Top 15 Films of 2014


1. Goodbye to Language

“The idea is simple.” So begins the official summary of Jean-Luc Godard’s 43rd feature film, his first in 3-D. And indeed, Goodbye to Language, the 84-year-old’s award-winning audio/visual extravaganza, does have a rather simplistic premise. A man and woman meet, fall in love, discuss life, and quarrel. There’s a dog in there too, watching things and walking around. That’s about it in terms of narrative (and even this much is never quite straightforward or easily discernable). But why Goodbye to Language is one of the year’s best films has little to do with its “story.” Like so much of Godard’s work, the film is more than its ostensible plot; the idea may be simple, the ideas are not. There are arguments made and questions posed—about relationships, politics, technology, communication, society, and concepts of cinema itself—and Godard’s provocative take on conventional film form thrives in this thematic mosaic. Added to the mixture of topical concerns is an incomparable visual strategy that coalesces Godard’s penchant for natural beauty, abstract imagery, and color and light experimentation with, new this time, and most notably, three-dimensional composition. Godard’s self-consciously inventive use of 3-D as an aesthetic and theoretical tool goes beyond any previously instituted use of the format. Many 3-D films benefit from the technology; this is the first time where 3-D is imperative to a film’s objective and total impact.

In 1967, Godard concluded Week End with titles declaring “End of Cinema,” but that was just the beginning of one of his most audacious periods of filmmaking. If this, then, is how he says “goodbye to language,” one can only imagine what he will greet next.

2. Noah
3. Under the Skin
4. The Rover
5. Two Days, One Night
6. Ida
7. Nightcrawler
8. Mr. Turner
9. Enemy
10. Borgman
11. We Are The Best!
12. Only Lovers Left Alive
13. Birdman
14. Fury
15. Winter Sleep

For more on the top films of the year, visit Sound on Sight

Bridging the Divides: The Fine Lines of Crime "Across 110th Street"

Across 1

The holdup that begins the 1972 film Across 110th Street pits a trio of low-level amateurs against an established, well organized and, up to this point, efficient group of professional criminals. The end game is a case full of money, but what is ultimately achieved, more than monetary gain, is a scandalous affront to recognized power and unlawful street-level respectability. The bloody heist has two of the three hoods dressed as cops, and white gangsters collaborating with black gangsters (before they are unceremoniously mowed down by machine gun fire). And in this, the catalyst opening sequence serves to get the narrative moving and illustrates the blurred lines—cultural, political, racial, occupational—that will be repeatedly manipulated and confronted as the film progresses.

Across 2

Anthony Quinn (who was also an executive producer, thus giving the modest production some star power, credibility, and a wider, white audience) costars as Capt. Mattelli, an old school cop who has earned street reverence and recognition as well as a blatantly racist reputation. Though apparently competent, his corrupt nature is also clear, from the way a witness instantly flinches when Quinn raises his hand to his own stated acceptance of criminal payoffs. Much to his chagrin, his partner, who is actually in charge of the case, is the African American Lt. Pope (Yaphet Kotto), a far more straight and narrow officer who nonetheless plays second fiddle in most sequences. Concurrently, there is Nick D’Salvio (Anthony Franciosa), a top Italian gangster, and Doc Johnson (Richard Ward), the head of the black mob prominent in Harlem. Their unsteady alliance is further threatened by the opening robbery, with each of their sides suffering losses (personnel and financial). The third narrative strand follows the lives of the three men behind the theft: Jim Harris (Paul Benjamin), Joe Logart (Ed Bernard), and Henry J. Jackson (Antonio Fargas).

These independent hoods are more complicated and roundly fleshed out than their peripheral placement would suggest. They are clearly in over their heads, and Henry J. is tragically and fatally careless in his post-robbery behavior (there’s always one), but there is a real humanity behind these three, a sympathetically pathetic quality. As Jean Renior famously noted, “everyone has his reasons” and screenwriter Luther Davis (working from a novel by Wally Ferris) does a fine job establishing the reasons behind the men: their hopes, dreams, and damaging foibles. Joe’s background is exceptionally developed and effectively potent. We bare witness to his dire straits and realize why he felt compelled to resort to this type of endeavor in the first place. He is a decent man driven to unfortunate action by racial and economic barriers. A scene in which Mattelli and Pope visit Henry J.’s estranged wife to inform her of his passing is quite touching as well. He was hit by a car, Pope tells her, wanting to spare her the harsh truth of her husband’s seedy demise: he was killed by gangsters while surrounded by drunks and whores.

Across 3

The above and below 110th Street line is one of sharp racial divide, so in its very title, the film alerts to the breaching of such a partition. The power shifts between the police, the Italians, and the African Americans has as much to do with their literal strength, numbers, and spread as it does with the recognized influence of their respective ethnicities. In other words, they are only as powerful as their genetic makeup allows, which then, in turn, frequently dictates their placement in any given specific setting. By that same token, the tensions that mount often derive from their occupational endeavors as well as their social standing. And then, of course, race changes the game even more. That a black cop was killed during the opening raid is startling to many of the African Americans (killed by one of his own!); that white and black gangsters were also gunned down (while working together!) likewise stands out. Some even question why whites would even be in this part of Manhattan, that is, if not for some professional purpose: “What else brings whites to Harlem but business?” asks Pope.

Among its finer points, the way Across 110th Street deals with the racial realities of this locale, in a comparatively more adult and pragmatic fashion than its generic counterparts, is commendable and rather unexpected. The coincidence of the seemingly random robbery brings together cops and crooks all going after the same crew as well as each other, and, consequently, there is a fairly intricate exploration of a precarious and capricious quest for vengeance and punishment. Across 110th Street also raises some significant issues regarding the political and economic implications of this racial integration and the disputes between rival gangs and criminal control over various factions of the city. The racially divided power struggle within the police (embodied by Mattelli and Pope) mirrors the racial criminal divide of the gangsters, with parallel consequences of ulterior motives and secretive methods.

Across 4

If one places Across 110th Street into the Blaxploitation category (a reasonable fit, if not a perfect one), the racial undertones are not surprising. However, what is usually self-evident yet in many ways taken for granted in films like Shaft (1971), The Mack (1973), and Super Fly (1972), is a point of crucial concern with this film. Indeed, the racial anxiety here is at the crux of the narrative; it is not simply raised in a passing reference to injustice (though make no mistake, there are moments of fleeting commentary, neighbors reluctant to cooperate with the police, refusing to “say anything to the man,” for example). Nor is the race related tumult the result of an African American action star adopting previously white genre types, something as obvious to the viewer as to the other characters in the film, both white and black. Those in Across 110th Street appear to be more realistically grounded and motivated than that.

That said, there is still a degree of stereotypical characterization in the film, from the brutal and corrupt police to the ethnic portrayals and their clichéd mannerisms (Henry J., in particular, is a ridiculously degrading archetype). It’s a common and unfortunate aspect of genre pictures like this: blanket molds standing in for well-defined characters. However, in the case of Across 110th Street we do often get personality behind the formulaic projection, as noted above, and what is more, where there are these conventional attributes they actually serve a meaningful purpose. Insofar as the film concerns the varying dividing lines of the city and its diverse enterprises and individuals, the character types act as icons of their respective ethnic associations. Their emblematic illustration opens the film’s narrative to a level of a sweeping symbolic examination. As localized as the film is, its themes, concerns, and characters are wide-ranging and applicable elsewhere.

