30 Days of Fandor Films: A Personal Challenge

UPDATE: A few thoughts on completing my 30 Days of Fandor Films Challenge.

Well, well, well: almost three years exactly since the last post on this blog, and here we are again. Not that I haven’t toyed with resurrecting Memories of the Future in those ensuing years, and certainly haven’t stopped writing my thoughts on the movies I watch, but just never quite actually got anything going here again. So why now?

Well, this last summer I’ve been contending with a particularly nasty creative/mental slump, and to help push myself out of it I’ve decided to undertake a small personal challenge: for the next 30 days—the month of September—I’m going to watch a film a day from the queue of my underutilized Fandor account, which has swelled over the years to an absurd 500+ films(!).

Each day I’ll post an image and a few thoughts for documentation purposes. All will be first viewings, and all films were available to stream on Fandor as of September 2016 (I can’t vouch for any availability beyond that!).

Below is the list of all films watched for this project, which will be updated daily. Thanks for following!

30 DAYS OF FANDOR – SEPTEMBER 2016

Day 1 – I MARRIED A WITCH (René Clair, USA, 1942)
Day 2 – ALICE UNDERGROUND (Kate Kline May, USA, 1984)
Day 3 – VIVIAN MAIER PHOTOGRAPHER (Tom Palazzolo, USA, 2012)
Day 4 – OF TIME AND THE CITY (Terence Davies, UK, 2008)
Day 5 – FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (Dick Richards, USA, 1975)
Day 6 – FATA MORGANA (Werner Herzog, Germany, 1971)
Day 7 – THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (Ireland & Sampson, USA, 1955)
Day 8 – HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT’S INFERNO (Bromberg & Medrea, France, 2009)
Day 9 – MEET MARLON BRANDO (Maysles & Maysles, USA, 1966)
Day 10 – VISION (Margarethe von Trotta, Germany, 2009)
Day 11 – WITTGENSTEIN (Derek Jarman, UK, 1993)
Day 12 – THE TIES THAT BIND (Su Friedrich, USA, 1985)
Day 13 – SING SINNER SING (Howard Christie, USA, 1933)
Day 14 – THE ACADEMY OF MUSES (José Luis Guerín, Spain, 2015)
Day 15 – ZOU ZOU (Marc Allégret, France, 1934)
Day 16 – ARAYA (Margot Benacerraf, Venezuela, 1959)
Day 17 – GRANDMA’S BOY (Fred C. Newmeyer, USA, 1922)
Day 18 – ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL (M. de Oliveira, Portugal, 2009)
Day 19 – THE CHESS PLAYERS (Satyajit Ray, India, 1977)
Day 20 – WORKING GIRLS (Lizzie Borden, USA, 1986)
Day 21 – AS TEARS GO BY (Wong Kar Wai, Hong Kong, 1988)
Day 22 – JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V. (Agnès Varda, France, 1988)
Day 23 – LA CAPTIVE (Chantal Akerman, France/Belgium, 2000)
Day 24 – THE GENERAL (Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton, USA, 1926)
Day 25 – DAKAN (DESTINY) (Muhammad Camara, Guinea/France, 1997)
Day 26 – NOTHING SACRED (William A. Wellman, USA, 1937)
Day 27 – NANOOK OF THE NORTH (Robert Flaherty, USA/France, 1922)
Day 28 – PUSSYCATS PARADISE (Ramsey Herrington, UK, 1960)
Day 29 – THE SACRIFICE (OFFRET) (Andrei Tarkovsky, Sweden/UK/France, 1986)
Day 30 – LA JALOUSIE (JEALOUSY) (Philippe Garrel, France, 2013)

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his kind of… man?

“Because, as gays, we grew up isolated not only from our heterosexual peers but also from each other, we turned to the mass media for information and ideas about ourselves… we could use the film–especially those not directly offering us images of ourselves–as we chose.” -Richard Dyer, “Introduction to Gays and Film

As a young queer cinephile, I consider myself lucky to live in a time when it is not particularly difficult to find representations of my own experiences and desires depicted within films, television, and other types of media.  Just last night I had the opportunity to attend a screening at San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival, the oldest LGBT film festival in existence, and beyond the (excellent) films itself, just the fact of taking part in watching a cinematic depiction of gay lives and relationships along with some 1,400 other individuals was itself an incredibly powerful and moving experience.

But on the other hand, I remain endlessly intrigued about times in the not-so-distant past when this type of situation could hardly be imagined, to say nothing about it actually being a reality. One of my favorite things is to sit and gab with two of my “uncles”–a gay couple now in their late 80’s and early 90’s respectively–and listen to their memories of films and stars from the Hollywood studio era, and, most especially, all the juicy gossip that circulated in gay circles (who cares if it was ever true or not?).  It always fascinates me how vibrant many of these stories and perceptions remain for them, and what shape that they take.  For me, these conversations serve as a vivid demonstration of what queer scholars have been writing about for decades–what Dyer describes in the groundbreaking collection of essays he edited Gays and Film as a kind of “queer bricolage.”  Taking the term directly from French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, he defines “bricolage” as “playing around with the elements available to us in such a way as to bend their meanings to our own purposes.”  Through this process “we could pilfer from straight society’s images on the screen such that would help us build up a subculture, or what Jack Babuscio calls a ‘gay sensibility.'”

Even with increased queer visibility and representation in contemporary cinema and culture, this process hasn’t entirely disappeared, but has now largely takes the form of looking back and attempting to decipher and read the queer coding embedded in the films of the past, often wittily recasting these films in our own image.  Christianne over at Krell Labs provided one of my favorite examples of this in her thoughts regarding the last shots of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, stating that she prefers to think that Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell aren’t in fact marrying their rather dull male suitors, but each other.  Posting an image where Monroe and Russell exchange a meaningful glance as visual demonstration, it’s a marvelous re-reading–and queering–of these image(s).

In this spirit, I wish to offer up my own bricolaged interpretation of a classic film I dearly love.  And funny enough, it also stars Jane Russell–the 1951 pseudo-noir His Kind of Woman (John Farrow, USA, 1951).  Russell co-stars with Robert Mitchum, and this is the first of two films in which she was paired with Mitchum, with the second, Joseph von Sternberg’s Macao from the following year the one most usually remembered (despite being overall the lesser film).  I had never heard of His Kind of Woman before when I checked out the DVD from my local library on a whim, and was immediately charmed by it–Russell and Mitchum make one of my very favorite screen pairings (now there’s a man that’s Russell’s equal!), their banter is bright and witty, the mood and black and white photography is appropriately atmospheric, and there’s the’s one amazing, bravura tracking shot through a vintage 1950’s resort lounge that ranks with the best of Ophüls.  People often cite Vincent Price’s comic relief as one of the film’s chief attributes as well, but I can’t say I’m not particularly fond of it myself.

