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The Criterion Collection - The Current
7-9 minutes

In 1987, nothing else looked or sounded quite like House of Games. David Mamet’s
debut film was a welcome throwback to the primacy of character and careful story
construction, at a time when narrative intricacy was in short supply on American
movie screens. On the one hand, we were seeing an abundance of films in which style
and storytelling were less intertwined than running side by side, if not neck and
neck. On the other hand, we were well into the cookie-cutter stage of American
moviemaking, now pervasive, with its preponderance of last-minute saves and
therapeutic epiphanies.

Yet even if you were familiar with his stage triumphs American Buffalo and
Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet’s lessons in the art of the con and his finely honed
interchanges between poker-souled men in quiet, artfully darkened rooms (courtesy
of cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía) still felt bracingly, winningly different.
House of Games was at once arcane and unprecedented in its obsessive commitment to
a dingy, threadbare poetry—of wooden doors opening and closing, poker chips stacked
and spread, notebook pages turned and smoothed. Mamet seemed to be looking past
Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961), with its existentially shaded rhythms, and back
to the most beautifully crafted B movies of the forties (such as William Castle’s
When Strangers Marry or Val Lewton’s RKO horror output), in which much was made
from little and every basic element of film grammar (pace, rhythm, visual scale)
counted. Moreover, few filmmakers in the eighties had gone so deep into the
thrilling textures of spoken language. This was before the Coen brothers hit their
verbal stride with Miller’s Crossing (1990), before the torrents of obscene poetry
in Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Goodfellas (1990) impacted film culture. Mamet’s
film was (and is) excitingly language centered. “Ooh, you’re a bad pony. I’m not
gonna bet on you!” This was not nostalgic arcana. It was language as fine
craftsmanship, every sentence mentally worked and polished by the speaker. It was,
as always with Mamet, the sparkling lingua franca of a particular, and particularly
tough, moral universe. The rhythms and cadences are recognizably those of their
creator, but Mamet offers us more than just a novel verbal flavor. In his plays and
films, to speak is not merely to act but to defend one’s self.

Probe. Reveal. Conceal. Parry. Thrust. Behavioral jousting is a constant in Mamet’s


work, from his theatrical debut, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, in the early
seventies, through his masterful screenplay for Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (1982),
and up to the present, with his recent TV series The Unit. Every setting is a
battleground, and language is the handmade weapon of choice. Words always have
weight in Mamet, particularly when they’re spoken in the regionally accented voices
of Ricky Jay (of Brooklyn), the late J.?T. Walsh (of San Francisco), or Joe
Mantegna (of Chicago). “Guy’s got a full house, you got two pair—puts you in a
philosophically indefensible position,” says Mantegna. This is the hard American
poetry of Melville’s confidence man and Dreiser’s Hurstwood, of Fred Allen and Saul
Bellow, boiled down to its purest form. And in House of Games, Mamet is careful to
let us hear every?.?.?. single?.?.?. word. And comma. And ellipsis. And pause. Few
directors have ever paid such strict attention to syntax, emphasis—whether the
words come easily (Mantegna, Jay, Lilia Skala) or uneasily (Karen Kohlhaas, Steven
Goldstein, and, to a certain extent, Lindsay Crouse, in the lead) appears to be of
little consequence. If such hyperbolic control became problematic in some of the
films that followed (I’m thinking of 1988’s Things Change, in particular, where
there was no such thing as a walk-on, every wild line was written, and the
airlessness blunted the comedy), it was all of a piece with the conning and
bluffing of his debut.

Who is the mark and who is the master of the game? What is the real thing and what
is the carefully crafted facsimile? This is always the question in Mamet. The last
word of fate, the final turn in the narrative, is a moment of supreme shame for the
victim. As in: I let my guard down, I didn’t watch closely enough, I wasn’t careful
enough, so this is what I deserve. There is no such thing as an accident in Mamet’s
world. There is only what is known and what is unknown. Who has paid the most
attention? Who knows the most? This is an undeniably harsh model of existence,
perhaps a peculiarly Jewish one. “It never stops,” utters one character to another
in (Homicide, 1991), in reference to the persecution of Jews. To stave off any more
catastrophes, we must all sleep with both eyes open and be always on the lookout
for the Freudian slips and “tells” of our enemies.

One aspect of House of Games that makes it relatively anomalous among Mamet’s films
is the presence of Lindsay Crouse—at the time, Mrs. Mamet—as the psychiatrist and
best-selling author who ventures into the “authentically” dangerous world of the
big, bad con men in search of self--revelation. As has often been remarked, Mamet’s
is an almost exclusively male world. Not that his women are decorative
afterthoughts, as they are in so much of American cinema, but his imagination seems
most fully captivated and sparked by men and what transpires between them (one
welcome exception: Rebecca Pidgeon, the current Mrs. Mamet, as Kate in her
husband’s adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, from 1999). In the
memory, House of Games plays as a “male” film. Which is why the spectacle of the
uptight, buttoned-down Crouse playing power games with the silken-toned, lovably
rock-solid Mantegna is strange in ways that Mamet may never have intended. Crouse
has always been one of the least “girly” actresses in movies, and her inherent
mannishness here is increased tenfold by the mannish outfits presumably chosen by
her director. Sexual power-gaming and violation are introduced, even felt, but they
ultimately seem incidental to the universal distrust at the heart of the film.
Given the hypnotic uniformity of the dialogue and the action, Crouse at times comes
across as more of an alternate male than a member of another sex altogether. Not
that it hurts the film. On the contrary, the sexual negation of its principal
character only adds to its hauntingly denatured tone, befitting a cautionary
pageant of moral vigilance.

To go into any more details of the plot of House of Games would be to deprive
first-time viewers of the pleasure of its intricate unfolding, and the many
gratifying surprises along the way (to even indicate which characters are caught
off guard and why would be to say too much). Pleasure is the key word. Despite the
stern moral urgency of Mamet’s voice, his plays and certain of his films (such as
The Winslow Boy and 2004’s Spartan) are immensely satisfying experiences. And they
are satisfying in ways that few films are right now. They are tales told by a
master, full of perfectly calibrated sound and exquisitely modulated fury,
signifying nothing extraneous to their troubling essences.

Kent Jones is Film Comment's editor at large and a frequent contributor to the
magazine, as well as to many other publications around the world.

criterion.com
The Criterion Collection - The Current
15-19 minutes

“Some people think Rohmer is in league with the devil,” wrote cinematographer
nestor almendros in his book of autobiographical reflections on the cinema, a man
with a camera. He was describing his working experience on My Night at Maud's
(1969). “Months before, he had scheduled the exact date for shooting the scene
where it snows; that day, right on time, it snowed, and the snow lasted all day
long, not just a few minutes.” Later, Almendros makes a curious shift. “It is not
just a question of luck; the key lies in Rohmer’s detailed preparation.”

One wonders exactly what Almendros means here. If it hadn’t snowed, would Rohmer’s
detailed preparation have paid off so handsomely? Given the fact that he was
working with a minuscule budget and a production schedule for which the term rushed
seems generous, isn’t it likely that the entire production would have come to a
standstill, depriving the film not only of its seasonal atmosphere but of one of
its key dramatic elements? (In fact, such a disaster befell the shoot of The Green
Ray [1986], when the eponymous phenomenon failed to materialize, and Rohmer was
forced to wait an entire year before he got the shot he needed.)

But Almendros was on to something with his seemingly contradictory statements:


Rohmer’s meticulous preparation neither dispels the need for luck nor compensates
for it. In fact, he creates situations, in his filmmaking and for his characters,
in which preparation and chance go hand in hand. Jean-Claude Brialy’s Jérôme, in
Claire’s Knee (1970), might be the ultimate Rohmer hero, in that his quest offers a
mirror image of Rohmer’s as an artist: to lay the groundwork for a situation in
which chance will play the decisive role. No one’s films are more “written,” more
narrative based, or more logistically tied to particular places and times of year—
Rohmer’s cinema is nothing if not preplanned. On the other hand, Rohmer is just as
enamored of the aesthetic felicities of raw, unfolding reality as Jean Renoir or
Roberto Rossellini—aesthetic felicities and moral complexities, which are
infinitely richer and more . . . complex than in the work of almost any other
filmmaker. François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette may have been known as the
Jamesians, but while Rohmer is a temperamental world away from the author of “The
Beast in the Jungle” and The Wings of the Dove, he is similarly sensitive to the
layered proximity of the mental and the physical, the subjective and the objective.

Over the years, Rohmer has received a great deal of attention as a writer of
dialogue, or to put it more precisely, as a creator of films structured around
talk. He has also been noted as a lover of beautiful young people, as a teller of
tales, and as some kind of “moralist.” None of these observations is terribly
insightful, least of all the charge of moralism, which seems to rise from a simple
misunderstanding of the term “moral tale.” It has often been pointed out that
Rohmer is a practicing Catholic, to suggest that his Christianity is at the center
of his filmmaking. In fact, while his Jesuit education may very well have instilled
him with piety, it also doubtless sharpened his spirit of restless inquiry into the
roles played by chance, choice, and grace in life—none of which he ever fully
embraces. The Six Moral Tales do not have “morals.” Rather, they are stories of
people in the process of making choices that may or may not be moral, examining the
basis on which those choices are made, and thus trying to divine the distance
between the real and the ideal in the process.

The key ingredient in Rohmer’s cinematic inquiries is the “ordinariness.” When he


was a critic, he wrote—rapturously—on Rossellini, and it’s easy to see the link.
First of all, Rossellini’s “unreasonable” heroines, like Anna Magnani’s holy fool
in The Miracle or Ingrid Bergman’s Irene in Europa ’51, find many echoes in
Rohmer’s oeuvre, from Béatrice Romand’s Sabine in Le beau mariage (1982) through
Charlotte Véry’s Félicie in A Tale of Winter (1992), not to mention the exceedingly
single-minded Jérôme. Rossellini’s penchant for interlacing documentary and
fictional imperatives is continued in Rohmer. And Ingrid Bergman’s sudden
exclamation of beauty and mystery in Stromboli and the change of heart at the end
of Voyage in Italy are very close to the moments of revelation in Rohmer, but with
a difference: Rossellini’s films feature dramatically extreme situations (a woman
climbing over the top of a volcano to escape from her husband, a couple on the
verge of divorce suddenly moved to reconciliation by the uninhibitedly emotional
culture around them), and Rohmer’s do not. An engineer forced to spend the night at
a divorcée’s house because of a sudden snowstorm in Clermont-Ferrand, a maladroit
Parisian finding love on vacation, a middle-aged woman from the south of France in
search of a husband for her best friend—this is the stuff of Rohmer’s cinema. The
revelations in Rohmer run just as deep as those in Rossellini—that is, we infer
that they effect shifts in consciousness just as great—but they arrive via the
ordinary, as opposed to the extraordinary. They realign our focus so we can see the
wonder of everyday life, realigning our sense of the extraordinary in the process.
Jean-Louis Trintignant’s recognition of his wife’s shame at the end of My Night at
Maud’s becomes just as wondrous as Francis’s tears before the leper in Rossellini’s
Flowers of St. Francis—provided, of course, that one is able to suspend one’s
judgment of the intellectually inclined French bourgeoisie and accept the
proposition that their uptight little world can provide a window on the infinite.

This is where Rohmer’s intricacy comes into play. Even those who are unable to
imagine themselves vacationing with Marie Rivière’s Delphine or Emmanuelle
Chaulet’s Blanche—in The Green Ray and Boyfriends and Girlfriends (1987),
respectively—or having lunch with Bernard Verley’s Frédéric in Love in the
Afternoon (1972), can admire Rohmer’s extraordinary care with dramatic specifics.
In My Night at Maud’s, a man (Trintignant) leaves his home in rural France and
attends Mass during the Christmas season. He spots a pretty blonde (Marie-Christine
Barrault) and, after the service is finished, hops in his car and follows her on
her moped. He loses sight of her but soon explains to us in voice-over that this
was the day he knew that Françoise was going to be his wife. Next, we see him at
home studying mathematics, then at work during his lunch break. He is an engineer
at the Michelin plant in Clermont-Ferrand, and when he mentions that he lives in
Ceyrat, one of his co-workers remarks on the distance. That night, he stops in at a
bookstore and thumbs through a copy of Pascal’s Pensées, and later runs into his
old friend Vidal (Antoine Vitez) in a bar. Both men are struck by the fact that
they have met completely by chance and quickly embark on a discussion of
probability, which segues into Pascal, which in turn eases into philosophy (Vidal
is a professor), which is a hop, skip, and a jump to Marxism (Vidal is a Marxist)
and Christianity (Trintignant’s unnamed character—we’ll call him Jean-Louis—is a
practicing Catholic). Vidal invites Jean-Louis to a Léonide Kogan concert, where
there will be “lots of pretty girls,” and then insists that on Christmas night he
accompany him to the home of a certain Maud (Françoise Fabian), a divorced woman
and good friend with whom, he claims, he occasionally keeps company. His ostensible
reason for asking Jean-Louis to accompany him is that he’s afraid that he and Maud
will sleep together out of boredom if they’re left alone.

So, we have a sense of place (the Auvergne region) and a time of year (Christmas).
We know that Jean-Louis is a Catholic, that he is a loner who lives far from where
he works, that he enjoys intellectual pursuits and has a particular interest in
theories of probability. We also know, via the curt narration, that he is fairly
single-minded (he has decided he’s found the girl of his dreams after a couple of
quick glances in church) and that the story we’re watching is in the past tense. We
are also primed to accept chance as a major factor, given the manner in which Jean-
Louis has spotted Françoise and run into his old friend, not to mention the
discussions of Pascal. From there, we’re on to Maud’s house, where everything is
turned upside down and inside out.

It is a common misconception that too much dialogue can sink a movie, which is in
turn based on the equally common misconception that dialogue is always a forum for
direct communication—the kind of dialogue easily found on television or in the
majority of commercial films. In Rohmer’s cinema, talk is never just talk and is
always a form of indirect action. For Jean-Louis, it is, or becomes, a means of
endless postponement. And then there is the crucial matter of the actor who’s
speaking the dialogue. There are some things that can be imparted to us easily,
without contrivance, by means of narrative exposition. There are other things that
cannot. And Rohmer’s knowledge of the difference between the two is one of the many
rare qualities that make him such a great filmmaker. Casting is always important,
but in Rohmer it is essential. Careful exposition allows us to see all the exterior
traits of Jean-Louis—Catholic, intellectual, engineer, former womanizer, etc. But
all the exposition in the world would not allow us to see his reticence, referred
to in the dialogue long after we’ve noted it (consciously or not) in Trintignant’s
comportment, his way of imparting himself one little bit at a time. Rohmer is not
the only filmmaker who has mined this trait in Trintignant—it certainly served
Bernardo Bertolucci in The Conformist, and it has also worked well for André
Téchiné, Truffaut, and Krzysztof Kieslowski. But it is employed in those other
films for its sinister edge under extreme melodramatic conditions, while in My
Night at Maud’s it is the ordinary trait of a fairly common type of man seen under
unremarkable everyday circumstances. Rohmer almost always works with good actors,
and Trintignant is no exception. But the core of his presence here is something
that is more or less unactable, which puts the film closer to Bresson than one
might think. In other words, who Trintignant is, as opposed to his considerable
ability as an actor, sits at the heart of this character and this film.

In order for such a strategy to work, nothing can be heightened, and to be sure,
nothing ever is heightened in Rohmer’s work. Observation always takes precedence
over amplification. A very simple example would be the scene where Maud’s daughter,
Marie (played by Marie Becker, Fabian’s own daughter, by Jacques Becker), wakes up
and asks her mother if she can look at the lights on the Christmas tree. Maud plugs
in the lights, the girl has a look, and then she goes back to bed. Most filmmakers
would cut to a point-of-view shot of the lights and back to an expression of wonder
on the girl’s face; they would probably also take great care to ensure that the
viewer shared in the wonder by framing the shot of the tree so that it became a
vision, the Christmas tree. In Rohmer’s film, it’s all done in one medium-shot, and
the everyday luminousness of Almendros’s imagery isn’t even slightly jacked up on
behalf of the tree or the girl. Rohmer never disrupts the flow of our attention
with such shifts, and this allows us an unusual opportunity to scrutinize his
characters’ every move. Believability and plausibility at the most minute level are
key characteristics of Rohmer’s films—in this case, how single people in their
thirties, living in the provinces, behave when they’re alone, how they move, what
they talk about, how they draw each other out and defend themselves from self-
exposure. As long as you’re not hankering for someone to draw a knife or make a
declaration, this provides the way toward a remarkable form of suspense.

