Tuesday, February 25, 2020


This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com to cover the film's theatrical release in 3D in 2014.

I'm always in for a new Jean-Luc Godard movie, especially since, anymore, there are several years between his feature-length efforts. It's been four years since he released the acclaimed Film socialisme [review], and it was six years between that one and Notre musique [review]. That both of those films showed the eighty-three-year-old auteur was as engaged and vital as ever makes it all the more disappointing that his latest, Goodbye to Language (Adieu au language in his native French), is the end result of an artist spinning his wheels.

Anyone familiar with Godard's 21st Century work will recognize the technique. Goodbye to Language is another collage of documentary, random clips, and fictionalized scenarios artfully arranged to provide a platform for the innovative filmmaker to advance his philosophical ponderings. Where Goodbye to Language differs from Film socialisime, at least aesthetically, is that this time around Godard is working in 3D. Throughout much of the film, the old prankster proves to have a knack for the technology. Many of his frames are arranged with a surprising eye for how they will appear with added dimensions. These moments can be as lovely as others are jarring. At various intervals during Goodbye to Language, Godard overlaps images and text in a way that assaults the eye, almost as if he wants to prevent the audience from ever getting too comfortable.

While his clever use of separate shots in the right and left quadrants is somewhat astonishing, other bits will leave you wondering just what the hell the point is supposed to be. Is it to assert the supremacy of image over sound? Over narrative? Both break down during Goodbye to Language, including a couple of awful noises that may have you worried the theater's speakers have malfunctioned, but I have to say, neither dismantling has much effect. Godard's mis-en-scene here has three different categories: an ongoing discussion about equality between a couple (more Le gai savoir [review] than Contempt [review], alas), footage of what is presumably Jean-Luc Godard's dog, and the random gatherings of images that the aging filmmaker finds interesting. The accumulated pieces arguably add up to some kind of whole, but then again, maybe they don't. That might be the point. It's hard to say after one viewing, as the 3D makes an already difficult film even harder to keep up with. Finding the subtitles within the frame meant constantly having to refocus one's gaze.

The thing is, and what troubles me the most about Goodbye to Language, is that it never engaged me enough to make me want to try again. Unlike the aforementioned Notre musique and Film socialisme, I am not sufficiently intrigued by what was up on the screen to want to put the puzzle together. I didn't feel challenged so much as I felt bored. Part of it might be that Godard's political reference points have changed hardly at all in the past several decades. Hitler, Mao, the genocide perpetrated against Native Americans--it's all been covered by the director before. His championing of women's rights seems hollow given how his lead feminine mouthpiece is naked for most of Goodbye to Language. Ironic that a film partially about the act of looking would not question its own gaze.

Animal rights get just as much time as women's rights, which I guess is kind of new. There are long passages of Godard following the dog around, catching him in the right pose, pondering his devotion. After a while, it started to feel like I was watching the world's most expensive and technologically advanced YouTube channel of one old man's videos of his canine companion.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh, perhaps not. Godard himself was never known to go easy on other filmmakers, so why should we go easy on him? Goodbye to Language is a movie, after all, that has two scenes of a man loudly defecating, as well as another of the dog having a movement of his own. Attached to these images are the most definitive statement Goodbye to Language ever makes: everything, every thought and idea, eventually turns to poop. So here we are, witnessing Jean-Luc Godard learning to flush.

That said, he's still Jean-Luc Godard and serious cinema fans should see anything he does at least once. Twice if you can manage. And in the theater one of those times so you can see the 3D work in its natural habitat. To pretend I won't be going to see Goodbye to Language again will be like a Star Wars fan bitching about J.J. Abrams claiming he won't go see the new installment when it comes out. You know that dude is lying. And who knows? Maybe I'll be surprised and it will strike me in a whole different way. Regardless, Goodbye to Language is not enough of an incoherent stinker to make me bid adieu to Jean-Luc Godard, even if it does give me serious pause.

Monday, February 24, 2020


This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2006.

At that time...

Jean-Luc Godard's Hail Mary (Je vous salue, Marie) apparently sparked off a hailstorm of controversy on its release in 1985, something that the folks at New Yorker Video hammer home on the DVD sleeve at every opportunity. Maybe I'm just jaded or too hard to shock, but it's hard to see now what all the fuss was over. I don't see much to be scandalized about in Hail Mary.

Really, Godard has composed one of the most human and touching portrayals of the Virgin Mary ever put to film. In his recasting of the Biblical story, Mary (Myriem Roussel, First Name: Carmen) is a teenager who has hung on to her virginity, even in the face to her engagement to the petulant taxi cab driver Joseph (Thierry Rode). Thus, it causes a lot of confusion when an older man named Gabriel (Philippe Lacoste) and his daughter (Manon Andersen) get in Joseph's cab and direct him to the gas station owned by Mary's father. There, the angelic duo informs the poor girl that she will soon have a child. This enrages Joseph, who knows he has never touched Mary and so can't claim the child as his own. Initially, Mary's protests that she is still innocent fall on deaf ears.

