If the moment I started studying with Peter Hutton had a color, it would be cerulean. I don’t know which other could articulate the curious alloy of surging energy and contagious calm that he brought to his teaching. If I were of a certain persuasion, I would call the ensuing feeling oceanic, and chuckle at the way it loosely evokes imagery from his film At Sea, which blew my mind and those of all of my classmates, but the implicit over-seriousness of describing it as such verges on hero worship, a counterproductive habit that Peter taught me to work beyond. Imperfect as the metaphor is, invoking a color of electrifying clarity will have to do for this belated eulogy for the teacher who helped me move from darkness into light—or, better put, who helped me locate the light in darkness—more so than any other teacher. He did so with humbleness, grace, and simplicity, qualities that I believe any teacher worth their salt ought to strive for. Peter embodied these qualities, and so many more, and I am eternally grateful to have studied with him.
Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive is like a master class in solving quirky filmmaking puzzles. How does a director make a movie in which the characters can survey and comment on the whole of history without having the film succumb to hackneyed tricks like time travel? Jarmusch’s solution: Make the protagonists undead. Make them vampires. But if one of the aims of the film is identification—i.e., the viewer being able to identify with the protagonists and thus take part in their often-plaintive (re)view of history—then how does the director create this effect when his protagonists are the embodiment of horror? By inverting the traditional relationship between the feared vampires and fearful people and having people be zombies to the vampires. These are some of the brilliant moves Jarmusch deploys in his hypnotizing contribution to the filmic version of literature’s sexiest, weirdest, and most blood-thirsty genre.
Trainwreck held a lot of surprises for the year 2015 – mainly that Amy Schumer could ditch fart jokes and command an audience’s attention longer than the length of a Hulu clip and that director Judd Apatow’s career wasn’t on a steady decline. Though those revelations were nothing short of incredible in a summer season filled with Pixels and Ted 2, neither compares to the one-two punch of casting Tilda Swinton, the Oscar and BAFTA-winning actress, and then using every trick in the cosmetology book to disguise her as thoroughly as possible.Continue reading →
“If I’m a storyteller, it’s because I listen.” says the writer and artist John Berger in one of the many luminous moments of The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, an invaluable document of Berger’s life and work co-directed by Tilda Swinton. Berger, who passed away on the second day of this year at the age of ninety, did so much to both enlarge and give nuance to our understanding of art, culture, and politics that it is nearly impossible to overstate the scope of his influence. That he and Swinton forged a decades-long friendship and gave us this film, thanks to Swinton’s commitment to film projects that transcend and often redefine boundaries, is yet another gift, one which offers critical insights about the peculiar historical moment in which we find ourselves, from their already generous careers.
CATHERINE: I’m glad to be here and thank you for that introduction and I’d like to thank Yangqiao Lu, who initially sent out the invitation to me. So why screen the Young Girls of Rochefort now? Its 2017, this film came out in 1967, so that’s fifty years ago. To film curators, that’s normally enough to show something on it’s 50th or 25th anniversary, but I also think this film is an important one, its one that I really like and I think it gives a different vision of French cinema that you may be used to be seeing in American movies theaters. SO if you think about 1967 and French film, you’re probably thinking about Jon Luc Godard, François Truffaut…revolutionary filmmaking and this obsession with Maoism. This is not that type of film. Young Girls of Rochefort is made for a mass audience. It’s joyful, it’s delightful, it’s shot in vibrant color, it’s a different type of innovative formal filmmaking. So for a long time, Demy was thought of as less successful than Godard, he was thought of as less than an auteur, and he fell out of favor in 1970s and 80s and he’s recently made a comeback and this was due to the DVD box set of his work and the screenings organized around that, and I think that you will find him intriguing. He has a style that is about building a universe, it’s about creating an alternate world and that’s one of the things I want you to think about. How is he creating a different type of universe in his film?
While critically panned, The Beach (2000) is not as horrid as contemporary collective wisdom such as its Rotten Tomatoes score would make you believe. DiCaprio plays Richard, a young man on a quest for meaning who comes across an off-the-grid island in Thailand that is inhabited simultaneously by marijuana farmers and a cult-like community run by Sal (Tilda Swinton) – with both parties keeping to their respective side of the island. Richard thinks he has found paradise in this community and soon succumbs to madness while trying to protect his utopia from intruders from his past. In this scene of Richard’s hallucination, his perspective is transformed to that of Daffy, a character whom the audience – and Richard – meets at the start of the film and who also happens to be the insane man that started the island cult. Throughout this scene, Richard increasingly loses his subjectivity until his and Daffy’s are one in the same.
