22 August 2006

100 films: Un homme et une femme

a man and a woman

starring: Anouk Aimée, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Pierre Barouh, and Valérie Lagrange
written by: Pierre Uytterhoeven & Claude Lelouch
directed by: Claude Lelouch
NR, 102 min, 1966, France

A chance encounter leads to a tentative romance in Claude Lelouch's Academy Award winning[1] Un homme et une femme, a sublime exploration of a love between two people with enough emotional baggage and personal demons to inhibit their chances at happiness. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Jean-Louis Duroc, a semi-famous race car driver, who by chance meets Anne Gauthier (Anouk Aimée) at the Deauville boarding school both of their children attend, and offers her a ride back to Paris. They are each single parents coping with the tragic deaths of their spouses, although in their initial meeting, Anne gives the impression that her husband (Pierre Barouh)--a movie stunt man--is still very much alive.

Jean-Louis arrives at the truth quickly enough to offer Anne a ride back to Deauville the following weekend, where they and the children go on a double date of dinner and a boat ride. Thus begins the process by which they fall in love, slowly and organically, through held gazes and lingering hands. And whereas many films would make the jump from the dinner table to the bedroom, Lelouch expands on the flirtation, delaying the payoff and layering the relationship with his character's backstories, the means by which they've come to this place. He shows us the untimely death of Anne's husband and the suicide of Jean-Louis' wife after a particularly gruesome crash, but more importantly he shows us a long montage of Anne and her husband completely and totally in love, accompanied by the enchanting sounds of Barouh singing "Samba Saravan"[2]. At first it seems like an indulgent flourish by Lelouch that takes the audience away from the romance on screen by showing in detail a past love, but it later gains more resonance as Jean-Louis and Anne grow increasingly closer and Anne attempts to rationalize this move away from a man she loved so dearly, even if he is long dead.

All this culminates in the famous scene where after Jean-Louis successfully completes the grueling Monte Carlo Rally, Anne telegraphs him from Paris to tell him, finally, that she loves him. Without delay, Jean-Louis jumps back in the same car he's driven across Europe and speeds toward Paris, telling himself that when a woman sends a telegraph like that, you go to her no matter what, even if that means driving thousands of miles without rest. He reaches her, and they make love for the first time, but as they are, Lelouch cuts to images of Anne and her husband, indicating that while her body is with Jean-Louis, her mind is still devoted to someone else. She's even still wearing his ring. Eventually, Jean-Louis figures out that he's effectively making love by himself and they go their separate ways. It is at the same time bittersweet and beautiful.

The story of Un homme et une femme is an endlessly fascinating one, made all the more interesting by Claude Lelouch's narrative choices. At numerous points, he eschews dialogue in favor of flashbacks, montages, music, and race commentary. This accomplishes several goals (in addition to making the film more financially feasible). It allows the audience to more easily project themselves into the characters, as an image of two people talking with music replacing the dialogue draws us into the interaction between the characters, rather than distracting us by what they're saying. We naturally assume that what they're saying to each other is similar to what we would say in that situation. As a result, we become more invested in the relationship. It also gives the film the feel of a fairy tale romance, thanks in large part to the enchanting score of Francis Lai and Baden Powell. Take, for example, the scene at the Monte Carlo Sporting Club where Jean-Louis receives the telegraph. Lelouch puts a camera on a balcony and films it in an uninterrupted long shot as Jean-Louis reads the message, excuses himself from the table, and leaves the ballroom. We hear none of this, but it's clear enough that's what he's doing. Most directors would have either cut to closer shots and given us the dialogue or eliminated the scene altogether, but neither choice would have been as effective. It's a vital part of Jean-Louis' character arc that he leave immediately, and the uninterrupted shots convey that perfectly, but it's also unnecessary that we hear what he says. In fact, it's better that we don't. Lelouch's choice is a perfect balance.

