The Breaking Point (1950)

30 04 2014

To non-cinephiles, the name Michael Curtiz might not mean much. Yet, he’s responsible for some of the biggest and most iconic pillars of classic Hollywood film – Casablanca being the most obvious one, but The Adventures of Robin Hood and Mildred Pierce also spring to mind. I find it necessary to introduce Curtiz as a big name director because The Breaking Point suggests something different. Here, his compositions are economical yet displaying flashes of artistic grace suggest something out of a B-film. A faithful adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway novel from one of Hollywood’s biggest names points to a film that might overwhelm the viewer with its importance, crushing them under the weight of its artistic aspirations, but Curtiz keeps his material in check and delivers the best kind of genre film: one that doesn’t get bogged down in overly pointed pathos, but still isn’t slight.

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Captain Harry Morgan doesn’t have the most luxurious life, but he does seem to have things pretty good. He has his own boat, which he maintains with his best friend, Wesley. He lives in a nice house right by the water with his wife and two daughters. Money, however, is still an issue and he decides to accept a risky proposition. He’s to transport a group of immigrants into San Diego. The task sounds simple enough, but Harry decides to not tell Wesley, and the addition of the seductive Leona Charles into the situation only further complicates matter. Harry flakes out at the deal at the last moment, but it’s still too late. He’s lost his boat. He resorts to alcohol and begins to take an interest in Leona.

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The Breaking Point, despite not soaking in an urban landscape, is still unmistakably a film noir. Unlike Howard Hawks’ adaptation of the same text, To Have and To Have Not, Hemingway’s text is not translated into a witty and clever romance. It’s something far more dreary here, perhaps a better cinematic comparison would be Docks of New York, though the “edgy” ammoral nature of the protagonist here is not hit as squarely on the nose. Instead, we have a heartbreaking performance from John Garfield, one that could have easily gone the route of being too maudlin and self-consciously tragic. He’s a deplorable human being, the kind that Hemingway excelled at writing, but that alone is not what makes a character complex or interesting. Morgan’s heart always seems to be stuck in between two places, and he seems to struggle with the fact these opposing positions aren’t polar opposites.

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These opposing positions sound vague, but the idea seems to be supported by Morgan’s consistent indecisiveness. One moment, he’s ready to do something illegal to improve his standing, but once faced with the reality of his actions, he becomes unglued. The irony of course is that he backs out of these dealings without actually helping himself. His first mission ends with his boat being taken away from him, and the next one ends with his best friend dying. Curtiz deserves credit for visualizing this relationship: the tightness of his compositions is unique in his filmography. He’s able to maintain a sense of unease by contrasting these closely composed sequences with ones where the camera seems to almost needlessly linger on. It’s half way to adopting the momentum of a B-film, but they wonderfully clash with his more artful and deliberate shots, ending in something entirely new.

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This “halfway between two places” idea (which I wish I could express more eloquently) resurfaces again in Morgan’s romantic relationships. Hemingway’s brooding, alcohol-fueled prose has often labeled him as either casually misogynist or just a sad man caught in wish fufillment. It’s hard to elevate the women here beyond that, but Patricia Neal and Phyllis Thaxter certainly try their hardest. Thaxter’s performance as Lucy Morgan is the more immediately noticeable and one could argue that her story is actually more tragic and dire than that of her husband. She fights to keep her husband, which sounds retrograde but her ambivalence is this fight suggests that her pride is also on her mind. She’s skeptical of all of her own moves made to ensure their relationship, half of her wants to fight and other half just wants to give up entirely.

