Archive for the 'directors' Category

What to do about Godard?

At the end of the ninth month of 2012, I’m only on my fifth director for my year-long project. Oh well, no one really cares about that but me, right? C’est la vie.

Following my joyous experience with Agnès Varda, I stayed in the realm of directors who started during the French New Wave, and explored some of the work of Jean-Luc Godard. This was interesting, because he was someone whose work I thought I would really enjoy diving into, and that ended up not being the case at all. Godard has been incredibly prolific over the course of his career, but going into this, I had only ever seen Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960) and Week End (1967). I saw both for the first time in college, and loved Breathless, while being reasonably impressed with the very odd Week End—at least from a technical perspective, appreciating its style and its infamously long tracking shot of a surreal traffic jam. But I’d not made the effort to seek out his other works until the past couple of months.

Letting my viewing life be dictated by what’s available for streaming on Netflix—as I often do, for better or for worse—I started out with one of Godard’s most recent works, Film socialisme (2010). Of course I knew that Godard has gotten more experimental with every passing decade, but I was not quite prepared for how impenetrable an exercise this was. Much of the film, which doesn’t really have a narrative to it, revolves around passengers on a cruise ship having long philosophical conversations that actually quote liberally from real philosophical works. I know this both because I speak a fair bit of French and because I paused the movie to read about it and try to figure out what the hell I was watching. Heaven help you if you can’t do either of these things, because the subtitles are just a bunch of intermittent words that don’t convey full, grammatical ideas. There was a method to Godard’s madness—something about the rhythm of the Navajo language—but that doesn’t make it any less aggravating to watch.

The film has several sections, and one that takes place off the boat at a gas station run by a family could have been very enjoyable without the dreaded creative subtitles. The reason for this is because this part of the film actually has a sort of narrative to it. Realizing how far Godard really has come from using a narrative story as the core basis for a film, I jumped way back in his filmography to one I’ve heard praised a hundred times: Band of Outsiders (Bande à part, 1964). Paying homage to elements of film noir, we follow two would-be crooks as they hatch a plan to steal a considerable hoard of cash from the wealthy benefactor of a young woman they know from English language class, who has been silly enough to tell them about it.

I really wish I’d found as much to admire in this film as so many people seem to. I did enjoy the acting, particularly from Anna Karina (even though I wanted to slap her character half the time), and there are some great sequences that let loose in an irresistible way.

But nothing grabbed me enough to really pull me into the world of the film and care about whether the characters would be able to pull off their plan or not. I mean, at some point in watching a film, it’s not going to be enough for me just to coast through scenes where the driving force is air of “cool”—I need more. Does this story truly speak to people? Or am I maybe not grasping something impressive in the physical way the film was constructed? I wanted to like it so much more than I did.

There were some things I liked better about A Woman is a Woman (1961), perhaps because it incorporates elements of a musical, and this provided enough of a fun surprise to hold my interest for a while. It tells the story of a striptease artist (the ever-present Anna Karina, on the verge here of becoming Godard’s wife) who wants a baby, her reluctant boyfriend, and his not-so-reluctant friend who could help out. This provides a potentially interesting core dilemma—although I could have done with a fair bit more exploration of Karina’s character’s internal reasoning for this desire. (Watching films made by intellectual-type men in the 1960s is sometimes an exercise in frustration for a contemporary feminist.) Here, more than with Band of Outsiders, I can look at the sum of the film’s parts and understand why it’s an impressive effort, why it’s an experiment worth studying even now. But that doesn’t erase the annoyance I developed over its insistent self-referential tone—a reaction that might mean that the whole of the French New Wave just isn’t for me in the way I might have thought it was when just seeing its greatest highlights in film classes in college.

From being merely a bit underwhelmed at times by Band of Outsiders and A Woman is a Woman, I moved on to 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) and Pierrot le Fou (1965). I simply had a hard time getting through both of these movies. The characters were grating; the philosophy spouted was muddled at best, exasperating at worst. Particularly with Pierrot le Fou, no action in one scene ever seemed to have consistent ramifications for the following scenes; if you’re telling me a story and I can’t trust what the stakes are, you have lost me.