The more celebrated choice of Un homme et une femme is the mixture of scenes shot in color with those shot in black and white. Much has been written about what Lelouch meant to convey with this device, whether the black and white serves as quotation marks or the color is meant to be a somewhat different version of reality or some such thing. The answer, however, is almost disappointingly simple. The budget for Un homme et une femme was not large enough to film the entire thing in color, but the potentially lucrative American market required color and an investor was willing to supply more money to the project if the film could play the American market. So, Lelouch filmed his interiors in black and white, as planned, and used color for the exteriors. The compromise is a practical one that people have been reading into since the film was released, and may have been a factor in Lelouch's Best Director nomination. It'll surprise no one to hear that the mixture has influenced many a filmmaker since, but had the project been able to raise more funds, it wouldn't have even existed. And for that, we're all thankful.

[1] Winner of Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Anouk Aimée) and Best Director.

[2] The music itself is composed by Baden Powell, with lyrics by Vinicius de Morais. I haven't a clue who either of them are, and I don't care enough to look it up.

16 August 2006

Fishin' in Maine (a wicked long trip report)

With lots of pictures!

Last year, my roommate Josh and my buddy Nate accompanied me on a fishing trip to Maine where we spent a great deal of time in the woods, hung out at the Lobster Festival, and generally had a good time. So, the plan became to do the same thing this year, only Nate had to drop out roughly 2 weeks prior and Josh pinched a nerve in his neck, like so:

So I was on my own, and realizing that I wasn't in the mood to stay in Pittsburgh when I could be fishing, and since I'd recently given my car to charity, I decided my best course of action was to rent a car and ignore the costs. So that's what I did, handing Enterprise my credit card and heading east on that beautiful highway

a camera and a pile of CD's at my side and doing my best Neal Cassidy

Naturally, one of the most important parts of a solo road trip is the music selection. You have to strike that balance between songs that reflect the "zen of the road" and songs that basically help you drive faster. Personally, I like to accomplish the former with stuff like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson ("On the Road Again" is mandatory), Wilco, the Jayhawks, Red House Painters, and My Morning Jacket--stuff that you can almost zone out to and just drive, getting lost inside the experience. But, a steady diet of that is no good, as you may fall asleep, so I like to alternate that with Arcade Fire, the Danielson Famile, Architecture in Helsinki, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, Broken Social Scene, and other such stuff.

With that in mind, I flew across Pennsylvania, making very good time in some sort of Chevy that seemed to be getting very good gas mileage. For the bulk of PA and NY, I dodged apocalyptic skies that constantly seemed like I was about to drive into "end of the world" weather, but somehow I avoided it all--a lucky bit of karma, I suppose--and hit my first real stop of Foxwoods in roughly nine hours.

This was my first trip to Foxwoods since they opened the new poker room, which is quite impressive. My first game--10/20 Hold 'Em--broke after a half hour, so I sat at 5/10 until a seat opened, where I then proceeded to play for 14 hours and left the next morning somewhat tired.

Not being smart enough to sleep for an hour in the Foxwoods parking garage, I got back on the road, only to have to sit in traffic for a half hour while the police cleaned up an accident. It quickly occurred to me that I was exhausted, so I stopped at a Starbucks and told them to "give me the drink with the most caffeine possible, regardless of how bad it may taste." That did the trick, and I was soon in New Hampshire, where in line for a toll booth I saw this car:

followed quickly by the most embarrassing sign on road for us Mainers:

An entire state reduced to one lane. Sigh.

It being summer, there were many more cars wanting to enter the state than leave it (this is reversed in the winter):

But I was soon over the bridge and into the Pine Tree State.

I drove home and collapsed on my parent's couch. The next day I went to my family reunion for the first time in maybe 10 years, and since very few people showed up, I fell asleep on a blanket and got burned to a crisp. But enough of that. Monday morning I headed north toward Aroostook County and my family's hunting camp deep in the woods, picking up my childhood friend Ben along the way. We drove in off the interstate to the quaint little camp built near a brook full of trout.

The camp has no running water or electricity and has been there for at least 40 years.

