Breathing the same air as: Charlie Kaufman

September 27, 2016

Image from The Princeton Garden Theater's instagram

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Anomalisa (2015) at The Garden theater in Princeton, followed by a Q&A with writer/director Charlie Kaufman. I have to admit, I'm only somewhat familiar with Kaufman's work -- I'd seen (and enjoyed) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) years ago and I watched Being John Malkovich (1999) last weekend to cram for the event -- but I couldn't pass up an opportunity to listen to one of the most interesting filmmakers of our time.

Anomalisa is a stop-motion animation, but the story and characters feel remarkably real and human. The script originated as a play, which might explain why the puppets have more emotional depth than you'd expect from inanimate objects. The story is about a middle-aged customer service expert on a one day business trip in Cincinnati for a public speaking gig. He's emotionally detached from his wife and son back in LA, and finds he's unable to rekindle the flames with an old Ohio girlfriend. When he turns his attentions to a shy woman who's in town to attend his lecture things turn sweet, then Lynchian, then sour.

I liked Anomalisa, and I thought it was exceptionally well executed, but it's not really my kind of movie. The humor was wonderfully dry and sharp - I loved that - and the attention to detail with regard to the animation was mind blowing. It's actually a rather tender movie, thoughtful about little things like a self-conscious woman hiding her hands in the sleeves of her sweater. But there's a touch of the grotesque that runs through it that is off-putting to me. I felt the same way about Being John Malkovich. It's almost as if it's a beautiful object that's coated in a layer of grime. And that's absolutely fine, and even admirable, but it's not my thing.

I didn't dislike the movie. I enjoyed watching it, for the most part (call me a prude, I probably am, but I wasn't a fan of the drawn-out sex scene between two of the puppets. I'm firmly in the "fade to black" camp) but when it was over I just felt... nothing. I knew I didn't want to watch it again, but I was glad that I had at least once.

The Q&A after the film was interesting and Kaufman was hilariously self-deprecating. My kind of humor! *high fives the air* When the moderator inquired about rumors that Kaufman is writing a novel he launched into a defense, explaining that it's the only way he could create something without having to secure financial backing up front. This way he can write the whole book and nobody has to put out any money until it's published (financing was clearly a sore-spot for him, which was especially sad. Even though I wasn't particularly smitten with this particular film, there's no denying he's a creative genius and it's heartbreaking that somebody that talented should have trouble getting his movies made.) The moderator sheepishly said he had only been offering an opportunity for Kaufman to plug his book, which prompted Kaufman to sarcastically inform us that "we'll all be dead" by the time it comes out.

Sidenote: I am very much looking forward to this book, assuming it's published before I die. While uncomfortable, slightly grungy films aren't my cup of tea, I do enjoy that type of story in fiction and my reservations about Kaufman's work are entirely visual. I think that it's probably all about the difference between picturing the story with your own imagination vs. seeing it through someone else's eyes on the screen. It's likely the reason that Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite author but I've been unimpressed by every tv or film adaptation of his work.

He answered a lot of questions with simple yes/no answers -- does the Japanese doll's unique voice at the end of the film have any significance? Yes. Was he influenced by existentialism when writing the film? No.

I think my favorite reply was when somebody asked him about likability. The audience member hadn't found the main character in Anomalisa, Michael, to be either likable or sympathetic, and they wondered if Kaufman related to the character at all. Kaufman replied that likability isn't important to him, it isn't an element he considers at all when he's writing. As long as the character feels true to who Kaufman wants them to be, that's all that matters. "Hurrah!," I silently exclaimed. While I didn't personally like the character of Michael either, that didn't factor into my assessment of the movie. I don't think that a film's value should be determined based on how much we can relate to its characters. "Likability" or the "would I want to grab a beer with this person?" test seems to be such an important factor in almost every aspect of society anymore. We often choose presidents, hire job applicants, and critique film characters based entirely on this quality. To me, a film character should be interesting and fully formed. Whether or not I personally would want to hang out with them might be a consideration if I'm taking a buzzfeed quiz titled "Which movie character should be your BFF?" but it shouldn't come into play if I'm assessing the character's existence.

Another audience member asked if Kaufman wrote because he felt compelled to, or because it made him happy. Kaufman's reply was that he's never really happy (sad face!) but that there are times when one of his films is screened and it gets a good reception and he can't help but feel slightly pleased. If you want to talk about relatable, we've got relatable sitting here in front of us.

