Category: Film

The Decline of Western Civilization

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“A guy loses his temper on the set and he’s a genius. A woman loses her temper on the set and it’s the wrong time of the month.”  — Penelope Spheeris

The 1980s occupies a weird spot on our cultural landscape. Things that seemed important are almost completely forgotten; what seemed irrelevant, now sacrosanct. We have nostalgic longings for those micro-expressions of identity conveyed so meticulously through analog “mixed tape” culture, where hours were spent picking strong lead-ins and balanced transitions that said something profound(ish) about your sonic relationship to friends. Around the late 80s, terms like “alternative” and “postmodern” gained ground and became shorthand for lazy journalists who knew nothing about the music scene but needed a quick, generalized descriptor. As for film, it was way worse. The 70s staple of “art house” was typically used but made little sense. If using “underground,” your work often got lumped in with exploitation films and softcore porn. Such was the cultural landscape when young filmmaker Penelope Spheeris shot her gritty landmark documentary on the Los Angeles hardcore/punk scene, The Decline of Western Civilization.

It’s safe to say that Spheeris would agree with the old maxim about getting the highest financial return on your least fulfilling work. Many screenwriters, actors, and directors have talked of being rewarded well for their mediocrity (if that mediocrity sells), then using that money to finance risky projects that speak to them in some deeper, more profound sense, a sense divorced from the realities of the entertainment marketplace. By her own admission, today Spheeris would fall into this category, relying on the profits from her huge formulaic Hollywood films to pay for the work she loves doing. But Decline was her fist-feature film, and she did not yet have that luxury. Instead of the porn venture they were hoping for, she convinced a couple of San Fernando Valley producers to take a chance on investing in a documentary about the booming underground hardcore music scene then happening in and around Los Angeles. Although getting them literally no return, it was a fortuitous investment, artistically speaking, as many of these bands would, despite their brief existence and zero mainstream notoriety, later be regarded as the vanguard of the American independent music scene. Although there have been several contemporary documentaries that, to varying degrees, canonize the 80s hardcore movement, Decline stands as a primary cultural document of L.A.’s punk subculture. Some criticism has been leveled at it over the years, not without reason. But Spheeris walks an impressive line between identifying with the scene, respecting its collectivism and revolutionary spirit, while also displaying its dirty laundry, its ignorance, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Since its earliest origins in Britain, as part of its fuck-you arsenal, early punks had used Nazi iconography like the Swastika or Iron Cross (first sported by Detroit’s Ron Asheton of the Stooges as a choker) to incense the older generation, and to some extent this trend continued in the U.S., despite some bands’ efforts at mocking or undermining Fascist ideals in their songs. But while the band Black Flag fully got the irony of their Puerto Rican lead singer performing “White Minority,” I’m not so sure some of their fanbase understood the finer points of such satirical moves. In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, artist Raymond Pettibon, whose album and flyer art epitomized L.A. hardcore, remarked on the negative aspects of the scene:

“It was more about what you can’t do than what you can do. There were restrictions. Any intellectual curiosity was discouraged. Any humor was discouraged. ‘Don’t learn another chord’… You had to pretend to be a moron, basically. I mean, Sid Vicious was the most important intellectual figure…”

Pettibon’s comments highlight a problem exemplified several times throughout the film. World views of some bands (when loosely expressed) did not correlate with those of the fans, many of whom were coming in from L.A.’s suburbs and carried with them a different set of life experiences. Bands like X and Circle Jerks held more liberal viewpoints, while others that did not make it into the film, like The Minutemen, were pretty much straight Marxists. Other key political bands from California, like San Francisco-based Dead Kennedys, are entirely absent as well. Perhaps part of this is due to Spheeris’s timing. After Ronald Reagan won the Presidency in 1980, the scene grew more outspoken and political as it galvanized around a common foe, especially the D.C. hardcore scene, with bands like Minor Threat. But the D.C. scene was vastly different, just as those of Portland, Boston, and Austin assumed the cultural proclivities of their surrounding parent cultures. As for L.A.’s parent culture, its mythos is a binary narrative, of success or failure, of making it big or not, and its punk scene embraced the pessimistic dystopian flip-side of Hollywood’s fantasy utopia, while avoiding the articulation of any viable alternative.

The scene would not last long, imploding by the mid 80s as hardcore morphed into various sub-movements and the emergence of college radio and the proliferation of zine distribution offered those bored with the mainstream a broad range of diverse sounds from every region of the country. Due to several high-profile cases–particularly, it should be noted, the 1988 “East Side White Pride” beating death of Ethiopian student Mulugeta Seraw in southeast Portland–hardcore gradually became synonymous with the White Aryan Resistance skinhead movement. Americans didn’t care about the philosophical nuances between the historic leftist working-class “Oi!” skins and the Nazi-fetishizing psychopaths. If you had a shaved head and liked music with so many beats-per-minute, you were a skinhead and dangerous; and that probably killed the scene faster than anything. It would take another ten years and the popular acceptance of “grunge”, when bands like Nirvana cited Black Flag, X, and Portland-based Wipers as key influences on their craft, for hardcore/punk to shed the Aryan white-power associations that it had, in many ways, created by its own carelessness and ignorance.