Eventually, Joseph comes to trust what Mary is telling him, but not before he whines a lot about not getting any loving. He's not the most compassionate person that could have been charged with the paternity of the Christ child. At the start of the movie, he is taking out his frustrations over Mary's refusals by toying with another woman (a young Juliette Binoche in only her fourth movie), and he shows as little concern for this second girlfriend's feelings as he does for the emotional turmoil his fiancée has been thrown into. Joseph won't be satisfied until he sees Mary naked, plain and simple. Gabriel eventually knocks him into line, however, forcing him to dress like a grown-up (Joseph had been wearing dark shades and kept his collar popped up until that point) and physically forcing him to vow to leave Mary's virtue where it is. If he doesn't, Joseph will mess up the divine plan. In a self-reflexive move, Godard illustrates the notion of God's Will being disrupted by having Gabriel forget his proper lines whenever he's faced with Joseph's impudence, something the little girl consistently points out to the older angel.

This question of a greater plan for humanity is one of the bigger things Godard is wrestling with. Outside of the Mary narrative (though the two cross over in Joseph's taxi), a haughty professor (Johan Leysen) lectures his students about man's placement in the universe, theorizing that we are not the product of a series of random accidents, but rather extra-terrestrials from a distant star who migrated to Earth centuries ago. Godard seems more eager to send-up this pseudo science than he is religion. The professor gets involved with one of his students (Anne Gautier), a woman named Eva who he insists on calling Eve. She apparently is his temptation, and after draining her of her money, he leaves her to go back to his wife and kids. This great brain with grand ideas of otherworldly beings is really just a pig of a man after all.

Yet, the professor's lectures tie in with Mary's quandary, a variation on the chicken or egg conundrum: does the soul exist to animate the body, or does the body exist to house the soul? Her body is what she feels is under assault. It's what Joseph wants to get his hands on, it's what God has used to plant his seed. Her soul is ultimately her own, and it's tied directly to her virtue. The greatest pain the Supreme Being has caused her is making people doubt that she has maintained self-control, that she hasn't given her soul over to lust. Despite the anger this causes her, Mary perseveres.

In the end, though, it's hard for Mary to tell if the price she has paid was worth it. Her son Jésus (Malachi Jara Kohan) has turned out to be a brat, and her husband has gone from adolescent sex fiend to resentful father. (Godard had specific ideas about the impact of Freudian theory on religion, and Joseph's resentment of Jésus is classically Oedipal.) When it's all said and done and she is met with a cry of "Hail Mary!" on the street, it's not clear whether it's sarcastic, disdainful, or honest. All the virgin mother has left to hold on to as she quietly applies lipstick is the womanhood she refused to let anyone take. Perhaps that's what religious groups objected to, that after all the struggle and doubt, this gospel of modernity was a muddle of anxiety and angst.

For Godard fans, the cantankerous prankster from the '60s is definitely up to his old tricks in Hail Mary, though this film is closer to the provocateur of Weekend [review] than it is the playful imp at work in A Woman is a Woman or Masculin féminin. At times his odd choice of framing and quick cuts between oblique statements of dialogue are almost too close to being the cliché parody of European art house cinema, but the more personal this film gets, the deeper the director goes into Mary's dilemma, the more assured his hand. His trademark love for monkeying with sound is in full form in Hail Mary, as well. He uses pieces of music by Bach and Dvorák throughout the picture, dropping the orchestra out the second someone speaks and then kicking it back in again as soon as they finish their line. It works both as an illustration of the sensory pressure Mary is under while also undermining the grandiosity of the situation. The coming of the messiah in the mid-'80s isn't nearly the event it was two millennia prior.

Sunday, February 23, 2020


This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2008, and it sometimes refers to features on the DVD release.

In the late '60s, Jean Luc-Godard was at his most politically strident. Discontent with representational cinema, he was moving away from his pop-culture retreads into something more confrontational and less reliant on narrative. From his feature film Weekend [review] to his short segments in anthology films like Far From Vietnam [review] and Love and Anger, and even in his Rolling Stones documentary, Sympathy for the Devil (a.k.a. One Plus One), with its perplexingly didactic skits, he was breaking down the notion of cinema frame by frame. By 1969, he was ready to issue a new manifesto, and he did so in the film Le Gai Savoir.

Explaining Le Gai Savoir is a daunting task, almost as daunting as watching it. With the 16th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau credited as co-writer, Godard had come a long way from Bogart-obsessed gangsters. Though his movies always toyed with sound and image, and he laced even the most familiar genre subjects with political undertones, don't expect the same kind of experience here. Le Gai Savoir is practically his line in the sand, setting the stage for his collaborations with Jean-Pierre Gorin and even his more recent films, including 2004's Notre musique [review]

Forget plot summary. The closest we have to a plot here is that two activists, the student-representative Emile Rousseau and the voice of the working class Patricia Lumumba--who also go by their real names, Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto, in the movie, and who both were in Godard's La Chinoise [review] and Weekend--are meeting in a Beckett-esque void to discuss a maelstrom of ideas including the current world climate, the purpose of cinema, and even personal philosophies. Their dialectic is illustrated by a collage of words and images, including news photographs, cartoons, advertising, and propaganda posters, an ever-flowing montage bringing to life Godard's theories about the marriage of image and sound.