It operates as a quiet place where you can really unwind. A place where your major concerns are deciding when and where you want to fish, what type of beer you want to drink next, what time to eat, and how it might be possible to do all those things without getting up from your chair. It's a rough life.

We spent the first evening doing exactly that, downing a couple of beers each and cooking some chicken breasts over the fire. Here my buddy Ben works on building the fire:

The next morning we fished down the brook a bit. I caught 2 nice trout and a bunch I had to throw back and Ben drowned some worms and let some fish go.

But sadly all good things must come to an end and the third day we had to head back so Ben could attend to a family crisis situation. Not to be deterred, I went back to my hometown of Waldoboro, which is big enough to have it's own Information Center[1],

and got the keys to my parent's summer camp, so that I might resume my vacation in peace.

The camp is still under construction and should be a modest little place on an inlet to some lake who's name I can't remember.

I spent a couple of days there doing a little bit of writing, some kayaking around (I'd never done that before, and highly recommend it), listened to Red Sox games on the radio, accidentally caught a 14 inch bass while messing around with a fishing pole, and drank the Lobster Ale and Blueberry Wine I found in Waldoboro's new high(ish) class wine store.

As the week drew to an end, I got back in the car and headed west.

I saw no films and spent no time on the internet and pretty much did nothing all day, every day. We all need to do that from time to time, though, in order to keep our sanity.

Oh, and as I approached Pittsburgh, my brother called to tell me he had just gotten engaged mere hours after I'd last seen him. So now I can drink to that.

[1] Yeah, that's the sum total of the Information Center. Waldoboro is also the home to the somewhat famous Moody's Diner, where I worked during my formative years.

11 August 2006

current cinema: A Scanner Darkly

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starring: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane, and Woody Harrelson
written by: Richard Linklater, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick
directed by: Richard Linklater
R, 100 min, 2006, USA

The secret to a successful viewing of Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly is not to put yourself in a drug-addled state, regardless of how many other benefits that may have, nor is it to ready yourself for another one of Keanu Reeves' sci-fi films or to listen to the new Thom Yorke album on repeat or read as much Philip K. Dick as you can get your hands on. The secret is to get used to the animation as quickly as possible.

The entire film, as I'm sure you've heard, was done using rotoscoping, a technique by which animators draw over live-action footage--one frame at a time. The result is a surreal image that allows for whimsical flourishes, a cheap and effective way to alter what's on-screen, and some cool special effects. It's the same process Linklater used to great effect in Waking Life (2001), his trippy rumination on dreams.

Waking Life was the first feature film done entirely with rotoscoping, and while the images were at times spectacular, they were also crude--a natural result of any emerging technology. The intervening years have allowed rotoscoping guru Bob Sabiston to refine his art form and what he's produced in A Scanner Darkly is an animation that looks cartoonish, yet at the same time feels more real than some of the live-action films you'll see this summer. Gone is the feeling in Waking Life of a protagonist floating through life, replaced by the feeling that what you're seeing is life altered by a couple of degrees. Such is the potential of rotoscoping that I imagine Sabiston could achieve both these effects using the same core footage.[1]

And just as the animation served a narrative purpose in Waking Life, here Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is a few clicks off his equilibrium in large part thanks to Substance D, a designer drug that, among other things, promotes paranoia. Arctor, along with his friends (Rory Cochrane, Robert Downey, Jr., and Woody Harrelson) is addicted to D, yet his job is part of a task force investigating whether Arctor is dealing D out of his house. All this is possible because the task force wears scramble suits to protect their identities. The suits, which project an ever-rotating litany of identities, make it impossible to determine who someone is. They also give the animation a chance to shine, working in ways that live action coupled with CGI never could.