Pierrot Le Fou

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“In my other films, when I had a problem, I asked myself what Hitchcock would have done in my place. While making Pierrot, I had the impression that he wouldn’t have known how to answer, other than ‘Work it out for yourself.'” — Godard

As the 1960s became politicized, so did sectors of the French New Wave. The artistic philosophies that once united the directors into a common cause began to collapse. In the wake of the Paris protest riots of 1968, their ideological assertion from ten years prior, that the true aesthetics of film art transcended politics, was quaint and hilariously naïve. Cahiers du Cinema became a platform for extremist Marxism and drew hard, red lines in the sand, questioning the allegiances of all directors and asking what they were doing for the “movement.” Even the magazine’s founding fathers Truffaut and Rohmer were not spared its editorial ire, despite the former’s public stand against colonial French involvement in Algeria. The only director to sometimes get a pass was Jean-Luc Godard, starting with Pierrot le Fou.

At the tangential heart of Pierrot le Fou is a genre that meant much to Godard and the entire French New Wave: the crime story, particularly film noir and the American hardboiled literature that gave rise to that movement. Although on the fringes in their home culture, crime writers such as Horace McCoy, Jim Thompson, and James Cain were nothing short of rock stars in postwar France, whose literati championed their works as existentialist masterpieces, using lowly populist genre fiction to assert broader truths about the human condition. Truffaut’s second film, Shoot the Piano Player, was based on a novel by Philadelphia-born David Goodis, and one could point to Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows as arguably the perfect distilment of noir and street. Godard had, by the time of shooting Pierrot le Fou, mined the crime genre extensively with BreathlessBand of Outsiders, and Alphaville. He now set out to shoot Lionel White’s 1962 novel Obsession. To be fair, Godard was never very kind to the authors whose works he chose to adapt. Even when he stuck extremely close to the source narrative, like in Contempt, he publicly described Alberto Moravia’s novel as a “nice, vulgar one for a train journey, full of old-fashioned sentiments.” As for the affectations of the crime genre, he had always been liberal with his interpretations and unafraid to toss convention aside whenever it bored him. One week before shooting began, he realized that he no longer cared for the story and even less about telling a crime tale. It was his moment of crisis, an inspirational meltdown not unlike Fellini’s preceding the project that would become his own landmark, Otto e mezzo (8 1/2).

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Godard, Karina, Belmondo, on-set

Of Pierrot le Fou, Godard has said that he felt as if he were making his first film. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Jean Paul-Belmondo, made an international star by Godard’s first film Breathless, agreed to work on the project for a drastically reduced fee, as a favor to his friend. Anna Karina, his go-to female lead and recently-divorced wife, would play opposite. This was also fitting, as Obsession, the darkly-comic story of a man entering into a doomed relationship with a woman who destroys him, now became, at least in part, Godard’s nihilistic portrait of the relationship that he felt had destroyed his life. By all accounts, his divorce from Karina–and more specifically, what he obsessively perceived as her betrayal–had brought him into an extended psychological crisis from which he was incapable of extricating himself. The shoot was incredibly tense. Belmondo later described their on-set interaction as like “a cobra and a mongoose, always glaring at one another.” Fights and explosions were commonplace. When Karina asked “What should I do?” on one scene due to his cryptic script, Godard supposedly screamed “You have a mouth to talk with, don’t you?!” Entire sections of the film were improvised, with Godard having only the vaguest outline of where he was going with it all. In the end, the film’s caustic world view owes much more to the French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline than any hardboiled crime writer; at one point Belmondo’s Ferdinand Griffon (a.k.a. “Pierrot”) even recites from Céline’s London Bridge: Guignol’s Band II.

Apart from the conflicts with Karina, Godard was clearly entering into bold, new political terrain here. If he had reservations in the past about protesting French oppression in colonial Algeria, all such concerns seemed to evaporate with regard to Vietnam. The troop escalation of 1965 cemented his rage against America and their dogged attempts at imposing colonial rule on a nation fighting for unification and independence. The spontaneous “troop performance” sequence with Belmondo and Karina still holds up brilliantly, even more so for it being 1965, several years before mainstream protest started in earnest. I can not think of a single American film from this time period that so ruthlessly lampoons American war culture and its racist stereotypes of Asians. And lest one believe that Godard’s Marxist leanings place him on the side of the Russians, there’s Pierrot’s insightful fable about the Americans and Soviets meeting the man on the moon. Everyone is selling something after all.

Although considered a colossal failure at the time, and not even distributed in the U.S. until 1969, Pierrot le Fou would inspire a generation of underground and indie filmmakers who were drawn to its revolutionary form, its dark humor, and the struggle of its adrift protagonists as they search for some illusory sliver of happiness in an otherwise insane world. Chantal Akerman calls it the determining moment in her artistic life. “I went to see the film because of its intriguing and funny title. When I came out of the theater, I was on my own little cloud. I didn’t try to analyze the how and why of it: I knew I would spend my life making films. Period.”

Vivre Sa Vie

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“The camera is a witness.” — Godard on Vivre Sa Vie

Jean Luc-Godard’s first flight was slow and iffy. Although a prolific writer for Cahiers Du Cinema, he was the last of the French New Wave directors to complete a film, and his initial work ethic does not instill one with great faith in his abilities: no script; a storyline that continued to mutate on a daily basis; no shooting permits; a cast and crew kept in the dark until the last minute. And yet somehow, Breathless, released in 1960, quickly became the pinnacle of urban Sixties Euro-chic and remains today arguably the most famous French film of all time. On its heels came two financial and critical disasters: A Woman Is A Woman, a comedy/musical Cinemascope extravaganza that left both public and critics confused, and Le Petit Soldat, a political film–Godard called it an “adventure” film–about France’s escalating colonial war in Algeria, which received the coveted honor of being denied both the “visa d’exploitation” and the “vida d’exportation” from the French government’s Minister of Information, meaning it was banned both at home and abroad. During this time, he met and married Anna Karina, who had leading roles in Woman and Soldat, with the pair also famously appearing in Agnes Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7 as the two silent actors in the film within a film, something that surely appealed to the self-reflexive cineaste in Godard.