I had also been disappointed with the unexpected tonal shift the film takes in the final third, with the sly detective yarn transforming into a rather serious action film, involving a villainous Raymond Burr.  But upon writing about the film in honor of Jane Russell’s passing last year, what I had found is that memories of the film had taken a weird turn.  While I couldn’t recall any of the plot details, what had stuck with me was the fact that Mitchum had been captured by a group of thugs, stripped of his shirt, brutally tied up in various positions and whipped, and then the rest of the film involving a barechested Mitchum running around a boat with a gun.  In other words, in my memory the last third of His Kind of Woman became something akin to a gay S&M video.  And judging from some of the original promotional material, I might not be the only one:

[It can’t just be me–there is something a bit visually odd about an exclamatory “His Kind of Woman!” seeming to caption an image of a shirtless and supine Mitchum, right?]

For this blogathon I decided to revisit the film to see if my memories held up; I’m not sure if I’m exactly surprised to find it’s ever gayer than I remembered.  So what I present below is a series of images that represents the queerly bricolaged memory version of His Kind of Woman–an aggressively heterosexual title that methinks doth protest a bit too much!

His Kind of… Man? 

Starring:

Jane: “Do you have something to tell me?”

Robert: …

Cut.

Jane: “How about now?”

Robert: …

Cut.

Vincent: “This coat?  Yes, isn’t it fabulous?  By the way, I have some friends you should meet.”

Cut.

Robert: “Err, this isn’t exactly the type of party I had in mind.”

Raymond: “Can’t I at least get a kiss?”

Mitchum: …

Robert: “That’s a big… gun you have.”

“This isn’t exactly what I signed up for.”

Fade out.

Jane: “So did you have a good time last night?

Robert: “You don’t even want to know.”

Swelling music and final fadeout.

THE END.

Make sure to check out Garbo Laughs and Pussy Goes Grrr for all of the other blogathon posts–there’s lots of great stuff to read!

the pages of noir: a list for the noir reader

The Pages of Noir: The Novels that Became Film Noir

Big Sleep Vintage Book Cover  In a Lonely Place Vintage Book Cover  Nightmare Alley Vintage Book Cover

After several conversations with a friend about film noir and the various literary texts that helped inspire and then quickly developed a symbiotic relationship with the cinematic style that retrospectively became recognized as noir, I started compiling a list of novels (as well as a few short stories, theatrical plays, and the occasional radio play) that was adapted for the screen by Hollywood during the noir heyday of the 1940’s and 50’s.  It was initially for my own reference, but thought others might be interested as well.

This list, I’m well aware, is far from exhaustive, especially as I have intentionally decided to focus on literary texts that are still potentially available to a reader today (so, a printing within the last 30 years or so).  The vast majority of noirs germinated from some kind of literary antecedent, but many seem to have vanished upon their initial printings, and now the films they inspired often serve as the only continued testament to their existence.  Additionally, in the past decades the renewed interest in both film noir and the hard-boiled detective, urban mystery and pulp genres have led to the publication of a number of anthologies collecting long-unavailable short stories, and those stories are at present very much underrepresented on this list, and will hopefully be added sometime at a future date.

Also, purists will undoubtedly spot many dubious inclusions on this list, ranging from non-American films to films made before or after the historical period recognized as producing pure film noir, and the only defense I can offer is that I chose to embrace the fuzzy, impossible-to-define nature of the term “film noir” and opted to include the occasional precedents and several successors of note that might be of reading interest (without delving into neo-noir, which I felt would quickly take me too far afield).  Tips and suggestions of titles to add, editions and republications I should be aware of, etc. would be very much appreciated.

And most importantly, happy reading!

The Pages of Noir: The List

A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene – This Gun for Hire (1942, Tuttle)

The Asphalt Jungle by W.R. Burnett – The Asphalt Jungle (1950, Houston)

The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing – The Big Clock (1948, Farrow)

The Big Heat by William P. McGivern – The Big Heat (1953, Lang)

The Big Knife (play) by Clifford Odets – The Big Knife (1955, Aldrich)

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep (1946, Hawks)

Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich – The Leopard Man (1943, Tourneur)

The Black Angel by Cornell Woolrich – The Black Angel (1946, Neill)

The Black Path of Fear by Cornell Woorich – The Chase (1946, Ripley)

The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding – The Reckless Moment (1949, Lang) (later adapted into The Deep End (2001, McGehee and Siegel))

Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes – Out of the Past (1947, Tourneur)

Bunny Lake is Missing by Evelyn Piper – Bunny Lake is Missing (1965, Preminger)

La Chienne (Poor Sap or The Bitch) by Georges de La Fouchardière – La Chienne (1931, France, Renoir) and Scarlet Street (1945, Lang)

Christmas Holiday by W. Somerset Maugham – Christmas Holiday (1944, Siodmak)

Clean Break by Lionel White – The Killing (1956, Kubrick)

Criss-Cross by Don Tracy – Criss Cross (1949, Siodmak)

Dark Passage by David Goodis – Dark Passage (1947, Daves)

Deadline at Dawn by Cornell Woolrich – Deadline at Dawn (1946, Clurman)

Detective Story (theatrical play) by Sidney Kingsley – Detective Story (1951, Wyler)

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain – Double Indemnity (1944, Wilder)

The High Window by Raymond Chandler – Time to Kill (Leeds, 1942) and The Brasher Doubloon, (1947, Brahm)

The Fallen Sparrow by Dorothy B. Hughes – The Fallen Sparrow (1943, Wallace)

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler – Murder, My Sweet (1944, Dmytryk)

The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee – Lady of Burlesque (1943, Wellman)

The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett – The Glass Key (1935, Tuttle) and The Glass Key (1942, Heisler)

I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane – I, the Jury (1953, Essex)

I Wake Up Screaming by Steve Fisher – I Wake Up Screaming (1941, Humberstone)

If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King – The Lady from Shanghai (1947, Welles)

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes – In a Lonely Place (1950, Ray)

The Killers and Other Short Stories. by Ernest Hemingway – The Killers (1946, Siodmak)

Kiss Me, Deadly by Mickey Spillane – Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Aldrich)

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy – Kiss Tomorrow Goodybe (1950, Douglas)

Knock on Any Door by Willard Motley – Knock on Any Door (1949, Ray)

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler – Lady in the Lake (1947, Montgomery)