The plot falters, as most futuristic films do, when attempting to provide some historical context and "feel" like the future. And while Linklater wisely downplays that angle, there's still the nagging sense of a story about the future written in the past[2], complete with all the projections of what the future entails. Sure, there are no flying cars and Linklater keeps the story grounded in the present-day as much as possible, but the feeling is still there, hovering in the background. If it sounds like I'm nit-picking, it's because there's something about A Scanner Darkly that just misses the intended mark and my best guess is that the problem lies somewhere in the source material. Having not read the source material, I can't be sure what that problem is exactly. I can only make rough assumptions. It's just that the majority of the problems in A Scanner Darkly are problems with story--the ending, for example, is a little too convenient--and we've seen enough of Linklater's storytelling to know that what doesn't work here isn't found in his other films. It feels like it comes from a different world-view. Ergo, it's probably from the novel.

For the most part the actors do a serviceable job, even if they appear at times unsure how to play a scene that'll later be animated. Reeves, in particular, seems to be compensating in places, and Robert Downey, Jr. plays his character with a full-fledged abandon that occasionally goes too far, but his portrayal of paranoia is as good as you'll find in film. Likewise, Rory Cochrane gives a very good performance as a man deeply addicted and struggling with demons that may or may not be real.

But in a film like this, nothing's actually "real". Everything is limited, in one way or another by perception--by what we think we see, by what everyone else thinks they see, and what the scanner sees. For these characters, though, what's most important, or at least of the most immediate concern, is what they think the scanners see. Such is the curse of paranoia.

[1] It should be noted that Sabiston was replaced during production due to issues surrounding the amount of time it was taking for the animation to be completed. Still, the ideas and software are his.

[2] 1977, to be exact.

10 August 2006

5 things that may or may not be about avant-garde cinema


I'm far, far behind in my entry for the acclaimed Avant-garde Blog-a-Thon, which you can learn about here. My internet's been out of commission for the past week, so I'm just now getting back on-line.

Anyway, I'm not exactly an Avant-garde expert, but I like to participate, so here goes. My method is simple. I did a tiny bit of research. Then, I went fishing in Maine for a week and wrote the bulk of what you'll see below. When I got back to civilization, I checked for spelling and accuracy and finished it up. So, there's a large element of flying blind, but hopefully it'll be interesting all the same. And if it isn't, I'll claim that I misread it, and that instead of writing about Avant-garde cinema, I wrote an Avant-garde blog entry about cinema. Or something.

Quick note: uses of the words "weird" and "normal" and the like aren't intended to be derogatory. It's meant to reflect what someone who knows virtually nothing about the cinema arts would think of something.

1. How Jean-Pierre Jeunet did a film involving the avant-garde without once being "weird".

The Googlist in me, when beginning to formulate an entry for the Avant-garde Blog-a-Thon, turns first to his favorite search engine for information on the topic at hand, so as to not look like a damn fool on the worldwide web. In doing so, I learn that the term itself derives from the French for vanguard, which is "a small troop of highly skilled soldiers, explores [sic] the terrain ahead of a large advancing army and plots a course for the army to follow."[1] This sort of tidbit, while only slightly helpful in real life, is pure gold for a Googlist, as it is at the same time obscure, pretentious, and interesting.

But in applying the information, my mind jumps not to an examination of how this relates to the art form itself, but to a French war film, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Un long dimanche de fiançailles (2004). The film takes place during WWI when Audrey Tautou's one true love goes off to war and is later assumed dead--news that everyone accepts as true except Tautou, who believes deep down her love is alive. The whole thing is romantic and melodramatic and a bit sappy in places, but the battle scenes border on brilliant. Jeunet uses the same stylistic flourishes that were cute in Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (2001) and finds a way to make them show the horrors of war.

The film itself is somewhat underrated on this side of the Atlantic, if for no other reason than the simple fact that it isn't Amélie. It is, however, a perfectly enjoyable way to spend two hours, assuming that you're the type that finds two hours of subtitles enjoyable (and if you're reading an entry in an Avant-garde Blog-a-Thon, that's a pretty safe bet.) It isn't avant-garde in any real sense (other than a historical one), but these are the fractured paths my brain takes.

2. The time my French film was the only "normal" thing playing.


I'll admit that my experiences with avant-garde cinema is limited. I reviewed Chelovek s kino-apparatom (1929), which I found fascinating, and I have a copy of Koyaanisqatsi (1983) somewhere in my apartment that I haven't yet watched. The only other purely avant-garde cinema I've seen that I can pinpoint[2] is local works that have shown at functions I've attended.