But the honeymoon period was short-lived. Godard was psychotically jealous and went so far as to ask Karina to stop acting once they were married, to which she responded by accepting a leading role in a film by Jacques Bourdon, Le Soleil dans l’oeil. On location in Corsica, and growing increasingly estranged from Godard, she fell in love with her co-actor Jacques Perrin and had an affair. Back in Paris, she told Godard about Perrin and that she wanted a divorce. The possessive Godard completely destroyed the furnishings of their apartment and left. Karina attempted suicide, taking an overdose of barbiturates that by all accounts would have killed her had Perrin not unexpectedly broken into the apartment after not hearing from her. While Karina was hospitalized, at a bistro Godard challenged Perrin to dice (a New Wave duel?) and then poker, which was interrupted by a public fistfight with photographers. Both then went to Karina’s bedside. It was through this lens of harmony, and a shaky reconciliation with Anna Karina, that Godard approached his next project, Vivre Sa Vie.

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LEFT: Godard/Karina filming Alphaville / RIGHT: “Silent” cameo in Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7

More so than with most directors, it is nearly impossible to separate Godard’s artistic output from his contentious and volatile private life. New Wave scholars have that demarcation line between his marriage to Karina and his growing radicalization in the wake of the 1965 escalation of the Vietnam War. But it is starting here, with Vivre Sa Vie, that both Godard and Karina broke new ground, or at least pushed heavily on its boundaries. Part of the reason that it is hard to differentiate the couple from the film is the personal nature of the work itself. The lead is Nana, an obvious anagram for Anna, and the somber script, based on twelve “tableaux vivants” (or “living paintings”) in the life of a sex worker, is in turns vengeful and empathetic. Whereas in the past Anna Karina was a lead, in Vivre Sa Vie, she becomes the film’s raison d’être, the focus of both Godard’s passion and his hatred.

Technically speaking, Godard had never worked this way before. Sets were static, mics limited, cameras heavy and immobile. Each scene was often comprised of several long takes meticulously set up by Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard, with few cuts or edits. It was the first film ever to abandon post-synchronized sound, the process where ambient sounds and dialogue are added or embellished in the studio following the shoot. Godard, completely committed to this idea of capturing snapshots of authenticity, wanted all sound recorded on a single track, on the set, which meant even more limits to actor movement and blocking. The song coming from the jukebox must sound like a song coming from a jukebox, and not act as a brief segue into a full-fledged studio recording: it was a strangely philosophical approach to sound that he stuck to religiously throughout the shoot. The camera, although moored, swings pendulously within scenes, often obscuring faces or shooting actors from behind as they speak to one another, as in the extended opening sequence where Nana speaks to her ex at the bar, our only glimpse of their facial expressions cast via the mirror behind the counter.

Despite the liberation inherent in the title, which roughly translates as “to live one’s life”, in the end, this is inescapably a film about Godard and Karina’s demise, a melancholic-if-beautiful exercise in which one often feels the uncomfortable role of psychoanalytic voyeur. Anna Karina puts in one of the best performances of her entire career (her tear-streaked face as she watches Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc remains one of the most famous film stills of all time), and Godard would rarely give such autonomy to a female protagonist again. Despite this being an attempt at drawing them closer, if anything, it seems to have done the exact opposite, as Karina would again attempt suicide before the production was finished and Godard could often be found sleeping on the floor of his producer’s office. Nevertheless, they managed to continue working together, collaborating on such classic projects as Alphaville, Band of Outsiders, and Pierrot Le Fou, before going their separate ways. Today Vivre Sa Vie remains the subtle, understated flashpoint of the brilliance that was to come.

Cleo From 5 to 7

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In the 1970s, film studies in Great Britain and the United States took an interesting turn. Scholars lessened their preoccupation with retrospective, hero-worship analyses of the oeuvres of individual directors (e.g. “John Ford is a genius and here is why”) and took up the mantle of other socio-political movements that were drastically altering the landscape of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Foremost among these was feminism and the study of gender representation, which opened up multidisciplinary areas of research previously ignored and, in turn, deeply invigorated film scholarship.

Well, everywhere except France. French film scholars remained a recalcitrant, old-boy network, with only a small cadre of researchers pushing against a canon that had become almost unquestionable it its position of cultural dominance. As one feminist scholar, Genevieve Sellier, points out in her study Masculine Singular, it is the “blind spot in French historiography of the New Wave.” Part of the problem is that, almost from its inception, the New Wave was a movement intensely reflexive and self-conscious, bordering on narcissistic. It cemented its ideology quickly via its own journal Cahiers du Cinema, essentially carving out an identity within its pages, with more “objective” critics falling in line without too much protest. For an “avant garde” movement on the cutting edge of modernity, it was suspiciously comprised solely of white men, and the exceptions to this can be counted on one hand. Last week’s film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, covered one of these, the writer Marguerite Duras, whose full command of the script placed her on par with director Alain Resnais. This week’s screening covers the second key figure, Agnes Varda, director of 1962’s Cléo from 5 to 7.

