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Goodbye, Claude Chabrol

I guess I thought Claude Chabrol, having made fifty-some movies in fifty-some years, wouldn’t die any time soon. Least of all today.

I guess, somehow, I thought the gentleman director of Les Biches, Le Boucher, and the only Madame Bovary worth seeing, would have to live on, if only to show serious film-going Americans that he deserved to be referenced not as a footnote or appreciative aside, but up top with Godard and Truffaut, where every discussion of the French New Wave invariably begins.

I realize now that Chabrol and I have had what I can only describe as a private relationship. Seems an unusual way to characterize an association with a person one has never met, but as I think back on it I’m certain it’s true. I tend not to go on and on about The Story of Women or Merci Pour Le Chocolat, though I’d like to. And on that rare occasion when I can get rapturous about La Femme Infidele without changing the subject, I feel an urge to keep it together.

Am I protecting him from opposition? Am I, like one of Chabrol’s stable of hypocrites, stifling my excitement for the sake of propriety? Maybe. But I suspect there is something darker to it, something more perverse. As I think back on those nights (they must always be nights) when I watched Chabrol in public, with an audience, or at least a group of friends, I remember feeling my attention split. The direct artery between me and Chabrol would fracture and spread to each person around me, and the otherwise volcanic force of blood flow would be slowed. A fidget to my left, a laugh to my right, and the acute sense of focus Chabrol works so hard to maintain would be lost.

Of course every careful filmmaker deserves careful focus, and to say one deserves more than another is to show a personal favoritism that most careful critics try to avoid. But in the case of Claude Chabrol, whose cinematic volume was turned down to whisper level, there is an impulse to sit as close to the screen as possible, to put one’s ears and eyes right up against the image and take a deep breath in, like a lone yogi sitting on a mountain top.

Chabrol is often compared with Hitchcock, and for good reason; they share similar interests, a similar sense of humor, and Chabrol himself invites the comparison (his book, Hitchcock: The First Forty Films, written with Eric Rohmer, is considered to be one of the best of Hitchcockiana’s first generation). But when I watch Vertigo, I sit far away from the screen. Hitch’s English libido – raging with despair, fraught with guilt – can be that overpowering. Chabrol, French as they come, is so at ease with his unease that sometimes it looks like he isn’t doing anything at all.

Claude Chabrol

(June 24, 1930 – September 12, 2010)

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The Silent Treatment

“The American silent cinema of the 1920s gave us three great comedians,” wrote Dave Kehr in last week’s Times, “Harold Lloyd, whose hyperkinetic optimism seemed the perfect embodiment of his epoch; Charles Chaplin, whose Victorian sentimentality was just a touching bit behind it; and Buster Keaton, who was so far ahead of his time that we’re still running to catch up with him.”

What is it about this period in film history that invites such useless debate? You never hear anyone debating Cary Grant vs. Humphrey Bogart, or Howard Hawks vs. Alfred Hitchcock. But when it comes to Chaplin and Keaton, it always gets hot. Why?

Don’t get me wrong. I love heat. Crave it. But where there’s smoke there’s not always fire. Exhibit A: Dave Kehr. Is Lloyd’s hyperkinetic optimism relevant only to his epoch? Is Chaplin’s Victorian sentimentality really his defining characteristic?

To those who have seen Speedy and Safety Last, the ridiculousness of the Lloyd remark is self-evident. The famous scene of Lloyd slipping from the hands of a giant clock ticking a hundred stories above the pavement is simply ageless. Comedy – silent or otherwise – has hardly produced a more eloquent expression of our most basic fear. Lloyd’s films were time and technology obsessed, slapstick comedies à la Dziga Vertov. Nothing could be more modern.

Now for Chaplin.

When oh when oh when can we retire the Chaplin/Sentimental polemic? What good has it done us? (I find it curious, by the way, that Chaplin’s team has not devised a counterattack. You never hear them nail Buster Keaton for, say, his simplicity. Like the Los Angelenos in the L.A./N.Y. debate, they are rarely on offense.) Taking this angle with Chaplin is as fruitless as condemning Billy Wilder for being cynical. It is merely a fact of his sensibility and speaks neither for or against his genius.

