Alain Resnais

Hiroshima Mon Amour

Three weeks before Alain Resnais died this past March, he had premiered his newest film, Life of Riley, at the Berlin Film Festival, which he completed at the age of 91. Resnais enjoyed a uniquely prolific streak of filmmaking in his later years that laughed at the prospect of retirement or death. For a moment it seemed possible that Resnais himself would continue to exist as ceaselessly as the memories that preoccupy his characters; thankfully, with his incredible body of work, Resnais is etched into eternity. Resnais continued to experiment with the limits of cinematic form over fifty years after his career-defining work on Night and Fog, Hiroshima mon amour, and Last Year in Marienbad. The past decade of his career proved that age is no excuse for artistic resignation or repetition – while not nearly as well-known, more recent works including Private Fears in Public Places, Wild Grass, and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet! challenged the medium with as much audacity and confidence as his canonical earlier works. Debating the status of “reality” in Last Year in Marienbad is one thing; explaining the ending of Wild Grass is another matter entirely. So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a mind that always exists in both the past and present.

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Hiroshima Mon Amour

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review you aint seen nothing yet

Enter an art deco mansion. A caravan of France’s most beloved actors – past and present – enter one at a time. They gather together on pristine leather seats in front of a giant screen. On that screen, a beloved playwright with whom they all worked speaks to them beyond the grave, and declares eternal appreciation to his theater troupe. The butler then projects a video of one of the late playwright’s works performed by a young traveling company. The veteran actors are so moved by their recollections of collaboration that they begin reciting the lines and acting it out, with multiple performers playing the same role. Lines of reality blur, and actors enter spaces that may be part of the mansion or may be in their imagined space of the play, as we occasionally return to their bodies, remaining firmly seated on the leather chairs. About an hour in, any distinction between reality and fantasy in the life of theater seems not to matter. This is the central premise of Alain Resnais’s newest film, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. At over 90 years old, the tireless innovator who brought us Night and Fog and Last Year at Marienbad proves once again fully capable of audaciously exploring uncharted terrain for narrative cinema. Beautiful, difficult, frustrating, and engrossing, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet is an undeniable accomplishment of form and experimentation.

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Short Film of the Day

Why Watch? Apparently the French National Library in Paris is the coolest place on earth. At least it was in 1956, through the camera of Alain Resnais. Toute la mémoire du monde is as in-depth a tour as is possible in twenty minutes, skimming through room after room of collected periodicals, books and artifacts. Resnais introduces the library as a fortress built to protect the memory of humanity and frames the enormous institution with consummate grandeur.

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Police burst into a beautiful Parisian apartment to discover a semi-decomposed elderly woman’s body, arranged painstakingly on her bed, surrounded by flowers. There is duck tape around her bedroom door, preventing the smell from coming into the rest of the apartment. Cut to the woman – alive – coming back home with her husband from a concert. How did this become her heartbreaking end? In Michael Haneke’s beautifully unflinching Palme d’Or winner Amour, he circles back to this opening scene as he tells the story of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and how Anne’s debilitating illness tests the parameters of their love for each other. Amour is a great feat in filmmaking, as its near-perfect direction and performances go to emotive depths very rarely achieved onscreen. Anne and George are vibrant, retired music teachers somewhat estranged from their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who lives in England with her philandering husband. One morning, Anne prepares Georges a boiled egg for breakfast. She serves it to him, sits at the table, and then suddenly goes blank. She is completely unresponsive to her pleading husband, but as he rushes into his bedroom to start getting help, he hears the running water turn off. When he returns to the kitchen, Anne is just like her normal self and has no recollection of the episode. All seems fine until minutes later when Anne can no longer pour a cup of tea.