Varda started her career as a photojournalist before shifting into filmmaking in 1954, with the important work La Pointe courte–an odd hybrid of ascetic romance and fishing village documentary–which today many non-French scholars cite as the origins of the New Wave. Varda admits that she is often more concerned with the objectivist, documentary elements of her work and even went so far as to say that Cléo from 5 to 7 was a documentary on early-1960s Paris with a story about a sick girl overlain onto it. While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, Varda was clearly influenced by the nascent cinéma vérité movement then taking off in France, best exemplified in the works of anthropologists/filmmakers like Jean Rouch, with Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer) from 1960, and Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx’s Les raquetteurs from 1958. She was most closely affiliated with what came to be known as the Left Banke movement of filmmakers, whose tastes leaned towards leftist and literary; this group also included her husband Jacques Demy (Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and Alain Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour).

Cléo from 5 to 7 is unique in several aspects. At the most obvious level, it is the first New Wave narrative to be both directed by a woman and to have a woman as the lead protagonist. These two components together are key, as all New Wave representations of femininity on screen up to this point had been masculine stereotypes of women, e.g. the doomed, 19th-century-romantic man unable to find his true inner artistic self due to a relationship with a woman who will eventually destroy him. Conversely, Cléo from 5 to 7 has at its core two transformative hours (90 minutes technically) in the life of a woman who is sick and awaiting a diagnosis. We follow her from location to location, from cafes to rehearsal sessions, to meetings with strangers to mini-breakdowns. She wanders. She meets random people for conversations, listens to herself on a jukebox. In a brilliant twist, Varda cleverly paints her as a somewhat vain petit-bourgeoisie minor celebrity ye-ye singer, which prevents over-sentimentalizing her subject and thus avoids slipping into a maudlin vibe. It is a clever move which gives the viewer the perfect amount of distance from the subject, being able to sympathize with both her fear of mortality and the rolled eyes of friends that accuse her of being an insufferable drama queen.

Apart from Cléo and Hiroshima, the only comparable New Wave film to feature a strong female lead that avoids some level of patriarchal spin is Louis Malle’s 1960 adaptation of Zazie in the Metro, which contemporary scholars have refreshingly reanalyzed as a sort of anarchic, riot-grrrl manifesto against the suffocation of a sterile, postwar, male-dominated Paris. That many New Wave directors hated this film and others that failed to conform to their strict worldview does speak volumes about the accusations later leveled against them as “masculine-singular” sexists, as they replaced the cinema of their fathers with one just as ideologically suspect.

Hiroshima Mon Amour

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“You can describe Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour as Faulkner plus Stravinsky.” — Jean-Luc Godard, 1959

Given the rise of the documentary form in the second half of the 20th century, it seems somehow fitting that the film that would come to define modernism in narrative cinema began its life as one. It was to be called Picadon–“The Flash”–and was to be the first French/Japanese collaboration on Hiroshima’s devastation by the A-bomb. It was a risky proposition. Impossible to imagine today given its cultural ubiquity, but in 1959, the last thing anyone wanted to talk about was World War 2. Even the Holocaust itself was taboo and beyond the realm of popular discussion until a film by Alain Resnais called Night and Fog premiered in 1955, a stark, harrowing documentary that has lost none of its punch in the last sixty years. It was this work that caused the project’s producers to approach Resnais, convinced that he could give the same treatment to the catastrophic event that helped launch the Cold War. What they got, however, was something different and entirely unexpected. What they got was the first modernist narrative masterpiece of postwar cinema, Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Why Resnais decided to abandon a form, the documentary, in which he had just experienced such a resounding success is a bit of a mystery, especially since he had never directed a fictional feature film before. It is clear from his own reflections that he had grave doubts going into the project, right up to the flight to Japan with cast and crew, wondering if the entire undertaking would end up a colossal failure. Given the script with which he was working, and the fact that he was determined to alter very little of it to suit conventional narrative form, it is easy to understand his anxiety. After all, this was not a love story that embraced the viewer, quickly provided familiar stereotypes, and proceeded into a three-act, run-of-the mill plot of conflict with tidy resolution. No, this was something weird, something that made up its own rules, something that pushed the audience to places it had never been before. Hiroshima Mon Amour would be the first of his many collaborations with great writers, this time with Marguerite Duras. Having made an impression in French literary circles with her novel Moderato Cantabile, with its odd shifts of time and space, Resnais contacted Duras and asked if she would be interested in writing a script. Following a few brief conversations, Resnais gave Duras complete authorial control over the finished screenplay, even in light of the fact that she had never written for film before. They decided the film would be about the bombing, yes, but more importantly, about a 36-hour love affair between a French woman and a Japanese man, about the conflicts between memory and present, about the trauma of the past and its ongoing influence over one’s life. Duras herself, as it would come to be known in her later works, such as 1984’s The Lover, had been deeply affected by a teenage affair with a 30-year-old Chinese man in French-Indochina, and it is almost impossible not to spot the emotional debris of that experience in the female lead, played by Emmanuelle Riva. Although one of many films derived from the works of Duras in the 1950s-60s, it is the only one imprinted deeply with her sense of self, where her ideas are embedded and crafted carefully within the script and not a watered-down attempt at transferring her complex literary rhythms into a conventional and linear film narrative. Later, when she would try her own hand at directing, her scripts suffered from a slowness and lack of action that is absent in Hiroshima Mon Amour, which speaks to the pair’s respective strengths as artists: Duras handling the big philosophical ideas; Resnais and his editor skillfully tying the disconnected bits together.