Godard has many, many other films, but this was a good sampling from his most celebrated time, and nothing was really connecting. Is he, then, just not for me? Am I just more of a Varda or Chabrol sort of girl when it comes to this era? Was I crazy in thinking that I really loved Breathless? It was clear that I had to watch it again, which I hadn’t done for a good seven years. And I was relieved to find that I still liked it, but the attachment I felt back when it was fresh for me has certainly subsided. I wonder if as I’m getting older, I’m coming to reject the sort of worldview I see in Godard’s work, the despairing, “does it even matter” questions asked by his characters. A bit of existential questioning I can understand; utter detachment doesn’t work for me. Characters who throw each other away because they realize just saying they love someone doesn’t fill a void don’t work for me. I want things to matter. I want people who care.

Am I missing something? Are there other films I should watch that might speak to me? Should I carry on a bit with Monsieur Godard, or let him go?



Catching up on my directors project: part one

Though I am only somewhat behind on my watching, I’m woefully behind on writing up my thoughts on the directors I’ve been exploring in my quest to greater familiarize myself with one filmmaker per month in 2012. Waaaaay back in April, I decided to focus part of the year on French New Wave directors, and of course Agnès Varda was at the top of my list. I’ve written several times about my adoration for her film Cléo from 5 to 7, but the rest of her filmography was still on my to-do list. To the Netflix I went!

Varda in The Gleaners and I

For no reason at all other than that it was streaming, I started with one of Varda’s later documentaries, 2000’s The Gleaners & I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse). In it, Varda creates a meandering and entrancing exploration of bits of French society, including her own life, by discussing the concept of gleaning—taking from the leftovers, whether from a harvested field or a grocery store dumpster. The subject certainly matters enough in a contemporary Western society that wastes incredible amounts of food and other resources to provide content for an interesting and important film. What elevates this film beyond just being informative and thought-provoking is the presence of Varda herself. I know that many people dislike documentaries where the filmmaker inserts his- or herself in the proceedings, but I have never been bothered by them. After all, it seems more false to pretend that the filmmaker is not there. And when we are talking about the utterly charming and witty person who is Agnès Varda, having her around bests not having her around, hands down.

Another of Varda’s documentaries, the earlier work Daguerréotypes (1975), might have benefited a bit from having her personality be a greater part the mix. She is more observer than explorer in the film, which focuses on the neighborhood where she lived at the time (the Rue Daguerre, named for the inventor of the first commercially successful photo process—a neat coincidence for a photographer and filmmaker). Still, the stories of the shopkeepers on the street of Varda’s home eventually captivate on their own. Many of them have been running their shops—a bakery, a butcher’s, a parfumerie—for decades, and the rhythms of life are well-set. The patterns of the customers’ comings and goings become a bit hypnotic; I, at least, could have contentedly watched the action in the butcher shop for quite a while. This intimate system of commerce drives the formation of a community; while the film’s participants do discuss their personal lives and tell stories of how they met their spouses, all of that is intertwined with how the couples now run businesses together. Watching from the vantage point of 2012, and knowing how so many of these businesses no longer exist in the same way, out-performed by large companies, adds a layer of sadness to the proceedings. These are not people leading very big or exciting lives, but their lives work—their way of doing things works. And it will inevitably fade away.

Varda’s documentaries move the viewer because of their strong use of symbolism in everyday moments, and her narrative works show the same sensibilities. Her first full-length film, La Pointe Courte (1955), uses the backdrop of the daily workings of a small fishing village, juxtaposed with a long conversation between a couple teetering on the edge of either breaking up or recommitting to each other. Though the man is a native of the village, he has been away, and it’s visually clear that, though he’s welcome, he no longer quite fits in—certainly his companion does not, in her smart, dark suit walking in the wild grasses.

As better described in this great Criterion essay than I ever could, La Pointe Courte deserves the title as the first film of the French New Wave. Watching it, I felt I could truly understand why the films of the movement command such attention in a way I hadn’t before. The way the physical filmmaking techniques call attention to themselves while the “sets” are real locations; the way the emotional tone stays steady whether it’s a long dialogue scene or a glimpse of the sometimes wordless rhythm of working life; the structure that comes from instinct over storytelling rules—it was all here in Varda’s film, before any of the male filmmakers got to it.

Ten years later, and after Cléo from 5 to 7, Varda made her third feature film, the impressive and maddening Le bonheur. Though I know that I truly admired this film, I must admit that I have no actual idea how to talk about it or interpret its message. In a Parisian suburb, François and Thérèse raise their two tiny children. He works in the family carpentry shop; she’s a seamstress working out of their cute and tidy home. They are happy—until he meets someone else, another woman he could be happy with. But to François, this is not an either/or propostion; it’s not a real choice to be made. Aren’t two things that bring happiness better than one? Shouldn’t he now, simply, have twice the happiness?

