Liberal Arts

The romantic comedy, an all too familiar, and often disappointing movie genre. Often consisting of a cookie cutter narrative structure and happily- ever -after ending; these films are commonly devoid of any real subtext other than the traditional “love conquers all.” They are empty and unsatisfying. There is another genre of films I like to call the “rom-com-dram”, or romantic comedy drama, which are able to fill the thematic void present in a classic rom-com. Woody Allen largely pioneered this genre with films like Annie Hall, and Manhattan, and has given rise to a new generation of writers and directors following in his footsteps. One of the most obvious Woody Allen worshipers is Josh Radnor most known for his role as Ted on the hit show How I Met Your Mother. Over the last few years Radnor has made his writing/directorial debut, with his first film Happythankyoumoreplease and his more recent Liberal Arts. Both films fall into this rom-com-dram framework giving the viewer a fun as well as emotional and meaningful experience.

Liberal Arts (2012) is about Jesse, a thirty-five year old admissions counselor who returns to his alma mater for the retirement party of one of his old college professors. While there he meets Zibby, a nineteen-year-old sophomore. The two develop an immediate connection, and begin exchanging hand written letters. Eventually Jesse returns to the college to visit Zibby, and begins to have an existential crisis.  Jesse suffers from the psychological condition known as Peter Pan Syndrome; he still feels like a teenager, and romanticizes his college days; he does not want to grow up. Jesse is also an avid reader and would rather live within the pages of books than the real world. Jesse and Zibby’s relationship is one of symbiosis. They are both reaching for a time in their life that is beyond their grasp. Jesse wants to reclaim his youth, and Zibby wants to grow up all too fast. Each the film’s major characters are dispirited with their current point in life, but they all must learn to accept where they are in order to be happy.

The film is warm and overly romantic, but that’s the point. It’s a film for the readers and the over thinkers of the world. There are several allusions to literature and classical music that may come across as ostentatious to some, but are a delectable treat for others. Jesse is obnoxious and pretentious at times, but he is loveable nonetheless. The film is a bit muddled thematically. Radnor tries to cram a bit too much in rather than focusing all his energy on the idea that life happens, and we eventually have to face the reality of the present. As any good rom-com-dram should, the picture takes us to highs and lows and everywhere in between, with humor sprinkled liberally throughout.

Radnor is not a great filmmaker by any means, but he is also exceptionally green. His first two films have been enjoyable, and help define his personal style and themes, but they lack the confidence and ambition to be something truly great. Will Radnor be able to develop the self-assurance and maturity to make something that goes beyond mere entertainment? Or will he be like his idol Woody Allen who has numerous good films, but only a few greats? It will be exciting to see how Radnor blossoms over the years to come.

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Ackerman and The Meetings of Anna

The art of implication in cinema is often an essential element for successful filmmaking. As a writer it is much easier to simply employ the use of expository dialog, or blatantly significant actions to expose character traits or plot points. This is also a much simpler experience for the viewer, as all of the information is readily available leaving the need for very little mental effort. However, films that do so are in some regard shortchanging film as a medium. They are often cheesy and unrewarding for the viewer. Film has the ability to hold an extremely large amount of information in a single shot, both apparent, and implied. Truly great films are those which use this ability to its fullest.

Chantal Ackerman’s The Meetings of Anna comes surprisingly close to repeating the success of her masterpiece Jeanne Dielman using the powers of implication expertly. Every shot in the film is calculated, and precise. You can tell that nothing is unintentional. The movie is about a young female filmmaker named Anna who is constantly traveling, showing her films, and meeting various people: strangers, acquaintances, her mother, and a past lover. The film is filled with several long take dialog scenes. These scenes reveal quite a lot about Anna, but often without being explicit. There are hints scattered throughout the dialog, but the viewer must piece the majority of the information together and make their own assumptions. For example, it is implied that Anna has had two abortions in her past. Never is it said, or even blatantly hinted at; it is more a supposition the viewer must make. It keeps ones mind constantly engaged while watching the film.

The cinematography is technically exquisite; Ackerman uses symmetry and balance in nearly every shot. It all adds to the careful attention to detail throughout. The Meetings of Anna as a whole is about loneliness, and a search for human connection. The sterility of the cinematography lend well to this theme isolating Anna from her surroundings. It is impossible not to wonder if Ackerman was making a film about her own life and experience. One of the most brilliant scenes in the film is when Anna is sitting in her hotel room waiting to go to her film’s premier. Anna lies on the bed, looks out the open window, and makes several phone calls. Anna, a famous, popular director is alone, bored. The premier is never seen; Ackerman instead chooses to only show the simple moments spent alone, and it is a much more powerful scene because of it.

