If Harold Pinter wrote a version of The Big Knife, it might come out something like this.

I’d be kidding you if I said that the movie struck me immediately as a masterpiece.  Because it’s Godard and for me, Godard always comes off as willfully opaque and even boring on first viewing.  It takes some time, in this case 18 hours and a good night’s sleep, for his narrative strategies to reveal themselves.

A french writer (A novelist?  A playwright?  We’re not sure; he describes himself as a playwright but his wife says he’s a “crime novelist”) living in Rome is hired by a boorish (that is, American) producer to “fix” a new film by director Fritz Lang (played by, well, director Fritz Lang).  The film in question is an adaptation of “The Odyssey.”  The director wants to put myth on screen, gods and goddesses and mermaids, heroism and simplicity.  The producer wants to make Ulysses a “modern man,” ie neurotic and perverse, so that the audience will have a way into the story.  The writer is caught between these two impulses.

None of this is immediately apparent.

The writer is married to Birgitte Bardot, the ne plus ultra of “desirable women” in 1963.  He has, in other words, everything a man could want.  He is offered the job by the producer and goes to the studio to watch what there is of the movie the director has made. 

(The film, as shown, appears to be even more opaque and than the one we’re watching.  Only a few of the shots are of actors doing things, the rest are shots of Greek statues posed in fields.  When actors appear, they have no dialogue, only a few poses and motions.  If the director was trying to resurrect the gods, he’s crashed on the shores of film’s limitations — a static shot of a painted statue does not evokes godhood, it evokes tackiness and pretension.)

After the screening, the writer, completely baffled, is invited by the producer to come back to his villa to talk.  The producer offers the writer’s wife a ride in his Alfa Romeo and the writer encourages her to go.  This action, for reasons that remain mysterious to the end of the movie, ends his marriage, although it will take him the rest of the movie to figure that out.

The producer asks the writer and his wife to come to the set in Capris that weekend and they part.  The writer and his wife go home to their flat somewhere in Rome.  We’re all set for an involving drama about the making of a motion picture, but Godard, as Godard will, dashes our expectations and instead gives us a half-hour scene in the couple’s apartment where the writer asks his wife, over and over, in a dozen different ways, if he should go ahead and take this job, and what happened that afternoon that has made her start acting so strange.  Did the producer do something to her in the car?  Did the writer say something to offend her?  What the hell is going on?  Birgitte Bardot is pissed, and one tends to want to know what Birgitte Bardot is pissed about. The couple putter around the flat, take baths and set the table, start twenty different halting, incomplete conversations, take off and put on clothes, hats and wigs, fight and make up and fight again and make up again.  This scene takes up the entire second act of the picture and, like many things in a Godard picture, the purpose of it remains hidden for a while.

The writer and his wife, in any case, go to Capris.  The writer takes walks through the wilderness with the director where they discuss what writers and directors have always discussed: What does the protagonist want?  That is, Why does Ulysses go off to the war to begin with, and why does it take him ten years to get home?  The director believes that that’s just the story, it is what it is, but the writer believes (or is being paid to believe) that Ulysses went to the war to get away from his wife and is taking his sweet time getting home because he’s not sure if he ever wants to see her again.

Aha, so that’s what the 30-minute Pinteresque flat scene was about.  The writer whines and grumbles about how he wants the job and worries about whether his wife still loves him, when secretly he wants to both reject the job and get rid of his wife altogether.  The man who has everything is intent on throwing it all away.

And so in the end (spoiler alert) the protagonist of this movie gets exactly what he wants, although not in the way he expected.  Instead, the gods  that the director wanted to put in his movie enter, as gods often do, offscreen, in the form of , literally, a deus ex machina.  When I was a youngster, a high-school comp teacher warned that the weakest ending imaginable is “And then they were all hit by a truck.”  Godard, surely, must have had that rule in mind when he devised the ending for Contempt, a fitting end for a movie about modern perversity.

Day For Night

A French film crew shoots a romantic melodrama at a studio in Nice.  Would make a nice double feature with CQ.

Words that I jotted down while watching:


It’s shaming to see Truffaut so utterly in command of his tools while playing a director who constantly feels like he’s a failure and a fraud.  The ensemble work here is wonderful.  The narrative steps in and out of realism, scenes go from strict behavioralism to coy, affectionate commentary in the blink of an eye, the pace never drops a beat and Truffaut makes it all seem easy.