Across 5

The Internet Movie Database states that the Western film Doc watches at one point is Duel at Diablo (1966), “a western by Ralph Nelson, which also deals with an ethnic conflict (White soldiers against American Indians).” Granting this similarity, it would seem that the placement of a Western is otherwise in a somewhat ironic contrast. Generally, most conventional Westerns tend to revel in a clear good/bad dichotomy, so with that in mind, the stance of Across 110th Street is dissimilar to that of the standard cowboy vs. Indian trope. This film functions on the basis of dynamic and fluctuating notions of “good guys” and “bad guys.” After all, it is just prior to this that we find out Mattelli has been receiving kick-backs from Doc (“Dirty money, clean Money. It’s all the same,” says the gangster). Other than Pope, who seems to have no apparent shortcomings, the rest of the primary characters all reveal more ambiguous and wavering moral stances, or at least they run a precarious balance between audience appeal and disdain.

Barry Shear, best known in the movies for Wild in the Streets (1968) and for taking over The Deadly Trackers from Samuel Fuller in 1973, directed Across 110th Street. More prominently though, and more fitting in terms of Across 110th Street similarities, was his prolific career in television, especially crime dramas: one episode of Hawaii Five-O, two episodes of Mod Squad, six episodes of Ironside, the pilot episode of Starsky and Hutch, and one episode of The Streets of San Francisco, among others. Simply put, Shear knew his way around this type of material, and it shows.

Across 6

The tangible 1970s grain of the cinematography (by Jack Priestley) and the diffused interior lighting mesh with Bobby Womack’s excellent music, most notably the title track (a better version of which opens Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), to create a film unquestionably representative of its time of production. Across 110th Street and similar 70s crime films have always had something of an ethnographic and anthropologic appeal, in that their use of actual locations, street-wise jargon, and contemporary fashion and music are oftentimes vivid snapshots of a very specific people, location, and era. These consistently pronounced features of films during this period—particularly crime films, particularly crime films set in New York City—expose a certain sense of unadulterated popular reality, the grit and grime of a culture and setting wholly distinct and totally foreign to others.

There are a number of ways to look at Across 110th Street. Rough and raw and on occasion shockingly violent, it’s an exceptional police procedural. In tone, dialogue, and in many of its characterizations, it’s an exemplary entry into the Blaxploitation cycle. And in its realistic examination of the complexities of racial identification and significance, it’s a reasonably sophisticated drama. It is violent, sometimes graphically so, but never in an exploitative fashion. And though its final shot is heavy-handed (no pun intended), the depiction of this slice of street life is clever, entertaining, and perceptive.


‘Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky’

Riki (2)

Adapted from a Japanese manga released in the late 1980s, which was then turned into an anime series, Ngai Choi Lam’s 1991 film, Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, is gory, goofy greatness. Called the “best comic book adaptation ever created” by Hobo with a Shotgun director Jason Eisener, who provides a brief but zealous introduction to the film on the newly released Blu-ray, this absurdly enjoyable martial arts picture is the definition of over the top.

In the year 2001, Riki-Oh Saiga (Fan Siu Wong) arrives in prison to serve 10 years for manslaughter and assault. Aside from the conviction itself, we know little about Riki, about who he killed and why. He has five bullets lodged in his chest (“souvenirs” he calls them), and in general, he seems to be a seriously durable individual. It’s only through gradual flashbacks that we see his crimes were committed out of vengeance for his girlfriend’s death.

Riki (5)

In prison, Riki is confronted by one jailhouse faction after another, ranging from the notorious Gang of Four to Silly Lung, an extremely obese man who is in solitary because he was so hungry he ate a horse (given his size, one assumes he finished the meal). There is also the gluttonous and brutal assistant warden (Fan Mei Sheng) who, aside from having quite the extensive porno collection, has two hooks in place of his left hand and sports a false eye, which he is frequently removing, and which, of course, contains mints. There’s considerable infighting within the prison walls, and inevitably, the stoically independent Riki finds himself at the center of it all. It doesn’t help that he also discovers a prospering opium industry at the facility, with the product overseen by Warden Sugiyama (Ho Ka Kui), an odd cross between a Blaxploitation pimp and a Blaxploitation gangster, but Asian. Riki promptly sets fire to the plants, for in a roundabout way, his sister died because of the heroin use of others.

Riki (3)

Throughout Riki-Oh, the violence is wild and relentless. It’s comically grotesque (like the performances) and at times shockingly graphic. If nothing else, you have to at least commend Cheng Fung Yin and Cheung Chi Wai for their extraordinary special effect and makeup work. The dialogue is atrocious, ridiculous, and peculiarly incongruent with the film’s country of origin, setting, and time period. One inmate declares another is “hanging himself to death.” “Riki, you’re tops!” proclaims a convict. “Creep, you’re really vexing me,” says another. Then there’s the exchange between a young Ricky and his uncle/mentor, when the elder notes, “Your real name is Rick. But you were as strong as a bull at 7 or 8, so I called you Ricky.” Sure, that makes sense.

Riki (1)

Whatever you call him, Riki is an abnormally superhuman hero. Tough as nails (which he could probably hammer in with his index finger), his punches can hurt even without touching. He can pop the eyes out of someone’s head with just one hit, he can tie up his own severed tendons, and he’s adept at playing the flute, even, apparently, on a leaf. Yet he also has a sentimental side and a robust sense of justice. He is skilled and disciplined, and his defiant presence rallies the other inmates (we forget that they, too, are probably all hardened criminals, but I guess compared to the really bad guys, they can’t be so bad). He’s an inspiration to them all and they, in turn, give him their full support. All of this echoes the repeated refrain of the film—I guess you could call it a theme—that of “family law,” of following a criminal code and avenging the wrongs committed against another. In any event, the whole thing concludes in a final duel that I defy any first time viewer to say they saw coming.

Riki (4)

While Riki-Oh does have a story, in all of its cliché-ridden glory, its primary claim to fame, and really the sole reason to watch the film, is its abundance of action and extreme gore, all presented graphically and, in most cases, hilariously. The violent check-list includes mangled fingers, fists through stomachs, attempted intestine strangulation, the skinning of faces, heads bursting like watermelons, the gamut of disembowelment and disfigurement, and the strategic use of a meat grinder (you can imagine how that goes). From a technical standpoint, the carnage is remarkably well done, with only a few instances of clearly shoddy design. But make no mistake, while comedy may undercut some of this gruesomeness, the film is not for the squeamish. Nor is it for the habitually serious. It’s a ludicrous bloodbath of bombastic action and cheesy humor, with only slight and essentially irrelevant narrative exposition. Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky is what it is, and it makes no attempt to be anything but. And that’s why it’s such fun.



Of the films I’ve written about in this column, I would whole-heartedly recommend each without reservation, to not only watch, but to spend good money on. With 1968′s Skidoo, out now on a new Olive Films Blu-ray, I’m breaking that tradition. I wouldn’t suggest anyone purchase this film, though everyone should see it. This is a most unusual, absolutely indefinable, wholly unique motion picture.