That's as near as I can confidently get to the main goal of Le Gai Savoir: finding where image and sound intersect and asking how that informs how we know what we think we know. For Godard, it is a central question that pertains to what we, as people, do in order to advance this world. We can't, for instance, engage with corrupt leaders or change the way the system is run if we don't understand how they use these things to transmit their agenda. How else can we break the inundation of false information and bend it toward the truth?

Eventually, the argument even turns back on itself and Godard is forced to question the role cinema plays in this dialogue. This is where the manifesto element of the movie comes into play, the director issuing a demand to the world directors, from Italy to Cuba, to create material that challenges and provokes. Always one to wear his influences on his sleeve, Godard throws the names of Bertold Brecht and Antonin Artaud in with Mao, Guevara, and Castro. Certainly the long, loud electronic pulses that periodically blared from my speakers fly the flag of Artaud's theatre of pain. Godard himself speaks as a professorial narrator, instructing his actors through the robotic voice box that he used in other films like Alphaville [review] and Oh, Woe Is Me! [review]. He also cuts up documentary audio of real speeches and protests to show us how information can be manipulated. The auteur even self-effacingly accepts that compromise can touch his own work, fabricating censorship with missing audio and excised scenes that never really existed.

Le Gai Savoir challenges its viewer to stay alert. I can't say I digested the entire thing, as it moves with a furious pace, in some instances the rapidly changing images and the words both written and spoken acting more as a subconscious provocation than easily grasped nuggets of wisdom. I would guess this is part of Godard's intent, to shock us from what is comfortable, to force us to engage with what is happening on the screen. I am not sure I enjoyed it so much as I appreciated it, and I know many people will find it to be pretentious drivel. Still, I'm fascinated by it, and though I don't particularly want to sit down and watch Le Gai Savoir again right now, I do want to revisit it eventually and try to chip away at its dense layers.

Unfortunately, I don't believe Koch Lorber, who are releasing Le Gai Savoir on DVD in Region 1, has done its U.S. audience any favors toward making it easier for us to consume the movie. Le Gai Savoir has the original French soundtrack with removable English subtitles, and though the audio is consistently translated, the words that appear on the screen are not.* Almost every still image Godard chooses to show in his long montages either come with words already built-in or he has written his message on top of the picture. The DVD producers have only translated the phrases that appear when they conveniently fall between spoken lines--and even then, not necessarily. The title Le Gai Savoir appears on the screen multiple times, and I don't recall it being translated even once. The phrase "The Joy of Learning" has some bearing on the meaning of the movie, and it should be drummed into our brains. Plus, given that one of the movie's slogans is that spoken language is our enemy, it seems counterintuitive to give it heavier weight than the other uses of language in the picture.

Not that I could likely have kept up with all of that additional stimuli, but that's not really the point, is it? A layer cake without a layer is less of a cake, and by Godard's way of thinking, our comfort with the way things have been is what allows us to end up with where things currently are. With the crises of Vietnam and the clashes of communism and capitalism that so occupied many intellectuals in the 1960s, Godard was trying to make something immediate that spoke of the dangers of complacency and the need for revolutionary fervor. You almost need a scorecard to keep up with the political players he references (and, hey, that would have made a nice DVD extra), but he never expected to solve the problems, just incite his viewers to want to know more.

* Given that this technique was also applied to many of Godard's more recent efforts, like Film Socialisme [review] and The Image Book, I now would believe it to be intentional on the part of the director. 


"We need to confront vague ideas with clear images." - slogan painted on the wall in La Chinoise

"In any case, you need sincerity and violence." - Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Leaud)

1967's Jean-Luc Godard feature La Chinoise (The Chinese) makes no bones about the director's emulation of agitprop pioneer Bertold Brecht. Not only does one of the main revolutionaries, Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Leaud, The 400 Blows [review]), espouse the benefits of the playwright's political theatre as handily as he praises Chairman Mao, but in one scene, standing before a blackboard filled with names of philosophers, politicians, and other figures of the world stage, Guillaume erases them all except Brecht. La Chinoise is Godard moving agitprop from the stage to the cinema.

The film takes place over one summer, filming five students in their apartment as they use their vacations to form a radical Communist cell devoted to the teachings of Chinese dictator Mao Tse-Tung and his little red book. At the head of this group is drama geek Guillaume and his philosophy-major girlfriend Veronique (Anne Wiazemsky, star of Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar [review] and Godard's one-time wife). They are of the no-compromise, no-retreat variety of activists, while their cohort Henri (Michel Semeniako) is more willing to accept the contradictions of political revolution. This eventually gets him dispelled from the group, though ironically, amongst all the talk of change and fomenting an uprising, Henri is the only one who we know has left the apartment and joined in any action. He first appears onscreen having been beaten and bloodied by Communists loyal to Russia. Of the many ideas tossed around here, one is that Kruschev has done little to maintain a socialist ideal, and that European Communism is pretty much endorsed by Imperialist America, who is more than willing to do business with Soviet countries when it suits them. The true threat of Asian Communism, as it were, is their lack of interest in playing in the capitalist reindeer games of the U.S. Though there is much to disagree with in La Chinoise, there is also much that intrigues and provokes.