Ackerman is a minimalist through and through, yet her movies are extremely deep and complex. She shows very little, but her films say a lot. The picture posses an acute awareness of humanity, it reveals a loneliness far too many of us have felt. The Meetings of Anna is an extreme example of implication over exposition, but shows how much a film can reveal without saying anything bluntly.

Mon Oncle and Tati

Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958) is the sequel to his earlier film Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. I have seen a few of Tati’s films, but Mon Oncle is the most recent. Tati is known for his nearly silent situational comedies, and this film is no different. It tells the story of the Arpel family who have recently moved into a hyper modern home with their eccentric uncle, played by the director himself. His films are rich in color, entertainment value and have an unparalleled sense for comedy. His work fills a niche that has been essentially barren since the end of the silent era.

In all of Tati’s great works the environment plays a pivotal role in the narrative. Objects transcend their mere physical forms and become characters in their own right. In his film Traffic for example a car modified into a camper becomes one of the protagonists itself as several police officers search the car at customs. The car turns into a main focal point of the picture behaving almost like a living creature as the officers discover the nearly endless supply of gadgets and gizmos the car is furnished with. In Mon Oncle instead of a car, a futuristic house takes center stage. The home becomes more than just an object it becomes a supporting character constantly engaging in a give and take with the characters.

Tati has a remarkable inventiveness when it comes to designing sets and props. One of the funniest elements in the Mon Oncle is a fountain in the front courtyard of the Arpel’s futuristic house. Each time a visitor arrives to the home, Madame Arpel turns on the fountain in the middle of the yard, and after their guests depart…off goes the fountain. This is repeated multiple times throughout the film, becoming prograssively hilarious with each repetition. Yes, it does go on a bit too long, nevertheless, Tati knew the root of good comedy. Often the best comedic films are even more enjoyable on the second viewing, this is because humans are creatures of habit. We like what we know, and this is what Tati plays off of. By repeating comedic elements multiple times throughout a film he first familiarizes the viewer with them, and then repeats that element for increased comedic effect.

Although the use of dialog is almost non-existent in Mon Oncle the soundscape is rich and delicious. Watching a Tati film is like a eating a parfait with your ears, there is layer after layer of juicy goodness. Tati loves the sound of footsteps. For the first several minutes of his  masterwork Playtime, all that is heard is crisp footsteps on a tile floor. This same effect is utilized in Mon Oncle. Footsteps are ever present from start to finish. The steps give the film a constant sense of rhythm in the absence of music.

In conclusion, Tati is a master of his craft. Each of his films are meticulously choreographed, and ingeniously comedic. He managed to make props and elements of his sets come to life. Sound is always an integral part to any Tati picture; he always keeps the ears stimulated without overwhelming them. Comedy is a fine balance that is easily, and often over done; however, Tati manages to walk the line like a pro.

Comments on Bresson

Robert Bresson, an unknown to most, an enigma to others, and a genius to the rest. Bresson devised his own approach and methodology for making films. He stripped away the façade, and tried to disassociate film from the theater art of which it evolved. His concepts and theories on film as an art form influenced many during the French new wave and his impact is still visible in films of today.

Au Hassard Balthazar is often hailed as Bresson’s greatest work, a masterpiece some say, but after my first viewing just over a year ago I found myself baffled as to why. It seems to be a schizophrenic story about a young girl, a sociopath, and most importantly a tortured donkey named Balthazar. However, when one comes to understand Bresson’s style and abandons pre-conceived conceptions on what a motion picture should be, the beauty begins to manifest itself. Balthazar like all of Bresson’s films really requires multiple viewings. Upon my second viewing the film became comprehensible and during my third something extraordinary. “Nothing to much, nothing deficient”         –Robert Bresson. This quote sums up any good Bresson film whether it is Muchete, Pickpocket, or in this case Balthazar. Bresson is extremely deliberate in what is, and isn’t shown in his films. It may seem that he is withholding details pertaining to the narrative, but that is never the case. What Bresson doesn’t show you, you never needed to see.  He wants to keep the viewer on his toes searching for what is hidden beneath the images and sounds. Following the narrative is secondary to the understanding of any of his films, contrary to most traditional Hollywood pictures.

Bresson’s sense of balance goes beyond narrative exposition. He is always conscious of the marriage of sound and visuals, careful never to bombard the audience as directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Spike Lee do all too often. In Balthazar one scene in particular stands out when Balthazar pulls an out of control cart ending in a wreck. During the scene only close ups of the wagons spinning wheels, Balthazar’s feet, and the broken brake are seen. The visuals are limited however the audio is rich, and intense. We hear the ever-quickening pace of Balthazar’s gait, and the clattering of the wagon accelerating down hill, then a crash, not seen, but heard. In the final scene of his film Mouchete Bresson uses the same technique of balance, and visual omission when the young girl rolls down a hill, and into a pond, it is not seen but heard.