Late in the movie, Truffaut laments that movies like the one he’s shooting are a thing of the past, that there will never be big, fake studio pictures any more, that movies will from 1973 on will be shot in the street with non-actors.  I don’t know what he was thinking, but one of the sweet, sad things about watching this movie now is realizing that, to a large extent, the techniques being employed here, seen from the age of digital sets, digital backgrounds and digital actors, are as quaint today as a movie set during the time of silent film would have seemed to Truffaut.
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A charming, intricate, compulsively watchable, rather brilliant comedy by Roman Coppola, his first and, to date, only feature.

A young, experimental filmmaker in 1969 Paris is suddenly handed the reins of an unfinished sci-fi sex comedy.  As he grapples with his daunting new assignment, he also deals with his fractured love life, his stunted artistic ambitions and his decaying family.

It perfectly captures a moment in film history when the possibilities of film as a language seemed unlimited.  As the young man tussles with the problems of his film and life, the mysteries, pleasures, seductions and promises of the art form open to him and allow him to lose and find himself.  That the movie pulls all this off while remaining funny, fast, original, unpretentious and fizzy is something like a minor miracle.

Jeremy Davies, it-boy of the modern independent film movement, plays the young filmmaker, and Gerard Depardieu and Giancarlo Giannini are on hand to remind us of the moment that the film encapsulates.

If the movie finally falls short of its revolutionary promises (“Astonish me!” is the producer’s note to the untested director, while an older director insists that film has the power to change the world), well, then it reflects well the time it’s describing.  But it also shows the joys and sadness of the art of film, and how the most malleable, most complex, most powerful of artistic tools is consistently put in the service of silliness.
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RKO 281

Orson Welles incurs the wrath of William Randolph Hearst when he makes Citizen Kane. An important story about the collision of art and commerce, told in a brisk, enjoyable, coherent, straight-ahead fashion.

In the manner of most TV movies, it is overlit, overacted, oversimplfied and over-explained. In the manner of most biographical dramas, compression renders complex relationships into two-line exchanges, scenes where Famous People trade Statements instead of human beings conversing.  The characters almost wear name tags and plot points are telegraphed far in advance.  John Logan, who wrote the screenplay, went on to write many very good scripts, including the similar The Aviator, which gets the Famous Person Biography genre with much more panache, grace and detail.

The presence of Brenda Blethyn reminds me of Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh’s film about Gilbert and Sullivan, which is my personal high-water mark for biographical drama of this sort. In that film, a premium is placed on observation and behavioralism; one picks up the plot as the film goes along. Here (and, honestly, in most biographical drama) the viewer is constantly reminded who everyone is and what their relationships are. Or as David Mamet puts it, people are always saying “Come in, because I am the King of France.” The drama is presented instead of inferred; the audience does little work, there are no dots to connect.

The cast is an extraordinary collection of very good actors, but sadly, whenever a group like this is assembled to play Famous, Charismatic People from the Past, all they can really do is demonstrate how we don’t have titans like that in our culture any more.

Liev Schreiber, one of my favorite actors working today, can only hint at the towering presence and commanding force that Welles possessed. I can hardly blame him; the last time I saw Welles depicted on film, it took both Vincent D’onofrio and Maurice LaMarche working together to pull it off. (It’s funny how, in yesterday’s query for films about filmmakers, Welles comes up so often, and always in such tragic terms.)

One thing that RKO 281 does that I wasn’t expecting was to make a human being out of William Randolph Hearst, and it brings up an idea that fascinates me: how does it feel to be the subject of a brilliant artist’s scathing portrait? How does it feel to be portrayed as a soulless monster by an artist with full command of his tools, to know that, no matter what else you accomplished, you will always be remembered as “that guy from Citizen Kane?” How does it feel to be the guy in Alanis Morrissette’s “You Oughta Know?” How does it feel (sorry) to be the subject of “Like a Rolling Stone?” It doesn’t matter what “your side” of the story is, the other side has already been told too well, no one would ever believe you, or care to listen.  The subject is defenseless.

Ironcially enough, it’s largely through the craft and brilliance of Citizen Kane that anyone bothers to think about William Randolph Hearst at all these days.  Also ironic is that, as much as Hearst must have hated the film, that Welles, in fact, endowed him with more pathos and sympathy than he probably deserved.
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