Posts Tagged ‘Foreign



11
Jul
09

The Beaches of Agnes

les-plages-d-agnes-the-beaches-of-agnes-17-12-2008-1-g

Last night I finally got the chance to see The Beaches of Agnes by Agnes Varda, which I have been absolutely dying to see since it first premiered in NY a few months ago and then immediately sold out before I even realized it was here. Varda is far and away my favorite director of all time and it was such a tremendous treat to get to not only see a new movie from her, but a stellar autobiographical one at that. It is also wonderful to see her getting some more press in the States since she’s relatively unknown to most people here and massively underrated, although her fan base has been growing a bit more since the release of a Criterion Collection box set of her work in January of last year. Her lesser works, Les Creatures, Lions Love, One Sings The Other Doesn’t, Mur Murs, Documentuer, etc. remain almost impossible to find in America, something that aggravates me to no end and I’m hopeful that this new movie may nudge some of her other works toward being re-released here.

Getting past my rambling fangirl hyperventilation, her latest film is really great. I can imagine for someone who is not familiar with her work, it may not be quite as enjoyable as it was for me, but there is still a lot to like about it even without the context. For one thing, it is a refreshing change of pace to get a window into the life and thoughts of a successful female artist in her 80’s. Plenty of movies and endless buzz and fuss are made about the big contemporary male artists, directors, writers-cum-hipster deities (Bukowski, Pollack, Warhol, Godard, Kubrick), but so few of the great female creatives ever get their due and its ironic this film comes from the artist herself. It remains all too true that unless women artists do the often messy, awkward work of glorifying themselves, few others will.

The list of women artists whose works have often focused on themselves is suspiciously long, Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman, and Sylvia Plath being just the tip of the iceberg. About a year ago, when I attended the “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution” exhibition at MOMA (also available as a book, if you’re interested), it was amazing to see what a high percentage of the works incorporated images of the artists themselves. Since historically women have always been forced to play object to men’s subject, muse to their artist, a logical step in the development of many female artists has been to grapple with this paradox head-on by blurring that boundary. This was especially true during the big re-emergence of feminism when consciousness-raising was encourage so many women to question their roles and the self they wanted to choose for themselves. It’s a complicated process though. Even as women artists take control over the image of themselves that they produce, on a certain level they are still offering their image up to the gaze of the viewer which leaves it open to interpretation, titillation, appropriation, colonization, etc. At the artist’s most powerful moment of self-assertion, self-expression, self-invention, they are potentially also at their most vulnerable.

What I appreciate about The Beaches of Agnes, is how gracefully Varda remains in control while walking this line. With a tone of playfulness and aplomb, she manages to create an autobiographical account of her life and her works that both entertains and moves the viewer without being heavy-handed, narcissistic, or cringe-inducing. Instead of talking heads and old photo montages, she glues the movie together out of little stories and asides, artistic whims, silly reenactments, and movie clips with an overall effect that feels true and intimate without being overly revealing. She eschews a linear, chronological progression and focuses more on a landscape of memory with a cat glued in here, a friend or two stuck in there, and a generous sprinkling of humor. She’s edge-of-the-knife intelligent and a passionate observer of people, places, and times and you leave the movie being jealous of her colorful history. Just check out this picture of her in her youth at Cannes when Cleo from 5 to 7 debuted:

Young Agnes VardaShe is like DARING you to question her awesomeness.

Anyway, all this gushing about Agnes Varda and getting a glimpse of her inspiration for different movies makes me want to do a mini-retrospective of the rest of her works (at least the ones available in the U.S.), so be on the look-out for some other posts about her over the next few weeks.

11
Jul
09

Princes and Princesses & The Adventures of Prince Achmed

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I came down with a terrible cold over the 4th of July weekend, which definitely put a damper on my celebration, although it did have the upside of causing me to seek out a good, old-fashioned comfort movie to take my mind off my misery. Whenever I have a bad cold for as far back into my childhood as I can remember, the only positive thing about being sick was getting to stay in bed watching the most charming, soothing movies possible. The Princess Bride, any of the Muppet movies, Mystery Science Theater 3000, you know the kind. This time around I was restricted to what was available via the internets, and since I am a late hold-out against the onslaught that is Netflix (I could write a whole ridiculous, curmudgeonly post about that), I did not have a ton of options with the caveat that I recently found out about the glorious website: The Auteurs, which allows you to watch a ton of old, foreign, arty type movies on the internet for a mere $5 a pop.  Princes and Princesses by Michel Ocelot was one of the few animated and non-Svankmajer films available on the site, so I gave it a whirl and it was exactly what I needed. Compared to the whizz flash of most modern American animated films, it’s sort of mind-blowing to me that Princes and Princesses was made as recently as 2000. It feels like a much older movie from a more innocent cinematic time, way before 3d and digital color and talking sidekicks, a time when kids were satisfied with straight-forward fairy tales.  The stories in the movies are wonderfully crafted, with fantastic twists and funny dialogue, with a silhouette-visual style which lends an elegance often lacking in animation. I also think the silhouette format is brilliant because in a world of constant  stimuli bombardment, this is one movie where the children watching have space to imagine the details for themselves. They can create the character’s expressions, the colors of the clothes, the fantastic settings in their own minds for once.