It is fashionable for “serious” film scholars – often highly analytic types who eschew sentiment – to raise themselves above the Chaplinesque masses by way of extolling Keaton’s craft. There is a utilitarian function to this; not only is “craft” the domain of the educated elite, it’s a hell of a lot easier to write about. Let me be clear: I mean no disrespect to Keaton – only to those who champion him at The Tramp’s expense. They have obviously never stopped to marvel at the mind that made dancing feet out of two bread rolls. Sentimental? I call that surrealism.

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Federico y Ginger

Amid news of a Pac-Man movie, the latest casting developments in Captain America, reviews of Iron Man 2, new TV spots for The A-Team, and Fox’s announcement of a Planet of the Apes prequel, I excavated a small piece of encouragement: Pedro Almodovar will be working with Antonio Banderas once again. The film, The Skin I Live In, will begin shooting this summer.

“The film will be a terror film, without screams or scares,” Almodovar told the Spanish daily El Pais. “It’s difficult to define and although it comes close to the terror genre – something that appeals to me that I’ve never done – I won’t respect any of its rules. It’s the harshest film I’ve ever written and Banderas’ character is brutal.”

Throughout the eighties, Almodovar and Banderas made five films together – Labyrinth of Passion, Matador, Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and finally Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! – an impressive, versatile streak that, in its day, ranked with the greatest director/actor partnerships around. Back then, before Almodovar had fully cultivated his current, perversely mature sensibility, Antonio Banderas was the living embodiment of his world, Cary Grant to his Howard Hawks. Under Almodovar’s direction, the actor alternated between a screwball-state of flummoxed boyishness (like Grant in Bringing Up Baby, Monkey Business, I Was A Male War Bride) and commanding manliness (like Grant in Only Angels Have Wings) – a duality appropriate to Almodovar’s madcap feeling for passionate behavior.

Together they forged new cinematic ground (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is an NC-17 comedy about a stalker in love with a heroine addicted porn-star), pushing ahead into uncharted emotional territory that they may not have reached on their own. Katharine Hepburn’s famous remark about Fred and Ginger – “He gave her class and she gave him sex” – readily applies; Pedro is Fred, Antonio is Ginger. How else could we have been lured into rooting for Banderas, who played that memorable, lovable rapist in Matador? Teamwork.

Jimmy Stewart made cold Hitchcock warm; Mastroianni gave warm Fellini cool; and Liv Ullmann gave Bergman’s films a chance at hope, like a life preserver thrown into a cold, dark sea. Antonio Banderas – a highly gifted performer who has never really been taken seriously in America – could, as Almodovar said, play “a puerile guy with an overpowering power of seduction.” Has there ever been a better summary of Almodovar’s brand of playful intensity?

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I Confess

Alfred Hitchcock died thirty years ago this week, on April 29th, 1980.

I’ve always had a confusing relationship with Hitch. With several exceptions (which I’ll touch on in a moment), a large majority of his pictures fill me with a strange mixture of awe and apathy, like when the TV tells me about a new sports car that can go very, very fast, or an athlete who scores a lot of points. “Yes,” I want to say to movies like North by Northwest, “That’s a lovely sequence – a touchdown sequence – but…then what?”

Maybe it’s because we like to talk about Hitchcock in pieces. The Shower Scene, the crane shot in Notorious, Vertigo’s dolly zoom, the high-angle shot from Topaz – wonderful garnish, but sometimes I wonder, where’s the beef? (Caveat: Vertigo is 100% prime cut select.) Often, it has helped me to see the garnish as the beef: so many of these pictures tend to be as much about how we watch them as they are about their content. Rope is a famous example: an experiment in watching. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’ve always thought Rear Window was one of Hitch’s best; it was a subject near to Hitch’s heart, and it showed.

Wait, did I just write “Hitch’s heart”? What does that mean, exactly?