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M. Duras

The narrative itself is broken down into five distinct sections. The first, running 15 minutes into the film, is the most abstract and disorienting, a brilliant montage of image and sound: intimate shots of hands caressing skin; historical images of bomb-burned flesh; a series of tracking shots through a Hiroshima memorial museum; a B-grade Japanese re-enactment film from the late 1940s; all overlain with two voices, whose identities are withheld for the entirety of the sequence. It is a testament to his faith in Duras’s craft that Resnais did not attempt to move this section elsewhere within the story. Few films in the history of cinema had ever demanded so much of an audience, denying them framework or foundations for a quarter of an hour, without any anchor apart from the fragmented sentences and how these comments relate to the action shown on screen. As this section ends, a more linear narrative begins, but one which is constantly shifting between past (the woman’s traumatic remembrances of occupied France and her German lover in Nevers) and present (the 36-hour affair with a stranger in Hiroshima, played by Eiji Okada.) One of Duras’s greatest gifts as a novelist is that of dialogue, and Resnais wisely allows her the freedom to toy with language and meaning in much the same way as she does in her fiction. Contemporary filmmakers, such as Wong Kar-Wai with In The Mood For Love, borrow heavily from the look and feel of Hiroshima, particularly the tendency for private moments to reveal themselves in public spaces, albeit public spaces that are vast, isolated, and devoid of a public. A peculiar and elusive sense of dread permeates the film, perhaps reflecting the fact that, at any given second throughout the late 1950s, hundreds of bombers were circling the globe 24-7, all filled with nuclear payloads that could be dropped on a moment’s notice. Today, this fact would strike many as nostalgic and darkly comical, but given the Strangelove-esque revelations of close-calls and technical snafus that have come to light in recent years in both American and Russian archives–from bombers breaking apart in midair over the Carolinas, to malfunctioning Soviet first-alert systems in Eastern Europe–this dread was more than justified.

Interestingly, although it makes no bold political statement, Hiroshima Mon Amour was kept from the main competition at Cannes in 1959 due to its content. Those running the festival were concerned about upsetting the United States and gave the film a separate slot, where it garnered accolades and eventually earned the International Critics’ Prize. It ended up being the runaway hit of the festival, along with Truffaut’s first film, 400 Blows. Resnais was older and not part of the French New Wave clique, and yet, Truffaut, Godard, Roehmer, and other directors hailed Hiroshima as a masterpiece of modernism, proclaiming it the most important film yet of the postwar period. They predicted that it would still be watched and discussed in thirty or forty years time, a conservative prediction that has fallen short now by several decades.

400 Blows

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“In 1959, we were living a dream.  Everything was happening in ways that would have been inconceivable two years earlier.” — Francois Truffaut

Today it would be difficult to imagine anyone arguing that film is not art, that directors like Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford are not artists on par with an Ibsen or a Chekhov, but these are relatively recent concepts in cultural studies. In terms of cultural cache, film had always been the red-headed stepchild of the stage, a prejudice held over from the silent film era. Films considered grand critical successes were often based on dramas or novels. After all, what was a movie besides a filmed stage performance? What was the camera besides an obstacle to be overcome between actors and audience? And what was a director besides a hired technician whose job it was to massage another’s work into something commercially viable?

Film had been analyzed before. Throughout the 1930s, German intellectuals of what came to be known as the Frankfurt School (mainly Sigfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno) had written about the “distraction industries” from a sociological perspective in the newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung. But there were no critical journals dedicated to film studies, just industry magazines like Variety that concentrated on movie reviews, gross earnings, who was wearing what, etc. That’s why Cahiers Du Cinema was a game changer. The journal, founded in 1951 by a small clique of fanatical French film enthusiasts, would go down as one of the most important developments in the history of film, not only modernizing the form, but also altering the very foundation of how we talked about it. In fact, so deeply embedded are the French New Wave’s core tenets to contemporary film discourse–the auteur theory, shot-for-shot mise-en-scene, the concept of caméra-stylo, or “camera-as-pen”–they are simply givens of our critical nomenclature.

Truffaut’s 400 Blows was the breakout New Wave film at Cannes in 1959, along with Resnais’s and Duras’s Hiroshima Mon Amour. But while the latter belied Resnais’s slick professionalism and Duras’s gifts at complex narrative, 400 Blows was a different type of New Wave experience. Truffaut’s childhood parallels that of his child lead, and it was one of the first times in the history of cinema where a director drew upon the mundane and painful aspects of youth, not in an empathetic, reformatory manner, but simply to show childhood as it really is through the eyes of someone living it: a panache of escapism, confusion, complacency, boredom, occasionally run-ins with the authorities. Like his protagonist, Truffaut was a lower-class kid, bouncing within a system of reformists, with a father he never knew and a mother who was indifferent at best. He found refuge and escape in the cinema, thus beginning a lifelong obsession with American film that he shared with his peers at Cahiers Du Cinema, many of whom would be at the cutting-edge of European filmmaking before the decade was out. But it was Truffaut who first kicked that door open, allowing him the financial means to fund other projects, which he generously did, such as Godard’s Breathless the following year. Somewhat gun-shy politically, he was never the militant activist that Godard later became, a split which eventually led to their falling out with one another and never reconciling before Truffaut’s untimely death from cancer in 1984.

In many ways, the naturalism of 400 Blows is now the norm. But in 1959, it was unheard of for most directors to improvise in the ways that Truffaut did, to give any actor, much less a child, the ability to go off script and just be themselves. The interrogation session where Atonie is being questioned, with Jean-Pierre Léaud running with lines of dialogue that seemed fitting to him, is one of the most melancholic and impressive scenes in all of the New Wave. Indeed, Truffaut seemed psychologically intertwined with his Antoine Doinel doppelgänger, as Jean-Pierre Léaud would return three times to play the same character again over the next twenty years: Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979).