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Alain Resnais’ You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet bears the director’s typical rumination on memory and loss, touching the themes on his cerebral earlier offerings like Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, or his latest, Wild Grass. In his latest work, several famous French actors gather at the home of a deceased playwright who penned a play that they all starred in at one time or another. As they watch a recent filmed version of the play, they end up getting sucked back into the their former roles. Even though the film is brimming with French talent and with Resnais’ legacy of filmmaking, it never quite adds up to a satisfying whole. The film is perhaps too self-aware and never quite makes it past the surface. The film’s plot is rather simple. Esteemed French actors Mathieu Almaric, Pierre Arditi, Sabine Azéma, Jean-Noël Brouté, Anne Consigny, Anne Duperey, Hippolyte Girardot, Gérard Lartigau, Lambert Wilson, Michel Robin, Jean-Chrétien Sibértin-Blanc, Michel Vuillermoz, and Michel Piccoli (all playing themselves) receive mysterious calls, informing them that their close friend, playwright Antoine d’Anthac (Denis Podalydès) has died. They are given specific instructions by Anthac’s butler Marcellin (Andrzej Seweryn) to arrive at one of his many estates at a certain date and time. When they arrive, they learn that he has already been buried. His last wish, as communicated through a pre-recorded video, is for them to watch a video of his latest production of his play “Eurydice” together.

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Culture Warrior

Of all the things associated with its reputation, probably the most immediately apparent aspect of Claude Lanzmann’s incredible Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985) is its daunting, mammoth running time of nine and a half hours. While Shoah has, then and now, been lauded as an incredible achievement in cinema, its running time has contributed to an understanding of the film as primarily a project of historical documentation. In using no archival footage and only capturing the contemporary lives of Holocaust survivors, historians, scholars, and the occasional aging Nazi functionary complicit in evil’s banality, all juxtaposed with extensive footage of the ruins and landscapes of the Polish grounds where these crimes against humanity took place, Shoah is typically understood to be an important means of making permanent the words of those involved long after their lifetime. Shoah is certainly a service to the preservation of history, and watching it twenty-six years after its original release (add a decade or less to the time when many of its subjects were originally filmed), I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these individuals have since passed on, which makes me thankful that Lanzmann made these efforts in the first place. Shoah’s contribution to history is an essential one that should never be underestimated, but this shouldn’t prevent us from examining and appreciating Shoah as an incredible cinematic achievement as well.

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Criterion Files

One major aspect of the Nazi propaganda machine that gained their support from the German people was their promotion of nostalgia. And like any form of nostalgia (and especially in nostalgia’s frequent political function), this was a selective nostalgia, decidedly exploiting certain tropes and icons of German history and heritage. A major component of this nostalgia was the promotion of nature as the means of returning to pure German identity. Nature provided a convenient contrast to the values that the Nazi party wanted to work against, and it’s opposite – the urban center – was the focal point of all they problems they perceived Germany as having been misguided by, most explicitly centralized in the supposed decadence of 1920s Berlin. The political, aesthetic, and sexual aspirations (not to mention the diversity) of the Weimar period posed a threat to the ideals of tradition, uniformity, and the assumed hierarchy of specific social roles. This nostalgic and romantic preoccupation with nature is readily available in German cultural products of the 1920s and 30s. Anybody who has seen Inglourious Basterds (2009) is familiar with the “mountain film,” or “bergfilme” genre that had peaked by this point. This genre was popular years before the Third Reich took power, and its prevalence speaks volumes to the German peoples’ preoccupation with nature leading up to the Hitler’s rise to power. Leni Riefenstahl, perhaps the most famous of Nazi-era filmmakers, starred in mountain films and went onto make Olympia (1938) and Triumph of the Will (1935), a […]

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For a filmmaker who completed only seven feature films in his lifetime, Andrei Tarkovsky has made an enormous impact. In addition to his artistry, perhaps the enduring fascination with his work has to do with the story of a life cut short. After all, several European filmmakers who were born before Tarkovsky, like Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais, are still around and making new films. Each of Tarkovsky’s seven films are brilliant works that each possess an ambition towards perfection and cinematic transcendence, but when bringing the filmmaker’s abrupt death by lung cancer into the equation it’s difficult to avoid the saddened feeling that there’s a great deal more time-sculpting he had left to share. So it makes sense then that the number of documentaries about Tarkovsky (or prominently feature the filmmaker) far exceed the number of films the director himself completed, and this fact gives a clear indication of his broad cinematic influence. These films are made because people want more, and desire to understand the depth of Tarkovsky’s work better. Films like Voyage in Time (1983), Moscow Elegy (1987), Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (1988), and Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky (2008) have examined the auteur’s method, life, philosophy, and impact. But easily the best documentary about Tarkovsky thus far is French visual essayist Chris Marker‘s One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (1999), recently released on DVD by Icarus Films.