Screenwriter David Freeman had the good fortune to work with Alfred Hitchcock late in his career, in the days when Hitch would have prints of the newest movies delivered to his office at Universal, which is how he saw Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. In his book, The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock, Freeman reports that Hitch, at the height of one of those ferocious Liv-Ullmann/Ingrid Bergman scenes, got up from his seat, wobbled to the door, and announced, “I’m going to the movies.” Then he left.

It’s a revealing anecdote, and a reminder that Alfred Hitchcock, deep in his heart-thing, was really not one for the hard stuff. He was jokester. Tilt your head, substitute Cary Grant for Alec Guinness, and you’ll see a good portion of these pictures look like sadistic Ealing Comedies. Shadow of a Doubt, Suspicion, Lifeboat, Strangers on a Train, and a few of the films I mentioned above, all have that mischievous prankster quality, the giggly feeling of pulling the rug out from under the status quo. I like these movies, but with the exception of Vertigo and Rear Window, my personal cluster of favorites comes from the back shelf: The Wrong Man, I, Confess, and The Man Who Knew Too Much (the second) are perhaps his most disturbing films. Not because their composition is any more bravura than Psycho’s, but because they each feature such strong performances (Henry Fonda, Montgomery Clift, and Doris Day, respectively). These characters are the dead-opposite of the Hitchcock Blonde, and their films are all the better for it. But that’s very much a personal thing.

For the record: it’s only because I love Hitchcock that I let myself needle through his best films. As a former-fellow voyeur, I know he wouldn’t want it any other way.

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Luis Buñuel: A Personal History

The filmmaker Luis Buñuel was born in Spain on February 22, 1900, one hundred and ten years ago this week.

If they’re aggressive about it, most contemporary American filmgoers don’t get to Buñuel until their college years. By then, they’ve probably had their first run-ins with Fellini and Bergman (definitely 8 ½, maybe Persona), and have very likely sampled the early Godard, if they’re that way inclined (I wasn’t). There are variations of course (I saw Fanny and Alexander and worked backwards), but any way you get them, these are the filmmakers who picked us up from the prom, drove us up to Make Out Point, and took our Hollywood virginity.

Then, a year or so later, Buñuel creeps in there. And I do mean creeps. Maybe it was some clove-smoking girl in college, maybe it was rakish professor of World Cinema, or maybe it was the greasy guy at the video store. In either case, there comes a point when the young cinephile exhausts the Italians and the French (and Bergman), and uncovers the strange and often wonderful world of Luis Buñuel. It happens to everyone. Just as babies start to walk, children learn to speak, and grownups find their favorite drink. (Buñuel’s, but the way, was a martini. He wrote, “To provoke, or sustain, a reverie in a bar, you have to drink English gin, especially in the form of a martini…Like all cocktails, the martini, composed essentially of gin and a few drops of Noilly Prat, seems to have been an American invention. Connoisseurs who like their martinis very dry suggest simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin. At a certain period in America it was said that the making of a dry martini should resemble the Immaculate Conception, for, as Saint Thomas Aquinas once noted, the generative powers of the Holy Ghost pierced the virgin’s hymen ‘like a ray of sunlight through a window – leaving it unbroken.”)

I’ve digressed, but that’s how Buñuel would want it. He’d also want you to imagine me – a scholarly type, and published, soon to be twice published – with my pants down as I write this, or, like the famous scene from The Phantom of Liberty, sitting contemplatively on a gleaming white toilet, imagining myself in bed with a cold, cold, legless woman who is actually the English Prime Minster, a man, but played by a woman.

An all-around anarchist, Buñuel wants to explode everything – literal and figurative – including government buildings, traditional narrative forms, sexual mores, and Jesus Christ. As a college student beginning to understand the joys of explodability, Buñuel was just what the medcin ordered, and in films like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Obscure Object of Desire, (perennial favorite) Belle du Jour, and (my favorite) The Exterminating Angel, all aspects of civilized life were fair target. Cut to: “Another crucial recommendation is that the ice be so cold and hard that it won’t melt, since nothing’s worse than a watery martini. For those who are still with me, let me give you my personal recipe, the fruit of long experimentation and guaranteed to produce perfect results. The day before your guests arrive, put all the ingredients – glasses, gin, and shaker – in the refrigerator. Use a thermometer to make sure the ice is about twenty degrees below zero (centigrade). Don’t take anything out until your friends arrive; then pour a few drops of Noilly Prat and half a demitasse spoon of Angostura bitters over the ice. Shake it, then pour it out, leaving only the ice, which retains a faint taste of both. Then pour straight gin over the ice, shake it again, and serve.”

