Sunday, March 24, 2013

Les Enfants Terribles. (1951) Jean-Pierre Melville

The Holy Terrors for A Black & White Still Winter.

I'll be going back and once again seeing Cocteau's Orphic Trilogy this week, and I thought it might be fun in preparation for that to visit with one of his "eariler" works. Les Enfants Terribles was Cocteau's novel from 1929, a story he held quite close to him, refusing several times to bring it to the big screen until somehow Jean-Pierre Melville got the right to direct the film in '51. The two artists were well acquainted. Cocteau is said to have not left the set that Melville was supposedly in charge of directing. In fact, many people think Les Enfants Terribles was directed by Jean Cocteau -- it seems much more fair to note it as a collaboration between two very different filmmakers in the nature of what and how they approached their works.

Criterion brought what they did to life on DVD in 2007, and one can look here for a good comparison, a reason to keep loving Criterion.* 

Still, it's not an easy film to watch, no matter how beautiful Criterion made it with their restored digital transfer. When one tries to immediately describe Les Enfants Terribles, they are forced to describe a brother and sister, constantly craving each other's attention, constantly screaming at each other and in general being bratty toward all -- and some kind of incestuous overtone that must be either more directly present in Cocteau's book or better inferred by more understanding critics, because it's something I'm just not seeing after my first viewing.

I will remember this as the film that slowed down my winter black and white viewings because it took me over a week (maybe longer) to actually get through it. I started it several times but just couldn't stand these bratty kids.

It might have been easier if I really believed they were kids. I don't know what the ages of the actors were, but I am going to guess twenty-four for Edouard Dermithe, who plays the brother, Paul, and early thirties for Nicole Stephane, sister Elisabeth -- both in the script are supposed to be around seventeen. (Wow. I just looked these actors up. They are both now passed away, and were very close to the ages I guessed them in the film.)

They simply don't look like teens.

Even so, the teens from the story act more like bratty little Junior Highers. Perhaps the entire story should have been written for, and acted by twelve year-olds. (I have nothing against twelve year-olds in general, I simply think the story could have been better pulled off with this age-range.)

This is normally the point at which I would describe a plot, but honestly I think I've said enough to give an apt description.

The film is also terribly narrated by none other than Cocteau himself. I believe the narration in French is more poetic sounding, otherwise I have no idea why this dry sounding narration drifts in and out of so many scenes -- unnecessary, redundant, and drab.

A lot has been made about how Les Enfants Terribles pre-dated and influenced the French New Wave -- Melville being a somewhat transitional figure that would eventually shift to Godard. This is something I'd need to have better explained to fully understand, and I guess if this shift is true it explains why a film like this is still respected to this day and worthy of notice by Criterion.

But I felt about it much the same way I felt about Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a film from 1966 which critics and cinephiles find important enough to continue talking about -- nonetheless a film which makes me wretch. I understand that a part of life is spending time with bratty people, but there are certain films which lack the redemptive quality I personally need in order to invest my time in them.

I attempted this film several times, and now I can't even remember whether or not I finished it.

All I know is that I'd never want to spend even an hour with any of the brats present here.

* When I think about the people at Criterion in charge of cleaning up and transferring old films and such, I typically get all mushy and gooey inside, thinking they might have one of the coolest jobs on earth. Then I get to a film like this and feel sorry for the poor crew that had to deal with it, working their hardest to do their best and all the time wondering why, oh why, this film.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Man With a Movie Camera. (1929) Dziga Vertov

A Russian Feast for the Eye, for A Black & White Still Winter.

Last month I wrote about Un chien andalou, an avant-garde surrealist sixteen-minute jolt, made in Paris in 1929 by artist Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel in his directorial debut. Around the same time the two were working on that masterpiece, a well-known filmmaker from Russia was working on one of his own: Man With a Movie Camera.
I reference the former because it's as unconventional as the latter, and of interest in pertaining to cinematic shifts at that time in other locked-off portions of the world.

Both were experiments, each in their own way. But whereas Un chien andalou set out to simply "shock the (Parisian) middle class," Vertov's submission looks more noble in its purpose: documenting the daily life of the citizens of Soviet Odessa, capturing life at the start of communism and machinist modernism -- a people at work, at play, and perhaps sometimes in their dreams.