Elevator to the Gallows

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“I showed a Paris not of the future but at least a modern city, a world already dehumanized.” — Louis Malle

The question of where to start a retrospective of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) is problematic. All would agree that 1959 was the explosive year, the year that Truffaut’s 400 Blows and Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour galvanized the movement and brought French filmmakers into the vanguard of European cinema. But like all cultural movements, stirrings were happening earlier, the best example of which is the film that I’ve selected to kick off the fall lineup: Louis Malle’s  Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud), from 1958.

Stylistically, Louis Malle is a notoriously difficult director to pin down. His career from the very beginning–which starts here incidentally, in 1958, at 25–has been filled with idiosyncrasies and an aversion to easy pigeonholing. It would have been simple to stick with a formula that worked and keep producing slight variations on a theme; after all, more complacent directors have spent entire financially-lucrative careers doing just that. But remarkably Elevator to the Gallows is Malle’s only thriller in a career that lasted 30 years. Soon he would be on to projects as diverse as The Fire Within, the story of a man’s last day before suicide, and Zazie in the Metro, his outlandishly anarchistic adaptation of the modernist French novel by Raymond Queneau. Malle was not a member of the clique of critics-turned-directors whose names are now synonymous with French New Wave: Truffaut, Charbol, Rohmer, and Godard. Malle came from a prosperous family of French industrialists and grew up in a world quite unlike that of Truffaut and his boy alter-ego, Antoine Doniel, in 400 Blows. But like Malle, they all shared an obsession for the grittier elements of classical Hollywood cinema: the film noirs of Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder; the dark domestic weirdness of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray; and the tight narrative meticulousness of Alfred Hitchcock.

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Miles Davis and Jeanne Moreau

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Elevator to the Gallows is, in a sense, the first New Wave thriller, or perhaps the first New Noir. This is even more noteworthy given its screenplay’s origins in a rather bland boilerplate novel that caught Malle’s eye. After cutting his teeth as an assistant cameraman to Jacques Costeau and Robert Bresson, Malle took the work to a writer he admired, Roger Nimier, and suggested a collaboration. Nimier thought the story ridiculous but agreed on the condition that they rethink things, keeping the good bits, tossing the bad, and expanding when necessary. One key change in their adaptation is the emphasis given to the female character, who goes from prop to protagonist. For this important role, Malle cast Jeanne Moreau, a stage actress then primarily known for parts in B-films. Her melancholic performance was precisely what the film required: it becomes a film not about murder, but about loss and frailty, propelled forward by Miles Davis’s jazz score and the slow tracking shots that follow Moreau through the rainy Parisian streets. Gone are the voice-overs of noir past, with their clichés and canned fatalism. Instead, Moreau’s internal monologue reflects an existential ennui about the modern world, a world debased and morally askew, “already dehumanized” as Malle notes above. In what would go down as one of the most well-regarded jazz soundtracks of all time, Miles Davis famously played the score live, watching the film on a screen in the studio while his quartet improvised, adding, as spectators and participants, new layers of emotional complexity. Throughout these drifting street night shots, the presence of Davis and his trumpet becomes an essential component just as key as Moreau to achieving Malle’s narrative goals. In doing so, they created something entirely modernist and new, a thriller not afraid of large silent spaces, contemplative, and even romantic.

The symbol of the road is important here, a metaphor for transition and lack of permanence. Like his peers, Malle shared an obsession with the street, for the stark naturalism of the postwar Italian “Neo-Realist” movement best exemplified in Rosselini’s Paisan and Rome Open City (of their European contemporaries, it is probably he, along with Bresson, who exerted the most influence on the early aesthetic of the New Wave, particularly cinematography and sound.) The release of Tri-X black-and-white film in 1954 is an often overlooked moment in the history of film. For the first time, it allowed for naturalistic lighting, for actors to look grainy and devoid of the Hollywood gloss, for crews to load into a pram with nothing but a camera and a mic and film quickly on location. The film’s technicians were aghast at the early takes. Jeanne Moreau should only appear beautiful, they said. Why would Malle put her in the rain and make her look miserable? Such was the state of French film, with upbeat picturesque motifs on Parisian romance the norm in those days.

Also of note are the script elements critical of French foreign policy and its colonial militancy abroad. Although not known as a particularly political director, Elevator does project a general war weariness creeping into French culture, with snide dialogue jabs at war profiteering in Algeria and Indochina, as well as the worthy plot point of a military industrialist being killed with his own gun.

So Elevator to the Gallows holds a unique spot, being neither the opening salvo in the New Wave’s assault, nor championing and upholding the outdated “cinéma de papa” (“Dad’s cinema”), as the young turks arrogantly referred to the French film establishment. It stands as a remarkably polished and competent first film from a director who would go on to create a body of work as diverse as Lacombe, Lucien (1974), Atlantic City (1980), My Dinner with Andre (1981), and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994).

American Dream

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One of the most devastating and shameful developments of postwar American society was the war waged on organized labor by corporations, in collusion with the Reagan Administration, from 1980-88. To assign an end date is deceptive, of course, since we continue to feel the waves to this day. The era began appropriately enough, with Reagan acting as a “mediator” in the air traffic controllers’ strike, where he “permanently replaced” 1,400 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controller’s Organization. This sent a clear and unmistakable message to companies from coast to coast: “Clean house, we’ve got your back.” They took it to heart too: Phelps Dodge in Arizona in 1983; Chicago Tribune in 1987; Caterpillar in 1989; and perhaps the most famous of all, Hormel in 1985, the subject of Baraba Kopple’s Academy-Award winning documentary American Dream.

