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Thumbs Up for “Three Masters”

My latest film criticism, “Three Masters: Spielberg, Anderson, Haneke, and Their Audience,” excerpted in the previous post, is recommended reading for the week at RogerEbert.com. If that doesn’t get you to read, I don’t know what to do with you. (But I’ll think of something.)

A further excerpt:

In Saving Private Ryan, the film’s ultimate sentimentality, which sets it apart amid all of the hyperrealistic violence that is one mark of the anti-sentiment of the anti-war film,9 is Captain Miller’s dying charge to Ryan to “earn this.” Though Ryan expresses doubt in the final moments by asking his wife if he did, the audience has little doubt of the judgment. It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan, its raison d’être – it serves not a personal artistic vision but a social good – to validate the suffering and sacrifice of the World War II G.I. and claim that they all “earned it.” It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan in its public role to “redeem the horror of what [the American soldier] experienced — and, perhaps, as well, participated in — in patriotic honor. This is the purpose of the (pro) war film. Spielberg chose to present war more graphically than any (pro) war film ever had before and still declare that the right, good cause can justify it and expiate the essential human crime of it.”10

Among the minority who vociferously dissent from the general acclaim for Schindler’s List, the objection, beyond other particulars, is to the same sentimental closing affirmation, even about the Holocaust. Most viewers, perhaps some part of almost any viewer, wish to believe that even in the face of the Holocaust, life can be meaningfully renewed, that the full realization of the Holocaust’s occurrence can be integrated into a human existence the moral worth of which does not need forever to be doubted. Even after all that, and that kind of barbarity and death, we – not just we but actual survivors from the list, including Oskar Schindler’s widow Emilie – can pass in procession before his gravestone to the exquisitely emotive music of John Williams, drawn from the violin by Itzhak Perlman, and place a commemorative stone in profound grief and honor and – and what? Have learned? Be deeply moved and made better?

Read the rest here.

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Three Film Masters

My latest film criticism is available now at Bright Lights Film Journal. “Three Masters: Spielberg, Anderson, Haneke, and Their Audience” addresses the question, as the tag line has it: “Is the filmmaker tyrant, aesthete, ringmaster, or hermit?

It is commonly claimed by artists that they create for themselves. Wrote Stanley Fish, to whom I respond,”If a reader feels consoled or comforted, that’s all to the good, but it’s not what writing is about.” Fish called the consolation and comfort of art a “rationale for the act that was not internal to its demands, a rationale that could take the form of an external justification.”

“Of course,” said Fish, “the words refer to events in the world, including events I may have witnessed or experienced, but to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.”

I challenge this stance, here particularly with regard to three filmmakers whose consideration of their audience is discoverable in their filmmaking. Spielberg is a filmmaker commonly charged with pandering to his audience. Anderson and Haneke may be characterized, peculiarly, by antagonism to their audience. When an artist claims to create only for himself, yet sets his work before a public audience, what is one to make of that? Is it contempt? Is something more complex at work?

An excerpt:

The notions of “external justification” and “effects” are complicated by the thought that the reader, viewer, or listener is the artist himself. I think, of myself, for instance, that I write for an ideal reader, and that ideal reader is me, with my sensibility, only smarter, someone who can read – decode – without knowing, as the reader, everything I as the writer write, or encode, and more. I wish, then, to consider with regard to three modern filmmakers and their most recent (at this writing) films – Steven Spielberg and Lincoln, Paul Thomas Anderson and The Master, and Michael Haneke and Amour, all released in 2012 – where they stand, as filmmakers, in relation to “I write because making things out of words is what I feel compelled to do” and “to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.” Because the relationship of the filmmaker to his artistic act and also to his viewer is my focus, I wish very briefly to begin with their relationship to my viewership.

Remarkably, for completely different reasons, all three films are works I do not imagine ever viewing in their entirety again. Lincoln is a film I simply do not regard highly enough. I anticipate encountering it on television in the future and pausing to enjoy particular scenes, mostly for the pleasure of watching Daniel Day-Lewis’s extraordinary act of possession. I do not believe in the future that the film will be especially esteemed for more, though certainly its supporting performances are very fine too, and Tony Kushner’s screenplay offers a vivifying extraction of the personalities and politics.

While I have been an admirer of Anderson and think There Will Be Blood a magisterial achievement, I found The Master almost unbearable and nearly impossible to sit through, which I managed only out of cineastic duty. Despite the nearly universal critical encomia, I do not personally know a single individual who did not hate the film.

Of Amour, I can say that my disinclination ever to sit through the whole film again is based tellingly and contradictorily in Fish’s observation that “to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.” Toibin’s admiring readers had been profoundly touched by his artistic realization of their painful experiences, which is to say moved both by the artistry of the realization and by the painful fulfillment of the art’s effect. They did not separate the two. Nor I with Amour. My response to its artistry is refined to a form of admiration beyond only aesthetic pleasure, in which the bleakness of the emotional response is inseparable from the “value of the [filmmaking].” The aesthetic pleasure resides in the artistic compulsion of the craft, which is precisely to seek its “external justification” in the profound and painful verisimilitude of its effects.

Whatever Haneke is compelled to do with an image, with mise en scene, in for instance the closing shot of Isabelle Huppert’s Eva entering the apartment of her now dead parents and feeling their absence, the unsentimentalized empty space of their having vanished completely from the world, that compulsion is unfulfilled if the bleakness of Eva’s realization is not stunningly visited upon the viewer just as it is upon her.

Read the rest here.

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Purity & Invention: a Claude Sautet Retrospective

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From August 1-9 this summer, The Film Society of Lincoln Center hosted a long overdue retrospective of the films of Claude Sautet (1924-2000). Probably best known to younger, more contemporary audiences for his late flowering of 1990s films Un Coeur en Hiver (A Heart in Winter) and Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud (Nelly and Mr. Arnaud), Sautet established his reputation during a 1970s peak – with semi-regular actors such as Romy Schneider, Yves Montand, and Michel Piccoli – that included such films as Le choses de la vie (The Things of Life, 1970),Vincent, François Paul et les autres… (Vincent, François, Paul and the Others, 1974), and Une histoire simple (A Simple Story, 1978). My consideration of Sautet’s aesthetic and themes appears in the September issue of Senses of Cinema.

Sautet told stories mostly of middle class French life, for which detractors – those for whom the middle class must always be a political object lesson – criticized him. For some, middle class life can never be particular, personal lives contextualized in culture, time, and place; rather, middle classness must be depicted always as a social malady, either ideological cause or spiritual symptom. In these cases, then, we do not even refer to the “middle class,” which is often, in liberal democracies, a political designation of striving national aspiration and economic empathy. When, rather, it is aesthetically or ideologically politicized, the middle class is the bourgeoisiehaute when ridiculed, petit when contemned.

However, Sautet represented his characters at an immediate temporal and relational level, without historical or ideological didacticism: they are indeed striving, small, loyal and compromised, friends, bon vivants, failures, and sell- outs, despairing and hopeful, passionately in love and out, and fully, sensuously enraptured and ensnared by “the things of life,” the title of the film that gave Sautet a reputation, and which seems so aptly to sum up his vision and his style. How best to convey this immersion in a certain French quotidian – what became for so many the vision of French life in those years – than to utilize fully, symphonically all the elements of film together?

Frequent collaborator Jean-Loup Dabadie’s screenplay of Vincent, François, Paul and the Others is literate and sharp, like a reasonably smart and entertaining friend at a party, but you will go home recalling not a single brilliant thing that was said. No one quotes favourite lines from Sautet films. The plot consists, as in The Things of Life and A Simple Story, of only the smaller and greater crises in the lives of some middle-aged and younger people. Composer Philippe Sarde, another regular collaborator, still at work, and ubiquitous in the French cinema of the 70s, provides a score alternately melancholy and unobtrusively buoyant, projecting both the intense drama of our personal turning points and the common hopefulness that will lead us from one day to the next.

From a middle distance in Vincent, François, Paul and the Others, characters are often seen through glass, of home windows, office windows, car windows. They appear less theatrically arranged than observed, even spied upon, as in the closing shot, when the four male friends, three older, one younger, emerge from a café as from all of their recent travails, talking in tones, along with the music, of mild, probably fanciful hopefulness for the future. They are picked out in the camera’s focus amid the many pedestrians and the busy traffic through which they cross the street, and when they pause at the next intersection, the camera freezes them still in the most artful, causal assemblage of postures and gazes – a mid-shot, through a telephoto lens, as from a spy film. From somewhere in the galaxy, they came to watch and study, a slide presented of some people of a certain age in a city at a given time in a region they call France.

You can read the whole essay here.

AJA

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CineFile – Drive

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with Ryan Gosling, by Nicolas Winding Refn.

Primal eruption  and withdrawal.

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CineFile – The Farewell Waltz

Mervyn LerRoy’s Waterloo Bridge is a quintessential Golden Age Hollywood romance of love tragically interrupted by war. Both of its stars, Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh, later recalled their roles as perhaps the favorite of their careers. This is its most exquisite scene, offering a typically sentimentalized representation of high-cultured English civilization before the coming barbarity.

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