Monday, March 26, 2007

Caramels, Bonbons et Chocolats

"Paroles Paroles" by Dalida & Alain Delon (1973)

One of the most pleasurable movies I own is Alain Resnais’ romantic-musical comedy On Connaît La Chanson (1997), in which Resnais, as an homage to Dennis Potter, uses French pop songs that actors lip-sync to.

The movie deviates from the conventions of the musical genre in interesting ways. Resnais only uses song fragments, never complete songs. He’ll toss the song shards in briskly and briefly, sometimes in the middle of a sentence. Dialogue and song are simply two different modes of ‘speech’ here, the only distinction being that the songs represent a character’s private thoughts or reveries, unheard by other characters. Herbert Ross’ wonderful Potter adaptation Pennies From Heaven (1981), with Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters and Christopher Walken, uses a similar idea.

Also, like Potter, Resnais uses original recordings rather than modern re-recordings or the actors’ own singing voices. And the characters never break into song and dance (there’s no dancing at all); they simply interpolate song bits into their dialogue without any change of tenor.

The movie features one of the best-kept secrets of cinema acting of the last decade or two: the crack ensemble that Resnais has been deploying consistently, with some permutations—Sabine Azema, Pierre Arditi, André Dussolier, Lambert Wilson, etc. These four also turn up in Resnais’ new (and strong) film, Coeurs (U.S. title: Private Fears In Public Places), which is being released here in a few weeks.

Resnais: "Nicole Vedres, with whom I worked as an assistant in 1947 on Paris Mil Neuf Cent, told me one day that the novel, in its descriptions of love and its melodies, could never match so-called popular or music-hall songs. And I've often noticed that popular songs accompany the acts of our everyday lives. If we behaved at all naturally, we'd use song lyrics in conversation."

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“Paroles Paroles” [mp3], by Dalida and Alain Delon, is one of the songs featured in On Connaît La Chanson. Its appeal comes through even in the charmingly dated clip above, from a 1970’s French TV show. The arrangement is pure bossa-nova, complete with flutes and finger-picked acoustic rhythm guitars and subtle, pastel-like strings. (I’m reminded of the work Claus Ogerman did for Jobim.) The entire “B”-section is a beauty, with some lovely melodic turns and a couple of great, hair-raising chord changes right before it heads into the chorus. (The “B”-section kicks off with “Caramels, bonbons et chocolats” and spans 1:00 – 1:30 and 2:45 – 3:15 in the clip.)

A big shout-out of thanks to one of my daily reads, the omnivorous and erudite Belgian blogger Jan of Jahsonic, for tipping me off to "Paroles Paroles" on YouTube!

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I occasionally teach in France for a couple of weeks in the spring, and picked up the DVD of the film on one of my trips. The film was released briefly and weakly in the U.S., and never came out on DVD. I searched high and low for the soundtrack CD in France, with no success. I have a few of the individual songs on other CDs (e.g. by Jane Birkin or Maurice Chevalier) but would love to get my hands on the entire soundtrack disc. I recently managed to track down Mancini’s soundtrack to Howard Hawks’ Hatari after a few years of searching, so I’m not giving up hope for On Connaît La Chanson. If anyone has a lead, I’ll be eternally grateful!

And now, I’m wondering: is there a great soundtrack album that has eluded you? Or, alternatively, a film you wish had a soundtrack album you could own? Perhaps we could collectively share our soundtrack wants here….

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Abbas Kiarostami's Early Films

Two Solutions for One Problem (Kiarostami, 1975, 4 mins).

Last weekend, at MoMA, I caught about a dozen early—and rare—films by Abbas Kiarostami. I saw these films with Zach Campbell, who has a wonderful, insightful post about them. A few words about the films, in chronological order:

Bread and Alley (1970, 10 mins). Kiarostami’s first film. A boy is walking home in an alley and finds his way blocked by a barking dog. After some fretting, he throws the dog a piece of bread. The way now clear, he gingerly heads home, followed loyally by the dog. After he disappears inside his house, a new boy darts into the alley. The frame freezes.

Remember that great moment in Close-Up (1990), when a man kicks an aerosol can and Kiarostami abandons the story and characters for a minute to simply follow that clattering can down the street? The very first shot of Bread and Alley is strikingly similar: the boy kicks a box down the street for a good while, accompanied by some Paul Desmond-esque Latin jazz alto sax player on the soundtrack. Music is used inventively here: it only plays when the boy is in action; the soundtrack is silent when he is pondering, decision-making. When the new character appeared at the end, Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes popped into my head, probably because it has a similar ending. A modest film but emblematic, containing ideas and tropes which will recur later.