What exactly transpires between Maud and Jean-Louis? One way of looking at the film
is to see Jean-Louis as a man who plays it safe, rejecting Pascal’s wager by
refusing to bet on the possibility of infinite happiness with Maud and banking on a
less exciting woman who happens to represent his ideal type. In one sense, this
describes My Night at Maud’s to perfection. But on another, deeper level, this is a
story of chance—real chance versus ideal chance. “I love surprises,” proclaims
Jean-Louis, and just as he is throughout much of the movie, he’s telling himself
and the people around him a story. He acknowledges his “reticence,” but he is
finally reticent in a way that even he doesn’t fully comprehend. Running into Vidal
is a matter of chance. Finding a woman who conforms to his own preconception is
not, the probability being exceptionally high that he would eventually meet a woman
such as Françoise (especially high in church, since he’s in search of a good
Catholic). Maud is not simply a woman of an alternate type—brunette, Protestant
(nonpracticing), vivacious, “fast”—she is potentially an agent of transformation.
She spends the night listening to two men tell stories about Marxism and
Catholicism and Pascal, as articulate as they are indirect in their actions. Vidal
tells Jean-Louis that he wants him to come along to save him from sleeping with
Maud, but Maud reveals that Vidal is in love with her and that he brought Jean-
Louis along as a kind of test; Jean-Louis insists that he wants to go but allows
himself to be talked into staying the night because of the snow, then into moving
ever closer to Maud’s bed, and finally into it. Jean-Louis thinks he’s revealing
himself with all his talk about Catholicism and the sacrament of marriage, but Maud
knows that it’s nothing but a barrier, the kind of barrier that men put up in order
to shield themselves from the necessity of direct action. By Jean-Louis’ lights,
Maud has opened a door through which he is afraid to walk for fear of jeopardizing
his resolve. By Maud’s lights, Jean-Louis has already walked through the door and
into the room, literally and figuratively, and his resolve and beliefs amount to
nothing but impediments to recognizing and negotiating immediate reality. What are
the chances that Jean-Louis and Maud will have a life together? Based on her luck
with men and his avowed preference for Catholic blondes, not so great. Based on
their immediate affinity for each other, not so small. “You are a happy soul,
despite appearances,” observes Maud of Jean-Louis—and the essential rightness of
this observation is what makes Rohmer a greater artist than Bertolucci and also
points to what gives My Night at Maud’s its special spark and effervescence, which,
it must be admitted, is not present in every Rohmer film.

Current fashion would favor Maud as the voice of reason when she tartly dismisses
Jean-Louis’ prevarications: “I prefer people who know what they want.” Yet there’s
something equally admirable about Jean-Louis’ insistence on adhering to his story
and fulfilling his own platonic conception with Françoise, a decidedly unhappy
soul. The necessity of choice, the pain of choice: no film is better at
illuminating these two equally real aspects of living. There are no moments of
grace in My Night at Maud’s, at least nothing like Natacha’s discovery of the
missing necklace in A Tale of Springtime (1990), the appearance of the green ray,
or the unexpected climactic return of the long-lost Charles in A Tale of Winter
(such moments, along with the singular and singularly curious case of 1978’s
Perceval, are the only indications of Catholicism in Rohmer’s own authorial
viewpoint, at least to my mind). Yet there are intimations of grace in the slow,
serpentine movement toward intimacy between Maud and Jean-Louis.

Rohmer’s films offer us an exceptionally vivid picture of how we navigate the


twists and turns that life throws our way on a daily basis. “All the pleasure of
life is in general ideas,” wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes. “But all the use of life is
in specific solutions.” No artist has expressed this dichotomy more eloquently, or
lovingly, than Eric Rohmer.

Kent Jones is Film Comment’s editor-at-large and a frequent contributor to the


magazine, as well as to many other publications around the world.

criterion.com
The Criterion Collection - The Current
By Rebecca Bengal
11-14 minutes

The solitude. Of men, sometimes women, who refused to settle on a place, a role, a
“stable” identity. They walked through my life for a few years when I was a boy—
carpenters, child-care workers, counselors, psychiatric patients. Some of them were
my teachers.

Were they happy or sad, kind or mean? None of the above. They were discontented
with the choices offered to them. They were acutely aware of their discontent, and
they were trying to find a way to act on that awareness. Now, in 2010, when
conformity comes in an endless array of shapes and sizes and styles, these people
would be classified under “the sixties,” and then assigned one of the following
subheadings: Selfish, Lost, Narcissistic, Alcoholic, Bipolar, Privileged,
Disturbed, etc. But that’s not the way I remember them. Back in those days, no one
categorized, celebrated, or condemned them. You just watched and listened, and read
their personal dissent in their eyes, their silences, their gestures. It’s a kind
of existence that is largely gone now. The people who lived it either adapted or
shifted gears, stabilized or imploded. Some became realtors or contractors. One of
them, the one I loved the most, took off one night and wrapped his car around an
oak tree.

Five Easy Pieces was and is a great film because it gives us such a clear and
unobstructed view of this particular type of American existence, brought into being
at a certain interval in our history when the expectations of class and family
carried more weight than they do now—“Auspicious beginnings—you know what I mean?”
Film production is a cumbersome and lengthy affair, and the finished product, no
matter how good, almost always lags behind or stands apart from its moment.
Occasionally, though, when the conditions allow, movie and moment are one. Like
Warner Bros. at the dawn of sound or Preston Sturges at his blindingly brilliant
peak, Five Easy Pieces speaks with eloquence and simplicity from and to the America
of its time, from melancholy opening to ineffably sad closing shot. In 1970, it was
a revelation. Today, it remains a shattering experience, in part because it
contains an entire way of life within its ninety-eight minutes.

“The irresponsible behavior does not exclude a clear feeling that Nicholson is
touched and perplexed by people,” wrote David Thomson so perceptively of Jack
Nicholson’s terminally ambivalent Bobby Dupea. The same could not be said of The
Graduate’s Benjamin or Two-Lane Blacktop’s Driver, two other famously irresolute
heroes of the era, and the difference is telling. Five Easy Pieces is not a
statement about America but a closely observed report. Or, perhaps, a confession.
Watching the film is like being compelled to sit down with a stranger and hear the
tale of an unresolved life: “I stayed for a while in Bakersfield, worked on an oil
rig. My girl got pregnant. Then I went home, and that’s when things started to go
wrong again. Did I tell you I come from a family of musicians . . . ?”

Touched, perplexed, and, above all, curious. What would it be like to go through
life with someone who listens to Tammy Wynette when you’ve been raised on
Beethoven? Or to make a living working in an oil field when you’ve been groomed for
a career on the concert stage? To live as if nothing were permanent and everything
were up for grabs? There has been a lot of ink spilled about the irresponsible
behavior, but maybe not enough about the restlessly inquisitive nature that resorts
to it to get “away from things that get bad.” Bobby Dupea and the world of his
beginnings are so subtly shaded that he could have been created only by artistic
temperaments similar to his own, with a shared yen to go deep into the heart of the
outside world.

Bob Rafelson himself was born into the purple, as they used to say, and he left his
home in Manhattan when he was young, setting off on a wayward trail that took him
from theology school to breaking horses for the rodeo, drumming in a jazz band in
Mexico, fulfilling his draft obligations as a DJ for an English-language station in
Tokyo, subtitling for Shochiku studios, and then into TV and film production in New
York and Los Angeles. Rafelson’s friendship with Nicholson had resulted in the
script for his directorial debut, Head (written in Harry Dean Stanton’s basement),
and in Nicholson’s showstopping performance in the Rafelson–Bert Schneider–
produced, and Dennis Hopper–directed, Easy Rider. “There’s quite a portrait dead
center of Easy Rider,” wrote Manny Farber of Nicholson’s George Hanson.
“Practically a novel of information, this character’s whole biography is
wonderfully stitched from all directions.” A compliment to writers Hopper, Peter
Fonda, and Terry Southern, but above all to Nicholson himself, an actor with a
writer’s disposition.

Nicholson had come to Hollywood from New Jersey in the midfifties, and like a lot
of young actors, he found himself taking classes with Jeff Corey. Corey had made a
name for himself on the New York stage, then moved out to California in 1940, where
he became a respected character actor and founded the Actors Lab. When he was
blacklisted after taking the Fifth Amendment before the House Un-American
Activities Committee, he started to teach acting out of his house in the Hollywood
Hills. Corey’s tutelage went beyond craft and technique. “I was aware of the fact
that there was a lot of healthy transference,” he said of his young students, who
also numbered Stanton, Sally Kellerman, Shirley Knight, Robert Blake, Irvin
Kershner, Richard Chamberlain, James Coburn, Carol Burnett, Warren Oates, and a
tightly knit “wild bunch” that included Monte Hellman, Roger Corman, Nicholson,
Carole Eastman and her brother Charles, Dean Stockwell, and Robert Towne. “I tried
to be a good influence,” said Corey. “We not only talked about acting, but in the
course of the work, I might make references to Oedipus Rex or the Bible or Greek
mythology or music, or sometimes I’d urge them to read poetry. It was a broadening
experience.” For Nicholson, it was defining. “Acting is life study,” he said, “and
Corey’s classes got me into looking at life as—I’m hesitant to say it—an artist.”

Eastman was “eerily beautiful” during those years, Towne said, with “a head shaped
like a gorgeous tulip on a long stalk.” “Believe me, the first reason I was
attracted to her wasn’t that she was a writer,” admitted Nicholson of the woman who
would become one of his closest friends and collaborators. Eastman revealed herself
to be an unusual and rarefied talent from the word go with her script for The
Shooting (1967), one of two now legendary westerns Nicholson and Hellman made back-
to-back (Nicholson himself wrote the twin film, 1965’s Ride in the Whirlwind). The
Shooting proudly bore the mark of what was then referred to as “European
influence,” and it was toward Europe that Rafelson told Eastman to look when she
began to fashion, from his own drafts, what would eventually become Five Easy
Pieces.

In 1970, the winds were blowing both ways across the Atlantic: Antonioni, Agnès
Varda, and Jacques Demy had recently come to California (Eastman worked with Demy
on his “American” film, The Model Shop); Point Blank (by the British John Boorman)
and Petulia (by the American expatriate Richard Lester) emulated Resnais, and
Antonioni’s L’avventura and Fellini’s 8½ had become touchstones. Rafelson and his
collaborators at the newly formed BBS Productions followed their European examples
by divesting their movies of generic trappings and taking their inspiration from
the life around them, fashioning a new and distinctly American mode of cinematic
address in the process. Their cinema—which would also include Bogdanovich’s The
Last Picture Show, Nicholson’s Drive, He Said, and Rafelson’s later The King of
Marvin Gardens—was quietly contemplative and patiently observant of characters and
places we’d seldom if ever seen from Hollywood.

Unlike the many American films, before and after, that have struggled with class
distinction as an issue, Five Easy Pieces takes it as a given and sees both ends of
the spectrum with clarity and calm. And unlike Michael Corleone in The Godfather,
another family-dynasty film, made two years later, Bobby Dupea never goes the way
of Prince Hal or the Prodigal Son. He doesn’t “come to his senses.” His ambivalence
is seemingly permanent, and he is self-exiled to his own terrible purgatory,
forever on the verge. In order for such a narrative to work, every character and
setting needs to be pungent and acutely drawn. So the oil fields and bars and
bowling alleys and tiny houses in Bakersfield are as lovingly attended as the
Pacific Northwestern Dupea compound (all rendered so vividly by László Kovács, who
also shot Easy Rider and The King of Marvin Gardens), and the blue-collar pleasures
Bobby shares with Billy “Green” Bush’s Elton, Fannie Flagg’s Stoney, and Karen
Black’s Rayette are as detailed as the familial in-joking and high-flown aesthetic
conversations among the Dupea siblings and their guests as their silent father sits
nearby. I’ve heard and read complaints about the second half of the movie, doubts
over the veracity of this “elitist” family of musical prodigies—all I can say is
that the people doing the complaining probably haven’t spent much time around
classical musicians. Lois Smith’s Tita is a particularly fine creation—permanently
adolescent, unkempt, dutiful, and abstracted, her physical approach to piano
playing in the recording studio (where she is sarcastically taunted from the
control room by a masterful character actor, Richard Stahl) absolutely on target,
from the Gould-like humming to the hunched posture. I suppose one could argue about
the “intellectuals” and their theorizing about mass culture, perhaps too heavily
pointed, but by that time, the movie has generated so much quiet force that it’s
not such a big deal for Bobby to knock over a couple of straw men.

It’s Nicholson’s performance, of course, that lives at the vibrant core of this
movie. “At bottom, I always thought that a part of Jack was sad,” Corey once
remarked. “I don’t think it’s awful to be sad. Mourning becomes Electra.” It’s an
interesting comment that illuminates Nicholson’s gift for sounding the most
troubled and mournful depths of his characters and hitting on a beautiful harmony.
Rafelson had to argue his friend into shedding tears for the film’s greatest scene,
Bobby’s lonely confession to his unresponding father at the top of a hill, written
on the set by the actor. Not as instantly anthologizable as the celebrated diner
scene, this is a high point in Nicholson’s and Rafelson’s careers, and in American
moviemaking. Bobby’s uneasy self-reckoning merges with the surrounding quiet and
with Kovács’s embrace of inclement weather, and the scene builds unassumingly to a
shattering conclusion with a simple and plainspoken admission that speaks volumes
—“I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”

“There is no moral in this novel,” writes Philip K. Dick at the end of A Scanner
Darkly, a kindred work from the same era. “It is not bourgeois; it does not say
[the characters] were wrong to play when they should have toiled; it just tells
what the consequences were”—a description equally fitting for this troublingly
resonant milestone. And then Dick voices a sentiment that I’m certain would strike
a chord with Rafelson and Nicholson: “I myself, I am not a character in this novel;
I am the novel. So, though, was our entire nation at this time.”

criterion.com
The Criterion Collection - The Current
By Rebecca Bengal
9-12 minutes

When Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne started shooting La promesse in 1995, they had an
opportunity available to very few filmmakers: to begin again.

Having established themselves as documentary filmmakers in the tiny, close-knit


community of Belgian cinema, the brothers had already taken a first, abortive leap
into fiction in 1987, with Falsch, an adaptation of René Kalisky’s play about a
family of Holocaust survivors reuniting at a German airport, followed five years
later by Je pense à vous, the story of a Seraing steelworker who loses his job. But
while Je pense à vous edged closer to the milieu they have since become known for,
its production took them further from the way they wanted to actually make films.

“We didn’t know where to put the camera, so an actor would say, ‘Why not put it
here?’ and the director of photography would say, ‘Why not over there?’ and then
the assistant director would bring in his point of view,” Luc Dardenne told critic
Geoff Andrew in a 2005 interview. “So this film was made, not against us, but
without us . . . I think we became frightened by cinema.” The process of
understanding this fear would eventually lead to the articulation of an alternative
approach to moviemaking. “Long discussion with Jean-Pierre about how we’re going to
continue making our films after the negative experience of Je pense à vous,” begins
a June 1991 entry in Luc’s diary, included in his 2005 book Au dos de nos images,
1991–2005. “One thing is certain: small budget and overall simplicity (story,
locations, costumes, lighting, crew, actors).” “We said two things to each other,”
Jean-Pierre told Andrew, in reference to the period before La promesse. “First,
cinema is not obligatory; there are a lot of things one can do in life. If it
doesn’t work for us this time, we’ll just find other things to do . . . Second, we
told each other we had to find again the joy and freedom we had when we worked on
documentaries, when it was just we two.”

Those first documentaries were made under the sign of the French-Italian left-wing
theater and film director Armand Gatti, onetime collaborator of Alain Resnais’ and
Chris Marker’s, who taught at the drama school where Jean-Pierre was studying.
Gatti incorporated videotaped pieces into his theatrical productions, which
inspired the brothers to buy their own camera and create filmed portraits of their
fellow citizens in Seraing. “A lot of these workers’ estates have no communal
space,” Luc explained to Andrew. “There’s no place for people to talk to each
other. So we decided that we would go and film these people and tell their stories,
perhaps of moments in their lives where they came up against some injustice.” This
commitment to local working-class life (all of their homegrown films—except for
2008’s Lorna’s Silence, which takes place in Liège—are set in the former industrial
powerhouse of Seraing), to portraiture, and to describing the passage from
isolation to community has remained central to their work.

The Dardennes’ failure to adapt to industry norms during the making of Je pense à
vous led not to floundering but to refinement, not to wondering why they weren’t
good at a kind of filmmaking they had never wanted to practice in the first place
but to deciding and defining exactly how they would make films in the future. La
promesse, which began life with the working title Le soupirail (The Basement
Window), was a script written to be incinerated in “the fire of the film,” as Luc
wrote in his diary in August of 1993. “We need to push further with our rejection
of aestheticism. One should not feel the (re)mediation of the decor, the actors,
the lighting, etc. All of these elements need to be fused into one emotion, one
impression of life that is raw, unadorned, which is taking place before the camera
but might have been conducted in its absence. The camera will try to follow, not
wait, and will not know.” Unlike Lars von Trier and the Dogme 95 signatories, they
were neither creating a manifesto nor trumpeting the virtues of economy. They were
energizing themselves by positioning their art against the normative and the
established, not spinning theories but quietly creating a plan of action, to be
realized with friends rather than professionals.

La promesse emerged in 1996 as if from out of the blue, and garnered instant
acclaim at film festivals around the world. Everyone wondered who these two
brothers who had emerged full-blown from the land of Jeanne Dielmann were. Even
those of us with a working knowledge of Belgian cinema and certain of its
precedents in the blending of fiction and documentary (like Paul Meyer’s Déjà
s’envole la fleur maigre, Samy Szlingerbaum’s Bruxelles-Transit, or Chantal
Akerman’s tour de force) were taken aback. This may have been a “second first film”
in the tradition of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and David Fincher’s
Se7en, but it was made with an absolute assurance, on every possible level,
normally found in the work of much older artists. Everyone was justifiably bowled
over by the physical immediacy and the unwavering radical humanism, but sixteen
years and five films later, the hair-raising concision of the scenario—written, as
indicated above, not to be admired but to be realized in motion and immolated by
the immediacy of the film itself—seems no less impressive.