I initially viewed Skidoo on the sole basis of its starring Alexandra Hay, who I’ve been smitten with since first seeing her in Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, released the following year. On this point, Skidoo succeeds. Hay is a delightful beauty, charming in a way that is very much of the era. Admittedly unfamiliar with her biography, I can’t imagine why she didn’t have more of a career. Though she worked until 1978, perhaps she was, in fact, too synonymous with the late ’60s to transcend later generations? In any case, she is perfect here, even if Skidoo doesn’t have nearly enough of her.

Not that there’s much room. Skidoo crams in a good deal, starting with the cast, an eclectic and impressive roster of famous personalities in starring, supporting, or cameo roles: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Groucho Marx, Arnold Stang, and Slim Pickens, to name just a few. This is one remarkable line-up of legendary entertainers, and while some play into their famed personas (namely Marx, Gleason, and Channing), the genuine talents of nearly all are squandered in the insanity of the film’s plot and what they are subsequently required to do.

So what exactly is the film about? Its story, broken up by bizarre antics and individuals, is the stuff of classic gangsterdom. Tough Tony Banks (Gleason) has hung up his spurs as a hit man for mobster kingpin God (Marx), but when a former acquaintance, George “Blue Chips” Packard (Rooney), threatens to turn state’s evidence, God asks the “torpedo” to get back in the game and take out the snitch. To do so, he needs to go to prison, where Packard is securely waiting his day in court. In familiar fashion, Tony is reluctant to begin with, not wanting to be pulled back into the life, but threats to his family and friends sway his decision. In jail, however, an acid trip leaves him even more turned off by the prospect of the hit. He shirks on his duties and God demands the kidnapping of his daughter, Darlene (Hay). Meanwhile, Darlene investigates her father’s “disappearance,” while her mother, Flo (Channing, who is shockingly nearly nude at one point…), accompanied by a horde of hippies, likewise explores the whereabouts of her husband. As relatively commonplace as this scenario is, there is nothing common about the way any of it transpires.


Skidoo opens with an assortment of television commercials, shows, and movies (including a snippet from director Otto Preminger’s own In Harm’s Way (1965)). It’s a rapid-fire montage of “Fat Cola,” kids smoking, and advertisements declaring, “For family fun, get your gun.” It’s an incongruous hodgepodge that nonetheless seems appropriate for the madcap film that follows. Among the topical issues broached in one way or another (usually nutty either way), is the generational divide of the time, with anti-establishment hippies on one side and the old-school authority figures on the other. Darlene’s hippy boyfriend goes on a tangent about wishing he could be nothing (“You mean if I could be nothing, I would be everything?” clarifies Darlene) and end of sentence punctuations such as “You dig?” are prevalent. Having it both ways, Skidoo makes these young people look as foolish as it does the older characters look absurdly reactionary: Flo is initially part of an “anti-ugliness campaign” aimed at cleaning up perceived affronts to acceptable society, and the “long-hairs” are frequently mistaken for (or purposely mocked as) Indians. While Tony is representative of the more conservative line of thought, Flo becomes an understanding figure who eventually ingratiates herself with the young people as they seek to stick it to the oppressiveness of “The Man” while dreaming of a world safe for butterflies and organic supermarkets.


The culture clash of the characters reflects the genre-bending nature of the film itself. The gangster elements are clear, but the film is undeniably a comedy, and there are a few musical numbers thrown in for good measure, with some great songs by Harry Nilsson and a rather catchy garbage can dance routine. Even with this odd formal union, Preminger maintains roughly the same stylistic approach throughout, with only a brief split screen sequence and black and white photography and some color manipulation during drug-induced hallucinations.
What else…? There’s an intricate mafia family tree, which includes the slimy playboy Avalon; Gleason licking acid-laced stationary; lots of body paint; a germaphobic and paranoid (and 78-year-old) Marx holed away aboard a massive ship with his trademark greasepaint mustache and slinky, seductive mistress (played by groundbreaking African American supermodel Donyale Luna); and everyone coming together in the end for a hysterical conclusion that features Channing singing the title song before the credits roll … which are also sung. I wish I could say all of this is seamlessly and logically stitched together, but it isn’t. Not even close.

Skidoo was written by Doran William Cannon, who would also pen Robert Altman’s quirky Brewster McCloud, which makes sense. It was directed by the legendary Otto Preminger, which doesn’t. Flying in the face of auteurist theory, there is nothing about this chaotic and irrational film that would suggest it was helmed by the same the man behind Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Angel Face, The Moon Is Blue, River of No Return, The Man with the Golden Arm, Bonjour Tristesse, Anatomy of a Murder, Advise & Consent, and Bunny Lake Is Missing, all of which are better films.


With all of the above, then, why should one watch Skidoo? Well, precisely because of all the above. As crazy, inconsistent, occasionally shoddy, and terribly corny as the film is, it is also amusing, fascinating in its own way, and, more than anything else, completely unlike anything else. It’s chock-full of talent (even if you’d never know it from this film) and it perfectly captures the LSD-infused sensibilities of its time, for better or worse. Don’t bother buying it, but it’s at least worth one watch.

The Complete Jacques Tati


Aside from his general lack of recognition as one of film history’s great comedians, the most tragic part of Jacques Tati’s working life is his minimal output (indeed the two are probably connected). On the positive side of things though, while Tati directed just six feature films, this limited filmography is ideal for a concise yet thorough compendium of the his entire oeuvre. Realizing this anthologizing potential, the Criterion Collection has assembled The Complete Jacques Tati, an extraordinary compilation.

Along with Tati’s six features (Jour de fête (1949), Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), Mon oncle (1958), Playtime (1967), Trafic (1971), and Parade (1974)) are six shorts that credit Tati as performer, writer, and/or director (On demande une brute (1934), Gai dimanche (1935), Soigne ton gauche (1936), L’école des facteurs (1947), Cours du soir (1967), and Forza Bastia (2002)), as well as Dégustation maison (1978), directed by Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff. All are presented here in new digital restorations (2K for everything except PlayTime, which receives a 4K treatment). There is also a multitude of bonus features, including essays (visual and textual), interviews, introductions, and documentaries. Were it not for the quality and appeal of these films to begin with, however, this set would not have been warranted in the first place. So now that it has been released, it provides as good a time as any to look at Tati’s work and see just why his was one of the most original, inventive, and humorous of cinema’s comedic voices, and to then wonder why it hasn’t been sufficiently heard.

On demande une brute
On demande une brute
This voice began in On demande une brute (Brute Wanted), where Tati assumes a soon to be familiar role of a genial, timid man who falls victim to a fallacious identity. Tati’s youth and height are more striking in this short than any aspect of the film’s narrative or, quite honestly, its humor, though we do see early examples of how Tati the performer utilizes surrounding objects as comedic props. Gai dimanche (Fun Sunday) is more representative of Tati’s future filmic and comedic approaches. There is the appearance of an automobile with its intrinsic difficulties, and there are several examples of Tati’s perception-based wit, where what the audience sees forms the punch line of character action: a customer seems to disappear simply because Tati and his cohort can’t see him; a one way arrow indecisively rotates back and forth, causing Tati confusion at the wheel while we are privy to its true cause. In Soigne ton gauche (Keep Your Left Up), an early short directed by René Clément, Tati plays a wannabe boxer and thus capitalizes on a key part of his stage routine at the time. He also emerges as a more formidable screen presence. In the earlier two shorts, Tati was but one of the primary players; here he is the star of the show, his mimetic physicality fully on display.

