Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Golden Age of “Foreign” Film

(The film still shows Zbigniew Cybulski and Ewa Krzyzewska in Ashes and Diamonds.)

Let’s begin by asserting that the idea of a “golden age” is corrupt from the get-go, that it’s just another form of abject nostalgia. Then, let’s disagree with that, immediately and emphatically. There was a golden age of “foreign” film. It began with the Italian Neo-Realist films of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, and the rise in prestige of Japan’s Akira Kurasawa and India’s Satyajit Ray, and continued with the arrival of more directors, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni, and the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Then came the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague), and art houses were everywhere. Anna Magnani, Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Toshiro Mifune, Jeanne Moreau, Brigitte Bardot, Jean-Paul Belmondo were all huge stars who “crossed over” into English-language movies. The cult of the auter was accompanied by the cult of the film critic. In the US, Dwight MacDonald, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris wrote their own bibles. Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Luis Buñuel, and the aforementioned big-name directors received massive amounts of attention. Debate and controversy abounded. Somewhere in the middle of all this came Susan Sontag with her valorization of the new cinema, and especially of Robert Bresson, Bergman and Godard. Somewhere in the middle of all this came a significant moment, involving a propensity to recognize film as a legitimate art form, perhaps even equal to the “legitimate” theater. This was part of a larger moment.

In the 1950s, the music of the Dave Brubeck Quartet and the Modern Jazz Quartet, with their references to Bach and other “classical” composers, had led the guardians of art and culture to consider the possibility that jazz was “serious” music, as though West End Blues and Black and Tan Fantasy, Ornithology and Off Minor were somehow not serious. Nevertheless, a door was opened.

The folk music revival of the fifties and sixties rescued several old blues guys from obscurity, and, combined with the years of field work done by Alan Lomax, this gave a degree of artistic merit to the blues, albeit based in the idea of “social value “ deeming artistic credibility.

Even rock music got the treatment, as Bob Dylan and Lennon & McCartney were recognized as more “adult” and more “musical” than their rock’n’roll forerunners.

Meanwhile, the jury was still out on the subject of photography.

But film was in. And what was more , work that had been done at the French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma was taking its effect. Edited by future film director Éric Rohmer, with writers such as other future film directors, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut, it produced criticism (in the 1950s and 1960s) which honored the achievements of directors who had worked in the old Hollywood studio system. These included Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, Samuel Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray, and Anthony Mann. Film culture had arrived, bigtime.

New films by the directors of international cinema were greeted with acclaim and/or dismay; they were widely debated as to their substance, their meaning, their significance, and their importance. By the 1970s, I found the situation ironic, and not in a good way. The works of directors I had admired so much, ten or more years earlier, and still did admire, were now being used as a measure in order to dismiss most new American films, and even some European films, such as Sergio Leone’s , and other “spaghetti” Westerns. I came to dislike the words “cinema” and “film” and preferred “movie” as a usage that would distance me from the snobbery which I found ugly and stupid.

So much has changed since then. Terms like “film noir” no longer have any true meaning: they are just marketing tags. And the products of international cinema are hard to come by, much of the time, unless you are a devoted follower of film festivals. The golden age of international film did a slow fade through the 1908s into the background, where it has remained. I think that Star Wars was the turning point, the beginning of the age of special effects, with endless explosions, car chases, and more and more special effects. It is the cinema of endless orgasm, no foreplay, no actual sex, and no post-coital cigarettes (God forbid).

There have been recent, international films that have had some currency, such as Amélie, but Amélie is a very long way from Hiroshima mon amour and Vivre sa vie.

However, Godard (77years old) and Resnais (85 years old) do survive. I recently saw Coeurs / Private Fears in Public Places (directed by Resnais) at the Avalon. It was a good film, a character study mostly, that could have been made by any number of directors. This, too, was a long way from Hiroshima mon amour.

Godard is still going strong, but the hostility that greeted his WeekEnd in 1967 now seems to be universal. His extended TV series/video essay Histoires du Cinema was screened at The Museum of Modern Art as each episode appeared, between 1988 and 1998, but it remains unavailable on DVD, perhaps because it has been compared to Finnegan’s Wake. Not even Godard’s 84 minute 2004 condensation of the series is available.

Of this latter work, film critic Robert Keser had this to say:

“I need a day to tell the history of a second, a year to tell the history of a minute, a lifetime to tell the history of a day.” That’s the film artist’s dilemma, or one of them, according to Jean-Luc Godard in his intense and visually stunning Moments Choisis des Histoire(s) du Cinéma. With the authority of his half-century of filmmaking, from his jump-cut debut Breathless to last year’s Dantean Notre Musique, Godard here compresses into 87 mercurial, stimulating minutes his decades-in-the-making labor of love called Histoire(s) du Cinéma, which otherwise runs to eight parts and exceeds five hours. What he has produced is less a summary than a tasting menu of the greater work, his attempt to place cinema “against the unfeeling vastness of time.”