“We read Toni Morrison before La promesse,” Jean-Pierre told Andrew. “And one thing
that impresses us about her writing . . . is how a reader is drawn into the story—
you’re never sure where you are, but little by little, clarity comes through.” In
medias res storytelling, in which questions of exposition and psychology are turned
on their head and everything related to character and situation is imparted through
action and picked up (or not) along the way by the audience, had already become
ingrained in filmmaking by 1996, but the Dardenne brothers pushed the practice to a
new limit in La promesse by purifying the terms of the conflict experienced by
their principal character, Igor, played by the fourteen-year-old child actor
Jérémie Renier (who has since grown up before their camera). At the core of their
approach was a commitment to thinking locally, and to understanding exactly how a
working-class kid from Seraing would find his way to compassion for others and the
rejection of his own father (Olivier Gourmet, who has also appeared in every
subsequent Dardennes film, starring in 2002’s The Son). In this sense, they were,
and are, as exacting as Hitchcock. In the case of a boy in Igor’s situation—plucked
from school, placed as an apprentice in an auto-body shop but with a primary
allegiance to his father and the maintenance of his traffic in undocumented
workers, standing tall with adult responsibilities but gradually understanding that
his father is exploiting him along with the workers—“local” essentially adds up to:
apartment, “hotel” (a decrepit industrial structure that looks permanently cold,
dank, putrid), job site (a garage), and the road. The Dardennes also stuck to a
clear understanding of the social safety net and its ever-diminishing tensile
strength. “People are more and more alone,” Luc explained to Andrew. “When we first
wrote La promesse, we had an older character who was supposed to provide guidance
to the younger characters. But then we realized that this was nostalgic—now there
is no one to be that voice.”

In other words, the Dardennes restrict the scope of their storytelling to incidents
or turning points likely to occur within the immediate environment, in order to hew
as closely as possible to the conditions of a pure situation. Thus, the drama of
the film is played out in the beautiful Renier’s face and slim body, his darting
movements and slight hesitations, his small resistances to the always unspooling
dictates of Roger, whose rolling energies are devoted to keeping all the
particulars of his trafficking business (transport, payments, heating the rooms,
hiding all the occupants when the inspectors arrive) as buttoned-down as his son’s
affection and obedience. “Malle’s gamble is that the cameras will discover what the
artist’s imagination can’t, and steadily, startlingly, the gamble pays off,” wrote
Pauline Kael of Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien. What was understood as a gamble in
the seventies is at the core of the Dardennes’ art in La promesse and beyond. Their
organic process begins with the two of them working out the movements of their
characters alone in a room, with a video camera, followed by a lengthy rehearsal
period with the actors on the actual sets. In addition, they always shoot in
sequence, which allows the actors to feel the arc of their emotional and moral
transitions as they go. When Igor is walking back and forth with a wheelbarrow over
an impromptu burial site; when he and Roger find perfect musical and human harmony
singing Joe Dassin’s late-sixties hit “Siffler sur la colline” or horse around at
home before Roger cheerfully orders his son to get back to work forging papers;
when Igor walks down one more depersonalized institutional corridor with Assita
(Assita Ouédraogo) and her baby before finally telling her the truth about her
husband’s whereabouts, you are seeing a perfectly calibrated relationship between
characters, their particular modes of gesture and physicality, their world and
their circumstances. You are seeing the course of their own nonstop forward motion
adjusted by the slowly dawning recognition of other people.

“It seems to me that there is a material impoverishment which leads the way to a
spiritual turmoil,” writes Luc in Au dos de nos images. “Think of the decor as a
desert.” A desert that is crossed one blind step at a time to the fertile land of
awareness.

criterion.com
The Criterion Collection - The Current
By Rebecca Bengal
9-12 minutes
“What did things look like back then?”

We always begin with the visible when we describe past experience. It’s safe
ground, easily indexable and quantifiable. Yet we never stay there for long. “The
trees were green, the sky was blue, there was a path that led to the ocean . . .”
With the metaphorical employment of the verb to lead, the safety of the visible
gives way to the excitement of the nonindexable and antiquantifiable. It is no
longer just a matter of how things looked but of how it felt to move among these
trees, under this sky, down this path on this day.

“Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our
conviction that they are themselves and not anything else, by the immobility of our
conception of them.” Here is a perfect elucidation (from Proust, of course) of the
pitfalls of historical filmmaking. There have been many movies, some perfectly good
and some absolutely awful, that have gotten stuck in the “look” of the period
they’re covering. The historical researcher, the production designer, and the art
director are allowed free rein, and you wind up with a movie that starts and stops
with each new shot—and completely fails to address the question of what it felt
like to be alive at that time. The right drapes and dishes will always retain the
immobility with which they are imagined and remain nothing more than judicious
choices if the filmmakers pay no attention to how the characters around them move.
Near the beginning of Goodfellas, for instance, the car and the suits look right,
but it’s the cut to a close-up of one car rising as its shock absorbers are
relieved of the burden of the fat gangster in the backseat that jolts us to
attention, and the period depicted in the movie to life.

When I heard that Richard Linklater was making a movie about the seventies, I was a
little dubious. There had already been so many awful re-creations of something
called “the seventies,” inventories of beanbag chairs and Farrah Fawcett-Majors
posters. Still, I liked Slacker (1991), and I had read a story about the Dazed and
Confused shoot in the New York Times that seemed encouraging, particularly the part
about Linklater’s disagreements with his professional crew (always a good sign).
But my doubts remained: I had grown up in the seventies, and I was Linklater’s age.
Proustian recovery was already built into our shared generational mentality, and we
were unforgiving with artists who got it wrong.

From the first shot—a pumpkin-colored GTO pulling into a high school parking lot in
slow motion, curving in perfect time with the chorus of “Sweet Emotion”—my
reservations fell away. Why? Hadn’t we seen hundreds, if not thousands, of such
moments, the shotgun marriage of the right song and the right period gewgaw,
setting the “correct” mood? This was something else, though. Linklater has always
been devoted to the little things, the tiny details that gradually accumulate and
make up the big picture. He has never been one to start off with a bang. With this
supposedly unassuming opener, he had found the perfect link between sound and
image. All teenagers are self-conscious, and correct self-presentation is always an
adolescent priority. In the seventies, when the car radio and tape deck were so
important and the Walkman did not yet exist, the coupling of movement and sound
afforded by riding around was crucial. The right car, the right song, the right way
of pulling into a parking lot. This little groove, this swerve into the movie (and
into 1976), felt absolutely right to me. It spoke of effortlessness, nonchalance,
relaxation—but it also carried that crucial overtone of aggression that seemed to
color everything in those days. This balance between the tough and the dreamy,
which continues in the montage that follows, with Rory Cochrane’s insistent hand
gestures as he and his friends get stoned behind the school, and with the overhead
shot of a recumbent Parker Posey aimlessly poking Michelle Burke in the leg with
her foot, is maintained throughout the movie. And much to my astonishment in 1993,
when the film came out, it develops into the central plot conflict: Jason London’s
football star has twenty-four hours to decide whether he’ll sign a loyalty oath and
stay true to his team or throw in his lot with the dreamers. In other words, Dazed
and Confused was all of a piece, each part expressive of the whole, which spoke of
a conflict that anyone who grew up during that particular moment knew all too well.

It is the last day of school in 1976, somewhere in Texas. We pass through a day and
a night with a group of teenagers who are given, or who have acquired, full license
to bash, bust, and assault anyone and everyone (adults, freshmen, one another,
themselves), and to dream via abstract conversations or bullshitting over joints
and beers, riding in cars or lying on the grass. Within the unity of time, the
narrative ambles freely from one set piece to the next—the final gusts of
halfhearted activity in the last hours of school, the hazing rituals for the
incoming freshmen, the preparations for a keg party, a baseball game, an official
dance, riding around, the party itself, the morning after. Linklater’s best films
have severely limited time frames, which allow him to cultivate the randomness of
experience and the potential of unrelated incidents to shape consciousness as they
accrue: a couple falling in love during a day and a night in Vienna (Before
Sunrise, 1995), one whole night’s worth of dreaming (Waking Life, 2001), and in
this case, a wholly accurate—accurately funny, accurately painful, accurately
moving—portrait of life as it was lived by people of a particular age and a
particular class at a particular moment in time. Robin Wood has categorized Dazed
and Confused as Linklater’s horror movie, and while I understand that this was
meant as a compliment, I think he got it wrong. For those of us who came of age in
the American seventies, this film seems less horrifying than revivifying, or
perhaps reanimating—a time gone by, with all its complexities and contradictions,
gently nudged back to life.

I never went through the kind of official hazing rituals depicted in the movie, but
the vehement enthusiasm with which they’re meted out and their protocols are
observed—butt paddling for freshman boys, an assortment of horrors for the girls—
seem all too familiar. Every type here, from Matthew McConaughey’s soft womanizer
to Adam Goldberg’s tortured intellectual to Parker Posey’s militant senior to Ben
Affleck’s embarrassingly belligerent punisher, is on the money, as are their
assorted reactions to one another. Self-presentation is a balancing act, and the
characters are always susceptible to caring too much or too little about their own
behavior. It’s with Affleck’s unimaginative bumbler that Dazed and Confused comes
closest to Wood’s assessment; he takes the task of punishing freshmen so seriously
that he is finally abandoned and publicly betrayed by his fellow punishers.

The film is made up of a succession of small visions, observed and executed with
apparent ease but thought through with such exquisite care and attention that the
experience becomes overwhelming. Did Linklater instruct his actors in the correct
way of leaning against a wall? Probably not, but then it’s the fact that doing
nothing occupies the center rather than the periphery of the movie that gives such
moments their verisimilitude—and Linklater has a keen, poetic memory for exactly
how we did nothing. I’ve leaned against the same wall that McConaughey, London, and
Wiley Wiggins lean against; I’ve danced the same slow dance and clung to my partner
just as desperately; and I’ve overworked a personal move just like Wiggins’s
wrinkling of his face, grabbing the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger,
and shaking his head in confusion/disgust/amazement/bewilderment. In the arena of
the social world, such fallback gestures were all-important as masks, exchanges of
solidarity, and signals of uniqueness. The only detail in the movie that has never
rung true for me is the left-wing teacher counseling her uninterested students not
to fall for the bicentennial fever awaiting them in the summer. This kind of
willful collapse of formality between adults and teenagers, at least in my
experience, didn’t hit until a few years later.

Dazed and Confused was marketed as a teen comedy by the clueless Universal offshoot
Gramercy Pictures, when it should have been pitched to those of us in our thirties,
who had passed through this odd, floating moment in history when all decisive
gestures seemed strange and suspect. One year later, Olivier Assayas would make
Wood’s “horror movie” with Cold Water, which gave us the hair-raising anxiety of
the seventies. Linklater was after something else. He has always made inactivity
and dreaming into a cause, and his film’s final image—London, liberated from a
football hero’s future, cruising to nowhere with his fucked-up friends to the
loping rhythm of “Slow Ride,” by Foghat—looks right into the heart of the passing
of time and sees a limitless future devoted to reflection, free of responsibility
and drive. It’s just as bracing as the end of Waking Life, when Wiggins’s character
floats away from existence itself. Linklater’s slow fade to black on the receding
road is a gesture of solidarity with dreams and their dreamers and a salute to
lethargy itself, recalling the Herman Melville of Typee: “There was nothing to be
done; a circumstance that happily suited our disinclination to do anything.”

This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2006 DVD release of
Dazed and Confused.

criterion.com
The Criterion Collection - The Current
7-8 minutes

On January 19, 1950, the seventeen- (going on eighteen-) year-old François Truffaut
attended a 4 P.M. screening at the Cinémathèque française. He met a girl named
Liliane Litvin. Truffaut was so smitten that he quit his job in the suburbs and
moved back to Paris. According to his biographers Serge Toubiana and Antoine de
Baecque, Liliane was an unconventionally beautiful young woman, so beautiful that
Truffaut had to compete for her attention with his pals Jean Gruault (his future
screenwriting partner) and Jean-Luc Godard. Liliane’s trio of suitors each
individually tried to win her affection by spiking their conversation with literary
references, but she promised herself to no man. Undeterred, Truffaut eventually
installed himself in a hotel across the street from the Litvins’ apartment.

Toubiana and de Baecque reckon that it was with an eye to impressing Liliane that
Truffaut began his dazzling rise to fame in the world of the Parisian
intelligentsia. After winning an “eloquence competition” at the Club du Faubourg,
he secured a plum job at Elle magazine (one of his assignments was a visit to the
set of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest). He was already a well-established
journalist when he attended Liliane’s bacchanalian birthday party on July 4, also
attended by Godard and Gruault, along with Eric Rohmer, Alexandre Astruc, Jacques
Rivette, Claude Chabrol, and a host of others. For the frustrated Truffaut, the
evening ended with a suicide attempt, and a few months later he decided to “forget”
by joining the army. By July, he was a deserter, and he spent many months in and
out of the military prison at Coblenz before he was released in 1951 (his discharge
interview is chronicled in humiliating detail, in Stolen Kisses). Truffaut
continued to carry a torch for Liliane—there were many, many other women in his
life, but she was the only one for whom he cared. It was only when she became
pregnant with another man’s child that Truffaut decided it was time to cut bait.

Eleven years later, Truffaut was the toast of the international film world. He had
put the disaster of his sophomore effort Shoot the Piano Player behind him, and his
third film, Jules and Jim, was a rousing success. He had his own production
company, and he was a force to be reckoned with. Without much enthusiasm, perhaps
with an eye to keeping his hand in while he was between projects, he accepted an
invitation from producer Pierre Roustang to take part in an international omnibus
film called Love at Twenty. Truffaut recommended two youthful comrades with
excellent cinematic pedigrees, Renzo Rossellini and the young Marcel Ophuls, to
direct segments.

For his little story, Truffaut decided to revive Antoine Doinel, the hero of The
400 Blows, and to turn to the epic frustration of his relationship with Liliane for
subject matter. He placed the following ad in Cinemonde: “François Truffaut seeks
fiancée for Jean-Pierre Léaud and for Love at Twenty. Jean-Pierre’s partner must be
a real girl, not a Lolita, not a leather-jacket type, not a little young woman. She
must be simple and cheerful, and have a good, average sense of culture. If too
‘sexy’ please abstain.”

He eventually decided to cast an amateur teenaged actress from Nice named Marie-
France Pisier. With his erstwhile collaborators Raoul Coutard and Suzanne
Schiffman, he shot for a week near Place Clichy and Batignolles. The more involved
he became with his little project (call it 3 1/2), the more he liked it. How much
his increasing affection for Antoine and Colette corresponded to his increasing
affection for his leading lady is open to question.

Along with passages of The 400 Blows, Two English Girls and The Woman Next Door,
the half-hour Antoine and Colette is among the most beautiful things Truffaut ever
committed to film. There is something bracing about its swiftness alone, and about
the way Truffaut slices so confidently through his material, both expository
(Antoine’s modest living situation, his job, his determination to land Colette) and
emotional (a love of Paris, a deep attachment to music, and a burning desire for
women, all three traits shared by the director and his alter ego). An entire
universe of male adolescent experience is set up in nothing flat: feigned
worldliness (of Antoine and his pal René, played by Patrick Auffay, reviving his
original role from The 400 Blows), the protocols of flirtation (definitively
rendered in the quick exchange of glances and gestures between Antoine and Colette
during a concert, every turn of the head and cross of the legs choreographed by
Truffaut), the tantalizing but eventually debilitating enterprise of trying to bend
the will of the woman you love, the disconcerting but oddly comforting realization
that her parents like you more than she does.

It’s fascinating to consider the similarities and the differences between François
and Antoine. Truffaut was making his living as a welder when he first met Liliane,
but he gives Antoine a more interesting job as a record presser in a Phillips plant
(in a fascinating—and swift!—sequence where Truffaut indulges what Luc Moullet has
identified as the director’s documentary impulse). He also shifts Antoine and
Colette’s cultural meeting ground from the cinémathèque to the concert hall, the
first of many replacements Truffaut would find for his chosen art form: literature
in many films, theater in The Last Metro, pedagogy in The Wild Child, the dead in
The Green Room—interesting that Day for Night, the one movie in which Truffaut
takes the cinema itself as his subject, is one of his tamest.

More intriguing is Antoine himself. Léaud at all ages seems at once more manic and
concentrated than Truffaut, enraptured by his own insights and deeply, almost
stubbornly alone. This feeling of recessiveness in the actor and his character are
quite far from the young Truffaut, a wildly ambitious figure who enjoyed a meteoric
rise in the world of arts and letters. His compulsive drive didn’t go into his
characters, who tend to become lost in the thrall of their own obsessions. The
drive went into the filmmaking, in an effort to render an image of that fleeting
apparition known as human experience. Which he manages in this little film with
amazing fluency and delicacy.

