the gleaners and me

I was recently asked if I was interested in submitting some thoughts on Agnès Varda’s Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I) (2000), and as it is one of my favorite films by my favorite director, I jumped at the opportunity to do so.  I ended up being very pleased with the results, and you can read “10 Things Gleaned from Agnès Varda’s Gleaners and I on the Fandor blog, Keyframe.  You can even watch the film on the site by logging in through Facebook, if you’re interested.  You won’t be disappointed—cinephile or not, it’s among the loveliest of any film I know.

Varda as Posing as a Gleaner

The process of writing this piece was an unexpectedly fraught experience, but in retrospect it also turned out to be rather insightful.  And since it’s connected to Memories of the Future to some extent, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts.  Anybody who once read this blog (I have no idea if anybody actually does anymore) knows it experienced a period of abandonment over the last few years, a time which has more or less coincided with my decision to pursue a graduate degree in Cinema Studies.  But what I quickly found was that turning a hobby into a “serious” academic pursuit made it nearly impossible for me to muster up the enthusiasm to write about film “for fun,” and as such this blog became more of a repository for occasional book reviews and blogathan contributions.

Now finished with my degree and in the process of shifting my academic energies back towards literary pursuits, I eagerly took up the opportunity to write about a film as “reviewer” instead of “film school student.”  I was fully expecting some bumps along the alway, but I admit I had not anticipated the minor existential crisis it turned out to be.  In short, I realized I had completely lost my “reviewer” voice somewhere along the way.  My short review quickly mutated into a much-too-long essay, and it’s quite good in its own way.  But it was not at all what I had wanted or intended to write, and not at all what I needed to write for this particular venue.  After spending a day (inevitably, the day of my deadline) frantically trying to revise the essay into something suitable, I finally gave up and pulled out a piece of paper and simply began to list all of the reasons I could think of as to why I love this film as much as a I do, and why I had wanted to write about it in the first place.  That gave me the idea for the fragmented structure it eventually took, and things just went from there.

I’m hoping that this experience has reignited some enthusiasm for writing about film again in the capacity of reviewer and film lover, and that spills over into Memories of the Future.  We’ll see, but I think this is, at the very least, a good start.

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RIP jane russell

Just recently I was remarking to a friend that there are two films that drive grad students in my program crazy, as they get taught (and so then we ourselves have to teach them) every semester. The two films? Citizen Kane and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

And honestly, I can only take so much Kane. But Gentlemen? Somehow, I never mind rewatching it—in fact, I even look forward to its expected showing every semester.  It is Marilyn Monroe’s finest hour, and an excellent example of the glories of Technicolor, to say nothing of the way it so delightfully illustrates and subverts—often simultaneously—issues of the male gaze, female social roles, sexuality, and class, without losing for a moment its sense of raucous fun. But the main reason I love Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?

Why, Jane Russell, of course.

As Dorothy Shaw, Russell is one of those rarest of entities in 1950’s Hollywood cinema—a beautiful woman brashly confident about her sexuality, who always makes quite clear that she has little use for Lorelei’s diamonds and would much prefer “a beautiful hunk o’ man.” And yet, despite the normally unforgiving judgment of the Production Code which insisted that even the slightest whiff of sexual immorality be punished tenfold (usually involving some kind of creative combination of searing heartbreak and a spectacular death scenes), Dorothy somehow manages to ends up with her selected man at the alter right in time for a happy ending.

[I love her breathy version of “Bye Bye Baby,” and listen to it regularly]

Of course, the film’s now-infamous musical sequence “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love?,” with Russell jauntily trapezing through the barely-clad bodies of the Olympic team in a black jumpsuit and matching heels, is more than enough to ensure her an immortality of a certain type…

But just as much as her role in Gentlemen, Russell will be remembered for the manner that her career was launched, namely the barely-there décolleté that so fixated Howard Hughes during the making of The Outlaw, sparking a public furor that marked one of the first, legitimate blows to the Production Code when the film was eventually released in 1946 (too bad all of the hullabaloo still resulted in a rather dull film).  But the films that I have special affection for the two films that Russell made at the beginning of the 1950’s paired with Robert Mitchum: His Kind of Woman (Farrow, USA, 1951), and to a slightly lesser extent, Macao (von Sternberg, USA, 1952). Ludicrous but atmospheric, neither of the films are particularly good, but Russell always seemed game for each and every absurd plot development that’s thrown her way, and her sly vivacity pairs nicely with Mitchum’s perpetual sleepy-eyed bemusement.

[It’s almost worth watching His Kind of Woman solely for a stunning, extended tracking shot through a hotel bar that ends, if my memory serves correctly, with Mitchum unexpectedly arriving at Russell’s character. Not that that is the film’s only charm—far from it.]

[Being a von Sternberg film (with more than a bit of uncredited help from that other poet of cinema, Nick Ray), Macao is almost an inevitably beautiful film, even if the story doesn’t quite live up to it.]

Back when I collected autographs, I sent away a photograph to Ms. Russell, of which she graciously returned.  It has always been one of my favorites of the entire collection.