However, Notre musique (also 2004) is available on DVD. Structurally, it is based on The Divine Comedy. Is it enough to say that in the third part Paradise is walled off and guarded by U.S. military forces? Someone named “cnamed” at the IMDB had this to say about it: “He has begun to rely again on Borges, which is always good, and there is much less Merleau-Ponty.” I’d like to know more about that. There is Merleau-Ponty’s idea of every object being a mirror of all other objects, and Jean-Luc does talk in Notre musique about Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday as being the same character as each other. But it’s been many years since I swam in the waters of existentialism, and I doubt that “cnamed” was being that literal. Of course, there are doubles in Borges, too, but I don’t know – maybe I’ll send an e-mail to “cnamed” to see what (s)he says.

Still photograph from Godard’s Moments choisis des histoire(s) du cinéma (2004)

Godard has a new “documentary” called Vrai faux passeport (2006), but there is no sign of that on the radar,

There are at least five other “golden age” survivors still kicking.

Andrzej Wajda (81) has a new movie, Katyn coming out in Poland this September. I had no desire to see his last film, Zemsta / The Revenge, a farce based on an 18th century Polish play, featuring Roman Polanski. The last Wajda film I saw was the excellent Danton (1983), with Gérard Depardieu in the title role, which had some compelling parallels in the story of Danton and Robespierre with real life conflicts between Solidarity union leader Lech Walesa and the dictatorial Polish leader General Jaruselski. Wajda was always a very politically conscious filmmaker. Popiól i diament, better known as Ashes and Diamonds, was always one of my favorite films of the early “golden age” and maybe the most brilliant film ever made about postwar Europe. Wajda made a lot of films during the last twenty-five years, but few of them seem to have made it to DVD.

Nagisa Oshima (75 tears old) is still with us, but has not delivered anything since Gohatto / Taboo (1999). I know nothing about this film, except that it is available on DVD. I’d like to see his prior effort, 100 Years of Japanese Cinema, but it was made for TV and is not available.

Agnès Varda (79 years old) is still working regularly, and gave us Quelques veuves de Noirmoutier (2006), a 70 minute documentary about the island of Noirmoutier, which she had visited frequently with her late husband, the director Jacques Demy. From what I can gather, the film is about the lives of fifteen widowed women. Don’t worry, it is not available.

Éric Rohmer (87 years old) has completed a film,
Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon, based on novels written by Honoré d'Urfé at the beginning of the seventeenth century, coming to your local cineplex momentarily, no doubt.

And one of my personal favorites, Claude Chabrol (aged 77), has a new movie, too – La Fille coupée en deux, for which the IMDB offers the following plot keywords: Extramarital Affair / Bookstore / Birthday / Lyon France / TV. Who can resist? It’s a thriller, as so many of Claude’s films have been. This is the fourth film Chabrol has made since the last one I saw, Le Fleur du mal (2003). Does the title remind you of anyone? The IMDB plot keywords for this one are: Attempted Rape / Beach House / Croissant / Dark Secret / Desire. It’s an upper-bourgeousie melodrama about family secrets, with the fabulous Nathalie Baye as the central character, who decides to run for mayor and opens up a can of not always convincing plot developments. It’s not one of Claude’s best, but I loved it. There’s always stuff going on. As one critic pointed out, “The deliberate Renault Twingo product placements are quite funny as they get more elaborate as the film progresses."

Allez vous, Claude!


tmorange said...

notre musique and eloge de l'amour are some of the most provocative and engaging films i've ever seen and (unlike most) could easily watch over and over.

but it has indeed frustrated me since i first began to get a sense of godard's oeuvre how much of it is simply unavailable for viewing -- in any format. and we're not even talking about the dziga vertov group shorts or the 10+ hour series done for french tv -- just forget about getting yr hands on those. i mean the feature-length films, dozens of them, that cannot be viewed right now in this country, anywhere, any format.

i can't help thinking that in the same way out-of-print and otherwise commercially unavailable music now circulates on the internet, film might find or perhaps is finding its way towards a similar means of circulation.

bela tarr is my most recent eastern european favorite.


douglang said...

Yeah, the entire Godard thing is absurd. Unbelievable even while being totally believable.

Never heard of Bela Tarr before. I went right to the IMDB and then to Amazon, where I ordered Werckmeister harmóniák.

My current "foreign" favorites are:

Michael Haneke -- check out Funny Games, or Code Iconnu, or any of his movies, if you have not seen them yet. Apparently, an American version of Funny Games is being made, with Naomi Watts, I believe,
and that's kind of odd.

Kar Wai Wong, esp. In the Mood for Love & 2046.

tmorange said...

excellent choice on th werckmeister my friend, i think it will not disappoint.

i like some of the haneke i've seen, can't remember the titles tho and will spare you the inept plot summaries i might produce.