Laura by Vera Caspary – Laura (1944, Preminger)

Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams – Leave Her to Heaven (1945, Stahl)

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett – The Maltese Falcon (1931, Del Ruth) and Satan Met a Lady (1936, Dieterle) and The Maltese Falcon (1941, Houston)

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain – Mildred Pierce (1945, Curtiz)

Night and the City by Gerald Kersh – Night and the City (1950, Dassin)

Night Has a Thousand Eyes: a novel of suspense by Cornell Woolrich – Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948, Farrow)

The Night of The Hunter by Davis Grubb – The Night of the Hunter (1955, Laughton)

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham – Nightmare Alley (1947, Goulding)

Phantom Lady by Cornell Woolrich (as William Irish) – Phantom Lady (1944, Siodmak)

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain – Ossessione (1943, Italy, Visconti) The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946, Garnett)

Rear Window (originally “It Had to be Murder”) by Cornell Woolrich – The Window (1949, Tetzlaff) and Rear Window (1954, Hitchcock)

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett – Roadhouse Nights (1930, Henley)

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes – Ride the Pink Horse (1947, Montgomery)

Serenade by James M. Cain – Serenade (1956, Mann)

Sorry, Wrong Number by Lucille Fletcher – Sorry, Wrong Number (1948, Litvak)

The Spiral Staircase: Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White – The Spiral Staircase (1945, Siodmak)

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith – Strangers on a Train (1951, Hitchcock)

Sweet Smell of Success (play) by Clifford Odets – Sweet Smell of Success (1957, Mackendrick)

They Drive by Night by A.I. Bezzerides – They Drive By Night (1940, Walsh)

Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson – They Live By Night (1949, Ray)

Thieves’ Market by A.I. Bezzerides – Thieves’ Highway (1949, Dassin)

The Woman in the Window (originally Once Off Guard) by J.H. Wallis – The Woman in the Window (1944, Lang)

Woman in the Window Vintage Book Add

Cross-posted at Goodreads

Read So Far:

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (review)
The High Window by Raymond Chandler (review)
The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

boarding school erotics: “olivia” and “mädchen in uniform”

This post is a contribution to the Queer Film Blogathon, hosted by Garbo Laughs.

During the last few months I have had the opportunity to see two films rather striking in their many similarities.  Both Mädchen in Uniform (Leontine Sagan, Germany, 1931) and Olivia (The Pit of Loneliness) (Jacqueline Audry, France, 1951) are films set in the all-female world of exclusive boarding schools and feature emotionally charged teacher/student pairings with unmistakable erotic dimensions.  Also notable is that both are directed by female directors, a rarity in both Germany and France at the time.  And, unfortunately, they have also suffered similar fates: both have been difficult to find on home viewing formats in the United States, as those who have held the American rights to both films have resisted the lesbian element of the films and for many years refused to allow them to be shown in the context of female and/or queer film festivals. Aside from making what are interesting and important films difficult to see, the historical repression of both of these films have the lamentable effect of making the cinematic representation of lesbianism and lesbian desire in the past appear even more marginal than it already does.

 

Of the two films, Mädchen is the more recognizable, remaining a generally well-known film despite being relatively little-seen—no history of queer film is complete without establishing the influence of Sagan’s ground-breaking film.  Helping matters is that it is a cinematic masterpiece and has generally been considered from the very beginning (the film is included, for example, in Lotte Eisner’s seminal The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema).  As such, I will primarily focus the rest of this post on Audry’s Olivia, and use Mädchen as a more well-known point of reference and comparison (for those interested in reading more on the film, I recommend two other posts on the film that have been included in this Blogathon—see them here and here).

I got the opportunity to see Olivia, released in America under the inexplicable title The Pit of Loneliness recently as part of a series hosted by San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival, the longest running and largest LGBT film festival in the world (it concluded its 35th festival yesterday).  Sponsored by the library system, it featured free screenings of several films from the organization’s archives.  It was, unfortunately, a less-than-ideal circumstance: though Frameline owns a supposedly gorgeous 35mm print of the film that was acquired when it was given a retrospective screening at the festival a number of years ago, what we saw was a DVD dupe made from a VHS dupe of the film, and it did the sumptuous black and white cinematography no favors.  And between the sparse white-on-white subtitles, less-than-ideal audio quality and my elementary grasp on conversational French I’m sure that I missed a number of nuances and subtleties (especially as it’s one of those French chamber pieces where everyone talks and talks and talks…).

That said, a rare screening of a rare film is always something to treasure, and I’ll just hope I get to see the film again someday under more ideal circumstances.  Because what I did see and was able to catch was fascinating, not only in its similarities to Mädchen, which it very much resembles in a very general sense, but in the many differences between the two films.  In some ways the two films could be considered the flipside of the same coin, each serving as a counterpoint of sorts for the other.  It is this dynamic I’d like to tease out in the rest of this post.

As previously mentioned, director Jacqueline Audry is probably the most well-known of the several female directors who made films in France after the heady avant-garde years of the 1920’s and Agnès Varda appeared on the film scene in the late 50’s.  She is most remembered for the three Colette adaptations she directed in the 1940’s and 50’s, particularly the non-musical first version of Gigi (1949).  Though it is commonly assumed that Olivia is also Colette adaptation, as pointed out by queer film historian and Frameline’s curator Jenni Olson, the film is actually an adaptation of a novel by Audry’s sister Colette Audry, a well-known writer in her own right, and the enterprising American distributor simply lopped off the author’s last name to try and capitalize on the director’s previous association with the eminent French Modernist writer (ingenious from a marketing standpoint, but confusing!).  The story, which is believed to have some autobiographical resonances, revolves around the titular character arriving at a French all-girls finishing school run by two elegant headmistresses, Mlle. Julie (played by celebrated French stage actress Edwige Feuillère) and Mlle. Clara (Simone Simon, famous for films made on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly Cat People).  As Olivia is almost immediately informed by one of her classmates, the student body is divided into two camps: those devoted to Mlle. Julie  and those to Mlle. Clara.

Olivia at first becomes enamored with the former after aiding in a number of nighttime rituals including combing her hair, fanning her tenderly, etc (“keep making a fuss of me, I love it!” she purrs to the clearly adoring young girls).