Bresson’s main goal was to give rise to film that was free of the influences of the theater. His concept of the “Model” rather than an actor is one of the most noticeable attempts at stripping away theatrics. Whether he is successful is up for debate. It certainly does eliminate any attempt at being convincing. The characters are flat, completely devoid of physical emotion; almost in a trance. Werner Herzog’s Heart of Glass in which the actors were put under hypnosis prior to their performances is one of the few films that resemble a Bressonian acting style. Although revolutionary Bresson’s “Model” concept never seems to have taken hold in any cinematic movement. Acting remains a familiar and almost universal piece of the narrative film viewing experience.

Puzzling yet captivating Bresson remains one of the most enigmatic filmmakers in history. His approach to filmmaking was truly unique. Never concerned with being marketable, he instead attempted to make film a unique and independent art form. Bresson remained pure to his philosophies and ideals throughout his body of work. He is undeniably one of the great artists of the 20th century.

Jeanne Dielman Critique

What is the first thing someone asks when hearing the title of a movie they have not seen? “What is it about?” or “What happens in it?” When asked this question about Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman I found myself at a loss. It is essentially a film in which nothing happens. The film is simply the daily routine of a middle aged, single mother that slowly spirals out of control.  However, for a film almost completely devoid of action or dialog, it manages to be one of the most fascinating and gripping films ever produced.

            The picture depicts three days in the life of a woman named Jeanne Dielman. She cooks, knits, bathes, eats with her peculiar son, and entertains her male guests, or a more accurate description, clients. The first day serves to set up the normality of Jeanne’s very overly rigid routine; day two holds the inciting incident and day three is the rising action and conclusion of the film. The pace of the film is deliberately glacial. Ackerman has an amazing sense of how screen time feels much longer than real time. She uses the technique to give the film a realistic tempo. For example when Jeanne is washing the dishes, or peeling potatoes she does so for a full one to two minutes, but to the viewer it feels as though a much longer span has passed. Every aspect of the movie is minimalistic. The use of dialog is extremely economical, and secondary to the viewers understanding. Even Ackerman’s cinematography is bare bones; there are no camera movements whatsoever, and in each shot the viewer is simply left to observe.

            So why is this movie able to hold one’s attention for three hours and twenty minutes? The resounding answer is people’s voyeuristic tendencies. Jeanne Dielman is a film of voyeurism in the purest sense. It places the viewer in front of a fishbowl of a woman’s life. Ackerman is also brilliant at creating suspense from nothing. Throughout the film there is an ever-increasing sense that her finely balanced life is going to collapse, and ultimately it does. The suspense is another factor, which holds the audiences attention. There is an ever increasing need to know how it will end.

            Jeanne Dielman is about a woman whose life has become so regimented and banal that it has lost all-purpose. Even her lovemaking is empty and mechanical, a chore not a pleasure. On the third day when she wakes up too early her day begins to fall apart. Jeanne starts to come to the realization that her life is empty. In the final moments when Jeanne’s client gives her presumably her first orgasms everything comes crashing down. She has been a hostage to the methodical nature of her existence, and finally snaps. The message is one of oppression and liberation, but it is also portrait of what can happen when oppression goes too far. Jeanne wishes to be in control at all times, but in the end she loses it in an explosion of violence. The final shot is one not easily forgotten as we watch for seven minutes Jeanne sitting at her kitchen table, her hands bloody, she is in a state of shock and horror, yet there is a sense of peace.

            This film is one that is not easily summed up in a few brief words on a page. It is a visual work, and must be seen to be understood. There are several layers to the picture from female sexual repression, to the dangers of being a prisoner to ones own existence. Ackerman created a true masterpiece at only twenty-five years old, and she was never able to attain the same level of greatness again.

Le Bonheur Critique

“Happiness” it is a word we hear all of the time, but when asked to define it, rarely will you find two people with the same answer. Agnes Varda’s 1965 film entitled Le Bonheur, which translates literally as “happiness” explores what it truly means to be happy. The narrative follows a young man named François who is in a loving marriage with a woman named Therese. François meets another woman whom he falls in love with and the two sleep together. One month into his affair François tells his wife about his mistress Emilie, and asks her if he can continue seeing the other woman. Therese, in a surprising twist agrees to the husband’s proposal, but shortly there after drowns in a nearby pond. The movie offers a provocative look at adultery, as well as the concept of a happy family.