RIP, Jane Russell.

watch this space

Instead of focusing solely on the things that I need to get done for this next week, I instead spent the day working on a post for this excellent cause.  Expect my contribution in the next day or two.  And please consider making a donation—even if it’s going to have to be as small as mine is going to have to be…

more recent releases!

What to say about I’m Not There (2007), Todd Haynes’s latest and one of the most acclaimed films of the year? I was immediately bowled over by its technical virtuosity, dazzled that Haynes dare deconstruct a single person by rolling together bits of autobiography, glimpses of history, a fair bit of exaggeration, and a very generous dose of unabashed fiction into six different characters searching for a whole, all in the hope (against hope) that it all coalesces into some kind of overarching statement or emotional truth about one of the most iconic individuals of the 20th century. And while I can’t deny that at moments it seems—it feels—like Haynes has somehow reached this goal, for all the visual pyrotechnics, the mind-whirling shifts in time, setting and characters, I can’t help but feel there’s something essentially lifeless about the film at its center, that for all the vitality on display by a formidable assemblage of acting talent they’re never really granted the time or room to breath and humanize the symbols, concepts and conceits that they’re representing. Yes, it’s admirable that Haynes has refused to dish up another sappy biopic (we’ve been spoonfed plenty of those), but what exactly have we been served? A biopic lacking a central human being?

That said, I also can’t deny that in the film’s last minutes, where the real Bob Dylan (before then a ghostly, unnamed presence hovering over the film) is finally given a moment to appear as himself I was moved, and much to my surprise, found myself fighting tears. The problem is, I’m not sure if it was because of everything I had seen unfold before had led up to that moment, or if Bob Dylan—the artist, the icon, the unknown person, the myth—is simply most eloquent when speaking (or rather, singing) on his own, allowed to embody his own mysteriousness. Or maybe, in the final moments, we’re finally given a glimpse at a real human being. And that simple fact, in retrospect, makes all the difference.

It’s really a shame that The Golden Compass (2007) isn’t a bit better than it is—everything that’s there is certainly good, but at the same time it’s also painfully obvious that there was the potential for greatness and yet it never comes even close to reaching that point… So many elements are in place—Daniel Craig (Oxford academia has never seemed so smokin’ hot), an appropriately icy Nicole Kidman, a cute but not obnoxious child lead, and from all indications some fantastic source material (I’ve never read Pullman’s stories, but likely will now). But director Christopher Weitz seems woefully out of his range here, and the film distinctly lacks a sense of epic sweep—often it seems intent on dispensing endless exposition, frantically rushing to introduce each new location and character at a staccato pace. It could have used another hour at least, crucial time to over all the little details and nuances of this alternate world this film desperately tries to create. One hates to invoke the name of Peter Jackson, but here he is: he towers over this film (just like all of the other unfortunate fantasy pseudo-epics that have sprung up in his wake), and even if I happened to like The Golden Compass more than Narnia, Eragon and the like, one can never get past the glaring fact that Jackson’s masterpiece renders this film anemic, at best mere imitation. Still, I don’t think it deserved the chilly indifference the American public moralistically heaped upon it, and a part of me mourns that its likely we won’t see the follow-up installments. Especially since this film was setting up Craig’s professor for a much more prominent role in the ensuing films

“all jane austen, all the time!”

I suppose The Jane Austen Book Club (Robin Swicord, USA, 2007) does exactly what it’s intended to do—it’s a fluffy, effervescent modern romance tale with a(n extremely) thin veneer of pseudo-literariness, compliments of the ever-oh-so-en vogue Jane Austen who has become this kind of fetishized symbol of courtship and unattainable romance. Once you get past the glaring reality that this imitation is in no way an adequate substitution for the original, it’s quite pleasant in its low-key kind of way. The film assembles a formidable cast of female acting talent—Maria Bello, Amy Brennamen, Kathy Baker, Maggie Grace and the ever-talented superstar-in-the-making Emily Blunt—not exactly a roster of “A List” talent, but from a more under-the-radar brand of actress who does an extremely fine job at fleshing out portraits of women who are damaged and maybe a touch eccentric, but who are also immediately recognizable. They’re the type of unassuming, rarely-heralded performances that feel genuinely “lived in.”

The material itself is unfortunately riddled with contrivances as events in the character’s lives mirror the latest Austen book they are reading for their book club, and when the conclusion rolls around with Austen-esque reconciliation and marital happiness for everyone involved (which isn’t a spoiler, btw) it comes off as particularly unsatisfying, even borderline insipid (if anything, it just emphasizes how much skill went into Austen’s novels). Basically, the material is rubbish but the caliber of the performances and some of the offhand moments means it can’t be wholly dismissed either.