For the most part, La Chinoise is a series of interviews, speeches, and debates amongst the cell, who stay in their apartment and endlessly pour over Mao's book, rows of which line every shelf in the place. Cut into the discourse are Godard's trademark title cards and propaganda-like still images, sometimes working in concert with what is being said, sometimes in juxtaposition to it. Some images are even integrated into the scenery, such as when Veronique shares her revolutionary ideas while sitting beneath a collage of pin-up girl drawings. In addition to the polemics about current political events, Godard uses La Chinoise as another treatise on the purpose of cinema, even breaking down the fourth wall, appearing himself as (presumably) an off-screen interviewer and panning around to show cinematographer Raoul Coutard manning the camera. Hell, he even manages to namedrop Nicholas Ray yet again. Has anyone done a count for how many Godard movies make mention of Johnny Guitar? And it still isn't on DVD?! [Except it is.]

Though the movie isn't exactly subtle with its politics, it is somewhat difficult to dissect what Godard may be personally endorsing from what he is throwing under the bus in his savage portrayal of the students. While I think the director would love to be able to wholeheartedly embrace a youth movement that supported real social change, he clearly is disenchanted with the all-talk and no-action navel gazing that such activists can engage in. Henri may begin as the character we dislike, particularly when it's revealed that he endorses his girlfriend (Juliet Bento, Weekend [review]) engaging in prostitution to pay the cell's bills as a living example of the disparity between working-class reality and socialist ideal, but by the end, Henri's revealed as the only one with a clear head when he refuses to engage in terrorism. Guillaume also may be slightly redeemed in sticking with his theatrical plan, but there is some suggestion that he may only be in it for the girls. (He eventually splits with Veronique to hook up with Bento's more impressionable character.) Really, there is more sincerity than there is violence here, and for some, probably more vagueness than clarity, too.

The most pungent critique is saved for Veronique, the one most fervently advocating acts of terrorism. On a chance encounter with one of her former teachers, the dissident Francis Jeanson playing himself, she tells him of her violent intentions, and he quickly sees how misguided she is. He damns her with one persistent question: once you have carried out your plan, what next? Veronique obviously has no idea how to fill the hole she wishes to create, and right there is seemingly Godard's major issue with bourgeois politics: they have no game plan for how to sustain the change they advocate. Thus, they spend more time talking about change than enacting it, and when they do jump into the fray, as Veronique eventually does, they screw it up. Which is fine for them, because they can walk away, return to school for the new semester, completely unaffected. Therefore, it's almost better to be the fifth member of the cell, the almost psychotic Kirilov (Lex De Brujin), who kills himself rather than do nothing--or, as it were, finally have to do something, and maybe something that will mean nothing.

As far as Godard's political cinema is concerned, La Chinoise is not necessarily the director's best. It's not nearly as incendiary as Weekend or as successful on its own terms as Tout va bien. Even so, he does effectively encapsulate what is often wrong with liberal political movements and their ability to harness youthful enthusiasm without knowing how to apply it, and the director both appreciates the young activists of 1967 even as he exposes their flaws. (Bertolucci has a similar take on the '60s student movement in his film The Dreamers, and even hangs a La Chinoise poster on their bedroom wall.) It's easy to have radical ideas when you, yourself, aren't under any real threat. The middle class can speak for the working class without threatening their own bottom line. In Godard's mind, this is where all Communism has gone wrong, as eventually there will be new leaders to replace the deposed ones.

Of course, charges of ineffectual intellectualism could easily be turned back at Jean-Luc. He is completely aware that one could accuse him of sitting in a vaunted position and making movies rather than joining on-the-ground protests, hence his built-in defenses for cinema. If Nicholas Ray's B-movies could be as effective as a Brecht's overtly political plays as tools for social change, then why not also more enlightened cinema like La Chinoise? When Guillaume starts his theatre, he does take it to the streets, after all, knocking on doors and sharing his ideas and seeing the social reality that surrounds him as he does. Arguably, rock 'n' roll was the more active art of the 1960s, something Godard even saw, hence his coupling with the Rolling Stones a year later.

When it comes down to it, it's not a dispute easily settled, and with Godard's open-ended cinema--Susan Sontag argued that he wasn't making individual movies, but one long, ongoing dialogue--the debate continues. Ironic, in its way, sitting in a room, watching the movie, and then typing about it on a laptop before sending said ideas out into the ether all on their own. Such an endeavor could make me just as deluded as the kids in La Chinoise. And yet, here you are reading it, and the idea passes on. So, maybe Godard's method does work, after all?

This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2008.

Monday, February 17, 2020

TEOREMA - #1013

Teorema. Theorem. “A general proposition not self-evident but proved by a chain of reasoning; a truth established by means of accepted truths.”

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 film Teorema presents a fictionalized social experiment, playfully rooted in a false reality, starting off with what seems to be documentary footage, presenting the thesis that the bourgeoisie can be pushed towards change, but they will never really go all the way.

