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April 2005
I spoke with French filmmaker Claire Denis in September 2004 and wrote an article about her latest film. Old news. In anticipation of seeing the film again tomorrow at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I'm posting a few tangents that I wasn't able to fit into the piece.
Claire Denis and Michel Subor
One of the movies I was most excited to see at last year's Toronto International Film Festival was the latest from Claire Denis, The Intruder (L'Intrus). Denis' movies always ask a little more of me than I expect them to, and The Intruder, as an extremely abstract, dreamlike meditation, is no exception. It scatters its story — or at least its images; story may not be the right word — across the globe showing us people who may not be people at all but just phantoms in the main character's mind. It very gradually develops a poem about the very human desire to craft a better personal story than the one that's in progress, a cleaner, simpler story where failing hearts are replaced with a snap, where complications are erased and redrawn, where sons who are distant, lost, are brought back into the fold and life continues at the point where the relationship was derailed. Easy.
I've been thinking about L'Intrus again recently because I'll have a second opportunity to see the film when it plays at the 48th San Francisco International Film Festival tomorrow at the Kabuki. (It plays again on May 1 at the PFA in Berkeley.)
But back in September in Toronto, as luck would have it, I sat down to talk with Denis the day after I saw the film, and I'm using the San Francisco festival as an excuse to post some long-promised outtakes from the interview. I'm a writer, not an interviewer, so my rare chats with filmmakers tend to be very unfocused and sprawling, full of tidbits that I can't figure out how to include in the final piece, or that I can only include after abbreviating them.
But I like those bits all the same. Maybe you'll enjoy them, too.
Rejection and Coincidence
Jean-Luc Nancy's reaction to the film.
Robert Davis: I know you've said the film is based on Jean-Luc Nancy's heart transplant, his writing about that. It seems unusual to base a movie on a philosophical work, but philosophers have often used fiction to convey their ideas, in stories and novels. Has he seen the film?
Claire Denis: Yeah. Jean-Luc Nancy told me he has to think about it. Because he was surprised. I don't know, when he saw it I think first of all he was suffering, deep in himself. When he saw the heart, the bloody heart on the snow, I could see his face. It was painful to him, and the scar was painful to him. So I think he needs to see the film once more so it becomes more abstract to him, because the first time he saw the film it was too physical, you know?
Because he does have a new heart, it's something he knows. Rejection. His own body suffering from that. He knows.
Also, I think he was surprised because there is a coincidence. I was preparing the film and he wrote a small book called Noli Me Tangere [full title: Noli Me Tangere: Essai sur la levée du corps] about the resurrection of Christ, the idea of resurrection. And when Madeline on Easter morning finds the door of the cave open, she sees a man and she thinks he's the gardener, and she asks him, "Is the Lord gone?" And the gardner turns and she recognizes the Christ and she wants to touch him and he says, "Don't touch me." "Noli me tangere."
And Jean-Luc studied that, not in religious terms but because it was inspiring so many paintings, you know, the resurrection of Christ.
And Madeline, her hands want to touch a body that can't be touched, because I think the translation of the word is not "don't touch me" but "you cannot touch me, I'm untouchable now" because resurrection is maybe something you cannot understand.
So he wrote that book, and I read it while I was shooting and I thought, how strange, because, me, I was inspired by this intrusion of the new heart, this very precise and physical book he wrote about rejection. And now he writes this thing about resurrection, which is another aspect of the film, without me knowing, you know?
R: Yeah, the son is even a little bit sacrificial, it seems.
C: Of course, yeah. I had not read the book, and I thought, it's as if we had been traveling in the same train or boat without knowing, you know?
R: Yeah.
C: That was very weird.
R: That is weird. There are lots of crosses in the film, too. I remember that great shot of the cross with the crane behind it like a shadow.
C: Yeah, yeah.
Posted by davis | Link | Comments (5)
2003, Iran
director: Abbas Kiarostami

Abbas Kiarostami has always had an experimental streak, but he's never indulged it as far as he does in Five which consists of opening credits and five long shots of nature. That's it. For each shot, Kiarostami points his video camera at the ocean or a reflection of the moon in a pond, and he holds it for 10 or 15 minutes. A few seconds of music open and close each segment, which otherwise sounds like water lapping the beach, frogs croaking, or thunder in the distance. And each segment, after saying its piece, fades to black or white.

And you know what? It's a nice piece of work. It's the kind of movie that succeeds when you're willing to let your mind wander the way it does when you watch clouds. Maybe you'll close your eyes and just listen for a bit. Maybe you'll nod off. I doubt if Kiarostami would object; he even said once that he enjoys movies that are so calm they make you sleepy but give you something to reflect on later.