The seductive if playful undertone to Mlle. Clara’s voice is the first indication of what exactly the affection of the student body might entail.  But after being moved by one of the nightly recitations of a Racine play, Olivia catches her instructor’s eye and she quickly establishes herself as Mlle. Julie’s favorite pupil.  The admiration quickly begins to take on a more amorous dimension, which becomes obvious after Laura, Julie’s past favorite, reappears at the school.  Despite befriending Laura, Olivia can’t help but feel competitive for their teacher’s attention, and Olivia even attempts to ask Laura to help her define her feelings for Mlle. Julie.  “Do you love her?” she asks Laura, who doesn’t seem to catch the true nature of the question, and responds that she owes everything to the headmistress.  Olivia tries again: “doesn’t your heart beat when she’s with you, or stand still when she touches your hand?”  Laura, seeming now to comprehend, definitively says no, stating “I just love her.  There is nothing else,” and promptly leaves the room.

The plot thickens as it becomes clear that beneath the antagonism of the two headmistresses is a once-intimate relationship of an unspecified nature between the two that at some point soured.  It all comes to a head during the annual Christmas party—complete with Mädchen-style male drag by the students—that Mlle. Julie promises to stop by her room later that night(!).  At this point it is made explicit that this is not merely some one-sided schoolgirl infatuation of Olivia’s but that there are some kind of mutual feelings involved, which is emphasized by Mlle. Julie’s unexpected decision to leave the school, as it is the “best thing to do.”

This underscores one of the major differences between Olivia and Mädchen: though there are many parallels to draw between the relationship that springs up between student and teacher, there’s a very profound difference in the fact that it is not just one of the teachers, but the headmistress—that is, the person in charge—that is experiencing these feelings.  Instead of the antagonistic dynamic of Mädchen which creates a “they just don’t understand the nature of our love!,” us-versus-them storyline, Olivia becomes more about the walls of the boarding school potentially functioning as a haven-like space for lesbian feelings and desires apart from the world, something Mlle. Julie sternly warns Olivia of in the climatic sequence.  Mlle. Julie seems aware that there might be potential for sustaining a lesbian relationships in this cloistered, isolated setting—as it might have indeed done for Mlles. Julie and Clara at one point—but the reality is that the world outside brutally refuses such things (“and what if you are defeated, Olivia?” Mlle. Julie evocatively but elusively muses at the end of the film, not specifying as to what exactly she is speaking of).

The entire mise-en-scène of the film seems to underline this crucial different between Olivia and Mädchen—where the boarding school of the latter is composed of harsh, hard angles to visually emphasize the militaristic, almost tyrannical nature of the school, the boarding school of the former is soft, embracing and marked by graceful curves echoed by the languid camera pans.  This is seen most prominently in the staircases that feature prominently in both films: where Mädchen‘s central staircase is composed of sharp right angles and tightly tiered like the nightmarish staircase straight out of Vertigo, the central staircase in Olivia serves not only as a central meeting place for the school, but the showcase for its elegant headmistress, who is introduced in the film as ascending from upstairs into a twittering nest of fawning students.

Clearly, both Olivia and Mädchen in Uniform are incredibly important films that deserve to be more widely released and seen, and taken together, function as two complimentary but in many ways different takes on the possibility of love and desire between women in pre-Stonewall cinema.

This post is in contribution to the Queer Film Blogathon, June 2011.

support film preservation! (part II)

This post represents my second (and final) contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir): A Film Preservation Blog-a-thon, which is raising money for the preservation of The Sound of Fury (1950).

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Of the four films that Bogart and Bacall made together, the third, Dark Passage (Delmer Daves, USA, 1947) is generally considered the least of them. And it’s not particularly hard to see why—Bacall’s character never allows her to display any of the spark that made her so magnificent in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, and there’s an inherent weakness with a film that stars Humphrey Bogart but doesn’t show his iconic face for the entire first third of the film. And for a film with a plot so heavily reliant on the psychological motivations of the various characters, it doesn’t help that characters motivations for the most part range from murky to straining credulity to patently absurd.

And yet, Dark Passage is a film that I have a great affection for (and I certainly prefer it to the inexplicably well-liked Key Largo). The main reason is that through its extensive use of location work, it serves as a magnificent showcase for the city of San Francisco. Vertigo, for good reason, is the film that has made San Francisco a pilgrimage spot for all good cinephiles, but Dark Passage serves as the gritty, black-and-white flipside to Hitchcock’s luscious, dream-like rendering of the city. With the exception of Scotty’s trailing of Madeleine that has him driving through the streets of the city, Hitchcock generally has little interest in maintaining any kind of spacial continuity in regards to the depiction of the city, with the various depicted landmarks dreamily disconnected not only from each other but from their context within the city itself (which is why I suspect that most people are often surprised, like I was, to find a place like Mission Dolores shoehorned snugly into a bustling residential area, and not in some forlorn, abandoned city quarter).

I love Dark Passage for its utilization of the San Francisco that citizens of the city—both then and now—are familiar with: the labyrinthine series of staircases threading together Telegraph Hill, the steep sidewalks that fracture into stairs halfway up the hill, cable cars, the the long taxi rides down Market, and, of course, the drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. It also captures one of my personal favorite qualities of living in this city: because of the hills, a turn around even the most nondescript corner can unexpectedly coldcock you with a gorgeous vista view of the city that is quite literally breathtaking. Dark Passage uses this to excellent effect, and many otherwise unexceptional expositional sequences are elevated through the stunning backdrops naturally afforded through the location work.

I rewatched Dark Passage shortly upon moving to the city a year and a half ago, and it was one of the key things that really kicked off my love affair with this city (that and the always-dazzling cinematic and photographic cataloguing of the city by a fellow San Franciscian over at Six Martinis and the Seventh Art—see specifically the San Francisco-related section here). In many ways the film serves as a wonderful time capsule of the city in the immediate post-War period, and it was pleasurably shocking to see how familiar many of these locations already seemed to me.

And considering that film is essentially unique in providing this type of wholly-immersive synchronicity, the preservation of such experiences should be a foremost priority on every cinephile’s mind.  As the screen captures should amply attest, Dark Passage is, fortunately, for the most part a beautifully preserved film.  But without stars on the magnitude of Bogie and Bacall, would this necessarily be the case?  The answer, unfortunately, is a resounding no.  And for that reason I ask you to consider making a donation to For the Love of Film (Noir): A Film Preservation Blogathon. This is the last day of this terrific blogathon, and as such, also your last opportunity to contribute to this most worthy of causes.

Memories of a Movie:

Scenes of the City


Bogart’s character tells the taxi driver a specific address on Sutter Street to get here; one of these days I’m going to go to that location myself and see what’s there now!

Back before this was probably the single most touristy spot in the entire city (how few people there are!).  Owl Drug Co. is now the location of a large Gap, which isn’t nearly as exciting, but I do frequent it fairly regularly.