The Italian auteur’s set- up has a Bunuel quality to it. Essentially, Pasolini takes a standard upper-class family and drops a grenade into the middle of their existence. Terence Stamp plays an unnamed houseguest who arrives without explanation, and immediately seduces all members of the household--father, mother, daughter, son, and even the maid. In many cases, his mere presence is enough, a blank canvas for each person to project their desires upon, from the sex-starved mother to the (supposedly) misunderstood father, whose perceived sorrow alienates him. In some cases, one family member sees what is going on with another, but that doesn’t stop anyone from giving themselves to the young Brit.

Things get even more interesting, however, when the stranger leaves, and suddenly these people are once again faced with the void, only this time far more aware of what it means to have found something to fill it. And so each goes chasing the experience. The maid (Laura Betti, La dolce vita [review]) removes herself from the mansion and pursues an ascetic life, seeking absolution. The mother (Silvana Mangano, Conversation Piece [review]) drives through the city looking for a stand-in for the lover who abandoned her. The son (André José Cruz Soublette, The Specialists) seeks to revive the missing man through art.

In each case, the resolution is up to interpretation, the success subjective, but if we consider these outcomes through the lens of Pasolini’s initial statements, then we can start to question whether his theorem holds water. For instance, the maid rejects all exploitation, but the matriarch seeks it out. The daughter (Anne Wiazemsky, Au hasard du Balthazar [review]) shuts down all expression, while her brother hunts a pure vehicle for emotion.

All eyes are on the father, however. Paolo (Massimo Girotti, Last Tango in Paris [review]), as it turns out, is the bourgeois factor owner referenced at Teorema’s beginning, the progressive boss who turned his business over to his employees. But is this the full expression of his change? Paolo’s discussions with the stranger seemed to suggest that he needed someone else to understand him, or to be more simplistic, to see him. Thus, with the visitor gone, the older man strips himself bare in ways both literal and metaphorical, all to draw others closer to him.

But are any of these people doing the “right” thing? And what are we really saying when we suggest the moneyed class never can? Pasolini offers no ground rules, and arguably, all of his characters consistently act in their own interest. There is nothing selfless or noble about their dalliances, nor in their chasing after the phantoms the encounters conjured. The stranger isn’t looking for any desired effects, he is just identifying their individual levers and pulling them. If even that. He is merely there, and the family takes from him what they want.

Terence Stamp is an interesting choice for this. The star of Far From the Madding Crowd [review], The Limey, and The Hit [review] is known for him slow burn, his quiet smolder. Here he says little. His grandest gesture is to return a glance. The audience is left to project as much onto him as the Italian family. His appearance is Pasolini’s provocation of his viewer, and his removal our challenge to find meaning.

It’s all very intriguing, and surprisingly light on pretention. It features the agitprop of Godard and the surrealism of Marco Ferreri but without the former’s stridency and the latter’s excess. It’s Pasolini at his most artful, relying on subtle stratagems rather than the direct confrontation that colored some of his more infamous work. The result is a theorem that is partially proven but ultimately unsolved; yet, Teorema invites further study and likely welcomes different conclusions each time.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, February 9, 2020


This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2011.

I thought the name Jim McBride sounded familiar, and then it hit me with a big "Duh! Of course!" when I finally got a chance to look at his IMDB page. He's the guy who directed the 1980s remake of Breathless, replacing Jean-Paul Belmondo with Richard Gere and sucking all the spontaneity and inventiveness right out of Jean-Luc Godard's original concept. All the more ironic, then, that his first feature, the independently produced David Holzman's Diary, so heavily references and owes a debt to Godard and his compadres in the French New Wave. There is quite a gulf between original impulse and eventual execution, something McBride's cinematic protagonist learns all too well.

David Holzman's Diary was released in 1967. It starred L.M. Kit Carson (a writer on Paris, Texas [review] and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) as David, a young man of his era, concerned with the draft and his recent unemployment, just like any other fellow his age would be. Looking to fill his time, and also to maybe wrest a little meaning and control out of his upended existence, David starts to record diary entries with a 16mm camera and a tape recorder. These aimless monologues quickly turn from his own boring existence and begin to look outward: he spies on the woman across the street, another woman tells him about her sex life, his friend (Lorenzo Mans) dismisses his endeavors and his quest for truth. David's girlfriend (Eileen Dietz) sees the now ever-present camera as an intrusion, and she's probably right. David, who can quote Godard and Truffaut liberally, lets it take over his life.

It's pretty amazing to consider how far ahead of the curve McBride was when he wrote and directed David Holzman's Diary. There was no such thing as vlogging or even regular blogging back then, no reality television, no notion that the masses would ever have such accessible outlets to record the minutia of their everyday lives. There also wasn't the same prevalence of fake documentaries, McBride was really blazing a new trail. He smartly doesn't limit David's recordings to his rambling thought processes, instead cutting up the narrative with footage of David's street, a montage of everything David sees on television over the course of one night, playing around with a new lens--the kind of things a guy might get up to when he is bored and has a camera and nothing better to do.

