Broomfield, Demme, Radice, Safdie and Safdie, Truffaut

Ricki and the Flash (Jonathan Demme, 2015). By the last third of the film, it seems clear that Demme’s chief motivation for taking on this project is the opportunity to apply his extensive experience directing concert films to this fictional story of a derelict mother (Meryl Streep) who fronts a bar band. He certainly demonstrates only passing interest in the tepid familial drama in the script, written by Diablo Cody with a equal freedom from her previous dialogue quirks and recognizable humanity. When Streep’s bedraggled singer returns to her former home, responding to a suicide attempt by her daughter (Mamie Gummer), every bit of the story plays phony, completely derailing Demme’s typical adeptness with finding resonant honesty. He’s more engaged when the last act. If the director is more engaged when the last act is essentially a series of cover song performances briefly interrupted by offhand resolution of earlier character disputes, that doesn’t necessarily mean the film notably improves. This winds up as one of least consequential entries in Demme’s filmography.

Heaven Knows What (Ben Safdie and Joshua Safdie, 2015). Based on an unpublished memoir by Arielle Holmes, who also plays the lead role, this depiction of the lives of homeless drug addicts in New York City is bruising and effectively intense, at least until the some needlessly bombastic plot turns in the closing stretch. In particular, the film offers a harrowing view of the difficulty of ever breaking free from such a life, with the constant need to reinvent the means for temporary survival creating a stasis of misery. The Safdie siblings handle the material with an empathetic approach utterly free of judgement, staging individual scenes with an attentive understatement that’s ideal. At its strongest, the film is quietly devastating.

No No: A Dockumentary (Jeff Radice, 2014). By now, Dock Ellis hurling a Major League no-hitter while high on LSD, in 1970, is such a broadly known piece of baseball lore that even those with no interest in the sport are like to know about it. While Radice’s documentary clearly trades on that notoriety, most plainly in the very title of the film, the director’s clear intent is rescuing the ballplayer’s reputation from those who give him no more consideration than a caustic chuckle. Ellis was also a skilled pitcher apart from that somewhat flukey feat, an outspoken advocate for civil rights at a fairly complicated time, and, maybe most admirably, a passionate, tireless advocate for those struggling with addiction, as he himself once did. The acid trip no-hitter wasn’t a funny story to him. It was evidence of his own struggles stamped into the record books. Radice’s documentary has powerful moments — Ellis’s emotional reaction when reading aloud a letter sent to him by Jackie Robinson is the clear highlight — but it also winds up just a touch scattered in its attempts to get everything in. Still, it does its job, laying out evidence that Ellis, who died in 2008, deserves to be more than a comic footnote in sports history.

Shoot the Piano Player (François Truffaut, 1960). Truffaut’s second feature as a director is less dazzling that his debut, The 400 Blows, but is still an impressive piece of the opening salvo of the French New Wave. Adapted from the novel Down There, by United States writer David Goodis, the story about a pianist who gets drawn into muddy mingling with the local criminal element plays like a detached film noir, delivered with a French shrug instead of the more familiar stateside grim fortitude. Truffaut employs some the playful technique — expertly on point and cheekily deconstructionist at the same time — that would turn his next film, Jules and Jim, into the textbook example of his country’s revolutionary approach to cinema. Here, the approach is used more sparingly, making it more jarring but also a little less satisfying. The film winds up playing like a key transitional piece rather than it’s own wholly realized work.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper (Nick Broomfield, 2014). Even though director Broomfield is the most problematic part of this documentary about a Los Angeles serial killer, he deserves credit for getting at highly problematic social truths that elevate the film above its lurid, true crime story trappings. The controversial filmmaker, still probably best known for the controversial documentary Kurt & Courtney, is a strange presence throughout, coming across as casually predatory and strangely baffled as he walks through low income L.A. neighborhoods with his boom mic and bulky headphones. And yet Broomfield also manages to offer a sharp consideration of the dearth of attention paid to this horrid murder spree that spanned decades, by both the national media and the local authorities, convincingly chalking it up to the darker skin color of all of the mass murderer’s victims. Had it been a countless blonde, white women who were disappearing over the years, vicious witch woman Nancy Grace would have led the charge as CNN caved in to single-topic, round-the-clock coverage. Much as the film takes the time to track through the horrific details of the so-called Grim Sleeper’s crimes, the most detestable tales it tells are of the whole of society, paying no mind as a long series of women vanished without a trace.