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afilm a symphonie threemovements deathof language The above “sentence” would probably be the most appropriate way to describe French filmmaking legend Jean-Luc Godard’s latest (and possibly his last) film, Film Socialisme. The fragmentary and strangely juxtaposed words above are not only an (unsuccessful) attempt to describe an incredibly abstruse film, but it is also an attempt to do so in the film’s selected stylistic “language”: rather than traditional full-sentence subtitles, these are the type of words we see at the bottom of the screen whenever a character or narrator speaks. I can barely recognize only a few select words in French myself, but from what I can tell the characters, while often speaking esoterically in conversations motivated without typical movie-logic contextualization, rarely actually speak in fragments, but in full sentences. So the subtitles for non-French-speaking audiences are a deliberately obscuring selection of the words actually spoken, and they often arrive late in their juxtaposition of words spoken and occasionally seem to have no direct correspondence whatsoever. This is not to suggest that the unique subtitling in the international release of Film Socialisme somehow “obscures” non-French speakers from understanding the film’s meaning. In one sense, the film is incredibly difficult to follow no matter what language(s) one knows, but in another, the film’s meaning is plainly available in this multilingual wordplay.

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It’s that time of the year again: that brief span of time in between Christmas and New Year’s when journalists, critics, and cultural commentators scramble to define an arbitrary block of time even before that block is over with. To speculate on what 2010 will be remembered for is purely that: speculation. But the lists, summaries, and editorials reflecting on the events, accomplishments, failures, and occurrences of 2010 no doubt shape future debate over what January 1-December 31, 2010 will be remembered for personally, nostalgically, and historically. How we refer to the present frames how it is represented in the future, even when contradictions arise over what events should be valued from a given year. In an effort to begin that framing process, what I offer here is not a critical list of great films, but one that points out dominant cultural conversations, shared trends, and intersecting topics (both implicit and explicit) that have occurred either between the films themselves or between films and other notable aspects of American social life in 2010. As this column attempts to establish week in and week out, movies never exist in a vacuum, but instead operate in active conversation with one another. Thus, a movie’s cultural context should never be ignored. So, without further adieu, here is my overview of the Top 10 topics, trends, and events of the year that have nothing to do with the 3D debate.

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Criterion Files

Let’s just get this out of the way first. I think Red Desert (1964) is Michelangelo Antonioni’s very best film. Better than L’Avventura, better than The Passenger, and better than Blow-Up (though I’ve never been a huge fan of the latter). In some ways it’s one of Antonioni’s oddest films, and in others it flirts with inaccessibility, but not only is the film beautiful, it’s poignant and explores a fascinating array of themes. It’s heavy, it’s a breakthrough, and it’s profound.

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Criterion Files

Alain Resnais is one my favorite filmmakers, and it’s largely because of his early work. Between Night and Fog (1955), Hiroshima mon amour (1959), and this week’s film, Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Resnais’ late 50s-early 60s work represents a sort of trilogy meditating on the themes of trauma and memory. While these first two films address these subjects specifically in regard to resonating painful memories of WWII (the subject of Night and Fog being concentration camps, and Hiroshima mon amour clearly being Hiroshima), Marienbad’s narrative avenue towards this subject isn’t rooted in globally relevant history. Rather, Last Year at Marienbad switches gears to tell a story of memory loss between two socialites at a baroque hotel, one of whom (the man, played by Girgio Albertazzi) remembers a brief but passionate affair from the previous year, while the other (the woman, played by Delphine Seyrig) doesn’t.

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Our Culture Warrior Landon Palmer digs into next month’s Cannes line up so you won’t have to. Learn what to look out for when they hit the states and feign sounding cultured at parties!

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This week’s Culture Warrior helps you fill out your Netflix queue.

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This week, on a very special episode or Reject Radio, Landon Palmer attempts to explain why his fascination with nun orgies hasn’t gotten his Masters degree taken away from him.

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