Truffaut hones his perceptions down to a fine cinematic point—Antoine opening his
windows onto a fine gray Parisian morning, an indifferent Colette greeting her
would-be suitor at the door of her apartment by taking a bite out of an apple, the
final image of Antoine sitting before the TV with Colette’s parents, like Marcel
visiting Odette’s salon, are unforgettable. But Antoine’s blank, uncomprehending
stare as he reads Colette’s response to his written declaration of love is
priceless, and her opening gambit is for the ages:
“Dear Antoine, Your love letter was well-written…”

criterion.com
The Criterion Collection - The Current
7-9 minutes

Recently, I was talking with a group of friends, and somehow the subject turned to
great directors we found overrated. At a certain point, someone mentioned François
Truffaut. I just don’t get it, my colleague said, referring to the tonnage of
praise heaped on Truffaut throughout his short life and beyond.

This is a well-worn complaint, and here’s how it goes: Truffaut was too complacent,
too precious, too superficially cinephilic, too sentimental about children, and far
too willing to let his extraordinary cinematic fluency carry what would otherwise
have been so much inconsequential bourgeois fluff. Let it be said that this
position is rather heavily dependent on a comparison between Truffaut and Jean-Luc
Godard, and between their respective approaches to politics and narrative during
the crunch moment of the late sixties—Godard the revolutionary antinarrative
firebrand versus Truffaut the apolitical storytelling lapdog. As May ’68 and its
polemical extremes have faded into the distance, Godard’s cinema has retained much
of its power, while his politics have come to seem modish and fairly ridiculous.
Meanwhile, Truffaut’s body of work has only become more impressive with each
passing year. His often remarked facility with the language of cinema, as evident
in his great films as in his minor ones, now seems less noteworthy than his daring
sense of speed, his attraction to complicated emotional states that few of his
colleagues would even touch, and the always remarkable proximity of life and death
in his work. Not to mention the continual sense of surprise.

If there is a skeleton key to Truffaut’s oeuvre, it is Shoot the Piano Player, the
film in which all of his assorted gifts and preoccupations are in play and meshed
into a uniquely idiosyncratic whole. The film offers powerful evidence of his love
of American cinema and literature (this is far and away the most successful of his
five adaptations of American pulp fiction), as well as of his career-long concerns
with doomed romances and hardened but spirited children. There is that wonderful
speed, a pleasure in and of itself, that amounts to a kind of worldview—actions,
objects, places, and sensations glimpsed and seized on, almost spontaneously
forming a vivid afterimage in the mind’s eye. And his high-velocity storytelling is
intimately tied to the feeling of impending mortality, the sense of every given
moment in time coming and going, never to return. As for surprise, Shoot the Piano
Player is about as unpredictable from one moment to the next as any film I know—
from the subtitled singer (Boby Lapointe, who was introduced to Truffaut by the
writer Jacques Audiberti) to the expiring mother. Most famously of all, it is a
film about a type of emotional reticence that is almost too delicate to pin down in
words. To call Shoot the Piano Player the story of a “shy person,” as Truffaut
himself did, is only to touch on the emotional depths of Charles Aznavour’s Charlie
Koller/Edouard Saroyan. Perhaps he is less shy than hesitant at the moment of
truth, forever surging with inspiration only to halt and retreat into doubtful
reflection. It is a rhythm of life to which many of us are accustomed but to which
few of us would admit, and Truffaut was far ahead of his time in building an entire
movie (let alone a crime movie!) around this tricky emotional dynamic. Aznavour’s
piano player anticipates a whole range of modern movie characters, from Warren
Beatty’s Clyde Barrow (Truffaut was the first choice of screenwriters Robert Benton
and David Newman to direct Bonnie and Clyde, on the basis of Shoot the Piano
Player) to Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle to Robert Forster’s aging bail bondsman
in Jackie Brown to the eternally reticent heroes of André Téchiné and Arnaud
Desplechin. At this point, it must be said that Truffaut and Aznavour’s creation
seems no less fresh today than it did in 1960.

One thing’s for sure—it seems far less bewildering half a century later, at least
to French viewers. “Is the film more comic than tragic?” a journalist asked
Truffaut, following the film’s disappointing to disastrous reception by the critics
and the public (not to mention the censors). “It’s both,” he answered. “With Piano
Player, I wanted to make women cry and men laugh.” A flippant answer to a typically
single-minded journalist’s question, but the sureness of the response is matched by
the sureness of the execution of the film itself. There is nothing tentative or
unachieved in what is, after all, the sophomore effort of a young director. “How
sure is Truffaut’s command of cinematic language!” Joseph McBride once wrote of
Fahrenheit 451; and the same could be said of the director’s abilities with actors,
narrative, and the balance of endlessly shifting moods—in this case, antic comedy,
ruminative reserve, romantic longing, and tenebrous regret.

In the spring of 1959, Truffaut was hard at work with Godard on an adaptation of
Jacques Cousseau’s Hot Weather, to star Bernadette Lafont. At the last minute,
reckoning that neither French cinema nor the new wave needed yet another film about
young love, he switched gears and turned to David Goodis’s 1956 novel Down There,
published in France as part of the Série noire collection. Goodis, whose novels
have provided source material for filmmakers as disparate as Delmer Daves (Dark
Passage), Jacques Tourneur (Nightfall), Jean-Jacques Beineix (The Moon in the
Gutter), and Samuel Fuller (Street of No Return), was a favorite of Truffaut’s. He
found in Goodis a singular mixture of the hard-boiled, the romantic, and the
fantastic. “At a certain point,” Truffaut said of Goodis’s books, “they go beyond
the usual gangster story and become fairy tales.” Truffaut was also enchanted by
the fact that no matter what transpires in the stories—murder, kidnapping, suicide
—“the men speak only of women, and the women speak only of men.” Truffaut’s idea
was to marry Goodis to the stop-start rhythms of the comic novelist Raymond
Queneau, creating a film that was “practically a musical.” This unusual idea caused
him no small headache during the editing, due less to confusion than to nervousness
at trying to pull off something so new.

Truffaut said that it was a single image from Goodis’s novel—the car silently
approaching the house in the snow, where Saroyan’s crazy brothers are holed up—that
sparked him to make the film, and Truffaut and cinematographer Raoul Coutard do
indeed give the image a very special kind of quaintly miniaturized beauty. But I
have a feeling that it was the image of Aznavour himself in the lead, complemented
by the heartbreakingly beautiful Claudine Huzé (Truffaut gave her the stage name
Marie Dubois) as the devoted and doomed Léna, that turned all the lights green for
him. In Aznavour, he saw a countenance that recalled Saint Francis. But it’s a sure
bet that he also saw what his friends recognized right away—a face and a charmingly
reserved manner that recalled his own. Somehow, the mixture of shyness and
confidence in the figure of the forlorn piano player provides us with a perfect
mirror for Truffaut himself, whose films are so rich, vibrant, and eminently
enjoyable that one is continually caught off guard by the realization of their
complexity, their bravery, and their emotional depths.

Kent Jones is a film critic who lives in New York City. A collection of his writing
is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press.

criterion.com
The Criterion Collection - The Current
By Rebecca Bengal
16-20 minutes

In 1992, I went to Paris to see some movies that weren’t turning up on these
shores, at least not as quickly as I wanted them to. At the time, it meant
something particular to be going to Paris to see movies. Paris meant “cinema” and
all that the term implied, as distinct from movies or film. To a certain extent, it
still does. And cinema meant a response to the world, as opposed to a distraction
from it, an engagement with the present and the past, historical and aesthetic—in
essence, a dismantling of the barrier between the two.

At that point, cinema was still all but synonymous with the French New Wave,
despite the fact that the New Wave was no longer new, and that one of its guiding
lights, François Truffaut, had been dead for eight years. For many American film
lovers, the wave was still cresting.

I saw as many films as I could, by André Téchiné, Leos Carax, Maurice Pialat, Eric
Rohmer, and then something by a relatively young director who, like Rohmer and
Téchiné (and, ever so briefly, Carax), had written for Cahiers du cinéma. His name
was Olivier Assayas, and the film was called Paris s’éveille. My comprehension of
spoken French was, and is, rangy (it all depends on who’s doing the speaking), and
there was a lot that I missed in this sad love triangle between a lost girl (Judith
Godrèche), her much older boyfriend (Jean-Pierre Léaud), and his son (Thomas
Langmann, the offspring of legendary producer-director Claude Berri). However,
there was something about Paris s’éveille that instantly separated it from the
other films—a realism about how much or how little younger people value themselves,
a frank acknowledgment of everyday cruelty, a powerful bond with the actors and a
close, vivid sense of their individual physical expressivity, and a sense of speed
that was distinctly different from anything I’d seen by anyone else. Not the speed,
or the pace, of the film itself, but the speed of life in the film as it was
experienced by the characters. With a somber visual palette, Assayas was rendering
the blur of existence, the sensation of an individual consciousness trying to catch
up with time, of impulse-governed action followed much later by sober reflection.
This was something new.

Not long after, Assayas made another film, called Une nouvelle vie, a more extreme
and haunting work than Paris s’éveille in which the same ideas of character and
experiential flux were carried even further. I raved about these movies to my
friend Alex Horwath, who then ran the Viennale (and is now the director of the
Austrian Film Museum). He knew Assayas and suggested that I write to him, and when
I did, he responded almost immediately. “I was losing hope that my films would ever
be understood on the other side of the Atlantic,” he wrote. We began a
correspondence, and then we got to know each other. I was half a decade younger,
but we seemed to share a generational DNA. This became abundantly clear when I saw
Cold Water a year later. This autobiographical film, shot on Super 16 mm, was the
highlight of the television series Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge (“All
the Boys and Girls of Their Age,” the title taken from a once-famous Françoise
Hardy song). Eight filmmakers, including Claire Denis, Chantal Akerman, and
Téchiné, were given small budgets to create portraits of themselves at the age of
sixteen, and the one rule was that they had to include a party scene. Cold Water,
set in the deepest and dankest seventies, featured the greatest one in the series.
This lengthy, climactic set piece took place outside an abandoned château, and I
still know of nothing else quite like it in movies: the camera is never less than
excitingly mobile, but thanks to the visual scheme worked out between Assayas and
his DP, Denis Lenoir, every wandering pack of adolescents, every cloud of hash
smoke, every form that passes before the camera, maintains an impressive solidity.
And as powerful as this somber conflagration is, I’ve always found the scene that
precedes it even more remarkable. The teenage boy who plays Assayas’s surrogate,
Cyprien Fouquet, walks his bicycle alone through the woods, lights up a Gauloise,
opens a Ginsberg collection, and starts reading “Wichita Vortex Sutra” aloud in
halting English. The winding path through the woods, tracked by the camera from a
series of scintillating distances, the heartbreakingly cracked voice, the
adolescent investment of faith in poetry and music, the comfort of unexposed
solitude, conspire to make for a passage so acutely realized as to merit the
adjective visionary. It is perfectly capped by Fouquet’s arriving at the main road,
mounting his bicycle, and riding into the fog, as he continues his awkward
recitation.

Gavin Smith, then the assistant editor of Film Comment, agreed to let me write my
first piece for the magazine on Assayas, who sent me cassettes of his earlier
films. And as I got to know Olivier better personally, a fuller picture emerged.
Despite his tenure at Cahiers (where he was pegged as a genre specialist, and where
he was among the first Western critics to write about Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward
Yang, two filmmakers with whom he came to feel a special kinship), he took a route
to moviemaking that was less devotional than artisanal. His father, Jacques Rémy,
was an Italian-born screenwriter who worked on many films throughout the fifties
and sixties with Henri Decoin, Claude Autant-Lara, René Clément, Jean Delannoy, and
other filmmakers excoriated by the critics who later made up the New Wave. Unlike
many French filmmakers before and since, Olivier did not receive his movie
education at the Cinémathèque française, and had a keener interest in Guy Debord
and punk rock as a teenager than he did in Renoir or Hitchcock. After he abandoned
painting, he served an apprenticeship on two Alexander and Ilya Salkind
productions, Crossed Swords and Superman. He and his brother Michka were enlisted
by their ailing father to ghostwrite an assortment of episodes for the popular TV
series Maigret, and after making a couple of shorts (including the amusing Laissé
inachevé à Tokyo, with László Szabó and Arielle Dombasle), Olivier got his first
break as a screenwriter from Téchiné, with Rendez-vous and Scene of the Crime,
paving the way for his feature directorial debut in 1986. Désordre, about a close-
knit group of young people whose ties slowly unravel in the wake of an accidental
killing, is an unusual debut, a finely wrought study of youth imploding rather than
exploding under pressure. It immediately placed Olivier in an orbit of his own.
Désordre was more attentive to narrative structure and character than the work of
any other French filmmaker of Olivier’s age group, but it was also fully cathected
with the disenchantments and terrors of the younger generation it depicted. Like
L’enfant de l’hiver, its follow-up, Désordre is a uniformly sad experience. The
principal people in both (rock musicians in the first film, slightly older artists
and intellectuals in the second) appear to be caught in a blue-tinged, atmospheric
depression, and yet there is a countervailing current of electric vitality running
through both movies that endows them with a considerable dramatic power.

In 1990, Olivier conducted three lengthy interviews with one of the filmmakers he
had always admired most, Ingmar Bergman, which later became a book called
Conversations avec Bergman. There’s a nice moment where Olivier remarks on the
somber character of Bergman’s early film Prison and wonders if this reflected the
older filmmaker’s point of view at the time. “My dear friend . . . Olivier . . .
couldn’t one say the same of your film L’enfant de l’hiver?” answers Bergman. “When
you’re young, you’re pessimistic. You enjoy it . . . It’s even more than that: ‘le
plaisir du pessimisme.’” A bit later, Bergman counsels the young artist to guard
against eliciting easy tears from his audience, then compliments him on his
considerable talent for creating passages that seem to be happening as if in a
dream. These are acute observations. I think that as time has passed, the pessimism
has slowly fanned out to an ever sharper and increasingly attentive scrutiny of the
strange sensation of living in the changing present, while the oneiric rendering of
action has developed into a remarkably refined and economical sense of storytelling
through ceaseless motion—the motion of the world, of characters in the world, of
the camera as it tracks the interaction of the two. Olivier’s close attention to
contemporary states of being has been manifested in two alternating stylistic
registers: character-oriented films like Late August, Early September; Les
destinées sentimentales; and Clean on the one hand, and Debordian action movies
like Irma Vep, demonlover, and Boarding Gate on the other. It’s obvious that these
two tendencies—refinement and intimacy versus sensory downpour and superreal
heightening—reflect the satisfaction of dueling urges. But as with all such
distinctions in an artist’s career, things are not quite so cut-and-dried.

The quick, lithe, giddily terrifying Irma Vep, for example, is exactly what it was
intended to be: a snapshot of colliding artistic, commercial, and political
energies circa 1996. Yet for all its dexterous speed and invention (realized with
the help of a great cameraman, Eric Gautier, who has shot many of the films Olivier
has made since), it is anchored by the touching infatuation of Zoé, the costume
designer played by Nathalie Richard, with Maggie Cheung. Conversely, Les destinées
sentimentales may have the trappings of a stately period piece, but it is
ultimately as harrowing as the warp-speed, Sonic Youth–scored demonlover. The
moment in Late August, Early September when Mathieu Amalric realizes that his
prematurely deceased friend is no longer a writer of promise but has become a
revered figure overnight is as head-spinning as the transcontinental double crosses
of Boarding Gate, while the protracted exchanges between Michael Madsen and Asia
Argento in that film are just as intimate and raw as the sudden intrusion of
mortality in the former. And in the case of both tendencies, Olivier’s gift for
elliptical storytelling is central. It is central on the level of narrative
structure and on the more atomized, moment by moment level of an editing rhythm
determined by gestures that appear to be happened-upon, then quickly isolated and
comprehended as unrepeatable events in time, in addition to being a series of steps
in a carefully calibrated narrative. This unique aspect of Olivier’s craft reaches
a peak in Clean, about a former addict named Emily (Cheung—the film was made after
their brief marriage had ended) trying to start a new life and reclaim her son from
her in-laws. The delicate loneliness of Emily’s son, Jay (James Dennis), is
initially imparted to us through a magical sequence, scored with Brian Eno’s
plaintive “Taking Tiger Mountain,” in which the camera patiently follows the boy as
he leaves a London hotel room and walks outside by himself to buy a new comic book.
We arrive at this carefully attended moment, a little poem of boyishly awkward
resolve and defiance, without knowing precisely where we are or how much time has
passed since the preceding scene. The sense of ongoing reality becomes fragile,
almost diaphanous, and Jay’s experience of the complicated adult situation around
him, part of which he understands and part of which he doesn’t, is made that much
more poignant.

*****

Like Late August, Early September, Summer Hours (an impressionistic translation of
the original French title, L’heure d’été) takes place within the universe of the
French middle class, where the action is conducted in living rooms and across
bistro tabletops. The story may be set in Paris and the French countryside, but the
characters live at far-flung emotional and geographic distances from one another.
Charles Berling’s Frédéric, the most dutiful of three adult siblings in a family
with a high artistic pedigree, is the only one who lives on French soil. His
prickly sister, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), works as a designer for a Japanese
department store in Manhattan, and his brother, Jérémie (Jérémie Rénier), has
seized an economic opportunity by relocating himself and his family to Beijing.
Which means that the family gatherings composing the bulk of the action are
extraordinary events in the everyday lives of those who attend them. The venerable
family house, inhabited by the delicately worried, aging matriarch Hélène (Edith
Scob), and the fragility and ultimate impermanence of family ties act as opposing,
yet oddly complimentary, forces in this deeply personal and quietly devastating
film, which I doubt Olivier could have made before his own mother’s passing in
2007.

