Tag Archives: film

In the Wave

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It is a fun and utterly cosmopolitan thing to do to go see a movie alone the first day it comes out on a cool grey late spring day in mid-week, at mid-afternoon in New York City. It’s a Truffaut/Godard thing to do, by way of saying that yesterday, Wednesday, restlessly trying to feel the pulse of a return to work in the studio after a hard season of teaching and wrestling with the publication of my book and the launch of this blog, I took myself to the Film Forum to see Two in the Wave, Emmanuel Laurent’s new film about the artistic friendship of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut.

In my teens and early twenties I was a Truffaut person. I remember seeing Breathless but it does not seem to have left the lasting impression on me that seeing Jules et Jim did (these films were released in 1960 and 62 but I probably didn’t see them until about 4 or 5 years later) — Jean Seberg versus Jeanne Moreau… I’m sorry. But I seem to recall that when I read about Godard’s other films, and I read the New York Times and New Yorker art and film criticism pages even more closely and with more of a sense of moment and thirst then than I do now, I felt somehow intimidated or, probably more so, the people and the language that supported Godard seemed intimidating to me. Maybe they were more radical and in the context of the late 60s I may have been more conservative than the vanguard of my generation — I loved Antonioni too, so there was some general sensibility there.  The poeticism of Truffaut resonated deeply, as did  the sense of longing. For instance, for me as a young girl, the scene in Jules et Jim when Jeanne Moreau puts cold cream on her face before going to bed with Jim in the doomed hope of conceiving a child,  was a mysterious key-hole view into an adult sexuality.

Still from Jules et Jim

I had (I bet I still have somewhere) a 45 rpm record of Jeanne Moreau singing Le Tourbillion (Dans le Tourbillion de la Vie) which I listened to often:

Record cover art, Jeanne Moreau, Le Tourbillion, from Jules et Jim, 1962

The Wild Child is a film I think of often: Truffaut’s own reserved and gentle presence as actor and narrator, the story of the effort to educate a feral child, particularly the experiment to see if he understands the concept of justice, the beautiful use of black and white, the simplicity and seeming verisimilitude of the settings make me feel that I have spent two hours in post-Revolutionary France inside the mind of an Enlightenment figure.

Now I am also nuts about Godard movies. While having steered clear of Godard in my youth may have been a terrible and costly mistake — I might have understood modernism and radicality so much better and perhaps fared so much better professionally as a result had I followed Godard much earlier (pitiless irony does so much better) — it has also been a gift to discover the movies now because seen at a remove of 40 or more years they are on the one hand as filled with a very similar sense of charm and a kind of innocence to that of Truffaut, (see Masculin/Feminin and Stolen Kisses), as or more poetic (see Alphaville),  and at the same time the sharp, disjointed, Brechtian editing style, bright color aesthetic, and the political satire as well as the uncanny apparition of Abu Ghraib-like imagery of films like La Chinoise are as brilliant and radical and new now than then, maybe more so. But as I embrace Godard I would hate to think of Truffaut as seeming lesser. Two poets can exist in the world, even if eventually they can’t speak to each other, they can both still speak to us.

I highly recommend seeing Two in the Wave. It is a complex, imperfect yet fascinating and also touching documentary on the friendship of Truffaut and Godard from the day they met in 1949 — a moment captured in as uncanny a photograph as that of the young Bill Clinton shaking the hand of President Kennedy. Was anyone there to shoot a picture the day Damon met Pythyas? — to the bitter end of their long and productive friendship in 1973.

The only flaw in the film is the organizing frame of a young woman, “played” by actress Isild Le Besco in order to humanize the director’s focus on reams of archival print material. It’s kind of a waste of time but doesn’t harm the film which offers so much rich material. The film is “about” a number of things: the history of the Nouvelle Vague as a radical movement of rupture from tired rules of commercial cinema is laid out though the interpolation of archival copies of the Cahiers du Cinema to which both men wrote film criticism before they started directing their own movies, a radical rupture paradoxically rooted in their passionate and redemptive love for the history of film. The importance of influence, homage, and quotation is a major theme with many scenes of each man avowing his admiration for the same directors: Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Roberto Rossellini are cited as major influences by both. There is a fascinating clip of an interview between Fritz Lang and Godard, with Lang urbanely speaking in flawless French, as well as appearing as himself as film director in Godard’s Contempt. The whole mid-century phenomenon of “cinephilia” is discussed at length, a passion that I’m not sure is as prevalent now: how many times do I tell some student working in video about basic film form: editing, lighting, script, and mention someone like HItchcock and meet a blank stare.