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Sixteen

#16 — The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)
Steven Spielberg once attributed the initiating spark of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial to none other than François Truffaut, noting that the French filmmaker told him on the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (in which Truffaut had a small but important part), “I like you with keeds. You are wonderful with keeds. You must do a movie just with keeds.” Spielberg added, “He kept saying, ‘You are the child.'” This is no small praise coming from the French New Wave master who began his own career with a portrait of childhood, widely understood to be drawn from his own experience. With The 400 Blows, Truffaut was indeed the child, positioning lead character Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) as a clear analogue for himself and, by extension, all of those who were in the director’s post-World War II generation. I use all this as an entryway to writing about The 400 Blows because I find it fascinating that Truffaut connected so enthusiastically with Spielberg’s view of childhood. For Spielberg, childhood is a place of wonder and adults are either non-existent or little more that petty annoyances. Parents are absentee and other authority figures are easily bested. It’s no wonder Truffaut responded to this instinct that he senses in Spielberg. The younger director had the ability to manifest the youthful hopes of Truffaut. Spielberg’s take on children was The 400 Blows‘s exultant run of freedom across the beach without the “What now?” freeze frame.

Of course, while Spielberg’s vision might have more emotional appeal, Truffaut’s has the gut punch of greater truthfulness. In execution, there’s not much to The 400 Blows beyond Antoine’s restless efforts at escape, usually followed promptly by him being forcefully, cruelly shoved back into a place of imposed obedience. He’s bullied by parents, teachers, just about every adult in his small, gloomy orbit. Truffaut presents it with a wry sense of humor and a deep appreciation for the coping mechanisms the develop in the perpetually beset and callously misunderstood. The film has a profound sense of the interactions that take place in Antoine’s life. Part of Truffaut’s quiet brilliance with the film is the notion that all this hardship doesn’t exactly shape Antonine. Instead, the boy endures and ultimately outlasts it. Any lessons picked up in the long trudge of childhood are merely glancing or at least entirely tactical. The end goal is just getting away. Misery loves company, but it yet prefers solitude.

Truffaut returned to Antoine in subsequent films, catching him a few more years down the rue. It’s an understandable continuation of the autobiography that comprised a significant part of the director’s career, but it also seems unnecessary. The 400 Blows is such a pure, empathetic expression of human existence that it extends out in all directions: to other people, to other cultures, even backwards and forwards in a timeline of a life. Truffaut had so much more to offer in his career, especially the impish, inspired deconstruction of film grammar that serves as clearest explanation as to why the French New Wave was transformational. And yet his very first feature is one of those that is so comprehensive in its artistry that it feels like a creator saying all that needs to be said, as if there’s a the lurking suspicion that there won’t be even one more frame of film afforded to him. In the case of The 400 Blow, that’s not desperation. It’s revolution.

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Seventeen

#17 — Jules and Jim (François Truffaut, 1962)
And so here it is: not necessarily the best film to burst out of the French New Waves, but perhaps the quintessential example of the revolutionary movement and all the possibility it held, and then bestowed upon every filmmaker hearty enough to learn its myriad lessons. Only the third feature from director François Truffaut, Jules and Jim is, in some ways, simplicity itself. Based on a novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, the film is about three people: Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) and the two men, Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre), who love her. In the most crucial ways, it is the complete opposite of simplicity, taking decades of established film language and spinning it around like a pinwheel, marveling as the new colors created in the blur of movement. Truffaut is probably my favorite of the New Wave practitioners, because his approach to his art seems informed by the purest love of the pliable nature of cinema. “Of course I love movies,” Truffaut seems to cry. “Look at everything they can do!