One needn’t take even a second to realize that François’s way of thinking isn’t based on any sort of reality the rest of the world is living in. And though the fact that this won’t work is obvious, the way the aftermath of François’s delusion plays out can be interpreted in many ways. (I won’t describe the particulars of that aftermath here; “watch this film” is my advice.) Just before second-wave feminism would come along and women would fight for their equality, Varda made a film that captures the sort of preposterous nature of women having to define themselves by their relationship to a man. However one interprets the ending, it can’t be denied that the characters react as they do because their lives, in the amplified world of the film, with its brilliant color, are part of a system where men’s relationships to women are vastly different than women’s relationships to men.

I have yet to see a film by Varda that I wouldn’t recommend as worth watching. Her legacy seems to grow in small waves, and I hope that that continues until she is consistently championed as one of the true greats. My still-to-watch list includes one of her most famous narrative films, Vagabond, and her most recent, autobiographical documentary, The Beaches of Agnès. I can’t wait to see both of them, and to hopefully find some of the many shorts she’s made in her decades of impressive work, as well. I’d also just really, really like to have dinner with her—I’ll be in France in a few months, Ms. Varda, how about it?

A few male directors who should consider female protagonists for future projects.

This post is not meant to shame any of the following directors, or to serve as any sort of a definitive list. These are just a few thoughts I had today about some men who are very successful making Hollywood-type films that I often enjoy, and whom I would like to see ask themselves why they feel they can’t do that with a woman for the core, central character.

*Paul Thomas Anderson: has never made a film with a female protagonist. Fascinating explorations of dark emotions need not be limited to men, PTA.

*Steven Spielberg: has not directed a film with a female protagonist in 27 years, since 1985’s The Color Purple. He had only one other before that, The Sugarland Express. How about an adventure film with a woman taking the lead, Mr. Spielberg? 27 years is a long time.

*Wes Anderson: has arguably never made a film with a female protagonist. A case can be made for Suzy as a co-protagonist in Moonrise Kingdom. I see it more as an ensemble piece (with many, many more male characters than female, as is the case in all of his films). I would love to see him do more with exploring female characters, and not just through the lens of being a male character’s crush or mother.

*Danny Boyle: has arguably never made a film with a female protagonist. Perhaps one could make an argument for co-protagonist status for Cameron Diaz’s character in A Life Less Ordinary. (I would say that McGregor’s actions/perspective most drive the film, but I haven’t seen it in a while. Shallow Grave, which I have not seen, seems to have a woman for 1 out of 3 co-protagonists.) Certainly since he has rocketed to A-list status, his focus has been on projects with male protagonists. Given his range and willingness to dabble in lots of genres, I hope he’ll branch out further.

*Martin Scorsese: has not made a film with a female protagonist in 38 years, since 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. If anyone wonders why I’m not a Scorsese junkie like so many film buffs: there you go. 38 years, and he never saw a script with a female protagonist that interested him? Never heard a female-centric idea that piqued his interest? No wonder his sensibilities don’t always entrance me. Way to be a bro, Marty.

What other beloved dudes could use a reminder that women are interesting, too?

Happy birthday, Agnes Varda

If I had one of those fantasy dinner parties where I could invite any five people in the world, Agnès Varda would be on my list. She is someone I admire as a filmmaker, as a woman who made incredible work in her field at a time when few women were doing so, and as a person who just seems to be an utter delight. (Seriously, just watch her 2000 documentary The Gleaners & I…the moments when she enters the picture to contemplate what she’s learning as she makes the film are so warm, smart, and endearing. She’s great.) Agnès Varda turns 84 today, and is still making work that is varied and beautiful.

I’ve written once before about my admiration for Varda’s 1962 film Cleo From 5 to 7. I found this clip today of her speaking sometime in the mid-1960s about her early career, up to and including Cleo. I love what she has to say about its viewpoint:

I actually have not seen much of Varda’s early work, which seems the perfect motivation to have her be a Director of the Month. No, I haven’t forgotten that little project….just got overwhelmed the last couple of months. To make up for April and May, stay tuned for a French New Wave triple-whammy in June: Varda, Godard, and one more I haven’t decided on….Chabrol, maybe? If anyone has a strong opinion, please say so in the comments! There are SO MANY things I haven’t seen yet.

