Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Film #71: La nui americaine (1973)

Title for us English-speaking types: Day for Night

Director: Francois Truffaut

Initial Release Country: France

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

A director deals with the endless technical and emotional chaos on the set of his current picture. 

Extended Summary (A more detailed plot synopsis, including spoilers. Fair warning.) 

France, 1973. Noted film director Ferraud (Francois Truffaut) is trying to get his current project up and running smoothly. Well, as smoothly as possible for a film. The financial backing is imposing stifling deadlines, the script is in constant flux, and the cast and crew have brought all of their emotional baggage with them. The film the Ferraud is attempting to make, May I Introduce Pamela, involves a young man bringing his new bride home to meet his parents, only to have her and his father fall in love and leave the rest of the family.

As emotional as this fictional tale might be, it pales in comparison to more immediate concerns of the cast and crew trying to bring the story to life. Ferraud must deal with almost no end of troubles. Each member of the cast either has gone through, is going through, or is trying to recover from some sort of depression or mental fatigue. The lead actress, Julie (Jacqueline Bisset) is returning from a hiatus to recover her mental health. The young actor Alexandre is an emotional juvenile whose neediness and jealousy knows almost no bounds. The elder supporting actress, Severine (Valentina Cortese), is in the full grip of alcoholism and struggles to so much as remember her lines. Add into this the little quirks and difficulties of the crew, from the script co-writer right down to the lowliest prop man, and Ferraud has his hands both full and tied.

It takes an army. Virtually everyone in this shot either loves, hates, has slept with, and/or will sleep with someone else in this shot. Maybe multiple someones. 

The greatest tests come near the end of filming. First, Alexandre’s girlfriend, the older and more worldly Liliane, leaves him for a British stuntman. This leads to Alexandre sleeping with his co-star Julie, much to the chagrin of Julie’s real husband. Just as all of this gets sorted out, one of the other key actors, Alphonse, dies in a car accident. Despite the insanity and tragedy, Ferraud manages to see the film through to its end. As shooting wraps up, the cast and crew part ways, though many of them clearly expect to see each other on projects. As strange and chaotic as it seems to most, this is the life they choose.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this first viewing, before any further research.) 

Day for Night is an enjoyable, extremely well-constructed film that I probably don’t need to watch again. In a style similar to some of Robert Altman’s more renowned movies (M.A.S.H., Nashville, and especially The Player), Francois Truffaut decides to give us a panoramic view of the insanity surrounding a film set. I suppose some people see the subject matter as being self-important and self-aggrandizing, but Day for Night certainly doesn’t come off that way. The interactions between the characters is far often far too playful to be mistaken for pretension on Truffaut's part.

Director Ferraud instructing Julie on exactly how to hold her hands. Day for Night is full of such minutiae of film-making. It's actually fascinating. 

There is no way that I can avoid comparing this movie to its chief forebear: Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ . If looking at a brief treatment, it may seem as if Truffaut pirated Fellini. Both films are about making a film, and both convey the maelstrom surrounding the endeavor. Fellini, though, focused much more on the fantastic inner mental workings of the director-as-artist. Truffaut’s Day for Night takes in the entire scope of the project, not giving too much time to any one person, only delving slightly into a few characters’ minds. The only other clear similarity is that both films expertly achieve what they wish.

As mentioned, there are some graver moments and themes in the movie, such as Severine’s waning ability and waxing alcoholism. But this is tempered by her generally amiable demeanor. There are also Julie’s recovery from depression and her affair with Alexandre, as well as Alphonse’s sudden and tragic death. These, as upsetting as they may be, are quickly resolved and the film, just as the crew in the film, moves on. We viewers are given little more than a few brief moments to feel any lingering pain before being swept away by the inertia of the film-making process and lifestyle. Truly, the show must go on.