The text of the film concerns itself with the freedom of youth, which beautifully complements Truffaut’s extended thesis about the freedom of cinema. The director employs every technique he can think of–editing tricks, unique framing, lighting maneuvers, freeze frames, dissolves and on and on–all in the name of expertly drawing out the heart of his material. His approach to well-worn filmmaking mechanics is simultaneously adoring and deconstructionist, injecting a vibrant freshness to the familiar moves. After years of Hollywood master craftsmen did their damnedest to make such things all but invisible to the average user–the tools meant to coax along the drama and goose certain reactions almost surreptitiously–Truffaut and his cohorts put them on display, spinning the klieg light so it pointed right at them. Famously a critic first, Truffaut was a student of cinema before he was an artist who claimed it as his favored medium, meaning many of his films were built on the foundation of his studious knowledge. Jules and Jim, though early in his career, sometimes plays like the final exam with which he shares absolutely everything he’s learned.

Of course, if all he delivered was–and let’s go ahead and use the French here–a tour de force of technique, it would be a giddy exercise in explicitly rendered craft and not much else. Truffaut, though, was a deeply empathetic creator. Where his contemporary Jean-Luc Godard could occasionally default to a clinical precision with his similarly sharp excavations of film syntax, Truffaut always kept the characters–the people–in his films at the forefront. His romance with film was never at the expense of his duty as a storyteller, a creator with an obligation to illuminate the nuances of the human condition with his work. Truffaut’s playfulness is threaded throughout Jules and Jim, but it’s actually his attention to the complicated relationships within the narrative that defines it. Truffaut may have been redrawing the boundaries of cinema, but, to his great credit, he was almost maintaining, even reinforcing, the commitment to emotional truth that often led to the greatest achievements of the form.

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Forty-Four

#44 — The Bride Wore Black (François Truffaut, 1968)
Quentin Tarantino insists that he never saw The Bride Wore Black before conceiving of his Kill Bill films, but I don’t believe him. I’m sure he’s not lying, that he’s actually convinced François Truffaut’s film wasn’t part of his personal repertoire. He’s never been reticent about crediting the cinematic efforts he freely pilfered from before, so why would he start in this instance? The plot overlap is so thorough, though, right down to the notepad paper where the protagonist crosses off the list of five names of people she’s seeking vengeance against for making her a widow on her wedding day. Besides, how could the king of the movie geek sponges have resisted a relatively obscure film by a French New Wave master with such a provocative, salacious title?

This is the film Truffaut made after his problematic excursion into the employ of Hollywood studios, making Fahrenheit 451 as Universal’s first European production, with a hefty budget and name stars. He may have retreated to France, but he didn’t fully give up on somewhat splashier fare that could have been stirred up by major studios enamored with noir and melodrama. In between Fahrenheit 451 and The Bride Wore Black, Truffaut published his landmark book of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock. The Bride Wore Black can be viewed as the afterword, typed out at twenty-four frames per second. Not only is it the sort of dark tale of murder that the Master of Suspense adored (or at least was adept in making into commercially successful art), but Truffaut concentrated on the way his revered predecessor merged a devilishly gleefully bending of the visual conventions of film visuals with a learned command of the mechanics of narrative. If later directors (Brian De Palma chief among them) aped the ways Hitchcock was flashy, Truffaut had the sense to really think about how the man made his movies work.

In the film, Jeanne Moreau plays the titular bride, her face formed in glum determination as she picks off the creators of her misery one by one, often after insinuating herself into their lives. The men she hunts are depicted less as scoundrels and more as callous narcissists, too wrapped up in their own minor issues to even notice the pain they caused or continue to cause. As opposed to most revenge sagas rendered for the screen, The Bride Wore Black never feels simple. It allows for a range of feelings about what’s going on, even stirs them up, in part through highly deliberate filmmaking that can almost lull the viewer into forgetting the heated emotions driving the plot. At times, the film is defiantly uncinematic, caught up in the quiet progression of its plot more than the flaring moments of violence and aggression. In that way, it certainly feels different from the florid intensity Tarantino scrawled into being a few decades later. Maybe he never saw it after all. He should have. He might have learned a thing or two.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Thirty-Seven

