Category: Watzek Screens

Repo Man

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“Go West, young man, go West. There is health in the country, and room away from our crowds of idlers and imbeciles.” — Horace Greeley, 1833.

“There’s fuckin’ room to move as a fry cook. I could be manager in two years. King. God.” — Zander Schloss in Repo Man.

How Alex Cox, only 29 and fresh from UCLA film school, ever got Repo Man released and distributed by Universal Studios is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps they felt like there was enough spark left in the then-fading punk LA subculture to sustain a shoestring film shot on just $160,000, or at least to break even on such a gamble. It was, of course, the first big leading role for Emilio Estevez, whose Otto was the epitome of directionless, disenfranchised Reaganomics, and the polar opposite of the disappointing “humanistic jock” he became in the following year’s The Breakfast Club. The two films are worth comparing, not because of Estevez’s involvement, but because of how they embody different takes on teen narratives. Hughes could not avoid the maudlin. Characters must succumb to fits of melancholy introspection where they outline the pain and anguish of their young lives, ultimately highlighting the common bonds that draw them together in doing so. Repo Man was a different kind of teen film, showing the dreary, non-glamorous side of Los Angeles and roping in a pending apocalypse, alien subplots sans aliens, and Harry Dean Stanton. It was anarchy. And it sent a clear message to a cadre of young filmmakers, like Richard Linklater, that teary exposition and epiphany is not always the best path for youth in film. Sometimes its better to dish exposition on social mobility options within the fast food industry and leave it at that.

Today, Alex Cox is probably best known for 1986’s Sid & Nancy, the bio-pic on late Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious and his alleged murder of girlfriend Nancy Spungeon, which, like Estevez in Repo Man, would launch Gary Oldman’s Hollywood career. Sid & Nancy, although sparking debates within the underground music scene at the time of its release, has aged quite well; the issues that people had with it–primarily its gross inaccuracies and stereotypes of the London punk scene–are today moot points, as these histories have been documented dozens of times over the ensuing decades, by both participants and scholars. Cox’s films have always been connected, in varying degrees, with music subculture. Repo Man is a particularly striking example. It premiered to critical raves but due to overall public indifference and confusion closed within two weeks. The soundtrack, however, sparked just enough sales and charted just high enough for Universal to reconsider their decision. But it wasn’t the re-release that gave Repo Man its longevity; it was the nascent-but-exploding market of VHS that really circulated the film where it needed to go, that made it passable from friend to friend, either literally or word-of-mouth recommendations. It was one of the first films whose primary success rested on its VHS reputation alone. By the late 1980s, Repo Man would be acknowledged as the best indie film of the decade, its use of irony and pot shots at everything from dying California hippy culture to dead end jobs making it a clear forerunner to later (and lesser) films like Napoleon Dynamite.

Polyester

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Director John Waters in conversation with Mike Kelley, “The Dirty Boys”, Grand Street, No. 57, Summer 1996:

Waters:  Do you understand how you have computer sex?  I don’t.

Kelley:  I know people who do that.  You get into these chat groups.

Waters:  So, it’s like phone sex, only you type?

Kelley:  You can do a lot more pretending; like you can pretend to be the opposite sex, and the other person doesn’t know.

Waters:  Phone sex I get.  But how do you act butch on a computer?  Do you misspell?  Do you write in bad English?

Kelley:  Yeah, I guess so.  “My warge hands, dese hands, they weach out for youse.”  I don’t know. 

With our nation’s humor now stranded in the doldrums of irony, it is difficult to remember a time when it was not so, when neither cross-dressing nor foot fetishes were part of our popular lexicon. But in 1981, things were very different. It was the year that accidentally-hilarious melodramas like Mommie Dearest and Endless Love raked in millions of dollars and derailed the careers of Faye Dunaway and Brooke Shields, respectively (while both films made inroads into the gay community for reasons wholly unintended). Arthur was the biggest grossing comedy. And John Waters’s film Polyester, well, it didn’t really register, even as it saw Waters shift ever so slightly towards a more mainstream look and feel, a transition that would lead to his breakthrough Hairspray by decade’s end, a film that launched Rikki Lake’s career and, sadly, was Divine’s early exit at just age 42.