L.M. Kit Carson is utterly convincing as David. His performance feels extremely real, it never comes across as a put-on. His aimlessness does not seem calculated or choreographed; rather, it's the unfocused wanderings of a guy with no plan and no clear ambition. Perhaps it's his own lack of focus that causes the project to fail for him, not some inherent flaw in cinema. He expected that Godard's oft-quoted maxim that film is truth 24 times a second to hold true, and that by recording his life for posterity he would figure out some secret about himself or the meaning of existence. This, of course, does not come, and his expressions of anger towards the unseen, intangible figure of capital-C Cinema is maybe a discovery that an education in film is no education at all. Sitting in front of a camera is no substitute for living, just as sitting and watching what others do on camera isn't, either.

Maybe this betrayal was one Jim McBride felt for real, as well. Ben Stiller would actually parody the notion of video diaries on his early '90s sketch comedy show, and in his skits, his camera would always capture too much and he'd end up humiliated. It seems to be a common aggravation for those who bank too heavily on these clunky old machines. And maybe this ran through Jim McBride's head fifteen years later when he started rolling on his Breathless remake. He was going to get back at Godard for making him a chump. He was proving there was no one truth, the entirety of motion picturedom is malleable.

Then again, maybe not. David Holzman's Diary is its own validation. It did kick off an ongoing career in cinema, so I'd believe that despite whatever lack of success I perceive in his version of Breathless, McBride's intentions were likely honorable. He start out by making David Holzman's Diary, which remains a very good, very successful film regardless of what came after. All that film history clearly came to some profit for the filmmaker, even if didn't for his alter ego.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020


This piece was originally written as part of a review of the boxed set The Sidney Poitier Collection back in 2009.

Sidney Poitier pulls double-duty for the 1973 clunker A Warm December, and I'm sorry to say it does nothing for his reputation as an actor or as a director.

When Dr. Matt Younger (Poitier) takes his daughter to London, he only hopes to get in a little dirt bike racing (yes, he races dirt bikes, and no, he's not twelve), but instead he becomes embroiled in what looks like a plot of international intrigue when the alluring Catherine (Esther Anderson) uses him as cover when men following her get too close. Catherine is an African dignitary, but her predicament is not a political one, it's medical. The espionage stuff is a feint, and after the pair have fallen in love, the script takes a different turn. Writer Lawrence Younger (A Kiss Before Dying) has crafted all of this hullabaloo about a pursuit so that we won't realize Catherine has a terminal illness until Matt has lost his heart to her completely. The back half of the film is a schmaltzy cram-in-as-much-romance-before-time-runs-out snoozer. Adding to the melodramatic wrinkles is Matt's status as a doctor (also a secret during the first act), so that he can agonize even more over the woman he can't cure.

Poitier's direction is completely lacking in style, and for an actor, it's surprising how little eye he seems to have for his cast's performances. Anderson is a nondescript love interest, almost completely lacking in the required mystery or charisma. This looks more like a TV movie than a big-screen effort.

Monday, February 3, 2020


This review as originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2008 in a piece covering the Stanley Kramer Film Collection boxed set.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner endures because some 50 years on as a smart and daring movie that is about ideas as much as it is about family drama; yet, it avoids being overzealous in its message by weaving the debate through a very real narrative. Director/producer Stanley Kramer and writer William Rose put their words in the mouths of three-dimensional characters and let their communication drive the story.

The premise of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is that a young couple are coming home from the Hawaiian vacation where they met to tell her parents that they are getting married. The catch is that the girl, Joanna (Katharine Houghton), is white and the man, Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), is black. In 1967, this would be quite a shock for any parents, including Joanna's notoriously liberal ones. Played by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, much of the pathos of the movie rides on their shoulders. It's their reactions that are going to make the philosophy and ethics of the scenario seem real. It's easy to believe two young people are in love, it's a whole other thing to see the people around them be daring enough to encourage their daring. This is where Kramer and Rose get it right, by not letting these characters be completely correct or make all of the proper decisions. Ideas are ideas, but until they are challenged, we don't know how firmly we believe them. Over the single night that John and Joanna have before he has to fly on to Geneva, everyone the couple encounters--including other African Americans--will have to ask themselves exactly how they feel.

For my money, Spencer Tracy is the man to watch here. I've always liked him, and in his final film role, the 67-year-old actor is just as fierce an orator as he always was (including in the Kramer-directed Inherit the Wind, a personal favorite of mine). The climax of the film hinges on a final, stirring monologue from Tracy, and despite his poor health, the legend still has all of his faculties. It's a moving speech, full of righteous fire. They just don't make them like Spencer Tracy anymore, do they?

Funnily enough, for all of the progressive social issues, the parts of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner that now feel hilariously dated are the representations of the generation gap. Dig that crazy rock 'n' roll, daddy-o!

Sunday, February 2, 2020


It’s a cliché to call a film a love letter to cinema. Just as much as say, “the city itself is a character,” or “it’s not for everybody, you either love or hate it.” As a reviewer and critic, I’ve definitely fallen into those traps. You can likely find some pieces on this blog that indulge any of those just by searching key phrases. (See for instance Brazil, a “love letter to the creative spirit” and a “celluloid hero” who is “surrounded by images from Classic Hollywood.”)

