‘It Happened One Night’

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When Frank Capra came upon the 1933 Samuel Hopkins Adams story “Night Bus,” he thought it would make a great film. He bought the property and took it to screenwriter Robert Riskin, with whom he had worked a few years prior on Platinum Blonde (1931). The script was set to be Capra’s next feature for Columbia, then a lower-rung studio where he was their preeminent director. The problem? Nobody wanted to make the film. Several top actors and actresses of the day turned down the picture, Robert Montgomery, Carole Lombard, and Myrna Loy among them. Clark Gable, not yet the caliber of star he would become, eventually accepted the male lead, and Claudette Colbert eventually (and reluctantly) took the female lead … under the condition that her $25,000 salary would be doubled, which it was. The film’s entire budget was $325,000. Shooting lasted a mere four weeks.

When all was said and done though, the film, retitled It Happened One Night, came away with five Academy Awards, becoming the first film (and one of only three films still) to receive Oscars in the “big five” categories: best picture, director, actor, actress, and screenplay. It’s funny how things work out.

This is what romantic comedies are all about — things improbably and hilariously working out for the best. That’s certainly the case with It Happened One Night. When runaway heiress Ellie Andrews (Colbert) jumps ship and flees her father (Walter Connolly), neither she nor he expect what transpires. Against his wishes, she plans to marry the curiously named and rather irrelevant “King” Westley (Jameson Thomas). To do so, she must get to New York City without anyone finding out who she is, lest they alert her father to her whereabouts. At the same time, a drunk down on his luck reporter, Peter Warne (Gable), has been newly fired (or has assertively quit, as he pretends to fellow drunkards).


Both Ellie and Peter are stubbornly independent. She has apparently been a handful for some time (“Daughter escaped again,” wires her father), and she certainly bares her fair share of firecracker determination. Similarly, Peter is more than content to go his own way, talking tough and being charmingly reluctant to give an inch. Neither are in a state of repose when they meet. She’s agitated and he’s inebriated. To say the least, they get off on the wrong foot. Which of course means they’re destined to fall in love.

But this won’t be easy, and it isn’t. Be it in the cramped quarters of their bus, as they hoof it along a country road, or in the confines of a motel room, they butt heads, trade barbs, and annoy each other. The sexual tension is obvious, to us anyway. They’re both quick with a quip, as the genre dictates; she derisively refers to him as “young man,” while he appoints her a “brat.” He has a tremendous ego, is rather domineering, and initially thinks of her as just a headline. She’s stuck up, pretentious, and self-absorbed. Yet through the course of their road trip romance, the realization of potential success (her marriage, his story) starts to diverge from their new, true, desires.

As enduring as the comedic love story of It Happened One Night is, the film is also very much of its time. Despite her independence, Ellie is desperately helpless, adopting the clichéd gender role of the early 1930s, and Peter at times expresses the worst kind of masculine assertiveness. There’s no maliciousness in its intent, and one must bear in mind the film’s historical context of production, but when you hear Peter declare (to Ellie’s father no less), “What she needs is a guy that’d take a sock at her once a day, whether it’s coming to her or not,” well, it’s a little awkward.

Nevertheless, It Happened One Night also encapsulates more poignant elements of its era, far more significant than any old-fashioned notions of domestic conduct. Lines waiting to get into outdoor camp showers, phrases of homespun hokum, and train car vagabonds; all of this keeps the film deeply imbedded in its Great Depression milieu. Certain portions of the film bring to mind The Grapes of Wrath and its scenes of destitute travelers and impoverished folks just getting by. To paraphrase Ma Joad, “These are the people,” and Peter especially shows affinity for the common everyman of America.

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Still, as It Happened One Night is, more than anything, a romantic comedy, one probably shouldn’t get too bogged down in this realistic backdrop. Yet it was most certainly on the mind of Capra. At one point, Peter says he wants to tell a “simple story for simple people,” and this could very well be the recurrent modus operandi for Capra himself. Sure, he’s all for having a good time, as he does here, but along the way, there is no reason not to sprinkle in some social commentary, cleverly so in this case. Peter seems to have an utter disdain for money and is more concerned about moral fiber (“Ever hear of the word humility?” he asks Ellie). And his musings about proper donut dunking technique, about the best ways to thumb a ride, and his explanation of why Ellie has no idea what a piggy-back ride is (“I never knew a rich man yet who could piggy-back ride”), keep him on the side of the average American Joe. Part of the film’s evolution is her coming around to his side of the tracks, as when she merrily joins an impromptu sing-a-long on the bus or when she shows him a thing or two about how to really best hitch a ride.

If It Happened One Night endures, and is continually regarded as the Hollywood classic that it is, it’s due to the romance and the comedy, both dependent on the screen chemistry of Colbert and Gable and on Ruskin’s fantastic screenplay. In the case of the latter, the dialogue especially pops in the best screwball tradition:
Peter: Now listen, Joe.
Joe: Don’t “Joe” me.
Peter All right, Joe. Listen.

Peter: I never did like the idea of sitting on newspapers. I did it once, and all the headlines came off on my white pants. On the level. It actually happened. Nobody bought a paper that day. They just followed me around over town and read the news on the seat of my pants.
Peter (when Ellie falls into his lap): Next time you drop in, bring your folks.
That’s amusing dialogue no matter what year it is.

Of course, Capra deserves due credit as well. His direction is flawless. From the tonal shift when Peter and Ellie realize their conflicted predicament — the film suddenly turning still, quiet, slow, and serious — to the single take on Gable and Colbert eating breakfast in exceptionally banal naturalistic performances, Capra was a master at keeping the viewer engaged. He could also be sly when he needed to, as in the film’s Lubitschian conclusion, a perfectly romantic way to subvert the censorial codes of the time.

But is the film a screwball comedy? In a conversation between Molly Haskell and Phillip Lopate, included as part of the newly released Criterion Collection Blu-ray, the two question It Happened One Night’s designation as such, to say nothing of its place as perhaps the first of its kind. As they point out, it is lacking the “physical chaos,” the relentlessly rapid-fire dialogue, and the same degree of silliness as, say, Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century, which, as Haskell points out, was released the same year.

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The exchange between these two influential critics is but one standout feature of this Criterion release. There is, first and foremost, the 4K digital restoration, which looks fantastic, as well as an interview with Frank Capra Jr., the nearly two-hour long documentary, Frank Capra’s American Dream, and a new digital transfer of Capra’s first film, the 1921 silent short Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House. There is also an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme and the 1982 American Film Institute tribute to Capra. This last inclusion is particularly entertaining, as a who’s who of legendary stars proclaim their admiration for the director. It’s great to see so many Hollywood luminaries in one room, all still alive and kicking: Colbert, James Stewart, Bette Davis, Charlton Heston, Peter Falk, Jack Lemmon, and Fred MacMurray, among others. A very funny Steve Martin even turns up, as does Telly Savalas, who shares a short but touching story about how Capra’s films affected him and his friends.

Together with Ruskin, Capra would go on to make several of his most acclaimed films, such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It with You (1938), and Meet John Doe (1941). And while It Happened One Night garnered Capra his second Oscar nomination for director and his first win, he would receive further trophies for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and You Can’t Take It with You, and additional nods for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). However, I must admit a lukewarm response to Capra in general, though I would count It Happened One Night as his finest film. While his pictures have their moments — some truly great moments — many leave me indifferent. At the same time though, I genuinely appreciate his value to film history and American culture. 

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While I don’t necessarily consider his films among Hollywood’s best of the best, their cultural stamp is undeniable. It’s coincidental that I would write on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari right before this (and that the Blu-rays of each were released the same day), because I see some striking similarities between that German masterwork and Capra’s most memorable features. Chief among these is how their respective nations of origin are represented. Capra and Caligari tap into national consciousness in extraordinary ways, reaching audiences of their time with profound cinematic statements (albeit one obviously more metaphorically than the other). To understand Weimar-era Germany, watch Caligari. To understand America in the 1930s and ’40s, watch a Capra film.