The Malloch Building, 1360 Montgomery Street

Okay, I have to share a memory about this specific site, as it is the location one of my favorite cinematic San Francisco moments.  This Art Deco apartment building is justifiably famous, and it serves as the location of swanky (and enormous) apartment that Bacall’s character lives in, and where she subsequently holes up the fugitive Bogart in grand style.  I was on a first date in the North Beach area, and after dinner we spontaneously decided to walk up to Coit Tower.  Suddenly I burst out “there’s the Dark Passage house!” (a reference my date unfortunately did not get)—something I was extremely proud of, because 01) I’m usually not very good at recognizing these type of things, and 02) I still was able to do this even though I was suffering from food poisoning and all of my attention was focused on hiding this fact from my date. :)

I always get a kick out of how she had a portrait of herself (and one of her most famous!) on such prominent display.

And really, it’s an extremely stylishly shot and designed film

Sidney Hickox (cinematography) and Charles H. Clarke (art direction)


To say nothing of the ever-stylish Ms. Bacall herself, of course!

[Screen captures taken by Jesse Ataide.  Feel free to use the images, but please provide a link back!]

support film preservation!

This post represents my contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir): A Film Preservation Blog-a-thon.

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A Film I Would Not Like to See Restored: Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach

Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing Jean Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach (1947, USA) at Noir City 9, the San Francisco Film Noir Festival held annually at the Castro Theater here in San Francisco. Of the twenty or so films that were programmed, it was the film I had prioritized for reasons that I’m not even exactly sure of (I’ve yet to really warm up to Renoir, truth be told). I didn’t know anything specific about it, though as I told a friend as we waited for the lights to go down, Pauline Kael’s review—where she cites Rivette’s proclamation of the film as a masterpiece before wittily undermining such a claim—had always intrigued me.

The Woman on the Beach is one of those films that can’t get mentioned without a big footnote being attached to it, as it is one of those films where extratextual material and circumstances almost overshadows the film itself. In this case it’s the turgid story of the film’s ill-fated production, which Eddie Muller nicely encapsulated for the audience in his introduction to the film: an initial preview screening of the film was so disastrous that in an attempt to salvage its commercial possibilities, Renoir subsequently re-edited, and then reshot a large portion of the film. The resulting version that was finally released, clocking in at a mere 70 minutes or so, remained disappointing, with Renoir himself eventually conceding that in the revisions the film had “lost its raison d’être” and was “neither flesh nor fish.”1 As it turns out, it was an unhappy note that ended Renoir’s Hollywood career—he never made another film in America.

Under such circumstances, it is perhaps inevitable that that initial, unlucky cut of the film shown at the first preview has swelled over the decades into a near-mythic “should-have-been” story a la Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, the type all good cineastes relish hypothesizing about. “If only someone could get ahold of that original version, and really see what Renoir was trying to do…”

But defaced or not, I was intrigued by The Woman on the Beach. I didn’t think it was necessarily a great film, or even a very good one, truth be told. It’s an exceedingly odd film, cumbersome despite its brief running time, and, all-in-all, quite unsympathetic and unlovable (even by noir standards).  But almost immediately I could tell it was one of those films. There’s just no other way to describe it: I was immediately beguiled by this awkward bête noire of a film. Those gaps, those absences caused by an obviously truncated narrative, those silences caused by motivations, backstories and emotions systematically denied to the viewer—they haunted me. And one couldn’t help but wonder: were the answers to the questions I had among what was lost in the ribbons of films Renoir frantically severed from his film?

Much like that hulking shipwreck that serves as such a bizarre setpiece for the film, the plot of The Woman on the Beach feels like a number of damaged fragments of narrative that have inexplicably washed up on the titular beach.  It embodies some sparsely populated, nightmarish crystallization of post-War realities, and feels uneasily perched on the remotest edges of the word.

For this reason, it is a bit uncomfortable attaching the “film noir” label to Renoir’s film, with its complete disavowal of the urban spaces and comforting shadows typically associated with noir. I’m certainly not the first to utilize the adjective “abstracted” to describe the film, which doesn’t just apply to the oblique plot, but in the rendering of empty spaces that after a while begin to feel positively post-apocalyptic. Few and far between are the familiar shadows and darkness of noir with their usual significations menace and dread.  But sometimes too those same shadows provide shelter, obscurity, even comfort (“I like the dark. It’s comforting to me” insists Blanche du Bois in the noir-ly rendered A Streetcar Named Desire), and The Woman on the Beach‘s soft gradient of grays offer no such Expressionistic obfuscation or chance of shadowy escape, instead stranding its characters in an uninterrupted twilight state. There are rainstorms, banks of fogs, and crashing waves, but with the exception of the final climactic scene, remarkably little of the film—not even the romantic rendezvouses—occur at night, and in the few nocturnal scenes there are, the camera cloisters itself in brightly lit interior spaces. Not even in sleep does the night provide solace, for as Robert Ryan finds out in the film’s remarkably surrealistic opening sequence, the night merely casts one into a dusky, oceanic dreamstate.2

Renoir himself alludes to this sort of spacial and thematic abstraction with his comment that “The Woman on the Beach was the sort of avant-garde film which would have found its niche a quarter of a century earlier, between Nosferatu and Caligari”.3 An extremely evocative, but also rather curious description of the film, as The Woman on the Beach did not bring to mind the early European avant-garde (and certainly not the German Expressionist tradition), but instead feels prescient, uncannily anticipating that great flowering of European art film in the subsequent two decades. Specifically, the gritty, underpopulated, eerily abstract emotional and physical spaces brought to mind Antonioni’s 1950’s films, Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair) most particularly, along with Il grido and the brief beach scene from Le amiche.

Beach scene from Antonioni’s Le Amiche (1955)

As per usual when a film catches my interest, I spent a good chunk of time dutifully researching The Woman on the Beach. An offhand reference Jonathan Rosenbaum makes on Glenn Kenny’s review of the film’s R2 DVD release over at MUBI subsequently led me to Janet Bergstrom’s utterly fascinating article “Oneiric Cinema: The Woman on the Beach,” written in 1999.4 Tracing the film’s production history in minute detail, through Bergstrom’s meticulous research in the RKO archives a fascinating counternarrative to Renoir’s stated opinions—which have long since established themselves as the authoritative position to take in regards to the film—quickly begins to emerge. Bergstrom poses a rather startling thesis: that The Woman on the Beach “benefited from [Renoir’s] tendency towards abstraction, but the fact that it did so (or, to be accurate, that it ended up doing so), represents an interesting paradox”.5

Bergstrom devotes a great deal of space reconstructing the film’s development, starting before Renoir was even attached to the project and details the entire filmmaking process until the final cut of the film finally emerged. She recounts with painstaking detail a great deal more information than I can provide here, and needless to say, I highly recommend anybody interested to give it a read. But in reading about the film’s chaotic history, it became increasingly clear to me, as it did to Bergstrom, that there’s a very good chance The Woman on the Beach turned out to be a better film than it would have been if that infamous Santa Barbara preview had never occurred.