Polyester is, of course, best known for its “Odorama” gimmick, where scratch and sniff cards were distributed to filmgoers upon entering the cinema. This was a nod towards the 1950s gimmicks popularized by filmmakers/hucksters like William Castle, whose ridiculous onscreen “Fright Break” timer in the thriller Homicidal Waters remembers fondly:

“Castle simply went nuts. He came up with ‘Coward’s Corner,’ a yellow cardboard booth, manned by a bewildered theater employee in the lobby. When the Fright Break was announced, and you found that you couldn’t take it anymore, you had to leave your seat and, in front of the entire audience, follow yellow footsteps up the aisle, bathed in a yellow light. Before you reached Coward’s Corner, you crossed yellow lines with the stenciled message: ‘Cowards Keep Walking.’ You passed a nurse (in a yellow uniform?…I wonder), who would offer a blood-pressure test. All the while a recording was blaring, “‘Watch the chicken! Watch him shiver in Coward’s Corner’!” As the audience howled, you had to go through one final indignity – at Coward’s Corner you were forced to sign a yellow card stating, ‘I am a bona fide coward.'”

While “Odorama” wasn’t quite as inspired or elaborate, the viewer saw a number on the screen, scratched the appropriate circle, and received anything from airplane glue to roses to dirty feet to new car smell. Among many vaguely familiar with his work, John Waters is best known for his long association with childhood friend, fellow homosexual and drag queen extraordinaire Divine (a.k.a. Glenn Milstead.) Both grew up in Baltimore and maintained a love/hate relationship with the city, the hate manifesting itself comically in Waters’s great gift for parody and satire. Polyester is first and foremost a brilliant manic send-up of the “women’s picture” genre of the 1950s-60s best exemplified in the works of directors like Douglas Sirk (Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind, Magnificent Obsession), films that both Waters and Divine grew up watching, and with which the LGBT community has always held in fascination, reworking the subtext to fit their own world views. Other gay directors, like Ranier Fassbinder, would create contemporary versions of these classics in other languages, like his Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, while directors like Waters projected these melodramatic plots through their own warped filters of suburban Baltimore, where his biggest goal as a rebellious child of Catholicism was to own a porno theater. In a sense, he achieves said goal, as he makes good use of both smut peddlers and Catholic sisters here.

Like all good modernist melodrama from the Sirk period, the lead is a woman, only it’s Divine in drag, who is called Francine Fishpaw, an unhappy alcoholic who fantasizes about escape. In one of the most masterful casting decisions of all time, Waters hired former teen heartthrob (and gay icon) Tab Hunter to play the lustful middle-aged object of Francine’s affection. Tab Hunter, while not officially out at the time, was long rumored to have been homosexual, although the studio’s publicity departments had once worked overtime to connect him romantically to fellow teen stars like Natalie Wood. By 1981, as far as traditional Hollywood was concerned, his career was pretty much dead in the water, and for him to embrace Waters’s vision while mocking his own beefcake status was an inspired and wise career move on his part. But through the course of its 90 minutes, Waters takes aim at everything in this film, from marriage, to abortion, to sexual fetishes, to nuns on hayrides. His cast of non-professionals (and professionals who are hilariously overacting) only lend to its awkward aesthetic of an after-school teen television special gone horribly, well, drunk.

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. The generation born at the decade’s tail-end 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 (or at least quasi-profound) about your sonic relationship to friends. Although anyone hardly thought about it then, it was a key social function of music that the digital realm has been unable to replicate despite 15 years of trying. Its depersonalized blandness isn’t fooling anyone. At best, my Spotify friends menu becomes a virtual snapshot of the perusal of LP spines in someone’s living room; and at worst, an annoying feature you hunt to kill in the program’s preferences.

Watzek Screens “80s Indie” has selected an admittedly minuscule cross-section of what would, ten years later, explode into the Sundance-fueled indie phenomenon that continues on to the present day. I hesitate to use the term “Indie” for this series, but to be honest, in the 1980s, these movements had no names. You were either mainstream or virtually non-existent, since no journalist cared enough to label you anything; or, if they did, you became a new version with your qualifier attached (e.g. “the black Woody Allen” for Spike Lee.) Around the late 80s, terms like “alternative” and “postmodern” began to gain ground and became shorthand for lazy journalists who knew very little about the music scene but needed a quick, if generalized, descriptor. As for film, it was even 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 prostitute, 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.