"Crumb": The artist as pervert

“I don’t work in conscious messages.  I can’t do that…it has to be something that I’m revealing to myself while I’m doing it.  […]  While I’m doing it, I don’t know what it’s about.  You just have to have the courage to take that chance.  What’s coming out?  What’s coming out of this?”                                                                       —R. Crumb

Robert Crumb has been something of a cultural hero to me ever since I first saw Terry Zwigoff’s documentary film about him in the late 1990s.  Say what you will about Crumb’s work, which engages provocatively with issues of sex and drugs, race and gender: it derives from an artistic impulse that seems to me totally pure, because it flows so directly from the depths of his creative unconscious.  Crumb (1995) is a portrait of a family of artists (not just Robert but also his brothers Charles and Maxon) for whom drawing is not so much a craft or a vocation as it is a compulsion.  Especially in the case of Charles, who suffered from chronic depression and committed suicide in 1992 after the shooting of the film was completed, drawing acts as a form of what Robert calls “graphomania,” a need to pour one’s innermost thoughts and desires, however taboo, out onto the page, even if only in the form of illegible scribbling.  Robert’s own graphomania is only slightly more mild than Charles’.  “Maybe I should be locked up and my pencils taken away from me,” Robert jokes at one point.  But one imagines that even this would not stifle his violent, almost libidinal drive for self-expression.   

According to the cover of a collection of artwork by Charles, Maxon, Robert, and his wife Aline, “the whole family is crazy!”  Zwigoff’s film echoes this sentiment with equal measures of wry humor and pathos.  The Crumb family is a buzzing hive of obsessions and repressions, the three brothers (self-described “wimpy, nerdy weirdos”) having grown up dominated by their “overbearing tyrant” of a WWII-veteran father and an amphetamine-addicted mother.  Maxon refers to their shared adolescence as a twisted family romance, the brothers reportedly sleeping in the same bed into their mid-teens, “three primordial monkeys working it out in the trees,” laboring tirelessly on creative projects that were more fueled by competition than by collaboration.

Compared to his brothers, both of whom figure as prisoners of their own maladjustment, Robert comes off looking almost normal.  His art begs to be read as a more or less successful form of sublimation—a safe outlet for the thoughts and fantasies that might otherwise have consumed him.  Throughout his career Crumb has managed to channel his id without ever becoming its slave.  (David Cronenberg comes to mind as an artist who has similarly toed the line between the surreal and the cerebral—half pervert, half intellectual.)       

The Crumb documentary, which has now fascinated me for the better part of twenty years, still seems to me one of the finest portrayals of the creative process in cinema—its inspirations, its production, and its reception, each of these shaped by psychology, society, and culture.  It’s also always keenly tuned into the personalities of its very human subjects, and one of my favorite moments in the film is one of its quietest: Robert and his adult son, drawing side by side, comparing their work.  Craziness may indeed run in this family, but so too does a powerful creative impulse that stretches across the generations, for better or worse. 

Like father, like son: R. Crumb giving a drawing lesson to his son Jesse.


Cutting "Sisters"

Menage a trois: Bill Finley, Margot Kidder and Jennifer Salt in Sisters.

“What the devil hath joined together let no man cut asunder!”  That was the tagline for Sisters (1973), Brian de Palma’s earliest exercise in playfully sending up the films of Alfred Hitchcock.  And what an exercise!  Sisters is chock-a-block with film-nerd in-jokes and visual gags (like an iris shot that materializes out of a zoom-in on the iris of a character’s eye); it’s a document of ’70s New York at its most delightfully grimy (it’s set on Staten Island, referred to fleetingly in the film as “the lost borough,” no less); it sports a relentless Bernard Herrmann score; and it’s got an absolute doozy of a third act, set at a mental institution where Jennifer Salt’s intrepid reporter is hypnotized and brainwashed by a seriously creepy “doctor” played by Bill Finley.  Sisters feels like it was made by a kid who’s been given permission to use his master’s toolbox for the first time and who can barely contain his excitement.  Even as he would go on to refine this style in later, more impeccable films like Dressed to Kill (1980) and Blow Out (1981), de Palma already shows remarkable sophistication and sure-handedness in many of Sisters’ key sequences, chief among them being one in which split-screen is used to juxtapose the cover-up of a crime with a nosy neighbor’s attempts to investigate it.  