One of the points that intrigued me most was how many rewrites the script of the film underwent, both before the first camera started rolling until the reshooting commenced months later. Drastic rewrites. Some of the narrative trajectories that the film’s early script drafts included:

  • Tod had been able to see for months (his blindness was caused by hysteria)
  • Both Peggy and Tod’s doctor were aware of this fact
  • Peggy was having an affair with this doctor
  • Peggy was planning on stealing Tod’s paintings to run away with the doctor
  • At the insistence of the Production Code, the adultery would be suitably punished: Tod brutally attacks his wife and his doctor. Bergstrom quotes these grisly descriptions from a draft of the script: “the doctor’s crumpled body in a corner, Peggy’s battered body near a wall”6

Renoir almost immediately cut out the the robbery subplot, the entire character of the doctor and necessarily toned down the adultery, but the story still went through a number of significant revisions, both “to satisfy the studio and the Production Code Administration” as well as “to try and make the story more cohesive.”7 The central role of Robert Ryan’s hunky but psychologically disturbed Coast Guard was built up, at the expense of the colorful character of the artist, played by Charles Bickford.

But perhaps more crucially, the motivations for sullenly sexy Joan Bennett’s Peggy was in constant flux. Post-preview, one of the film’s central scenes—the showdown between Ryan and Bickford on the rowboat during the storm—was completely altered: what was initially intended to be a suicide scene shifts to its more murderous intentions in the final cut. Renoir also considered utilizing extensive flashbacks to Peggy and Tod’s colorful life in New York City to flesh out both characters. Even during the reshooting Renoir was still trying to decide if Peggy was supposed to be a heartless virago or a misunderstood–and thus more sympathetic–woman.  The result of all this indecision?  One of the most ambiguous femme fatales I’ve ever encountered.

I summarize these unwieldy developments in such detail to merely illustrate how the film Renoir at various points wanted to make is remarkably unlike the film that it ended up being and we know today. Particularly interesting to me was Bergstrom’s comment that “Renoir’s script for the ‘preview version’ was full of secondary characters who filled out the story, helping to convey a specific milieu that was very far from the abstraction we see in the release print of The Woman on the Beach.8

In other words, almost everything that I was most drawn to about the film was not part of the original version.

And really, this makes sense. I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t seen the many of Renoir’s films beyond the canonical, but one thing I immediately noticed was how far removed Woman on the Beach‘s lonesome threesome (or foursome, if one wishes to include the underdeveloped fiancée) is so utterly unlike the complex, highly nuanced interactions between an extensive cast of characters that are so celebrated in films like La règle du jeu and La grande illusione. While I associate Renoir’s characters with talk, talk, and more talk, in Woman on the Beach they stay stubbornly silent. And as a direct result of this, all of the things that I was most intrigued about in Renoir’s film are also all of the elements—the silences, the narrative ellipses, the static figures suspended in vast spaces, the relentless opacity—that I don’t associate with Renoir at all, but rather a number of my favorite directors and films: Antonioni, Marienbad, Vampyr, Duras, Denis, Wong.

After reading Bergstrom’s article, suddenly the film was vibrating with endlessly resonating echoes. The narrative gaps, silences and ellipses seemed no longer puzzling as much as brimming with possibilities, richly embedded with traces of countless other possible narrative variations and the distinct possibility that the narrative trajectory might spiral in countless other directions at any given moment. Quite unexpectedly Renoir’s film reminded me, of all things, 2046, a film that because of a similarly tumultuous production history I almost expect with every rewatch to have somehow rearranged its evocative, fragmented pieces into beautiful new permutations and variations since my last viewing. This in itself distances The Woman on the Beach from the film noir tradition in yet another way. Expressionistic fatalism is nowhere to be seen—one merely needs to compare Renoir’s film to another Joan Bennet from just a few years before, Lang’s Scarlet Street, for an idea of the exhilarating Open-ness9 of The Woman on the Beach.

Exhilarating, but in many senses, unintentional. I must wholeheartedly agree with Bergstrom’s final assessment that “paradoxically, The Woman on the Beach (the release version) benefitted from all this interference… [it] became more and more abstract and all the things that could not be shown for reasons of censorship were cut and confusing character motivations left from the original novel or the innumerable, tediously similar variants of the script were removed.”10 While the final cut of The Woman on the Beach is no masterpiece, from all indications it’s a much more intriguing film that it was going to be (and/or originally was in the preview version).

That said, would I welcome the sudden unearthing of a print of the preview version in some vault or archive? Of course—I’m as curious as anyone else. And also not without serious misgivings, considering what would likely occur in such a situation: a celebratory, much trumpeted re-release of the restored “Original Director’s Cut” on the festival circuit, perhaps even a full-blown theatrical rerelease compliments of Rialto or the like, and then, at long last, a R1 DVD release. But the original release version—the version Jacques Rivette unapologetically declared a masterpiece and everyone else has spent the last decades trying to get some kind of a handle one—would quickly disappear from sight and memory, at best resurfacing as a DVD extra for the now-definitive “original version” (that is, if we were lucky enough for a company like Criterion, NoShame or VCI to get the rights to release it). And for reasons I hope I’ve managed to make clear at this point, I think this would be an entirely regrettable situation.

Of course, this isn’t exactly the type of restoration that is motivating this blog-a-thon, which is more concerned that we get to see these types of films at all, and even better if it’s on beautiful prints like I got an opportunity to see at Film Noir 9. Because that’s the type of restoration—with its emphasis on preservation and availability—I wholeheartedly support, and as such I ask you to join me in donating to For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blog-a-thon.

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Notes:

1Via Raymond Durgnat, Jean Renoir, 1976. Page 261.

2Apologies for an overtly academic aside: after writing the first draft of this post, I happened to reread the description of the different schools of montage in Deleuze’s Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, and was a bit startled at how neatly the description of the French and German schools lined up with my analysis: Deleuze characterizes pre-War French cinema, embodied by Renoir, with the gray caused by movement, as opposed to the black and white stratification of of Expressionist German cinema, exemplified in Lang and Murnau.

3Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films, 1974. Pages 246-7.