Of course Five may also raise the ire of would-be hecklers in the audience. Kiarostami has some gall to show the beach for 10 minutes! Anyone could do that! I suppose that's true, but it doesn't lessen the worth of spending a few minutes watching the waves. Some folks may think the film is pretentious, I guess, but I'm always saddened by the narrow box that movies are expected to fit into. When I go to a bookstore I see thousands of books on thousands of subjects written in thousands of different styles, but the movie theater in the very same mall feels like a bookstore where someone has torched everything but the mysteries, sci-fi novels, chick lit, and comic books.

No, Five doesn't fit into those categories. It has no story, although it has some humor and maybe even something that could be considered suspense. It's like a book of nature photography, although of course these pictures move, they have sound, and, maybe most importantly, they advance at a pace that you can't control. You can't rush past the piece of driftwood on the beach. You'll have to watch it for a while.

The full title of the movie is Five: Five Long Takes Dedicated to Yasujiro Ozu, which is confounding since nothing in the popular Japanese filmmaker's body of work is even remotely like this. Nevertheless, since Kiarostami planted the idea in my head with his opening title, I thought of Ozu as I watched the driftwood sitting on the beach. Gradually the tide rises enough to nudge the wood, and it breaks into two pieces, the larger of which is carried away by the waves. In Ozu's Late Spring, a father and daughter are riding on a streetcar when the young woman steps off to go shopping. Ozu could follow her or he could stay with the father as he continues on to work. Ozu chooses the daughter, and so his camera gets off the streetcar with her. Kiarostami chooses the small chunk of wood and stays with it on the beach. But the large chunk isn't gone. A few minutes later it comes back into view — the hand-held camera moves slightly so we can see it floating a few yards offshore — just as the father and daughter remain in the same world even though they separate when the daughter gets off the train, and again later when she gets married.

Was Kiarostami thinking of Late Spring when he made Five? If he was, one of us is psychic. But the joy of an open-ended movie like this is what you bring to it.

In another segment, ducks run past the camera. Did Kiarostami encourage them to run? How much did he manipulate what we're seeing? Did he shorten the final segment's thunderstorm in the editing room or is it really so brief? Were the sounds recorded at the pond or somewhere else? Isn't it interesting how the ocean waves confuse the camera's auto-focus mechanism, blurring the picture when they roll in and sharpening it when they recede, as if they're able to manipulate the machine without even touching it?

I wouldn't want Kiarostami to abandon narrative filmmaking forever, but Five is a welcome diversion. It's refreshing to see a filmmaker of his stature throw caution to the winds. You could liken Five to recent albums by Wilco and Radiohead that boldly resist the narrow box of pop music. Filmmakers might even deserve a longer leash than pop musicians if only because they get less time in our lives. Pop music works through repetition, and even Wilco and Radiohead need to make songs that we'll listen to again and again. But most movies are seen once. They get precious few chances to plant something in your head, and I can think of far worse things to stick in your brain than five contemplative shots of nature.

screened2004.10.13
Mill Valley Film Festival
A version of this review also appears in print in Paste Magazine #13, Dec 2004/Jan 2005.
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So did I really take cheap shots at James Dean, George Kennedy, and Henry Jaglom? Do I really feel superior to Hollywood movies, as A. O. Scott claimed in the New York Times? I would say that I take them more seriously than someone who has to write about them twice a week can afford to.

Indeed he does. That's Thom Andersen writing in Cinema Scope about the reaction to his film Los Angeles Plays Itself, which I'm about to reveal was my favorite film of 2004. In a year when people were split over the passion and the fahrenheit, two movies that each said very little that was surprising — and what they did say was drowned out by the bombast that they themselves fueled — the movie that surprised me the most was Andersen's little assembly of clips of movies that take place in and around Los Angeles.

But more on that later when we get to the 2004 recap. Let's not rush things!

I have been writing, by the way. Just not here, and not about movies, except in that publication that comes out every couple of months to which I'm grateful for the continued interest in my out-of-band take on things filmic. Oh, I was doing a lot of programming, or else those pathways might go cold. That takes an extraordinary amount of time, or maybe I just work slowly. Blah blah. Blogs that explain themselves or their forthcoming or recent absences, what a bore.

I've got more to tell you. I saw a bunch of movies that I forgot to mention. I was thinking about this thing, about this movie, and this book. Have a seat. Let me get my notes.

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2004, U.S.
director: Steven Soderbergh

Thieves in the movies — master thieves — exist on a plane above the rest of us. They take their own routes into buildings, on their own timetables, using special equipment like lasers and pulleys and grappling hooks to get near the prized object. What Ocean's Twelve recognizes is that celebrities, beautiful celebrities, occupy the same higher dimensions. They come and go as they please, escorted directly to the objects of their desire after nothing more than a phone call, regardless of what queues may exist on the museum's front steps. No lasers, no pulleys, and no waiting required. The eleven or twelve thieves in this movie know that the place to be when the unwashed masses are clogging the freeway is the limo lane, because the only thing that could stop a celebrity would be another one of the same rank, a flanking celebrity, whose sheer force of will could, and nearly does, bring the entire operation to a halt.

Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwritier George Nolfi are juggling too many characters, cities, and plot twists to generate any momentum, and doling out the right number of snarky one-liners to a cast this size must be a full-time job. Despite all the sparks, Soderbergh has generated a bigger blaze from his stars in earlier movies, my favorite being The Limey, where Peter Fonda's persona and John Boorman's Point Blank are reanimated to great effect. But since then Soderbergh, like his thieves, has learned the best way into the building; the Ocean's Twelve teaser trailer was little more than a list of names. The movie's final and most absurd twist, a cheat by most measures, merely acknowledges that the next logical step for a band of movie thieves is to become an acting troupe.

This review also appears in print as a DVD review in Paste Magazine #15, April/May 2005.
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It's easy to find books and movies about Chaplin. They're everywhere. They march through the standard lore and sing their condescending tune. Here's a brief ode to watching the films themselves.
Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan
For a good part of the twentieth century Charlie Chaplin's disheveled, mustachioed character may have been the most recognized figure on earth, but his legacy as a filmmaker has waxed and waned over the years, not because his movies are any better understood now than when he made them, but because certain assumptions have settled into place, making it hard to see his movies for what they are.
The story of his life is like something from a fairy tale. By the age of 25 he had risen from the streets of London to being virtually synonymous with cinema, worldwide. One theater in New York played his films continuously from 1914 to 1923 and stopped only when the place burned to the ground. But his popularity knew no bounds. Movies had fewer geographical barriers than they do today — language was hardly an issue — and Chaplin's films hummed through those channels with ease thanks to their broad appeal. His nameless character, "the little tramp," was down on his luck but had a gentlemanly air and took pride in straightening his hat, buttoning his tattered, ill-fitting coat, and dusting off the crumbs of whatever had knocked him flat.
After only a few years in the business, Chaplin's global embrace afforded him an independence that's nearly unthinkable now. He controlled every aspect of his films — writing, directing, producing, editing, and acting in them himself. He assembled a crew and a company of actors that he reused on each picture, and he shot on his own back lot in Los Angeles. Then as now filmmakers relied on distributors, but he gradually eliminated even that variable when he, along with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith, founded United Artists, a company that would distribute their self-financed films.
And yet today discussion of Chaplin's work is too often reduced to a single question: who's better, Chaplin or Buster Keaton, a question that drastically limits both men. Books and movies about Chaplin are plentiful but they're often preoccupied with either the mechanics of his productions or the starlets he slept with. Critic David Thomson's new book The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood devotes an entire chapter to the sort of amateur psychoanalysis that trains an eagle eye on the man with only fleeting glances at his work. And Richard Attenborough's biopic Chaplin from 1992, though it contains a couple of fantastic performances, is the kind of shallow, sexed-up summation that any great artist can expect from Hollywood if he or she dies with enough skeletons in the closet. And Chaplin left behind plenty.
This isn't to say that Thompson's overview isn't interesting. It is. But it seems to make the assumption that Chaplin's personality is so outsized, even after all these decades, that there's still room to shave off a few more inches, and that the films are so well known they don't need — or can't withstand? — close scrutiny. Can't they?
Unfortunately, the apparent simplicity of the films themselves has created a myopic view of Chaplin as a talented performer with a vaudevillian pedigree but a weak filmmaker who never really harnessed the medium that brought him so much fame.
And yet you only need to look at the movies to see otherwise, and you can start with Chaplin's very first feature-length film, The Kid. In the late teens, movies had outgrown nickelodeons and moved to larger screens, and the serious filmmakers had begun to turn out work that approximated the length of a stage play. The comedians on the other hand had focused on short films and were quickly reaching a crossroads: were they the makers of funny faces and the hurlers of pies, best seen in small doses, or were they filmmakers?
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long ago
I write and write. People who stop writing for a time disgust me, and if I were to run into them on the street not writing I should like to beat them into the gutter except that I am busy. Writing!
— Leo "Leo" Toasty speaking red-faced to undergraduate students at Bell College in 1893, with a pen in one hand and a moist wad of vellum in the other shortly before heaving the lectern into the audience. It was Mr Toasty's last formal speaking engagement. His compensation was reduced proportional to the theatre repairs and an estimation of the insult suffered by the attending students whose evening was cut short but who nevertheless received full credit for having witnessed the bitter end. The young man who took the brunt of the lectern with his forearm had earlier in the evening, quite coincidentally, shown a writing sample to Mr. Toasty, but the already agitated speaker read only the first sentence and thrust the papers back at the boy saying, "False." The boy's parents lobbied the college to take punitive action against the man for the two-pronged effrontery in hopes of restoring their son's excellent potential, but the timid faculty merely offered the boy a visit to the nurse and a three-week reprieve from cafeteria duties.
and so
We're sorry to report that Mr. Toasty's great-great-grand-niece has, in keeping with her great-great-grand-uncle's principles, resigned from the Errata advisory board due to recent non-events. Both parties have agreed not to discuss the manner in which she resigned.
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