Technically, the film is brilliant. While there are no special effects to speak of, the cinematography pulls off plenty of great little maneuvers to draw the eye. To add a layer, you are often getting to look behind the curtain of filming, as we see plenty of the wild and contorted techniques that the May I Introduce Pamela cameramen have to employ to achieve the desired shots. At times, it’s like watching gymnasts do magic tricks in the middle of their routines.

One of the many shots that's not only eye-catching but also pulls back the movie magic curtain a bit. 

On par with the visuals is the acting. Every person plays their part perfectly, from the highly emotional and quixotic actors to the earthier and more practical crew members. Even Truffaut, playing himself in spirit, if not in name, does admirably. The key is that virtually all of the characters are either intriguing, funny, tragic, or a compelling combination of all three. In this, Day for Night taps into the voyeurism that is at the core of the appeal of cinema. We want to watch what all of these people do with and to each other.

All of this being said, I doubt that I will ever watch the movie again. As much as I enjoyed it and can see its strengths, I simply don’t know what I could get out of a second viewing. Hardcore film experts and budding film-makers could probably milk it for endless inspiration and knowledge, but I’m neither. I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys learning about the filming process and enjoys a healthy dose of oft-light drama and humor. It’s also a great little follow-up to the aforementioned 8 ½ .

Take 2: Why This Movie’s Considered “Great” (Done after a wee bit o’ research.) 

A very wee bit.

It would seem that this movie has gained its praise for the sheer love of film that it conveys. Roger Ebert revisited it in this 1997 review, and he expresses a lot of the enjoyable elements of it well. He points out how the film shows how all of those involved in the film industry, creators, actors and crew alike, are often inebriated on the culture of the filming process. The quirky, high-drama relationships that develop and then dissipate over the course of a few weeks of filming seem as a drug. I suppose it should be no surprise that film critics, almost all of whom must truly love the medium of film, would love such a movie. It taps into their own passions, so a playful, thoughtful, and entertaining movie on the subject is bound to be adored by the professional critics. Day for Night fits the bill.

After this little bit of digging, I feel that Day for Night is a touch overhyped. Compared to nearly all of the other movies on this list, including Truffaut’s own 400 Blows, Day for Night I feel is considered great more because of its subject matter rather than any standout novelty. I do think that viewers who are looking for something a little different and humorous would enjoy it, but perhaps shouldn’t expect the mind-blowing movie that you may expect from an “All-TIME 100 Film”. 

That’s a wrap. 71 shows down. 34 to go.

Coming Soon: Chinatown (1974):

The classic film noir genre gets brought up to date in this slick 1970's Roman Polanski classic. This film kicks off a great streak of 1970s movies in the coming weeks that are some of my absolute favorites. Come on back for my take on it.

 Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Film #70: Aguirre, der zorn gottes (1972)

Title for us English-speaking types: Aguirre, The Wrath of God

Director: Werner Herzog

Initial Release Country: Germany

Times Previously Seen: once (about 8 year ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Small crew of conquistadors & slaves search for El Dorado. One of them goes batty, much to the dismay of the rest.

Extended Summary (More complete plot synopsis, including spoilers. Fair warning.)

Peru, 1560. The conquistador Pizarro is in the middle of his search for El Dorado, the fabled “City of Gold”, which is rumored to be hidden deep within the Andes. However, with supplies running short, Pizarro decides to split his group, sending a scout group of forty farther down the river to find El Dorado. The leader of the group is the noble Don Pedro de Ursua, with Don Lope de Aguirre given second command. Joining them are a handful of other conquistadors, several Spanish soldiers, about a dozen indigenous slaves, Ursua’s wife, and Aguirre’s daughter.

The scout group heads downriver, but things soon go awry. One of the rafts is caught in an eddy, and most of the men aboard are mysteriously slaughtered overnight while the rest of the crew sits unaware on the opposite bank. Ursua wants to bring the dead men back to main camp for a Christian burial, but Aguirre circumvents this plan by having a crony sink the raft and dead men before anyone can retrieve them. Thus begins Aguirre’s usurpation of the group.