More from the backlog…

Alice Walker and Steven Spielberg are such an odd, initially incongruous match that it’s rather hard to believe that The Color Purple (1985) manages to be as good as it is.  Not that it’s anything great, mind you, especially since Spielberg’s reverence to the material is distracting (the impoverished backwoods of the American South seems just a bit too color-coordinated, polished, and in some ways just as grandly mythic as Gone with the Wind), but overall he does justice to Walker’s characters, which are the very things that sets the film (and the book) on fire. It’s quickly apparent where Walker and Spielberg see eye-to-eye, as both share a clear-cut, almost fantastical worldview where good people are obviously, undeniably good, and bad people are obviously, hopelessly evil. In her book, however, Walker is more uncompromising in her rendering of the best and worst of humanity, and willing to carry it out to its natural conclusion, and that is where the film really fails: in the final act Spielberg imposes on the film happy resolutions for all of its characters, where even the most sadistic get to experience magical redemption.  The result, while immediately cathartic, leaves an extremely empty feeling.

Italian for Beginners (2000) takes a while to get going, its presentation of its cast of social semi-misfits quite tedious and more often than not feeling rather contrived. Despite its distinctive Dogme 95 style (which my boyfriend actually compared to “every cheap soap opera in Europe”—a fascinating observation if true, as the claim of Dogme is realism, and soap operas more or less define artificiality), Bergman seems to echo throughout the entire thing—disaffected clergymen, family secrets, personal tragedies, death, death, death—though the revelations (and numerous funerals) serve as the starting point for all the neat romantic pairings that eventually form. But after a while it begins to breath and branch off into more organic directions, and also starts develop a sense of warm, offhand humor that nicely counterbalances the tragedy. As the awkward Olympia, Anette Støvelbaek is the standout—a performance that’s exceedingly graceful despite the character’s clumsiness. And even if the film’s conclusion feels unfairly calculated and is most definitely cheating, I admit that I still fell for it.

As I slowly made my way through The Clark Gable Collection (loved the hate mail I received for that review!), I have to admit I wasn’t particularly looking forward to Boom Town (1940), as I have a general aversion to “real men taming the wilderness” type of films. But it quickly became apparent that this Clark Gable/Spencer Tracy vehicle is more sudsy than gritty—a massive soap opera, when it comes down to it. Along for the ride is Claudette Colbert as the woman Tracy loves but Gable gets to marry—like San Francisco several years before, this forms a tangled love triangle with more than a hint of homoeroticism thrown in for good measure. The spectacular and spectacularly awkward Hedy Lamarr shows up in her haute couture Adrian gowns about halfway through and her detached amusement seems to indicate that she’s acting in another film entirely. Overall an early take on the type of material that would eventually spawn the massive, decadent Giant —only unlike that film, Boom Town doesn’t drone on endlessly, overstaying its welcome.

“how do I define history? well it’s just one fucking thing after another”

I went in expecting something different from The History Boys (2006), something more frantic, kinetic, certainly more light on its feet; yes, I was disappointed at first if only because there’s the lingering impression that the cinematic sheen has dulled some of the stage play’s original sparkle. And yet there’s undoubtedly something, admittedly elusive, that manages to penetrate the film’s glassy veneer—that is, I think, the feeling of an underlying history not only between the characters, but among the actors themselves. The entire original cast from the National Theatre’s phenomenally successful run has been reassembled, and those several years of countless performances subtly but unmistakably alter the basic texture of the film, as it is obvious that all of the actors, most particularly the eight young men who play the students, aren’t just playing friends, they legitimately are friends. As such, they are able to effortlessly anticipate each other’s every move, mannerism and mindset, just as friends can. I for one wish there had been a little more time spent to the depicting dynamics of this very potent sense of easygoing, generous camaraderie, especially considering how rare it is to come across a group of male characters composed of such a jumble of ethnic, religious and sexual identities. And while its lamentable that many of the little hinted details about the boys remain just that (there’s the Muslim one, and there’s the rabidly Catholic one), all these little bits and hints of background serve as tantalizing little grace notes to the overarching plot.

That said, the main flaw of the filmed incarnation of The History Boys is that most of the performances are caught in an awkward transition state between stage acting and screen acting; in one of the bonus features found on the DVD many of the actors touch on how they had “become” the character over time and subsequently had to reconfigure their performances for the camera. Maybe a little time and distance between the actors and their characters would have helped tremendously, but then, that approach didn’t do much for Rent, did it?

And then there’s that gigantic white elephant that can’t be avoided… the film’s “obvious gay energy,” as my roommate put it. But in the end, it’s just one of the ways The History Boys resists being shoehorned snuggly into the “inspirational teacher” subgenre—in fact, I was quite surprised quite early on upon the realization that this is actually The Dead Poet’s Society flipped rather violently on its back and… well, I won’t pursue that image considering that several of the film’s subplots, involving ambiguous sexual orientation and pederasty (among other, related issues), have proved to be so controversial. But The History Boys is certainly not the gentle portrait of the great, inspiring teacher enjoying a golden twilight that it easily could have been; rather, it’s a rather savage depiction of the poetry-spouting free spirit on the edge of total decimation, the victim of forces found both without and within.

No, not what I expected at all, but the film is all the better because of it.