The scene opens with a medium close-up of Richard hidden behind leaves, a particular framing that signifies Richard’s loss of identity as well as his loose grasp on reality. After eating a worm, his transition into Daffy’s subjectivity begins. As he looks up, he sees the trees swirling and blurring which serves as a symbolic portal that leads to the mind of Richard and Daffy. Akin to the blurred visuals, Richard’s consciousness has entered a grey area between the sanity he once had and Daffy’s insanity that he will soon absorb. Next, the swirling trees dissolve into Richard’s walking in a hotel hallway whose set design immediately indicates to us that he is walking towards Daffy’s room from the start of the film. While the memorable bloodstained walls appear familiar, spears of light instantly draws our attention to the new addition of a plethora of bullet holes. The simultaneous familiarity and unfamiliarity with the room creates an uncanny feeling which properly translates into the new, combined subjectivity of Richard and Daffy. Reunited, Richard and Daffy move towards the window together, look out to one direction, shoot at the possible intruders as allies, and eventually merge into one vision in a conscientious shot through a singular pair of binoculars. Daffy and Richard’s victims fall down as if they are bad actors in a death scene, a falseness that gives surreal shape to Richard’s mental image of hallucination. While there is harmony between the two characters’ dispositions, there is a stark dissonance from reality when the viewer sees bodies fall so artificially. The joined subjectivity is further articulated at the end of the scene when Richard tells Daffy, “I’m with you all the way.”
Tara Zdancewicz is pursuing her MFA in Film and Television Studies at BU. She enjoys gushing about film to the undergraduates that she teaches.
Sally Potter’s 1992 gender-bending fantasia, Orlando, was way ahead of its time. Based on the novel of the same name by Virginia Woolf, it broke ground, as did Woolf’s story, that had remained pretty much untilled. As viewed now, in our modern age of pansexual, polymorphous relationships, a strong case can be made for how influential a film it was on world society and socio-cultural mores.
Tilda Swinton, the star of Potter’s proceedings, has spent a career skirting conventional mainstream projects, going instead for passion projects she felt were edgy, free of boundaries and caution, movies she was compelled to make for their importance rather than their box office draw. An ethereal type (like her contemporary, Cate Blanchett, she has a chalky white translucence, albino eyes, and firm, hard cheekbones), Swinton is capable of slipping as easily into a male character as she is a female one; she has an otherworldly, space alien androgyny that makes her convincing when playing the “Other,” whatever that “Other” a script calls for her to be. She is perfect as Orlando, an Elizabethan-era boy who, in the course of the story, transforms into a girl. And we accept her as a boy not because she sports any definite male characteristic or swagger, but rather because her looks transcend all genders. She embodies the belief put forth here that all love is genderless. The impish grin that widens her face at times seems free of category, an animal almost. She looks like many different animals all at once. A singular person encompassing all. From the very first scene, Potter’s camera is making love to Swinton, to you, seducing you to love Swinton. Her courtly male duds hide her female breasts, her comely lines. Her wavy hair, fixed in the style of Elizabethan boys, is both masculine and feminine. We are instantly made curious by the instant openness of what we see.
On first glance, the silent films Beggars of Life and Diary of a Lost Girl appear to have little in common, except that each stars the luminous actress Louise Brooks. Yes, should you need to be reminded, that Louise Brooks, the actress equally famous for her beauty and bobbed hair as well as for her role as Lulu in the sensational 1929 film, Pandora’s Box.
Brooks, once described by a surrealist critic as “The only woman who had the ability to transfigure—no matter what the film—into a masterpiece,” appears on the Brattle screen in early September. Recently, both Beggars of Life and Diary of a Lost Girl were digitally restored and released on home video by Kino Lorber. In fact, the restored Beggars of Life has just come out on DVD / Blu-ray for the first time.
It’s no accident that Agnes Varda’s Kung-Fu Master! has two forms of punctuation in its title; it’s at once concerned with the grammar of cinema as it is the merging of different cinema tropes/styles/modes of production, putting its hyphen to use and it does it with such aplomb that the exclamation point is apt – though adding another wouldn’t seem ostentatious when considering how much energy fits into its meager runtime. And that title almost feels like some sort of cinematic nom de guerre, tricking its late 80s audience into expecting a martial arts film and getting something much more complex, sweet and altogether Varda.
Editor’s note: Musical in cinema is generally considered an American genre. The very first feature “talkie” The Jazz Singer (1927) is indeed a musical, selling sound as a novelty on the big screen. While musical directors from countries other than the U.S. often admit to being influenced by big Hollywoodian spectacles, the impulse to employ the emotional agency of music in cinema as soon as sound became accessible is not unique to the Americans, as demonstrated by French director René Clair who made Under the Roofs of Paris in 1930. Throughout the history of cinema, non-American musicals have greatly contributed to the sophistication and nuance of the genre. To accompany our Elements of Cinema screening of Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, we picked 6 French musical movies that we think you should know, and watch.
Editor of Film Notes
Text By Tara Zdancewicz
Under the Roofs of Paris (Sous les toits de Paris) (1930) dir. René Clair
One of France’s first musicals was not very typical of the genre. With a somber tone, René Clair created a dismal representation of lower-class Paris that was very disparate from the cheerful, operatic musicals that were popular in France during the 30s. French moviegoers expected to be transported away from their problems at the movies, not reminded of them. The film follows a street singer named Albert that falls for Pola, a beautiful Romanian immigrant. However, two other men are also in love with Pola: Albert’s best friend Louis and the incredibly dangerous gangster Fred.