The use of split screen—a gimmick that would go on to become one of de Palma’s trademarks—literalizes the film’s themes of splitting and cutting, doubles and twins.  (Even Herrmann’s score is based on a constant alternation between two competing notes, B-flat and A.)  Having been traumatically separated from her conjoined twin sister, Danielle (Margot Kidder) has undergone a schizophrenic personality split; her alter ego Dominique cuts up men as a form of revenge against the man who cut them apart.  In a macabre running gag, Danielle wins a set of cutlery on a TV game show, pieces of which—a butcher knife, a meat cleaver—are put to various sinister uses over the course of the film.

Danielle/Dominique makes use of her new cutlery.

Cutting is an act of division that makes two out of one; but Sisters is also about the act of cutting together in addition to cutting apart.  The two women at the heart of the film, seemingly as different as night and day (one a strident, politically engaged journalist with little social life to speak of, the other a seductive, feather-brained model “and sometime actress” who disidentifies with women’s lib), eventually find themselves joined at the hip—a satirical comment, perhaps, on the unlikely bonds of feminine “sisterhood”?  For Danielle the act of separation leads to violence and schizophrenia, while for Grace the thought of being attached to a woman who represents feminism’s worst nightmare is upsetting enough to trigger a mental breakdown.  So conjunction and separation prove equally terrifying in Sisters, something that de Palma plays with even at the level of the editing, as when the two halves of his split screen finally, thrillingly merge.

Split screens, conjoined.


Placing "Ikiru"

Takashi Shimura plays Watanabe, the dying bureaucrat in Ikiru (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1952).

Seven Samurai (1954) and Rashomon (1950) remain Akira Kurosawa’s most highly regarded films, with Ikiru (1952) probably in third place, though my preference is for the last of these, in spite of its anomalousness within Kurosawa’s filmography.  I suppose it says something about me that I gravitate not to Kurosawa’s action-packed period pieces but rather to this quietly devastating character study set in the present day.  I also wonder about the shaping of the Kurosawa canon in the U.S., and the extent to which that canon was determined by the order in which the films were seen by American audiences in the 1950s and early 1960s. 

Rashomon proved a tremendous international hit, winning the Golden Lion at Venice in September of 1951 and a Best Foreign Film Oscar in March of 1952.  But both of Kurosawa’s two subsequent films The Idiot (1951) and Ikiru went unreleased stateside until after the success of his next film Seven Samurai, which premiered in the U.S. in late 1956.  It would take another three years before a torrent of these films from Kurosawa’s back catalog would flood American art houses, presumably because until he achieved name recognition his films were assumed to have little market value.  Between December of 1959 and November of 1963 no less than twelve Kurosawa films were released in the U.S.: Drunken Angel, Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, The Bad Sleep Well, Sanjuro, High and Low, Stray Dog, The Idiot, I Live In Fear.  And Ikiru, which premiered in late January of 1960.

To look at the original American reviews for Ikiru is to see Kurosawa’s reputation—and his filmographic canon—already beginning to solidify.  By 1962 Pauline Kael had written that “Ikiru is often called Kurosawa’s masterpiece,” though it’s difficult to verify this claim; she herself “much preferred” Throne of Blood, and the praise for Ikiru from such contemporaries as Bosley Crowther and Stanley Kauffmann was not untempered by criticism, mainly having to do with the film’s lengthy funeral sequence.  Having already been exposed to the flashier charms of Rashomon and Seven Samurai, reviewers seemed inclined to praise the relatively modest Ikiru more faintly.  And American distributors, clearly flummoxed about how to market this meditative drama—which resembles The Death of Ivan Ilyich crossed with A Christmas Carol—to audiences, desperately tried to pitch it as a sex movie (hence the image of the gyrating stripper in the film’s tone-deaf poster).  “Accessible” and respected though Ikiru may be, it’s doomed to live forever in the shadow of Kurosawa’s swashbucklers.  