We learn of Hélène’s death not with a sudden collapse or an emergency phone call
but with a transition from her sitting alone to Frédéric rushing from one task to
another, before arriving at the office of a cemetery director to discuss the
details of his mother’s burial. As is the case for all of us, the flow of life
never halts, something that is understood on every level of this film: in the sense
of weather and times of day; in the close attention paid to generational
differences
of perspective (and, through the beautifully drawn character of Isabelle Sadoyan’s
Éloise, the old family housekeeper, differences of class); in the frank
acknowledgment of economic verities; in the arc of the narrative, where a family
house is sold off and the treasured objects within it become pieces on display in
the Musée d’Orsay (like Irma Vep, Summer Hours was expanded from an aborted omnibus
project, this one composed of short films by various filmmakers set in the museum;
the other films bearing traces of this project are Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon
and Hong Sang-soo’s Night and Day); and in the touchy, loaded interactions between
the siblings and their spouses.

For me, the most remarkable scene in the film is the family gathering where it is
decided that the house will be sold. The orchestration of movement and emotional
crosscurrents is every bit as impressive as in Irma Vep’s tour de force party
gathering, but the perceptions are even keener. Frédéric begins the conversation by
assuming that the house will stay in the family, and slowly, unassumingly, without
any overt disagreement, Jérémie and Adrienne steer things in the other direction.
No one actually states their point of view until they have to. Fear of conflict is
a central fact of life for most people, and I don’t know of another film that
captures it as well. What makes this scene even more remarkable is the importance
of Lisa (Dominique Reymond) and Angela (Valérie Bonneton), the wives of Frédéric
and Jérémie and the two characters who say the least, as they encourage or offer
solidarity with their husbands through glances, shifts in posture, movements toward
or away from the area of conflict. Another key moment comes when Adrienne announces
that she’s planning to marry her boyfriend in New York, prompting a round of
kidding from her siblings about her disastrous first marriage. What is so
poignantly true here is the relief that comes with the break in tension, the
willingness of all parties to obliterate, for one final moment, the cold realities
of the situation.

Olivier’s position in relation to his characters is stoically removed yet lovingly


attentive to their vanities, idiosyncrasies, and reserves of goodwill, as he takes
them through the family discussions and then the legal verifications, assessments,
and presentations by which the paintings and furniture in Hélène’s house become
artworks on display in the museum. There’s a vital scene early in the film in which
the birdlike Hélène patiently explains to a childishly disbelieving Frédéric that
she’s going to die sooner rather than later. It’s difficult to think of many other
movies that have been as frank about the excruciating conflict between maintaining
the memory of the past and making way for the future. The house is sold, as Hélène
knew it would be; the events that occurred within its walls are consigned to legend
or forgotten altogether; the objects are either handed down, thrown away
(including, most movingly of all, a brand-new telephone), sold, or turned over to
posterity; and the passing of time provokes anxiety and regret, which finally give
way to a measure of peace.

As I write this, Olivier Assayas has just finished a remarkable three-part film
about the terrorist Carlos—another shift in mood, another side of contemporary
history. He is also glorying in the recent birth of his first child. Meanwhile, on
the other side of the Atlantic, his films continue to surprise me, stir me, and
help to refine my vision of the ever-expanding world. I know I’m not alone.

criterion.com
The Criterion Collection - The Current
By Rebecca Bengal
10-12 minutes
"I think that work like his is necessary for people to understand something about
the humors of the criminal mentality," said Robert Mitchum of the novel The Friends
of Eddie Coyle and its author, George V. Higgins. He could also have been
describing the 1973 film adaptation, a melancholy succession of clandestine
encounters conducted in the least picturesque parts of the greater Boston area
during late fall, going into winter. A middleman bargains with a gunrunner, the
gunrunner bargains with a pair of wannabe bank robbers, a cop bargains with his
stoolie, and the stoolie bargains with the man who works for the Man. The chips on
the table may be machine guns or information or money, but the "humor" looming over
every encounter is survival.

Politeness and bonhomie are strictly provisional, and everybody knows it, which is
what gives this film its terrible sadness. In the miserable economy of power in
Boston's rumpled gray underworld, Eddie and his "friends" are all expendable, and
the ones left standing play every side against the middle, their white-knuckle
terror carefully concealed under several layers of nonchalance and resignation.
There's not a punch thrown, and only two fatal shots are fired, but this seemingly
artless film leaves a deeper impression of dog-eat-dog brutality than many of the
blood-soaked extravaganzas that preceded it and have come in its wake.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is, in many ways, an inside job. Meaning that there's
not a minute spent orienting the viewer. The tale of a low-level mobster who gives
up one of his contacts in a failed effort to bargain his way out of a New Hampshire
prison stint is imparted to us a little bit at a time, through a series of
seemingly affable but quietly desperate sit-downs between criminals and cops, or
other criminals, in crummy coffee shops, underpopulated bars, and public spaces
that give new meaning to the word ordinary. The filmmakers never do anything in the
way of rhetorical underlining.

Director Peter Yates, born and trained in England and mostly known at this
relatively early point in his career for his 1968 film Bullitt (and, to those
fortunate enough to have seen it in the States, for the excellent Robbery), was an
interesting choice for this material. Like that Steve McQueen classic, The Friends
of Eddie Coyle is an all-action experience. But two crisply executed bank heists
and a logistically complex parking-lot arrest aside, the kinetic excitement here is
sparked by the verbal and gestural rhythms between the actors as they plead for
their lives across dingy Beantown tabletops. Yates's camera eye stays so casually
observant and his cinematic syntax so spare throughout that when he finally
retreats to a plaintive distance in the aftermath of the film's one inevitable
tragedy, it packs a considerable punch. At which point, Dave Grusin's score, the
busiest thing in the movie apart from the gunrunner's patterned shirts and canary
yellow muscle car, finally settles into a plangent farewell.

Offhanded fatalism is embedded in every word of every exchange, each of which


alternates between hide-and-seek games and verbal tugs-of-war. The Friends of Eddie
Coyle is an extremely faithful adaptation (in structure, spirit, and flavor) of the
first published novel by the Brockton, Massachusetts–born Higgins, whose career as
a United States prosecutor and then big-time criminal defense lawyer (his clients
included Eldridge Cleaver and G. Gordon Liddy) coincided with his ascendancy as a
novelist, and whose dialogue is one of the glories of American literature. "I'm not
doing dialogue because I like doing dialogue," Higgins once said. "The characters
are telling you the story. I'm not telling you the story, they're going to do it.
If I do it right, you will get the whole story." What is remarkable about the film
is the extreme degree to which Yates and the producer and writer, Paul Monash,
adhere to Higgins's aesthetic, banking on the contention that if you render the
action among the characters as faithfully as possible, their entire moral universe
will be revealed.
And so it is. "Look, one of the first things I learned is never to ask a man why
he's in a hurry," says Mitchum's Eddie to Steven Keats's inappropriately relaxed
arms salesman, Jackie Brown (guess who's a fan of this movie), in what might be the
film's most emblematic bit of table talk. "All you got to know is that I told the
man he can depend on me because you told me I could depend on you. Now one of us is
gonna have a big fat problem. Another thing I've learned: if anybody's gonna have a
problem, you're gonna be the one." As in every good dialogue-driven film, talk in
The Friends of Eddie Coyle equals action. In this case, maneuvering for leverage
and self-preservation.

Nothing could be further from Higgins's full-immersion approach to fiction than a


collection of prima donna thespians vying for attention; thankfully, The Friends of
Eddie Coyle is a true ensemble piece if ever there was one. It's amazing that a
star of Mitchum's caliber even considered this movie (he was originally offered the
role of the bartender); that he integrated himself so fully into the ensemble and
the working-class Boston atmosphere is some kind of miracle. Mitchum is on-screen
for roughly half of the movie, and never for a moment does he, or do the
filmmakers, play the movie star card—no special isolated "moments," no hammy
overplaying or sneaky underplaying. Golden-age Hollywood's most notorious bad boy
arrived in Boston ready for action on every front, as amply chronicled by Grover
Lewis in his Rolling Stone profile "The Last Celluloid Desperado." Apart from the
usual shenanigans (think blondes and booze), Mitchum went right to work, getting an
"Eddie Coyle haircut" (which might have been executed with a lawn trimmer) and
allegedly hanging out with the notorious Whitey Bulger, the prototype for Jack
Nicholson's character in The Departed, and his Winter Hill Gang. Higgins was
worried, Mitchum was unfazed. "It's a two-way street," he told Lewis, "because the
guys Higgins means are associating with a known criminal in talking to me." Apart
from a few slippages here and there, Mitchum mastered the exceptionally difficult
Boston accent. More importantly, he found the right loping rhythm, the right level
of spiritual exhaustion, the right amount of cloaked malevolence. If Mitchum
betrays anything of himself as Eddie, it's his sense of poetry, which, for roughly
three-fourths of his career as an actor, seems to have manifested itself off- and
not on-screen. But when he rose to the occasion, he was one of the best actors in
movies. Thinks like a poet, acts like a jazz musician, hitting on the perfect
melancholy chord progression from his initial appearance and playing quietly
dolorous variations right to the end.

Of course, he's surrounded by a beautiful array of character actors, many of whom


have faded from memory over the years. Richard Jordan as Agent Dave Foley, decked
out in leather and a hip haircut, with his usual pungent combination of sweet and
sour. Peter Boyle's bartender, a swaybacked, bald-headed giant in jacket, V-neck
sweater, and open-collared shirt, cultivating an air of relaxed barroom stoicism as
he mentally angles his way through every difficulty. The unhealthy-looking Keats as
Jackie and the unhealthier-looking Jack Kehoe as his connection, decorating the
film with their peculiar brands of hopped-up intensity (well-oiled and dry as dust,
respectively). The smooth-skinned and bullet-headed James Tolkan, a Sidney Lumet
favorite, as the messenger boy for the Man ("The Man wants him hit . . .
tonight!"). Iron-haired and square-jawed Mitchell Ryan, one among an army of
unhinged authority figures in early-seventies cinema, doing a walk-on as police
brass. Joe Santos of the sunshine smile, who later made a name for himself on The
Rockford Files, as a member of the bank heist crew. His partner is played by Alex
Rocco, and if Rocco appears to live and breathe his role as a low-level criminal,
that's because he came into this world as Alexander Petricone, Boston born and
bred, and otherwise known as Bobo. Petricone worked on the fringes of the Winter
Hill Gang and then skipped town for Los Angeles, where he took off weight, changed
his name, converted to the Baha'i faith, and started a career in acting. The legend
goes that Bulger and his crew never knew what had happened to Petricone until the
night they went to see The Godfather, in which their old friend made a splash as
Moe Green, the Las Vegas kingpin who takes a bullet in the eye. These actors, then
in their prime, now signify a lost era. Many are dead—Boyle after a brilliant and
successful career, the Harvard-educated Jordan far too early from a brain tumor,
Keats by suicide before he turned fifty. All of them worked hard at their craft and
put flesh and muscle on an entire era's worth of movies. With the notable exception
of Boyle, few ever again found roles as good as the ones they play here.

For someone who was a thirteen-year-old movie fan when The Friends of Eddie Coyle
came out, it's a haunting experience to look again at these actors, still up-to-
the-minute in my time-bound memory. When we weren't paying attention, they slipped
like ghosts into a past that, from an official vantage point, now seems as distant
as the Civil War. The conditions that allowed for movies as spare and melancholy as
this one are long gone—very few current American moviemakers find it possible, or
even desirable, to leave their action so unadorned. It's strange to remember that
the seemingly loose but actually rigorous style of naturalism practiced by Yates
and Monash and their brilliant cast was as tied to the modernity of its own moment
in time as the CGI-driven epics of today are tied to theirs. On another level, for
those of us who grew up in Massachusetts, the film now functions as a time machine.
With a few exceptions (Starting Over, The Verdict, The Departed), the city of
Boston has never been as well served in movies.

Young film fans raised in the multiplex era may look back and lament the fact that
no one is making movies like The Friends of Eddie Coyle anymore. The truth is that
they never did. There's only this one.

criterion.com
The Criterion Collection - The Current
By Rebecca Bengal
12-16 minutes

If there’s one quality that separates John Cassavetes’s movies from almost
everybody else’s, it’s the density of detail in the storytelling. His films need to
be read closely, from beginning to end. There are no lulls with Cassavetes, no
lapses in rhythm; the films aren’t broken down the way most are. You have to
apprehend them from gesture to gesture, breath to breath. Very few filmmakers in
the sound era have chosen to work this way, at least in the realm of fiction. Only
Carl Theodor Dreyer, of whom Cassavetes was a great admirer, comes to mind. This is
not to slight filmmakers with a different approach to their art, who either break
up their scenes in clearly articulated units (Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Bresson),
build tableau effects that take the action into an eerie timelessness (Stanley
Kubrick), isolate a certain visual or behavioral event as the focal point of a
given shot (Jean Renoir), or dig into the marrow of time to make an event out of
duration itself (Andy Warhol, Andrei Tarkovsky). Every approach is equally valid,
none more elevated than the rest. Die-hard Cassavetes devotees do him no favors
when they buy into his own pronouncements and claim that his methods allowed him a
greater purchase on the truth (whatever that is) than other filmmakers. “My films
are the truth,” he once said during a personal appearance with a filmmaker of my
acquaintance; needless to say, my acquaintance was more than a little put off. Yet
such pretentiousness is easily forgiven in a man like Cassavetes, just as it’s easy
to make allowances for the pomposity contained within Bresson’s book of maxims.
When you consider how far against the grain they both went, it’s understandable
that they would each accord their own idiosyncratic working methods the status of
scientific breakthroughs or archaeological finds.

A whole generation of critics misunderstood Cassavetes so spectacularly that the


ones who are still around are probably too embarrassed to take a second look. The
Gustav Mahler of cinema, Cassavetes was excoriated in his lifetime for form-
lessness, lack of focus and modulation, et cetera and ad infinitum. And, like
Mahler, his work has come back after his death to haunt those who were so quick
with their doctrinaire judgments. Actors Studio exercises, formless improvisations,
and unmodulated emotionalism are all you’re going to see if you look at every movie
with the expectation that it will/should be broken up into visually and
behaviorally pointed units. Films like A Woman Under the Influence defy a century’s
worth of film theory, screenwriting tips, and film school orthodoxy. When you look
at a close-up in a film by almost anyone else, you’re looking at a representation
of the idea of an emotion, no matter how detailed the acting. In Cassavetes, every
blink, every shrug, every hesitation counts and drives the story forward.

What is A Woman Under the Influence (1974)? If you look at it from one end of the
telescope, it’s a hyperrealistic portrait of a woman going mad, a bravura
performance in a vaguely working-class setting, a sort of déclassé American version
of Ingmar Bergman’s Face to Face (1976), without Bergman. From the other end, it’s
a richly detailed experience, alternately soaring and gut-wrenching, composed in
two long, mighty, almost but not quite unwieldy movements. And it’s about . . .
what? Men and women? Family life? The difficulty of distinguishing between your
real and ideal selves? Male embarrassment? All of the above, none of the above.
Tagging a movie like Woman with something as neat as a “subject” is a fairly
useless activity. “John had antennae like Proust,” Peter Falk once wrote. A Woman
Under the Influence and Faces, probably his two greatest films, are both ultimately
as impossible to pin down as In Search of Lost Time. Like Proust before him,
Cassavetes rode the whims, upsets, vagaries, and mysterious impulses of humanity
like a champion surfer.

The first movement of A Woman Under the Influence takes us up through Mabel’s
commitment, and the second movement is devoted to her disastrous homecoming six
months later. Within these movements, different forces come into play. First and
foremost, of course, there is Mabel herself (Gena Rowlands). She is the magnet, the
center, of whom everyone is demanding what seems like the simplest thing in the
world but what is, finally, impossible: “Just be yourself.” There’s Nick (Peter
Falk), who clings for dear life to his image of happiness. It’s an image based on
memories of a carefree past with his wife, probably before the arrival of children,
and it blinds him to the difficulties of the present. How many times in the film
does Nick violently insist that everyone have a good time, that they get along,
that they relax? How many times does he scream at strangers or family outsiders,
insisting that they look away from Mabel’s madness, for him only a temporary
aberration? Is this a portrait of a blue-collar type “resorting” to violence? For
Cassavetes, that seems wholly unimportant. Nick is a man who believes so
passionately in his idea of perfect happiness, no matter how wrongheadedly, that
he’d rather destroy everyone around him than see it compromised. “I’ll kill ya,” he
warns Mabel, once again on the brink of madness, “and I’ll kill these sons-o’-
bitchin’ kids.” A terrifying moment and a liberating one as well, because it gives
voice to frustrations that most people bottle up just when they’re about to reach
the surface. It’s one of the film’s five or six key moments, when an emotional
tidal wave swells and breaks.