There is an interesting section on the influence of Bergman on both of them, in particular how he taught them to film women, not just their bodies but their subjectivities, their desires.

Each film reference is a line of a must see filmography.

This is also a tale of two ambitions and of the moment when politics was the excuse for an irreparable break. They had often worked in tandem in support of film and other causes. Both were involved in the February-March 1968 demonstrations in Paris to protest the firing by Andre Malraux of Henri Langlois, co-founder of the Cinemateque Francaise and one of the many father figures they shared a passionate admiration for.

Although for many years they often engaged in political activism together up to and including the events of May 1968,the two men eventually split over politics. Their films went in different directions. Truffaut died at the early age of 52. Godard still works although some of his recent work including Histoire(s) du Cinema is often quite hard to access particularly here in the United States and he has kept himself remote. Still the tenor of their final exchange of letters indicates long simmering resentments. After the release of Truffaut’s 1973 film Day for Night, Godard wrote him, denouncing his (a)political declarations about the nature of film and calling him a “liar.” Truffaut responded in a 20 page letter, calling him a disingenuous shit who always managed to make himself out as the victim and denouncing Godard’s politics as fundamentally hypocritical and inauthentic, “That men are equal is a theory for you.”

But then the film ends on another note, not exactly reconciliatory but nevertheless of a different tenor, like, very like, reviewing the life of a child after having told the story of his parents’ happy marriage, differing natures, and bitter divorce: the very close artistic and personal relationship that both directors had with the actor Jean-Pierre Leaud, who was effectively, as the character Antoine Doinel, the alter ego of Truffaut in The 400 Blows, Stolen Kisses, Bed & Board, Love on the Run, in addition to his appearances in other Truffaut movies as well as the star of major films by Godard including Masculin,Feminin, La Chinoise, Love on the Run, Made in USA, and Weekend.

Two in the Wave ends with Leaud’s first film test interview for The 400 Blows. Then about twelve years old, he is cheeky, eager, Parisian: “are you sad or happy?” asks the off-sceen voice of Truffaut. “Je suis pas triste, je suis gai,” I’m not sad, I’m happy,” answers Leaud, replicating without knowing it one of the most exquisitely poignant moments in the history of French film, when in Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise), the character of the heroine, the beautiful Garance, played by Arletty, says in a bright and brittle tone, with a beautiful smile masking a guarded heart, “Moi? Je suis gai comme un pinson.” “I’m as gay as a songbird.”

It is not altogether unfitting to recommend books of writings by, interviews with, and biographies of these two filmmakers because they began as film critics using writing to prepare a critical field for their work and their formations as critics and scenarists made them extremely articulate proponents of their ideas and of the history of film, in text and in interviews.

Interview with director Emmanuel Laurent about his use of actress Isild Le Besco as a silent framing device

Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard by Richard Brody,

Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews

Godard on Godard

Books by or about Francois Truffaut:

The Films in My life,

Hitchcock/Truffaut

Truffaut: A Biography

Cahiers du Cinema: The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New
Wave, vol.1


However their films are the necessary element: these two men who spent their youths at the Paris Cinemateque studying the entire history of film should be honored by festivals of their films, and since this documentary focuses on their friendship it would be interesting to embody the productive interaction by scheduling/studying their films in dual sequential order: the documentary focuses on their actual collaborations, including Breathless, for which Truffaut wrote the screenplay, giving his already more developed stature to Godard in order to give him a chance to make his first full length film. But other alternating presentations would be fascinating: the double chronology of Jean-Pierre Leaud’s presence in both directors’ films for 15 years is one of the most interesting tri-lateral collaborations in the history of cinema, and one of the most charming to watch, and tragic to think about. I left the Film Forum envisioning a month-long, four screen festival, with Truffaut’s films running in sequence in the first, Godard’s running in sequence in the next (the Film Forum did have a great festival of Godard films in 2008 and one of Truffaut in 1999), then the dual presentation, film for film, running in the second theater; while in the third, and in the fourth, the directors they loved.. oh and no we need a fifth theater in which to screen all the other wonderful films of their time, by Eric Rohmer, Agnes Varda, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette: in the documentary there are particularly affecting scenes from Jacques Demy‘s 1961 film Lola, and an adorable moment in one of the most beautiful movies of the era, Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7, (1962) in which a short comic slapstick silent film staring Godard and Anna Karina reenacting how they met (cute) creates a moment of comic relief within as beautiful a reflection on mortality as any that exists on film.