But just as I fell for Buñuel, I crept away from him. And I do mean crept. Buñuel’s refined esoteric sensibility (not to mention his undeniable talent) will keep his films in fashion as long as people are making movies – a terrific thing, and quite deserved – but it makes it difficult to admit – at least publicly – that in the days since college, he and I have had a tiny falling out.

Over time, I saw the mechanism behind his satire begin to creak. I saw the jabs coming, and they were the same jabs he’d been jabbing his whole life. (Part of the problem, I think, was that he was so good so early in his career – Un Chien Andalou was 1929 – that it didn’t leave him too far to go.) Buñuel, who seemed the most grown-up filmmaker – the only filmmaker ever to truly intimidate Hitchcock – seemed to me, around the time I left college, a case of arrested development. Like Hitch, he was, in the end, shackled by his perversities. He never blew them up.

Shutter Island Paradise

I’m not surprised Shutter Island has put people off. It’s bombastic, loud, prone to hysteria, and engaged with the sort of horror hokum we want to think Martin Scorsese – our most popular highbrow filmmaker – is too good for. To be frank, some scenes clank. Others are embarrassingly operatic, and a few too many moments stumble into kitsch (“He’s in here. I can feel it.“), but the gestalt is insidiously addictive.

Attribute it to Scorsese’s deft handling of noir-like flashbacks and horror-type fantasies, which he fuses to induce that place of semi-consciousness between vivid recall and total insanity. It is a state of mind perfectly suited to America of the mid-fifties – not coincidentally the time-setting for Shutter Island – when post-war trauma, McCarthyism, and the pressure to keep it all together were making a paranoid mess of those the nation once counted amongst its sane.

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With material such as this, it’s no wonder Scorsese isn’t shy about going all out. Maybe Michael Haneke would have played it closer to the vest, but when was the last time the director of films as visceral as Raging Bull and Goodfellas traded in whip-pans and splattered blood for a feathery touch? (Even The Age of Innocence is exploding with cinematic guts.) More than that, when was the last time insanity was ever depicted as polite?

Don’t worry, I didn’t ruin anything. From the word “asylum,” we should have a pretty good sense of what’s at stake for our main character. And anyway, the surprises – and there are many – have less to do with twists and turns in the plot than watching Scorsese re-explore one of his favorite subjects – this time with new eyes. Here, in the realm of noir and horror, genres that lend themselves to surreal breaks from objectivity, he can indulge his flamboyance to the nth degree, continuing to build, quite logically, on a sequence of madness that started way back with Taxi Driver, and expanded to include Cape Fear, Bringing Out the Dead, and The Aviator (with side trips to After Hours and The King of Comedy along the way).

Scorsese’s invocation of madness in Shutter Island is as satisfying as anything he’s filmed in twenty years. The Departed was a good time too, and so was Casino, but neither did much to grow the director beyond the walls of his comfort zone. Shutter Island, on the other hand, pushes our conception of Scorsese to the brink. It tests him, and he comes out the cleverer for it, proving that he has what it takes to navigate through the film’s several timeframes and planes of consciousness both the old fashioned way – with a system of symbols triggering the narrative from one association to the next – just as he and his editor, the amazing Thelma Schoonmacher, shuffle us through a trick deck of visual sleights of hand. Like something out of Vertigo, disorienting shifts between points of view – shots that begin (it seems) from one perspective and end up (it seems) from another – evoke the kind of psychological rupture lesser directors would fob off with cosmetic gimmicks, nutty angles, and (God help us) the standard hand-held effect (scary!).

