I wasn’t ready for Susan Sontag’s non-fiction film about the 1973 Yom Kippur War in 1974, and I’m not at all sure that I’m ready for it even now, on the DVD released by Zeitgeist and Kim Stim. But there’s no question that part of my perspective on it has changed. For one thing, this film obviously needs to be cross-referenced with her book of thirty years later, Regarding the Pain of Others, although I’d have to reread that book, which I don’t have with me now, before I could trace the connections and/or the disconnections. Furthermore, in 1974, when I attended Susan’s private screening of Promised Lands in Paris, I was probably expecting to hear her words and her voice, her writerly badges, and I was surprised that I got neither: the voices and words are manly those of three unnamed individuals — Yoram Kaniuk (for me the most sympathetic commentator), Yuval Ne’emangood, and a psychiatrist at the end who claims to be offering therapy to a shellshock Israeli soldier under a drug-induced trance when he contrives to recreate the soldier’s wartime trauma, complete with brutal sound effects. (After the screening, Sontag described the latter aptly and with considerable horror as “Docteur Folamour” — the French name for Dr. Strangelove — and I strongly suspect that it was this sequence that led to the film originally being banned in Israel.) Given especially the anguished screams of the soldier, it’s an unbearable conclusion, yet this grisly patch of “medical” theater itself morphs into Sontag’s own theater of war as the sound of comparable cries plays over the advancing of Israeli tanks, and the profusion of corpses that we see throughout the film are no less assaulting.
Yet, paradoxically, what I think I was most unprepared for, then and now, was and is the fact that, unlike her two previous films, Duet for Cannibals (1969) and Brother Carl (1971), both works of fiction filmed in Sweden, Promised Lands is more clearly and fully a work (and act) of cinema, not literature, above all in its sound editing. In his liner notes, Ed Halter cites “Godard and [unspecified] American avant-garde filmmakers” as probable influences on this approach, but I believe that Dziga-Vertov’s Enthusiasm is far more pertinent — most clearly in the precredits Soviet-like montage that alternates religious icons with TV antennas and in the frequent uses of radio music throughout. (In New York in the late 60s, she had told me that Vertov was the filmmaker she’d be most interested in writing about, and when she mentioned “the poem, the essay, and the lamentation” as “possible literary analogues” to her film discourse in her 1974 essay for Vogue about making the film, also included with the DVD, she might have been thinking of Vertov again — in contradistinction to a non-fiction filmmaker like Chris Marker who usually needs a written, offscreen commentary to make his discourse “personal”. No less apposite in this package are brief quotes about the film from Stanley Kauffmann and Roberto Rossellini. Curiously, though, Rossellini, by saying that Sontag uses “the Arab-Israel War as a metaphor for the human condition,” helps to explain how complicated it still is to respond to this film as journalism. [1/28/11]
“The government fails the people of New Orleans when they are hit by a hurricane, fails to notice the cadmium paint in the marketplace, does a lousy job educating our kids, can’t keep the libraries open or the park lawns mowed, overlooks the catastrophic shortcuts taken by its pals in the oil-drilling industry — and all we can do to express sour frustration is elect candidates who promise to hack it down even more.”
–”Servile Disobedience,” Harper’s magazine, February 2011, p. 7 [1/23/2011]
As a postscript to and short commentary on the closing section of Ted Fendt’s interview with Luc Moullet in the previous issue of Cinema Scope,l’d like to propose that (a) Moullet’s two most recent shorts, Toujours moins and Chef-d’oeuvre?, provide a kind of summary of Moullet’s work as a whole, by focusing respectively on economy and art, and (b) the second of these actually fuses these two concerns, offering not only a digest of his oeuvre as both a filmmaker and a critic, but also a short manifesto that exalts the importance of shortness itself in relation to his particular talents.
Moullet’s best work as a filmmaker can generally be found in his shorts — which makes it all the more regrettable that the Moullet box set with English subtitles includes only his features, and the sole collection of his shorts on DVD (Luc Moullet en shorts, 2009) is untranslated. The most important exceptions to this rule are Genèse d’un repas (1978), arguably his most profound statement about economy, and Anatomie d’un rapport (1976), but it might be added that many of his other best features, such as Les contrabandières (1968), La comédie du travail (1987), and Parpaillon (1993), are effectively collections of thematically related shorts, while some of his thinnest - - e.g., Le prestige de la mort (2006) — seem to qualify as padded shorts.