The Films of 2017: Wonderstruck

Who ever would have thought that a children’s film by Todd Haynes would be a good idea?  Haynes’ previous films about children, fascinating as they are, could hardly be described as kid-friendly; a densely intellectual filmmaker, he has typically served up his visions of childhood with generous heapings of psychoanalysis and queer theory.  And yet his new film Wonderstruck is, as they used to say, fun for the whole family.  There is much here for a sophisticated filmgoer to appreciate, including a hand-crafted stop-motion animation sequence (a throwback to Haynes’ Barbie-doll movie Superstar, perhaps) and a silent film-within-the-film, Daughter of the Storm, that’s an affectionate pastiche of D. W. Griffith.  But Wonderstruck is also a hugely enjoyable entertainment—perhaps the most purely entertaining film Haynes has ever made, because it’s so uncluttered with competing ideas. 


Men in 1972

Of all the great American films of the 70s John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) might be the one to give the new masculinity the most thorough working-over.  Best remembered as a thriller—which of course it is—it’s also a cross-section of various male “types,” as represented by its four main characters and the actors who portray them. 

Jon Voight (right) as Ed.

“I like my life”: Jon Voight’s Ed is the closest thing the film has to an audience surrogate, a mild-mannered Atlanta ad exec whose manhood is tested over and over again and proves resilient.  Although the film is an ensemble picture it’s frequently through Ed’s eyes that we see things happen.  And it’s he who eventually assumes a position of leadership within the group—at the cost, we’re led to believe, of his own mental health (and an arrow through the abdomen).  In Midnight Cowboy (1968) Voight played a country boy adrift in the big city; here he plays a city boy whose weekend in the country triggers a traumatic loss of innocence. 

Ned Beatty as Bobby.

“you look just like a hog”: The scene in which Bobby (Ned Beatty) gets raped in the woods at the hands of a scruffy redneck (“lemme hear you squeal!”) still feels shocking nearly fifty years later.  If Deliverance is something of a latter-day Lord of the Flies, Bobby is a figure for the doomed fat kid Piggy.  Bobby represents a particularly subtle form of masculine insecurity: self-conscious about his lack of athletic prowess, and constantly picked on by the alpha male Lewis, he compensates by affecting a certain sexual bravado.  He compares the thrill of whitewater canoeing to sex (Katherine Hepburn, eat your heart out), reminisces about the wet dreams and sexual conquests of his youth, and jokingly (?) likens his air mattress to a blow-up doll.  Then he becomes one of the film’s sacrificial victims, in a turn of the plot that works to confirm his place at the bottom of the pecking order.   

Ronny Cox as Drew.
“he was the best of us”: Drew (Ronny Cox) is Deliverance’s Romantic poet, a guileless, sensitive, bespectacled minstrel with a six-string.  He communicates through music, naïvely attempting to use his guitar to bridge the gap between “civilization” and the “savagery” of the country people.  Later he says he “can’t understand how anyone could shoot an animal” and breaks down in tears at the thought of covering up the murder of Bobby’s rapist.  Too pure for this world, he is destined to wind up a fatality.

Burt Reynolds as Lewis.

“does he think he is Tarzan or what?”: Burt Reynolds’ Lewis—swaggering, braggadocious, hot-headed—spends the first half of the film riding for a fall.  Then in the second half he gets it, in the form of a broken leg that serves as a symbolic castration.  Lewis’ fate constitutes the most trenchant of Deliverance’s ironies.  But even if we can’t help but relish seeing Lewis get cut down to size, we also can’t help but appreciate the priapic brio that Reynolds brings to this role.  He chomps cigars and wears a wetsuit that shows off his chest hair and says things like “Sometimes you have to lose yourself before your can find anything” with a straight face.  Is Reynolds even aware of how much of an officious prick Lewis is?  It’s nearly impossible to tell.  The same co-presence of sincerity and irony marks Reynolds’ performance as Jack Horner in Boogie Nights (1997)—as well as his jaw-dropping 1972 photo spread for Cosmopolitan.  Looking at his centerfold, it’s difficult to know if we’re seeing Burt or Lewis, lying on a rug made from a bear he shot himself.                 