A Whit Stillman Fan is Born

Because of the tyranny of the New York/Los Angeles release, some lucky people will be able to see Whit Stillman’s new film Damsels in Distress this weekend, but I am not one of them. I suppose that I can wait a bit, seeing as I’m only a very recent fan; while some have been patiently waiting for more Whit Stillman since his last film came out in 1998, I only discovered the pleasures of his style this past December, when the MacGuffin crew watched his first film, Metropolitan, for a Christmastime roundtable.

“There’s something a tiny bit arrogant about people going around feeling sorry for other people they consider less fortunate.”

Although from my perspective just about any film that incorporates the ennui of rich white dudes in its themes starts with one strike against it, the undercurrent of gentle irony in Metropolitan saves it from veering into the abyss. The story is of a group of friends home from college for the holidays, dressing up to lounge around each other’s Upper East Side apartments or go to fashionable places in Manhattan for no real purpose other than that’s what people do. They are at the time of their lives when stress about pairing off into couples is only just starting to creep in, but the rules of dating are growing wearisome. They perceive, somewhat accurately, that they’re the last of a certain kind of generation, when debutante balls matter and ingrained social status is everything. They speak a lot about what sorts of changes to society the future might bring.

If all this were played for drama, I’d probably get fed up. But we are in smart comic territory, and the storylines involving who likes whom and who was slighted when and who’s worthy of this or that are all set-ups for continuously flowing, highly amusing dialogue. As a movie fan I fall most squarely into the category of dialogue junkie, and I have no issues with dialogue that isn’t naturalistic. I want it to be clever and profound and funny and distinct, not sound like any random people chatting on the bus. In a Whit Stillman film, I’m awash in everything I want from characters speaking to each other.

“You mean it’s a complete cliché? All women recent college graduates drink vodka tonics, or something like that?”

After deciding to make Stillman one of the directors for my year-long director-of-the-month blog project (he was for March; not shockingly, I’m behind), I rented The Last Days of Disco and Barcelona, his other two films. I watched The Last Days of Disco first, and found it to be completely delightful. Once again, he’s exploring the end of an era through the eyes of a group of young people. Young professionals Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale, in perhaps the first role I’ve ever actively liked her in) are sort-of friends trying to make progress in the publishing world by day, and going disco dancing/guy hunting by night. They frequent a club where lower-level manager Des (Stillman favorite Chris Eigeman, ever the blowhard of the group) constantly gets in trouble for letting friends in for free. We follow the pairings- and breakings up of a loose network of friends and acquaintances surrounding these three, set to a bounty of awesome dance songs of the ’70s.

In Metropolitan, it seemed that all of the characters took themselves and their ideas too seriously. Here, that type of character comes up against another type: Alice doesn’t take herself seriously enough. Her journey toward realizing she really deserves better than the friends and potential lovers she’s got provides a throughline that anchors the film, and elevates it above Metropolitan. While Alice can hold her own in the crossfire of Stillman’s dialogue (that’s her line I’ve quoted above), she often chooses to mostly just listen. Because Chloë Sevigny is a remarkable actress who can convey a lot through just the way her character listens, we never miss how Alice is always key to a scene, even if she’s being quieter than everyone else. She is the character the audience can latch onto. This character arc I really cared about, the consistent intelligent humor, and the sincere appreciation of the disco scene combined to make a film I thought was truly great.

“Oh, shootings, yes. But that doesn’t mean Americans are more violent than other people. We’re just better shots.”

Doubling back, I visited Stillman’s second film, Barcelona. Though set in Spain, it is still about a specific type of American life, as well as the way the outside world sees America—both in general, and at this specific time, as the Cold War is ending. Ted (Taylor Nichols) is a salesman of some sort stationed in Barcelona for his Chicago-based company, and he takes his job and the philosophy of sales quite seriously. His cousin Fred (Chris Eigeman), a Navy officer and world-class freeloader, shows up to stay for a while. He’s apparently on assignment scouting out the area for an upcoming shore leave. This may sound like a fairly cushy gig, but Fred is the type who will always manage to get into trouble. Incapable of maintaining a low profile or keeping his mouth shut, he soon has many lefty-types angry at him and has deeply complicated Ted’s already struggling social life. Eigeman is a master at playing this type of sincerely obnoxious character, but it’s Nichols’s earnest and committed Ted that holds the film together.