Nick’s mother is another force, and she’s played, formidably, by Cassavetes’s own
mother, Katherine Cassavetes. You might call her the meddler, or the passionately
interested outsider observing the maelstrom within, picking and choosing the
moments when she must intervene. One of the side benefits of Cassavetes’s cinema is
his wonderful ear for the music of American speech, the voices of intelligent yet
relatively inarticulate, second-generation, working-class Americans. And it reaches
a peak in the voice of this wonderful woman, with her beautifully nasal delivery
and stubbornly insistent pronouncements. “This woman is cra-zy!” she screams in
fierce, authoritative defense of her son and grandchildren, putting many of us in
mind of our aunts or family friends from childhood.
There are the children, passive and loving in the first half of the film, just the
way people always want children to be, and unconditionally loved in return; we can
infer that the inconvenience and awesome, life-changing responsibility of children
has been furiously denied (by Mabel) and batted aside (by Nick). In the second
half, the kids are recalcitrant, fiercely protective of their mother, and
stubbornly unwilling to stay put.

There are the outsiders, sometimes silently judgmental, sometimes vocally so—Nick’s
fellow workers, who look the other way, or tentatively reach out, or deride Nick
when he refuses to admit that there’s a problem with Mabel; and the in-laws,
including Mabel’s father (Fred Draper, from Faces), who doesn’t understand what
Mabel means when she asks him to “stand up” for her.

And finally there’s the house itself, also a force: the foyer with the bench, the
ground-floor bedroom with the sliding doors opening onto the living room, the
dining room with the long table, the backyard, and, most dramatically of all, the
staircase (like many great directors before him, Cassavetes understood that the
staircase was a necessary focal point of domestic drama—as it is in this film, or
in the devastating final shot of Faces). With its geography of open and closed
spaces, places from which to observe and places in which you’re left exposed,
places to congregate and places to be alone, the house becomes a theater of battle,
as houses often do—even the ones with loving families inside.

People often speak of Cassavetes’s films as prime examples of “actors’ cinema.” In


other words, he’s one of those poor schmucks who turned the keys to the asylum over
to the inmates out of misplaced respect. It’s astonishing that anyone still
believes this hogwash, but it keeps coming up, again and again. His mother,
Katherine, is a 100 percent electrifying presence in A Woman Under the Influence,
striking the action like a lightning bolt. “Doctor, aren’t ya gonna give ’er a
shot?” A hair-raising moment: she’s standing with her arms crossed on the stairs,
craning her neck to observe the goings-on between her son and her daughter-in-law,
her face breaking into a sneer. Is it great acting? On one level, of course it is.
But inasmuch as we think of a performance as a unified creation within a greater
unified creation, it seems to me that we’re witnessing something else here. Every
gesture, every look, every movement, every hesitation has become the exclusive
property of the director. Human activity is to Cassavetes what color is to Vincente
Minnelli and space is to Hitchcock. It’s at once his aesthetic and his moral center
of gravity, his canvas, and his most reliable tool. In the final analysis, he’s far
closer to a Hitchcock or a Bresson than many people realize.

As she did in three of her husband’s major films, Rowlands portrays a woman on the
edge of madness in A Woman Under the Influence. Which means that the level of
calculation and imagination in her acting is necessarily higher than it is for her
fellow actors. Rowlands’s Mabel, with her abstracted turns of the head and hands,
her overemphatic emotional responses, her violent attempts to eradicate potentially
threatening impulses, is certainly an imaginative feat. Falk is out on an emotional
limb here. Cassavetes made the most of what he perceived as Falk’s sense of
embarrassment as a human being, and the moment where Nick screams at his mother to
send away the sixty well-wishers crowded into the house, because he can’t bear to
do it himself, should give many men a shock of recognition. Yet Rowlands has the
more arduous task of reconciling the greatest theatricality with the most immediate
interpersonal byplay. Rowlands’s appearances in Faces, Woman, Opening Night, and
Love Streams are riveting experiences in and of themselves, because Cassavetes
makes the most of her incongruity within any given setting. As a presence, she is
innately glamorous yet earthy (the earthiness has a lot to do with that twangy
midwestern voice, always on the verge of cracking with emotion), a little broad in
her gestures yet exquisitely detailed in her choices, ethereally beautiful (a high
school French teacher type) yet always ready for action, and finally a little too
weird for superstardom. Theirs would be one of the cinema’s greatest and most
complex on-screen love affairs, if not for the simple fact that it plumbs so much
deeper than mere infatuation.

Along with Raging Bull (1980), made by Cassavetes’s old friend Martin Scorsese, A
Woman Under the Influence is the toughest of all great American films. It takes
conflicts and dynamics that we all know—all of us—and writes them uncomfortably
large. Like the Scorsese film, it doesn’t reach expressive peaks—both films begin
at peak expressive levels and stay there—as much as it hits emotional pressure
points. “Die for Mr. Jensen, kids,” says Mabel, unforgettably; she’s instructing
her kids and their friends to improvise Swan Lake in the backyard at four in the
afternoon, thus giving form to her own outlandish ecstasies and worrying the other
kids’ dad. (The actor Mario Gallo would enact another variety of American male
embarrassment, briefly but indelibly, as the crying boxing trainer in Raging Bull.)
“I have five points, Nick,” utters Mabel just before she is carted away—her hand is
outstretched, and she’s trying to figure how the odds are stacking up against her.
The music of the moment is fearful as Mabel lowers her voice for perhaps the first
time in the film and slips down another notch into a dangerously private,
dissociated reality. Cassavetes takes us from level to level of Mabel’s withdrawal
from reality, and the two passages of her madness are among the most harrowing in
movies.

To say that A Woman Under the Influence is a singular achievement is to put it


mildly. And yet it does bear a more than passing resemblance to another film, which
is Dreyer’s Ordet (1955). Both are “household” movies, and in both so much is
dependent on the woman at the holding center. In both films, the layout of the
house itself seems to contain the entire universe, and the tone of both is pitched
between the earthy and the ethereal. And just like Ordet, Woman ends with a
resurrection: Mabel’s sudden snap back into clarity after Nick smacks her down, as
if she’s awoken from a trance. Two miracles, ultimately inexplicable, that
violently wrench their respective films away from despair and toward some kind of
affirmation. Yet unlike Ordet, A Woman Under the Influence is a war movie. In the
end, Mabel and Nick have dueling conceptions of reality, each as valid as the
other. And that’s how wars get started.

This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2004 DVD release of
John Cassavetes: Five Films.

criterion.com
The Criterion Collection - The Current
By Rebecca Bengal
12-15 minutes
Hiroshima mon amour

“I think that in a few years, in ten, in twenty, or thirty years, we shall know
whether Hiroshima mon amour was the most important film since the war, the first
modern film of sound cinema.” That was Eric Rohmer, in a July 1959 roundtable
discussion between the members of Cahiers du cinéma’s editorial staff, devoted to
Alain Resnais’s groundbreaking first feature, which had just come out. Rohmer’s
remark is in perfect sync with the spirit of the film, which, as he says later in
the discussion, “has a very strong sense of the future, particularly the anguish of
the future.” Read half a century later, “anguish of the future” describes the
peculiar sensation that runs through all of Resnais’s films, before and after
Hiroshima. In fact, it’s the anguish of past, present, and future: the need to
understand exactly who and where we are in time, a need that goes perpetually
unsatisfied.

Is Rohmer’s hypothesis a useful one? Can it even be proven? Many would offer
alternative candidates for the first modern film of the sound era—Citizen Kane,
perhaps, or Journey to Italy, or maybe a dark horse like His Girl Friday or Les
dames du bois de Boulogne. Or, for that matter, Resnais’s own Night and Fog (1955).
But it’s possible that Hiroshima mon amour is the first modern sound film in every
aspect of its conception and execution—construction, rhythm, dialogue, performance
style, philosophical outlook, and even musical score.

Whether it’s the most important film since the war is another question altogether,
and an oddly poignant one. Because looking for a “most important film since the
war” may strike many of us today, in our spectacle-saturated world of capitalism
unbound, as a quaint enterprise. Those among us who recognize “the war” as a
historical benchmark, without a reminder from Hollywood or the Discovery Channel,
are dwindling. In 1959, just fourteen years after the bombings of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki, Rohmer and his estimable cohorts (including Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques
Rivette) probably had something quite specific in mind with their quest to find a
genuinely modern postwar cinema, one that would respond to the moral imperative of
the moment (exemplified by Theodor Adorno’s famous banishment of lyricism after the
Holocaust) and then somehow define that moment for all time. A tall order. The fact
that Resnais’s unflinching film comes within hailing distance of accomplishing such
an impossible task is a tribute to its greatness.

Hiroshima mon amour’s status as a milestone in film history is both a blessing and
a curse. It can be hard for new audiences to find their way to the actual movie,
buried as it is beneath its own daunting reputation, monumental subject matter, and
high-cultural pedigree. Unlike Breathless, with its jump cuts and light,
spontaneous feel, Hiroshima is deliberate, highly constructed, decidedly grave, and
emotionally devastating. Where Godard is loose-limbed, Resnais has a spine of
modernist steel. Where the Godard film feels like a free-jazz improvisation, the
Resnais feels like a piece of atonal music with the weight of history on its
shoulders—Ornette Coleman versus Anton Webern. Such seriousness of purpose is now
considered a high crime in most critical circles. But that’s a passing fad, and no
allowances or apologies are needed for the terrible beauty wrought by Resnais and
his key collaborator, the great writer Marguerite Duras.

It’s difficult to quantify the breadth of Hiroshima’s impact. It remains one of the
most influential films in the short history of the medium, first of all because it
liberated moviemakers from linear construction. Without Hiroshima, many films
thereafter would have been unthinkable, from I fidanzati to The Pawnbroker to Point
Blank to Petulia to Don’t Look Now (and almost every other Nicolas Roeg movie) to
Out of Sight and The Limey. After he screened the answer print, Anatole Dauman, one
of the film’s producers, told Resnais, “I’ve seen all this before, in Citizen Kane,
a film that breaks chronology and reverses the flow of time.” To which Resnais
replied, “Yes, but in my film time is shattered.” As it is, often for less
dramatically compelling or more fanciful reasons, in many of the above films.

But Hiroshima has also had another kind of impact, one less easy to trace. In
laying out the particulars of this wholly new film and its relationship to the
nouveau roman, Rivette made a very important point. He compared Resnais to novelist
Pierre Klossowski—author of The Baphomet and Roberte ce soir, brother of the
painter Balthus, and actor, or “model,” in Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar: “For
Klossowski and for Resnais,” he said, “the problem is to give the readers or the
viewers the sensation that what they are going to read or see is not an author’s
creation but an element of the real world.” This is, once again, a postwar
aspiration, completely in keeping with Adorno’s dictum, which ran through all the
arts. In cinema, there had already been many films (such as Citizen Kane) that had
used reality effects to enhance the impact of their fictions. In the postwar era,
beginning with neorealism, certain key filmmakers worked so that reality might
maintain its integrity and declare its presence without having to blend into an
artificially constructed fiction. Godard took the road staked out by Roberto
Rossellini, dissolving the barriers between film time and real time, fictional
space and real space, stories and documentaries. But Resnais worked in a vein more
reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein, erecting a complex, rhythmically precise
fictional construction in which pieces of reality are caught and allowed to retain
their essential strangeness and ominous neutrality. Resnais has always been
recognized as an innovator, but the term has a hollow ring. As a morally
responsible artist committed to catching those pieces of unaltered reality in a
carefully constructed net of fiction, he has paved the way for many filmmakers,
from the Francesco Rosi of Salvatore Giuliano to the Dušan Makavejev of WR:
Mysteries of the Organism to the Martin Scorsese of Goodfellas and Casino to the
Terrence Malick of The Thin Red Line.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising that Hiroshima mon amour began not as a fiction but
as a documentary. Dauman had successfully pitched the idea of a project about the
bomb and its impact to Daiei studios, and it was to be the first Japanese-French
coproduction. The title would be Picadon, for the “flash” of the A-bomb explosion.
It was only after months of reflection that Resnais settled on the idea that
Picadon should be a fiction, and that the impact of Hiroshima would be refracted
through the viewpoint of a foreign woman. It was Resnais who brought Duras to the
project, at the end of the decade in which she had achieved literary stardom with
The Sea Wall and Moderato Cantabile. It took Duras all of two months to turn out a
finished script, all the while working closely with the director. Although
Resnais’s links to Eisenstein seem obvious (Rivette: “It’s a film that recalls
Eisenstein, in the sense that you can see some of Eisenstein’s ideas put into
practice . . . in a very new way”), D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance was the film he
and Duras had in their heads. “Marguerite Duras and I had this idea of working in
two tenses,” he told Paris journalist Joan Dupont in an interview years later. “The
present and the past coexist, but the past shouldn’t be in flashback . . . You
might even imagine that everything the Emmanuelle Riva character narrated was
false; there’s no proof that the story she recites really happened. On a formal
level, I found that ambiguity interesting.”

It has often been said that Resnais is not an auteur in the proper sense, since the
presence of his writers—Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jorge Semprún, David Mercer,
Jacques Sternberg, Jean Gruault, Jules Feiffer—is so deeply embedded in the
finished products. But Resnais’s relationship with his writers is not very
different from the relationship between, say, Howard Hawks and Jules Furthman. Only
the sensibilities differ. “I’m always in search of special nonrealistic language
that has musicality,” Resnais told Dupont, and he has gone out of his way to find
writers with distinctively musical voices, many of them with little if any previous
experience in movies. In a sense, Resnais could be thought of as the Pierre Boulez
of cinema, a brilliant impresario with a mission to attune our eyes and ears to the
sights and sounds of modernism (that would be Boulez the conductor, not the
composer). But this “conductor” has always worked closely with his “composers” on
shaping an object of which they are finally the cocreators. Resnais’s imagination
is obviously sparked by sound, by music and words, and by the music of words. The
musical speech of memory that emanates from Duras’s characters sets a dominant tone
against which the jagged ruptures in time and visual rhythm—sometimes like cut
crystal, sometimes like rushing water—form a precise, often mysterious, always
dynamic counterpoint.

Is Hiroshima mon amour the story of a woman? Or is it the story of a place where a
tragedy has occurred? Or of two places, housing two separate tragedies, one massive
and the other private? In a sense, these questions belong to the film itself. The
fact that Hiroshima continues to resist a comforting sense of definition fifty
years after its release may help to account for Resnais’s nervousness when he set
off for the shoot in Japan. He was convinced that his film was going to fall apart,
but the irony is that he and Duras had never meant for it to come together in the
first place. What they created, with the greatest delicacy and emotional and
physical precision, was an anxious aesthetic object, as unsettled over its own
identity and sense of direction as the world was unsettled over how to go about its
business after the cataclysmic horror of World War II. With its narrative of an
actress going to Hiroshima (to play a part in a film “about peace”) expecting to
erase her tragic past, only to see her memories magnified by the greater collective
memory of atomic destruction, Hiroshima never locates a fixed point toward which
emotion, morality, and ethics can gravitate. The magnificent Riva is less the
“star” of the film than its primary “soloist,” to extend the musical metaphor—in
comparison, Eiji Okada’s architect-lover is more of a first-violin type. There is a
dominant motif, which is the sense of being overpowered, ravished, taken—in a
French woman who wants to be overpowered by her Japanese lover (“Take me. Deform
me, make me ugly”), an Asian man who is consumed by his Western lover’s beauty and
unknowability, a fictional peace rally overwhelmed by its real-life antecedent,
everyday reality drowned out by a flood of memories, a city devastated by nuclear
force.

“Hi-ro-shi-ma. That’s your name.” “That’s my name. Yes. Your name is Nevers. Ne-
vers in France.” Appropriately for a film about the anxiety of irresolution, the
end doesn’t tie up loose ends as much as it suggests a new and sober starting
point. It’s a moment of realization that feels neither tragic nor affirmative, just
crushingly exact. But there is another end point, a spiritual one, and it comes
early—the final statement of the film’s famous and eternally alarming opening
section. We are looking at shots of a rebuilt Hiroshima, a tourist attraction less
than fifteen years after it had been leveled, probably filled with people like
Riva’s actress, unconsciously and mistakenly expecting to see their own personal
tragedies rendered insignificant in the shadow of a monumental tragedy. Resnais’s
beautifully calibrated images move in sinuous counterpoint to Duras’s—and Riva’s—
verbal music. And we hear the actress’s sad voice carefully reciting the words that
still ring true today, and probably always will:

Listen to me. I know something else. It will begin again. Two hundred thousand
dead and eighty thousand wounded in nine seconds. Those are the official figures.
It will begin again. It will be ten thousand degrees on the earth. Ten thousand
suns, people will say. The asphalt will burn. Chaos will prevail. An entire city
will be lifted off the ground, then fall back to earth in ashes.

This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2003 release of


Hiroshima mon amour.

criterion.com
The Criterion Collection - The Current
By Rebecca Bengal
16-20 minutes

“It is the most erotic film that I have ever made,” wrote Michael Powell of Black
Narcissus. “It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and
image, from the beginning to the end.” In his winningly grand manner, Powell was
calling attention to what has become his 1947 masterpiece’s most oft-cited
characteristic, and to its onetime selling point. In fact, the reduction of Black
Narcissus by admirers and detractors (and cocreators!) alike to the three Es—
expressionist, exotic (or, to get fancy about it, “exoticist”), and erotic—has
often deprived this bracing film of its many nuances and complexities. It’s as if
Jean Simmons’s seductive urchin and Kathleen Byron’s wanton Sister Ruth were the
whole show. I don’t mean to imply that eroticism plays a less than crucial role—
eroticism of place, of visual texture, and, most assuredly, of the flesh. But the
film is also engaged with larger and more mysterious phenomena, which finally
overshadow erotic desire. With great force, Black Narcissus addresses an enduring
misconception: the longing, indeed fervent, belief that reality can be reconfigured
to conform to an ideal image. Sister Clodagh and her charges at St. Faith are
confident that they can keep the past (their pasts and the past of their new
dwelling, a former brothel) from intruding on the present, but they cannot. The
giddily bedeviled Sister Ruth wishes to be neither an underling nor seriously
disturbed, but she is both. Sister Honey denies that one of the local babies is
mortally ill and that his death is inevitable. And none of the sisters want to
recognize the powerfully disorienting effects of the vertiginous depths immediately
beyond their mountain convent, or the pure, clean air endlessly gusting through
their habits, or the vast, shimmering distance stretching out to the great
Himalayan peaks.