L’école des facteurs (School for Postmen) is Tati’s first (surviving) directorial effort and serves as the basis for Jour de fête, where he plays Francois, the same bicycling postman. In that later work, Tati rehashes and expands upon several of the same routines shown here. Cours du soir (Evening Classes) was filmed during Playtime’s production, on its immense sets, and features Tati as an acting instructor who basically demonstrates to his pupils a number of his most popular stage routines (playing tennis, fishing, boxing), all of which later reappear in Parade. As part of his lecture, he stresses the observation of multiple types of behavior as a critical aspect of comedy, as indeed it was for Tati.
Rounding out the shorts are Dégustation maison (House Specialty), Tatischeff’s award-winning short, shot in the same town as Jour de fête, and Forza Bastia (Festive Island), a soccer documentary started by Tati in 1978 and later discovered by Tatischeff, who assembled the footage and released the film in 2002. Taken together, these shorts are uneven though undeniably valuable entries into the Tati cannon and the Tati world, each in some way acknowledging crucial elements of the filmmaker’s initial mime acts and his feature length motion pictures.

Jour de fête 1
Jour de fête

In the first of the latter, Jour de fête, the small town of Sainte-Severe-sur-Indre is sent into a tizzy as a ragtag fair sets up shop, rousing the curiosity and fascination of the townsfolk. These individuals are not usually prone to personality alternation, but for this event they’re going get themselves and the town “gussied up.” Everyone puts their best face forward, everyone except a hunched over elderly woman who sees all and provides wry commentary over the goings-on. She’s not thrilled and she’s keeping tabs on everyone else, calling them out for their posturing. In a way, she voices a more acerbic view of what Tati’s cinema will also consider: watching people behave in ways that, while perhaps natural, are nonetheless peculiar.

Tati’s later Mr. Hulot character is rather affable and generally well-liked, but here, Francois is a frequently mocked town fool; he’s never treated cruelly, but he isn’t exactly taken seriously. And when he becomes enamored by the prospect of delivering mail by helicopter, “American style,” the support he appears to receive from his neighbors is actually ridicule at his own expense, as they alone realize the absurdity of such a highfaluting endeavor. These aerial postmen are all the rage in America, where there is even a contest for the “sexiest Apollo in the US post.” But this is not America and Francois is no Apollo. He has trouble enough just getting around normally; add alcohol into the mix and he struggles to even get on his bike.

You know Francois is doomed to fail when he falls for the allure of speed and the idea of keeping up with the Americans, for in a Taiti film speed is seldom a good thing. Jour de fête stresses a leisurely pace preferred by most of Tati’s more endearing characters. Such a lifestyle is frequently given preferential screen treatment; a world is better when it is slower and calmer, when dogs laze in the street and geese block traffic. Speed is an affront to Tati’s largely unhurried tenor. Speed leads to stress, anxiety, anger, and frustration. In Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), Tati’s next feature, a fast car shows up and causes great distress as it zips around, and the titular holiday itself is shown to be less carefree than one might assume, due largely to its burdensome temporal requisites. Part of that film’s humor is in its depiction of the coordinated work it takes to get away from work, the hassle of a vacation: catching trains, setting up at the beach, loading and unloading luggage, having a meal on time — this isn’t easy!

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday
When the dust settles in Jour de fête, things are returned to their easygoing norm. “News is rarely good,” says the old lady, who comforts Francois about his inability to deliver the mail as fast as the Americans. “So let it take its sweet time.” Jour de fête may end with the beauty of just another day, but these days are changing, and as Tati’s work progresses, the speed of post-war modernity is unavoidable.

In Tati’s work, one also notices the dehumanizing habit of routine: fixed intervals of driving to work and driving home, of lunch and dinner, of waking in the morning and going to sleep at night — regular events of a regular day held with regularity. Not quite synonymous with speed, though likewise a similar symptom of modern life, comically customary routine is frequent fodder for derision. When the dinner bell rings in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, the herd of tourist cattle promptly gathers inside and the beach becomes deserted and the streets are at a standstill (perhaps routine in this case actually helps counter some of the bustle?). The individuals might be there to have fun, but one must still follow the rules.

Mon oncle (1958), Tati’s third feature, goes even further in its good-natured disdain of the modern and its inherently overpowering progress. It also moves beyond the countryside and detached beach resorts (locations that would ostensibly cater to the laid-back), and situates itself primarily in a contemporary domestic milieu. The picture begins with scenes of construction and housing developments on the rise. Contrasting with this imagery of the new is Hulot’s residence on the outskirts of the city, a rustic old-world setting. Hulot is shown reaching his room at the top of a multistoried house via various windows and hallways looking in, resulting in one of the film’s greatest visual set pieces. Seen from a distance, he appears, disappears, and reappears as he makes his way through this erratically organic structure that bears no rhyme or reason in its blueprint.

At the other end of the architectural spectrum, his sister’s ultra modern home desperately strives to be unique from the other homes that are exactly like it. Its interiors and exteriors are artificial and rarely convenient. The meticulously arranged outdoor area, with every sleek element situated just so, conveys nothing natural and certainly doesn’t suggest a homey comfort. It also seems to take an awful lot of effort to maintain. Cleanliness in particular goes with the territory, and we see that Madame Arpel (Adrienne Servantie) makes it an obsessive habit to tidy up any and every surface around her, wiping off the gate, her son’s book bag, the car bumper, and so on. The residence and its bells and whistles are clearly superficial. “No, it’s just me!” assures her husband, Charles (Jean-Pierre Zola), when she switches on the ridiculous fish fountain as he enters the property. No use wasting the device on him. It needn’t be on for the grocer either. No reason to impress him. The family even eats dinner outside and they sit outside to watch television. This house is a good show, but is it livable?

Mon oncle
Mon oncle
In Tati’s modern times, gadgetry might provide a fancy service, but it seldom does so practically, efficiently, and consistently. The house of Mon oncle is populated with conveniences such as bouncing dishes, lest they be dropped (other dishes, as Hulot finds out, well, they don’t bounce), but inevitable technical difficulties arise, as when the fish fountain succumbs to sputtering in its death throes. And even when everything is working, it’s still not sensible. At one point, when the family has seemingly every device in the house running, the final joke is that the machinery even cuts off communication. Mr. and Mrs. Arpel can’t hear or speak above the clamor.

If the house itself is representative of the pompously extravagant, many of its visitors are the same way. As with the arrangement of the home, the people and their interactions are similarly artificial. When the Arpel’s receive company, their pleasantries are punctuated by false modesty and pretentious exchanges of well wishing. When they host a party, it starts as prim and proper as possible but, in no small part thanks to Hulot, it dissolves into minor chaos … a much more enjoyable minor chaos.