The buffoonish Don Guzman, unwittingly about to be "elected" as "Emperor of El Dorado".

Over the coming weeks, the expedition unravels. Aguirre heads a mutiny, puts Ursua in chains, and nominates the bloated Spanish noble Don Fernando Guzman as their new leader. Guzman, however, is merely a proxy for Aguirre’s ever-growing mania. Obsessed with obtaining glory and power, Aguirre and his reluctant followers draft a declaration of independence from Spain. The group dubs Don Guzman as “Emperor of El Dorado” and the Spaniards begin dreaming of laying claim to the untold hoards of gold somewhere in the mountains.

As the treasure-seekers continue, their numbers are gradually reduced. A few men are killed by cannibals, silently sniping them from the river banks with arrows. The river rises to a point that their rafts cannot reach the land. Their food dwindles, and their spirits wane. Don Guzman himself is eventually found dead on their raft. With their “Emperor” gone, the few remaining in the crew are at the mercy of Aguirre’s ever-deepening mania. He has Ursua hanged and demands that they press on towards El Dorado. When one of the Spanish soldiers plots to escape and return to Pizarro, Aguirre immediately has his head cut off.

The crew drifts on for several more weeks. Their food supplies become exhausted and they are gradually laid low by disease and delirium. Just at the point when the few survivors are in the final stages of starvation, they are attacked by the natives a final time. Arrows take down nearly all of them, including Aguirre’s daughter. Aguirre, now fully insane, imagines himself and his now-deceased daughter not only finding El Dorado, but building a world-sweeping empire together. He stands alone on the corpse-laden raft, stuck against the shore, as dozens of tiny monkeys swarm around him.

For a bafflingly exhaustive synopsis, check out imdb’s link here.

Now thoroughly lost in his own dementia of grandeur, Aguirre preaches to the only thing left living.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any research.)

Aguirre, Wrath of God is a really impressive film, though not in very obvious ways.

Since making this movie, director Werner Herzog has solidified his reputation as an adventurous, film-making wild man, whose prime theme is nature’s indelible power over humanity. Through his dramatic films and, more recently, his brilliant documentaries, he has explored Mother Nature’s inescapable impacts on humans. In the relatively early work, Aguirre, he explores how natural forces can crush even the most powerful, driven, and maniacal impulses of mankind. It’s fascinating and disturbing to watch.

Visually, Aguirre may initially seem a touch amateurish. When compared to similar films such as The Mission or Black Robe, the camerawork seems shaky. However, it’s merely a function of hand-held technique, and I actually enjoyed the documentary type feel that it lends the tale. I got the sense that this is probably about as accurately as someone could portray these events from several centuries ago, giving an “if you were there” feel to it all. By the end, the little jolts and wavering of the camera angles enhanced the mounting chaos surrounding the expedition.

The disintegration of the conquistadors makes for compelling, if depressing, cinema. The more level-headed and righteous Don Ursua is subdued with disturbing ease by the quietly ruthless Aguirre. Almost as warped is the compliance of the accompanying monk, Brother Carvajal, who readily admits early on that “the church has ever been on the side of the strong”. The remaining Spaniards, dreaming of gold and glory, are willing to overlook Aguirre’s obvious psychosis so that they may lay claim to the chimerical treasures said to lie farther down the river. One could look at all of this as allegory, which can be fun, but it’s plenty interesting enough in and of itself.

The rather un-Christan Brother Carvajal, one of the majority who choose to chase Aguirre's mad dreams for power and glory.

Most viewers, myself included, would have to admit that some of the supporting acting is a bit shoddy. Fortunately, it hardly matters, as the primary roles are done well. Of course, the title role of Aguirre himself is key, and Klaus Kinski is amazing. His frog-like, protruding eyes and wide mouth. The wildly off-kilter shoulders and strange gimp. These physical deformations belie the dementia-driven ambition that lies within the obsessed would-be conqueror. Often with little more than an intense stare, Kinski’s Aguirre wills nearly all those around him into doing his bloody bidding. It’s absolutely mesmerizing, and Kinski draws your eyes in virtually every scene.