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Patricia Neal’s performance as Leona Charles seems, at the surface, to be disposable. She’s Morgan’s temptation and as such, one might expect that her character is only framed in relation to Morgan. This is true to an extent, but like Lucy, she is well aware of her position in this love triangle and how pitiful that position is. At first glance, we understand her as the one who is seducing Morgan, but weirdly enough, he doesn’t budge. Well, not entirely. Making something out of her blonde hair seems like a reach, but so frequently femme fatales are brunettes, perhaps a signifier that they’re the dark and evil forces that are trying to tear conservative, conventional families apart. Curtiz seems to be saying something about these signs and their arbitrarily assigned meanings, the faithful brunette, Lucy, bleaches her hair as a tactic to keep her husband interested. She’s visibly jealous of his interactions with Leona so she tries to physically transform herself into something that closely simulates his ideal of beauty, the one that makes his eyes wander to Leona in the first place.

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Of course, all of this falls apart when Leona fails to live up to the femme fatale trope. One could criticize her characterization as she too easily falls in love with Morgan, who isn’t exactly the most charming individual. Still, her more sympathetic background suggests that the “femme fatales” who are so often viewed as manipulative and calculating are still just women and more importantly, still human. As so often in genre films, the conditions of the narrative are based on the moral failings of one character and while we may get a male bad guy, his villainy suggests nothing about his gender when the hero is, of course, a man himself. I hesitate calling a film based on a Ernest Hemingway book “feminist” but Curtiz squeezes as much humanity out of Hemingway’s projections of women as one possibly can. If they fail to achieve complete agency, Curtiz may not to be the one to blame. Rather, it’s the source text.

7





Le camion / The Truck (1977)

29 04 2014

There is an impulse in watching Le camion to conclude that  filmmaker and writer Marguerite Duras is simply phoning it in – giving us less than the minimum of what is accepted as a narrative film, something so slight that it should be comical or maybe it’s just thoroughly postmodern? On the other hand, does that justify a film that merely teases us with glimpses of what we would consider to be “real cinema” and even then, we’re really only treated to shots of cars on a rural, empty highway. One could call Duras’ film an experiment but doing so would suggest that the filmmaker herself doesn’t have an absolute confidence in the way her images and words interact.

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Following the opening credits, which are projected over shots of the French countryside, the camera frames Duras herself sitting at a table with Gerard Depardieu. The two are looking over a piece of a paper, Depardieu looks up at Duras and asks her “Is this a film?” and almost immediately we have an obvious self-reflexive moment. The film is centered on the conversation the two have regarding the script, but the camera occasionally cuts away and fixes it attention towards a truck briefly described in the script. The script being read hints towards a love story, one meditating on memories (as one might expect from Duras) but we’re never given an image, beyond the truck, to further contextualize the words of script.

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For as self-indulgent and tiring as the film itself sounds, the experience of watching it can actually be, well, fun. That sounds strange, especially since I’ll be the first to admit that it’s slight nature does make one feel like Duras is stretching her thin material. However, there is a sensation felt there that is entirely unique: because Duras asks us only to imagine this film, we not only begin to think of it in our own heads but we also begin to crave images from this film. It’s almost as though the absence of the scenes described in the script grants some “lost film” mythos here. When we are granted images from outside of their conversation, they seem revolutionary, even though they offer us nothing but the figure of a truck.

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Thinking “what could have been” is not the end of Duras’ intentions, though. If Casual Relations (which I just reviewed, hence why it’s fresh on my mind) asks us to relate art and popular culture with characters to give us a context, then Duras is asking us to provide the context all on our own here. Sure, she fleshes her characters out by talking about them, but the lack of their image kind of argues how necessary it is. Again, the impetus is on us, the viewer to care enough to work our brains enough to see the clever way Duras has left us to determine the meanings. In a way, that’s always the task of the viewer, but we’re given less things to consider and weigh here. The experiment is a success, Duras has simultaneously constructed and deconstructed a movie that we’ll never see, but we may think of it with the belief that we experienced it all the same.

4





Casual Relations (1974)

28 04 2014

There’s a New York Times stub for Mark Rappaport’s debut, Casual Relations, written around the time of the film’s limited run in 1974. The position of the author is not entirely surprising. They demonstrate some attention devoted to the film, but then quickly arrive at the conclusion that the film is not much more than a self-indulgent, amateurish disaster. There are certainly parts of Rappaport’s debut that would strike the more cynical and less open-minded viewer as arthouse self-parody, a film so aggressively high brow that it doesn’t even allow for a more curious audience member to step up. The irony of all of this is that Rappaport’s debut, while suggesting an analysis of the structures that influence our daily lives, is about how we relate ourselves to “low” or popular culture. It is a film about something we all experience, yet it unfortunately illustrates this in a way that is superficially mystifying.