So it’s worth pointing out that Moullet features himself in the central panel of the opening triptych of Chef-d’oeuvre?, flanked on the left by Illustration of Athenian Poe Solon with Skull in Arm and on the right by a photograph of an Apollo II astronaut on the moon, while Moullet says offscreen, ‘A masterpiece is situated in the past after a lapse of time necessary for judgment, or in the future.” (At this point the Moullet in the middle panel disappears.) “It is not linked to current events. It is only recognized by posterity.” And, from there, even though there are some interesting remarks about how masterpieces in literature, painting, architecture, and music are identified and appraised, the principal exhibits in Moullet’s demonstration are cinematic.
Moullet’s special interest in shorts has been highlighted in his contributions to a fine but neglected French magazine devoted to short films, appropriately known as Bref, two shots of which pointedly appear, however fleetingly, in Chef-d’oeuvre? It culminates in this particular short in (a) a rapid montage of stills from several favorite shorts (including Marker’s La Jetée ) and (b) a complete run-through of Georges Méliès’ Le voyage dans la lune (1902), complete with a pithy, DVD-style critical commentary by Moullet himself as it unfolds. His comments about various gags, eroticism, colonialism, pollution, and special effects highlight what he can do as a critic at the same time that his defense of the short film forms an implied rebuke both to the gargantuan lengths of Syberberg’s Our Hitler (26 reels), Lanzmann’s Shoah (29 reels), and Reitz’s Heimat (52 reels), flouted in some earlier sight gags, and to the masterpiece-mongering of Jean-Michel Frodon in Cahiers du Cinéma’s Conseil des dix, presented in an equivalent mocking pan (”Lots of masterpieces this month,” Moullet notes dryly, without bothering to add that these are all features).
Paradoxically, while Moullet argues that you need to know the earlier paintings of Turner in order to properly appreciate one of his later masterpieces (and “the same with Godard”), an important part of the glory of Le voyage dans la lune and La Jetée, not to mention Moullet’s own Barres (1984), Essai d’ouverture (1988), Cabale des oursins (1991), Le ventre de l’Amérique (1996), and even Chef-d’oeuvre?, is how self-sufficient they are. And the same applies to many of Moullet’s best reviews.
From the January-February 2011 Film Comment. — J.R.
“In describing rarely screened movies like Lev Kuleshov’s The Great Consoler or Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik,” wrote a Boston Globe reviewer of my latest collection, “Rosenbaum is like a restaurant critic describing the mouth-watering meal he had at a restaurant that just closed in another city.” Since both films are available on DVDs with English subtitles to anyone who knows how to Google, this is a dubious compliment at best. But it might apply to the following, from my 2000 book Movie Wars: “Having had the opportunity to see I’ll Do Anything as a musical, I can report that it was immeasurably better in that form — eccentric and adventurous, to be sure, but also dramatically and emotionally coherent.”
I hope that someday Brooks can find a way of releasing his original cut of this film on DVD, though I’m told that the cost of the song rights might make this prohibitive. (Nine of these original songs are by Prince, and at least two others are by Carole King and Sinéad O’Connor.) So what follows is an attempt to explain what I like about a movie you may never be able to see, which is still my favorite Brooks feature.
“I conceived the story as a musical,” Brooks said, after doing his hasty reshoots to paper over the missing musical numbers that were lost to test marketing, “because musicals have a heightened sense of reality. Through song you can get closer to the truth.” And even though not all of the experimental numbers “work” especially well (I could have done without the title tune, for instance), I would still argue that the best of these — all featuring Twyla Tharp’s twitchy choreography as well as songs — are irreplaceable because they come closer to the truth than the remainder of this film.
I lack much familiarity with Brooks’s sitcoms apart from two animated ones (The Simpsons andThe Critic), but suspect that a deep-seated conflict underlying most of his features seems closely related to his TV background — an enslavement to ratings and all they imply coupled with a troubled conscience about the implications and consequences of his enslavement. This involves empathy for talented and principled neurotics rejected by this system (Albert Brooks’s newscaster in Broadcast News, Nick Nolte’s actor in I’ll Do Anything) and a love-hatred for other neurotics who are perhaps even more troubled yet who seem to thrive in the same industry (the respective producers played by Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks in the same two films). Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets and Téa Leoni in Spanglish embody non-showbiz versions of related maladies, and here again, regardless of whether Brooks loves them or hates them, he seems to know them on a first-person basis. Albert Brooks admitted to Gavin Smith (in the July/August 1999 Film Comment) that his monstrous test-marketing producer “must have” been based on Joel Silver, because Silver hadn’t spoken to him since, but James Brooks, his friend, has also confessed (in a Los Angeles Times story back in 1993) that the character was at least partly a bitter self-portrait.
