BREATHLESS (1960)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on December 31st, 2011 by Jim Delaney


From Friday, January 11, 2008.

In French w/ English subtitles
Written & Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, starring Jean Belmondo, Jean Seberg and Jean-Pierre Melville.

Michel is a small-time car thief who becomes a big-time criminal when he murders a policeman. No master felon, Michel is an impetuous young man more focused on presenting a Bogart-style tough guy image than in actually learning the ropes of being a tough guy. His Hollywood dream wouldn’t be complete without a girl on his arm, so rather than fleeing the country after the murder, Michel sticks around to convince a young woman to fall for him and escape with him to Italy.

The French New Wave directors of the 1950’s and 60’s began as a group of critics who deconstructed Hollywood film style, helped define it as an art and a science, and coined the phrase “Film Noir.” Several New Wave luminaries helped create BREATHLESS: Godard adapted his script from a treatment by Francois Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol is credited as “technical advisor.” Jean-Pierre Melville, playing Pavulesco in BREATHLESS, directed some of the best French noir thrillers of the 1950’s. BREATHLESS was the end of French emulation of Hollywood, and the beginning of challenging new shooting styles and story structures that would have a lasting effect on America’s Film School Generation — Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg and all their 70’s pals.

It’ll finish Thursday.
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT (with Spoilers!) from 12.31.2011

The moment we meet Michel, he introduces himself as “an asshole,” and then spends a significant portion of BREATHLESS proving it. Michel enjoys presenting his Bogart-style image, endlessly repeating Bogey’s pensive Sam Spade gesture of rubbing his lip with his thumb. What his Bogey impression lacks is Sam Spade’s control of a situation, Rick Blaine’s calculating foresight, or Philip Marlowe’s confidence with women. Had Michel studied THE MALTESE FALCON, he would have known when in his own story to cut his losses and get out alive. Bogey’s Rick in CASABLANCA might have taught Michel who he can really trust, who would double cross him, and how to play both.

A closer read of Bogart’s persona in THE BIG SLEEP might have encouraged Michel not to whine and plead with his former lover Patricia to escape with him to Italy. He would have been decisive rather than manipulating, which would have made him the Bogey he wants to be, as well as the Romeo she longed for. Indecisiveness is Michel’s fatal flaw. He doesn’t know what he wants or who he wants, and even if he did, he doesn’t know from one moment to the next what he is willing to do to get it. He wants to avoid being caught with a stolen car enough to kill a policeman, but when the dragnet is closing in around him, he is incapable of making the choices required by his man-of-action front.

Within the first few minutes of BREATHLESS Godard turns crime movies, and the very idea of a movie, inside out. Voiceovers are a staple of the Film Noir genre. After Michel steals a car, he drives around describing what he enjoys about France, but before long we realize this is no ordinary voiceover. He is not simply thinking out loud for the sake of exposition; he turns and addresses the audience, as if we are riding shotgun. This would be a standard breaking of the fourth wall, but BREATHLESS doesn’t stop there. Michel both addresses the camera and directs its gaze along the Pontoise road, pointing out hitchhikers, farm houses, annoying drivers, and highway police. Further, Godard allows interaction between the camera and passersby that would cause most other directors to cut and reset their shot. In scenes where Michel and Patricia walk through Paris, people stop and turn to watch the filming, some looking into the camera as well. Godard requests no suspension of disbelief; his story is fiction, but it coexists with and occasionally collides with reality.

Inasmuch as Michel is a vicious brat disguised as a dangerous man, BREATHLESS cloaks its examination and inversion of the tools of cinematic storytelling in the suits and trappings of crime drama. Michel’s desire to live like he is in a movie virtually wills into being a movie of his life and death, but he has no more control over Godard’s film than he does over his own story. Michel would love it if you had bought a ticket to see him outgun the cops and out-con the cons and drive off into the sunset with plenty of money and Tinkerbell incarnate. Godard will have none of it. He will allow you to visit with Michel just long enough to feel like you got the story of guns and glory you paid for; and he’ll allow you just enough time with Patricia to get a sense of romantic intrigue. In between teasing those expectations Godard may test your attention span with protracted conversational sequences, which do very little to further the story, but greatly reveal his characters. Moments like these were virtually unheard of in Hollywood films before the France’s La Nouvelle Vague movement; later their influence could be seen in American films by Hal Ashby and Robert Altman. When Godard is not exploring his characters, or allowing Michel to explore his personal Film Noir, he is just as likely to use BREATHLESS to wander Paris like a painter, equipped with a camera in lieu of a canvass. He photographs Paris not as a tourist showing us what we have already seen in countless other films, but as a patriot in love with his city and seeking to share its sidestreets as much as its landmarks, the way Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese would do with New York in ensuing decades.