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Following a collection of stuttering, shaky stock images of a sky and a beach, Rappaport introduces us to a woman suffering from a severe case of insomnia. Through voice over, she tells us that she doesn’t fall asleep until 7 (presumably, am) and even then, she’s haunted by terrifying nightmares. These nightmares are visualized to us as blown-up, faded, and heavily pixelated images of Murnau’s Nosferatu. The woman then tells us that even though her nightmares haunted her after she woke up, she still struggled to remember what exactly she dreamt. Following an addict (whose addiction is unexplained, but necessary) begging some deity for another chance, we’re introduced to Susan. Rappaport’s camera observes Susan watching television, which is exactly what the film’s title card describes before the shot itself appears.

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There’s something candid about Rappaport’s commitment to just observing his characters. It’s nothing new for someone whose watched a film by Chantal Akerman or Tsai Ming-Liang, but unlike those filmmakers, Rappaport’s vignettes seem to speak a bit more directly to his ideas. If Akerman or Tsai are more pragmatic, and dare I use the dreaded word, “realistic” then Rappaport is more interested in having setups that flesh out and illustrate something about his characters quite literally. Early on in the film, we’re introduced to Susan, a woman watching TV. She watches Johnny Guitar, and Rappaport chooses to include the scene in which Sterling Hayden asks Joan Crawford to act like she loves him. She complies, which is just one sequence from that particular film that offers subtext about identity. We encounter Susan only through the media she herself is experiencing, which seems mundane, but the shot’s length emphasizes its importance. Here, the film gives us our first instance of pop culture’s significance in our lives. Our idea of Susan is related to how she herself has related to a scene in a classic western, perhaps a recognized “classic” sure, but not “important, high art.”

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The next vignette concerns two old flames reuniting. Again, the audience is given the setup through voice over: “we decided to drive around.” While in the car, the radio plays The Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” a song almost explicitly about a desire to possess a woman. It might be cynical to suggest that Rappaport sees something inherently possessive (and thus, abusive) about men seeking heterosexual relationships, but the film repeats this possessive nature in the film’s most impressive scene. Two lovers walking in tall grass begin being intimate, but that intimacy quickly turns to violence with the woman killing the man. The sequence is repeated with slight variations in both the image and the woman’s voiceover. There is one constant in every voice over, though: she’s uncomfortable with how he’s touching her and she’s acting in self-defensive. We finally get a voiceover from the male figure, but his explanation of the situation, given the perspective that’s been repeated to us for the last several minutes, seems comical in its inaccuracy and stupidly selfish.

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I watched Casual Relations just days after seeing Jim Jarmusch’s charming enough Only Lovers Left Alive. It’s an enjoyable film that tries to explore, among many other things, the importance of how we digest art and culture. Like Rappaport’s film, Jarmusch is interested in how his characters respond to art, particularly music in this case, but his film ends up falling short of what Rappaport’s film accomplishes. Jarmusch doesn’t illustrate the link and instead, the film, while quite funny does nothing more than feel like a collection of cultural references used to further the alienation felt by their aging hipster vampire protagonists. Rappaport, on the other hand, has used art and popular culture to help contextualize his protagonist’s feelings. We never really “know” much about them, but that’s kind of the film’s point. Their opaque characterization give us something of a clean piece of paper, and the art and culture we seem them experiencing is used to project and even express their anxiety. Like Stuart Hall, Rapapport has argued on behalf of taking pop culture as the serious, vital phenomenon that it is. Hall himself said that pop culture is “where we discover and play with the identifications of ourselves, where we are imagined, where we are represented, not only to our audiences but to ourselves.” Rappaport’s character are seeking themselves out through popular culture and the arts. This is why the film ends on a character, who we know very little about, intensely studying a painting.