Amid the intense and brutal exploits of the Spaniards are the eerily quiet moments of the western Amazonian rain forest. As the rafts float along the river, the latent power of the whole environment is palpable. As the film progresses and the crew is gradually laid low, it becomes clear that they never stood a chance. Their cannons and rifles may have given an advantage over some of the primitive cannibal tribes that they encounter, but ultimately the locals and the jungle wipe out the invaders. Perhaps most interesting is that, while the “conquerors” failed tragically in their quest to subdue the land and its people, the land and its people quash the interlopers with nary a bat of the eye. Aguirre and his crew’s grand ideals for power and immortality amount to little more than an insignificant nuisance, if even that, to their destroyers.

As you can tell, this is not exactly a popcorn movie. One probably should not expect to be “entertained” by it. At only a little over 90 minutes, though, it is not a massive time commitment, and there’s plenty of beautiful, natural imagery juxtaposed with the brutality. I would recommend that everyone watch it at least once, for it offers a great perspective on humanity’s place in the natural world. The themes in Aguirre, though expressed in a setting nearly five centuries old, are just as poignant today.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (Done after some further research.)

How much fact? How much fiction? Anyone who watches a “historically based” movie has to wonder this. The answer in the case of Aguirre, The Wrath of God is a mix. Herzog did use a few historical accounts about a real expedition involving some of the men and women portrayed in the film. However, Herzog streamlined and refashioned them to keep the film tighter. The reality is actually more terrifying. The historical Aguirre did attempt to lead a revolt against Spain. Rather than meet his fate in the middle of a Peruvian river, though, he set up on an island off the coast of Venezuela. His vainglorious attempt to overthrow the Spanish crown ended with his men deserting him for pardons and Aguirre being captured, drawn and quartered, but not before he killed his own daughter.

As if the film rendition of the psychotic Don Lope de Aguirre weren't terrifying enough, the actual man was probably even more frightening.

Herzog’s modified film version is what any maverick film-maker seeks: a monumental piece of art made on a laughable budget. Herzog made this film on a measly $350,000, but he showed how vision and talent can overcome such financial limitations. While not released in the U.S. for several years after its unveiling, Aguirre was an instant critical success around the world. In the forty years since, its stature has only grown. Some of the most heavily and obviously influenced films to follow Herzog’s basic template are: Apocalypse Now, Predator, The Mission, and The New World. I’ve seen the first three, and though they are vastly different from one another, I love them all.

There are no real surprises when it comes to why this movie is so lauded. In this 1999 review, Roger Ebert does a nice job capsulizing the merits that virtually all other professional reviewers see in not only this movie, but many of Werner Herzog’s others.

Probably the most fascinating thing to learn about this movie is the borderline insanity of lead man Klaus Kinski. If you read the Ebert review referenced above, you get some of the tales. An even more complete list of Kinski’s Grade-A whack-job antics is here at wikipedia, including his shooting off an extra’s finger, and basically scaring the living hell out of everyone on the set. Herzog used this to the film’s advantage, allowing Kinski to have his volcanic temper tantrums, run out of energy, and then film the desired scene. The result is magic. By adding the odd limp to his stride, coupled with his own very real, smoldering anger, Kinski as Aguirre is a frightening sight to behold.

By the end, this is all that's left of the men's hopes of reaching the Lost City of Gold.

That’s a wrap. 70 shows down. 35 to go.

Coming Soon: Day for Night (1973):

Another film that I know nothing about, aside from what it says on the sleeve of the DVD. Come on back in about a week to see what I think about this French film.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Film #69: Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (1972)

Title for us English-Speaking Types: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Director: Luis Bunuel

Initial Release Country: France

Times Previously Seen: once (about 3 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Sextet of middle-classers try to get some grub repeatedly. Fail repeatedly. Have weird dreams between each failure.