It may have been the wrenching honesty of this insider’s take on the brutality of studio politics more than the conventions of the musical numbers that preview audiences rejected — or, rather, rejected immediately after they saw the movie, before they had time to adjust to its strangeness. (Who knows what they might have thought or felt a couple of hours later, which the voodoo science of test-marketing routinely ignores?) There may have been other factors that contributed to the turn-offs — such as the creepy performance of Whittni Wright as Nolte’s bratty, precocious little girl (part of whose icky solo number, alas, is the only song retained in the final version). But the best numbers were what got removed, and the raw, crippled feelings they embody are what one misses most.
I’ve been asked more than once to comment on Sylvain Chomet’s recent animated feature based on a Jacques Tati screenplay — something I’ve frankly been avoiding, for reasons that I’ll try to explain.
Last February 16, I received a very lengthy email from Richard Tatischeff Schiel McDonald, identifying himself as the middle grandson of Tati, and expressing his upset and anger about this film, which I was hearing about for the first time from him, and requesting that I make some of the information he was conveying to me better known if I planned to write about the film. I wrote him back the next day, and a week later he wrote me again: “I must admit to finding myself in a slightly uncomfortable position in making public the origins of my grandfather’s original l’Illusionniste script which until recently had been a very private family matter. My intentions are not to discredit my grandfather but hopefully by telling what is a very sad story I can shine a light onto a neglected chapter of his life that in part led to the creation of his professional body of work. My grandmother and all his stage acquaintances during the 1930’s/40’s always maintained that he was a great colleague as a friend and artist; he unfortunately just made a massive mistake that because of the time and circumstances he was never able to correctly address. I am sure his remorse hung heavy within him and it is for this reason that I believe Chomet’s adaptation of l’Illusionniste does a great discredit to the artist that was Tati.”
Two months later, when Kristin Thompson posted some remarks about this film (which she hadn’t yet seen either) on the web site that she shares with David Bordwell, before going on to discuss the BFI’s DVD of Tati’s Parade, I forwarded this letter to her. Then, the following fall, when I was in an airport waiting to fly to Vienna for the Viennale, I received an email from Dave Kehr asking if I wanted to comment on the film for a New York Times story he was writing. Hastily writing back that I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to see The Illusionist, I forwarded the same letter from McDonald to him as well, in order to explain why.
Given the very complicated (as well as hair-raising) story that McDonald had to tell, I can readily understand the reluctance of both Kristin and Dave to broach this matter in their separate venues. Fortunately, although I discovered this only later, Roger Ebert posted a subsequent letter that McDonald wrote to him in May on his own site, so readers can access the whole story here.
I finally saw a screener of The Illusionist last month, when I was back in Chicago for the holidays and found a disc waiting for me there. Which leads me to another reason, apart from McDonald’s letter, why I was somewhat reluctant to see it. By this time, I’d been reading quite a lot of favorable press about the film, most of which conveyed the impression that honoring this film was somehow tantamount to honoring Tati. Even after acknowledging that Chomet does have a poetic flair for composing in long shot that’s somewhat Tatiesque, I remain skeptical about the sentimental watering-down of his art that Chomet is clearly involved with, which invariably gives short shrift to the more radical aspects of his vision (such as those found in Playtime and in Parade, his last feature, which Kristen rightly identifies as his most neglected film — and which remains today almost completely unknown in the U.S.)
Recalling some of my own consternation about the late George Hickenlooper’s 1999 filming of a substantially rewritten (and, to my mind, severely mangled) version of Orson Welles’ screenplay The Big Brass Ring, the original version of which I had helped to publish in a limited edition in 1987, I was afraid of comparable kinds of obfuscation happening here — although in this case I hadn’t (and still haven’t) read Tati’s original script.
As for Chomet, about seven years ago, I briefly recommended his previous feature, The Triplets of Belleville (see the above still), in the Chicago Reader, which I’d described as “Sylvain Chomet’s Belgian surrealist cartoon feature for grown-ups…which is worth seeing for its weirdness and originality.” That film had several allusions of its own to Tati, but not ones that persuaded me that Chomet had any insights into Tati’s art that were especially instructive. And in the case of The Illusionist, quite apart from McDonald’s understandable objections, I find it highly dubious to make the magician hero not only a version of Tati himself, but, even more dubious, a version of Monsieur Hulot (notice the socks, for instance)– a character Tati had originally invented for only one film and about whom he later came to feel highly ambivalent, as I discussed in a 1983 memoir about my experience of working for him. (”The Death of Hulot,” Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, pp. 163-170 — also available here.)
If I exclude all these problems, I would agree (or at least assume) that Chomet’s film has some merit and some charm apart from all of these issues. But for reasons that I hope are clear by now, I’m not the right one to report on this. [1/16/11]