My earliest encounter with BREATHLESS made me think it was an art film disguised as a crime drama. Now that “art film” strikes me as vague and generic a term as “action film,” I come to realize the BREATHLESS is a fully realized artistic happening disguised as a movie. It is opening night at a photography exhibit, a jazz session on a rainy afternoon, a staged actors’ reading, and a heated debate amongst coffeehouse poets all tied up in a celluloid bow.

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THX 1138 (1971)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on August 22nd, 2011 by Jim Delaney


From Monday, January 21, 2008.

Written & Directed by George Lucas, produced by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Robert Duvall, Maggie McOmie, Donald Pleasance, and Sid Haig.

In a bizarre future, the last remnants of humanity survive in a subterranean city. To keep the population from exceeding the limits of the city, everyone takes a regimen of drugs to control their thoughts and emotions. Keep the people doped up and thinking they’re happy and they’ll keep working rather than making more babies than resources can provide for. Wouldn’t ya know it, THX (Duvall) goes off his meds, and experiences love and sex for the first time in his life. In doing so be becomes a fugitive from an army of RoboCops.

An expansion of Lucas’s thesis film, THX-1138 was the first feature made under Coppola’s American Zoetrope banner. Coppola and Lucas created Zoetrope to counter the corporate take-over of the studio system. They made THX-1138 to counter what they saw as an impending and dehumanizing commercialization of society.

It’ll finish Wednesday.
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 8.22.2011
The Cold War provided no shortage of post apocalyptic survival movies, from Robert Altman’s beguiling QUINTET to George Miller’s visceral MAD MAX trilogy, with a legion of forgettable exploitation movies in between. H.G. Welles’ screen adaptation of his novel THINGS TO COME remind us that tales of who would survive, and how survival would look, have been around nearly as long as the movies themselves. Modern audiences regard the epic scale modest proposal of LOGAN’S RUN as seminal. How closely these films mirror reality, when the future in which the film is set comes to pass, often becomes a chief barometer of their quality. I hesitate to support this theory since we tend to focus on minutiae rather than the soul of a story: Atari may be long gone, and I doubt we’ll have flying police cars by the end of the decade, but these minor points don’t make BLADE RUNNER any less impressive.

We are certainly not living in the underground maze in which THX-1138 is set. We are also, as recent bedbug infestations and E.coli food recalls illustrate, not living in the antiseptic environment Lucas imagined. This film is prescient however, in areas pertaining less to production design, and more to Lucas’ aspiration to examine the steady homogenizing of our existence. THX-1138 has more to say about language, how we will interact with each other and how we will see ourselves, than the vast majority of speculative fiction films. I don’t mean we are there yet, but we are on our way.

BRAVE NEW WORLD introduced us to SOMA in 1932 and the Rolling Stones outed Mother and her Little Helper in ’66. THX-1138 foresaw widespread use of stimulants and sedatives, fertility drugs and chemical castration, and anti-depressants. Lucas also imagined a society where criminal prosecution is used to enforce a drug regimen. We may be heading in that direction when paroles and probation have hinged on citizens being court ordered to accept prescriptions. Sometimes we say this practice is necessary. Sometimes we hear about drug recalls when unexpected complications arise. Daily we see drugs advertized with side effects that sound as bad or worse than the ailment which they are marketed to cure. A handful of multinational conglomerates make money faster than we can print it by selling us drugs designed to help us achieve some elusive zone of normalcy. We have not only stepped knee deep in the dehumanizing commercialization of society we are co-paying for the privilege.

The inhabitants of this particular city are know by a sequence of letters and numbers rather than traditional names. Robert Duvall is THX 1138, his lover is LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie), and LUH’s coworker is SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasance). For years I accepted fan speculation that these designations were an extension of the numbers tattooed in Nazi concentration camps. Co-writer Walter Murch has suggested that THX was chosen for is resemblance to “sex,” SEN to “sin,” and of course LUH to “love.” Lucas offers an even more mundane interpretation: THX-1138 was his phone number.