Extended Summary (Slightly longer plot synopsis. Spoilers included. Fair warning.)

Actually, my little caveat above is more pointless than normal. It's all but impossible to “spoil” this movie, given the story.

In early 1970s Paris, four middle-aged, middle-class people arrive at a pleasant home for an evening dinner, only to surprise the supposed hostess, who tells the four that their dinner date is for the following evening. This also explains why the hostess' husband is not there. The five improvise and head out to a nearby inn for some dinner. Their effort is thwarted, however, when they enter the inn to find a funeral service being given for the recently-deceased owner.

The next day, the three men, two of them French government officials and the other a diplomat from a South American country, meet in the diplomat's office. The three are involved in drug smuggling. The two Frenchmen's wives and single sister-in-law are clueless to their doings.

Just one of the many soon-to-be interrupted attempts at dinner. If you look closely, you can almost see the arrogance and entitlement radiating off of all six of the "friends".

Over the next several days, the sextet repeatedly attempt to have a meal or a drink together, only to be thwarted at every turn. Whether they are in pairs, trios, or larger groups, every time they are about to be served, something interferes. Some interruptions are mundane: the first evening's schedule mix-up, or a restaurant being out of basically everything. Others are far more bizarre, such as being interrupted by strangely forthcoming soldiers barging in and unburdening themselves with odd tales. Still others take the form of dreams begun but unfulfilled.

Most of the six people get lost briefly in a dream of theirs. Some include the embarrassment of being caught on a theater stage, having forgotten one's lines. Others have dreams about being in a duel, or being arrested with all of their friends for their illegal drug smuggling. Whatever the dream or interruption, not one of the person's tales, or even tales within tales, is completed.

One of the more violent dream sequences, with the Senechal gunning down a man who has offended his honor.

Interspersed throughout the menagerie of unfulfilled narratives are occasional looks at the entire group of six, walking along a desolate road in the middle of the country, with no clear goal in sight.

I would offer a link to a more detailed, complete plot synopsis, but finding one it rather difficult. Read into that what you will.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing of the film, before any research.)

When American comedians make fun of “weird European movies”, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is almost certainly what they have in mind. As you may be able to tell from my rather vague plot synopsis, this movie does not fit into any standard categories. There is no main story arc (aside from six people trying to get some food), and virtually no standard cohesion from one scene to the next. The mad hopping between dream sequences and quirky occurrences can be dizzying, and I think any viewer can be excused for uttering “Whaaahh...??” more than a few times while watching.

Did I like it? Actually, yeah. More or less.

I felt like I had a pretty good handle on what director Luis Bunuel was doing with this movie. I had seen it before, and I felt like I “got” the point. And then, after watching, my girlfriend articulated it far better than I could. She explained that she'd never seen a film that captured the “unfulfillment aspect” of dreams so well. Every single little story, of which there are no less than a dozen, leaves the viewer wanting, just as the characters in the movie are constantly left wanting. This is, for many people, much like their own dream experiences.

One of the more universal dream fears is revealed in the dinner-on-stage scene. The main players almost all flee due to self-consciousness or nervousness at having "forgotten their lines".

When dwelling on it, I can't help but compare it to a recent blockbuster film dealing with dreams, Inception. In that much more recent movie, the hyper-organized Christopher Nolan deals with the malleability of dreams, but keeps the story air tight, almost to the point of snapping the seams. In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Bunuel was clearly going for the true dream-like experience: the tighter you grasp for the meaning or a sense of closure, the more you're going to lose them. Once you figure this out, it's easier to sit back, stop wondering about the point, and enjoy the bizarre spectacle.