Barcelona doesn’t work quite as well as Stillman’s Metropolitan or The Last Days of Disco, because as it nears its end it seems to lose the sense of deliberateness that is felt even in the unconventional structure of the other films. The ending feels unearned. Its female characters are also comparatively undeveloped, representing ideas of what Spanish women are like more than fully-formed individuals. Actresses Mira Sorvino and Tushka Bergen do their best, but the point of view of the film is more about what the men think of them than what they want for themselves. Given the dynamic female characters in The Last Days of Disco, that was a disappointment for me. But it makes me all the more eager to see the decidedly female-centric Damsels in Distress, Stillman’s first film in 14 years.

Stillman’s first three films begin with characters surrounded by people they haven’t really chosen for themselves—the friends society and circumstance thrust upon them, or the relatives nature dictated. Through that, some characters will and some won’t succeed in forming more meaningful relationships. I’ll be interested to see if and how this theme comes up in his newest work. Whether or not it ends up falling in line with his earlier films or representing a departure, I’m very glad he finally made another film.

A long time ago, in February, it was Hitchcock month

I really must apologize for bringing up February while we’re now almost mid-way through March (I personally like to forget November through February ever happened as soon as the calendar switches to March 1st.) But I’m just catching up on other things to the point where I can sum up Hitchcock month…so here we go!

1. Films I’d Already Seen:

The 39 Steps
The Lady Vanishes
Foreign Correspondent
Shadow of a Doubt
Strangers on a Train
Dial M for Murder
Rear Window
The Trouble With Harry
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
North by Northwest
The Birds

2. Films I Watched This Month

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927) — pretty good

There are certain shots in The Lodger, a serial killer mystery, where one can definitely see Alfred Hitchcock becoming Alfred Hitchcock. He plays with the literal visual perspective of the viewer and of the characters with great skill, taking advantage of every shadow and staircase he can. I was also impressed with one particular special effects shot, where the viewer sees through the ceiling of a room to where the suspicious suspected killer paces the floor in the room above. I love those early trick photography moments, from when directors really were still making it all up. The film comes in the middle of Hitchcock’s streak of British films before his Hollywood career began, many of which were made during the end of the silent era, and the plot and tone don’t reach the level of brilliant suspense his work of later years would. Still, the film is good enough that I’d definitely like to see it again, on a better print (the one I watched was not in good shape).

Frenzy (1972) — also pretty good

I watched Frenzy just a couple of days after watching The Lodger, and a particular thing is clear: 45 years really changes the way someone approaches serial killer material. Frenzy is in some ways very much a Hitchcock movie, with its you’ve-got-the-wrong-man set-up and very suspenseful set pieces. But after watching a silent film where all violence takes place with a scream in the dark followed by a newspaper clipping—hell, even reflecting on Hitchcock moments like the infamous shower scene in Psycho—the in-your-face assault of the rape and murder that take place in Frenzy was startling and disconcerting. I don’t think the new level of what one could get away with on screen in the 1970s meshed well with Hitchcock’s sensibilities.

Still, Frenzy is a fairly enjoyable film, helped along massively by skillful central performances. We know the identity of the real killer early on, and Barry Foster is undeniably creepy in the role. As the man accused—who, while innocent of these offenses, is still a bit of a scoundrel—Jon Finch hits the balance between charming and infuriating. I also adore Anna Massey (who also finds herself embroiled in a serial killer plot in the great Peeping Tom), and she is easily the highlight of this film.

Marnie (1964) — I think I really liked it?

(Spoilers.) I think I will have to watch Marnie again and write something proper about it. What a complex film. Tippi Hedren masterfully plays the damaged and complicated title character, with fascinating layers beneath a defensive, smooth surface that takes a serious trauma to rock. The perpetrator of that trauma is a man who seems to actually love her, but only in a dominating and almost obsessive way, which demonstrates that he is just as unhealthy as she is. Sean Connery’s control in that role makes him both magnetic and repulsive, and the film does not shy away from examining how repugnant it is that his character actually rapes the woman he seems to love, when she cannot be open to him because of her past trauma. I was engrossed by this film—brutal in its storytelling, beautiful in its construction—and I am still contemplating its themes and messages, without having reached a final conclusion in that regard.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) — again…pretty good

Though this earlier version moves at a faster clip than the occasionally-slow remake Hitchcock did with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day 22 years later, and it’s very fun to watch Peter Lorre in full gangster mode, I do prefer the later version. It does a much better job of character development, which means the audience is more invested in the trauma of these parents whose child has been kidnapped after they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and learned the wrong bit of information. This film is definitely worth watching—both because of its significance as the film Hitchcock chose to remake, and because of the performances—but no scenes from it stuck with me the way the “Que Sera, Sera” scene does in the later version.