"A Record in Celluloid on 3 Reels," the film advertises its innovative nature from its opening frames, referring to itself as, "A Film Without Intertitles... A Film Without a Scenario... A Film Without Sets, Actors, etc... This experimental work aims at creating a truly international absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of Theater and Literature."

And then like Eisenstein's Odessa Staircase sequence, that famous montage from Battleship Potemkin, lickity-split, we're off to the races. Man With a Movie Camera is edited at a frenetic pace*. The eye can't set on any one image for too long. It's not allowed to. These are perhaps the first films in history that take editing so seriously, and to its extreme. You blink and you've missed something.

But it's not just the editing of Man With a Movie Camera that makes it special. Even in our age of over-classification, with products categorized for groups and sub-groups of people, Man With a Movie Camera is a hard one to pin to any demographic. With no words rendered, it's still a full pictorial documentary. Yet by evidence of its own juxtaposed images, it's as avant-garde as any experimental work. The idea that it is hard to categorize into genre, along with the techniques the film employs (many of which were new in their day), make it a one-of-a-kind event, setting a high bar for any movie that would follow.

In its Wikipedia entry, a writer explains these new techniques:
This film is famous for the range of cinematic techniques Vertov invents, deploys or develops, such as double exposurefast motionslow motionfreeze framesjump cuts,split screensDutch angles, extreme close-upstracking shots, footage played backwards, stop motion animations and a self-reflexive style (at one point it features a split screen tracking shot; the sides have opposite Dutch angles).
Anything you can imagine -- workers in local factories, crowds in the city street, people brushing their teeth or putting on clothes in the morning or laying their head on train tracks or giving birth -- are mixed into this sixty-seven minute monstrous montage in which the man with the camera is ever-present. He is there capturing all of the land's happenings, and creating a few off-kilter images of his own. We follow him in a car, we see him dancing high on I-beams with his tripod, ready to film -- we see his eye in the lens itself, showing us that he sees what we see, but he wants to show it to us in a very different way.

A couple of images, self-explanatory in the idea of how this documentary is also avant-garde:

The self-reflexive nature was also something new -- the idea that the maker can be a part of the creation, as well, and that he's free to reference himself.

None of this is to say that it's easy viewing. After some time, the hardcore edits that once were so energizing can also become tiresome to the eye. Critics at the time complained about the frantic cuts, the fact that Vertov never let them settle and absorb into an image.

But there's a sly wink from Vertov in the film, where he speaks to these critics before they even had a chance to voice an opinion. Somewhere near the middle, we note that the camera man has a hard time taking it all in. In an eye-splintering montage (edits here seem to be running at about a half second or less), we see his eye,  and then the city, then his eye, then another shift in focus, back to his eye, and back to the people of the city, and so it goes. It's as if he is identifying with us in this moment, fully acknowledging that yes, it's a lot to take in -- but so is the depth of this city in general.

While not easy viewing, I would call it essential viewing for anyone enamored with the power of film, anyone who wants to understand where our modern concepts came from. It also functions as a historical file for Odessa, an archive of that place and a few other towns nearby.

Any other town which doesn't have a film like this should be envious, desiring something like it for its own.

I had a hard time keeping up with it. I'm somewhat certain that's part of the point. But at only sixty-seven minutes, I can't wait to see it again.

*It's been said that of the over 1700 cuts, Vertov's wife had to select and edit them all together. It's also been said that she was supposed to make some sort of sense of all of these images, deciphering their varying natures and building a sort of "narrative" along the way -- an impossible task to ask of her or anyone else, but she certainly made this into an interesting, sometimes mesmerizing experience.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Black & White Still Winter. (2013)

Every now and then we have a glimpse at a coming thaw. But with snow in piles on sidewalks and the not-so-white salted roads, winter, and a time of black and white, needs to continue.

A friend recently said to me: "I don't really believe in a dark night of the soul. Night is too dramatic and glowing with possibility. Even its lows are deep. I believe in the gray dawn of the soul because that's the hour when subterfuge fails and faith has nowhere to hide."

In a season of black and white, like a season of night, I am at peace in the present moment and yet happy to explore what happens in time. As for my annual February quest, I know haven't seen enough this year. For 2013, these viewings, for a little while, need to continue.

Soon Spring and color will make their way to these parts. For now, I'm content. Happy to simply be, and not wait. Let the cold winds die down in their own time. I am gray in a black and white world.