Once away from the house, it’s more of the same: a banal pattern of customary intervals and regulated conformity. Lines dictate where to go, for safety sake, true, but also to keep everyone in order. These strict linear designations are in contrast to the more haphazardly developed province in which Hulot resides. The world of Mon oncle and Playtime, Tati’s next picture, correspond to a general Tati theory of heightened color only when necessary and illustrative, and is therefore otherwise cold, grey, and sterile, further contributing to a sense of dehumanization, as do the incessant geometric patterns that give the settings their regimentation and orderly drabness.

The sequences at Mr. Arpel’s factory and the scenes of his traversing back and forth also point toward Playtime, which opens the scope of Tati’s observations. This time he is examining the whole of modern city life, from industry to retail to entertainment, from 9-5 workaday behavior to fun-loving nighttime shenanigans; the 50-minute restaurant sequence is an elaborately choreographed representation of Murphy’s Law, where the best laid plans of the new venue’s opening is a nearly never-ending series of disaster and destruction.

The opening airport scene reveals a procession of people coming and going from all angles and from any number of entryways, all emphasizing how densely layered Tati’s labyrinthine mise-en-scene can be, and is especially in this film. People can emerge from anywhere, often accompanied by a single associative sound that comically draws attention to their entrance and exit. Deceptive windows and reflections form visual layers upon visual layers. The fish bowl corporate interiors betray their division from the exteriors, the separation oftentimes confused as the settings appear undifferentiated. Yet at the same time, people are sealed off from one another. Cubicle culture is not at all conducive to human interaction. Characters in close proximity to each other don’t even realize it because they are cut off by dividing walls; they will cross rooms to call one another on the telephone when they are unknowingly within speaking distance.

All of this is part of Tati’s geographic plan of humor, whereby he places the camera at an ideal vantage point from which to cover a given area. We see what the characters can’t, and thus we are in on jokes they are oblivious to. Such a masterful sequence comes later where the camera remains outside an apartment building, with the accompanying exterior sounds, while the drama unfolds silently through large windows; we are essentially watching screens within screens (perhaps a nod to Tati’s picture framing background). The view of the apartments suggest an interchange between the neighbors, but the joke of the insinuation is for our eyes only.

If there is a single symbol to associate with the pace and shift of the modern way of life, it would be the automobile, and Playtime ends with a carnivalesque procession of vehicles that lead directly to Tati’s next film, Trafic, where rows and rows of cars signal a specific sign and form of modernity. The automobile is an emblematic consequence of a speed-centric, mechanized existence, as well as its dual innovation and frustration. If the cars aren’t going recklessly fast they’re breaking down, further evidence of the fallibility of technology. In Trafic, as its name implies, there are cars … and cars, and cars, and cars. Cars everywhere. As if in a Dr. Seuss book, there are cars on ramps and cars on freeways, cars that are parked and cars that speed; old cars, new cars, nice cars, worn cars. As Hulot and his crew make their trek to an automobile exposition in Amsterdam, their biggest impediment along the way? What else? Car trouble. One sequence even culminates in perhaps cinema’s most amusing multi-car pile up.

Yet in this road trip structure, Tati incorporates his clearest and, for the most part most conventional, sense of narrative progression, where the characters have a clear goal and the film itself has an obvious forward momentum that begins somewhere and ends somewhere else, with dramatic conflicts hindering the progress in between. While there may be an ostensible destination, the diversions along the way are plentiful and diverse, ranging from running out of gas to the burdens of bureaucratic rigmarole and misunderstanding (more symptoms of this modern age).

En route to the expo, Tati sets his sights on car culture: gas station giveaways (free busts with a fill up) and those who regard their vehicles as invisibility vessels (drivers picking, poking, and scratching in a bodily display of amusing private behavior). A further consequence of all these vehicles is the effect they have on human conduct. Anticipated road rage shows just how foolish people can look when they’re angry, and when windshield wipers mirror the body types and movements of the drivers, we see just how accordant technology and its users have become.

While Tati’s humor may reside in this realm of unique individual portrayal based largely on mute imitation, his exceptional audio design should not be ignored. Just as there are these observational segments that don’t rely on sound for their effect, there are also symphonies of trunks and hoods and doors opening and shutting with occasionally rhythmic flourish. Likewise, one can’t overstate the importance of the score in a Jacques Tati film, the sublime audio accompaniment to what are in many ways silent pictures. The score of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, for example, is never elaborate or varied. It is more of a recurrent musical motif that chimes in and out on a whim and sets the tone of lighthearted respite. It is not in any way manipulative in terms of narrative response or character development. The same holds true for all of Tati’s work.

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday
Diegetic sounds are also sporadic at best. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday screeches with intercom squawks and squeals that sound like the disembodied adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon. And when certain characters speak, it’s more of a grunt than a discernable language. In Playtime, mechanical thingamajigs give off ambient hums while funny sounding furniture mixes with punctuations of isolated noise, humorous in their solitary context: zippers, shuffling of papers, brushing of clothes, etc.

Sound is quite important to Tati’s art, there’s no doubt about that. It’s just dialogue that is of little concern. Though there is often background chatter, verbal exchanges are largely superfluous. Aside from something like Mon oncle, where the pretentious exchanges between the pretentious people are part of the point, words seldom matter; noises maybe, but not actual dialogue. This is evidenced in the irregular subtitling. In many cases, not only would it be difficult to pinpoint the dialogue worthy of translating, it simply isn’t always important.

Some examples of where dialogue does have relevance is when the old man in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday relays his army experience while a youngster espouses ramblings about ideology and the bourgeoisie. Both bore the daylights out of those around them, and when the two meet, sparks predictably fly. They both would have been better off keeping quiet. Jour de fête also has an interesting early twist on dialogue’s unreliability, where the soundtrack of a movie showing at the fair plays over the silent interaction between two characters as they flirt, their interactions appearing to coincide with the dialogue from the film.

This then leads to an additional component of Tati’s aural design, his use of sound emanating from unseen sources. The smallest of sounds are accentuated and highlighted to emphasize their comic peculiarity (the dong of the swinging door to the dining area in Hulot, for example), and they will reoccur as comedic refrains of silly sounds that in real life would go ignored but when presented as isolated noises are rendered amusing. When the aural and the visual work in tandem, some of Tati’s finest moments emerge, as when in Jour de fête Francois swats at a buzzing bee. From a distance, where the sound of the insect is less audible, he looks ridiculous. But when the bee makes its way to the farmer looking down on the postman, he too starts swatting and it all makes sense.

Jour de fête
Jour de fête
Still, Tati’s comedy is generally based on the visual. In keeping with his thematic worldview, his camera is objective, with few close-ups and little intricate editing. He typically maintains a wider shot giving ample space for pictorial density and individual movement. His films are full of everyday dramas, sometimes more than one in any given frame, but we’re just where we need to be to see them. There is relatively minor camera maneuvering, with more attention paid to an appropriate angle (to best capture the joke) and maintaining an appropriate tempo (to make the joke work). Then there are the sight gags from Tati the prop master. If it’s in the frame, it very well may come into play. Like a life-size game of Mousetrap, Tati’s mise-en-scene is a complex contraption of elements springing into action and making their presence known. In Trafic, Tati takes his mastery of material objects to another level with the demonstration of the Swiss army knife camping car, a singular summation of his ability to take the standard and turn it into something ingenious and surprising.