Even today you can see why Capra endures. In the AFI tribute, the director himself reveals the secret to his art: “the love of people,” “the freedom of each individual,” the “equal importance of each individual.” This is why Frank Capra is vital to American film history and why his films are always worthwhile. Reflecting on this in 2014, when Americans have such a jaundiced view of their government and society, Capra’s work still touches on important and culturally relevant features: freedom, individual value, equality. It’s also about a love of country — its promises, its possibilities, and its people. And this is something the immigrant Francesco Rosario Capra expressed as well as any other American filmmaker.


‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’

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In the period of Germany’s Weimar Republic, a unique and volatile pre- and post-war era within a window of less than 20 years, the German people were experiencing a torrent of new ideological, social, and political shifts. What was once traditional and normal was giving way to the modern and unusual. What was typically viewed as quintessentially German was now being inundated by outside influences, by strange and foreign people and their imported cultural baggage. Whether or not these elements were as directly and obviously portrayed in movies as some like Siegfreid Kracauer and Lotte Eisner would argue (quite convincingly in many ways), there can be little doubt that film was influenced to one degree or another by this state of the German populous. The times were surely changing, and in no film do we get a better sense of what this meant for cinema than in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

On the surface, the basic narrative is pretty straightforward. A young man named Francis (Friedrich Feher) relays the dreadful circumstances that brought him and his fiancée, Jane (Lil Dagover), to their clearly distraught current condition. It began with the arrival of a fair in their Holstenwall town, and with it, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), who publicly displays his command over his “spectacle,” the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt). Soon thereafter, a series of murders occur. Francis connects the crimes with Caligari and investigates to see just who this doctor really is. Francis discovers that Caligari is actually a twisted man, not even named Caligari, who is the director of a nearby mental institution, and Cesare is his murderous pawn. Francis exposes the malicious tyrant, and though Jane is saved before she too is killed, she is nonetheless psychologically scarred.

But that’s not how The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ends. The conclusion of the film – spoiler alert – brings us back to the present day and reveals that Francis is actually a mental patient, as are Jane and Cesare (at least we assume that’s who they really are), and Dr. Caligari is in fact the benevolent head of the institution who only wants to help. Was the whole story and everything we just witnessed simply the ravings of a madman? Or was there some truth to the tale?

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To view Caligari is to also come to terms with its complex production history and the resulting structure of the film itself, most notably the framing device. In the original version of the film, there was no flashback relaying of Francis’ story. We simply start with him, his friend Alan, Jane, and their subsequent terror at the hands of Caligari. Varying sources have diverging accounts concerning who is to be credited for this new narrative format, the result being undeniably more complex than the initial plan would have been. To suggest that what we’ve just seen was nothing more than the imaginings of a lunatic undercuts the potential and perhaps still latent provocation regarding authoritarian dominance. Had Caligari been a psychotic man holding a position of authority (cut to a few years down the German road and this sounds rather familiar), the implications in this chaotic time may have been calamitous. Were the bookends added to appease those concerned about the film’s possible reading as an affront to individuals in charge? Or was it done to give the picture an ultimately more multifaceted arrangement, no doubt to spark debate, analysis, and box office receipts? If, in any case, the film’s narrative proper was simply the creation of an insane Francis, how then to explain the sequences that are not a part of his knowledge? It could be simply how he imagined things to have happened, like Caligari’s visit to the town clerk for instance, but why would he even be privy to those events having occurred to begin with? As these are just some of the questions that arise upon viewing the picture, it’s easy to see why Caligari remains a controversial film.

This suggestion of madness throughout goes a long way in explaining the appearance of Caligari. If, again, we are in the world of a mentally unstable mind, the bizarre look of the film (in the tradition of expressionism but certainly unique to this extent in the cinema) has some backing rationale. If, however, that framing device were not in place, not only are we in a world that is wrought with lurking evil and cruel abuses of power, but the world itself is a strange and uncanny realm. The dizzying array of pointed lines and sharp light/dark contrasts illustrate the foreboding mind of a genuinely disturbed individual. But while the characters in the film, specifically Dr. Caligari and Cesare, can be deemed “strange” in their behavior, their look, and the menace they bring to Holstenwall, certain parts of the film show that the setting is warped in ways that do not merely relate to their visiting presence. Things looked odd here before these two ever arrived.

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Suffice it to say, the style of Caligari is what strikes one most, and what best suggests a country in upheaval. While the German inhabitants were in a condition of unrest, so too is the film. Characters are in a state of abnormal physical being and locations are distorted. Sidewalks lead to places they shouldn’t, people move in jarring, stilted strides, and even the final revelation of the film causes the entire picture to twist and turn and topple upon itself. Corridors of uncertain destination intertwine with narrow rooftops and irregularly angular passageways, all contributing to an illusory depth, a set that looks to go back further than it really does, to expand in spaces that may not exist. The artificially constructed sets create something of an architectural paradox: a layered, yet flat, depth. It’s the sort of thing that can happen in the worst 3-D movies, where the depth of field isn’t so much a natural progression of foreground into background but is rather like sectional blocks of distance. Here, however, the effect aligns perfectly with the intentionally simulated construction of the film and, perhaps, its story.

One only has to look at the still frames in any film history textbook to see where this peculiarity was most frequently represented in many Weimar-era German films, especially this one: the sets, the lighting, the mise-en-scene. The pervading sense of uneasiness, anxiousness, and the uncanny is taken from the minds of the German people and given a visual outlet in Caligari. The set design was a blending of real locations, that is, places that do and can exist (offices, the home, a fair), with a formal schematic that is exaggerated and disproportionate through canted angles, sharp shafts of light, and irregular character movement rivaled by equally irregular surroundings. This contrast between the standard and the surreal is where much of the film gets its power, and where we see these conflated German feelings expressed most prominently. Places the German people were accustomed to are skewed in such a way that an unnerving horror and imbalance is brought to the forefront. The labyrinthine townscape in Caligari, the incessant and repetitive rotation of scenic elements, and the warped images of domestication, amusement, and bureaucracy create a mood on screen that matched that of the audience.

The intertitle text in Caligari is similarly expressionistic. The wording is scrawled across in a jagged lettering that mirrors the sets of the film. While it wasn’t uncommon for silent film intertitles to somehow connect with the film at hand, either through a certain font or relevant graphic, the use of intertitles resembling the set design of a film is, to my mind anyway, not a typical feature. In any event, it’s good the titles maintain this form, for there are a lot of them, and such a stylistic integration keeps the tonal flow intact.

It is also worth noting the increased modernity that was overtaking Germany at the time, especially in terms of intense urbanization and increasing artificiality. This is shown to great effect in Caligari, chiefly in its lighting style (painted shafts of illumination, for instance, not actual light) and in the fact that the whole film, like most German films of this expressionist movement, was shot indoors on a stage. This is a further distancing from the real, a separation from the natural world “out there” and a striving for insular constructed seclusion.

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So many attributes of Caligari make it the distinctive picture that it is. There is the stunning art direction by Walter Reimann, Walter Röhrig, and Hermann Warm, rendering cinematically the style of expressionism as it was evident in the other arts. Indeed, the film would have been nothing without their contributions. There is also the cast, most notably Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt, major German stars of the era and preeminent figures of this specific movement. Veidt especially does an exceptional job in a comparatively more refined manner. Be it his slinking along the wall with arm outstretched or the extreme close-up of his face twitching just before his quivering eyes open, he displays an engrossing and haunting physical presence. Director Robert Wiene, while never attaining the level of success his fellow countrymen Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau achieved, nonetheless contributed his fair share to the period’s epochal films. Bringing it all together is super producer Erich Pommer, the Decla studio mastermind behind multiple excellent works of the era (IMDb lists 211 producing credits from 1913 to 1955). Last but surely not least are the writers of Caligari, Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz. Wiene may have been the one who incorporated the framing device (Lang claims he did when he was initially approached to direct), but it was Mayer and Janowitz who concocted the macabre tale to begin with, and all of its sociopolitical ramifications. In any event, there were so many creative hands at play in the creation of Caligari that the appropriate attribution of what to whom remains murky territory.