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Magic Tricks in the Dark

An earlier, unfinished version of this post went out to my subscribers by mistake yesterday although I immediately deleted it and it does not appear on the blog itself. Also, for subscribers who receive these posts in their email: this post contains videos that you will not see in the email program, you have to click on the site itself.

I shouldn’t be surprised at what gets media attention: my previous post, about Marina Abramovic’s live performance in “The Artist is Present” went viral, mainly because of the louche interest elicited by my speculations on how she pees. That is to say, I got attention not so much for what else I said about her exhibition at MoMA but just for that one provocative question. Meanwhile I’ve been stymied in my efforts to figure out how to convey the importance to me of a particular moment sitting in the dark in William Kentridge‘s installation of 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès. But since the Kentridge show closes May 17 and I hope that anyone who has not seen the show will go see it, I’ll try to pull out of the darkness a few stray thoughts suggested by my experience of his work, like the floating pages that Kentridge snatches from the air as they float into his hands in several of his recent films. (This is a series of impressions, not a review, Roberta’s Smith’s New York Times review when the show opened offers a fair assessment).

I had set out in New York City last month to look for art works to fall in love with. Of all the categories of falling in love that I identified, the one that mattered the most because it was in some way attainable yet not total, was the category of something, however fragmentary, that would propel me back into my studio with sense of affirmation of creativity and a provocation for honesty and frankness of the gesture. Sitting for the first time facing Tabula Rasa I (2003), one of the 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, I was thrilled by a particular moment where the dark liquid in a coffee cup is poured out on a sheet of white paper as a cloud of charcoal dust, and the charcoal seems to draws itself, the paper is folded and when the artist reopens it, he gazes on a self-portrait of himself at the table .

William Kentridge, still from Tabula Rasa I, 2003, from 7 Pieces for Georges Melies

Kentridge’s films are interesting in that they are made up of elements that in themselves are not necessarily that interesting. The individual charcoal drawings that make up his films are done in a stodgy, static, outdated academic style, which may be deliberate and strategic but I think is also just the way he draws; in his most recent works, the film tricks he borrows from the early history of film animation, including a consistent use of reverse motion, may seem even more obsolescent; the music in all the films has a slightly nostalgic quality that could be too sentimental. The work doesn’t have an iota of the kind of ironic distance that remains so much a marker of contemporaneity in art. Yet when the drawings are put into constant motion of inventive fluidity, the music lends a driving haunting quality that transcends the nostalgic, and the subject matter whether it is apartheid in South Africa or the private life of the studio artist is literary, personal, generous, and modest, all in the best sense, the totality of the work speaks to a genuine and impressive confidence in the artist’s own creativity, and in creativity in general.

The first time I saw the Kentridge show, I was thinking to myself, “this work makes me want to go home and work,” and, also,  “I have to step up my game.” (Just then, Susan Bee, sitting next to me in the dark room spoke up, “This work is too good, it makes you want to give up.” She said that I had left that category out of my list of types of falling in love with art!) The work opens up the possibility of serious creative play for the artist/viewer precisely because it is made up of so many unpromising or unremarkable components and because Kentridge never uses his confidence in his own work as a weapon, as so many artists do (see the first room on the 6th floor of MoMA of  Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present in contradistinction).

The recent work’s focus on the artist’s studio practice, the action of making, of reaching for an idea, literally snatching ideas as they float past you, about pigment, matter and its vanishing, is echoed in the quotes used to good effect in the wall text:

“Walking, thinking, stalking the image. Many of the hours spent in the studio are hours spent walking, pacing back and forth across the space, gathering the energy, the clarity to make the first mark …It is as if before the work can begin (the visible finished work of the drawing, film or sculpture) a different invisible work must be done.”

Beyond this invisible or seemingly unproductive preparatory work, which Kentridge literalizes by filming himself pacing in his studio, looking through books, day dreaming about his wife who then appears, touches his shoulder and as quickly disappears from the frame, a naked but unidealized body, Kentridge also comments on the importance of  process even when the results are not immediately evident:

“Everything can be saved. Everything is provisional. A prior action is rescued by that which follows. A drawing abandoned is revised by the next drawing. … The smudges of erasure thicken time in the film, but they also serve as a record of the days and months spent making the fim — a record of thinking in slow motion.”