Rope (1948, re-watch) — good, but still not as good as I wish it was

The main reason I like Rope is because of my love for the actor John Dall, whom I became enamored of the first time I saw the faaaaantastic B-noir Gun Crazy. He’s a slight bit cheesy here as the ringleader of a plot to murder a classmate just for the hell of it—just to prove they can get away with it—but the man’s acting career was far too sparse, and I’ll take him where I can get him. I also obviously love Jimmy Stewart, but he’s miscast here as the eccentric, philosophical professor whose theories the murderers take a bit too literally. Still, I can be a sucker for a confining gimmick, and the whole “only ten shots in the whole film” thing here definitely gets me. If it had been on a more elaborate set (in many ways, Rope might as well still be the stage play it’s based on), it really would have gotten me, and I’d probably be praising the film much more.

The Lady Vanishes (1938, re-watch) — ummm…

I told a couple of people I would give The Lady Vanishes another chance, because I hadn’t liked it much the first time around. I rented the brand new Criterion Blu-ray release. I was truly prepared to concede that I just hadn’t quite gotten it the first time around. Unfortunately, I still didn’t get it on the second time around. Why is this film such a revered classic? Its lead actors are reasonably charming, but the plot is ridiculously slow. Never has a final shootout been so lacking in urgency. And wasn’t anyone else just kind of pissed at the old lady for putting these people in so much danger without any explanation? Oh, well; I guess this one is just not for me. Some of the shots on the train are wonderful, though.

Dial M for Murder (1954, re-watch) — very good

I would really like to see this film in 3-D. I said I could be a sucker for a gimmick, and one of the things I like about Hitchcock is how he did try out gimmicks, within his life as a “serious filmmaker.” Imagine how much grief he might have gotten if the internet had been a thing in his day! Oh, the ridiculing tweets! But I adore the way quality storytelling and visual art and sheer fun experimentation can come together in the right kind of film, and this is an example of a success in that regard. Throw in some double-crossing and some Grace Kelly, and I am definitely a happy camper.

To Catch a Thief (1955) — great

Grace Kelly again. She charms me, she really does. But as much as I cherish Cary Grant—I shall never say a bad word about him—the age gap between the romantic leads here is a bit distracting from an otherwise very enjoyable romp in luxurious, mad-cap fun. (Maybe it’s also to do with how startling it always is to see just how very tan Cary Grant was, when he’s in a color film?) I do sometimes wish that in the 1950s and ’60s, Hitchcock had been able to find reliable leading men he liked who were a bit younger, to go with the new blondes he always managed to find. That aside, this is just a fun film. Jewel thieving and French speaking and rooftop scampering and costume wearing and fast car driving…it has all of that loveliness, plus Grace Kelly’s gowns. Come on. Delightful.

3. Films Still to Watch

There remain quite a few of Hitchcock’s silent films I haven’t seen, plus some from his strongest years that I wanted to make time for, but didn’t get to—Jamaica Inn (I love the book) and Lifeboat, especially. For the sake of being able to accurately compare the different eras of his career, I also still plan to watch Topaz and Family Plot as soon as I can get to them. The man made a lot of movies.

As for my March assignment…I’m so busy that I’m going to have to cheat this month (already!) and pick a director who is less prolific. In fact, he’s basically the opposite of prolific. With his new film Damsels in Distress coming out next month, I want to fill in the gaps for my knowledge of Whit Stillman. I’ve only seen his first film, Metropolitan, but not Barcelona or The Last Days of Disco. Hopefully I can handle two extra films on my viewing load before the month is out! Oy.

January was David Cronenberg month (kind of)

As 2012 was beginning, I thought it would be fun to set a bit of a year-long mini project for myself as a movie viewer. I didn’t blog about my intentions, though, because I tend to have a lot of ideas for fun things that then never happen. But since I semi-succeeded in part one of this project, here’s the rundown. Every month this year, I’ll pick one director and make it the goal to watch the major films in their filmography that I haven’t gotten to yet. Filling in every gap for certain prolific directors will be tough, but one film a week at least should be doable to add to my usual viewing load. We’ll see!