I was enjoying myself immensely, and I started to feel a little guilty about my lukewarm feelings towards Anomalisa. The writer/director was right in front of me (literally right in front of me, because I had somehow awkwardly ended up in the center front row BY MYSELF. Nobody else in the front row. So awkward.) and he was so kind, self-effacing, intelligent, and ridiculously funny. I had to wonder if the Q&A had preceded the screening, would that have colored my opinion of the film?

I'm not going to re-watch it to find out. Sorry!

HOWEVER. It's been a long time since I saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and I think it's time to revisit it. I feel like I owe it to Kaufman, and it'll be nice to spend some time in a world where erasing memories is a plausible procedure. I can think of so many I'd like to dump in my proverbial trash can (let's just discard that whole folder titled "teenage years") but last night's Q&A is one I'll definitely hold onto.

TCM Big Screen Classics: Dr. Strangelove

September 22, 2016

I recently entered a contest through the TCM Backlot and won tickets to see Dr. Strangelove (1964) today, as part of the TCM Big Screen Classics series that Turner Classic Movies hosts with Fathom Events.

I hadn't seen the movie since TCM aired it in 2004 as part of an election-season series where a handful of politicians joined Robert Osborne to discuss their favorite films. I remember liking it, but I was 17 at the time and I'm not sure I fully grasped the humor or the message. Watching it now, with a fully-formed appreciation for dark humor and a better understanding of the perils of a nuclear-armed world, it felt more like an immersive experience than a simple night at the movies.

The movie was book-ended by clips of Ben Mankiewicz sharing some behind-the-scenes details, just like on TCM. He mentioned that the whole cast got a kick out of Peter Sellers, and apparently George C. Scott said that he felt guilty for accepting payment for his role because he had such a great time on the set that it felt like robbery to take the money! I wasn't surprised to hear this, because in the closing scenes I happened to notice Peter Bull, who plays the Russian ambassador, trying *so* hard to maintain his stern composure while Peter Sellers performed his Alien/Nazi-hand-syndrome routine in the foreground.

The movie definitely makes you laugh (the scene with the pay phone is priceless, and who can forget the film's most famous line, "Gentlemen. You can't fight in here! This is the War Room!") but watching a film in which paranoid, delusional leaders threaten the fate of the entire planet kind of hits a little close to home nowadays.

I am opposed to a Trump presidency for many reasons, a major one being the notion that a man who doesn't even have the temperament for twitter could be in charge of our nuclear codes. Someone who wouldn't rule out the possibility of a nuclear attack on Europe. By the end of this movie -- the cowboy riding the nuclear warhead onto its Russian target, the crazed Nazi scientist unfazed by nuclear annihilation, the images of Earth being wiped out by the Doomsday Machine while Vera Lynn's voice reminds us "We'll Meet Again" -- I was silently weeping in my seat.

It's hard to write a post about Dr. Strangelove and not draw the comparisons. I kind of feel like even if you're a Trump supporter you would have to see some similarities between him and General Ripper or General Turgidson, right? Maybe you would see them as the heroes of the story? Sometimes I really wish I could watch movies like this -- ones that clearly have a political message with (in my opinion) a pretty black and white notion of who's the good guy and who's the bad guy -- through different eyes. Do you see what I see if your opinions aren't informed by the same political ideology? Do conservatives and liberals walk away from Meet John Doe, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, or 12 Angry Men with the same message? Are we even seeing the same story? I'm honestly curious.

As a liberal, the takeaway that I got from Dr. Strangelove was one of anti-militarization. Signs around the army base proclaim "Peace is our Profession" while inside General Ripper is calling for an unprovoked nuclear airstrike against Russia. Neither side (save for a few paranoid individuals) actually wants war. None of us do, right? We all want our lives to go on peacefully, we want to love our families and eat good food and read good books. I don't want anybody to be blown to smithereens. I can't even fathom wanting that. And, to me, this film drives home that point. Only the delusional characters actually want war. Everyone else just wants things to remain calm and quiet. For them, peace really IS their profession.

Another message that I personally took away from Dr. Strangelove was that of human fallibility. No matter how many fail-safes we build into our weapons, no matter how high the chain of command before something like a nuclear attack could occur, humans are fallible. It's crazy to have weapons that could destroy the planet many-times-over resting in our stupid, stupid hands. Furthermore, the answer to human fallibility is not mechanical infallibility. The Doomsday Machine was created as way to combat human error, but in the end it's a combination of human fallibility and mechanical infallibility that seals the fate of our planet.