And as someone who fully supports all local art, let me just say this: it's been pretty much terrible. But what you have to realize is that virtually all local art--mine included--is terrible. If I see twenty plays in a year and more than three are pretty good, then that's a great year in local theatre. Hell, I've pulled out my iPod during plays. Most local films are only tolerable if you know the people involved or are drinking heavily. Local music is better, but that just may be that I'm biased toward singer-songwriters. The best local films are ones I can watch more than five times without being bored out of my mind, and none of them have been avant-garde. One was somewhat experimental--Rue Snider's The Bar is a Beautiful Place, but it had some really good music.

The two avant-garde pieces that stick out were the ones that accompanied my films in the February 2006 Film Kitchen[3]. One of them consisted of three 30-second that were meant to show alongside a performance artist. There was a popcorn kernel popping and a quarter spinning and something else, each given the evocative title, Untitled. They looked cool enough and they were well done, but they didn't accomplish anything. They served no purpose whatsoever. They were just, "artistic". Horay.

The other film on display was a mixture of low-grade film and video footage from this guy's trip to Africa to attend a wedding. There was very little editing, just a bunch of footage from this guy's trip, essentially the sort of home movie someone would take of their trip to North Carolina. Where the footage was interesting was mostly in a National Geographic sense, where we were able to learn something about the customs and rituals of this wedding, but other than that small bit of info, it was awful. Just an endless stream of boring raw footage, done with little to no purpose or direction.

But that's not why I bring this event up. He also showed a much shorter, "finished" film that was clearly aiming for the avant-garde. It closed with a 30-second shot of an insect crawling out of a small circle of pebbles--by far the most interesting 30 seconds of all his footage. Afterward, someone in the audience asked him about the significance of the shot, assuming that it must have some meaning, but the guy just shrugged his shoulders and said, "I thought it would look cool." And therein lies my problem with the bulk of the second-tier avant-garde cinema: I can't shake the feeling that most of it exists purely to "look cool", which is about as self-indulgent as a filmmaker can be. If the goal isn't to experiment, to attempt to advance at least the filmmaker's skill, then some consideration should be given toward the audience. But, too often (and this is also a problem with second-tier narrative films, but to a lesser extent) what we're watching is either art for art's sake or something that looks cool. Either way, they're made for an audience of one. And if that's the goal, to do stuff you think is fun, then by all means, go for it. But if you're going to be showing it in front of an audience, then you have to try and consider what they might enjoy. Otherwise, you're like those people who show you two hours of their summer vacation, nearly all of which is their kids running around on the beach. No one wants to see that.

3. Joe Castiglione as background music.

Being a narrative guy, I tend to view the avant-garde in light of how it might come to serve the methods of storytelling. Sure, it's interesting when Luis Buñuel cuts an eye, but what does that really do? Can we use it to advance our common film language? Does it show us a new method to be used in other ways? Maybe. I don't know that without the Buñuel film Kieslowski thinks to use those haunting shots of Juliet Binoche's eyes in Trois couleurs: Bleu (1993) or that J.J. Abrams uses the close-up of an eye to open the pilot episode of Lost. It's impossible to tell, really.

But what interests me most about the avant-garde (which, yes, I need to explore more than I have) is when it's used for dramatic effect in a "normal" film, often in ways we never notice. And for that, I submit for your approval Todd Field's use of Red Sox radio broadcasts as ambient noise in In the Bedroom (2001).

There's been a great number of films set in the great state of Maine, but few (if any) have been smart enough to use Red Sox broadcasts as background noise nearly as effectively as Field did with his expert portrayal of murder in a small Maine town. Part of it, I suspect, is that it's easier to just use normal music. But as anyone who's spent as much as a week in midcoast Maine in the summer can tell you, the familiar voices of Joe Castiglione and Jerry Trupiano are as much a part of the atmosphere as pine trees, ocean breezes, and the accent. Those games, formerly broadcast on Coast 102.5, could be heard nearly everywhere you went. Whenever I'm back in Maine, it's one of the first things I listen for, it's one of those things that never go away, one of those things you don't realize until you're gone. Yet, you almost never hear them on film. Why?