After the stagnation of the 1970s economy, the horrible recession that hit in 1982 provided corporations with the perfect pretext to crush labor, an opportunity that had not presented itself since the 1930s. This was the beginning of what would later be codified as globalization, and economists Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison outline the situation quite clearly in their 1982 book The Deindustrialization of America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment, and the Dismantling of Basic Industry. In the quest to remain “globally competitive,” companies were willing to do whatever it took, even destroying the very social fabric of communities that had devoted their entire working lives to the success of their firms.

It started in what is called the “Frostbelt” of the northeast, first with the steel mills, then spreading to other areas of manufacturing. Reagan’s public relations team were brilliant propagandists, pushing patriotism and national pride, the myth of the “home team” and language designed to foster illusions of equality, community and collective struggle (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s 1989 book Fear of Falling for a good discussion of this). Suddenly “union” became a dirty word. Unions were un-American, greedy, out for themselves. That this view was even embraced by large portions of an increasingly-conservative working class that unions had supported for decades is a testament to the efficacy of the smear campaign. Concurrently, the management consultant industry boomed as corporations looked for ways to increase their profit margins by slashing wages, benefits, and pensions. Factories moved in droves to the south, the “Sunbelt,” where labor was cheap and migrants plenty.

The packinghouse P-9 strike at Hormel in Austin, Minnesota showed how far manufacturing management was willing to go in this new era: they closed the old factory, built a new “hi-tech” one that resembled a prison (where worker injuries reached epidemic proportions), and demanded deep wage cuts. And this was during a string of double-digit record profits for Hormel, which was outstripping its competitors by huge margins. Several years earlier, at the behest of the United Food and Commercial Worker’s (UFCW), P-9 had already reluctantly agreed to a set of concessions that dramatically increased management’s power. So when a clause in this earlier agreement was invoked, demanding a unilateral 23% pay cut across the board, P-9 geared up for a fight. Tired of the UFCW selling them down the river, they brought in Ray Rogers of Corporate Campaign Inc., a consultant firm which specialized in high-profile media assaults on corporations, typically with boycotts and pressure strategies on banks and stakeholders. It galvanizes worker spirit but the impact on Hormel is minimal. As the months wear on, the International and UFCW withdraw all support and striker benefits, even encouraging P-9 members to be scabs and cross their own picket lines. Some choose to do so, burning bridges with their neighbors, their friends, their family members. Others block streets, get hit with teargas and arrested, refuse to give in. The destruction of the social fabric, as predicted.

On the bright side, American Dream highlights a new energy in labor, one that shows how out of touch the national labor leaders had become, with their exorbitant salaries and willingness to negotiate with unfair corporate demands. This new spirit is summed up well by one striker late in the film, when he realizes that the P-9 membership, even after months of pickets and civil disobedience, will ultimately have to pick between unfair concessions or unemployment: “Fuck ’em, we’ll find something else,” he says defiantly, walking away from the union hall mic.

Don’t Look Back

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“If we were someplace else I’d punch you in your goddamn nose.” — Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman to hotel manager

Although documentaries on music and musicians are numerous, most mainstream ones come across as promotional vehicles or linear overviews of careers that seem like 90-minute music videos. It’s unfortunate, because things began quite differently. In fact, the 1960s saw some of the best music documentaries of all time, including Gimme ShelterMonterey Pop, and D. A. Pennebaker’s venerated classic covering Bob Dylan’s 1965 U.K. tour, Dont Look Back (sic).

The intro sequence alone, with “Subterranean Homesick Blues” playing and Bob Dylan dropping cue cards one at a time, has been copied and parodied so many times in popular culture that people have often seen the references before the referenced. It was originally conceived by Dylan as a sort of Scopitone movie, a French invention that was essentially a jukebox that played a 16mm film, the forerunner of the music video. Although by 1967, this song could almost be seen as Dylan nostalgia–so fast was his trajectory into, and through the other side, of the rock scene–at the time of shooting it was likely a sly dig at the folkies, flaunting his new noisy aesthetic that would come to define much of his middle career. The then-recently-released “Subterranean Homesick Blues” hangs heavy in the air throughout the entire film, a harbinger of what was to come. Teenage girls complain to him and Dylan shoots back with “Oh, you’re that type, I get it,” before kindly reframing with “But I like to play with my friends…You don’t mind if my friends play on my record, do you?” Today, it is impossible for us to comprehend what an alien sounding and oddly structured song this was for fans accustomed to “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” Although these were recorded just a couple of years prior and can be heard on car radios throughout the film, promoting his concert appearances, Dylan is so clearly bored with these tunes while performing live that he flies through them at fast tempos. They feel like necessary obligations en route to the new introspection of “It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Gates of Eden,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

Dylan is so canonized within American popular culture today, it is important to remember his place in music in 1965, when he continued the process of stepping away from a folk scene that he had outgrown creatively but which still clung to him as their conduit into the semi-mainstream. The first small step can be seen in 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan, where he abandoned politics for poetics while keeping the acoustic aesthetic completely intact. At the time of this tour Bringing It All Back Home had just been released, which saw Dylan split literally in half: Side 1, electric; Side 2, acoustic. The next album, Highway 61 Revisited, would see him take the full electric plunge. It was a huge artistic gamble, tossing away an entire folk fanbase that loved and supported him for a rock scene that knew nothing of his music, only that he was some Woody Guthrie wannabe in a train conductor’s hat. It’s worth bearing in mind that Dylan could have very easily fallen on his face and ended up a mockery, rejected by both audiences.