Black Narcissus is a film about people who try and fail to remake the world to
their specifications, and it was paradoxically made by people who control every
square inch of the environment being represented—every sliver of light, every
quavering breeze—in order to render its effect on frozen consciousness as vividly
and dramatically as possible. Powell and Emeric Pressburger had pulled off a
similar task in an earlier, black-and-white film, made in an altogether different
key. I Know Where I’m Going! is the story of one woman who also believes that she
can remain unaffected by her surroundings, only to see her plans undone by the
weather, the pace and customs of life in the Hebrides, and prolonged exposure to a
charming man. Wendy Hiller’s Joan consciously projects her fantasy of a perfect
future of material comforts onto the island across the bay, as close as Gatsby’s
green light and just as unattainable. In contrast, the sisters in Black Narcissus
are taken aback to find their buried memories and unfulfilled yearnings
spontaneously conjured to life as they contemplate the apparently limitless
horizon. “I think you can see too far,” observes Sister Philippa (Flora Robson, who
gives the film’s most delicate and underrated performance), by way of explaining
the sudden intrusion of past experiences into her heretofore perfect spiritual
life. In both films, a love story develops against the will of a determined woman—I
Know Where I’m Going! ends with a long-postponed and eminently satisfying kiss, but
in Black Narcissus, the growing affection and understanding between David Farrar’s
Mr. Dean and Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh, both fixed in their solitude, remain
unremarked and unfulfilled, a matter of quick glances, sympathetic exchanges, and
poignantly masked surges of feeling.

Powell set interesting challenges for himself on both projects, as if on an


unspoken dare. With the earlier film, he had to contend with a star who was unable
to travel to the Hebrides, necessitating a great deal of ingenious matching between
studio work and location footage shot with a double. With Black Narcissus, much to
the surprise of his creative team, the director felt that the film had to be made
under controlled conditions. The decisions to create the General’s Palace of Mopu
in a subtropical garden in Horsham and on sets at Pinewood, and to cast May
Hallatt, Esmond Knight, and Jean Simmons as Indians, seem to place the film
squarely in an earlier and less culturally attuned era. However, one could argue
that Powell took such a course of action precisely because he wanted to stay
(relatively) true to the culture of northern India, as well as to the dramatic
structure of Rumer Godden’s novel, albeit within the confines of the glorious
artifice that was already an Archers trademark (the filmmakers’ commitment to
artifice did not endear them to Godden, who declared after seeing Black Narcissus:
“I have taken a vow never to allow a book of mine to be made into a film again”).
“I have an anxiety, amounting to morbidity, not to have any serious howler in any
film of mine which deals with a technical subject,” Powell wrote in his book on the
shooting of The Edge of the World, and the sentiment applies to virtually every
aspect of his cinema. “The atmosphere in this film is everything, and we must
create and control it from the start,” he said at the first production meeting for
Black Narcissus. “Wind, the altitude, the beauty of the setting—it must all be
under our control. If we went to India and shot a lot of exteriors, according to
the usual plan, and then came back to Pinewood and then tried to match them here,
you would have two different kinds of color and two kinds of style.” Not to mention
the logistical and economic nightmares of transporting Technicolor equipment and
stock to and from India. Film history is riddled with examples of the kind of
makeshift visual scheme Powell wanted to avoid (The African Queen, also shot by
Jack Cardiff, comes immediately to mind), in addition to productions like Thorold
Dickinson’s Men of Two Worlds and Nick Ray’s The Savage Innocents, during which
costly location footage was ruined in transit. Powell’s seemingly eccentric
strategy yielded singular results, and a finished film as far from a compromised
hybrid or an indifferent studio re-creation as it was from certain roughly
contemporary works, classified under neorealism, that were coming out of Italy.

It was only four years later when Jean Renoir shot the first Technicolor film made
wholly in India, The River, adapted from another Rumer Godden novel about
characters who are forced to accept unwelcome realities. (Godden herself loved the
Renoir film, which she worked closely on, as much as she despised Black Narcissus.)
But these are very different works made by very different artists. Where the Renoir
film has an extremely loose narrative that emphasizes a broad continuum of
existence, the Powell and Pressburger film is very tightly structured (much more
tightly than the novel), with a beginning, middle, and end point, “when the rains
break.” In the Renoir film, the setting—the banks of the Ganges, on the Bay of
Bengal—determines the rhythm of the film. In the Powell and Pressburger, which
takes place in landlocked northern India, near Darjeeling, the drama is set in
motion by the Western characters’ violent reaction to an unfamiliar Eastern
setting. Where the people in The River arrive at peaceful acceptance, the sisters
in Black Narcissus are left with their illusions of perfect spiritual order
shattered. The River is about the flow of life, while Black Narcissus is about the
convulsive effect of life on closed minds, a drama of fugitive glances and grimaces
and fixations, of gusts of wind and swaths of color and light, advancing in vivid
and at times hair-raisingly precise emotional increments, each one as richly
abundant and visually satisfying as the last.

Like all of the Archers’ best films, Black Narcissus is an enchantment, an


immersion in the sheer pleasure of artifice and the play of creation. The casting
of Hallatt, Knight, and Simmons, for instance, contributes to this aura of make-
believe, as does the visual excitement of the sisters’ faces illuminated by the
light reflected from their habits, or, on a broader level, the orchestration of
color, light, and motion into a slowly building symphony of reds, blues, deep
greens, and blinding whites (Cardiff may have patterned his lighting after Vermeer,
but the breathlessly dynamic pace of the images leaves an altogether different,
more unsettled impression in the mind). And the spectacle of Powell and cameraman
Cardiff weaving a geographical whole out of the gardens at Horsham, Alfred Junge’s
elaborate set, and matte paintings of the Himalayas is thrilling in and of itself—
like Méliès, Powell had a magician’s knowledge that it was all a matter of timing.

Of course, the visual richness of the Powell and Pressburger films has been often
and justifiably noted, but I don’t think that enough has been said about their
emotional and psychological rigor. Contained within their storybook worlds is a
fascination with human drives and impulses. “The film is truer and tougher than
many of the exotic romantic poems that have an honored place in anthologies of
English literature,” wrote Raymond Durgnat, who saw past the hypnotic surfaces of
Black Narcissus to its dramatic spine of steel. If this were merely a well-made
movie about a group of nuns brought face-to-face with their repressed sexual urges,
it would indeed be nothing more than a “dramatic exploitation of celibacy as an
opportunity for titillation in the best of taste,” as James Agee put it in his
dismissive contemporary review. It is always tempting to uncouple the unearthly
visual beauty and formal control of a Powell and Pressburger film from its
psychological exactitude—and that urge is built into the films themselves. The
characters (and the audience) are always on the brink of being overwhelmed by
beauty, the beauty of the world on the one hand and of art on the other, which
holds the impossible but ever present promise of a permanently heightened state. At
the same time, however, the action is always firmly anchored in the fallacies and
disturbances and longings of being human. We get the lure of beauty and its
potentially dangerous effect at the same time. For instance, Powell’s remarkable
precision with distances and angles of perception is as elegant and ingenious here
as it is in all his great work, particularly the continued refrain of looking down—
Kerr’s Sister Clodagh surveying the sisters gathered at the dinner table or, in a
reverie, fixating on her grandmother’s footstool back in Ireland; Sabu’s Young
General gazing down at Simmons’s Kanchi; Byron’s Sister Ruth spying from a series
of heights within the open corridors of the newly christened convent on Sister
Clodagh and her interactions with Mr. Dean; each of the sisters in turn
contemplating the distant valley below. This insistence on up-down relationships (a
constant in Powell’s work) gives the film a musical development akin to a slowly
evolving theme or pattern and results in “mental images” as lasting as Hitchcock’s
point-of-view shots. The moment when the screen goes red, as Sister Ruth passes
out, is a startling reiteration of a powerful visual idea, but it may also be a
representation of a genuine neurological phenomenon known as a “redout,” as Diane
Broadbent Friedman postulates in her fascinating book on A Matter of Life and Death
and its probable origins in real neuroscience.

The performances and creative employments of the actors’ physiques are no less
acutely double-edged. It’s a safe bet that the image of Sister Ruth with blood
streaked on her off-white robe or emerging from the darkness in her scarlet dress
at the sound of the morning bell, her face as hollowed and haunted as Max Schreck’s
in Nosferatu, her body as sharp as an ax, will stay fixed in the minds of all but
the most unsympathetic viewers (the blood on the robe and the red dress are Powell
and Pressburger inventions, nowhere to be found in Godden’s novel). But she would
be just another weapon in the standard gothic arsenal if not for the refinement of
the characterization: Byron makes her a strangely touching figure, a model of
dangerous self-importance who breaks into a terrifying smile whenever she sees an
opportunity to satisfy her craving for praise and affection. Robson’s Sister
Philippa, whose thinking becomes so crowded out by reemerging memories that she
plants flowers in the designated vegetable garden, is less visually spectacular
(who isn’t?) but no less compelling, a worn, plain-faced woman with beautifully
weathered eyes who observes the changes in herself and is dismayed by what she sees
—in a moving encounter with Sister Clodagh, she asks in a trembling voice to be
punished in order to regain her lightness of spirit. Sister Philippa is haunted by
her loss of joy, as if it had been snatched away by the devil. Jenny Laird’s apple-
cheeked, open-faced Sister Honey is extravagantly sympathetic, in apparent
competition with everyone in sight for Best Human Being, and Powell makes good use
of her childish face (Laird seems to have retained her baby fat) and crinkling,
overemotive eyes and mouth. Judith Furse’s Briony is the most grounded of the
sisters, and a perfect visual counterpoint to Byron. In his autobiography, Powell
refers to Furse’s “monstrous shape and towering authority,” and her deep voice is
no less impressive, but what makes her character interesting is her need to remind
everyone in the immediate vicinity of her authority and capability. They each have
their fallacies and vanities, pitilessly exposed in the wind, air, and light—
there’s not a generic “nun” in the bunch.

As for Sister Clodagh, she seems bound for a violent transformation after the film
ends. In a good, pointed interaction near the beginning, Nancy Roberts’s Mother
Dorothea counsels her to spare Sister Ruth some of her own “importance.” It’s a
striking exchange in close-up, emphasizing the stark contrast between Kerr’s taut,
freckled skin and delicately set features and Roberts’s aged, narrowing eyes and
pursed lips. Clodagh is a stunning redhead from a wealthy Irish family, with a
great consciousness of her own beauty. When she is told that she will be the
youngest Sister Superior in her order, a smile of recognition passes across her
determined face, as if to say: Wasn’t it inevitable? There’s an aura of entitlement
to Clodagh, ably embodied by a young actress in the first flush of success, and it
raises the specter of class, ever present and never less than interestingly
refracted in Powell and Pressburger. The great erotic touchstones of the film—
Simmons’s spontaneous dance, her entwinement with Sabu, Byron furtively kissing
Farrar’s hand, her first appearance in the red dress—remain as potent as ever. Yet
on reviewing, I find that the most arresting moments involve the highborn Clodagh
and the evidently lowborn Mr. Dean. When Kerr publicly admonishes Farrar for
attending the Christmas Eve service at the palace in a drunken state, the close
image of his ruddy face is unforgettable. Farrar was adept at states of
vulnerability and hurt (he would later forge one of the great male characters in
British cinema in Powell and Pressburger’s The Small Back Room, another story with
a protagonist trying to deny his own reality, and a runner-up for Michael Powell’s
most erotic film). He looks through Clodagh’s tirade to her passionate longing with
a heavy-lidded half smile, at once self-chastening and undeniably knowing: he’s
looking past her words as well as her robes.

Earlier in the film, there’s a remarkable vision of a glorious day in Ireland:


“Isn’t it a grand day, Con?” exclaims a younger Clodagh to her churlish, pinched
lover (Shaun Noble). He’s too consumed with envy of his brother in America to see
the sun sparkling on the water, the green hills in the distance under the fresh
blue sky. As Clodagh stands in the lake casting her line, deep in the throes of her
love affair, she seems to own the world, resplendently, shiningly new and ready for
ravishment. It’s a brief moment, and it delivers her entire history in an instant:
we understand immediately that one day she will return to beauty’s embrace. A
signature image for the Archers, I think. Small wonder that in 1947 it was cut by
American censors.

criterion.com
The Criterion Collection - The Current
7-9 minutes

After the success of Mon Oncle in 1958, Jacques Tati had become fed up with
Monsieur Hulot, his signature comic creation. With international renown came a
growing dissatisfaction with straightforward scenarios centered around one lovable,
recognizable figure. So he slowly inched his way toward a new kind of film, a
supremely democratic film that would be about “everybody.” His journey was a long
one, ten years in all. At the end of the road, there was ignominy and bankruptcy.
But Jacques Tati was secure in the knowledge that with Playtime, as his film about
everybody came to be called, he had made a masterpiece.

According to Tati biographer David Bellos, the contract for “Film Tati No. 4” was
signed in 1959 with the provisional title Recréation. The intention was to mix film
with live performance and create a space in which paying customers were not mere
spectators but genuine participants. Like many artists before and after him (Abel
Gance dreamt of stadium-sized audiences watching the stories of the world’s
religious leaders on massive screens; Francis Ford Coppola hoped to project film on
glass screens in specially constructed theaters), Tati wanted to break the formal
bonds of his art form and create a new, totalizing form of spectacle (as Bellos
notes, the dream was partly realized with the performances of Jour de Fête à
l’Olympia in the winter of 1960/61).

For his new film, Tati needed a set as vast as the streamlined public buildings and
roadways that were soon to change the face of Paris forever. He needed to convey
not just the texture of these new spaces but also their scope, in order to
demonstrate exactly how they would house that most precious of all resources, human
individuality. He elected to shoot his film in the costly 70mm format, with its
magnificent widescreen clarity and depth. According to Bellos, Tati visited many
factories and airports throughout Europe before his cinematographer Jean Badal came
to the conclusion that he needed to build his own skyscraper. Which is exactly what
he did.

The massive set known as “Tativille” was built on land leased by the Parisian city
council, in Saint-Meurice, at the southeast corner of the city. Stuart Klawans, in
his brilliant book Film Follies: The Cinema out of Order, reckons that Tati’s
Specta Films employed 100 construction workers to make two buildings out of 11,700
square feet of glass, 38,700 square feet of plastic, 31,500 square feet of timber,
and 486,000 square feet of concrete. Tativille had its own power plant and approach
road, and building number one had its own working escalator. A massive folly to be
sure—though as Tati himself often pointed out, no more expensive than paying for
the professional services of Sophia Loren. In the first of a seemingly endless
series of disasters, a sizable chunk of Tativille was blown over by heavy winds,
and had to be rebuilt to the tune of 1.4 million francs. Shooting began in April
1965, with a cast of non-professionals recruited by Tati’s new-found jack of all
trades Marie-France Siegler, “starring” his neighbors’ former au pair Barbara
Denneke. With July came unseasonable rains, with September the cash stopped
flowing, and Tati had to do what many filmmakers spend the bulk of their time
doing: beg for money. Nobert Terry, who acted as the film’s “product placement
consultant,” put the director in touch with Prime Minister Georges Pompidou, who
engineered a loan from Crédit Lyonnais. But in order to secure the loan, Tati
basically had to mortgage away his future and that of his family as well.
Meanwhile, the money just kept draining away. After 365 shooting days punctuated by
long delays (due to everything from foul weather to the development of new gags to
keep the film as up to the minute as possible), and after nine months of post-
production, the newest creation by France’s comic genius premiered in December
1967, with the equivalent of an American “road show” presentation. Like Stanley
Kubrick, Tati kept tinkering with the film after its premiere, eventually cutting
it down to 120 minutes from its original 151-minute running time.

Like Eyes Wide Shut, Playtime was the victim of a backlash, largely based on the
outsized expectations surrounding this popular artist whose desire for publicity
was equalled by his supposedly arrogant need for privacy during the (lengthy) act
of creation. Moreover, despite critical appreciation, Playtime was so completely,
alarmingly new in every way (plotless, starring not one or two people but a cast of
hundreds, and completely dispensing with conventional notions of background and
foreground) that it needed time to sink in with the public—time that it never got.
Six months after its premiere, France was rocked by “the events of May ’68,” after
which everything that came before seemed tainted and old hat. Despite Jacques
Rivette’s observation that Playtime was “revolutionary in spite of Tati,” as well
as Tati’s own comments that with Playtime he was on the barricades with the
students in revolt, the film had become an artifact before its time. As 1968 drew
to a close, Tati was completely bankrupt, and he had lost his house as well as the
rights and the elements of his own films (he got back on his feet in 1977, five
years before his death). To this day, the whereabouts of Playtime’s missing 31
minutes remain a mystery.