5

 





Local Color (1977)

14 04 2014

What are the things that make us sad, that disappoint us? The things that make us cover our faces because we’re exhausted and long for a bed to fall asleep in and hide from everything else? It might be failed relationships, the rent, hating your job, not having a job, paying the rent, or even death. Sometimes it’s none of these things, sometimes it’s just the crushing weight of our daily routines  This sounds like a rather heavy and ominous way to introduce a film, but Mark Rappaport’s Local Color is a study of that kind of exhaustation. Calling it listlessness seems like an understatement, for as much as Rappaport’s characters live and breathe in an exciting and functional world, it is that same world that severely limits their movements and censors their happiness.

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Andrea and Andrew are twins, sometimes referred to as Andy and Andy who are both going through romantic troubles. Andrew’s boyfriend is more and more bewildered at home, and shows an increasing interest in the older women at the office. Andrea, on the other hand, is becoming bored with her husband Fred. For all we know, Fred is still interested in her, but Andrea wants to find something new. She flippantly tells her friend Viv that if a man walks up to her, she’ll gladly sleep with him. Meanwhile, Alvin and Lil are concerned about their teenage daughter and her promiscuity. Alvin’s fears manifest as jealousy as he proclaims a sexual interest in his daughter, perhaps specifically to alienate and frustrate his wife.

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Perhaps it doesn’t even need to be mentioned but Local Color is a movie about the big things. It’s about the invisible forces that regulate and more importantly, limit our daily life. In a word, capitalism. Yes, that might not sound like the most original or interesting subject to criticize, but Rappaport does not formally display his politics like Jean-Luc Godard would. Sure, he has made a very stylized film here, but the film’s political points come from the personal, which are, in my personal opinion, two things that can never truly be separated. Sure, he is able to visualize what he identifies as symptoms of this existence (the glacier imagery at the beginning anticipates the restless movements of the protagonist) but the film’s central ideology isn’t projected through the words of the individuals. It’s instead revealed through their isolation, their inability to grieve, and their anxiety from life’s repetition.

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Early on in the film, Andy’s boyfriend, Brian, tells us about Pangaea, the super-continent that once contained all of today’s seven continents as one land mass. He tells this to Lil who seems terrified by the idea that New York City was once below the equator, she even says “that’s scary.” “It’s exciting” responds Brian who goes on to suggest that there’s something exhilarating about a world that is constantly changing. Rappaport seems enamored by things that seem to be contradictions. The sadness of his protagonist might come from a world that is always the same, but one of these subjects literally tells us that the world is constantly changing. Both are true, which sounds like an intentionally obtuse idea. Instead, I would like to suggest that the repetition of our daily lives becomes even more upsetting when we’re forced to consider the way the world is constantly evolving. Our progress seems to be slower than the continents drifting in the place where they’re to be found today.

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It would be fair for one to ask “so what the fuck is wrong with these people?” but no answer would do justice to the pressures that they and of course, we face from existing daily. Rappaport’s perspective is privileged, the film’s makeup is composed almost entirely of white young adults living in New York City. I understand the problem of his illustration, and how it limits the film’s universal reach. The characters here are not struggling to have food on the table, instead the food has become dull and tasteless. I think it’s important to acknowledge this difference in experience, because even though the frustration of the individuals in Local Color matches a malaise that I understand, but it doesn’t contain all of human suffering. Sure, we all suffer, but we don’t endure and experience the same thing and to suggest there is a universal experience threatens to erase the suffering voices who are below Rappaport’s characters on the social ladder.