Some bits of business in Tati’s films are so quick and subtle they can go unnoticed on initial viewings, and sometimes, as in the eyeball windows of Mon oncle, there can be punch lines more than an hour in the making. In Playtime (shot in 70mm and greatly benefitting from the detailed 4K transfer), his Tativille canvas is large and shown in great depth. A gag could be anywhere and it’s up to the audience to democratically scan the set, all as part of Tati’s passive vs. participatory sense of audience interaction. In Trafic, a long shot joke takes its very humor from its distance, when strings designating stations at the expo can’t be seen from our faraway vantage point. Subsequently, everyone appears to be high stepping over nothing. As his staging is distinguished by rigid compositions with little extraneous space, long shots full of fore and background material can concurrently reveal slivers of the screen that hide a nearly obscured joke.

Immediately with Jour de fête, Tati established one of his key aesthetic approaches, that of the observational passing glance, an objective survey of everyday surroundings to reveal the comical (the row of merry-go-round horse heads hanging out the back of a truck to start the film, for instance). But it’s not just the inanimate that spark comedic allure, though there are moments when objects amusingly take on a life of their own (runaway bikes, electrical devices on the fritz, uncooperative cars). There are also the pleasantly average foibles of pleasantly average people.

So who inhabit Tati’s carefully constructed worlds? The people of Playtime run the gamut, from corporate stiffs, to working class locals, to tourists. Aside from the family vacationers in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, there are the hiking revelers with their youthful, outdoorsy exuberance. The sweet blonde girl, Martine (Nathalie Pascaud), attains a degree of bemusement and humor in a way that no other adult is in the picture does, while the mischievous kids in Mon oncle exploit the tempers and temperament of the grownups. In Trafic, teenagers and young adults are given a considerable prominence. Whoever the people in a Tati film are, and whether they are exercising, working, or just walking around, it’s like a dance, a pure spectacle of bodies in motion, a helter skelter public mingling with people of all shapes and sizes bumbling and fumbling around one another as they all go about their typically banal business.

One of the funniest — and darkest — sequences in all of Tati’s films is the trick played on Maria (Maria Kimberly) by a few young people in Trafic. The hilarious bit is capped by Hulot wiping his feet on what is perceived to be her puppy, ripping off its nose (a button), and trying it on like a vest (which it is). But this is atypical for Tati’s characters. Usually goofiness is innate in their behavior; they do things they do and happen to look funny doing them. Rare are those who go out of their way to goof around. Another exception in Trafic is when the mechanic and another driver are inspired by footage of the moon landing and decide to continue fixing the car in exaggerated low-gravity slow motion.

Of course, the most memorable character in Tati’s fictional films is the character played by Tati himself, which, in all but Jour de fête, is Mr. Hulot. Aside from the pains he causes his brother-in-law in Mon oncle, Hulot is a generally beloved fellow, though he is, according to his brother-in-law, “no role model.” Mr. Arpel owns a Dachshund that goes to work with him sometimes, often running ahead of him and giving off a warning to the workers that the boss is coming, spurring on everyone to look as busy as possible. When Hulot sees the dog coming, he gets down on the floor and plays with it.

Monsieur Hulot's Holiday
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday
Tati’s characters (Hulot and Francois) frequently take time to fix problems. This can be productive (an ingenious method for helping a cross-eyed man hammer correctly) or it can result in the emergence of even greater obstacles (an elaborate dance/struggle when planting a pole). For all of his dimness, Francois is conversely clever at making do with what’s around, like hitching a ride on the back of a truck and using the bed as a table. But just as Hulot’s best intentions often go awry, he quite innocently causes trouble wherever he goes. He’s awkward and at times oblivious, and the world is a precarious one, with much that can go wrong. It’s an unsteady relationship. Still, Hulot, like Francois, is here to help. In Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, he is worried about taffy falling, he’s swift to carry Martine’s suitcase, and he’s quick to punish a perceived peeper. Yet when jazz disrupts a quiet evening, sending everyone into pandemonium, the angered tourists find the source. It’s Hulot, of course, sitting right beside the blaring record payer. He’s doing just fine.

A tennis match in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, with Hulot’s unconventional jutting and poking serve, upsets his playmates. (Knowing when a joke works and should reappear, Tati resurrects this serve when Hulot attempts to beat down some wayward fireworks.) Hulot also expresses some Chaplinesque panic when his shoe is caught on a fox rug and he think the beast is attacking him. Hulot is also a gentleman. When dancing with Martine, he finds a shred of fabric to touch on her backless dress, and in PlayTime, he’s especially kind to Barbara (Barbara Dennek), escorting her around and buying her gifts. By the end of Trafic, it seems Hulot may have actually made a romantic conquest, as he walks off under an umbrella shared with Maria.

By PlayTime’s production, Tati was having some fun with his Hulot persona, sprinkling scenes with false Hulots that tease the audience and the other characters. And the opening titles of Trafic proclaim, “Mr. Hulot in Trafic.” Indeed, the Hulot character (lurched forward, pipe in mouth, umbrella in hand, sporting a tan trench coat), had become a fully recognizable commodity. Jacques Tati’s final feature-length work, however, does not contain Hulot. It also isn’t a fictional film. Made for Swiss television, Parade, shot in a variety of formats and respectively presented as such for this Criterion release, covers an elaborate stage show put on by Tati, largely based around his “world-famous sporting impressions.”

With slight of hand routines and pratfalls are interactive performances where audience members are encouraged to move, sing along, dance, and even participate in some of the skits (a rather odd mule riding contest brings forth several eager attendees; the sequence ends with a sweet payoff). There are again many people clamoring together, and again, there is an unusually large amount of young people. These folks are dressed to the nines in the outlandish fashions of the day and many jovially ham it up when the fancy strikes them. Is this behavior staged, or simply in the spirit of the evening? Or in the spirit of a Tati film? The eclectic menagerie of sounds and colors and acts and antics include actors, clowns, acrobats, tumblers, props, magicians, musicians, and singers, all performing with great revelry. Parade can be a spotty hodgepodge of routines, yet Tati the ringmaster is clearly orchestrating his spectacle with great affection and for that, it feels like a truly personal project.

With the vast assortment of illuminating bonus features accrued for this Criterion set are alternate versions of certain films. Jour de fête comes in three variations, including a partly colorized 1964 version and the full-color 1995 rerelease version. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is presented in two versions, including the original 1953 theatrical release, and Mon oncle’s disc includes My Uncle, the version Tati created for English-language audiences. In the case of Jour de fête, which was originally filmed in an experimental Thomsoncolor process with black and white as a backup, the color is rather hit and miss. The partial colorization includes mostly dabs of red and blue on certain ornamentation (flags, banners and the like), and the full color version is rudimentary, minimally expressive, and generally inconsistent in quality; it’s a historical curio more than any giant step forward in the technology. The original Hulot, longer than the later cut, contains a different score, isn’t as tightly constructed, and, perhaps most lamentable, is missing the terrific joke of Hulot’s collapsed boat chomping through the water like a shark, which Tati shot and added in 1978 (no doubt in playful reference to Jaws). My Uncle similarly has differing sequences than the French version and is about 10 minutes shorter, to no great avail in either case. If anything, this mixture of variations on the same films show that Tati, despite his limited output, was never creatively stagnate. There was always some cinematic tinkering to be done.

