Sunday, March 29, 2009

Carax's "Merde"

Emerging from the sewers of Tokyo to the strains of Akira Ifukube’s “Godzilla” score, Merde is dirty, unkempt, with long, claw-like finger nails, a bizarre hooked beard and a dead, milky white eye – Denis Lavant strikes an impossible figure, his body capable of contortions and configurations seemingly not possible with regards to normal human physiology. His increasingly violent escapades range from stealing cigarettes and flowers to licking arm pits to, eventually (almost inevitably), fire bombing the Japanese populous with WWII era grenades. A cultural terrorist? The return of the historical memory or the repressed “other”? Lavant returns to his sewer abode, limping past a burned out tank and a strategically placed Japanese rising sun, only to reemerge as a force of pure anarchic chaos. The forces of law and order never far behind, Lavant is eventually captured by Tokyo authorities and put on trial. Coming to his defense is superstar French attorney Jean-Fran├žois Balmer, who (mysteriously) shares Lavant’s crooked beard, pupil-less eye and mysterious language (a language based on grunts and violent gesticulations, which leads to a hilarious, minutes long, subtitle free conversation between the two – it is Marx’s Bros inspired lunacy). Director Leos Carax then embarks on a series of familiar pop culture tropes – religious cults spring up in honor of Lavant’s “Merde”, his image is plastered on posters and tee shirts in a striking, black and white print that resembles a generation of Che merchandise, action figures, etc. But Lavant remains incorrigible – unrepentant, he’s given the death penalty and hung, only to then be resurrected. The film ends with a joking text, a taunt of future installments – coming soon, “Merde in USA” (Godard would approve).

Merde as punk rock Jesus Christ? Perhaps it is Carax himself, returning from a decade in the wilderness to provoke once again. The victim of a series of follies – some of which might have been his own doing – Carax seemed to disappear after the hugely expensive, and commercially unsuccessful, Lovers on the Bridge, which led to a lengthy gap in production, before returning with Pola X, another commercial and critical flop (that Pola X might remain his masterpiece, a highly personal, dense experience full of weird symbols, codes, and genre mutations, all in the service of a main character literally dying for his art work, led some people to question Carax’s sincerity, if not his sanity. It remains their loss). A decade long separation for Lavant and Carax; it is difficult for me to separate the two, Lavant long Carax’s preferred on screen surrogate, and one who has gone from boy-like innocence in the throes of first love (Boy Meets Girl, Bad Blood) to a an old man (Denis’ Beau Travail), his body chiseled out of granite, his face creased with lines that seem the result not of aging but of a particularly brutal knife fight. Lavant’s initial rampage as Merde – a long, graceful backwards tracking shot down a Tokyo sidewalk, Lavant seemingly finding his feet for the first time; stumbling, but a graceful stumble – the movement, of the human body and of the camera, harkens back to Bad Blood - a jubilant, younger Lavant, in a moment of ecstasy, cart wheeling, skipping, jumping, running down a Parisian sidewalk, Carax’s camera barely able to keep up to this fierce explosion of pure energy, this little ball of fury that has a name. Carax himself seems drunk with the possibilities of the camera, indulging in long tracking shots, split screens, extreme close ups and more meditative wide shots – it is almost as if he is reacquainting himself with an old lover, this camera that he hasn’t seen, or touched or caressed in far too long. I look forward to Merde in USA – lets just hope it doesn’t take another decade before it happens.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Some News:

I don't plan on turning this little site into a clearing house for news, but several things have happened in the last week that seem worthy of discussion:

-after the news several weeks ago of New Yorker Films untimely demise, the first question on everyone's mind was what happens to their film holdings? With the advent of home video, people might forget that some companies still posses, and occasionally distribute, actual 35mm film. In point of fact, New Yorker Films itself was bought out some time ago by a larger company riddled with debt, which in turn used New Yorker's rich film holdings as collateral on loans. When the collectors called in their marker and no one had any money, said library became up for grabs. A recent post at Dave Kehr's site has details on the upcoming auction, in which films can apparently be bought individually or en mass. We'll see who steps up to the plate (or if any one actually has the funds to do so). In the meantime, I would assume that the company's dvds are, for all practical purposes, out of print, so snatch them up if you see them. Yes, they aren't exactly at Criterion levels of digital excellence, but sometimes the films themselves are simply worthwhile enough.