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With all of that said, I think Rappaport has made a film that attempts to achieve something universal. He’s attempting the same thing Yasujiro Ozu did with Tokyo Story weaving together a fully formed portrait of something heartbreaking within a critique of our capitalism. Ozu’s film, a canonized arthouse classic that has been discussed endlessly, is seldom seen as a political film. For me, though, it is one of the most damning critiques ever committed to film, if only because it’s dissection of capitalism is embedded in a story that deals with death, something that is “deeper” than the system that regulates and oppresses us daily. Ozu’s film is so crucial because it shows these dilemmas as related. Rappaport’s film tries to do the same thing and he doesn’t exactly fail, but his vision ends up working as smoothly as Ozu’s. It’s less a criticism because I am holding it up to the standard of one of the best films of all-time, and more just a description of how everything comes together for Rappaport: sometimes his protagonist are too perfectly in tune with these invisible forces. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with some deadpan, theory-talk. The fact that the protagonists are wise and eloquent enough to pinpoint and describe the very things that are causing them such anguish is the one thing that gives us hope for their and our fight for happiness.

6





The Women (1939)

7 04 2014

I hesitate calling this George Cukor’s “opus” but it’s still certainly the biggest film of his I’ve seen. That’s vague, but a film like The Women has such limitless possibility, that it’s a bit overwhelming to even try to begin at all. I don’t think I’ve seen a film where each reading seems to contradict the others. Some might see the film what it is at its surface: a satire of gossipy women, but such a view is remarkably short-sighted to me, and threatens to destroy the film’s more impressive illuminations. The most succinct and radical of which is that in a world that only physically consists of women, men still have control over them. Sure, the gossip and fights are entertaining, but Cukor’s film manages to live on because it offers something that has to go beyond the simplistic critique of “catty” women.

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Mary Haines seems to have what many dream of: love and money. The former may be compromised, though. Her husband, Stephen, is having an affair with Crystal, a lowly perfume girl. Sylvia, who has an unhealthy interest in tearing down the Haines marriage, goes out of her way to arrange Mary an appointment with the gossipy manicurist who informed her of the affair. In a cruel twist, Mary learns about her husband’s affair from a complete stranger. Distraught, her mother tries to convince her to keep her marriage alive if only for her daughter. She takes her time to make a decision, but finally decides upon a divorce and to move away from her posh New York City lifestyle to a dude ranch in Reno. While there, she gets word that Stephen is now married to Crystal, but that their relationship has also begun to reach it rough spots.

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Maybe the best place to begin with The Women is what it isn’t. At least, what it isn’t to me. To me, it isn’t a “satire” because that denotes something flighty, and ultimately inconsequential. Satire usually suggests social commentary, which The Women has, but it suggests a rather benign type of commentary. It’s the type of commentary that is not interested in dismantling the powers that be, but instead revels in their absurdity. There are parts of Cukor’s film that work as satire, particularly when the titular women’s conversations get framed around as being combative, something the film physically illustrates with a rather bizarre fighting sequence during the film’s brief visit to Reno. I think categorizing the entire film as a satire is a disservice, though, as a satire would be content with just presenting a group of women, self-absorbed and materialistic, as being vapid and insincere. This is not what The Women is, it is far more.

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The dialogue can begin to tell us something about what lies beneath Cukor’s carnival of feminine hjinx. The film’s opening has this comic energy that makes it easy for one to get lost in what the film presents on the surface. The momentum of the introduction seems to channel that of a lengthy tracking shot, but Cukor never actually does this physically. He dissolves, but the pace of the performers every time a new frame bubbles to the surface is so rapid that the editing seems invisible. The film regains the more conventional Hollywood flow, but the opening’s breakneck speed is important in that it introduces us into a film world that doesn’t have an equilibrium. Indeed, things will continue to seem “off” for the audience as the film continues and the reassuring presence of a white, heterosexual male is nowhere to be found. Men still exist in The Women, but the fact that they are not physically represented is in itself, a slyly novel move on Cukor’s part.