#37 — Day for Night (François Truffaut, 1973)
Auteur theory was first posited in the mid-nineteen-fifties in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma, advocated most persuasively by a young French film critic named François Truffaut. Suggesting the director should be seen as the predominant creator of a film, almost to a degree that he or she can claim total ownership of the art, Truffaut himself became one of the most persuasive pieces of evidence in argument for the viability of the theory when he started making films a few years later. From his debut The 400 Blows on, Truffaut’s films rang with a distinct humanism, a visual rambunctiousness and loving adherence to the well-established narrative mechanics of the form that came together as a vibrant, unmistakable voice. After spending over a decade demonstrating the primacy of the director’s influence through the accumulated artistry of his career, Truffaut slyly presented the counter-argument with Day for Night.

For this film about filmmaking, Truffaut not only directs but steps in the central role, that of a director named Ferrand who’s embarking on a new project entitled Meet Pamela. The cast and crew are assembled in a idyllic location for the shoot, which proceeds as a endless series of miniature melodramas and compromises intended to avert catastrophe. Nearly every person involved with the film carries with them some amount of slippery propensity for existential self-harm. The task of getting the film from conception to finished work is not some generous act of creation presided over by a genius artist, but instead a grinding toil, forever susceptible to the whirling whims of fate, every ill turn simultaneously shocking and wholly predictable as fragile egos collide like pebbles in a rock slide. The director is in the eye of storm but any belief he is controlling its torrents is sadly misguided. In his most confident moments he may view himself as Prospero, bending the winds, but he is conducting a tempest that moves of its own accord. Any synchronicity is pure happenstance.

Truffaut certainly had no reluctance about trafficking in veiled autobiography in his filmmaking so it’s reasonable to read Day for Night as a simple report on the state of his own career in the shifting realm of cinema, inviting speculation on who the star played by Jacqueline Bisset might be based on or which specific film experience might have inspired the director to finally plumb his own profession for a story idea. The deeper pleasure of the film, though, is that it seems to be going for so much more. Instead of looking to his own personal history, Truffaut is presenting a sort of autobiography of the creation process, an exposing of all its myriad wrinkles that can never quite be ironed out. Where he once saw a sort of magic in the authority of the person behind the camera, with Day for Night he concedes the fallibility of the role. Film is a collaborative art and Truffaut exposes all the fissures between the connections.

Spectrum Check

This week, I was all over the site, beginning with a movie review of a offbeat new documentary about, at least in part, the collision between man and nature in the American south. It’s a movie built on so much abstraction that it was a challenge to write about.

It was also tough to write about the new New York Times documentary, though for different reasons. It’s a fairly straightforward work and picking out what does and doesn’t work with it was correspondingly straightforward. However, I have such an investment in trumpeting the continued valued of traditional mass media, that I needed to balance that against serving the needs of simply reviewing the work. My mid-review diatribe against the demonic moron Sam Zell is probably where that balance was shakiest, but it was a malicious pleasure to write. I used to love the Chicago Tribune.

On the album front, I wrote a review of the third album from Handsome Furs. I didn’t especially like it, which makes me feel a little bad given that I staked a claim on it ahead of another writer. Not that the Handsome Furs needed a good review or anything, but maybe the other writer would have actually enjoyed it and would have actually gotten some long-term pleasure out of the thing being in their iTunes. Mostly, I found the album dull.

I contributed to our ongoing Oeuvre feature, tracking through the films of François Truffaut. I think this was my fourth (and final) offering in the series. Sadly, it was also the first time I found the film to be wanting. Too bad it was also the first film I actually had to buy, having no other good way to get my hands and eyes on the relatively obscure release.

Finally, there was this week’s List Inconsequential, which should go a long way towards helping readers figure out the rough ages of various writers on staff. Me, I’m always happy to have an excuse to write about Michelle Pfeiffer.