The Films of 2017: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Hell hath no fury like Frances McDormand scorned: in Martin McDonagh’s new film she plays Mildred Hayes, a woman of a certain age who decides to pick a fight with the local police force after they let the case of her daughter’s rape and murder go cold.  Thinking that heightening public consciousness about the crime will help jump-start the investigation, she rents three billboards at the edge of town and posts a haiku-like message that bespeaks her indignation: “RAPED WHILE DYING / AND STILL NO ARRESTS. / HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”  The billboards stand along a quiet country road, out of the way of much traffic, but their message—conveyed in white letters against a flaming red background—screams loud.  Soon they have become a subject of no small controversy, much to the disgruntlement of Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).


The Films of 2017: Lady Bird

About halfway through Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha there’s a wonderfully observed montage sequence in which the title character travels from New York to the Sacramento suburbs to spend a Christmas with her family.  Gerwig’s new film Lady Bird, her first as a director, is like a feature-length version of that sequence, a whip-smart and hugely funny autobiographical coming-of-age story driven by its teenage protagonist’s clashes with her teachers, friends, and mother—time-worn material that Gerwig and her actors have somehow managed to make fresh.  The film spans a year in the life of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (“Is ‘Lady Bird’ your given name?” “Yes.  I gave it to myself”) as she slogs through her senior year of high school, desperate to flee to college somewhere on the East Coast, “where culture is.”  Prankish and outspoken, Lady Bird shoplifts fashion magazines, challenges the teachers at her Catholic school, and casually snacks on communion wafers.  Her boyfriends include her co-star in the school production of Merrily We Roll Along (Lucas Hedges), a theater geek who—ominously—“respects her too much” to touch her breasts; and a wannabe Marxist rock musician (Timothee Chalomet) who reads Howard Zinn.  Meanwhile, her tightly wound mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) hides her love behind a thick veneer of criticism and disapproval.  The film begins with a scene in which, after arguing with Marion about her post-graduation plans, Lady Bird leaps out of the (moving) car.  


Psychotronic Oz

The Wizard of Oz (1939) is like living-room furniture: we’ve all seen it so many times that it almost doesn’t look like anything anymore.  That’s why, upon re-watching the film, I was desperate to reorient my viewing position in order to find some new angle from which to come at it.  Looking at Oz through the lens of the psychotronic—that is, looking for the moments where it gets weird or bad or otherwise slips out of gear—becomes one way of seeing it with new eyes.  Psychotronic approaches to Oz have succeeded in defamiliarizing this most familiar of Hollywood classics, and demonstrate how cult cinema can seize on the most unassuming properties.  Oz is a G-rated family favorite that also works as a gay movie, a horror movie, a drug movie; it has inspired delightful interpretations by Salman Rushdie, who prefers the Wicked Witch to Glinda (who doesn’t?), and Terry McMillan, who says she could never understand why Dorothy would want to go back to Depression-era Kansas.  John Waters, for whom the film is a favorite, has described it thusly: “Girl leaves drab farm, becomes a fag hag, meets gay lions and men who don’t try to molest her […] and unfortunately—by a surreal act of shoe fetishism—clicks her shoes together and is back to where she belongs.  It has an unhappy ending.”  Such readings brush Oz playfully and perversely against the grain.

Poppies and superimposition: one of Oz's more psychedelic moments.

Oz can also be appreciated as an example of 1930s Hollywood cinema at its most idiosyncratic.  In spite of its high production values and lavish scale, it’s driven by a folksy variety-act sensibility and shifts gears as abruptly as a vaudeville show.  The presence of Judy Garland aside, the film is populated by B-level comedians and 1930s character actors; most people, even those who have seen the movie dozens of times, would probably be hard pressed to name more than one person in the cast.  Oz’s songs are so catchy and its fantasy elements so gripping that I suspect most of us have spent our lives overlooking the digressiveness of the plot, the delightful goofiness of the dialogue and such groan-inducing visual gags as the horse of a different color.  (My favorite throwaway line is an aside by Professor Marvel, stalling for time while pretending to read Dorothy’s fortune: “Yes, her name is, uh, Emily…”)  Despite being set over the rainbow, the film’s characters speak in a slangy American vernacular.  The film was originally slated to have a dance number in which Dorothy and her friends are attacked by a “Jitter Bug,” and an off-screen voice during “If I Only Had a Heart” seems to parody that other blockbuster fairy tale movie of the late 1930s, Disney’s Snow White.       

The horse of a different color.