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The presence of the male gaze is not absent in The Women. Again, no physical men, but most queer readings of the film suggest that many of the supporting women, particularly Sylvia take on the male gaze as their own. That’s certainly a sound explanation when she enters the perfume store looking for Crystal. Her and Edith take on the eyes of a man, specifically Stephen, as they enter the store looking for a woman worthy of a man’s desire. This all plays out like simple narrative proceedings under Cukor’s touch where as they would cumbersome in someone else’s hands. Think of Joe Swanberg’s musings on the male gaze in The Zone which I discussed here. Swanberg, although, admirable is inside his own head too much. I like what he’s trying to say, but he says it in his convoluted, ultra heavy, and woefully heterosexual way. Cukor makes the same point, and it breezes by and his queer atmosphere (so to speak) is more beneficial (and relevant) to the experiment.

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More than Cukor’s own queering of the women’s genre picture, is a profound and kind of heartbreaking critique of a patriarchal society. The film’s saddest moment involves periphery characters. In regards to sex, one proclaims “you can’t trust men, that’s all they want” which is met with “what else do we have to give?” On the surface, this seems kind of backwards, as if Cukor himself is buying into the idea that women are nothing more than sex. The quote reveals, in a rather cynical and deflating way that men often perform their courting (or dating or just “being nice”) all because of sex. Women being viewed by the opposite sex as good for nothing but intercourse is not the most unique idea ever, but its position in regards to Cukor’s world, one dominated by women physically but all of whom are still controlled by men.

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I think that’s the lasting image of The Women. Yes, it ends with Mary running back into the arms of her cheating husband, but the film doesn’t grant us the satisfaction of their conventional happy ending. If anything, the film’s attitude in the last five minutes seems to suggest that what is happening is somewhat cyclical. The “gold-digger” Crystal, whose designated “low” class status just cries out for more attention that Cukor unfortunately doesn’t give her, gracefully accepts her reunion of a world without financial stability. “Well, girls, looks like it’s back to the perfume counter for me” before putting in one last zinger. Crystal is put back in her place, but so is Mary. Equilibrium has been restored, but everything to this point has suggested that said equilibrium is something to challenge, not accept. It’s a force that is so imposing (again illustrated by the absence of men, but their ability to control the women in the film) that returning to it seems comforting.  Comparing The Women to a film as subdued and observant as Mikio Naruse’s Flowing seems awkward and forced, but Cukor’s protagonists are limited like Naruse’s protagonist. Perhaps its problematic to make such a connection with the differences in class, but Cukor’s women also seem to fall victim to this: ““If they move even a little, they quickly hit the wall.”

7





La Carrière de Suzanne / Suzanne’s Career (1963)

2 04 2014

Even with one feature film and one entry into his Moral Tales collection under his belt, I feel that by 1963, Eric Rohmer was still finding his voice. One senses the typical ethos of the New Wave sprinkled over what would become Rohmer’s primary concern throughout his career: heterosexual relationships and how people (primarily men) are really bad at them. The result is that Rohmer’s typical aesthetic (one that some may call uncinematic, but that I find to be fitting with his observations) is missing and replaced with something more typical of Godard and Truffaut during this period. There’s indeed a youthful, energetic, but sloppy quality to Suzanne’s Career. John Cassavetes’ Shadows might be an even more accurate comparison in that it’s an earlier effort that is a perfect introductory text to the filmmaker and what they’re about, but the more dense material would follow afterwards.

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The shy and quiet Bertrand is best friends with outgoing schmoozer Guillaume. The former spends most of his time alone, the latter flirting. Bertrand is quick to dismiss any idea of jealousy towards his best friends, even more so when Suzanne enters the picture. Guillaume is fond of her, or at least he enjoys spending time with her. Of course, in keeping with his cool demeanor he never lets any signs of true affection show. He eventually moves on and does so with little trouble, “Her body is not bad, but she’s got my mother’s name” Meanwhile, Bertrand grows increasingly bitter towards her. Through voice over, he tells us that it’s hate that is fueling his feelings for Suzanne. He has no interest in her romantically, and repeatedly tells us that she’s actually quite ugly. Yet, this women occupies a great deal of space in his brain.