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Recess a.k.a Breaktime (1972, 14 mins). A boy is punished at school for breaking a window. At recess time, he leaves the school with his soccer ball, and wanders through alleys, finally ending up running by the side of the highway as cars roar by. A quietly daring and disconcerting film, ostensibly small but hinting at several possible (and possibly grave) ‘outer’ stories.

AK: “You may not believe it but my ideal film is my second film, Breaktime. This film is way ahead of Taste of Cherry in terms of form, audacity, avoidance of story-telling, and indeterminate ending. But the reaction of the critics at the time was so incisive and bitter that it hurled me toward recounting a story and making my next film, The Experience, which was a love melodrama.”

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The Experience (1973, 60 mins). Not at all a melodrama, as AK too modestly suggests above, but a coming-of-age story about a poor errand-boy (orphan?) who works in a photographer’s office, and is smitten from afar by a well-off girl who waits for a schoolbus. He borrows a suit without asking (like in the later film The Wedding Suit) so he can walk past her house and impress her. He tries to get a job working in her home. An adaptation of a story by AK’s friend and influence, the early Iranian New Wave filmmaker Amir Naderi (The Runner).

This was one of my favorite films in the series, open-ended and elliptical. Virtually all our time in this hour-long film is spent with the boy, who is lonely and quite friend-less. For the first time, we notice in Kiarostami the superb use of ambient sound. Although it's virtually without dialogue, this is not a quiet film. There are long uneventful passages on the streets of Teheran, accompanied by precise, vivid sounds. (The sound was dubbed, not live; AK’s next film, The Traveller, was the first in Iran to be shot with live sound.)

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Two Solutions for One Problem (1975, 5 mins). [Clip above]. Jonathan Rosenbaum nails it: “[…] like a deadpan, Bressonian staging of one of Laurel and Hardy’s epic grudge matches.”

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The Wedding Suit (1976, 54 mins). I was a bit exhausted for this one, and can’t really trust my impressions. The relative abundance of dialogue plus the suspenseful denouement—complete with Griffithian cross-cutting—threw me for a little loop. I’m sure it’s a good film, and I’d like to see it again sometime, but I think I preferred the open-ended storytelling approach of The Experience. A theme that has emerged strongly in AK by now: children living in their own world, apart from casually indifferent adults….

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Solution No. 1 (1978, 11 mins). A man follows a wheel as it rolls (and rolls) down a mountainous road. Once again, like Bread and Alley and Close Up: a person following a moving object down the road! In an entirely different context—the directing of actors in Taste of Cherry—AK quoted this verse from the poet Rumi in an interview:

“You are my polo ball/Running before the stick of my command/I am always running along after you/Though it is I who make you move.”

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Toothache (1979, 23 mins). A didactic documentary about the virtues of children brushing their teeth. Much of this film consists of a dentist droning monotonously to the camera about the proper care of teeth but while he’s doing this, the ambient sound is a killer: a child moaning and groaning with pain in the dentist’s chair!

There are a couple of other great touches, like an animated sequence of green, mean, saber-toothed cootie monsters hacking away with pick-axes inside the human mouth. (I was reminded of being similarly startled, out of the blue, by the cellphone-text animations in Jia Zhangke’s The World.) Also, a great shot of a blank classroom wall as a teacher takes attendance; as each name is called, a student’s head pops into the frame from below, acknowledges the roll call, and drops down below like a puppet’s head. One of numerous examples of the use of repetition in AK…

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Orderly or Disorderly? (1981, 16 mins). Tries to demonstrate, didactically, the contrast of order and disorder by staging scenarios in pairs: e.g. boarding a schoolbus in single file versus all children rushing the bus at the same time. What is hilarious is that the filmmaker tries to control reality in order to film it but of course, reality refuses to co-operate: the demonstration breaks down when traffic at an intersection declines to ‘behave’ properly and provide a suitable example of ‘order’ for filming.

AK's first self-reflexive film that specifically references filmmaking. Sharp and funny, definitely a highlight of his early work. The high-angle shots of candy-colored cars automatically evoke Jacques Tati’s Playtime. Apparently, the question mark of the title is frequently omitted (by mistake) when the film is cited or screened.

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The Chorus (1982, 17 mins). An old man takes off his hearing aid to shut out the noises of the world and doesn’t hear his grand-daughters calling to him repeatedly at his door. A gorgeous film, with glowing colors and static camera compositions to show them off all the better. The use of color, light and subjective sound make it a film wonderfully aware of cinema and its means.