Pennebaker’s grainy, unpolished film captured a musician at work like no one had ever seen before: goading on reporters; playing Hank Williams in his hotel room; looking utterly exhausted. Some of the confrontation scenes themselves are now classics of rock pop culture, referred to in such shorthand as “The Science Student,” “The High Sheriff’s Lady,” and “Who Threw the Glass in the Street?” It is incredible to think that by the time Dont Look Back saw its 1967 theatrical release, Dylan was done. He had conquered electric, inspired countless imitators, cut two more albums–one of them a double, Blonde on Blonde–and toured endlessly against hostile crowds with the Hawks (The Band) in tow. Pennebaker was there to film this too, through Europe in 1966. The final product, never officially released but known as Eat the Document by generations of bootleggers, was dark, depressing, and utterly unwatchable. In it, drastically underweight and strung-out, one sees very clearly the end that was fast approaching; and it’s probably sheer luck that Bob Dylan didn’t end up on the roster along with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Brian Jones. The eventual crash was both chemical and literal: amphetamines; heroin; vitamin-B12 injections; and the infamous (and still debated) July ’66 motorcycle wreck that almost broke his neck. Dylan, barely 27 years old, went into hiding and started fresh, back to acoustics for the subdued John Wesley Harding LP, not touring again for nearly eight years.

Salesman

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“I forget who the poet is, but a famous English poet said something like, ‘There’s no sound more beautiful, whether it’s in the city or in the country, than the sound of a knocking on the door.’ …. To that I would add, ‘Unless it was a Bible salesman.'” — Albert Maysles on Salesman

If brothers Albert & David Maysles excelled at one point in documentary filmmaking, it was finding the quiet drama in the seeming banality of the everyday. And while their other subjects–the Rolling Stones in Gimme Shelter and the eccentric Beales of Grey Gardens infamy to name but two–are often better known, it is Salesman that has always affected me the most. Maybe it’s the simplicity, or rather, the complexity of something that on the surface seems so simple. After all, documenting Bible salesmen on their day-to-day peddling routes through suburban Boston could have been unbearably dull. But it isn’t. In fact, I would argue that what is captured–and importantly, brilliantly edited together–exemplifies a sort of quintessential Americanism: a fusion of huckster commercialism, quasi-religiousness, human frailty, and a good dose of sales guilt, all stretched over the classic Horatio Alger myth of “working your way up from nothing.”

Of course, this myth works out well for some, not so well for others. So it is here, where four men–all assigned animal names by the Maysles to describe their attitudes: The Rabbit, The Bull, The Badger, and The Gipper–have mixed success peddling overpriced Bibles to families that can ill afford their $50 price tag. Very early on, Paul Brennan, the Badger, is clearly different from the rest. Especially awkward are the scenes where all men are together talking about their day’s work, Paul clearly not cut our for the task. Despite his rationale for why the sales aren’t happening, and the caustic behind-the-scenes tone he takes on with regard to his clients, he seems almost too self-aware of the superfluousness of his job, of the fact that what he is doing is essentially meaningless and manipulative. The Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, their incredible editor, hone in on this pathos as the key to their narrative. They admitted later to developing a deep empathy for Paul and maintained a long relationship with him well beyond the filming. Paul is also Irish, and the Maysles, growing up in an antagonistic, anti-Irish Boston neighborhood and raised with those views themselves, saw this as an important peacemaking moment for them.

Today, Salesman could be seen as the film that introduced the term “cinema verite” to a wider audience. The term originates in the works of Soviet director Dziga Vertov and his idea of the “Kino Eye,” as seen in his radically experimental The Man with the Movie Camera. The lens simply captures life as it unfolds, without any intervention or narrative artifice from the director. Later this was taken up by french filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch, who coined this term for “truthful cinema.” Nevertheless, it came to embody certain aesthetic ideals and little else, philosophically speaking. At this point in the study of film and media theory, no sane person would argue that the “cinema verite” style is any more “truthful” than that given by someone like Michael Moore. Typically, it is now often shorthand for a documentary that lacks narration or any clear framing devices or contexts for the viewer. Today we really take this form for granted, but in the mid-1960s, almost all documentaries used the newsreel approach, with the omnipotent voice over bringing down the narrative like a sledgehammer, not only providing context but also compensating for the fact that often no microphones were present for the subjects being filmed, with most sound done post production. The Maysles’s  “direct cinema” approach (both brothers hated the pomposity of the phrase “cinema verite”) built upon earlier, more subtle traditions, like Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and the African documentaries of Rouch. The Maysles were “embedded” filmmakers–Albert on 16mm handheld camera, David on the mic and portable reel-to-reel–traveling with their subjects or, in the case of Grey Gardens, practically living in their homes. The Maysles’s reasoning for this was at the very core of their artistic vision: gain their trust, and the rest will follow. The philosophy worked remarkably well for their three essential films, SalesmanGimme Shelter, and Grey Gardens.

But in today’s “reality”-obsessed, media-savvy culture, Salesman is amazing for another reason: the lack of self-consciousness of its subjects. Somehow, no one seems to think it strange to have two men filming in their homes, nor do they think it appropriate to get the curlers from their hair, or put on an overshirt, or not smoke at the table with the baby present, or turn down the wobbly, blaring elevator music on the new hi-fi system. Granted, the brothers did work to get the trust of their main subjects, but there was no such trust with the working class families whose homes they entered; just a quick explanation of this being part of a “human interest story.” After all, it’s what the Maysles Brothers loved, getting at the realness of people in the moment, not in a mocking ironic sense, but in a humanistic and sincere way. And there is no film where this sincerity comes through stronger than Salesman.