4Originally published in Film History, Vol. 11, No. 1, “Film Technology” pp. 114-125. Unfortunately, this article does not currently seem available online, but only through JSTOR and other academic outlets. Let me know if you’re interested in it.

5Bergstrom, 115.

6Bergstrom, 118.

7Ibid.

8Ibid, 120.

9Invoking, hazily, both Eco and Deleuze

10Bergstrom, 121.

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Memories of a Movie:


[Screen captures taken by Jesse Ataide.  Feel free to use the images, but please provide a link back!]

reading adventures, 2008

So yes, I’m pretty damn proud of this list, if I may say so myself.  After the dismal reading year that was 2007 (exactly 13 titles), it was my New Years Resolution last year that I was going to double that number over the course of 2008.  Well, I accomplished that, and then some.  And already on course in 2009 to go way above and beyond that…

But more than that, last year I feel in love with reading again–and that, of course, is the most important thing.

* denotes a poetry collection

The Trojan Women – Euripides
Homosexuality and Civilization – Louis Crompton
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
The Blithedale Romance – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Three Sisters – Anton Chekhov
The Celluloid Closet – Vito Russo
Beowulf
Ecclesiastes
Movie Wars – Jonathan Rosenbaum
Autobiography of Red* – Anne Carson
If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho* – Anne Carson
As You Like It – William Shakespeare
Moving Places: A Life at the Movies – Jonathan Rosenbaum
The Beauty of the Husband* – Anne Carson
A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway
Uncensored: Views and (Re)Views – Joyce Carol Oates
The Wasteland and Other Poems – T.S. Eliot
Kora and Ka (with Mira-Mare) – h.d.
Les enfants terribles – Jean Cocteau
Sexual Personae – Camille Paglia
Sex, Art and American Culture – Camille Paglia
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
The White Paper – Jean Cocteau
Say Uncle: Poems* – Kay Ryan
The Bell – Iris Murdoch
Vamps and Tramps – Camille Paglia
The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973 – 1982 – Joyce Carol Oates
The Profane Art: Essays and Reviews – Joyce Carol Oates
Catcher in the Rye (re-read)- J.D. Salinger
With Love and Squalor: 14 Writers Respond to J.D. Salinger – K. Kotzen and T. Beller, eds.
Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall – Richard Barrios
Dancing Ledge – Derek Jarman
Something Bright, Then Holes* – Maggie Nelson
Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
Seven Notebooks: Poems* – Campbell Mcgrath
The Art of Memoir: Then, Again – Sven Birkerts
The Holy Innocents: A Romance – Gilbert Adair
Sea Change* – Jorie Graham
Stroke: Poems* – Sidney Wade
A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930 – 1960 – Jeanine Basinger
Rock Harbor* – Carl Phillips
Art and Sex in Greenwich Village: A Memoir of Gay Literary Life after Stonewall – Felice Picano
Watching the Spring Festival: Poems* – Frank Bidart
The Lost Saranac Interviews: Forgotten Conversations with Famous Writers – Joe David Bellamy, ed.
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist – Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Against Interpretation – Susan Sontag
Arkansas: Three Novellas – David Leavitt
The Tether* – Carl Phillips
The Witches – Roald Dahl
Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles – Katie Roiphe
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Franweiler – E.L. Konigsburg
A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
An Acceptable Time – Madeleine L’Engle
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

The books immediately ushered onto my “most-loved” list: Autobiography of Red, Journal of Joyce Carol Oates, Brideshead Revisited, Against Interpretation, Little Women.

Honorable Mentions: As You Like It, Sexual Personae, Les enfants terribles, The Name of the Rose, Say Uncle: Poems.

thoughts on 2008

My Ten Favorite Films of 2008:

01) Chansons d’amour (Love Songs) / Dans Paris
02) Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist
03) Une vielle maîtresse (The Last Mistress)
04) Le Voyage du ballon rouge (Voyage of the Red Balloon)
05) Les amour d’Astrée et Céledon (The Romance of Astree and Celedon)
06) Ne touchez pas la hache (The Duchess of Langeais)
07) Were the World Mine
08) Twilight
09) Savage Grace
10) Guest of Cindy Sherman

I suppose it kind of goes without saying—if distribution dates somehow continue to be the main criterion of composing a list like this, well, I offer up this one as a particularly absurd mess.  Look no further than the two films that crown the top of the list: by most accounts, Dans Paris should be a 2006 film; Chansons d’amour, on the other hand, would legitimately count as a 2008 release.  The problem with such clear-cut analysis: I first got to see Dans Paris, which never appeared theatrically in San Diego, upon its DVD release in the middle of 2008.  Chansons d’amour, on the other hand, I saw late in 2007 at TIFF and if I had composed a list in 2007, it list would have been given pride of place on the top of that one. And on and on we go, rather ridiculously—how long exactly are we planning on carrying on this exercise in futility?  Perhaps if it wasn’t taken so seriously it wouldn’t seem so absurd, and I guess it’s that spirit I bother offering up this list at all.

Looking at this list, compiled after several revisions, I had to admit it startles even me.  Twilight gracing the same list with several legitimate Art-with-a-capital-A (in the best possible sense) type of films?  Something as innocuous and disposable as Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist?  That icky incest film with Julianne Moore that everyone hated?  Really?

So it seems.  It seems that my film viewings habits and general cinematic sensibility is turning into something downright schizophrenic—objectively this looks like a laughable mash-up of the lists of an overly pretentious artfag and a 15 year old girl.  But in reality it might just be that I’m simply becoming more capricious in my cinematic discrimination (example: what do The Dark Knight, Frozen River, Clint Eastwood and most the films currently playing at the San Diego Landmark theaters all have in common?  I couldn’t be more disinterested if I tried!).

I don’t know, is that a legitimate means to dissect this list?  To delve into my two warring personas—the glutton for Art and this more juvenile desire to make a kind of intense emotional connection with what I’m watching?  I guess a good way to view this list is that these are the ten new(ish) films I developed the biggest, most lasting crushes on in 2008—the ones that would bubble up unexpectedly into my consciousness, catching me off-guard and kind of compelling me to love them in ways that I can’t exactly explain in a rational way. Perhaps it’s that lack of affection that’s at the root of why Milk, which inspired more thought and pondering than a good number of films on this list, ultimately failed to make the final cut.  It might also help explain—at least to me—why there are also films that ended up on this list that initially I didn’t much care for.  It was simply that they kept revealing unexplored facets in the weeks, sometimes months after watching them.