Either way, in the end, it worked. The film was a tremendous success, particularly in Europe. Contributing to this was its brilliant marketing strategy. Gripping posters flashed the film’s slogan of “You must become Caligari,” long before anyone knew what the film was even about. This provocative phrase and the gloriously illustrated designs were enough to entice 1920 audiences.

Today, thanks to the newly released Kino Classics Blu-ray, the film is more enticing that it ever has been for the home viewing audience. The detail of the 4K restoration not only illuminates previously muddled portions of the set and brings new quality of texture to the makeup and facial contortions of the characters, but it opens up the background in a way that existing DVDs never did (one can clearly see the ripples of the curtains that serve as backdrop in certain shots). The bonus documentary, Caligari: How Horror Came to the Cinema, places the film in its historical context, which is absolutely imperative to a full understanding, if not a more thorough enjoyment, of the film. In fact, the 52-minute supplement actually spends more time on external factors and historical background than it does on the film itself. Primarily, it seeks to explore how the German people began “sleepwalking into their own catastrophe,” covering the innovative figures whose political and aesthetic ideas were forging new paths and influencing the populous, while also noting the general conflict between the avant-garde and the civilized establishment.

"Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari" D 1919/20 R.: Robert Wiene Conrad Veidt

As much as it now stands as a cinematic phenomenon and one of the most astonishing visual releases of the silent era, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was, nevertheless, something of an enigma even in its own time. The expressionist works that followed would never again repeat this extreme, yet effective, level of self-consciously stylistic design. There would be scenes or individual shots of such elaborate flourish, but a full film that devotes itself so entirely and obviously to this particular style would not again be commercially viable. Wiene’s own Genuine, in much the same vein, was released later in 1920 and failed. And though Lang and Murnau would revisit certain expressionist traits – in films like Destiny (1921), Metropolis (1927), and the first two Mabuse movies (1922, 1933), in Lang’s case, and Phantom (1922), Nosferatu (1922), and Faust (1926), in Murnau’s – they would move well beyond such an explicit and persistent expressionistic formula.

It is remarkable that during this period of turmoil and strife, these great filmic artists were able to tap into the popular zeitgeist and create works of such telling beauty, their far-reaching influence ultimately spanning the globe (most prominently in the approach to light- and shadow-play seen later in American noir). All the same though, even if German expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari had not had such a meaningful and lasting cinematic power, what stands alone as simply the products of this Weimar era are extremely valuable artistic artifacts and cultural statements. The films of the time are revealing windows into German minds, souls, fears, and anxieties. If landmarks in international cinema history happened to be produced along the way, so much the better.


‘Man of the West’

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Man of the West was director Anthony Mann’s final Western of the 1950s. As such, it stands as something of a cumulative expression of his generic preoccupations and stylistic preferences, preoccupations and preferences that were consistently integrated in a decade’s worth of some of the finest Westerns ever made. What Mann accomplished in this particular genre during a 10-year period is one of the most impressive chapters in American film history, but Man of the West is more than just a summation of the period; it is as good, if not better in many ways, as the extraordinary pictures that came before it.

Taking over the reigns from James Stewart, who had previously starred in five earlier landmark Mann Westerns, is Gary Cooper, another perennial aw shucks leading man. Like with Stewart, Mann upsets this archetypal Cooper screen persona. Man of the West was released six years after the classic High Noon, which featured a very cut and dry Cooper hero, Marshal Will Kane. Man of the West is no High Noon, and Cooper’s Link Jones is no Will Kane.

That being said, Link starts off as a fairly straightforward Cooper character. The first thing he does when we see him arrive in town is get off his horse and help an elderly man with a ladder. But something’s different here. Link is not unambiguously good and trouble-free. He has arrived in town with secrets. He seems meek, backing away from steam as it shoots from train for instance, and at times he appears utterly lost. But we see he has a stash of money and he is calling himself by multiple names. In general, he is uneasy, and so is the film, and so are we. Nothing feels right. Nothing feels secure.

Soon we see partly why. The train Link boards is poised for a robbery. Though generally unsuccessful, the heist nevertheless results in Link being stranded with Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell) — annoying, somewhat shady, but probably innocent enough — and Billie Ellis (Julie London) — a sweet singer with teaching experience. By this point, we have discovered that Link is traveling to hire a teacher for his town. Sam contends that perhaps Link got lucky finding Billie. This might all have worked out for the best.

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As the trio seeks shelter, they come upon Link’s former home. Was he there when he was a boy, Billie asks. “I don’t know what I was,” he cryptically responds. The house, it turns out, is not vacant. Inside reside the notorious outlaw Dock Tobin (a grizzled and craggy Lee J. Cobb) and the band responsible for the botched train robbery: Coaley (Jack Lord), Claude (John Dehner), Trout (Royal Dano), and Ponch (Robert J. Wilke). Not only are these misfits clearly dangerous and depraved, they are Link’s family. And Uncle Dock is glad to see his nephew back home and, he assumes, ready to reclaim his spot in their criminal enterprise.

As in a sort of Western Out of the Past, Link wants nothing to do with his former life. He has a wife and children now, back home in Saw Mill, and despite what he may have once been like, it becomes abundantly clear that this apple has strayed far from the family tree. The life he left (or abandoned, depending on whose point of view it is), was a violent one, but it is over and done with, at least as far as he’s concerned.

During this rather tense family reunion, Dock fondly reminisces about the younger Link and the good old days, while Link and the audience are left to wonder what he just walked into. Upon hearing the tales of his storied past and seeing the way Dock still reveres Link, the psychopathic cousins grow jealous and skepticism abounds. Once they force Billie to strip, however, the level of their sadism becomes appallingly apparent. This type of behavior would be troubling in any film, but in the traditional Western, such barbarity toward a woman is particularly off-putting and it sets up a threat that remains inherent throughout Man of the West’s duration. Things get further complicated when it’s revealed that old wanted posters of Link are back up after the marshal recognized him at the train station. Now he’s in deep, and his decisions grow perilous.

Though Dock himself is clearly dubious about Link’s intentions, he still bears affection for his long lost nephew. Or maybe he just wants to see what his game is. Like so many classic Mann characters, Dock possesses dual motives and, subsequently, dual options: use Link if he can, kill him if he can’t. Likewise, Link is caught between two choices: he must prove himself without loosing himself. He needs to do just enough to stay in the good graces of these thugs, convincing them that he is who he used to be. But since that’s no longer the case, he must also remain true to his reformed identity.

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Still, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched that he could, if pushed, revert back to the ways of his former self. His seeming meekness is betrayed by the remnants of his past and his potential capacity for violence. When angered, Cooper cuts a sharp glance suggesting what lays dormant. And when violence is eventually necessary, Cooper’s mad aggression spiked with a twisted sense of revenge is truly shocking.

Mann incorporates relatively limited camera movement in Man of the West. As a majority of the film takes place in just a handful of stationary locales, the film is constructed almost like a stage play. But this is a Western after all, so wide open spaces inevitably appear. Here, however, when they are seen, it’s as an ironic open space in the background. While Link and the others are restricted in their mobility, essentially held hostage until Link shows your mettle by partaking in the group’s next robbery, the mockingly cruel openness behind them makes their situation all the constrictive. There is similarly little character movement, and Leone-esque close-ups only occasionally break up the Cinemascope frame with its multiple character placements in long shot.