The simple answer (and probably the most accurate) is that conventional film wisdom says that something like a baseball broadcast can distract from the action in the scene. Yet, in some of the tensest scenes, Field has that radio going, letting Joe and Jerry fill the space like they do all so often. It isn't a distraction at all. Instead, it keeps the film grounded in a tranquil reality, even as people are held at gunpoint. There's something about baseball on the radio that has a calming, almost therapeutic effect, as anyone who's listened to Vin Scully will tell you.

Consider that Tom Wilkinson's character, while in the process of avenging his son's death and "solving" the problem of the killer being out on bail, tells him to turn on the radio and find the game. Is he that devoted a member of Red Sox Nation that he absolutely has to know the score? Of course not. He's nervous as hell and looking for something, anything, to take his mind off what he's doing. So they listen to the game and let all that tension just sit there between them. Few directors would let them do that.

4. How Buster Keaton, Francis Ford Coppola, and Richard Linklater are more avant-garde than anyone will admit.


If the real goal of avant-garde cinema is to push boundaries and open new lines of cinematic thinking, then why is it that the label is never applied to the filmmakers who do so within the context of a larger project, where the risk is theoretically greater? Is not melding an avant-garde technique into a larger project a boundary in and of itself? Otherwise the experimental accomplishes nothing.

Therefore, is it not avant-garde when Coppola uses garbled sound in The Conversation (1974), showing us a stunning sequence where several hidden microphones struggle to record a simple conversation? The technique had been done before, sure, but rarely to such a dramatic effect. We hear bits and pieces and that's enough to send our man Gene Hackman after the truth, but some of the most interesting scenes in the film are the ones where we watch him clean up the audio.

More impressive than that is Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. (1924), perhaps one of the most amazing uses of jump cuts in all of cinema. No doubt influenced by the work of Eisenstein, Keaton shows us a scene where the hero finds a scene changing as he exists in it. Each cut puts Sherlock in a completely different world, be it a desert or a safari or a snowbank. The whole thing is so seamless (done with surveying equipment and the naked eye) that you'd almost swear there was at very least rear-projection at play. But there isn't. Instead, it's an application of Eisenstein's jump cuts for comedic effect.

The most recent (and probably easiest to spot) is Richard Linklater's Waking Life (2001), the first feature film to employ rotoscope animation. The technique of drawing over live footage is nothing new. Disney animators had done it years earlier and animator Bob Sabiston's Snack and Drink (2000) had used it as well, but none had ever used it as extensively as Linklater did. The jump from a 4-minute short to a 90-minute feature is a large one, and the success of Waking Life paved the way for Linklater's Philip K. Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly (2006).

The point is that all three of these films employed avant-garde cinema in the purest sense of the word, incorporating new art forms and techniques into mainstream films, which is really what the avant-garde is all about.

5. An important film can be terrible, and that's perfectly fine.

I'll make this short: the real value in something like avant-garde cinema lies not in how good the film is, but in how good it makes the films that follow it. Like those French forces, the cinema exists to push boundaries, to scout out new terrain so that the larger army might benefit. But if the avant-garde isn't moving forward, isn't exploring the terrain, then it's pretty much worthless. To stay with the military theme, it's AWOL or, as some might point out, it's just artistic masturbation.

Really, it makes no difference if an important piece of avant-garde cinema is one of the worst things ever put on film, as long as it's exploring that new terrain. Otherwise, why bother?

[1] Source: Wikipedia.

[2] I've seen some "hybrid" stuff, for lack of a better term, and some things I don't remember enough of to be able to figure out what they are. Oh, and I saw the Luis Buñuel film with the eye. It made me sick. I have a weak stomach.

[3] Film Kitchen is a Pittsburgh showcase for local cinema.