This is to say that on top of, or perhaps underneath, its whimsical adventure plot Oz is a crazy quilt of studio gimmickry and cornball humor.  Miraculously, the thing coheres.  But scratch its shiny Technicolor surface and you have something that’s nearly as surreal and screwy—and psychotronic—as 1941’s Hellzapoppin'.    


The Films of 2017: The Meyerowitz Stories

In The Meyerowitz Stories, three adult siblings are brought together by the failing health of their cantankerous father, a once-prominent sculptor still clinging to the illusion of his relevance and unwilling to go gentle into that good night.  The kids are broadly drawn Characters: a perpetually unemployed songwriter played by Adam Sandler, a tightly wound managerial type played by Ben Stiller, a hatchet-faced wallflower type played by Elizabeth Marvel.  They spend the majority of the film feuding with each other, fretting over the father’s health care and financial assets, reopening some old wounds and repairing others.  There’s a madcap tone to scenes like the one in which the father entreats one of his sons to chase after a stranger who he (mistakenly, as it turns out) believes has stolen his coat, and one in which the two brothers tussle on the lawn of the hospital; other scenes are more poignant, but in a flat, glancing way.  We’re in Noah Baumbach territory, which is to say the New York City of Jewish intellectuals and precocious college students, fast talk and nervous energy, verbose arguments and farcical mishaps.


Endless summer

One of the things that’s so poignant about Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962) is that it manages to capture how the idealism and the innocence of youth fall into the bitterness and tragedy of adult experience.  This film, which remains one of the towering masterpieces of the French New Wave, roughly divides into two halves, which could be called “Before” and “After”: before and after the catastrophe of The Great War, before and after marriage, before and after the initial separations that forever alter the relationships between Jules and Jim and Catherine.  The first forty-five minutes of the film, set in Truffaut’s charming recreation of bohemian Paris during the belle epoque, finds the three friends living in a state of childlike, uncomplicated joy.  Then, in the years following the war, everything becomes disastrously, fatally complicated.  (The historian Paul Fussell has written about the summer of 1914, when the beginning of Jules and Jim is set, as a time of idyllic leisure that would soon be shattered by the carnage of WWI.)                      

Jules and Jim would not pack any real punch without the ironies and betrayals of the second half, but the first half of the film is superior—one of the most sublime pieces of cinema ever made.  It’s dizzyingly cut together by Truffaut to give a sense of the exhilaration and intensity of being young, ambitious, hungry (for expression, poetry, knowledge, wine, sex).  Set to soaring music by Georges Delerue, music that later turns sour and rueful, these early scenes move at breakneck speed and feel, pace Godard,  breathless.  And yet even in this idyllic part of the film the seeds of the tragedy can already be spotted.  (Et in arcadia ego.)  When Jules and Jim and Catherine spend a beautiful summer afternoon traipsing through the forest, they find a trail of detritus that anticipates the mess that will be left in the wake of their relationships with one another, not to mention the rubble of the war.  The full impact of that damage is, of course, only appreciable at the end of the film.  Even so, it’s in these early passages that Jules and Jim feels almost inexpressibly happy and free.  Like its characters, we’re made to feel a joy that seems as if it will go on forever.

I’m not alone in finding the early scenes of Jules and Jim so entrancing that the rest of the film feels like a letdown.  According to Robert Stam on the Criterion Blu-ray, Martin Scorsese has claimed that he’s never directed anything as good as the first ten minutes of this film.  Reviewing it in 1962 Stanley Kauffmann wrote, “The film begins and continues with such a flood of spirited invention that even on the third or fourth viewing one wonders whether the high level can be sustained.”  It can’t, of course, and that will never change.  Which is, I suppose, part of the point of the film.  Idylls end; summer dies; even the warmest of friendships cool, and the whimsical charms of a person like Catherine congeal into perilous unpredictability.  Still: Jules and Jim will forever frustrate us for peaking early.


Happy Halloween

Girls on beds: Nancy Loomis as Annie.