AK: “I regard sound as being very important, more essential than pictures. A two-dimensional flat image is all you can achieve with your camera, whatever you may do. It’s the sound that gives depth as the third dimension to that image. Sound, in fact, makes up for this shortcoming of pictures. Compare architecture and painting. The former deals with space while all you have in painting is surface.”

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Fellow Citizen (1983, 52 mins). A fascinating and productively maddening film! A camera records one car after another coming to a stop at a traffic intersection, and the drivers pleading their case about why they need to get through. The traffic cop listens to each appeal, and decides yes or no. We see this happen a couple of hundred (?) times. End of film. Apparently, AK boiled 18 hours of footage down to 1.

Like Warhol’s Screen Tests or The Chelsea Girls, the film sets up a structure (car enters frame, driver appeals to cop, they argue, cop makes a decision) and then generates multiple instances from that structure. Like Warhol, the film makes you think about boredom and how we respond to it. Personally, I chafed against the film for a good twenty minutes, then broke down and started paying close attention (because: what else to do?) to the occupants, the way they were dressed, how they spoke and gestured, their body language, etc. The relentless repetition mesmerized (stupefied?) me and once 'in the zone' I could have continued watching it for a good while longer (I think). I’m not sure I’d want to see such films all the time but some occasional (and temporary) perceptual rewiring isn't such a bad thing....

N.B.: Above, the filmographical and biographical detail, and the interview excerpts, have been drawn from two sources: Abbas Kiarostami by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum; and The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami by Alberto Elena.

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The Iranian New Wave broke in the West mainly in the 1990’s. We are familiar with quite a bit of Iranian cinema since then: AK, the Makhmalbafs, Jafar Panahi, Abolfazl Jalili, Bahman Ghobadi, etc. But I’m wondering if we can collect here some examples/recommendations of earlier Iranian film and filmmakers (i.e. pre-1990’s). I’ve seen a little Darius Mehrjui, and that’s probably it. So, any suggestions would be helpful and welcome….

Monday, March 12, 2007

New York/Imamura

Hey there, folks: just breaking the surface for an update. I flew in on Friday, and caught a matinee of Shohei Imamura’s superb Pigs and Battleships at BAM. In the evening I rendezvoused with Mr. and Mrs. Filmbrain, the Siren, and Mr. Siren, for a great French meal and energetic conversation at a Brooklyn bistro.

On Saturday, Zach and I met up at MoMA to see Rossellini’s Descartes (1974), then headed out to the East Village to join his friend Nirav. We ended up eating, drinking and talking for nearly eight hours straight.

Then yesterday, Zach and I did two Kiarostami programs of several short films, and I also squeezed in Rossellini’s Paisan which I’d never seen before. All of the films were strong, and I hope to say something more about them later in the week. In a few minutes, I’ll head over to Washington Square Park for the best masala dosas (barring my mom’s, of course), then two screenings: more Kiarostami at MoMA, and Imamura’s The Insect Woman at BAM. I’ll fly home tomorrow.

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Just a few bullet-thoughts on Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships (1961):

  • Imamura’s film frame seethes with energy and unexpectedness. It’s open, threatening to erupt and spill over outwards, off-screen….

  • With physical filmmakers like Imamura and Sam Fuller, whose shots and cuts are like blows not just to the eye but to the whole body, I think it’s definitely important to try to see their films in a theater whenever possible. It’s thankfully hard to maintain a cool and intellectual distance when you’re getting pummeled in the third row for two hours! In one horrific sequence, three drunk American sailors gang-rape a Japanese girl; when they throw their first punch at her, the camera recoils as if it was hit (as it did in Fuller’s The Naked Kiss a couple of years later) and then spins around, accelerating. When it comes to a stop a few seconds later—with no cuts—the rape is over, the girl is on the bed and the three sailors are sharing a post-coital shower, and singing at the top of their lungs….and this in a commercial film from 1961!

  • James Quandt has said that a key influence on Imamura was the lesser-known filmmaker Yuzo Kawashima: “[T]he hard-drinking, eccentric, and rebellious country boy Kawashima represents the “authentic” Japan. In his tribute to Kawashima, whom he referred to as “my teacher,” Imamura wrote of the director’s country roots, his love of vulgarity and of red-light districts. In the latter half of his short career, Kawashima favored the ‘Scope format for his pungent, occasionally crass portraits of the pillow geishas, sugar daddies, and oddballs who inhabit his favorite setting: the inns and brothels of the “pleasure quarters.””