As Link’s rage builds and a sense of menace pervades, one also notices the grey, overcast sky that lends the film a somber, cold tone, something comparatively unusual for a Western. Toward the end of the picture though, the sky opens up as the decisions that need to be made by each of the men become equally clear.

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Nothing goes as planned, and the resulting final shootout is a brilliantly staged sequence. Mann has always been a master visual stylist, far more than he gets credit for, but this concluding gunfight is something special. Mann’s broad visual design and the way the action is arranged and executed is remarkable, especially in terms of character positioning, camera angle, and the choreographed steady escalation of the conflict.

Though Man of the West was Anthony Mann’s last Western of the ’50s, it would not be his last Western. That distinction belongs to the ill-fated remake of Cimarron (1960), from which Mann was removed in the picture’s final stages of production. Sadly, he was also fired from Spartacus, which was released that same year. (Fortunately, in that case, Stanley Kubrick took over, though the film bears little of his influence either.) Crime dramas and noirs predominantly made up the early part of Anthony Mann’s career, and epics and action/adventure films concluded it. But the Westerns he directed solidify his standing as one of the great, underrated figures of American cinema. Many films are evidence of his talent. Man of the West is just one, a very good one.


'F for Fake'

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The most enjoyable thing about F for Fake is that Orson Welles seems to be having such fun with it. It’s rare to see a filmmaker displaying, though his actual presence and through the tools of his trade, such an unadulterated delight in expression. In fiction films, this sort of exuberance has to be limited, or at least contained to the degree of being still in the service of the narrative. Documentary films usually have their agenda or message, so there shouldn’t be too much to distract from these larger aims. Experimental films revel in the technique of filmmaking like Welles does here, but they are commonly done with such strained seriousness that they don’t necessarily feel, for lack of a better word, fun. Perhaps the reason F for Fake defies these general tendencies is that it doesn’t fit into any of these three categories. The film truly is a singular cinematic achievement. It is surely unlike anything Welles ever did, and to the best of my knowledge, save for perhaps something like Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, no one else has really blended the true and the false so seamlessly and amusingly together in a film that is itself equal parts fiction and documentary.

“Up to your old tricks I see,” says the enigmatic Oja Kodar, Welles’ girlfriend at the time, here as The Girl. “Why not,” retorts Welles. “I’m a charlatan?” And so Welles begins F for Fake with a rapid-fire scattershot opening crammed with so much audio/visual information that one is bound to suspect some deception somewhere. After all, this is a film, as Welles notes, “about trickery, fraud, about lies.” It is a film about contradictions, sly, knowing glances, fakers both good and bad, and the uncertainty of reality and truth. The film takes time to examine the “fine outdoor sport of girl watching” while also debating the artistic and monetary value of a work depending on whose signature accompanies it. It calls into question notions of authorship and concludes with an amusing confession from Welles himself. So, what exactly is Orson Welles up to here?

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At its most basic, F for Fake is about Elmyr de Hory, a legendary and quite gifted art forger. It is also about Clifford Irving who, following his writing of a book about de Hory, set about on his own fraud, a fabricated “authorized” biography about Howard Hughes. In the mix is Welles himself, not so much a faker like these two (though cinema is one of the great illusions and his “War of Worlds” hoax, which is recreated here, definitely duped more than a few people), Welles showcases some magic tricks but mostly holds court as our narrator and storyteller, in person and in voice over. And if there was ever anyone who could do a voice over it was Orson Welles. When shown on screen, Welles, who was by this point quite large in physical body and larger than life in personality, bursts with bombast and good humor. F for Fake isn’t really about Orson Welles, but as much as anything that it is actually about, one comes away from the film marveling at how charismatic the man was.

Part of that charisma seems to derive from a genuine, if complex, admiration for these con men. There is a sort of bond that develops between the charlatans, a camaraderie built on professional respect. Are they criminals? Maybe. I guess. Certainly, de Hory has fooled more than a few art critics and museum directors, revealing their own false expertise, and Irving had everyone going with his fraud. But any sort of condemnatory verdict is beside the point. What matters is this: is it a “good fake or a bad fake”?

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While the world of imposters and counterfeiters may be the ostensible subject of this essay film, F for Fake is also a thrilling new form of cinema. Packed into 85 minutes is a condensed meta work that puts on whirlwind display the techniques of filmmaking, specifically the process of assembling and arranging footage. This might be Welles’ finest editing achievement (with due credit also going to Marie-Sophie Dubus and Dominique Engerer). The amalgam of freeze frames, varied film stocks, previously shot footage, and an assortment of insertions are spliced together with great inventiveness and enthusiasm. The result is an engaging and almost giddy tour-de-force of motion picture construction.

Adding insight into the array of stories presented in F for Fake, including details of how the film itself came to be, are impressive bonus features as part of the recently released Criterion Collection Blu-ray. Kodar and director of photography Gary Graver provide a commentary and Peter Bogdanovich, one of the foremost Welles historians, introduces the film; Jonathan Rosenbaum, the second go-to guy for Welles material, pens an essay. There is an episode from the talk show Tomorrow featuring Welles, and there is a documentary, Orson Welles: One-Man Band, about Welles’s unfinished projects. Focusing on the primary individuals of F for Fake are Almost True: The Noble Art of Forgery, a documentary about de Hory, a 60 Minutes interview with Irving, and an audio recording of Hughes’s 1972 press conference in which he denied all involvement and knowledge of Irving’s text. Finally, there is the film’s original nine-minute trailer, itself and odd little creation, which was rejected by the picture’s American distributor.

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F for Fake was one of few Welles films where he was pleased with the end result. Unlike so much of the great filmmaker’s prior work, this picture was not taken away from him and reedited or truncated by others. Like his other movies, however, it didn’t make much money. Still, though it would be his last completed project, F for Fake is yet another testament to Welles’ genius. It is a captivating and thoroughly entertaining film quite unlike anything else out there.


'Eraserhead': David Lynch’s ‘Subconscious Experience’

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David Lynch, via the Criterion Collection’s newly released Blu-ray of Eraserhead (1977), includes a television calibration option as a supplemental feature. With this, Lynch emphasizes that what we are about to see is a visual experience. It is important, therefore, and rightly so, that we adequately prepare to absorb said imagery. The textured black and white cinematography by Frederick Elmes (the film’s second though primary DP) is punctuated by deep, dark shadows provocatively obscuring what is perhaps best left obscured. And Lynch’s brilliant and disturbing compositions of the banal bolstered by the bizarre are what contribute most to the film’s effectiveness.

But just as much as Eraserhead is a visual experience, it, like so many of Lynch’s other films, is an aurally ambitious work as well. This Renaissance man has worked with music and sound a great deal outside of movies, so it makes sense that his films would emit an evocative cacophony of audio detail. Here, these elements range from unidentifiable ambient noise to wind, humming, some electronic sources, and the grading of factory labor.

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A celestial set-up begins the film, with spherical planetary bodies and starlight suggesting that the following drama is not of this world; it could very well be of a wholly other sphere of existence. Even in its most realistic sequences, Eraserhead exists in the realm of an equally foreign time and place. As we move in further, we enter a box of sorts, its dimensions indeterminate. For in these shots, there is no concrete gauge to judge space, size, or scope. There is a man there though, with levers and machinery that seem to be running things. He is scarred with scabs of fleshly disfigurement. There is also a reappearing wormlike organism that splashes down in water. Dust rises and the camera pushes in further, moving into the light.

Now in the apparent real world, we meet Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), who is looking behind the camera. Did he see what we just did, or has something else caught his eye? What is troubling this strange looking fellow with tall frizzy hair stretching to the heavens? Henry is anguished, agitated, and anxious. He is troubled by the faulty electronics that plague nearly every building he enters (a frequent Lynch motif), just as he is hot and bothered by the come-hither seduction of his neighbor (Judith Roberts). After all, he is spoken for. He has a girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), and he is to meet her for dinner. Their relationship is unsound though. We know this by a ripped up picture Henry keeps, Mary’s photo torn at the head.