But how does one get around that with Pedro Almodovar’s marvelous 1999 drama All About My Mother, a film that ends with a dedication to Bette Davis, Romy Schneider, Gena Rowlands, and all actresses who have dreamed of stardom? It’s a movie that relies equally--and openly--on A Streetcar Named Desire and All About Eve, and even features a young stand-in for the director, a teen who one day dreams of making movies and putting his mother in them. Self-reflexive, and reflective. Pair this with the filmmaker’s most recent triumph Pain & Glory, and we practically have bookends to the career of cinema’s most articulate mama’s boy.

Almodovar’s sole goal here is to create a complex melodrama featuring his favorite actresses, celebrating motherhood less as a nurturing compulsion for the children involved, but more as the life role that fosters the creative spirit, either through encouragement or negation. Pretentiously, we could say that the mother here is not Manuela (played by Almodovar-regular Cecilia Roth), who inarguably provides the social center of All About My Mother, but art itself. Theatre. Motion Pictures. Hollywood. Art.

And yet this is not a pretentious film. Not at all. It’s too sincere, too joyful. Almodovar harbors no concern for the audience’s reaction. He is not worried about conventional plot, even as he sews clear threads through each story and gives plenty of closure. All About My Mother is as messy as life, and as organized as our ability to muddle through it. (Another critical cliché?)

For those curious about the plot: Roth’s Manuela loses her son to a car accident during a birthday outing to the theatre, when chasing after his favorite actress puts the young man in the path of an oncoming car. In her grief, Manuela decides to leave for Barcelona, find the father that the boy never knew, and make amends. Only, when she gets there, the father’s roommate informs Manuela that they have recently disappeared, robbing the apartment in the process. The father, Lola, and their roommate, Agrado (Anotnia San Juan), are both transsexual prostitutes. Lola was also a drug addict. This is why Manuela left without telling anyone she was pregnant. Two decades have passed, but not much has changed.

Once in Barcelona, Manuela’s life becomes intertwined with both a naïve nun (Penelope Cruz) and the actress whose autograph her son was pursuing (Marisa Paredes). With the actress, she seeks some closure; with the nun, she finds some correction. Sister Rosa, as it turns out, is pregnant, and Lola is once again the father. Rosa’s own mother (Rosa Maria Sarda) appears to be a no-go in terms of helping the young woman, so Manuela must step in. This could be her second chance.

For as complicated as all that is, it’s pretty easy to follow. All About My Mother is all about connections and repetition and history doubling up on itself. The actress’ lover, for instance, is also a heroin addict. And Rosa’s elderly father has reverted to a child-like state that requires constant care, usurping the motherly role his wife would otherwise visit on Rosa. It’s pretty intense when all laid out on paper, but Almodovar keeps it light and colorful. His extremely likable characters, played with incredible charisma by his ensemble of actresses, never give in to their burdens, nor do they indulge in depression, and so they are never a burden to watch. How they interact creates the drama, but also generates an undeniable electricity. All About My Mother is a movie about a community that turns into family. Perhaps we should revise: there is no one central mother, but these characters in some way are all surrogate mothers to each other.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.


This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2014.

Martin Ritt's 1961 jazz-infused drama Paris Blues is one of those films that, once you've seen it, you're kind of shocked that people don't talk about it more. A joint vehicle for Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman, Paris Blues is a Kazan-like social narrative that juxtaposes new Hollywood method with old Hollywood romanticism and somehow let's both win without compromising either.

Newman stars as Ram Bowen, a trumpet player with a moody demeanor worthy of his groaning pun of a name (say it out loud and then say, "Rimbaud"). He is the toast of Paris' side-street jazz scene, blowing nightly with his band, working alongside his cohort and musical arranger, Eddie Cook (Poitier). Eddie is practical and level-headed, a smooth balance to Ram's jagged edges. The ex-pat Americans have a good thing going in France. Ram even has a no-strings love affair with a chanteuse (Barbara Laage) who doesn't mind feeding him after gigs.

Yet, the boys have ambition, too. Ram is working on a magnum opus, his "Paris Blues," and he hopes to get some weight behind it by giving the sheet music to Wild Man Moore, a trumpeting legend who has just landed in the city as part of a European tour. Moore is played by none other than Louis Armstrong, just to give you an idea of Paris Blues' musical bonafides. The original scorce was also composed by Duke Ellington, who was nominated for an Oscar. Ritt isn't fooling around.

Yet, he's also not limiting his story--which was written by four different scribes from a novel by Harold Flender--to just difficult men in smoky bars. When Ram goes to the train station to meet Moore, he also meets a pair of young American women in town to see the sights. One white (Lillian, played by Joanne Woodward) and one black (Connie, as portrayed by Diahann Carroll). To give you an idea of how progressive Paris Blues was for the time, despite the eventual romantic pairing being just as you suspect, Ram at first flirts with Connie without race even being mentioned. (And who wouldn't. Have you ever seen Diahann Carroll?!) Lillian is more his match, however, in that she's been around the block and has an admirable patience. The single mother has dealt with her fair share of troublemakers, Ram's temperament suits her. It's going to take some effort to get him to value anyone over his music, though.