A tableau from John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978): tombstone, dead babysitter, jack-o’-lantern.  I’ve never found this classic thriller to be particularly scary—slasher movies in general have never been my horror subgenre of choice, possibly because the procedural nature of their plots has always felt a little bit boring.  Whatever appeal Halloween has (and it does have some appeal, part of it nostalgic; it was one of the horror movies I grew up watching), it has more to do with Carpenter’s evocation of a mood that feels particularly autumnal than with its efforts to be terrifying.  Although the film was shot in Pasadena and is set in rural Illinois, its gray skies and streets littered with crunchy dead leaves always remind me of my own childhood Halloweens in upstate New York.  The most atmospheric scenes in the film are not those set at night, when the deranged Michael Myers begins picking off his teenage victims, but rather those set in late afternoon, when Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her girlfriends walk home from school, Carpenter’s piano score suggestive of insistent, quiet agitation.  I wasn’t a teenage girl or a babysitter, nor did I grow up in the kind of sidewalk-lined suburb that Haddonfield is meant to epitomize, but I identified in some way with Laurie and her vaguely articulated teen angst.  The threat of being stalked by a psycho killer was never something that felt very real to me; the thought of coming home from school feeling listless and bored, flopping down on my bed and losing myself in dreams (of romance? of horror?), still resonates.

Girls on beds: Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie.


The Films of 2017: Ex Libris

Ex Libris, Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary (his forty-second), is both a profile of an institution and a portrait of a community—institutions and communities being two of his favorite subjects.  It’s a film about the New York Public Library, which Wiseman pointedly makes clear is more than just a beautiful old building on Fifth Avenue flanked by statues of lions; it’s a repository for culture and knowledge, a public educational institution, a social hub.  (We're also reminded that its branches extend across all five boroughs of the city.)  One of the librarians in the film observes that libraries must be thought of not as storage spaces for books but as places where members of a community come to access information.  In directing our attention to the astonishing range of things that happen at the NYPL (continuing education classes for adult learners, career fairs for job-seekers, after-school programs for children, public lectures and readings, independent research, book club meetings) Wiseman quietly affirms this claim.  As is typical of his films, Ex Libris prefers to show rather than to argue.  But in showing over and over again the many crucial functions served by the Library the film argues powerfully for its vitality and importance to the citizens of New York—even as, ironically, the Library’s board struggles continually to procure funds and to prove its “relevance.”


The Films of 2017: The Florida Project

For the tenants of Orlando’s “Magic Castle” motel, a purple and gold eyesore located just off the highway, life is not exactly the stuff of a Disney fairy tale: inhabited by vagabonds and the unemployed—and their children—the fleabag motel, which is more like a flophouse, symbolizes dashed hopes and dreams deferred.  We’re never really told how Hailey (Bria Vinaite), the single mom of about twenty-seven who lives in Room 323 with her six-year-old daughter Moonee, came to end up at the Magic Castle, where she ekes out a living peddling perfume and hawking stolen “park-hopper” bracelets to tourists.  Combative and feckless, she’s ill equipped to see beyond such short-term goals as making her rent each week. 


The tears of "Shoah"

Michael Podchlebnik interviewed in Shoah (dir. Claude Lanzmann, 1985).

“Tears in Shoah, like song, are the bodily being of a traumatic past, a constant presence always waiting to burst forth.” – Sue Vice

“He starts telling the story…he stops, he cries, he breaks up.  He can’t go on.  And I continued filming him, because for me Bomba’s tears were as precious as blood.  They were the seal of truth, an attestation.” – Claude Lanzmann

I’ve spent the last two weeks rewatching Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), an extraordinary film by any measure, even if one sets aside its epic length of nine hours, twenty-six minutes.  (This is the second time I’ve seen the whole film, and both times I’ve watched it in seven or eight pieces over ten days.  Though Shoah is designed to be seen in two five-hour blocks, dividing it up into smaller increments does nothing to blunt its shattering force.)  Lanzmann’s film sets out to approach the subject of the Holocaust in ways that short-circuit the kinds of “safe” responses facilitated by more conventional films.  It makes no pronouncements, seeks no answers, offers us no conveniences, leaves us with no consolations.  It simply watches and listens—except that there is nothing simple about this film, which opens out onto endless reserves of mystery, astonishment, horror.  Its purpose is neither to argue nor to interpret, but rather to bear witness, a phrase that one encounters again and again in the critical discourse around the film as well as within the film itself.   