Here’s how it went in January, for my first pick of David Cronenberg:

1. Films I’d Already Seen

Scanners (1981) — obviously great
The Fly (1986) — incredible, duh
Crash (1996) — interesting; probably never need to see again, but glad I did
A History of Violence (2005) — quite good, especially the acting
Eastern Promises (2007) — 80% awesome, 20% annoying

2. Films I Watched This Month

A Dangerous Method (2011) — horrible

What is with this film? Its screenplay is an absolute mess, with no reason whatsoever for moving from one scene to another. Keira Knightley, who I generally like, is totally miscast as the psychologically damaged patient of Carl Jung, turning in a trainwreck of a performance as she jerks and stutters and fake-Russian-accents all over the place. It’s actually kind of difficult to watch, and I only partially blame her; Cronenberg is the one who thought this was working, after all. Michael Fassbender as Jung, meanwhile, has nothing to work with where Knightley has too much. The screenplay does nothing to help us understand his motivations at any time—except, I guess, that dudes like sex with pretty ladies. Enlightening! And when he and Viggo Mortensen (as Freud) are on screen together discussing their ideas, it’s boring as hell. Even Viggo doesn’t look like he wants to be there. How can you put the two of them together and make it BORING? How is that even possible under the rules of physics? Ugh, this film.

Videodrome (1983) — great

I’m not always a big James Woods fan, but he’s perfect for Max Renn, the sleazy center of Videodrome. A peddler of cable schlock and gore looking for the next big thing, his quest leads him down a bit of a rabbit hole as he encounters the makers of violent videos embedded with a signal that just may cause the viewer to start hallucinating. Things get crazy, and neither Max nor the viewer really knows where reality ends and visions begin. I am down with some well done surrealism and the sorts of gooey, writhing special effects on display on this film, and I am very down with Deborah Harry as an actress—she’s rather hypnotic here as Max’s sadomasochistic love interest. If you’re okay with not always knowing exactly what’s going on, this is a very engaging film.

eXistenZ (1999) — very stupid

Though it explores many of the same themes as Videodrome—technology blurring the lines of reality and fantasy; whether a simulated experience is as good as a real one—eXistenZ has none of the guts, and pretty much no point by the time we get to the end of it. Jennifer Jason Leigh is wooden and weird as Allegra Geller, the best game designer in the world. These are futuristic virtual reality games, where organic systems plug directly into the spinal cord and the game feels like a real world to the player. Some convoluted nonsense leads, of course, to a scenario where she and gaming-virgin Jude Law have to go through a mission inside the game in order to escape the bad guys. Or something. And wouldn’t you know it, soon they don’t know if they’re inside the game or out of it! Even though she designed the damn thing, she is totally clueless! And then there’s a twist at the end. Can you guess what it is? Basically, you should never watch this movie, which I really should’ve known from the capitalization of the title.

Naked Lunch (1991)

Okay, I didn’t watch this whole thing. I watched half of it and then turned it off because I was incredibly bored. Then I was going to finish it the next day, but it had disappeared from Netflix streaming, and I considered that a sign that the universe absolved me of the responsibility. Sorry, Naked Lunch/William S. Burroughs-lovers. I don’t like the Beats!

3. Films I Still Have Not Seen

Stereo (1969)
Crimes of the Future (1970)
Shivers (1975)
Rabid (1977)
Fast Company (1979)
The Brood* (1979)
The Dead Zone (1983)
Dead Ringers* (1988)
M. Butterfly (1993)
Spider (2002)

*ones I most want to get to in the future

So, even after a month of effort, I’m still less than halfway through Cronenberg’s history as a feature director. Oh well. Soldiering on!

I am declaring February Alfred Hitchcock month. Though I’m very familiar with his greatest hits, I have been meaning to dig into a box set I bought of his early British films, and there are a couple of his late films I’ve never seen (Marnie, especially, I don’t know how I haven’t seen). I also want to check out the new Blu-rays of Notorious and Rebecca, and re-visit The Lady Vanishes. I really didn’t like that film the first time around, but multiple people have said I should give it another chance, so I will. Hitchcock! Full steam ahead!

Other projects:

Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

I love Twitter.

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