But the “official version” that we have is good enough. Jonathan Rosenbaum, in a
tender account of his relationship with Tati, has written that Playtime changed his
way of looking “at people and things in cities.” He’s not alone. The film is a
series of giddy encounters between people and things, the wonders of “modern life”
relinquishing their functionality in favor of an unaccountably rapturous beauty.
Playtime indeed: an airport terminal, an office lobby, a hotel, an ideal home
exhibition, an apartment complex and a jazzy restaurant, with their polished,
reflective surfaces, form one continuous delirium of design, the impromptu
playground for a group of American tourists and assorted locals, including Hulot
himself and various doubles. No one, least of all Hulot, is ever at the center of
Playtime. The action is always happening in the background or on the periphery,
finally erupting into joyful anarchy with the restaurant bacchanale (which took
seven weeks to shoot): the more things break down, the more celebratory the
atmosphere. “At the moment before ‘Action,’” writes Klawans, “[Tati] was a god. And
at the moment after, he was just another reveler in the crowd he’d called up,
dancing in one small corner of the building he’d constructed. Apollo and Dionysus
in one.”

Bellos assesses Playtime as “an expression of wonderment at humankind’s ability to


create.” It seems fitting: this miraculous movie, still years ahead of its time, so
heroically unwilling to distinguish between the functional and the frivolous, is
itself a wholly wondrous creation.

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The Criterion Collection - The Current
By Rebecca Bengal
17-21 minutes

The two movies that opened the door to “youth culture” in Hollywood, The Graduate
and Easy Rider, were milestones, to be sure. But can it really be said that they
were milestones in the art of cinema? “I think The Graduate is not really a very
good film,” said Monte Hellman when I interviewed him in 1984, “but it’s a great
film because of just what it is.” In other words, nothing much as a film, strictly
speaking, but quite something as a cultural event, the Saturday night at the movies
that in 1967 gave the American middle class its first real glimpse of the paltry
value placed upon its legacy by its own sons and daughters. “There are certain very
strong stories or ideas for films that touch the core of the psychology of the
audience so profoundly that they absolutely cannot fail,” Hellman went on to
explain. The Graduate marked the beginning of countercultural consciousness in
American movies. In the fading memory of that moment, now layered with so many
ironic reversals, retrenchments, and disappointments, it is less the film that is
recalled than the potent effect it produced, an effect largely unavailable to
artists more nuanced and less fixated on the public eye than Mike Nichols. Shorn of
its contemporary context, Nichols’s film is a nicely executed comedy of romantic
embarrass-ment tarted up with Felliniesque close-ups, Antonioniesque spatial
configurations, and Bergmanesque silences. If nothing else, The Graduate is a
terminally “esque” experience.

A similar fate has befallen Dennis Hopper’s 1969 bombshell, a far better movie that
finally breached the already crumbling fortress of old Hollywood. Andrew Sarris hit
the nail square on the head, as he often did: “See Easy Rider for Nicholson’s
performance, easily the best of the year so far, and leave the LSD trips and such
to the collectors of mod mannerisms.” As Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Buck
Henry were to The Graduate, Jack Nicholson and, to a slightly lesser extent, Peter
Fonda were to Easy Rider. Hopper’s chosen cinematic forebears were, if anything,
even headier than Nichols’s (Bruce Conner, Kenneth Anger, Jean-Luc Godard), but
ultimately, both films rested their thematic affectations, stylistic
embellishments, and musical accoutrements on the shoulders of less noticeable
elements: bravura comic timing in the former and beautifully crafted
characterization in the latter.

Hellman was able to make his greatest film thanks to the massive success of these
two cultural coups, Easy Rider in particular. “We realized that the reason that
deal was made was because of Easy Rider,” he told me. “There was no question that
we appreciated its success as a ticket to a kind of freedom that wouldn’t have been
available to us otherwise.” The now celebrated moment of youthful enfranchisement
that began sweeping through Hollywood in 1969, allowing films as diverse as Taking
Off; The Hired Hand; Drive, He Said; Five Easy Pieces; and Hopper’s infamous Easy
Rider follow-up, The Last Movie, to be made, did not last long—three years to be
exact, until The Godfather ushered in a new era of high, wide, and handsome
Hollywood moviemaking. They are not all great films, to be sure, but they
inaugurated a wave of invention and exploration in Hollywood that more or less
thrived all the way through the early eighties.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) was, to quote screenwriter and former Time critic Jay
Cocks, easily the best of the “odd, off-pitch movies that followed in the wake of
Easy Rider and were immeasurably superior to it.” (Just as The Heartbreak Kid, made
a year later by Nichols’s old partner Elaine May, was immeasurably superior to The
Graduate.) In Easy Rider, the fabled “road” equals freedom, befouled by ugly
Americana, another big “theme.” But in Two-Lane Blacktop it becomes something
altogether different and far more interesting: a repository of dreams and
fantasies, for squares, hipsters, and obsessives alike. Where Hopper’s film is set
in the Great American Dreamscape, Hellman’s vision of the American West is far less
pretentious, parceled out in nicely measured, seemingly offhand portraits. Where
Hopper wears his hipster credentials on his sleeve, Hellman obscures his and even
tones down his well-made soundtrack choices in the mix. Where Hopper and Fonda
“play” disenchantment and disaffection (offset by Nicholson’s authoritative charm),
James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, and Laurie Bird are three nonactors who embody a sense
of youthful restlessness (offset by Warren Oates’s heartbreakingly eloquent
woundedness). And where Easy Rider is finally a series of choices and strategies
and inventions clustered around a big thesis, Two-Lane Blacktop is a great film
devoted to nailing the particulars of something far less likely to launch magazine
think pieces or talk-show digressions. It is a movie about loneliness, and the
attempts made by people to connect with one another and maintain their solitude at
the same time—an impossible task, an elusive dream.

That is to say, Two-Lane Blacktop is not Easy Rider II—posters of Taylor and Oates
did not adorn the walls of adolescent bedrooms. Defeated before its release by a
well-meaning but misconceived advance publicity campaign (Rudy Wurlitzer’s original
script was published in Esquire under the unfortunate heading “The Movie of the
Year”—wish fulfillment run amok, or aground), misunderstood by critics and
audiences in search of the next big Youth Movie, and subsequently reviled by the
very studio that had produced it, Hellman’s film was something of a buried treasure
for many years. There were prints here and there, but they were scarce. Universal
studio boss Lew Wasserman maintained a deep-seated personal dislike of the film,
presumably because it both epitomized the generational upheaval of its era and
failed to incite the new youth audience to empty its pockets. Universal’s studio
projectionist took an equally dim view, and for years the studio print was shorn of
its final images (in which the film appears to burn out from the center—every
projectionist’s worst nightmare). Two-Lane Blacktop turned up on public television
once in the eighties, panned and scanned. A few new prints were struck in the
following years, but it was not until the late nineties, when it appeared on
laserdisc and then DVD in the correct aspect ratio, that it assumed its proper
place as one of the most striking American films of its era. At this point, it is
well on its way to being recognized as one of the greatest, and most moving.

* * *

The man who was characterized by Sam Peckinpah on national television in 1973 as
“the best director working in America today” got his start in movies the same way
many of his contemporaries did: working for Roger Corman. After establishing a
solid track record as a stage director (Martin Landau, in an introduction to
Charles Tatum’s book on Hellman, remembers his old friend’s production of Waiting
for Godot (1957), with Jack Albertson and Joey Faye, as exemplary), Hellman was
thrown headfirst into the deep end of the moviemaking pool by Corman, with Beast
from Haunted Cave (1959). A drive-in quickie shot in a matter of days in Deadwood,
South Dakota, it is infinitely superior to its “sister film,” Corman’s own utterly
forgettable Ski Troop Attack (the cost-conscious Corman was famous for piggybacking
one production on another). From there, Hellman became a kind of in-house fixer—
working as associate producer on The Wild Ride (1960), chipping in on the direction
of the misbegotten The Terror (1963), and shooting extra footage for assorted
Corman productions in order to bulk up their running times for television broadcast
sales. “That was probably the most fun I’ve ever had,” Hellman said.

Producer Fred Roos, then developing properties for legendary producer-exhibitor


Robert Lippert, saw The Terror and inquired as to its true directorial provenance.
Corman got the credit, but according to Hellman, he was himself responsible for
about a third of the film, Corman for about half, and the young Francis Ford
Coppola for the rest. Roos hired Hellman to direct back-to-back Lippert productions
in the Philippines, both from 1964, a war movie called Back Door to Hell and a
crazily plotted thriller called Flight to Fury (later to become a Tarantino
favorite), written by Hellman and his friend Jack Nicholson. Hellman and Nicholson
were members of a loose-knit group of Los Angeles theater/film artists that also
included Landau, Shirley Knight, Robert Towne, and Harry Dean Stanton, and the two
men formed a kind of partnership that soon led to another, more legendary
doubleheader. The Shooting (starring a brilliant young actor named Warren Oates,
with the young Nicholson as a mysterious gunman) and Ride in the Whirlwind (both
1966) are twin westerns, the first and more enigmatic of the two written by Carole
Eastman (under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce; Eastman would later write Five Easy
Pieces), and the second by Nicholson himself. The productions were financed by—who
else?—Corman. “Roger saw the scripts that we came up with and was ready to chuck
the whole thing. But he realized that . . . if he canceled them, he’d be out five
thousand dollars,” Hellman said. There was a three-week break between the Lippert
movies but only a week between the westerns. Along with Corman himself, Monte
Hellman was one of the hardest-working men in show business.

Hellman and Nicholson began with the idea of making a pair of “classic” westerns in
the tradition of The Gunfighter and My Darling Clementine, “but we were also
influenced by various European filmmakers of the time,” Hellman said. His European
influences dovetailed with those of Nichols, but they appear to have been more
fully absorbed—in many ways, the westerns were exemplary hybrids of old Hollywood
and new Europe, beautifully recombined offspring of Beckett (a Hellman hero), Rio
Bravo, and L’avventura, with powerful genetic instruction from Jacques Rivette’s
Paris Belongs to Us (“What struck me,” Hellman said of Rivette’s film, “was that
people kept walking in and out of doors—scenes that would be cut out of most other
pictures became the basis of the movie”). Appropriately, The Shooting and Ride in
the Whirlwind gained their first notoriety in Paris, in 1969.

After a few years of kicking around, doing odd jobs for Corman, and suffering an
assortment of false starts on, among other things, an adaptation of Barbara
Garson’s play MacBird!, Hellman said, his agent “found some people in Hollywood who
had read a few French reviews,” and he was hired to direct a script called Two-Lane
Blacktop. In its original incarnation, he claimed, Two-Lane Blacktop read like a
Disney version of The Gumball Rally. “It was the most insipid, silly, sentimental,
dumb movie you could imagine. But it was about a race. I was attracted to just the
idea of a cross-country race.” Hellman and his producer, Michael Laughlin, hired
novelist Rudy Wurlitzer to do the rewrite, on the basis of his 1969 novel Nog
(which came with a ringing endorsement from Thomas Pynchon: “Hopefully another sign
that the Novel of Bullshit is dead and some kind of reenlightenment is beginning to
arrive”).
The casting of James Taylor was Hellman’s brainchild. “I saw a billboard on Sunset
Boulevard, and I just flipped over his face,” Hellman told me. “James came out and
did a screen test, and he had a mustache. We weren’t sure whether we wanted him
with or without it, so in the screen test he shaves it off.” (This footage, sadly,
has been lost.) A May 1970 shoot was set, but the production company Cinema Center
suddenly dropped the project in April. Hellman and Laughlin made the studio rounds
(“MGM thought it would be a boring film because it all took place in a car. One of
the things I had to do when we were presenting it to them was demonstrate how many
different camera angles you could get in a car. I think I came up with twenty-
four”) and finally made their deal with Ned Tanen, who was heading up a new, youth-
oriented production unit at Universal. The film was made for $850,000, and it was
shot in sequence. Hellman took his crew caravan-style on a real cross-country trip—
from Los Angeles to Needles, California, to Flagstaff, Arizona, to Santa Fe and
Tucumcari, New Mexico; then to Boswell, Oklahoma; Little Rock, Arkansas; Memphis,
Tennessee; and Maryville, North Carolina. This highly unusual practice did not
exactly endear the director to his actors, who were doubly exasperated by getting
their script pages only the night before their scenes. “In life you don’t know
what’s going to happen to you next week, so I didn’t feel that that was crucial to
being able to play the scene,” Hellman told me. As a result, his first-timers—
Taylor, who had just been anointed the singer-songwriter of the moment with Sweet
Baby James; Wilson, drummer for the Beach Boys and musical mentor to Charles
Manson; and Bird, a teenager with a strange history that fit her role as a drifting
hitcher perfectly—stay off-kilter but fresh, maintaining a Bressonian early-morning
clarity.

The rough cut of Two-Lane Blacktop was three and a half hours long. “We were
contractually obligated to deliver a two-hour movie, so we lost half the script,”
said Hellman. “We lost some good scenes, for sure, that I fell in love with.” Gone
are the flavor and color of street-racing life and the road, evoked so beautifully
in Wurlitzer’s script. What is gained is a trancelike absorption in movement and
ritual. Hellman’s film, like Paris Belongs to Us, is composed of many of the in-
between moments that most filmmakers would cut. In the process, a strange terrain
of tenderness and disconnection inhabited by the four principal characters is
mapped out: their shared remoteness is exactly what makes it safe for them to
venture into one another’s company. This movie about a cross-country race between a
car freak in a lovingly souped-up ’55 Chevy and a fantasist in a store-bought GTO
moves at an even, gliding pace, and it’s all about stopping to gas up, eat, make
some bread in local quarter-mile drag races, pick up hitchhikers, let the engine
breathe, share a drink. The characters think they’re in a race, but they’re really
players in a theater of life, the stage of which stretches from sea to shining sea.

Though he reads “hippie,” Taylor is the classic introvert-specialist, for whom


everything is swallowed up and contained by the road (if Two-Lane Blacktop were
made today, he and Wilson would be tech-heads). Oates is the smiling extrovert-
dreamer, for whom everything becomes a part of the Playboy dream he’s spinning on
his drive across America. Taylor’s aquiline face may be the visual center of the
movie, buoyed by Bird’s pout and Wilson’s pudgy, stoned softness, but Oates is its
emotional core. There’s not another character like Oates’s in all of American
cinema. Fredric March’s drunken manager of small loans in The Best Years of Our
Lives and Bogart’s forlorn convict in Dark Passage come close, but neither recedes
so completely into the lonely smallness of a bruised ego. Oates’s nameless would-be
hipster is perfect in every way: V-neck sweaters (they keep changing color),
driving gloves, a wet bar in the trunk, music for every mood, a cocky grin that
looks like it’s been practiced in the mirror. This nameless driver has bought the
James Bond ideal of the well-rounded man, but he prefigures Woody Allen’s Zelig in
the desperate speed with which he adapts himself to every new situation and
passenger. I can’t think of another performance that registers even the slightest
prick of wounded feelings with such care. “Why aren’t you in Bakersfield?” says a
down-home cracker in response to the GTO driver’s spiel, and Oates tries to Band-
Aid the hurt on his face with a touching smile (his weathered face and toothy grin
were never as beautiful as they are here). The actor imbues his character with a
strong sense of physical maladaptation—he can’t even lean against a building
comfortably—and puts the softness in the American character on display to
devastating effect.

Unlike Oates’s GTO, who projects his desperate longing out onto the open spaces,
for Taylor’s Driver the road, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell (coincidentally, she
joined Taylor for a good portion of the Two-Lane shoot), is a refuge. Or perhaps a
cocoon. That’s why the film’s last image is no modish affectation. “It was really
the most intellectual, conscious manipulation of the audience that I’ve ever done,”
said Hellman. “I thought it was a movie about speed, and I wanted to bring the
audience back out of the movie and into the theater, and to relate them to the
experience of watching a film. I also wanted to relate them to, not consciously but
unconsciously, the idea of film going through a camera, which is related to speed
as well. I think it came to me out of a similar kind of thing that Bergman did with
Persona.” Hellman is literally arresting his character’s fantasy of dissolving into
pure speed and limitless road (the burn of the image begins in Taylor’s head), a
fantasy shared by countless movies, then and now. Including Easy Rider.

Two-Lane Blacktop is the least romantic road movie imaginable. Nonetheless, Hellman
saw it as a romance, in the tradition of The Clock, A Man and a Woman, and The
Apartment. On the drawing board, perhaps. In finished form, it is a great film
about self-delusion. Warren Oates’s GTO (as he’s credited) is every pontificating
drunk, every reformed junkie or born-again proselytizer, every guy who moves to
another town to begin again. “We’re gonna go to Florida,” he tells Bird in the
film’s most acutely poignant moment. “And we’re gonna lie around that beach, and
we’re just gonna get healthy. Let all the scars heal. Maybe we’ll run over to
Arizona. The nights are warm . . . and the roads are straight. And we’ll build a
house. Yeah, we’ll build a house. ’Cause if I’m not grounded pretty soon . . . I’m
gonna go into orbit.” Meanwhile, she’s ready to doze off in the passenger seat.
Like all dreamers, he’s just talking to himself.