Because Lanzmann so deliberately avoids imposing a narrative onto Shoah (in order to deny viewers the reassurance of seeing the Holocaust as a story) we are left to develop individual responses to its meandering, repetitive, seemingly patternless structure.  (Sometimes its sequencing resembles the steady movements of ocean waves; at other times it seems as if it’s being hewn out of stone in great blocks.)  Shoah doesn’t build to any narrative resolution or climax at the end, and if the second half of the film feels more powerful than the first it may be only due to a cumulative effect.  It contains nothing like the ending of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), for example, which (effectively) triggers the kind of tear-jerking catharsis that we desire, even unconsciously, when dealing with material this upsetting.  Watching Shoah I find myself uncertain, distracted, even anxious about when exactly the movie will make me cry.  I want it to happen and never know when it will come about, or what will bring it on.  But then the release of crying during Shoah is only ever temporary, because after our eyes have dried we’re still trapped, as it were, in the world of the film for another two, four, six, eight hours, waiting for, even wanting, another bout of tears, never knowing when they will come.

Upon watching the film these past weeks I noticed myself falling into a mirroring relationship with the images of the witnesses in the film: seeing them break down triggered my own tears.  My hunch, though, is that the film’s emotional beats are felt differently by every viewer.  That’s partly because although crying during Shoah seems inevitable Lanzmann never cues us about when to do so.  Nor does he give us the satisfaction of a catharsis.  There may be a hundred ways into this film, but there is no way out of it.                       


The Films of 2017: Faces Places

Watching Faces Places (Visages Villages), we’re likely to bring to it a lifetime’s worth of affection and admiration for its legendary auteur, Agnes Varda, who at the age of eighty-nine is one of the few members of the French New Wave still standing.  Her new film has been made in collaboration with JR, a photographer and visual artist some fifty-five years her junior.  As a documentary it’s sheer pleasure, a road movie in which these two unlikely companions travel the French countryside taking pictures of rural townsfolk and printing them as massive posters, something of an updated version of the project undertaken by Varda in her 1976 film Daguerreotypes.  Varda and JR are like a pair of music-hall clowns, he tall and lanky, hidden behind a bowler hat and dark glasses, she short and squat, her magnificent elfin face peering out from under her trademark mop of two-tone hair.  Much of the film is spent watching as they play, talk, and ride around in the van that acts as their mobile photo booth; at one point they re-enact the famous race through the Louvre from Godard’s Bande a Parte.  At thirty-three, JR’s boundless vitality is made to contrast with Varda’s relatively limited mobility (a typical image: he leaps up a flight of stairs while she follows behind slowly, pausing to rest on the landing); nevertheless, her creative energy, wit, and spirit of adventure remain irrepressibly vital.


Juliette dreams of L'Atalante

Dita Parlo as Juliette in L'Atalante (dir. Jean Vigo, 1934).

In sleep she dreamed her way back on the barge, where the sounds of the city were as distant as an echo and where one drifted off to the lapping of the water on the hull of the boat and the yowling of the cats mating in the night.  In these dreams she found herself pressed tight against Jean’s wiry chest, his arms holding her close to him as they lay dozing fitfully in their cabin, drenched in the sweat of late July, Père Jules’ snores quaking through the wall.  She dreamed that she was sleeping—or rather forgot where she was sleeping and imagined herself in that other bed with the smell of unwashed men and mangy cats and bilge water pressing upon her like a fever.  She dreamed of her own memories: of the press of Jean’s lean frame against her back, his hands lightly clasped around her waist.  They would lay like that until the light of the dawn made its way into the cabin and woke her and she would peel herself out of Jean’s embrace (he was a sound sleeper; he never woke up) and slip out of bed, through the cabin door and into the lair of Père Jules, who lay sleeping like a beast or an ogre in a book of fairy tales.  She would crouch down beside him as he lay snoring and farting, his fleshy lips parted to reveal a mouth of rotten teeth like black gumdrops, just watching him (like Jean, he was a sound sleeper); and then, with one eye always peering back at him over her shoulder, she would wander to his vast pile of treasures (the grotesque marionette with the face like a wizened apple, the Chinese fan, the elephant tusk, the music boxes and the mechanical toys, the cloudy glass jar in which the severed hands of his late friend had been pickled), running her hands over them lightly and with the wonder of an enchanted child while the men slept and the water lapped the sides of the boat and the cats sunned themselves in the sharp light of the morning.