Carpenter, Cronenberg, Ford, Truffaut, Wright

Hanna (Joe Wright, 2011). Well, I’ll say this for director Joe Wright: He’s not going to be pinned down. He made his feature debut with a Jane Austen adaptation and followed that with a prestige picture based on a Ian McEwan novel. Then came a fairly drab issues picture largely about the homeless community in Los Angeles. The bank shot away from that reunites him with Atonement Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan for a bizarre action film about a teenage girl who was raised in isolation to be an unstoppable assassin. The film is balanced awkwardly between stylish action and moody artiness, rarely finding its true footing. It lacks enough insight and cleverness to be wholly satisfying and attempts to add characters shaped by satiric instincts around the fringes of the story only serve to make it more of a muddle. Cate Blanchett plays a government agent that becomes the target of the title character’s surge for revenge. It’s a shockingly bad, overplayed performance from an actress who once seemed capable of accomplishing absolutely anything onscreen.

Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002). Novelist Patrick McGrath adapts his early nineties work for the screen, and David Cronenberg directs it with a gloomy restraint. There’s certainly plenty of psychological meatiness for Cronenberg to sink his sharp teeth into, but there’s a general lack of zest to the work. It’s solid, but it also feels a little like the director marking time, waiting for real inspiration to strike. Ralph Fiennes plays a man released from a mental asylum and taking up residence in a grim halfway house. He’s haunted by the pains of his childhood, which he manages to fully step into and observe. Fiennes is the master of internalized emotion, but he takes that skill perhaps too far. His character becomes a shambling cipher. Miranda Richardson, however, is blazingly sensational in a performance that essentially encompasses multiple roles. Over the years, her uniquely forcefully approach has tended to overwhelm the roles she takes on, but she finds the perfect match for her talents in Spider. I almost wanted her to take a bow after the closing credits and leave the stage for good. It’s almost inconceivable that she finds another opportunity that suits her better.

A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009). This heartfelt adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel suffers somewhat for a pronounced case of First Time Director’s Disease. Fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford seems determined to build so much style and technique into the crafting of the film that he often loses sight of the important task of telling his story in a meaningful, penetrating way. That improves as the film progresses as Ford starts showing up less and simply ceding the heavy lifting to Colin Firth, playing a nineteen-sixties closeted gay college professor in mourning for his partner. Further constrained by a society still unwilling to acknowledge the value of his love–even his best friend, played by Julianne Moore with the flamboyant authority of a flung boa, can’t help but see his long-term relationship as something of a phase he should be able to easily shake off–Firth conveys the restrained, roiling agony of his character with devastating empathy. There are many who feel that Firth’s Best Actor Oscar should have this title etched into the based instead of The King’s Speech. He’s excellent in the film he won for, but the advocates for the greater worthiness of his work in A Single Man surely have a point.

Jules and Jim (François Truffaut, 1962). One of the films that defines French New Wave, François Truffaut’s film about two friends and the young woman they both love–at different times, in different ways–is another sterling example of the French director’s almost unmatched feel for the intricacies of human emotion. The film is also packed with Truffaut’s playful approach to the mechanics of filmmaking. He tinkers with the image, the frame, the soundtrack, the lighting in ways that open up all the possibilities of film, which in turn expand the potential of the narrative itself. Rules aren’t made to be broken with Truffaut; they’re made to be adored and repurposed, rambunctiously applied in inventive new ways. As is the case with all of Truffaut’s finest work, he seems to be reinventing the language of cinema not by discarding it, but by embracing it. The schism of that is a joy to watch.

Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974). For his directorial debut, John Carpenter collaborated with his friend Dan O’Bannon on a story about a spaceship deep in outer space that is the locale for a series of especially vexing problems, including a hostile alien shaped like a giant undulating beach ball and an explosive device that malfunctions, deciding that it needs to explode just below the hull of the craft, a decision in announces in a creepy, calm voice that marks it as a cousin of the HAL 9000. Shot on the cheap and in the spare time of the collected cast and crew, the film is jubilantly amateurish as it simultaneously spoofs and pays loving homage to the science fiction genre. It’s not exactly something that can be called good, but it’s surely enthusiastic, coming across as a scrappy precursor to any number of YouTube mini-epics made by people who love movies so much that they too want to point a camera and yell “Action!”