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But there’s more. In the midst of the fancy-footwork, the director proves, once again, that he knows where his characters’ hearts lie. Like all good films noirs, Shutter Island must eventually confront that moment of original sin, when, way back in the past, things started going wrong. When it comes time to show it, in keeping with everything else about Shutter Island, he isn’t afraid to pump up the volume. Scorsese knows there’s no trauma without trauma. Fearlessly, he conveys the wound with a seriousness that belies what many, myself included, consider the limitations of the thriller.

And in the midst of all this, Shutter Island happens to be one hell of a fun ride. If you’re anything like me, you’ll enjoy listening to the Coney Island clicks and creaks of the old rollercoaster as your wooden car makes its fateful way up.

Les biches

I’ve always had a thing for Claude Chabrol.

Godard never hits my sweet spot and Truffaut, with few exceptions, hits it too hard. But Chabrol, mercurial, clever Chabrol, always knows what I want. True, he may choose not to give it, he may delay or even withhold satisfaction, but our pleasure is always in his crosshairs, and Chabrol feathers it like a giggling coquette. Better than that, when he’s in a playfully sadistic mood, he may not feather at all. But he’s still laughing. Mercurial Chabrol almost always is.

Like Hitchcock, one of his masters, Chabrol gets a big kick out of perversity. But unlike Hitch, Chabrol’s sense of a humor never sinks to sea level. He’s too damn French for that; Shakespeare would have him somewhere between Lady Macbeth and Falstaff. Think of Les biches (1968), which Chabrol called “the first film which I made exactly as I wished.” It begins full of delicious ennui (bien sur) as Frederique, a beautiful, wealthy Parisian (played by Chabrol’s wife and frequent collaborator, Stephane Audran), picks up a sidewalk artist called “Why” (Jacqueline Sassard), brings her to her posh apartment, watches her bathe, and after some highly suggestive cross-cutting on the part of Chabrol, drops to her knees to drink in Why’s glistening midriff. Well, by now we can hardly stand it. (Come on, Chabrol! Give it to us!) Slowly, so as not to disturb the thick air of languor our director has painstakingly cultivated, Frederique raises her spindly fingers to the button on Why’s jeans, and Chabrol slams us with a hard cut to another place and time. The foreplay has begun.

Into their idyll comes Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to lure Why from Frederique. Together, the three of them circle onward toward a ménage, but no one seems to be having any fun; we soon see this is a game of possession, not sex, and certainly not love. Indeed their every interaction is handled with a sensuality so joyless, if it wasn’t for Chabrol’s cinematic wit, you might think you were watching Antonioni. Throughout the picture, Audran keeps her face as still as lake. When she moves or speaks, it’s practically without intention. At times, like a person out of Pinter, she barely seems to play the part. And yet, it comes off.

With looks as blank as these, it falls to Chabrol to make sense of them for us. He becomes, in a sense, a kind of translator, and uses his camera to reveal the quiet violence coursing beneath the façade. To pull it off, Chabrol could, like Hitchcock, dutch the angle (as in I, Confess), or subsume us in point of view (Rear Window), or try out terrific tricks (Vertigo), but – surprise, surprise – he’s too damn French for that. Instead, Chabrol casts a cool, objective lens on his characters’ dysfunction. But rather than distance us from them, his remove invites us to push past the surfaces and wonder at what sickness churns on the other side of their eyes. Suddenly, the hairline fractures come into view. Then the cracks. Things begin to break.

Enough hours with Chabrol, and one can see the fissures coming a long way off, but no matter; when his mysteries falter, or when his suspense lags, there is more than enough psychological disintegration to keep us going. Can’t see it on the faces? Then look to the camera. By the end of Les biches, flat, deadening two-shots – the shallow-focus kind that Buñuel loved – give way to cubism. With whirling elegance, Chabrol juliennes the action; small pushes-in, gentle tracks-out, and layered compositions lend the narrative its multidimensionality, and enhance our understanding of these people’s inner lives. It keepsLes biches from drooling into hysterics and flamboyant clichés, and it allows Chabrol’s two opposing loves – refinery and brutality – to exist side by perverse side.

This piece originally appeared at notcoming.com

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