  • This movie just might have the strongest critique of American imperialism in any Japanese film I’ve ever seen. And right from the get-go. The first five seconds of the film ring out with a martial arrangement of the opening couple of bars of “The Star Spangled Banner,” which is then quickly and perversely mutated into some other, more Eastern-sounding melody altogether! (How strange and clever.) At one point, we hear a voice-over of a child reading from his history textbook, which sings the praises of the “flexible” and accommodating Japanese culture, “open” to Western influences as it leaves the feudal system behind….

  • I’m guessing that Imamura has to be one of the few male filmmakers in the history of cinema who (feministically) depicts female sexual desire as being powerfully, nakedly, indecorous, something truly incapable of subjugation and control by man….

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Great news via Acquarello: there's a seven-film Jean Renoir box set out next month (La Fille de L'Eau, Nana, Le Marseillaise, Sur un Air de Charleston, La Petite Marchande d'Allumettes, Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier, Le Caporal Épinglé). If the quality is even half-way decent, it'll be a steal for twenty bucks.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Spring Break/Dance-Pop

Spring break arrives in a week. Boy, did I pick—by pure accident—a good weekend to head for New York. There’s a Kiarostami retrospective at MoMA, and next weekend they’re doing exactly everything I haven’t seen by him—his shorts, dating all the way back to the early 70’s. I hope to take in a half dozen screenings.

Also, there’s an Imamura series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Cinematheque, and I’m seeing two I’ve been hunting for years: Pigs and Battleships and The Insect Woman. Back at MoMA there’s an Ernie Gehr/Michael Snow program with Still, another film I’ve long heard about but never managed to see. And finally, there’s Inland Empire to (finally) catch up with. At three or four films a day, it’ll be like a film festival.

So, if you have recommendations for other unmissable New York events—films, art exhibits, music—that weekend (of March 9), I’d love to hear about them even if my schedule is rapidly filling up with movies….

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Here's a specific dance-pop arranging device I love: twin electric rhythm guitars in interplay, and placed at extremities—hard left and hard right—in the stereo field.

Rita Coolidge’s disco-era hit “You” [mp3] (1978) is a good example. (Coolidge, who was married to Kris Kristofferson, was a folkie and soft-rocker whose sound got more dance- and pop-oriented as the 70’s wore on.) On the verse to the song, one guitar (left) spins rhythmic single-note melody-lines while the other (right) counterpoints with straight, terse chords. On the break (1:40), they ingeniously reverse roles, and invent new parts for themselves. On the choruses, they both chord, but play contrasting figures, and never get in each other’s way.

Madonna’s “Holiday” [mp3], on her terrific, epochal 1983 debut record, uses the same idea, e.g. at 1:33. On the right, we hear brief metallic bursts of melody figures parry against funk-style chording on the left. The two parts intertwine and interact, but also leave lots of space for each other. This version of “Holiday” is off The Immaculate Collection (1990), not the debut album, and is a bit different: the arrangements are slightly (almost sneakily) more elaborate, and the individual instrumental tracks have been tweaked and boosted. I’m normally a bit suspicious of such revisionist attempts at ‘erasure’ of original versions but not here because, let’s face it—there’s absolutely no danger of her debut record ever going out of print, is there?

My favorite tune off that record, “Burnin’ Up” [mp3] also uses a two-guitar sound but very differently. The two guitar parts are: (1) a fire-breathing snarl (so apropos!—given the boiling sexual urgency which is the song’s subject); and (2) a shimmery high-frequency glow of harmonics. You hear both of these in the song's first 15 seconds; all through, they don’t counterpoint each other but instead take turns, calling and responding.

Sonic Youth’s experimental alter-ego Ciccone Youth—named for Madonna—released a weird and wonderful record called The Whitey Album in 1988. (Many of my fellow SY-loving friends think of this record as a self-indulgent ‘wank job’ but I must admit that it had a serious effect on my young and innocent ears at the time; it was the first ‘experimental’ rock record that I truly, viscerally, connected with.) From it, here’s a lo-fi cover of “Burnin’ Up” [mp3] sung, bear-like, by Mike Watt (ex-Minutemen). Legend has it that he phoned in the vocal—literally!—into an answering machine and the recording certainly sounds like it was made on a simple four-track deck. An interesting experiment but no serious threat to Madonna’s original.

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I’m getting ready to place my first order with Superhappyfun. I first learned about them through a Jonathan Rosenbaum article in Cinema-scope. Here’s my order list: a gang of Melville (La Silence de la Mer; Les Enfants Terribles; Deux hommes dans Manhattan; Le Deuxième Souffle); a couple of Masumuras (A False Student; A Wife Confesses); Nick Ray (Run for Cover); Edward Yang (A Brighter Summer Day—the long version); and Imamura (Eijanaika).

See any obscure gems you’d recommend I add to my order list…?