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It seems that the women in these earlier Rohmer efforts are a little flat, as if they exist as accessories to the men. His best films, weirdly enough, are the ones that make women the focus, and I felt he kind of figured this out sometime in the 1980s. Full Moon in Paris and The Green Ray are the epitome of this, and two of his very best films. One could argue that the absence of such a character in this film to be a problem, but in a way it perfectly fits in with the mentality of Guillaume and more importantly, Bertrand. The latter is only able to see Suzanne in relation to himself, and because she won’t love him he puts up pillars, defending himself from the realization that he’s hopelessly in love with her. Basically, he acts more and more like an asshole to prove that he doesn’t feel anything for her. He only sees her in relation to his own unhappiness, rather than an individual breathing, living, and existing with her own concerns and anxieties. Bertrand tells us at the film’s end that Suzanne has “won the battle” but since, you know, had her own life outside of his brain, she probably never considered that they were in a competition to make the other person miserable.

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This would not be the last time Rohmer made a point of calling out asshole male behavior, and he would pinpoint the inherent hypocrisy of the “beta male” with sharper precision in other films. Still, the broad strokes he uses here makes this film more widely applicable. Bertrand is an awful character, but Rohmer’s genius is not that he is able to enjoy the ugliness of his protagonists. No, he’s bothered by it just as much as we (hopefully) are, but the conversations isn’t meant to end at look at this fucking awful human being. The reality is there’s something of Bertrand in myself, and the same goes for any number of my “sensitive” male friends.

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There’s been plenty of more in-depth pieces about the phenomenon of the hypocritically misogynist “nice guy” and I’m not here to rehash that argument. Rohmer himself has quickly and effortlessly translated the central idea into this film: that the men who aren’t explicitly assholes to women don’t inherently deserve the love and respect just by not being an asshole. One of the most interesting developments of this argument is that assholish behavior doesn’t have to explicit, and instead Bertrand (and many sad boys after him) bottled up their bitterness to women who didn’t pay him back for his ability to perform as pleasant with love or sex. Of course, I love to think I’m personally above this childish line of thought, but returning to Rohmer’s genius, one doesn’t have to completely emulate Bertrand to find his thoughts awfully familiar.

5

My intention here is to navigate the reality of being a lonely, sad dude without acting like a horny, entitled idiot. I get where Bertrand is coming from. I’ve been alone, unloved, and felt like those two things would never change. Hell, I feel like that today. I can’t even give some type of uplifting platitude that true love will find you or whatever. However, what I can say is that the sadness one feels is never the only one that exists.  We all suffer emotionally and just because your pain is yours and is only one you can feel does not mean that your ability to empathize with others should be shut off. This is not an easy thing to realize or even to apply in practice in your heart and head. In fact, the easy thing to do would be to complain about people you want to bone not noticing how nice you are to them. It sucks to be alone, but no one’s romantic anguish should come at the expense of reasonable behavior. Love going unreturned sucks, but I dunno, deal with it. Cry and jerk off and do anything but sacrifice your ability to be compassionate and empathetic.

6

My appreciation for Rohmer and this film in particular might be lost somewhere in the conversation about “sad boys” but I find the need to clarify that he’s done more than introduce another asshole into cinema. He’s done that with Bertrand, sure, but he’s introduced an asshole that should make any attentive male viewer reflect critically on how they view themselves and how they actually act. The film’s more crucial point might be the finale, which punctuates all of Bertrand’s musings with the reality that by seeing all of these women in relation to himself, he’s doesn’t know either of them. The result is that he’s as alone as he’s ever been. The film is not a tragedy of Bertrand’s collapse, but instead an investigation in the problems in how he thinks. In a way, this film is the antithesis of Spike Jonze’s Her, a film that sympathizes with the protagonist’s subconscious identifying as a martyr via heartache. Bertrand probably sees himself similarly, but Rohmer doesn’t accept this position. He makes it known that Bertrand is not the only person to ever feel lonely, and his unrest is no excuse to be, well, only concerned about himself.