The dinner with Mary and her parents elicits a good deal of laughter—a coping mechanism perhaps, finding comedy in the uneasy so as not to be simply disturbed. But it is funny (those little chickens, Mary’s eccentric father, played by Allen Joseph). Yet it is also awkward and, on occasion, terrifying (mother and daughter spasms, the disgustingly amplified sounds of puppies nursing). During this hellish dinner, we get key elements of the narrative. It’s revealed that Henry has a job, for instance. He’s a printer at one of the nearby factories (“Henry’s very clever at printing,” Mary proudly declares). As Henry gets the third degree from Mrs. X (Jeanne Bates), we also find out Mary has given birth and the baby is at the hospital—one of the most unsettling lines of the film, from Mary: “They’re not even sure it is a baby!”

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As this outing sets the scene in terms of Eraserhead’s story, it is simultaneously abounding with the fascinating, amusing, and disquieting. These appear as small details, as in the clock with only one hand, and as more elaborate bits of business, as when Mrs. X manhandles the immobile grandmother into tossing the salad before she lights the static old lady a cigarette. Key dialogue comes from Mr. X (Bill, he is also called). He decries the current state of affairs when “people think pipes grow in their home.” While this is a continuation of his occupational complaining, it also alludes to the organic nature of many of Eraserhead’s settings. Henry’s apartment, for example, is adorned with mounds of dirt, and we see grass, soil, and weeds invading interiors throughout the picture. The way this town is constructed, pipes very well may grow in homes.

The industrial wasteland Henry inhabits is a granular melding of earth and man, overlapping unnaturally together, the discarded remnants of each altering this desolate and inhospitable landscape. Generally, this is a place no one should live in. But people do reside here. The area is indeed populated. There are horns and whistles, grinding and pounding; there is work being done somewhere, by someone. There is also distant music, a haunting melody performed by an unseen musician for an unseen audience.

One of Eraserhead’s defining features is its use of setting, and in several of the interviews included with this Criterion disc, Lynch and his collaborators revisit the film’s locations. It is revealing that when returning to discuss the movie, those involved head back to where it was filmed, as if they need to become once again absorbed and influenced by its atmosphere in order to come to terms with their own experience. While apparently much of the film’s urban design was based on Lynch’s fear and dislike of Philadelphia, the Los Angeles sites seen in their real world context never once betray that they could have served as backdrops for this most unusual picture. Eraserhead may be many things, but foremost among them is that it is an excellent example of a cinematically constructed and creatively manipulated place.

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Some time passes, and the new parents are living together in Henry’s apartment. And with them is their child, a supremely intriguing example of low budget ingenuity on the part of David Lynch. This “baby” is one horrendous creature, and its practical construction and functioning is mind-boggling and left to speculation (Lynch has never told how he made the little guy). The baby only exacerbates the rocky relationship. A sick kid, difficulty sleeping, sexual frustration, temptation, infidelity; all of this leads to a fairly straightforward narrative of an unhappy couple becoming unprepared parents. Following the film’s prologue, Eraserhead goes along on a relatively “normal” storyline. A storyline with more than its fair share of strangeness, granted, but a clear plot progression nevertheless.

But then we get a reappearance of the worms, insertions of indistinguishable fluids and objects and, most memorably, and, actually kind of pleasantly, there is the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near). This diminutive women, as her name implies, lives in the radiator of Henry’s apartment. Her chubby plaster-cast cheeks and her song and dance routine may simply be a figment of Henry’s imagination, but her presence is like a “beacon of light,” according to Lynch, and her pleasant demeanor provides brief respites of escape and entertainment for the uncertain father.

The latter third of Eraserhead veers into more ambiguous territory, with some of the film’s most enigmatic actions and grotesque images. During this, we meet several new characters, including a young child, a homeless person, and some workers at what appears to be a pencil factory (where we discover the meaning of the film’s title). This brief disjointed interlude is probably Henry’s dream, and like any of the aforementioned moments of weirdness, one can read into its significance whatever one wishes. But there is, at Eraserhead’s most basic level, a rather typical story told in this atypical fashion. Though filled with surreal illustrations, it would be inaccurate to categorize the picture as a nonnarrative, experimental, or avant-garde work. There is an uneasy and disconcerting pacing, but there is a pacing, and while we’re not quite sure of the causal factors that drive some of the action, there is an essential beginning, middle, and end, with, make no mistake, many digressions and departures in between.

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Still, after rewatching the film, I’m left to wonder if Eraserhead’s arresting visuals amount to as much as they did when I first saw them. The film itself has never left me. It’s one of my favorite movies and was my introduction to David Lynch, a favorite filmmaker. But now, so much of what makes (or made) Eraserhead so mesmerizing and uncanny almost seems clichéd. Are we so jaded and desensitized that even a film like this may fail to get a rise out of some viewers, or is it that the film now seems less the groundbreaking work of original filmic art and more a model of so many pretentiously artsy student films? Or is that what Eraserhead was to begin with?

In any event, one of the most insightful bonus features on the Criterion Blu-ray is a 1979 interview with Lynch and Elmes. Here, Lynch reiterates his description of the film as “a dream of dark and troubling things,” and certainly, dream logic and a dreamlike construction are apt associations to make with Eraserhead and its nightmarish features. To this, however, Elmes issues a cautionary distinction, asserting that the film is “more dream than nightmare.” Dream or nightmare, this assessment of the film’s ominous tone and formal design grants Eraserhead analytical freedom. Whether what happens in the film is real or not, as Lynch puts it, “anything goes” as far as interpretation. He dubs the movie an “open feeling film,” acknowledging that it’s knowingly abstract, that it’s meant to be. It’s not “thrown together,” he clarifies, but it is a “subconscious experience.”

A cop-out rationale, perhaps (you either get it or you don’t), but these qualifications are worth noting because they do ultimately give Eraserhead its power and its lasting appeal. True, the film is abstract, but it’s so masterfully assembled (over the course of nearly five years), so wonderfully realized, and so engagingly orchestrated, that it never feels affected or falsely eccentric. Indeed, Lynch is genuinely earnest in his discussions about Eraserhead’s weirdness. It’s odd, yes, but his explanations and reasonings are personal, sincere, and deeply felt, just as the film is for its admirers.


'Adieu au langage' and 'Film Socialisme': Godard’s Latest, Among His Greatest

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Jean-Luc Godard, and more specifically his 1965 film Pierrot le Fou, literally changed my life, and set me on a path toward intense and everlasting cinephilia. Since the first time I saw that film, it has remained my favorite movie of all time and Godard my favorite director. So when I finally had the chance to see Film socialisme in 2010, his first feature film in six years, I had high hopes that the old master was going to yet again bring something new to the table. Those hopes were assuredly met. I considered the film the best of that year and still believe it is an astonishing movie, rife with so much of what defines Godard in this is fourth(?), fifth(?), in any case, current, phase of his career.

The first words of Film socialisme, at least according to the “Navajo English” subtitles, are “money – public – water.” Literally, this refers to the key elements of the film’s first third, which revolves ostensibly around the quest for, or at least an inquest regarding, some Spanish gold long since missing. There is also the varied depiction of diverse individuals as they go about their leisurely routine aboard a cruise ship (oddly enough, the ill-fated Costa Concordia). And finally, the gold and the people were and are, of course, on the water. Now, this may seem like an obvious choice to include here (of course they’re on water; it’s a boat), but I think the purpose the water serves is crucial. It necessitates the requisite mode of transport (for the wealth and the public) and it is the container that assembles, and forces a sort of commingling of, its constricted temporary residents. The water is also the surface on which one travels to the diverse stops covered by the film, all of which bear political and historical significance.