Adultery is generally seen in society as morally reprehensible. Le Bonheur however takes a different stance on the issue. François is able to achieve a new level of happiness through his affair. His love for his wife is not diminished, and he instead manages to love two women at once. When Therese vapidly agrees to let him carry on with his mistress François views his own happiness as being doubled by having two women, instead of one. Varda manages to provide a situation in which the idea of an open marriage seems perfectly acceptable. All parties benefit, and there is nothing lost. It all seems strangely serene. However, the euphoria falls apart soon after François tells his wife. Reality hits when Therese drowns, and his perfect plan falls apart. Varda pulls the viewer in one direction throughout the film, and then in the last fifteen minutes slaps them in the other direction.

Varda’s tender depiction of the affair coupled with a whimsical soundtrack and bright cheery colors gives an impression of innocence to the situation. François truly believes what he is doing can be justified if his love for his wife is unchanged, and it is hard as a viewer not to agree. The whole film is light and rich; at no point in the film is the issue of adultery given any real moral weight; it is intentionally dealt with very lightly. The family has a level of artificiality to it. No family is that happy and content. Even when the man loses his wife he moves on with the new woman Emilie a bit too easily.

Varda’s perspective, which comes through in this film as well as her others, is that happiness comes at a cost. It is best summed up in a quote from her later film Vagabond that goes “ To be completely free one must be completely alone.” Although made twenty years later Varda’s philosophy doesn’t seem to have changed. In order for François to be happy with his newfound mistress he must lose his first love. That is life, a constant series of sacrifices all in search of happiness.

Le Bonheur in a sense could be considered a satire of sorts. Varda exaggerates the happiness of the couple in the film to such a degree that it seems farcical. It never becomes humorous, but it also never takes itself too seriously. The affair again is so innocent to a extent that it becomes unbelievable. No one should be that happy and in the end none of the characters in the film can be. Happiness is fleeting.

Viridiana Critique

Viridiana, (1961) directed by Luis Bunuel tells the story of an aspiring nun who believes she has been raped…twice. On its surface a movie about a girl whose uncle wants to marry her, and then convinces the girl that he has raped her might not seem like a first choice for a Friday night, and it shouldn’t be. It is far from a feel good film, yet Viridiana is a masterpiece in its own right. The film focuses on the character of Viridiana, a young, sexually repressed virgin, whose good intentions ultimately lead to destruction. Throughout the film Bunuel challenges social conventions and ideals upheld by the Catholic Church at the time.

In the film Viridiana turns the home of her deceased uncle into a sanctuary for the poor and depraved. The woman has a good heart and truly wishes to help the destitute, but as the film goes on to illustrate good intentions only get you so far. The movie serves as a warning against the dangers of charity. Viridiana’s act of penance and good will leads only to more suffering. In one of the most telling scenes of the picture a man observes a dog tied to a cart, he feels bad for the dog and purchases it from the cart owner. As the man then walks away having done his good deed, he fails to take notice of another dog tied to another cart. This idea that there is always another dog, that things cannot be changed, runs throughout the piece. It is most clear in the characters of the beggars. Viridiana wants to change them, but they quarrel, ostracize a man who they believe has leprosy; defile her home, and even her own body. They are what the world has made them, and it cannot be changed even with the best intentions.

At its core Viridiana is a film about female sexual repression. Viridiana has devoted her life to Christ, and is intent on entering into a cloistered life of celibacy in a convent. However, the confusion surrounding the possibility that her own uncle has raped her forces the girl to abandon the life she had planned. Jorge, Viridiana’s cousin becomes a driving force as the two develop a flirtatious relationship. Viridiana seems for the first time to feel herself yearning for the company of a man. There is almost this sense that Viridiana deep down wishes to be raped. She wants to be liberated from the constraints of celibacy, and free to fulfill her own sexual desires. By believing she has been raped for the second time she is set free of the oppression of her faith. She no longer feels the need to guard herself because she has already fallen out of grace, which provides her true salvation. In the final scene Viridiana knocks on Jorge’s door in the night, he opens it and lets her in. Inside are Jorge and a female friend. Shimmy Doll is playing on the record player, and the room is charged with sexual tension. The scene subtly implies that Viridiana has gone to the house to sleep with Jorge, and finally satisfy her true desires. It ends with the image of Viridiana, Jorge and his female friend sitting at the table playing cards; there is a clear sense that something more is going to happen.

Viridiana was met with virulent controversy in its home country of Spain, and was eventually banned from distribution. Bunuel obviously intended to cause uproar and he succeeded. It is a film about human suffering, and the fact that the world will never change. It can be read on many different levels, and should not be confined to any one perspective. Bunuel was truly a master of his craft and had a penchant for creating controversial and provocative films no matter what the content.