Viola (2012)

1 04 2014

Most of what I’ve read about Matías Piñeiro’s third feature places the latest work of this young filmmaker alongside Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer. While I see the similarities, I hesitate to proclaim that he’s working in the same territory as those filmmakers. To begin with, I think they’re already plenty different to begin with, and thus even a conscious melding of their styles would produce something unique. Sure, the characters are loquacious like Rohmer’s, and yes they’re actors like many of the characters in Rivette’s film. Aside from the carefree sensation that the latter filmmaker evokes, it’s hard to pinpoint more similarities. While Piñeiro reminds me of these two masters at times, this film is reflective of a filmmaker trying something completely new and the result is something that even when frustrating, is utterly hypnotic.

1

A group of actresses are preparing for a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. They perform it in front of a small group, primarily composed of males, and giggle about said audience’s lecherous eyes afterwards. They continue to practice afterwards, until the point where their interactions seems to be centered around the play’s dialogue. The lines repeat, but every time they’re spoken they are granted a new context. This group runs into Viola, who lives with her boyfriend and makes money by selling bootleg DVDs. Her relationship with said boyfriend seems to have reached a state of homeostasis, but when she discusses her relationship with the actresses, they question the authenticity of his actions. The problem, they say, lies in the fact that he’s performing romantic gestures, particularly giving her a kiss after he arrives home. Their romance has become automated, which is ultimately a sign of its death. Viola goes home and anticipates a more spontaneous display of affection from her lover.

2

Unfortunately, my description of the film’s narrative makes it read as though it unfolds like any other. If cinema is a language to be used to describe what words fail to, then Viola is a runaway success because any description of this film is a great disservice. The aforementioned comparison to Rivette gives one a general idea of the film’s unique structure and attitude but even Rivette’s playfulness seemed grounded by reality. If Rivette’s world is one where the characters are shooting the breeze and unbound by any typical narrative functions, then Piñeiro’s world where the characters are similarly easy-going are not just free of conventional narrative, but of gravity itself. Maybe this is hyperbole, but my suggestion is one that aptly describes the film: it manages to feel free and weightless in a way that might not easily digestible, but again, it is so unique.

3

The frustration I feel from trying to describe Viola is indicative of the frustration that comes from watching it. I feel that its audience will inevitably be limited to “learned” viewers, not necessarily ones conversant in Shakespeare but at least viewers that want to feel something different. Part of the film’s novelty, a word I’m not using negatively, comes from the fact that it doesn’t feel like anything else I’ve ever seen. Of course, one must crave this unique experience or they will likely be overwhelmed with boredom. Yes, there’s been slow art films and there’s been films “where nothing happens” but that doesn’t quite describe Viola. A lot actually happens in this film, but the way it communicates to the audience is not particularly accommodating and what it is communicating isn’t exactly clear. Mystifying might be the best way to describe it because it is as fascinating as it is frustrating, but it also never feels heavy.

4

The film’s running time barely eclipses the hour mark, which doesn’t give much time for fully realized characters. They’re wonderfully opaque, risking coming off as slight. We learn very little about Viola except that she might be subconsciously unhappy with her relationship and that she makes money from pirating DVDs. The fact that the film’s other half is devoted to actual performers is curious. Walter Benjamin suggested many years ago that photographing (or reproducing) a performance took away from its aura. I think Piñeiro is bringing this rather old (but canonical) argument back into the present. I find his meditation, maybe just because it is new, much more interesting that Benjamin’s suggestion. I like to think of it as flattening the performance, the “aura” is lost but it feels more pragmatic. Viola’s pirating isn’t critiqued in a trite way, but she comes face to face with an actual performer. Theoretically, someone whose work she’s profiting from. It’s another degree of reproduction, but  there is an “aura” in the film itself that I don’t think that Benjamin or any of his Frankfurt peers could have anticipated in cinema. I’m not sure if that answers any of the questions that reproducing performances poses, but Piñeiro gives us something much more exciting: the realization that film isn’t dead, it is alive and well and as difficult to pin down as ever.

5