‘Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson’

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The popularity of the Western, at one point America’s reigning genre champion, was starting to wane considerably by the mid-1960s and well into the 1970s. In part to keep the form alive, and in part to examine just want made this type of film what it once was and had now become, many filmmakers, Sam Peckinpah most notably, began to approach Westerns through a self-consciously analytical lens. These were Westerns that were, in one way or another, about Westerns themselves: what made them work, what their key tropes were, how could their conventions be subverted or updated, and how could this old-fashioned genre be made modern?

Director Robert Altman, no stranger to subverting conventions and thwarting expectations, had already tackled this in 1971, with McCabe & Mrs. Miller. His variation on the Western had a more ambiguous and ambivalent hero than the genre classics; its setting was a dank, dark snow-covered wilderness, rather than the open prairie or desert; its themes were more capitalistically corrupt than stalwartly moralistic. While the film is extraordinary—one of his best—it wasn’t, in a general sense, very fun. Warren Beatty was amusing enough, but the picture itself was rather somber.

With Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, released five years later, Altman was again breaking down the Western, only this time, he was focused on one critical aspect of the genre and of America’s Western heritage: the making and maintenance of a myth. And this time, he was having a lot more fun with it.

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“Robert Altman’s Absolutely Unique and Heroic Enterprise of Inimitable Lustrel,” as the opening credits proclaim, picks up with The Star, AKA William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody (Paul Newman), as he seeks to keep his Wild West Show thriving as a viable form of entertainment by way of elaborate show business hijinks mixed with a dash of historical liberty. This is the basic crux of the film: the balance of history and entertainment, real life and performance, reenactments and feats of skill next to exaggerations and individual variations on what really occurred. Sometimes, these lines are explicitly and painfully clear, as when a horse steps on (through?) one of the performers—”That’s the real thing,” declares another shocked player; sometimes, the distinction is less obvious, as in The Sure Shot, AKA Annie Oakley (a terribly cute Geraldine Chaplin), who has a talent that legitimately justifies her own celebrity.

The circus-like atmosphere of Buffalo Bill is right up Robert Altman’s alley, with an assortment of individuals coming and going (a cast of 500-plus), all speaking over one another in classic Altman style. Among the more interesting are The Relative, AKA Ed Goodman, played by an oddly meek and fawning Harvey Keitel, who scurries around his famous uncle, and The Legend Maker, Ned Buntline, played by Burt Lancaster. Buntline is the man who, for all intents and purposes, “invented” Buffalo Bill and his supposed exploits. Throughout the film, he continues spinning the yarn that perpetuates the myth.

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Then there is The Indian, Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), brought in to add some much-needed drama and generally fabricated conflict to the show (“Is he tame?” wonders one character). Essentially mute, Sitting Bull nevertheless manages to rouse Bill’s ire by the mere existence of his own legend, and the stereotypically opaque Native American dialogue causes a good deal of frustration. When Sitting Bull’s handler says something about the chief visiting the sun “and the squaws move teepees to the moon’s path,” one of Bill’s cohorts demands the Indian “Stop sunning and mooning us.” And later, Bill proclaims, “You tell Sitting Bull that Buffalo Bill says his leaves can turn whichever way he wants as long as he knows which way the wind is blowing.” He then proudly turns to his group: “I gave him back the same kind of murky logic that he gave us.”

Bill also assumes the Indian has a similar penchant for show business, reasoning that he wouldn’t want to be chief otherwise. Inevitably though, the collaboration quickly becomes a contentious one. Unlike everyone else Bill surrounds himself with, Sitting Bull and his fellow Native American’s aren’t so quick to placate this blow-hard of an American hero, and more often than not, Bill and his compatriots come away looking like fools. At one point, as the Indians causally mosey away from camp, Bill and his posse head out in erratic pursuit of the perceived escapees. But despite the narrative that these men are among the best trackers in America, they return empty handed. Still, they keep on keeping on, resilient in their efforts to maintain their storied reputations. Frequently with the musical accompaniment of The Cowboy Band, Bill and the others ride somewhere between the lands of perpetual children playing cowboys and Indians and old men past their prime basking in what used to be.

This is really about all there is in terms of plot here. Even by Robert Altman standards, Buffalo Bill has a loose, free-flowing storyline. Sitting Bull causes some consternation, and the whole group gets excited by a visit from The President of the United States, Grover Cleveland, and The First Lady (Pat McCormick and Shelley Duvall), but the film is essentially a series of amusing and not always interconnected incidents. Still, the script is cleverly poignant, the dialogue is witty, and Newman gives a terrific performance; the casting of such as actor in this film about fame works well as star persona merges with star persona.

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Bill is admirable in his assuredness, but as the manager of this Wild West Show enterprise, he’s a bit of a goof, and those around him aren’t much better. He knows how to play to the crowd though, and evidently the event is a national success (as it really was), so whatever he’s doing, it seems to be working. He’s a complicated man, too. He isn’t quite sure what words like “incarceration” mean, sometimes he can’t keep his own stories straight, and his reputation as a virile man’s man is betrayed by a touch of impotency, but he is, at the very least, true to himself, even if that means occasionally lying to everyone else.

More than anything though, the themes of Buffalo Bill are the most prescient aspects of the picture. While the similarly revisionist Westerns called subtle attention to their implicit concerns regarding generic formation and historical revaluation, Altman puts these issues front and center. This Western blatantly deconstructs the illusion of fame and the infallibility of a legend. There is something of an even larger American commentary in the film as well. Released during the United States’ bicentennial, it touches on what was, near the end of the 19th century, a steady distancing from the nation’s Wild West past, and what in 1976 was a reevaluation of contemporary American ideals. In the film, President Cleveland states that a man like Buffalo Bill “made this country what it is today,” and Bill, for his part, notes, “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.” They’re both right. In the 1800s and in 1976, historical figures like Buffalo Bill, regardless of their validity, were (and still are) integral to the American mindset and the nation’s perception of itself. Yet, at the same time, while this may always be so, with each passing generation there does grow a degree of natural, and in many ways productive, skepticism. That’s why we remember older heroes while constantly searching for new ones. America knows what legends used to exist, so the question then becomes, what legends now exist? In Buffalo Bill and the Indians, the titular character finds himself stuck in the middle of just such a dilemma, and is unsteadily representative of either side.

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The Kino Lorber Blu-ray of Buffalo Bill and the Indians is among three Altman titles recently released by the company, the others being The Long Goodbye (1973) and Thieves Like Us (1974). (It’s worth noting that Olive Films also recently released a Blu-ray of Altman’s great and greatly underrated Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, from 1982.) The discs look and sound sharp—the sound in an Altman film being of the utmost importance—and are undeniable improvements on preexisting DVD copies, though the bonus features are scant. With Buffalo Bill is the very brief documentary, From the Prairie to the Palace. In it, the narrator discusses the influence of this live Western show and Newman speaks about the role, saying he considers Bill an “amalgamation of all the legendary heroes in history.” There’s also some behind the scenes footage of Altman directing. Essentially, this short inclusion further makes the case for the film’s thematic core, the narrator arguing that it is “the story of the first American hero whose legend was not based on military victories or political involvement, but on myth, and a lot of publicity.”