Kentridge’s commitment to retaining the the trace of process continues in “Double Lines, A ‘Stereo’ Interview about Drawing with William Kentridge” by Michael Auping, in the exhibition catalogue. Auping notes that Kentridge preferred to annotate the transcript of their interview, rather than polishing it into a smooth unified text. Auping writes, “He is not a polisher. He is a questioner. Reflecting the dialectical character  of Kentridge’s art, the interview takes the form of a self-argument. …As with his alter egos Felix and Soho, Kentridge in essence doubles himself in this interview by not only answering my original questions but also questioning his own answers.” In one such internal dialogue, Kentridge speaks about drawing (I’ve put the question of the answer into a lighter font color and, as in the catalogue layout, a further indent):

WK: […] If you have little money, drawing materials are not that difficult to come by. Drawing does not in most cases require special tools. In South Africa that matters in some fundamental ways. There is a democracy to drawing, and a certain kind of work ethic. One of the things that attracts me to drawing, and that in some way relates to its politics, is that it is a demonstration of agency. There is something about the act of drawing that reflect a process of labor. You have a sense of work, at least for me.

There is no work ethic. Or that is not what I am interested in. It is the appearance of work, making visible the hours on the paper. In an era in which the human labor in everything was clear, there was something utopian in making art appear effortless or at least miraculous. Now that we take the impossible for granted — digital animation, Photoshop (the invisible workings of a computer compared to the very visible and audible mechanics of a typewriter) — there seems a place for showing physical process (And through this mental process; this is not clear, but some impulse in this direction sits in my guts — not that they are to be trusted either).

These statements about materiality, process, and failure are ever more important to hear and read and see. So many young artists I know feel so much pressure to produce a marketable product that they never can trust themselves to engage in process, in making and unmaking. So much of Kentridge’s work reflects on process, change, and the constant attempt to make and unmake an image.

There is a characteristic gesture in Tabula Rasa I that caught my attention, one that recurs in a number of these works about studio practice and it is to the point of this emphasis on creativity as the very subject of Kentridge’s work: the hands of the artist as he prepares to draw or sculpt engaged in a ritual gesture of tentative prestidigitation, to conjure up the image or the mark. It is a gesture that is so self-ironizing about the artistic process that Art Carney used it often for classic comic effect in The Honeymooners, as Ed Norton, to preface the most mundane task. This film fragment captures some of these moments:

Unfortunately  it is impossible to provide good quality video links to the works that most relate to Kentridge’s homage to Méliès — such as Méliès’ The Trip to the Moon from 1902 — and to his recent use of live action animation: here it would be great to be able to see Shoot the Moon (1963), Red Grooms’ own tribute to the Méliès film, made with Rudy Burckhardt and Mimi Gross, and his live animation masterpiece, Fat Feet (1966), made with Yvonne Andersen, Dominic Falcone, and Mimi Gross, both of which sadly are not yet available on DVD. These works share Kentridge’s  pleasure in the simple magic of film although the Grooms films are less melancholic and more anarchic than Kentridge.

The degree to which the studio in Kentridge’s films is a construct and a fiction becomes clear when you see a bit of Kentridge working in his actual studio, in a clip of Art21: Kentridge’s “character” The Studio (as much a character as his other alter egos) is an intimate, dimly lit space, in perpetual twilight, seen through the scrim of the kind of greyed out scratches reminiscent of silent film. Thus it comes as a bit of shock when you see that his studio is in fact a brightly lit, state of the art, very clean space practically arranged with the requisite number of assistants.

But it is the very brightness of this actual space that makes some of Kentridge’s most recent work so strong, particularly his live performance of I Am Not Me, the Horse is Not Mine. I wish everyone I know could have shared the excitement of seeing this performance live last fall, followed the next evening by Joan Jonas’ performance of Reading Dante II, both part of performa09. There were some interesting similarities: the combination of new media with the most basic, oldest human means of artistic expression, — the body and drawing — an improvisational humble texture of the piece, the combination of video projection with very simple props and the body and voice of the artist, and literature (Dante and Gogol) as an important source read out loud by the artist. Both together made for a really inspiring and great week to be an artist!

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