Naturally this movie reminded me of one of my favorite animated features of all time, which also happens to be credited by many as the first animated film ever made, The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger:

PrinceAchmed

This movie was also done in the silhouette style, but if you can believe it, each and every character, every set, every frame in the hour-long masterwork was painstakingly cut out by hand by the director back in 1926. On a pure, visual level, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more artistic, stunningly detailed, mindblowingly-intricate piece of film-making. Even if you had to watch the film without any of the dialogue, it would be completely worthwhile to see it. Even better though, it’s based on stringing together various stories in The Arabian Nights into one, long beautiful tale that includes everything you could want in a fantasy movie. Needless to say, I recommend you go rent it if you ever get the chance, although it can be a little tricky to find. If you can’t, Princes and Princesses is a fitting modern tribute 74 years later.

09
Jul
09

The Tales of Hoffmann

Tales of Hoffmann

So, I realize it has been a really long time since anyone posted on this little movie blog and all of the readers are gone. I’m still watching great movies and I’m still wanting to motivate myself to write more often though, so I thought I would try to revive it again. Not sure how sustained the effort will be, but it’s worth a try.

A couple weeks ago I rented The Tales of Hoffmann by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, one of the best films from their glory period of working together. Apparently it is a favorite of both Martin Scorsese and George Romero, who used to constantly compete to rent the single copy out from their local movie rental shop in Manhattan. For a movie that’s based on an unfinished, nineteenth-century opera, it definitely packs a surprisingly powerful visual punch and draws on a lot of the best elements of the horror, fantasy, and adventure genres in weaving its spell.

The narrative is simple enough, built around a retelling of the romantic exploits of the titular main character and includes a lot of recycled bits and pieces which are suspiciously reminiscent of The Odyssey, Faust, and Dante. You’re drawn in less by the characters and the plot and more by the fantastical dreamscapes Powell and Pressburger created for each story, orchestrated in the old-time movie magic style that similarly captivates us in other, more famous musicals from this era. It’s too bad there aren’t more screencaps floating around online, because the technicolor sets and costumes are truly amazing. Here’s the only other good shot I could find:

Tales of Hoffman Screencap 2

Powell and Pressburger play off the sets through a lot of very clever cinematic tricks which heightens, and sometimes gently satirizes, the melodrama of the story.  For example, the lines on the floor in the photo above create the perfect illusion of stairs when shot from above, but are obviously painted on from the angle in the screencap. It’s certainly a movie that rewards those with sharp eyes who can catch the little details and I can see why Romero was so inspired by it, since it shows you not just the magic trick, but how the trick was done.  And the overall effect created lends the movie a very surreal air and invites the viewer to be more reflective on what’s going on at the edges of the performances and the film.

During the first story, Hoffmann shows us puppets that charmingly fool him into thinking they are alive. While watching, we are simultaneously dazzled by the display and fully aware of the foolishness of being dazzled since it’s all an elaborate illusion. To take it even deeper, while watching the movie we’re aware of how the directors manipulate all the elements before us to effect our thoughts and emotions. For once, we are conscious of the strings and tapes and shadows that allow them to get away with it. Even with that consciousness however, we still somehow take a great melancholy pleasure in the spectacle and perhaps appreciate it more than we would if it was seamless and clean like so many of the other movies we see.

My only critique of the film would be the old, niggling feminist one that seems to always tug at me. All of the female characters in the film are based on not particularly enlightened feminine archetypes. The first woman is literally a living doll (aka virgin) and the second is a courtesan literally in league with the devil (aka whore). The third woman, a frustrated singer, is more complex than the first two, but is ultimately destroyed by the choice between her ambition/career and love/domestic bliss.  And, of course, the real victim at the end of the day is Hoffmann, his hopes for true love crushed by all these goddamn, fundamentally flawed Eve types running around.

Of course, there is one slight counterbalance to all this ho hum patriarchy stuff in the form of Hoffmann’s best friend and the wisest character, Nicklaus. Although the character is obviously supposed to be male, Powell and Pressburger decided to cast the part with a female actor. This is an absolutely brilliant masterstroke in my mind since it further underscores the theme of illusion/reality for the audience, while also building a lovely sense of irony to the gender dynamics in the film.

Through the whole movie, Nicklaus is the one who sees through the women Hoffman swoons over and warns him to seek out the substance underneath the showy exterior. While Hoffman’s stories endlessly blast apart the mystique of the feminine in it’s various  incarnations, the audience’s sympathies stay most in line with Nicklaus, who becomes a true foil to the other female characters when played by a woman. In a convoluted way, the movie establishes her as embodying the hidden feminine and romantic ideal, a true friend who is loyal and wise, not to mention certainly not the kind of woman who is into the overt, performative display of  her gender.  Whether you take the implications as honest-to-god feminist or just vaguely homoerotic, it adds another layer to the film that I found really fascinating.

24
Sep
08

Two Friends

I saw Two Friends by Australian director, Jane Campion last night. Not a masterpiece exactly, but a well-executed slice of life movie that captures the de-evolution of a friendship in an intriguing way. The film is structured as a series of progressively earlier flashbacks, so it ends with the scene that happens in the characters’ lives the earliest. Admittedly this is a gimmick, but I feel like it did emphasize the nostalgia that tends to permeate my own reflections back on my adolescent friendships. There is a nice, implicit feminist tone to the film, as you might expect from a movie chronicling a friendship between two girls, without being too cliche or overwrought. The whole film is done with an amazingly light, understated touch which allows the relationship between the friends and the mother and daughter in the movie to unfold in a way that feels very genuine. I recommend it, especially for people who have enjoyed other works by Campion.

–Vicky Vengeance