Which he sort of will come to do over the time he and Lillian spend together in Paris. For the next several days, both pairs of lovers will try to fashion their affections into some kind of common ground. Lillian sees the possibility of something more with Ram. Connie would love for Eddie to come back to the States, but he's frank about his reasons for living overseas: America is racist. She argues it's gotten better in the five years since he left; he counters that it's still not good enough.

Paris Blues is very frank about its politics, but not in a way that makes it seem like a polemic just for the sake of it. The topics broached in the narrative emerge naturally. These are things the characters would care about, they deal with life as it would genuinely affect them. For as traditionally structured as much of the writing is, Paris Blues treats all aspects of these folks' existence in the same realistic manner. It's never said, but we know that Ram and Lillian are having sex. Ram's guitar player (French cinema legend Serge Reggiani, Casque d'Or) is also a drug addict, a fact Ram confronts head on (as befitting a ram, natch). Race, sex, drugs, art--this is important stuff. Ritt manages to make all these things come off as both matter of fact and yet also important. Hell, look closely at the opening montage, you'll see a gay couple tucked away in Ram and Eddie's audience.

But forget all that. The sights! Paris Blues was actually shot on the Seine! And the music! Louis Armstrong struts into Ram's club to challenge him to the jazz equivalent of a rap battle. The only comparable jazz-scene movie of the period is Basil Dearden's All Night Long [review], released a year after Paris Blues. This flick is the real deal.

You also get an acting quartet that was at the height of their considerable powers. Apparently at one point this was going to be a movie for Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe. As wonderful as that is to imagine, you can't beat the chemistry of longtime paramours Newman and Woodward. They are the exception to the accepted rule that real lovers don't work on screen. Poitier and Carroll are wonderful, too--though much less showy. They are the practical couple, the counterpoint to the crazy Caucasians!

Final word: Paris Blues is a damn entertaining drama. It's romantic and toe-tapping and thought provoking. It deserves to sit next to Ritt and Newman's more famous collaborations, like Hud and The Long, Hot Summer. It's just that good.


This piece was originally written as part of a review of the boxed set The Sidney Poitier Collection back in 2009.

The cultural impact that Sidney Poitier had on cinema and society at large is indisputable. A dignified actor with a deep sense of social consciousness, he broke through racial barriers by choosing to play roles that shed the spotlight on intelligent black men--not perfect men, but men who lead their lives just like anyone else, with all the flaws that implies. Regardless of the role, Poitier refused to let any performance descend into racial clichés, and the example he created helped reshape the public perception of African Americans. It sounds frightfully simplistic, but such is the power of the moving image to shape the public perception. Roles in films like The Blackboard Jungle and The Defiant Ones forged Poitier's early reputation in the 1950s, and highly regarded turns in films like In the Heat of the Night [review], To Sir, With Love, and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner cemented his position as a cinematic icon in the 1960s. He would eventually direct, as well, and throughout his career, he would also accept the role of social activist. Still active to this day, he has been the Bahamian ambassador to Japan from 1997 to 2007, and he published the book Life Beyond Measure - Letters to my Great-Granddaughter in 2008.

The common theme of many of his films throughout his career remained the same: challenging the odds by trying to live life as it is meant to be. As his character says in 1957's Edge of the City, there are men and there are lower forms, and you can't let the lower forms push you into being anything less than the man that you are. (And given the respect Edge also pays to its female characters, one can assume he means "men" as in "humanity.")

Edge of the City was the directorial debut of Martin Ritt, a politically motivated artist with a passion and fury to match Poitier's. (Ritt is probably best known for Hud, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold [review], and Norma Rae.) It also features John Cassavetes in the co-starring role, adding to the film's legacy as an early spotlight for maverick film artists. (Cassavetes is the prototype for the cantankerous independent American director.) The film opens with Cassavetes' character, Axel North (née Nordmann), rolling in to New York City with only a little money and a dubious recommendation in his pocket. The name he drops at the rail yard is of a man in San Francisco, but it's enough to get him a job under the crooked foreman Charlie Malick (Jack Warden). Knowing that Axel is on the lam, Malick puts the screws to him. He also doesn't like it when Axel befriends Tommy "T.T." Tyler (Poitier), the only black foreman on the yard. As the two become close, Charlie gets more upset and eventually pushes for Axel's secrets to come out.

The core of the movie, which was written by Robert Alan Aurthur (All that Jazz [review]), is less about the past Axel is running from and more about how he learns to cope in the present. Tommy serves as a role model for the younger man. He's married and has a family, and his wife is an educated woman (Ruby Dee) who introduces Axel to an equally educated and socially active love interest (Kathleen Maguire). As Axel begins to trust Charlie, he is also given more strength to stand up for himself, to accept other people as they are, and accept whatever he may have done prior to NYC as something he can change. As far as male bonding goes, it's pretty healthy stuff. Cassavetes' twitchy method acting plays well against Poitier's upright performance, and Jack Warden rounds it out with smarmy menace. The climax where the two men must finally deal with this cranky thorn in their sides is maybe a little too On the Waterfront, but the gritty honesty of the writing up until that point allows Ritt to get away with it. A lot of the movie was shot on location, and so it has an on-the-street authenticity that prefigures French verite while also showing the influence of Jules Dassin's The Naked City [review].