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This opening third, lasting about 45 minutes, is a barrage of camera angles, color, and sound. The images range from an internet video of cats purring to stock footage of wartime atrocities, from grainy neon footage of people dancing to poetic snapshots of scenic splendor; these are all cultural artifacts according to Godard. This, for better or worse, is representative of who we are and where we exist in the world. Consistently demonstrated in terms of visuals is a naturally occurring florescence juxtaposed with unnatural bursts of hyper real illumination and supplemental color. Equally eclectic are the sounds Godard chooses to focus on, ranging from pop music (Madonna’s “Material Girl” at one point), to the strains of Beethoven, a spontaneous song by Patti Smith, and a young woman mimicking the cat’s meow from the aforementioned cat clip.

The second segment of the film is where Godard, more than he usually does, takes a bit of a breath and gives us a fairly uncomplicated picture of one family. That’s not to say anything about the section is “typical,” but in honing in on the Martin family, their gas station and garage (and llama?), and the political ambitions that seem to put the whole house into a frenzy, Godard is painting a comparably stable domestic picture. The mother first has the desire to run for political office, but by the section’s end, it is the children who have thrown their hat in the ring. Covering the family and their political decisions, as well as the general difficulties of balancing family with work, is a local news crew. In the course of their election profile, the TV crew surveys the domestic strain and the domestic banality that is inherent in almost any family portrait.

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“Our humanities” is the title that signifies the start of Film socialisme’s third and final chapter, a further discordant blend of images and sounds covering wars, violence, death, religion, and cinema. The collage of various civilizations wrought in moments of strife showcase most of the very regions traversed by the cruise ship: Egypt, Naples, Barcelona, Palestine.

As with much of Godard’s work, language is an ongoing and increasingly complex area of concern. In Film socialisme, we see written text appearing in everything from French to English to Hebrew, Arabic, and even in the form of hieroglyphics. Spoken language comes across in, at least as far as I can tell, French, German, English, and possibly some Russian. With language, history emerges, as it usually does, as a key component of Godard’s cinema, particularly World War II. The influence of controversial currency on the macro-global and micro-social scene is frequently alluded to, as are the cultural influences that have informed the multifaceted histories of the ship’s occupants.

Famously obtuse Godardian wordplay is playfully and frustratingly inserted throughout. For example: “They always say that you can only compare what is comparable. In fact, we can only compare what is incomparable, not comparable” and, “As the whole of these parts, where the sum of these parts, at a given moment, denies — as each contains the whole — the parts we are considering; as much as this part denies them, as the sum of the parts, again becoming the whole becomes the whole of the linked parts.” Say what?

Godard also brings in Hollywood history and film as a public entertainment as only he can, noting the Jewish founders of the industry while comparing the act of moviegoing (a group of people facing the same direction) to Muslim prayers toward Mecca. This must be the “dialectical thinking” referenced by one character.

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“NO COMMENT” are the final printed words of Film socialisme, but Godard would most certainly have something more to say.

This brings me to Goodbye to Language, Godard’s latest, a film even more hyped and critically lauded than Film socialisme. In this case, not only did the film again meet my expectations, but it exceeded them. Goodbye to Language is so much more than I thought it would be.

The struggle to communicate remains, and perhaps this is what Godard is saying “adieu” to. “Do something so I have something to say,” demands Josette (Héloise Godet), who at one point also suggests that people need a translator; not necessarily to understand what others are saying, but to translate and explain themselves. This difficulty with language (ironic given Godard’s mastery and perplexing use of it), falls in line with the “metaphor” category, one of two dividing intertitles that appear throughout the film. Metaphor as in words that take on other meanings, words that rely on other words to work, words that represent other words. All words that, in the end, fail.

If Godard is condemning this verbal complexity, or at least seeking a departure from it, to do so he takes us to the second category heading: “nature.” Here, by comparison, is simplicity. Nature is less complicated; it needs no words. Roxy the dog (apparently the screen name of Godard’s pet dog, Mieville, which is the last name of his long-time collaborator and partner Anne-Marie Miéville), is said not to be naked because a dog is naked. In other words, the defining characteristic we’ve created as “naked” does not apply in the world of nature and animals, where such a word is irrelevant. This, like all language, is something artificially constructed and misconstrued by people, to our benefit and detriment. A side note on Roxy/Mieville: he was the winner of the Palm Dog – Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. So there’s that.

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This preference for the naturally simplistic and escape from the intellectually conceived also arises when Josette’s boyfriend Gédéon (Kamel Abdeli) posits that infinity and zero are the two of man’s greatest discoveries (or, depending on the translation, “inventions,” which make the whole exchange even more profound). These are abstract concepts that have a basis in reality but are more widely regarded as ideas theoretically applied. By contrast, Josette contends the greatest discoveries are sex and death: primordial, natural, necessary, and biologically fundamental. Yet, were they discovered (as in mankind gradually or suddenly realizing the scientific truths of sex and death) or were they invented (as in mankind knew these facts of life existed but had to assign the words to them)? What then was discovered or invented? The acts of death and sex or the terms coined to signify them? This evolution of language and its uses and conflicts is ever-present in much of Godard’s work, but as Goodbye to Language’s title suggests, it’s a primary concern here.

By this same token, and they are sequences that certainly stand out and even garner a chuckle from Godard’s staple high-brow audience, look at the scenes of Gédéon in the bathroom. Or rather, listen. Yes, it’s crude and disgusting, but it’s perfectly natural, perfectly ordinary, perfectly unmediated by manmade divisions or linguistic barriers. There may be a multitude of words for it, but to quote Tarō Gomi’s strangely popular text, “everyone poops.” Such an act therefore becomes a sort of common denominator beyond any constraints of language. Gédéon and Josette recurrently bicker about equality. Well, this is it.

All of the above regarding Goodbye to Language is undeniably up for debate. As per his tendency, Godard compiles a dense layer upon layer of narrative strands, character significance, and thematic concerns, very few of which are explicitly stated and depicted in any conventional sense. Subsequently, there is going to be considerable confusion about the plot, such as it is to begin with. But to me, this is secondary, and has been in many of Godard’s films, especially his more essayistic features (or as in the first and last portions of Film socialisme). More than any sort of storyteller, Godard is recently a visual artist first and foremost, with cinematic philosopher coming in second.

Save for that philosopher bit, this is similar to how I feel about Michael Bay. Yes, I’m comparing Jean-Luc Godard to Michael Bay, but hear me out. There is no denying that as a storyteller Bay lacks, shall we say, subtly and originality. Fine. Now to be sure, that part isn’t the same as Godard, but where they do both excel in similar ways is in their sheer devotion to imagining new images, to creating breathtaking or innovative pictures, reveling in the motion and aesthetic forms that are principal elements of motion pictures. This is, in a way, getting back to the earliest of films, those turn of the century movies that just wanted to present something that people hadn’t seen before: the “Cinema of Attractions,” as Tom Gunning dubs it.

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Bay’s attractions might be explosions and CGI robots, but in many cases, they look spectacular, as do his camera maneuvers, camera placement, and his use of light and color. It’s all about the visually spectacular. The same goes for Godard, though with obviously different intentions, techniques, and effects. With Goodbye to Language, Godard creates some of his most captivating images yet: the bursts of blown out digital color (the shot of the children walking through a field peppered with flowers); the blood (or color red, as he might contend) against the white tub; a hand reaching down through water littered with leaves; trees, lots of trees; and fascinating angles that obscure part of a shot’s primary focus, provocatively leaving one to wonder if that point of focus was really the focus after all — where else, perhaps, should we be looking?

