for what reason is yet unknown.

In short, the film is telling us that it knows what we know and it'll probably do something with that information, and it's telling us this before we've been given anything that you'd normally associate with a plot or story. There's a reason Woody Allen famously said he can't walk into a film late.

L'Attente5

01:02: Our hero writes on a legal pad as the song fades out. He drinks some of the coffee, writes some more, finishes his drink, and looks to the right, presumably in the direction of the staff.

The longest shot in the film ironically contains the least amount of information. Nothing much happens--he finishes his coffee and plugs away at his writing--and the shot could probably stand to lose ten or twenty seconds, but other than that it accomplishes a few goals. First, the continual take with little to no action establishes a pace to the film, allowing the audience to settle into the scenario. Second, the pace and editing quickens significantly in the film's later stages, so the slow pace of the beginning serves as a contrast, a starting point from which the film can build. Third, the complete lack of dialogue (in addition to the natural sound) gets us used to the idea that dialogue won't exactly be the primary focus of the story.

L'Attente6

02:00: Seconds later, a waitress walks by him and replaces the empty mug of the reader in the background, who says, "Merci" and smiles. Our hero attempts to get her attention as she walks away.

Here it is: some "action". Our hero is ignored by the waitress. Is there a reason they guy behind him gets service and our man doesn't? Not that we can tell. The guy with the book is friendly enough, but he isn't anything special. The key bit of information here is that our hero doesn't say anything to the waitress. Not an "excuse me", not a "miss?", nothing. He tentatively looks in her direction, but takes no real action. He's too timid to do anything that may draw attention to himself.

L'Attente7

02:07: The camera quickly zooms to this shot after the waitress has left. Only slightly put out, he resumes his writing.

This is, simply, a New Wave flourish that allows us to get the camera closer to our hero. Now that he has been snubbed, he is clearly the center of our attention.

L'Attente8

02:15: We transition back to this shot via a dissolve as he's still writing.

Yet the time lapse pulls us back to this shot. The dissolve makes it clear that time has passed, but we're not sure how much. We've backed off him a bit, partly for the technical reasons, but partly because that quick close shot is meant to emphasize what's going on in his head. He's wondering, briefly, why his mug is dry. But, since it seems like a minor annoyance at the time, he goes back to his writing. As a result, we return to watching him abstractly.

L'Attente9

02:21: After a few seconds, he discretely and quietly nudges the mug a few inches over to his right.

He cannot muster whatever might be necessary to ensure the waitress fills his coffee, so he takes the passive aggressive route and hopes she might notice. Yet, he doesn't place the mug at the edge, instead opting to move it a little bit, thinking she'll maybe take the hint. Of course, this is a waitress who ignored him completely in her first visit, so the chances she'll notice are slim.

Still, he's content with his actions, so he happily goes back to his writing.

L'Attente10

02:26: He looks up again in the direction of the waitress and we begin to hear his pen tapping on the notepad. Near the end of the shot, the camera zooms out to something slightly tighter than a medium shot.

The edit has a slight jump to it, so there's likely been a small passage of time. Our writer, as is bound to happen, has hit a snag and looks up blankly for inspiration. He taps the pen in what is probably a nervous tic and remembers the coffee. Now that he's stuck, it gains more importance. A writer, plugging away without a hitch, can ignore almost anything, but that same writer looking for the right word can be sidetracked by pretty much anything--real or imagined. Here, it's the lack of a refill. The camera pulls out slightly after he looks in what we can assume is the direction of the waitress, indicating that her actions are taking him slightly out of his "zone". Inspiration is starting to slip away.

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[1] The logo itself is the work of Paul Johnson, an artist I knew in Chattanooga, TN. The name comes from a college poetry course where we had to write and self-publish a chapbook and come up with our own "publishing house". I went with d press and the name stuck when I made my first film later that year.

[2] The location is Tom's Diner in Pittsburgh, PA (the one in Dormont). For a short time this room was to be a part of the restaurant, but a couple of weeks after they finished it and before they ever used it for that purpose, it was converted into a beer store with a wide selection of micro brews.