L'Avventura (1)

Michelangelo Antonioni’s enigmatic and brilliant L’Avventura is one of the benchmarks for international art cinema, a somewhat disputable designation that was, nevertheless, very much in vogue at the time of its release. Take the 1960 Cannes Film Festival for example, where L’Avventura debuted to one of the event’s most divisive responses, with initially more boos than cheers greeting this affront to conventional film narrative and form. Yet, this was also the year of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (the Palme d’Or winner), Chukhray’s Ballad of a Soldier, Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, Kalatozov’s Letter Never Sent, and Buñuel’s The Young One, to name just a few of the other titles at the festival, where, ultimately, L’Avventura came away with the Jury Prize (shared with Ichikawa’s Odd Obsession). With this impressive company to give Antonioni’s film competition, how does one explain L’Avventura’s standing, then as one of the most controversial releases of the year and now as one of the pinnacle achievements in film history, by one of cinema’s greatest masters?

To start with, there is the story, which begins as a group of upper class, self-centered northern Italians visit an island. There, without any rhyme or reason, one of the women, Anna (Lea Massari), seemingly the main character, disappears. A search ensues but this proves to be unproductive and the investigation continues back on the mainland. But as the film progresses, the search for Anna becomes secondary, if not totally unimportant. This as opposed to the relationship that develops between her lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), and her friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti). In what would become familiar Antonioni fashion, the film ends ambiguously, without a clear conclusion in the search for Anna nor a definite establishment of Sandro and Claudia’s union.

L'Avventura (1)

This superficial account, however, overlooks the film’s vagaries, which can simultaneously frustrate an audience’s identification with the characters while also developing these same people into some very complex individuals. We know, for example, that Anna’s father disapproves of her relationship with Sandro, but other points of tension are left unspoken or unexplained. There is a generally glacial pace to get to the disappearance of Anna, with inane dialogue and various digressions along the way, and yet, when the moment of drama comes, it is rather fleeting, it soon subsides, and the characters move on with only intermittent and essentially unrelated conflicts. Those shown in the film are frequently cold and distanced from one another as well. When there is some passionate spontaneity, as often as not it is born from carelessness or a momentary selfish desire. As Anna’s friends and family debate her disappearance—a criminal act, an accident, suicide?—their attention is easily diverted, even by something as irrelevant as an ancient vase found amongst the rocks or as frivolous as yet another sexual tryst.

Within about 24 hours of the mysterious tragedy, the bond between Sandro and Claudia matures. Within about three days, though the search is still on, it is generally overshadowed by this new primary couple. By the end of the film, Claudia admits she doesn’t even want Anna to be alive, so that she and Sandro may live happily ever after (it’s soon shown that this fantasy isn’t very likely). Through it all, inquires about Anna don’t necessarily stop, and Claudia and Sandro do follow up most leads as they receive them, but this motivation is basically driven by a need to have some purpose, some reason to do something. Anna remains on their mind, but they are equally preoccupied with unproductive indecisiveness and detours that lead nowhere: anything to prolong an inevitable outcome or resolution.

L'Avventura (2)

The reoccurrence of unrelated deviations goes beyond the characters; a reluctance to reach a conclusion is at the heart of the film itself. There is frequent discussion in the picture about needing things to be clear and obvious, for actions and behavior to have a degree of certainty, but for Antonioni, this is not at all a principal concern. People will act impulsively, often without any definitive incentive, and we’re left to wonder, sometimes with the other characters, why they do what they do. Upon receiving Anna’s Bible, for instance, her father asserts she must not have committed suicide—how could someone religious do that?—but this is a false assumption, one that naively presumes life to have explainable rationale.

Further, L’Avventura is where we see the most overt early example of Antonioni’s use of location as a metaphoric and metonymic device. There are often-cited examples of how Antonioni presents running themes through careful framing and character juxtaposition, both in regards to setting. In his commentary track, Gene Youngblood points to the opening scene where Anna and her father discuss her relationship with Sandro, her intentions, and where they both may be heading in life. Behind the two, as this conversation goes on, we see at once older structures as well as the construction of new, modern high-rise apartments. The conflict of the old giving way to the new, of modernity overcoming the more rigorous and aged, is not only in the discussion between the father and daughter but is shown in their knowing placement in the midst of this construction.

Then there is the yacht ride to Lisca Bianca, setting up the conflicts amongst the various other, rather extraneous characters of the film. As they approach the uninhabited island, we begin to see it in the distance growing in stature and expansiveness. Antonioni stages the frivolous and egocentric bits of dialogue against the backdrop of an island and the association is explicit. Whether or not the characters are truly affected by what will take place there, the fact that it occurs on an island brings into focus the connection between this isolated and inhospitable solitary land mass and these characters so self-absorbed, so surrounded and yet so alone.

L'Avventura (3)

Similarly, the last image of the film has Sandro on a bench and Claudia standing by his side. This much is situated on the left half of the frame while a large wall takes up the entirety of the right. For this couple, now with issues of their own, their surroundings are closing in. Like the fog in Antonioni’s earlier Il Grido (1952) and later Identification of a Woman (1982), where the environment limits the vision of the characters and forces them to address more immediate and localized concerns, here Sandro and Claudia have to face themselves, to face the present, and to decide the best course of action for their uncertain yet increasingly moribund future together.

Throughout L’Avventura, Antonioni’s audacious camera placements (like this divided final composition) cut off or conceal part of the setting, obscure part of a body or a face, or deny the audience the object of a character’s attention. This sort of visual strategy likewise reflects the film’s narrative refusal to be complicit in conventional forms. And as the characters roam in and around various places, Antonioni’s acute attention to detail puts forth so much in the interior spaces as well as the exterior locales that one contemplates without any clarification their presumed, but by no means obvious, significance. The newly released Criterion Blu-ray of the film, which looks spectacular, allows for exceptional focus on just this sort of pictorial devotion, highlighting much of the film’s visual density.

This disc also contains the original English-language trailer for the film, an essay by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, a copy of what Antonioni had to say about the film during its Cannes premiere, two essays by Antonioni, read by Jack Nicholson, star of the director’s extremely underrated The Passenger (1975), and Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials, a documentary that covers his life and work. Youngblood’s commentary is a thorough analysis of this controversial picture, with much indeed in it to analyze; and that there is still yet more to say about the film is evinced by Olivier Assayas’ readings and examinations of various aspects of the movie, from style to character interaction.

Following L’Avventura, Antonioni’s next film in what would come to be considered a trilogy of sorts was La Notte in1961, with L’Eclisse following in 1962. While these films revisit a number of the same themes and aesthetic designs that would be crucial to Antonioni’s work throughout his career, it is with L’Avventura that one truly gets the sense of ground being broken. That’s not to say it is the best film he ever directed (though I would argue it is), but this is the film of his that most clearly worked to usher in a new form of cinema, from which there was no turning back.