Lest you think the movie is just a cluster of peculiar scenes thrown against a wall, I need to clarify. There is a rather loose narrative that holds things together. The six middle-class main characters are rather self-absorbed and not exactly likable. For this reason, I didn't mind seeing them spun about and tormented by their own mildly warped circumstances or inner thoughts. It also brought to mind the wonderfully strange Flann O'Brien book, The Third Policeman. In it, a young thief and murderer is sent to hell, but doesn't know it. As things go from familiar to strange to absolutely torturous, he never realizes exactly where he is. Every time he comes close to getting a handle, the entire situation shifts, leaving him even more confused, frustrated, and dejected than before. Bunuel's film isn't as disturbing as all that, but the general feel is similar.

The film also keeps a nice level of humor throughout. The oddity of many of the situations is humorous, if in a wry way. More than this are the dead-pan performances of most of the cast. Weirdness is at its funniest when it's played straight, and the actors got it right on in this movie. This isn't a gut-busting, laugh-fest by any means. Still, I found plenty to smile and laugh at, from the attempts to eat plastic stage prop food in the “theater dream” scene, to the clever little evasions about exactly where the fictitious country “Miranda” really is, and even to the oddly open soldiers’ tellings of their private dreams. Added to it all is the acceptance of every other character of the quirkiness of all of these things.

The second of two wryly humorous scenes in which soldiers simply show up, interrupt, and tell bizarre tales about their own dreams of horror and death. A contrast with the pithy concerns of our egocentric sextet? Possibly.

This is yet another movie that you need to be in the right frame of mind to deal with. If you take each scene at a time and don’t attempt to judge the whole by the standards of most narrative films, you should find it enjoyable. I certainly did, though this isn’t a movie I see myself running back to anytime soon.

Take 2: Or, Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research on the movie):

In reading up on this film, I realize that my Take 1 missed mention of the obvious – the social commentary. This is not something that is difficult to miss in the film, though other commentators have done a far better job analyzing it than I could.

What gives The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie an even greater helping of food for thought is what gave most, if not all, of Luis Bunuel’s movies the same: the revelation of hypocrisy. I’ve only seen a few of his other films, but the theme is clearly there. Politeness, manners, and fashion are a thin fa├žade behind which lurk the basest animal desires and fears. Lust, humiliation, and death are all represented in this movie, filtered through the self-interested viewpoints and subconscious of the main characters’ dreams. These things might be presented as horrifying by many other directors, but Bunuel always had a different approach.

The Senechal, almost escaping notice and capture, reveals his own presence to the police by reaching out a taking a sandwich from the table. One example of some common visual humor blended into other moments of a dryer comic type.

In this review of the film, Roger Ebert does a nice job explaining some of the subtleties of Bunuel’s themes, and how he used humor to reveal the human psyche. The interesting thing to me is that Bunuel never really took a side in his commentaries on social classes. His works seemed to attempt to reveal the hypocrisies at work in all people. Some of these revelations are humorous, while some can be highly disturbing.

In this 1973 essay by Carlos Fuentes (done shortly after the release of Discreet Charm), a much broader and deeper look is taken into Bunuel’s life’s work up to that point. It’s an interesting read, in which Fuentes ties together not only the themes mentioned by Ebert, but also the visual techniques that Bunuel employed to convey his messages as an artist. It’s a good little read for anyone who has seen a handful or more of Bunuel’s films.

After this reviewing of the movie and a little bit of research, it is now no surprise to me why The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is on the TIME 100 list. It truly is a different species of film, and piece of art that may very well be a part of the artistic landscape for decades, if not centuries, to come. Like an abstract Picasso painting, you may not always “understand” every little thing about it, but it certainly does catch the eye and stimulate the mind.

That’s a wrap. 69 shows down. 36 to go.

Coming Soon: Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1973):

Another one that I watched a number of years ago, but probably didn’t appreciate very much. I’ve come to like Werner Herzog quite a bit, so I expect to get more out my second viewing of this early work of his.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.