-more disturbing news for us beleaguered cinephiles - Kent Jones has resigned his position as associate director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. I wasn't aware of any behind the scenes tumult until this news dropped almost literally out of the blue (Jones himself was recently posting on Dave Kher's site about an upcoming Robert Mulligan series that he seemed particularly proud of). According to Glenn Kenny, who has spoken with Film Comment (the magazine of the FSLC) editor Gavin Smith, the resignation will not alter Jone's status as the magazine's key contributor (sorry Amy and Olaf, but it's true). Here's the original Indiewire story, as well as the comments page on Kehr's site and Some Came Running. David Hudson's site also collates some related links, so go there as well.

-two articles over at The Moving Image Source: first up, critic Michael Atkinson eulogizes vhs. I assume that anyone roughly my own age got most of their film education through these little hard plastic rectangles, and I must admit I'm sad to see them go (I've still got a few hundred of them stacked up on shelves in my office). Anthony Kaufman's piece reports on the more pressing concern of films that get lost in the shuffle from one format to another. As I brought up in my last post on New Yorker Films, there is a persistent myth, brought about by ignorance coupled with studio logic, that anything and everything is available to the home viewer. Kaufman quotes Dave Kehr, that of the over 150,000 titles listed on TCM's list of American films, less than 4 percent are available in any format for home viewing. Dire straits indeed.


-a recent piece from Geoffrey Macnab in The Independent has, for lack of a more congenial term, really fucking pissed me off (it's my blog, and I'll curse if I want to). Macnab proffers the thesis that the French New Wave, on the eve of an academic conference celebrating its 50th anniversary, has lead, irreducibly, to decades of inferior films, filmmakers and insurmountable expectations. That is, new generations of European filmmakers are subjected to the standards of the New Wave and "found wanting", to which Macnab suggests a casting off of those standards - his deduction? That the young turks are now venerated old masters, therefore their railing against a "cinema of quality" has lost its validity. Really, go a head and read the article. It's here.

Back? Good. Pissed off? Me too.

I'm particularly fond of the following: "meanwhile, new French directors are burdened with a sense of expectation that they simply can't meet. Whether Leos Carax, Mathieu Kassovitz or the bearish old Jean-Claude Brisseau, these film makers are not simply judged on what they've done but their work is assessed (and ultimately found wanting) through the prism of the past." Poor old Kassovitz, who followed up his international breakthrough La Haine with a tepid Hollywood style thriller called The Crimson Rivers before jumping ship to America, where he has made two masterpieces in a row - the Halle Berry vehicle Gothika and the Vin Desiel mega-hit Babylon A.D. But perhaps these films failed not on their own (virtually non-existent) merits, but because they just simply can't live up to the expectations of the New Wave. Brisseau and Carax, on the other hand, seem to be making whatever it is they want, and on their own terms. Carax's bad boy reputation, obscure working methods and huge budgets have done as much to curtail his career as anything else, and unlike some of the venerated New Wave masters that he is indebted to, Carax's entire filmography is readily available on home video (we certainly can't say the same thing about much of Godard, almost all of early Chabrol and Rivette himself, the most underrepresented of the whole group). Brisseau, meanwhile, is producing film after film of pretentious art house soft core porn (although Secret Things and The Exterminating Angels, his last two features, are good for some titillation and inadvertent laughs).

Macnab sums up with a hell of an ending - "when all the academics assemble in London in March and April to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Nouvelle Vague, you just hope that they will spare a moment to reflect on the movements checkered legacy. Over the last half century, there have been many drab films made in the name of the New Wave... that everybody today still looks back to Godard and Truffaut suggests how bereft of ideas European filmmakers have been since the days of Breathless." You can almost sense the sneer on Macnab's face when he hisses the word "academic" - good to know that America isn't alone in its rabid anti-intellectualism. As for being "bereft of ideas", a heck of a large generalization, it seems to me that Techine, Assayas, Denis, Desplechin, Chereau, Nolot, Cantet, Noe and Breillat are doing just fine for themselves. Perhaps Macnab has simply never gotten over Truffaut's famous disparaging remarks about the British film industry, something along the lines of a certain incompatibility between the terms "cinema" and "British". To which we might now add, a certain incompatibility between the terms "intelligent criticism" and "British".