Such a visual tactic of foiling the viewer’s expectations is tantamount to Goodbye to Language, particularly in regards to Godard’s use of 3D, which is, as it has been noted by critics the world over, quite unlike anything done before. To start with some of the more understated examples, keeping in mind the inherent shift in depth when working in 3D, and simultaneously disregarding the need to properly adjust that depth of field, Godard frequently composes a 3D image where a small, not immediately perceptible point of the screen is in focus. Through the blurred rest of the image, we search for this focal point, which, once found, produces a notable effect of fuller visual context where, as alluded to above, we must alter our conception of where Godard is directing our vision.

When the camera is moving, such as a low angle track toward the end of the film, the impact is even more noticeable. This specific shot glides by table and chair legs as most of the image is a scattershot blur of lines close to the camera. Where should we be looking? It’s certainly not the foreground. It’s only once we’ve passed the table that we realize just how far in the background the focus is, but once that is established, the wider image comes into view.

Even more profound is the separation of a 3D image into two distinct 2D images via a single camera pan. This particular decision on Godard’s part, which I believe happens twice, has been commented upon by other critics, but for me, and admitting some slight hyperbole, this technique in it contemporary context is as groundbreaking as Godard’s jump cuts were in 1960. This represents not only a drastic alteration of preconceived notions concerning what 3D should or should not do (and many would contend this is something that definitely should not be done), but it is a further evolution in Godard’s continued exploration of multiple images and cinematic screens.


As far as I can remember, a normal split screen is relatively rare in Godard’s work, but starting around the mid-1970s, with Numéro deux most notably, Godard began to incorporate multiple images via superimposition and the compilation of multiple screens in one image. In this 1975 film, for example, on screen at certain moments is Godard himself surrounded by up to three television monitors, each playing a different image, in effect creating a fusion of three or more screens within the standard viewing screen itself. With this 3D dual screen technique, Godard is again presenting distinct screens simultaneously, but now, not only are they both shown at the same time, but with the blink of an eye, the audience has the power to single out and alternate their chosen focus. It’s a remarkable experiment in cinematic technique and spectator interaction.

Detractors of Goodbye to Language (and no doubt there are many reasons why people would not like the film) are quick to point out the “amateurish” quality of Godard’s technique, or they will argue that they could have shot simple scenes of their dog and it wouldn’t be considered art like this film is. I understand this argument, but I fail to see what that actually takes away from Goodbye to Language. Sure, it is occasionally rough around the edges, and in his attempt to illustrate the inherent flaws of 3D, Godard creates some difficult viewing that genuinely does at times hurt the eyes, but I would contend that he turns even this into a positive aesthetic experience. Forget if it looks proper (which, who cares) or seamless (which, it doesn’t), Godard is exploring the bounds of 3D imagery, calling attention to the format in the process, as much deconstructing the format as he is the linguistic concepts noted earlier. With 3D, a format he considers to have no set rules as of yet, the parameters of possibility are even more spacious.

This is not unlike his frequent implementation of direct to camera character dialogue, his now famous editing disruptions, his switching to the negative in A Married Woman, or when he had cinematographer Raoul Coutard point the camera right at the audience in Contempt. It’s all a matter or exploiting and exposing the various artistic tools of filmmaking and the employed cinematic apparatuses: cameras, lights, tracks, even actors. This is paralleled by the shots of others taking pictures in Film socialisme, where a recording device is, in effect, recording devices in use; a self-reflexive portrait of art in and of itself. Godard’s emphasis is on the process of one capturing images and thus capturing reality or a memory. It’s a way of singling out methods for recording, manipulating, arranging, and disseminating images.

As consistent as the images are in Film socialisme, at least as far as their visual prominence and appeal, there is still a degree of technical variability. The digital devices used to capture and render certain shots are implemented with a varying degree of quality, some with a resolution as sharp as a tack, some as pixelated and as muddled as a bootleg copy of a poor VHS copy, but that’s how those instruments work. The sound of the wind outside and the beats of the dance music send reverberations crackling through the soundtrack, while on the visual field, focus is often murky to the point of being nonexistent. Godard was never one to adamantly insist on absolute technical perfection (dialogue misspoken or repeated, mismatched cutting, etc.), and here, these are technical faults that add to the sense of unstructured recording and to the idea that any of the contributing devices are imperfect modes of recording and transmission, just as language may be an imperfect mode of expression.

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Why then would anyone be surprised by the fact that for a moment you see the crane’s shadow during one particular shot in Goodbye to Language? Godard has never tried to hide the fact that his movies were movies. 3D, he has argued, is something of a lie to start with, insofar as it is a flat screen that would have audiences believe it is not. The way Godard incorporates the format here, he is at once calling 3D’s bluff while also recognizing that in that false sense of perspective, one can still approach the illusory depth in an interesting way. It may not really be three dimensions, but what can be done with that illusion, to emphasize, criticize, and distort it?

Couched in the credits with the list of actors, the texts quoted, and the composers whose diverse music audibly accentuates Goodbye to Language’s imagery, is a list of equipment used. This isn’t uncommon with Godard, but it does, I think, stress the value of the technology. To Godard, the camera equipment used is just as integral as the performers or the dialogue. This film, arguably more than any of his others, is in large part actually about this technology. It would, of course, be watchable in 2D, but many of its artistic arguments would be lost. As fellow Sound on Sighter Kyle Turner noted in his review of the film, unlike Gravity and others, Goodbye to Language truly redefines 3D in film, and in so doing, I would say its makes 3D viewing a more than a necessity (not something that can be said for previous movies in the format); indeed, the film would be unthinkable and ineffective without it.

If the story (if it can even be called that) of Goodbye to Language seems muddled, this should be par for the course when it comes to recent Godard. In an interview around the time of the film’s screening at Cannes, Godard noted the unnecessity of a screenplay, even pointing out that it would only be needed after shooting, perhaps after editing. With this in mind, to approach Goodbye to Language as a normal narrative work is futile and bound to frustrate. If there is a plot here, a moral, a message, Godard suggests it is a “message in everyday life,” or the “absence of message.”

Finally, to return to the supposed “goodbye” or “farewell” that the French title of the film translates to, Godard has put forth the idea, in a characteristically linguistic turn of phrase, that in Vaud, Switzerland, where he resides, “adieu,” depending on the time of day and tone of voice, can also be a greeting. Godard is as ambiguous as ever when it comes to expounding on this potentially dual meaning of the film’s title, but with this in mind, perhaps the film is not a fond farewell to language after all. Perhaps it is a welcome, a recognition, or an arrival at a new approach toward communication, with whatever form or format possible. With Goodbye to Language, Godard has said he was seeking “to escape from ideas,” though I’m not sure how well he succeeded there. Yet at the same time, he sought to explore a certain kind of language that cinema still allows: “A mixture of words and images.” To that aim, I would say mission accomplished.


‘La Dolce Vita’

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Right from the start of Federico Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita, we know we’re in for something different, something exciting, something audacious. Fellini’s choice of initial imagery announces immediately that this is a film about the contradictions of modern life. First, we get a helicopter carrying a large statue of Christ over Rome. It’s a powerful image with extensive connotations. This holy figure stands as the traditional and the sacred, and is slightly vulgarized in its absurdity here. But it moves on, and what follows further illustrates that things have changed: out with Christ, in with Marcello (Rubini in the film, Mastroianni in real life). He and his “photo reporters,” now known because of this film as paparazzi, take time away from their coverage of the transport to flirt with some bikini-clad sunbathers on a rooftop. We also see dilapidated ancient ruins transitioning into high-rise apartment buildings under construction. This is late 1950s Rome and this is the world of La Dolce Vita, a world—and subsequently a film—of contests and contrasts: old vs. new, traditional vs. modern, moral vs. immoral, authentic vs. fabricated.

