“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.
Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 revisionist western Dead Man appropriately begins with a journey west. A fainthearted accountant from Ohio named William Blake travels by train to the distant town of Machine, where he’s been promised a job. En route, he looks bored and mostly avoids interacting with his fellow passengers, instead killing time by reading something called Bee Journal, playing solitaire, and drifting off to sleep. He appears visibly uncomfortable when he spies evidence of the violence of the Old West – destroyed covered wagons and teepees that look like skeletal remains – out his window. When the train’s soot-covered fireman visits Blake at his seat and delivers cryptic warnings about Machine, the accountant clutches his briefcase like a shield. Over the course of their conversation we learn that Blake’s parents have died and his fiancée has left him. He strikes us as a man with few remaining human connections and some hesitance to make new ones, at least with the rough-and-tumble men who fill the train when he gets close to his stop. Comparing him to the rugged characters that surround him, we can’t help but be aware of his vulnerability and seeming innocence.
Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski’s recent horror outing The Void might be more aptly titled The Cypher – the film is filled to the brim with winks and nods to horror and sci-fi masterworks, rewarding diehard genre fans while managing to deliver some wholly original horror imagery.
The film’s ultraviolent prologue, wherein the occupants of a country home are slaughtered in the still of the night, hearkens to The Amityville Horror (1979) before the film shifts to introduce us to rural police officer Daniel Carter, dozing in his patrol car. Carter soon discovers the bloodied man who has fled the prologue massacre and drives him to a local hospital that has been all but gutted by a recent fire. The hospital’s skeleton crew of four admit the man and begin treating his injuries. At this point, the film suggests a remake of John Carpenter’s Halloween II (1981): a small, ill-equipped rural hospital is besieged by a killer who picks off victims one-by-one. While the film more-or-less follows this trope, other horror references are quickly added to the mix.
Lynn, my grandmother, rescued a gray and white kitten from the docks of the Lewes Bay, subsequently naming her “Lewie.” I remember meeting Lewie; she was gently bundled up like a Danish. She unhinged her fangs and let out a giant hiss. In reality she probably sounded like a tire with a pinhole of a leak but I was ten and rather offended that this little teacup of a creature greeted me with such chagrin. Lewie drained the reservoirs of my cereal milk, in particular my Banana Nut Crunch cereal. My grandparents had all of the quintessential “old people” cereals to choose from. In short, Lewie vexed me.
Yes, yes I’ll confess. I’m a dog person. Bear, who resided at the same condo as that dynamite cat, was an instantly lovable blub. Bear tried to steal my pistachios as I sat on a tartan chair straight out of an Orvis catalogue. I thought it was precious, never malicious. I asked for a dog every year until my parents got me a…used rabbit. I would walk Snowflake the rabbit around the neighborhood.