05 July 2006

100 films: Andrey Rublyov

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starring: Anatoli Solonitsyn, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolai Sergeyev, and Nikolai Burlyayev
written by: Andrei Konchalovsky and Andrei Tarkovsky
directed by: Andrei Tarkovsky
NR, 205 min, 1969, Soviet Union


Gather round, kids, for a three hour Tarkovsky film about the life and times of Russia's greatest iconographer, Andrey Rublyov (Anatoli Solonitsyn), famed painter of the icons in the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow, the Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir, and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Subtitled The Passion of Andrey, Tarkovsky's film uses the historical figure of Rublyov to explore the various conditions of a life in 15th century Russia, from a man hoping to fly in a hot-air balloon, to the creative process of a iconographer, to the machinations of casting a bell for a church steeple.

The Soviet Union, unimpressed with the film's religious themes, refused to allow an official release of Andrey Rublyov[1]. Most of the film's main characters are of a monastic tradition and prone to long diatribes concerning moral virtue and full of passages of Scripture, but it's clear that film isn't endorsing a religious tradition, not does it seem to be condemning it. Rather, Tarkovsky seems interested in presenting his monks with challenges to their faith, to test it by fire. En route to a commission, Rublyov encounters a pagan ceremony celebrating the virtues of love. He chastises them for their immorality, an act which gets him tied up against timbers that form the shape of a cross, and is subsequently seduced by a nude Marfa (N. Snegina) after his preaching proves ineffective. He resists, maintaining his virtue, but the encounter (along with the attack of the pagans by the army the next day) stirs something deep inside Rublyov that forces him to the motives behind his work. He delays the commissioned painting of the Last Judgment by two months while he attempts to reconcile his beliefs with his interaction with the pagans and when he finally does complete the painting, only to see the Tartans attack and burn it to the ground, he kills a man. The entire event is traumatic enough to cause Rublyov to swear off painting.

Later, after the plague has done a good deal of damage to the populace, the Prince sends for a bell maker, but the only one remaining is Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev), a mere child who claims his father told him the secret of bell-making on his deathbed. Unlike his father, Boriska rules the workers with an iron fist. Suddenly flush with power, he allows it to go to his head, demanding more silver from the Prince and not permitting any step of the process to move forward without him. He's in over his head and his response is to attempt to control everything, to feel vital to the task at hand as a means for masking his own shortcomings. Rublyov watches all of this with interest, recognizing perhaps the youthful arrogance of his own artistic endeavors.

Being a Tarkovsky film, Andrey Rublyov alternates between scenes where a great deal happens--long, complicated stretches that are littered with meaning, yet obtuse--and scenes where nothing much happens at all. For most western audiences, this requires some amount of adjustment, and even then the film is difficult to understand at best. It's a work best experienced by multiple viewings, but the inherent difficulty in a single viewing makes for a steep learning curve. All that is to say that I'm still not entirely sure what Andrey Rublyov is exactly. The only thing I know with any certainty is that numerous scenes were undeniably brilliant. Beyond that, all I can speak about with any authority is what I took from the experience.

You could easily make the argument that much of Andrey Rublyov is a metaphor for the filmmaking process, but such a statement probably diminishes it, as the film is just too dense and littered with meaning to be simplified so easily. Clearly, Tarkovsky is working in metaphors here, but he's also shining a light on what it meant to be a Russian in the fifteenth century in a world where religion dominated every aspect of society, where a jester could be imprisoned for the smallest infraction but a iconographer could delay for months under various pretenses. Ultimately, though, I think much of Andrey Rublyov boils down to the struggle to create something, to use that God-given talent to the best of your ability, and failing any actual talent, doing what you can to create something lasting. It's interesting to note that Rublyov, who has the most talent of anyone in the film, is the one least concerned with how people perceive him. Boriska wants desperately to be respected, as does Kirill (Ivan Lapikov), one of the other iconographers, but Rublyov seems to care mostly about his artistic process, about painting what he wishes to paint, regardless of what some Prince has commissioned. Is that really just Tarkovsky taking a stab at the Soviet political machine? Probably, but I imagine there's a lot more going on as well. The thing about Tarkovsky is you can never really be sure.

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[1] The film was offensive enough (thanks to the violence and nudity and the horse killed on-screen) outside of Russian borders to ensure that by the time it reached the United States it had lost roughly an hour from the original runtime. Tarkovsky's original cut (or, as close as anyone can get) was secretly preserved under a bed.
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