Cinematic crushes.  That also helps get to a growing preoccupation with what I’ve come to call “the little things around the edges,” the often rather inconsequential details or moments in films that I rarely see recognized in the film criticism I read but I find resonate and stick with me a lot longer than the things I’m told are worth focusing on.  Christophe Honoré, in his giddy, almost foolhardy abandon and cinematic experimentation, is already a master at this—both Chansons d’amour and Dans Paris are cinematic miracles composed of moments and emotions that at first seem haphazardly strung together but later reveal themselves to possess the same kind of oddly beautiful randomness of daily life.  Despite the stunning extremes from which Chansons d’amour begins and ends, it’s the film on this list that most seems to mimic the beautiful/horrible/bizarre random trajectory of daily living and the sense that every moment possesses the potential to cobweb in countless unthinkable directions; if Dans Paris is more traditionally plotted, it is simply bursting with vivid moments of emotional truth (the endless love/hate push-and-pull between parents and their grown offspring) and the inevitable human reaction to latch onto objects to create an identity (silly songs, cherished childhood books, store window displays).

La voyage du balloon rouge and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, in radically different ways, also share many of Honoré’s preoccupations.  Most commentary of Hou’s film have focused on its dazzling aesthetics (which are admittedly impressive), but the real lightbulb moment for me was when my friend Ali(son Smith) wrote some thoughts about how the way Binoche’s character lives “encapsulates Paris” and among many things the film turns out to be a really poignant portrait of urban living (characterized by, to quote Ali again, “much living in little space”).  It’s up there with Chansons d’amour in the way something resembling real life emerges from carefully collected individual moments.  Nick and Norah, on the other hand, is much less successful, inevitably succumbing (given its origins) to a more cookie-cutter, consumer-minded approach—and to be brutally honest, it has some truly awful sequences (that whole exchange in the studio room) and the central courtship is certainly sweet but also a bit bland.  Rather, its the secondary characters that bring the film vividly to life: Ari Graynor pulls off this astounding comedic turn that comes out of nowhere (my favorite performance of the year) and Nathan Lee can have I Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, as I emphatically agree with Lisa Schwarzbaum that in a quietly revolutionary way the film shows, in a way I’ve never really seen before, how for people under a certain age gay and straight lives and romances and friendships parallel and intersect each other, and, more importantly, that’s simply the way it is.  I have a feeling that this film could very well have chipped away at “the otherness” of homosexuality in the minds of its unsuspecting audience in a way many were hoping Milk, in its more bombastic manner, would and probably couldn’t.

Keeping with the young love, Were the World Mine and Twilight, the former a unruly labor-of-love type of film that only manages to hold itself together through the love and sweat and unbridled passion and conviction of those involved; the latter is a polished, meticulously calculated tween juggernaut.  Were the World Mine is kind of unapologetically a “root for the underdog” Billy Elliot yarn with an honest-to-god gay boy at the center this time around; Twilight’s chaste romanticism is kind of unintentionally ruptured by the homoerotic undertones associated with the vampire tradition, and a big part of my odd fascination with it is how little would have to be changed to  turn this into a gay coming-of-age story (it also helps that male beauty hasn’t been so shamelessly objectified since Casino Royale).

Operating (unsurprisingly) on a completely different plane is Catherine Breillet and Une vieille maîtresse, where the violent sexual potency of young love is placed front and center, a startling but necessary flipside of the coin to platonic puppy-love films like Nick & Norah, Were the World Mine and Twilight.  This is also a quality which also separates Breillet’s film from the two other vivid French literary adaptations on the list: Ne touchez pas le hache and Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon.  Both are supremely accomplished films by master filmmakers nearing the end of their careers; both also center around the travails of romantic coupling, but where Rivette slyly dissects social conventions through what initially seems a rigid, qualité française theatricality, Rohmer swings to the opposite end of the spectrum, not parodying its idyllic pre-modern pastoral setting but unironically serving up romantic hijinks until it culminates in a buoyant, giddy crescendo that only Honoré’s films are able to match.

Guest of Cindy Sherman serves as representative of my experience helping program the San Diego Film Festival, one of the bright spots in a unbelievable amount of shit I had to sift through and endure during that process.  It didn’t even end up playing at the festival, and I have no idea if it’ll surface again (though, happily, IMDb is showing a limited release slated for the end of March) but this funny/sad doc will probably be positioned as an insider look at a notoriously reclusive artist even though it’s no PBS “meet the artist” affair—it’s really the inadvertently captured portrayal of the creation and collapse of a romantic relationship.

And finally, Savage Grace, perched at the end of this kind of ridiculous summation like a pariah—an odd, unloved and unlovable film that I won’t even try to pretend I “got.”  It’s here because it haunted me—not the uncomfortable sex stuff, really, but its dislocation, the way it kind of throws both its characters and audience into these unmoored spaces, forcing all of us to grope through this hopeless labyrinth together when we all seem pretty aware that there’s no way out.  It’s the kind of film where answers are demanded, and, rather perversely, none ever come.

A few honorable mentions are in order, because it pained me to leave out My Bluberry Nights, Jump! and Lullaby Before I Wake, all films I also developed considerable crushes on; also the films I “merely” admired for various reasons: Milk, Paranoid Park, Stellet licht, The Rape of Europa and Anita O’Day: Life of a Jazz Singer.

And for fun, a few other misc. 2008 goodies:

My Ten Favorite Non-2008 First Viewings:
01) La pointe courte (1954)
02) Vampyr (1932)
03) Innocence (2007)
04) Garden of Earthly Delights (2004)
05) Who’s Camus Anyway? (2005)
06) Lady Chatterly (2007)
07) Les enfants terribles (1950
08) The Last Holiday (2006)
09) Salome (1923)
10) Syndromes and a Century (2007)

My Ten Favorite Performances from 2008:

01) Ari Graynor, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist
02) Asia Argento, Une vieille maîtresse
03) Juliette Binoche, Voyage du balloon rouge
04) Kristen Stewart, Twilight
05) Emile Hirsch, Milk
06) Clotilde Hesme, Chansons d’amour
07) David Strathairn, My Blueberry Nights
08) Chiara Mastroianni, Chansons d’amour
09) James Franco, Milk
10) Rachel Weisz, My Blueberry Nights

Ten Most Swoon-worthy Boys (for Chance):

01) Robert Pattinson, Twilight
02) Jonathan B. Wright, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist
Louis Garrel, Chansons d’amour and Dans Paris
Eddie Redmayne, Savage Grace
Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Chansons d’amour
Nathaniel David Becker, Were the World Mine
Fu’ad Ait Attou, Un vieille maîtresse
James Franco, Milk
Daniel Craig, Quantum of Solace
Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire