An Event Sociologique: Truffaut in 1977

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François Truffaut (w/ Bob Balaban back right) on location, 1976

7 March 1978
Beverly Hills

Dear François,

We have finally seen Close Encounters. It is a very good film, and I regret it was not made in France. This type of popular science would be most appropriate for the compatriots of Jules Verne and Méliès. Both men were Montgolfier‘s rightful heirs. You are excellent in it, because you’re not quite real. There is more than a grain of eccentricity in this adventure. The author is a poet. In the South of France one would say he is a bit fada. He brings to mind the exact meaning of this word in Provence: the village fada is the one possessed by the fairies.
These fairies who reside with you have agreed to let themselves be briefly borrowed by the author of the film in question.
Love from Dido and I.

Jean Renoir
[Source: Jean Renoir: Letters, edited by David Thompson & Lorraine LoBianco. London: Faber & Faber, 1994]

François Truffaut was pursued by a young Steven Spielberg to accept the role of a French scientist, Claude Lacombe, in his big budget Columbia Pictures venture, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.  His response to Spielberg was one of amusement and a statement that the only person he knew how to play…was himself.  It was in 1976 that one of the founders of French New Wave cinema found himself at the forefront of a complex, effects laden production which both fascinated and horrified him.  It was thanks to Spielberg that Truffaut would cement his decision to never accept a directing offer from Hollywood.

The role of Claude Lacombe is of an especially interesting diversion for Truffaut because of its intelligence mingled with child-like wonder.  Lacombe resembles, in some fashion, the inverse of young Antoine Dionel, the troubled boy in director Truffaut’s stunningly moving debut film Les Quatre Cents Coups, better known as The 400 Blows (a French variation of the term meaning to raise hell).  In that classic film, the young boy Antoine seems older and wiser beyond his years, whereas Truffaut finds himself in 1977 as an older, but child-like man in his pursuit of the truth.  Lacombe does not seem to be jaded by the times, perhaps because of some scientist code of filtering all outside information as possible solutions without prejudice or judgement.  He sees the world through a child’s sense of curiosity and honesty and…with a smile.

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That smile.  Truffaut uses it to such a subtle, but great effect.  It is a knowing smile as he examines an elderly Mexican farmer who was sunburned by a light that sang to him.  It is a gentle smile as Truffaut approaches the main protagonist Roy Neary, played with every-man greatness by Richard Dreyfuss, to ask what he wants.  It is a grateful smile he flashes to the Visitor as they exchange rudimentary hand signals, such a boys would do in a tree-house ritual. He saves his best mischievous smile when he spies from a window the three escaping captives whom he knows have a need and a right to be there just as much as he does.  You cannot help but smile yourself  with Truffaut through all of this.  His presence adds levity and an intelligence to all the fantastical proceedings.  It grants us a peek into that inner child which these celestial visitors seem to bring out.  Lacombe is a scientist you would want to hang out with after work.

The great French director Jean Renior mentions Georges Méliès, in his letter to Truffaut above, which, in a sense,  perfectly highlights that path from the wildly imaginative Méliès films from the silent era to Spielberg’s rumination on contact with extraterrestrials.  Same other-worldly subject matter, but now with a larger budget and bigger special effects.  To witness Truffaut in the midst of this, is to see a man in love with cinema totally and completely.  He may be playing himself, which is charming in itself, but he manages to make us invest emotionally with the scientific aspect, which parallels the Roy Neary emotional investment of an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances.  It makes us want more interaction between these two men; one that is searching for an answer as a man, with the other eternally searching for the truth as a scientist.

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“I saw plenty of differences in degree, but not in kind. I felt the same admiration for Kelly and Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain as for Carl Dreyer’s Ordet.

I still find any hierarchy of kinds of movies both ridiculous and despicable.” 
― François Truffaut, The Films in My Life

These are the words of a true cinephile, a person who truly loves all things cinema regardless of subject matter, format, style, or period.  Truffaut was a film critic first before going behind the camera.  He talked about his ambitions to be a novelist, but found filmmaking to be a higher art form.  The absolute genuineness of his art and his life made Truffaut one of the great enduring figures in cinema.  His presence in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, was for many American audiences the first time one had ever heard of the name François Truffaut.  Steven Spielberg was nervous in asking Truffaut to be in the film because of his huge reputation and stature as one of the founders of such a formidable movement in cinema art.  To the unsuspecting American audiences, he was a French scientist with a very thick accent, who was extremely likable.  Who was this guy, they may have asked?  In the days before the internet, one had to search the library in newspapers, magazines, or books to find out more.  It could be by chance that some revival house or college would be showing one of his films that could be discovered.  Thanks to technology, we have a plethora of information and actual films of Truffaut waiting to be enjoyed at the click of a mouse.

It would be remiss to discount Truffaut’s contribution to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind as merely a star cameo.  There is something more in his performance.  It has the substance of reality.  He was playing himself, but Vilmos Zsigmond’s camera captured something special.  Something much more.  Within those wonderful smiles, he was having fun with the whole process, and that, ladies and gentleman, is a very difficult measure to capture on film.  In a pivotal scene in the film, his character Lacombe pleads with an army major about this psychic connection, when it almost sounds like Truffaut is talking about the cult of the movie going experience;

Lacombe: I believe that for everyone of these anxious, anguished people who have come here this evening, there must be hundreds of others also touched by the implanted vision who never made it this far. It’s simply because they never watched the television. Or perhaps they watched it, but never made the psychic connection.

Walsh: It’s a coincidence. It’s not scientific.

Lacombe: Listen to me, Major Walsh, it is an event sociologique.

 

François Truffaut [February 6, 1932 – October 21, 1984] Writer, Director, Producer, Critic, Actor

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, 1977, written and directed by Steven Spielberg, photography by Vilmos Zsigmond, music by John Williams

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[left to right] Bob Balaban,  François Truffaut, Lance Henriksen, director Steven Spielberg, producer Julia Phillips on location 1976
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Movies To Make A Grown Man Cry

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“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before–more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.”    Charles Dickens / Great Expectations

When sitting in a darkened theater and the everyday distractions are blissfully worlds away, sometimes the unexpected can happen when one gets emotionally involved in a good movie.  There is, of course, laughter, amazement, shock, and happiness that can occur.  And then there are the tears.  Yes, we all cry at times when a movie, or a song, and maybe a piece of art will drudge up some unexpected memory which casts some colored feelings over your mind to produce tears of joy, regret, or pain.  Men cry too.  Whether some want to admit it or not, we positively absolutely do.  Some may even try to slyly hide it with a popcorn box or quickly wipe away the evidence.  Yes, we cry.  Any man that says he does not is lying.  There is nothing to be ashamed about it, but men are still subjected to media images of a manhood which is strong and silent.  The only moisture hitting “the blinding dust of earth” (as Dickens said) with these accepted images of men are from sweating or rainfall dousing upon their heads.

So what kind of movies would actually make a man cry?  Is it when ET purportedly dies with the boy Elliot clinging to him?  Or maybe when some two hundred million dollar sports car gets trashed in a Fast And Furious story?  There is no one set of criteria for what a grown man would cry at in the movies.  It is, of course, entirely subjective and based on the individual person.  So, for the sake of argument and a little fun, I will list some movies that never fail to bring a tear to my eye.  I mean, it is classic choking up time when these scenes arrive on the screen for me.  I am not afraid to admit it.  There are various reasons why this occurs with these particular scenes and I will use this opportunity to explore it.  I have five examples to display.  There is a recurring theme of death or impending death with some of the choices, but for the most part, the scenes vary in styles and motifs.

1.)  Expectations dashed in Charles Chaplin’s City Lights from 1931.

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Charlie Chaplin (playing the iconic Tramp) has fallen in love with a visually impaired flower girl and maintained an image of himself towards her that did not match reality.  When the flower girl regains her sight at the end and searches for this man who was kind and caring towards her, she does not “see” Chaplin at first.  When he confesses it was him, Chaplin cuts to an over the shoulder shot that homes in on the expectation of rejection (based on his appearance) with all his hopes and dreams  about to be crushed.

That one shot encompasses so many things in Chaplin’s eyes, but it also involves a lot of what is in me.  Chaplin manages to conjure up those tears in me, but earns it with such grace and heart through his lovable Tramp.

2.)   The swing-set in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru from 1952.

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Kanji Wantanabe finds out he is slowly dying and discovers there is nothing to show for his life.  He has not lived, but merely existed (hence the English title translation of To Live).  Throughout the film, he searches and examines through his life and focuses on beautifying a neighborhood playground park.  When all seems lost, Kanji goes to the park and sits on one of the swings.  Humming softly, he swings slowly in the snow, knowing his death is very near.  This humble law abiding man, who did everything by the book, finally discovers what life is all about…and it is too late.  I cannot help but be touched by his acceptance of his situation.

I watch this at least once a year and it never fails to produce tears when that scene arrives.  This lonely man faces his consequences with great humility and tranquility.

2.) The projection room in Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, from 1988.

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Salvatore grew up in a small Italian village where he befriended the local movie house projectionist, Alfredo, and slowly becomes an important figure in his childhood, where no father existed for him.  The film has humor, love, tragedy, and a tremendous sense of nostalgia that you cannot help but love.  Tragedy does strike and the now adult Salvatore hears word that his mentor, Alfredo, has died.  The gift that Alfredo has bestowed upon his young apprentice is of such tenderness and love.  Sitting in a projection booth, Salvatore witnesses his childhood all over again when the images of every “lewd and profane” scene in all the movies they played in his small town are spliced together (the local parish made them cut out kissing and brief nudity in classic Italian, French, and American films they were presenting to protect the townspeople at that time).

Niagara Falls takes place every time I see that scene.  I know it is coming, but it does not matter.  It is because of the characters I love dearly in this film and the haunting nostalgia of a childhood lost inside me.

4.)   1634 Racine Avenue in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, from 1987.

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Jim Malone was an old Chicago street cop on the beat for 20 years with nothing on his mind but getting off his shift alive each night.  Then one evening he spots a young Elliot Ness looking suspiciously dismayed and packing some heat.  This blossoms into a friendship and business partner in fighting crime, namely Al Capone and his bootlegging business.  Jim Malone was the role Sean Connery was born to play (besides his iconic portrayal of super suave 007).  He brought a toughness and humanity with an ever present spectre of death around him.  Malone talks about death, violence, and its consequences all the time in the film.  He is no nonsense and you cannot help but love the guy and wish him well on his retirement.  Those retirement plans changed when he met Ness.  One evening at his place on 1634 Racine Ave, Capone decided Malone had hurt him enough and sent hitman Frank Nitti to take care of business.  When Ness arrives in the aftermath of a bloody shootout, he finds his dear friend Malone lying face down on his throw rug and screams, “God damn!!!”.  When I hear those words and see Ness rush to his friend (and father figure), I feel the anguish and pain for a man I cared for so much  as well and get misty eyed every damn time.  Ennio Morricone’s haunting music certainly adds to the emotion of the event as well.

Perhaps I think of my own father when watching this scene and relive that day of his passing.  Malone was a man of honor and a caring individual, much like my father.  I don’t believe I was ever so happy to see a man fall to his death, as I was when Ness pushed Nitti off the roof in that climatic chase near the end of this film.

5.) One last ride on his shoulders in Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One, from 1980.

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Writer and director Samuel Fuller was assigned to the First Infantry, The Big Red One, in WWII and was exposed to the real horror of war.  His film is a sort of chronicle of his experiences from D-Day to the liberation of Dachau.  The Sergeant (no other name is given to the career defining performance of Lee Marvin), quietly leaves one of his young privates who is continually shooting into the ovens where an already deceased German guard was hiding.  He walks over and discovers a young boy, one of the interned prisoners in this camp, slowly walking up to him.  Throughout the film, The Sergeant continually draws the children’s interest with his strong fatherly persona, which hides a soft caring nature.  This boy approaches The Sergeant where he receives a piece of food from him which he eagerly accepts.  The Sergeant senses the boy needs some caring and takes him outside to a tree where they share some more food while other soldiers are busy investigating the camp in shock of what they are seeing.

When the impromptu picnic is finished, The Sergeant urges the boy to get up on his shoulders so he can give him a ride.  The look on The Sergeant’s face has taken on the whole world’s pain and sadness (Marvin’s performance is brilliant) while the boy happily rides upon his strong shoulders.  It is when the camera closes in on The Sergeant’s face do we realize something is wrong.  The boy slumps.  The apple he was eating falls off to the side.  Tears form in The Sergeant’s eyes as he realizes the boy has died.  One of the private’s voice is heard in narration throughout the film and he tells us that The Sergeant kept walking for several hours before he put the boy down.  Niagara Falls again from me whenever I see that boy slump on his shoulders, for that is what war is all about…the death of innocence and the innocent.  Whether this was based on a true event or it actually happened to Samuel Fuller himself, it does not matter for it has a ring of a deafening truth.  Lee Marvin’s performance is impeccable and the very soul of The Big Red One.  It never fails to move me each time I watch it.

It takes certain experiences, raw emotions to have a movie strike nerves within us.  As Charles Dickens stated, it is good to cry.  It does not have to be only in pain or anguish, but in thought and reflection as well.

Happy tears or sad tears, we all do it.  Even grown men.

 

Shining A Cinema Light Upon Women Directors

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I would love to see more women directors because they represent half of the population – and gave birth to the whole world. Without them writing and being directors, the rest of us are not going to know the whole story.    / Jane Campion, director

“I don’t think you catch people’s attention with normalcy. Seeing the same world through the eyes of a healthy married woman with three kids might be interesting, but it doesn’t catch people’s attention. I think the mechanism of shock triggers a more acute sensitivity. You have to put people in a certain frame of mind. I think a filmmaker has to be shrewd. Not in a bad way, not like, ‘I’m a shrewd businessman. I can get away with anything.’ But in terms of sensitivity, being shrewd means putting people in the right frame of mind. Then you can tell them, ‘Come with me on a journey…'”    / Agnes Varda, director

 

The successful release of Patty Jenkins’ film of Wonder Woman to critical raves upon this weekend has renewed discussion of the future of female cinema directors and their power within the Hollywood system.  Worldwide, there are indeed women directors producing some great pieces of work, but the number is much less financed than the currently male dominated industry.  Many women directors are left waiting to bring their works to light because of the continued biased towards an unrealistic belief that women cannot handle big budget films or bring both male, as well as female, audiences into the theater.  This sad devotion is depriving us of many possible great films with a perspective we need, as Jane Campion is quoted above.  A greater knowledge forms from different perspectives, and from that knowledge we all grow as humans.

Patty Jenkins success with a superhero film may repave this neglected road for women directors to gain much more of a foothold with numerous projects and bigger budgets.  We recently saw Sofia Coppola win the coveted Best Director prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for her new film The Beguiled.  This is only the second time a female has won that prize in 71 years.  The first was Russian film director Yuliya Solntseva, who won for her film Chronicle Of The Flaming Years back in 1961.  That statistic alone should illustrate the lack of recognition within this industry.  This is a statistic that needs to change.

We can begin to change this by recognizing and praising the very films written and directed by women.  It should not take the advent of a superhero film directed by a woman to crack open this bigger discussion,   This is a dam about to burst, for on the other side lies the very hardcore evidence that women directors are an important piece of cinema and just waiting to be unlocked.  The list below captures many recent works, so that one can easily find and stream those films, however there are some older works which are just a worthy as pioneers in cinema history.  Use this small list as a starting point to familiarize yourself to new perspectives and hopefully lead to others that I have missed.

Jane Campion [New Zealand writer, producer, director] The Piano, Sweetie, An Angel At My Table, Holy Smoke, Bright Star

Maya Deren [Ukraine/US experimental filmmaker]  Meshes Of The Afternoon, The Witche’s Cradle, At Land, Meditation On Violence

Claire Denis [French writer, producer, director]  White Material, Chocolat, Beau Travail, Let The Sunshine In

Sofia Coppola [US writer, producer, director]  Lost In Translation, The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, The Beguiled

Agnes Varda [Belgium/French writer, producer, director]  Vagabond, Cleo From 5 to 7, The Gleaners And I

Dorothy Arzner [US director]  The Wild Party, First Comes Courage, Get Your Man, The Red Kimono

Deepa Mehta [Indo-Canadian director] Fire, Midnight’s Children, Water

Lina Wertmüller [Italian writer, director]  Seven Beauties, Love And Anarchy, All Screwed Up, Swept Away

Lois Weber [US actor, writer, director]  The Blot, Suspense, The Hypocrites

Agnieszka Holland [Polish writer, producer, director]  Europa-Europa, Total Eclipse, The Secret Garden

Gillian Armstrong [Austrialian writer, director]  My Brilliant Career, Starstruck, High Tide, Oscar & Lucinda, The Last Days Of Chez Nous

Amma Assante [British actor, writer, director]  A United Kingdom, Belle

Susan Seidelman [US writer, producer, director]  Desperately Seeking Susan, Smithereens

Lynne Ramsay (Scottish writer, producer, director]  Ratcatcher, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Morvern Callar

Sally Potter [British writer, director]  Orlando, Ginger & Rosa, Rage, Yes

Chantal Akerman [Belgium writer, director]   Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (one title), No Home Movie, News From Home

Larisa Efimovna Shepitko [Russian actor, writer, director]  The Ascent, Wings

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Begin with these filmmakers and discover a world not governed by the male gaze, but at times a much more honest and cutting look into the female mystique (and humans in general) on screen…by women themselves.  These women behind the camera have a unique importance in cinema and a place in storytelling history.

And, perhaps in time, it will be unnecessary for such a piece devoted exclusively to women directors.  In the eyes of audiences, those filmmakers will indeed be equal without borders, without labels, and judged simply as artists.

In Praise Of Her: Those Risk-Taking Actors

Until 45 I can play a woman in love. After 55 I can play grandmothers. But between those ten years, it is difficult for an actress.   / Ingrid Bergman

It is the conceit of Hollywood, and cinema in general, that age does not factor for the male actor on screen (someone like 74 year old Harrison Ford is still considered leading man material), whereas the female actor falls into the trap as legend Ingrid Bergman describes.  It is a double standard and grossly unfair.  The ratio between leading roles for men and for women over a certain age is so lopsided that we find ourselves celebrating ecstatically for the few female actors that manage to score important complex roles in major films these days.  Then you run those numbers across ethnicity and it becomes even more lopsided, but that is a whole other discussion altogether.

Mature women on screen seem to be a rarity, but when given that time, so remarkably memorable.  There are several examples, which will be displayed here, which argue for more actors of experience that can open all new avenues of stories and experiences.  Speaking as a male, I refuse to believe I am the only one that wants more than just a Barbie doll representation of womanhood in cinema.   There is a beauty that goes beyond surface aesthetic and a strength beyond superhero fighting skills.  Where are these women that take risks with themselves and with their material?  These are roles that go beyond a wife, a mother, a lover, a mistress, to an idea which transcends these boring mass audience boundaries and gives us real flawed human beings.

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The first actor that comes to mind is Isabelle Huppert.  French born and with over one hundred films to her credit, Huppert lately continues to surprise and stretch herself in cinema.  Most recently, her performance in director Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” is as complex and daring as anything out there.  “Things To Come” was another tour de force that demonstrated Huppert’s range and skill.  These roles are not women hanging on the arms of some male hero.  These are flesh and blood characters engaging in a wide spectrum of emotions and able to act out, sometimes violently, their inner demons.  Huppert is unique in projecting a distant light, but quickly cuts herself to the bone exposing that raw beating heart.  There is no  other female actor quite like her.

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The career of Catherine Deneuve spans a lifetime of risk and glorious successes in cinema.  French born as well (do you detect a pattern here?), Deneuve has memorably gone against the glamour of her looks with roles which metaphorically take apart what it is to be a woman.  Look no further than Roman Polanski”s “Repulsion”, Luis Bunuel’s “Belle de Jour”, Andre Techine’s “In The Name Of My Daughter”, Francois Truffaut’s “The Last Metro”, and one of my recent favorites as the returning matriarch in Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale”.  Deneuve exudes an icy coldness, but with a fierce intelligence unmatched with her male co-stars.

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We now arrive at the last example and my personal favorite who continues to bring such intelligence and unsurpassed openness in her performances, Juliette Binoche.  Once again, French born (okay, so there is clearly a pattern here) and has more than sixty films to her credit internationally.  You may recall her face in Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient” or more memorably as the sweet photojournalist in Philip Kaufman’s “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being”.  Both Hollywood productions which splashed her name to American audiences.  Binoche  brings such humanity with the inner beauty which is sometimes not illustrated within women, which is in part why she continues to fascinate and amaze me as a favorite of mine.  Her career is filled with intriguing performances such as Olivier Assayas’ “The Clouds Of Sils Maria” and “Summertime”, Michael Haneke’s “Code Unknown” and “Cache”, Bruno Dumont’s “Camille, Claudel 1915”, among others.

Two crowning achievements for me materialize in the form of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blue” and  Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy”.  The grief stricken Julie is a monumental performance in “Blue” that exemplifies everything possible in a three dimensional character.  Binoche also brings such insight and intelligence to “Certified Copy” as Elle in a shape shifting examination of relationships.  It is both exciting and fun to see her tackle such a broad range in Kiarostami’s off-kilter synthesis of the beginning and end and beginning of a lasting relationship.  Binoche is both fetching and raw in this role.  Both films are endlessly watchable because of her richly detailed performances.

These are but three examples that readily come to my mind.  There are, of course, many others I could have listed (Tilda Swinton may merit her own piece of my writing) that include actors such as Annette Bening, Natascha McElhoneEmma Thompson, and of course Meryl Streep.  Many others could be listed as well.  All have their strengths and their weaknesses.

I am not really being fair by only detailing the three French actors that stand out in my mind, but fairness is not the point.  I wish to gain more support for women tackling larger roles in current cinema.  There is simply a large gap in this area and is inexcusable.  We all can learn so much from characters in which women can bring different perspectives and thoughts.  Cinema itself could use it so much more and I believe audiences would respond in kind.  Complexity and nuance are just the tip of the iceberg for what accomplished female actors can bring (such as the ones I illustrated here).  There is so much more to mine from these actors in stories that matter.

It is time to shift the paradigm.

Directed By Jonathan Demme: Colors and Shades

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The versatile American writer/director, Jonathan Demme, passed away today from cancer at 73. Thankfully, his soft spoken and gentle demeanor are forever etched in each of his works. The rain outside seems only to color further the grayness of today.

Beginning in such humble surroundings with Roger Corman’s low budget studio efforts, Demme rose to prominence in the eighties starting with the critical darling “Melvin & Howard” [1980], a small film with a big heart.  His sensitive direction and eye for composition soon caught the eyes of Hollywood and the music industry.  Demme’s career ranged from comedies, dramas, documentaries, television, music videos, with never seeming to repeat himself in style or content.  The one consistent theme throughout his work could be the abundant enthusiasm for his subjects.

The eighties saw such a wealth of screen work in films such as “Swing Shift” [1984], “Stop Making Sense” [1984], “Something Wild” [1986], “Swimming To Cambodia” [1987], “Married To The Mob” [1988].  Each of these films displayed a talent for mixing stylistic choices into different mediums that were currently stagnant in repetition and riddled with cliches. “Something Wild” is a film I consider one of Demme’s very best work and incorporates all his themes and ideas into a richly funny, yet very dangerous story.

Then in February 1991, Demme released his most influential hit, “The Silence Of The Lambs”, which the following year won big at the Academy Awards.  The film is miraculous in that he never really wanted to approach the material because of a distaste for violence on screen that has no intrinsic value except for sheer excitement.  When assured that he could tackle the themes of Thomas Harris’ original novel in his own way, Demme ended up producing a work both shocking and thought provoking which audiences immediately recognized as something different.  One can see Demme’s influence such as tightly focusing on the character Clarice Starling’s face amidst the horror surrounding her in many scenes.  There are far more hints of violence, than actual visual depictions of it.  Watch how the camera seems to chase Starling from behind in the woods sequence at the beginning, only to discover she is actually on a training exercise with the FBI.  The position of Starling as the outsider in situations, making her appearance small in stature and hemmed in by the walls of Dr. Lecter’s holding cell or surrounded by those tall local policeman at the funeral home.

One cinematic masterstroke (and evidence of Demme’s dislike of violence) comes by way of the climatic ending with Buffalo Bill and Starling.  When all seems lost in the dark for Starling, she turns and shoots at the hunted serial killer, striking him in the chest several times.  When all other filmmakers would show the “hero” in their moment of triumph over adversity, Demme chooses instead to focus on the repercussions of such a violent act with Buffalo Bill lying on the floor bloodied and wheezing the last few breaths of his fading life.  We never see Starling’s heroic face in relief, we only see the aftermath of violence in all its ugliness.  This is a master filmmaker completely in tune with his materials and his personal vision.

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After the huge success of “The Silence Of The Lambs”, the turn toward more serious films consumed his career.  “Philadelphia” [1993] focused on the current AIDS crisis and another Academy Award winner.  “Beloved” [1998] was a strange and wonderful ghost story during the aftermath of Deep South slavery.  “The Manchurian Candidate” [2004] was a worthy revisionist take on the Frankenheimer classic.  Two other films were molded on the comedy genre, most notably “Rachel Getting Married” [2008] is a joy of a film and most overlooked.  Within these years Demme worked on documentaries with Neil Young, President Jimmy Carter, and also directed some superb television work.  Before his death today, he was in preproduction for another film.  Working right up to the end.

Jonathan Demme was (is) an American original.  To watch one of his films is to see a compassion for human frailties, mistakes, and a yearning for something greater.  Melvin’s need for meaning, Starling’s need for acceptance, Drigg’s need for excitement, Beckett’s need for understanding.  All of these characters have real basic human flaws, which Demme loved and cherished.  The term sensitive direction does a disservice to Demme’s films.  He was an artist able to channel his own ideas of how the world works in a variety of adjectives too numerous to list.  It is sad to think we will no longer be treated to a new Jonathan Demme film.  No longer will we see his smiling face and enthusiastic passion shining a light on what makes us human.  Goodnight, Mr. Demme and thank you for sharing with us.

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[Jonathan Demme 1944-2017]

“Everything I’ve made – it doesn’t mean they’ve all been good – but everything I’ve made so far, big or little, fiction or documentary, has been something that I’ve been really enthusiastic about.”

A Light Within The Darkness

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Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.  

– Martin Scorsese

 

I have always thought that, of all the arts, the cinema is the most complete art.  

-Alejandro Jodorowsky

I have been singing the praises of cinema for a long as I can remember to anyone that cares to listen..or not listen.  This art form is a universal language that transcends all cultures, all beliefs, all man-made notions of a one absolute truth.  Cinema is an art that can change the world in small ways, such as casting a stone in a still pond that echoes its arrival with ever widening ripples.  It either reflects life or displays other possibilities within our reach.  Cinema is not an obsession with me, but I will champion it ever more in the face of an increasing dogma of non-science and non-arts rhetoric we seem to be facing these days.

When I speak of “cinema”, I am speaking of those films that are adventurous.  Films that risk stretching the boundaries of ordinary storytelling to ask questions, make the audience question to seek those answers within themselves.  Showing audiences a story or situation that hits close to our hearts and minds.  We bring a lot of ourselves, as with all art forms, into the darkened theater.  The piercing light projected onto that blank white screen gives us opportunities to escape, learn, appreciate, empathize, embolden, or give fuel to what is already bubbling deep inside.

Make no mistake, I love escapist films as much as anyone else.  The universe of Star Wars, James Bond, Indiana Jones, or (yes, I am guilty of liking these) the Fast & Furious movies are pure audience candy.  There is nothing wrong with them and are all very popular.  There is a genuine need for them worldwide.  They provide a rest from real world troubles, a haven for turning off your mind for a couple of hours.  Everyone needs that from time to time.  One comedy I return to again and again is Stanley Kramer’s insanely epic 1963 comedy “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World”.  It stars many of America’s comedy greats of yesteryear with a story of absolute greed and outrageous gags.  It reminds me of my childhood watching this with my parents on the living room television set and listening to them laugh, along with me, as Jonathan Winters completely destroys a gas station single-handily with his physical presence.  There is joy in these kind of films because of what we inject ourselves upon them.  For others it could be the 1977 Star Wars film because your father took you to see it as a special treat.  Memories and feelings all coincide with movies.

Why all this talk about cinema?  One of my points is to shine a light on the other films out there; the overlooked or hard to find films that richly deserve an audience as much as the latest Fast & Furious chapter.  Recently, I have been adding to my True/False Film Festival category with many films that are astounding in their courage and risk taking techniques (one example is “Brimstone & Glory”…see my review).  Many of these are small films, but epic in their cinema language.  These are documentary films and seldom seen in any mainstream theater.  If we are lucky, an art-house theater (like Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, MO; pictured above) will present these films for a few nights.  International films provide a wealth of new cinema going experiences with cultures, insights, and stylistic choices waiting to be explored.  Let go the fear of subtitled entries and really listen to the original language of these films with all its inflections and nuances.  A lot is lost on dubbed voices in these films.  Sitting in the dark, with a receptive audience, brings a communal bond much like sitting around a campsite fire telling ghost stories.

Which brings me to my last point regarding cinema; the theater going experience versus watching at home.  The rise in technology has made it so much easier and accessible to reach many of the films that I champion.  I absolutely love that I can peruse a streaming catalog of everything Rainer Werner Fassbinder has ever made, along with all my favorite Bond films.  Watching at home is convenient and less costly.  However, we are losing the communal bond I mentioned before by not watching with a large audience.  The feeling of being a part of something, the gathering around that campfire.  Like many, I can remember moments in theaters that cannot be matched by viewing at home.  I can list five such moments right away.

1.) Sitting with my older sister, almost front row center, watching the opening crawl from 1977’s Star Wars with the sound going in and out.  The audience rebelled (no pun intended) and the theater rewound the film and started over after fixing the sound.

2.) Watching a reissued 70mm Six Track Dolby Stereo presentation of Apocalypse Now with my father.  The immersive sound and picture was overwhelming to both of us and merited an entire car ride home talking about it (a rare occurrence).

3.) Taking in a rare 70mm showing of Lawrence Of Arabia and being able to see the shimmering haze of Omar Sharif’s entrance in the distance.  The audience applauded when the film began and when the end credits appeared.  There was a love for this film that could be felt from everyone.  Absolutely stunning to see after years of television pan-and-scan views.

4.) The loudly receptive audience mesmerized by a sneak preview of a little film called Raiders Of The Lost Ark.  The sound was set so high, just the cocking of the pistol in the beginning sequence hurt our ears…but it was magical and felt as if you were part of an event with a hundred other people all gasping, laughing, and smiling ear to ear.

5.) Sitting in the audience with my 10 year old son watching Donald O’Connor making everyone laugh in Singin in The Rain.  I watched my son’s face as he responded to this film, but also engaging with the audience with laughter and some big smiles.  Cinema can truly transcend time.

Cinema is art, but I believe it also needs participation.  It can be sitting at home with a bunch of friends or sitting in the dark with an audience at your favorite theater.  Cinema wants you to engage, to discuss, to bring up questions.  I am a contributing member of Ragtag Cinema (a locally owned/run theater using memberships to thrive…a rarity in these parts) because I believe and live in that community of arts.  I want audiences to take a chance on stories that can have a profound effect on them socially and artistically.  To be inspired by others and art, is the path to becoming better ourselves in ways we might not even imagine.

 

Bill Murray Finds Enlightenment: The Razor’s Edge Within The City Of Light

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“The fact that a great many people believe something is no guarantee of its truth.”

“Well, you know when people are no good at anything else they become writers.”

― W. Somerset Maugham / The Razor’s Edge

Back in 1983, director John Byrum sent a script, that was having trouble selling at any studio, to his friend who happened to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood at the time.  Bill Murray read the script in one night and telephoned Byrum early in the morning with the words, “Hi, this is Larry Darrell.”

Columbia Pictures now had the backing of a major star with Byrum’s script, on the express consent that Murray would do their summer comedy film going by the title of Ghostbusters.  Murray was aching to do something out of the mainstream and more in tune with his dark sensibilities.  “The Razor’s Edge” afforded a range never before attempted and a trip to his beloved City Of Light for several months.  In the preceding months, Murray hammered out a revised script with Byrum and was ready to take on the role he felt he was born to play.

When the completed film was released in October of 1984 (I was one of the few who attended), it tanked at the box office so drastically that it sent Bill Murray into a self imposed exile to Paris, much like his beloved character Larry Darrell, to think through his life.  Audiences were not ready for a serious Bill Murray and were confused as to why he chose this route.  To Murray, this made sense as a career trajectory and much more satisfying as an actor.  It wouldn’t be until many years later, and thanks to directors such as Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and Jim Jarmusch that Murray would come into his own as a serious actor.

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“The Razor’s Edge” is an anomaly in his career and a very interesting one.  On the whole, the film certainly has its faults.  For starters, the overbearing music score by the usually reliable Jack Nitzsche hammers home every emotional moment to an excruciating degree.  The injection of Murray’s goofy humor seems very out of place in certain scenes.  John Byrum’s earnest direction certainly needed some polish in certain wooden-like intimate scenes between characters.  For all its faults, the film’s standouts lie on the other side with the gorgeous photography by Peter Hannan, the exquisite production design by Philip Harrison, and lastly the acting; Saeed Jaffrey (always a joy to watch), Denholm Elliot, Theresa Russell (so sexy and daring), and of course, Bill Murray.  Murray takes the role and makes it his own.  It is sad to think many people missed or disliked his performance purely based on perceptions of past films.  His droll delivery intermixed with that cold seriousness lends the character Larry Darrell as a real damaged soul.  It is remarkable that Murray pulled it off in the midst of his super-stardom as a comedic actor and a credit to his talent.

The original novel, by  W. Somerset Maugham, has long been a favorite of mine.  The essence of yearning, striving, questioning for what this life means was (and still is) very attractive to me.  Like Murray, I can claim to be Larry Darrell.  Life does not make very much sense, so I read a lot and question everything.  I may not have made it to Paris, but give me time.  Bill Murray took to heart Larry Darrell’s predicament and identified with it so completely that he stayed away from Hollywood for a few years in The City Of Light.  Unlike Darrell though, Murray could afford it without any worries.

On one occasion of my rereading Maugham’s novel, I decided to flesh out some stories during Larry Darrell’s exile in Paris that I felt the novel kept hidden.  It was fun and a great exercise in fleshing out a situation with one of my beloved characters.  I’ve taken one of those exercises and placed it below for anyone’s reading amusement or disgusted outrage at the amateurish attempt.  You be the judge.

Paris. 1923.
Larry Darrell remembered that he left the novel he was reading back at his squalid tiny apartment off Rue de Rivoli-Le Marais. He loved that tiny space. He had acquired so many books these days that they lined the walls covering the exposed chipped paint that badly needed a fresh coat. Need to talk to the landlord about that, thought Larry.
The avenue he chose to walk tonight was a different route to his favorite eatery. Larry liked to change things up, enter the unknown. He was never a man of habit,
or so he fancied himself to be. Yet, Larry was a seeker. Someone who searched for answers to questions he has yet to think of. Life, love, existence, and the pursuit of his next glass of wine.
Damn, I won’t have anything to read at dinner tonight, Larry rumbled inside. The alley was dark with running water and he stumbled across the broken pavement stones, cursing at his clumsiness. Larry wiped his brow and fished in his pockets for that Mekka he bummed off that university professor yesterday. An interesting conversation, the bespectacled professor claimed the novel as a dead art form with nothing more to be said after Joyce’s odyssey through Dublin. Larry clasped his prize from his pocket and struck a match on the brick side, lighting the alleyway momentarily in a fiery red haze.
With a smoke halo across Larry’s crown, his eyes looked up at the stars as if searching for a God that did not exist. He let out a heavy sigh. It has been a tough year since The City Of Lights captured his attention and it has since disappointed him time and time again. The food was fine, when he had enough to actually pay. The libraries and dusty book shops were better. He spent hours perusing novels, histories, philosophical diatribes, and the occasional newspaper. There was something that bothered Larry. Something that followed him these days. That bitter taste in his mouth was from the loneliness he felt. It was getting harder with each day. All the books in all the world still had no answers to quell this empty space he seemed to live in. So, Larry kept reading. Life had meaning, he waxed, but in layers. Each one of those layers opened to another more complex one, like some onion he saw prepared at Le Procope.
The cigarette was tossed into a pool of brackish water down from the cannery. Larry eyed the cozy lit restaurant ahead and put his hands in his trouser pockets. I have enough for some wine and some cheese, he noted. Damn. Wish I had remembered that book, Larry thought. He hated to eat alone without something to read.
Walking up to the outdoor tables, Larry found his usual spot and sat down. Reflexively, he reached for his phantom book he had forgotten and cursed again out loud. “Are you alright, Monsieur?” Startled, Larry looked up at a face that shone with the stars above. It was a face of porcelain texture lovingly dotted with the finest of freckles. Those eyes, Larry thought, those gray piercing eyes can see right through me.
I am sorry to disturb you, Monsieur. Her voice was languid and pleasant to the ear. Larry stumbled upon some words to apologize himself. Please, he practically yelled, please join me? She looked upon him questionably, but made up her mind that he was harmless. Larry jumped up to offer her a chair. She smiled at his quaint gentlemanly ways as she sat down slowly, cautious still of what was transpiring. Larry smiled a big cheesy smile, until realized the mistake and offered her a drink. Guess I will skip the cheese tonight, he laughed inside.
The two sat in the outdoor corner with a gentle breeze ruffling the tablecloth in its wake. It was a gloriously still night, perfect for such an accidental chance meeting to take place. Larry introduced himself as the typical American expatriate bumming off the city. She listened to his story with an intensity. Her studied look made Larry nervous and when he was nervous, he tended to talk too much. Catching himself, he suddenly ended the explanation as to why he was in Paris. The air was quiet as she continued to study him. Larry felt as if he were an exhibit in the Musée d’Orsay. She took a long drink from her glass and licked her ruby lips.
Larry was mesmerized by this spectacle. He had no idea what to do or say to this vision. After what seemed like minutes, she set her glass down and appeared to begin speaking. Larry leaned in closer across the table. She whispered something he will never forget till his dying days. No woman he has ever met has ever matched her steely beauty and upfront behavior. Was this a dream, he wondered? It was that whisper, those softly said words, that took him forever from that empty space he was trapped in. And for that, he was eternally grateful to her, for those words were what he never found in any book after searching these many years.
That was when Larry Darrell truly opened his eyes and his heart towards a new path.

-Misha / 2014

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“The Razor’s Edge” 1984 2hrs 8min (direction John Byrum, screenplay John Byrum and Bill Murray)