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La Dolce Vita’s episodic structure, a narrative preference Fellini would continue to employ (to a sometimes extraordinary degree), allows for the film to include a variety of scenarios and characters. Locations, from bustling sidewalks and cafes to exotic cavern-like clubs, give the film a strong sense of physical and temporal setting, ironically so in some cases since many sequences were shot in the famed studios at Cinecittà.

“As much an observer as he is a protagonist,” according to David Forgacs, Marcello is essentially our guide through this three hour odyssey. He is an extension of the audience (we’re frequently adopting his point of view to hammer the point home) and at the same time, he represents a certain personality type from the period. Indeed, as Forgacs also notes in an interview included as part of the Criterion Collection Blu-ray of the film, La Dolce Vita is inseparable from its historical context of production.

Marcello and his similarly wealthy, disengaged, detached, and distraught friends are fed up and burnt out. Despite (or possibly because of) their money, cars, houses, and clothes, they remain unhappy. Something is lacking, something deeper in their soul. Theirs is an existential void. They make love and money, yet both are simultaneously worthwhile and worthless. It’s now perhaps a cliché the way they fill their lives with so much but remain so personally empty. Their jobs (if they even have one) are empty, their relationships (if they can even maintain one) are empty. This might be the sweet life on the outside, but inside it is despair.

This is no cautionary tale though. Fellini may express a commentary on the contemporary state of things, but there is no judgment or moralizing. “Everyone has a right to their image,” says an unhappy target of Marcello’s photogs. Perhaps so, but what of when that image has been socially constructed, built on a lie, built to conform to popular societal expectations? To whom does it belong then? Getting a picture of a prince at a nightclub and finding out what he had to eat; is this what a journalist does? That’s what Marcello considers himself. Others have different names for what he is.

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In any case, Marcello embodies related traits of immaturity, irresponsibility, and selfishness, yet he can be exceptionally sympathetic. Through the course of La Dolce Vita, he emerges a strikingly tragic figure, a sad, lonely, and clearly confused man. He is, of course, not the only one. Obviously, his friend Steiner, who seemingly has it all together, is also adrift in this world where “a phone call can announce the end of the world.” Emotionally and spiritually vacant, they are searching; searching for commitment, innocence, an awakening. Far more disastrous than what Marcello endures, Steiner’s conclusion is the saddest part of the whole film. When Steiner shoots his two children before committing suicide, all hope is lost for Marcello, who had found a refuge in Steiner’s superficially content home life and is suddenly stunned to find that that happiness was just as fleeting and deceptive as his own. The semblance of normalcy he attributed to Steiner is shattered. “I don’t know anything, anything at all,” he tells a questioning detective. Perhaps the grass is not always greener.

Marcello isn’t always in a state of despair and confusion. He has his moments of actual passion. The time he spends with his father is sweet and pleasing. His dad is a fresh burst of contagious authenticity, in contrast to most others in the film. We see where Marcello gets his charm, and we see just how far from such a genuine simplicity Marcello has strayed. Even this, however, is a complex and illusory joy. While his father has a good time reliving his youth, old age creeps in and catches up. Where there was some optimism, there becomes another weary disappointment.

The extent to which Marcello wallows in decadence and depravity is emphasized in the final act of the film, as we finally witness his attaining of an unpleasantly over-the-top frame of mind. It’s obvious that Marcello is not well, that he has reached the end of his rope, and when he takes the “chubby, mountain farm girl,” obscenely rides on her back, pulls her hair, slaps her, throws water in her face, and then douses her with feathers from a pillow, it’s a tough scene to watch. Always prone to live on a whim, seeking adventure or at least a temporary gratification, Marcello must purge himself following the shock of Steiner’s violence. So he gives up and gives in.

As far as the multitude of other characters in the film, is there more of a force than Anita Ekberg’s Sylvia? Though really only briefly in the picture, she sets the fictional world of the film on fire. From the repeating of her descent down the airplane stairs, pandering to the photographers, to answering inane yet occasionally stimulating questions (“Is Italian Neorealism dead or alive?” a reporter asks. She, and Fellini, wisely don’t answer), to her dancing in the club, and to, finally and most famously, her jaunt through the fountain—the most iconic image in an iconic film full of iconic images—Sylvia temporarily takes La Dolce Vita to a whole other level. She is everything to Marcello; she is “home.” She is overflowing (in a variety of ways), and the jaded Marcello succumbs quickly to her allure, becoming a bumbling, stumbling awestruck child in her presence. Her lack of inhibition is a shock to his system.

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There are so many great moments throughout La Dolce Vita. The craziness of when the two children say they’ve spotted the Virgin Mary at a tree is an exemplary Felliniesque exhibition. It’s the sort of ridiculous display that now we’ve become almost accustomed to, but here, Fellini is clearly remarking on the madness of an excitable mass of people; they first revere this so-called “miracle tree,” then they tear it apart. Only one wise person sees beyond the insanity and states, “He who looks for God finds him where he wants.” Stemming from his passion for the circus, Fellini frequently includes these moments of apparent disorganization and commotion and takes total control. It’s a precarious path from hubbub, to a frenzied spectacle, to pure chaos, but Fellini is a masterful leader. Though seemingly organic in the way these hectic sequences develop, they nevertheless have a continual sense of gimmickry. Everything, no matter its intent or initial gestation, ultimately becomes a facade. Nothing ever just is.

Finally, there’s the conclusion of the picture, a brilliantly ambiguous finale. What is the significance of the sea creature? What is the young girl saying? Why can’t Marcello understand? These questions ensure that the film doesn’t really end with this last scene. Like so many great works of filmic art, La Dolce Vita continues to live on as a direct result of its depth and its never-ending interpretations. At nearly every turn, there seems to be some symbolism, a meaning to be constructed, a significance in structure, style, and image to be discerned.

The cache of supplemental materials on this Criterion disc all shed unique light on this controversial film. The visual essay by filmmaker :: kogonada examines Fellini’s use of point of view, comparing and contrasting certain shots (especially the enigmatic final one of the young girl) to those in The 400 Blows, Summer with Monika, and Breathless. Lina Wertmüller, who was an assistant director on the film, recalls her time with Fellini and sort of counters :: kogonada’s visual analysis by noting that, “Everyone thinks what they want.” Even the interview with Fellini himself ironically illuminates the film while also downplaying its varied implications. Probing interviews with Fellini are always interesting because you do truly want to hear what he has to say, to see if he explains anything or gives some personal insight into such and such a scene’s significance. This he sometimes does, but then he states, as he does here, “Never trust what I say in interviews.”

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Fellini’s key collaborators were firmly in place by this point, and they do some of their best work with this film. The great Italian cinematographer Otello Martelli works as equally well with the artificial backdrops and garishly decorated interiors as he does outdoors in the sun (the cafe with shafts of light coming through the thatched ceiling and walls has always been a favorite example). Nino Rota’s upbeat and glorious score is, as with all of his compositions for Fellini, synonymous with the tone of the film, its characters, and Fellini’s own visual orchestration. And Piero Gherardi’s superb production design perfectly renders a highly stylized time and place while his costumes beautifully adorn individuals concerned themselves about being highly stylized in this time and place. Gherardi won an Oscar for the former and was nominated for the latter. La Dolce Vita earned Fellini his fifth writing Oscar nomination and his first for direction. Most famously though, and arguably most important given its stature on the world stage and its signifying of a global shift in modern cinema, La Dolce Vita was also awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

In many ways, this would be Fellini’s last grounding in reality. With La Dolce Vita, it is as if he used up his last semblance of a semi-normal, subtle, even realistic existence. Real life was itself becoming Felliniesque, with spontaneous chaos and eccentric individuals, so the maestro would have to expand his creative boundaries—and did he ever!

There is, in the end, no denying La Dolce Vita’s impact. It wasn’t just a film. As Antonello Sarno contends, it was (and still is) a “phenomenon in culture, fashion, and society.”