Over the last generation we have seen varying phenomena relating to names echoing those in THX-1138. The music world has given us KRS-One, O(+> and J-Lo. Supermarket tabloids attempt to make conventional names similarly unusual: K-fed, Brangelina, Bennifer. (Why is the guy’s name always first? JenniBen has a ring to it!) I didn’t pay this much mind until news reporters got into the act. Pundits hoping to appear the least bit hip will now refer to The President and the First Lady as POTUS and FLOTUS. For years the terrorist with the dialysis issues has been known simply by his last name but recently he has become OBL. If I mentioned bin Laden you would have no doubt who I am talking about; OBL sounds like a large tampon or an airport code. The final straw for me was the recent hotel sex scandal involving DSK, a French financier whose born name is far less known than POTUS or OBL. Ask someone in the street six months ago who Dominique Gaston AndrĂ© Strauss-Kahn was and a significant percentage would probably guess he’s a guest judge on PROJECT: RUNWAY. We’ve gone beyond hip to flat out laziness.

THX-1138 saw all of this coming, not only the manipulation of identity via the maximization of controlled moods and the minimization of our names, but even the reclassification of where we live. In the film we hear that THX works in “operating cell 94107” which is coincidentally the zip code of Zoetrope’s offices during production. People around the world recognize the zip code 90210 and the area code 212. We can identify where in our neighborhood, city or nation we live by a hand signal of three fingers representing a single letter. We live in a world that has seen borders fall by the power of LAN, 386, 486, 2.0, DSL, 3G and 4G all as fewer and fewer of us actually like to read. THX-1138 saw this all coming as far back as when IBM became HAL.

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THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL – NEW ORLEANS (2009)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on December 13th, 2009 by Jim Delaney


Friday December 4, 2009 at the Landmark Kendall Sq. Cinema, Cambridge, MA

Directed by Werner Herzog, starring Nicholas Cage, Eva Mendes, Xzibit, Brad Dourif, Fairuza Balk and Vondie Curtis Hall.

I experienced some trepidation before seeing Werner Herzog’s … what shall we call it? Definitely not a sequel to Abel Ferrara’s BAD LIEUTENANT (1992), nor by Herzog’s account is it a remake, if only because he has never seen the earlier film. The term “re-imagining” has been batted around too often in the last decade, but that is what I was expected, possibly what I feared. What I was hoping for, and very nearly got, was a pure Herzog film.

The IMDB message boards for both Herzog’s and Ferrara’s versions offer multiple explanations of how this current film came to have the phrase “Bad Lieutenant” in the title. Most are probably false, and all are irrelevant. Had Herzog released his film as “Port of Call – New Orleans,” critics still would have mentioned Ferrara’s “Lieutenant” in their reviews, if only because both concern detectives addicted to drugs and gambling. Beyond that, they have little in common. Ferrara’s film ponders the Catholic doctrine of Forgiveness by challenging the audience with reprehensible characters on both sides of the law. It is vulgar and gritty and it makes you want to shower with bleach after you’ve seen it.

Herzog’s “Lieutenant” works more as a lampoon of the sort of film I was afraid this might turn out to be, with Nicholas Cage and the rest of a solid cast very much in on the gag. While investigating the murder of a family of Senegalese immigrants, the police come up with a list of suspects including a gangster named “G.” My eyes almost rolled out of my head when I heard this cliche, until Cage seemed to mirror my reaction as he briefed fellow officers. Was Lt. Terry McDonagh mocking G’s unoriginal nickname, or were Cage and Herzog mocking the conventions of a tired genre? I suspected the latter when McDonagh interrogates and elderly woman in a hilariously political incorrect riff on that traditional scene, but the ending really confirmed it for me. *** Spoiler Alert *** skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want part of the end ruined: the last time we see the police station, the scene is staged like a blatant parody of cop shows, with all the loose strands happily tied up with everything but a freeze-framed high 5.

Entertaining though this may be, it does not make for a pure Herzog movie. What does make it a pure Herzog movie, and what seems to have alienated many who prefer their cop movies from the “Lethal Weapon 4” mold, is his signature use of animals to reflect the randomness of nature and living. From a snake swimming through a flooded prison and a traffic accident caused by an alligator to a pair of iguanas whom only McDonagh can see, animals once again become symbols to be pondered and debated by nerds who love Herzog, or ignored and derided by those who prefer their movies literal and their morality messages spoon fed.

Maybe BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL – NEW ORLEANS should not have been called BAD LIEUTENANT, it’s mystery being so different from the earlier film. Maybe it should have been, since whether you love or hate either, both films turn the standard police drama inside out. But contrary to my initial reservations, there is no mistaking that this is a Werner Herzog movie.

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