So yeah, this was quite an experience for me. I always take election season kind of hard (I definitely get it from my mom, who has proclaimed "if ______ wins, we're moving to Canada!" every four years since before I was even born) but this one is really getting to me and it's definitely permeating my film analysis. (Case in point: I was positive Jaws was a metaphor for gun control until I remembered that that wasn't even a major issue yet in 1975.) As someone who uses film as a form of escapism, this hasn't been the best situation to be in. I'm just a film lover who wants to experience a little of that bliss I keep hearing about, the one that comes with ignorance. Just two hours of ignorance, that's all I'm asking for...

Classic film book challenge: The Films in My Life

September 16, 2016

This is a first for me -- I'm currently writing this on an airplane! I was in Alaska for the last week and now I'm en route back home to New Jersey. I just wrapped up this book a few minutes ago and thought, with 3 hours of travel ahead of me, it's the perfect opportunity to jump right into my review!

For my fifth book in Raquel's Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge I read "The Films in My Life," a collection of reviews by Francois Truffaut. I know, I know, this has been a very Truffaut-heavy reading challenge for me, lol! But what can I say, I love the man to pieces! And this book just solidified how much I adore his writing.  It's so personal and passionate. I loved Andre Bazin's reviews in The Cinema of Cruelty, but nobody can top Truffaut, in my opinion, when it comes to writing about movies in a way that fully expresses just how much the author is head over heels in love with cinema.

Truffaut with Jacques Doniol-Valcroze at Cahiers du cinema

Something dawned on me as I was reading this book -- and it might explain just why I find his writing so relatable, heartfelt and energetic -- Francois Truffaut was the first film blogger. Stay with me here. His writings are often informal, offering apologies to his audience when he quotes himself or feels that he's reached the end of a review without fully expressing how much he loved the movie he was writing about. In one review, about ten paragraphs in, he calls attention to something that he left out of a plot synopsis earlier in the review. He didn't go back and edit it, he just slips it into the middle of the review as if he's engaging in a casual conversation with his reader. "Oh, by the way..." It feels so familiar, like he's a good friend -- or a fellow movie blogger -- who is so excited about relaying his feelings about the film that he can't keep it together.

But that's not to say that his writing is disjointed or scattered. It's incredibly well-organized, often precise and astute on a level that doesn't even seem possible. And it extends so far beyond summarizing plots, picking up on symbols, and trying to decipher the filmmaker's intentions. He does all that and more. What Truffaut manages to capture in his reviews, something I usually find lacking in professional critique, is the magic of cinema. The FEELING of enjoying a movie. He manages to describe the indescribable, the emotional state of being connected to the story unfolding in front of your eyes.

His writing is so powerful that it leaves me eager to watch everything he's ever loved and, to be honest, slightly ashamed when I love something that he puts down. Each time he criticized Rene Clement in the book I winced with regret over my undying love for Purple Noon, Forbidden Games, and The Joy of Living. BUT, by the same token, he (sacreligiously I feel the need to capitalize that word in this paragraph) acknowledges how important film "as entertainment" is, or how our own individual preferences are valid. That being said, he wasn't very modest when it came to his own opinions (a personal favorite quote, entirely because of the text in parenthesis: "Go and see Pampanini in La Tour de Nesle and then go see her in something else and if you don't immediately see that Gance was a genius, you and I do not have the same notion of cinema [mine, obviously, is the correct one.]")

Truffaut's first "Little intimate newspaper" column for Cahiers du Cinema (1954)

I also can't say enough how much I love how often he tosses around words like "favorite," "love," "genius" ... he wasn't afraid to exaggerate, he was perfectly comfortable spending an entire review just gushing about how much he loved the director, or how a film actually moved him to tears. His writing is so beautifully personal. For the most part he chose to include positive reviews in this collection, so obviously "beautifully personal" wouldn't actually apply to all of his writing. "Painfully personal" would be more appropriate for the barbed reviews he was known for in his early days at Cahiers du Cinema!

Truffaut edited this collection himself in the late 1970's (he put off his autobiography to work on this instead -- a fact I find absolutely tragic, since he passed away before ever finishing the other book.) but I hope that someone, at some point, puts together a complete collection of all of his writings. I don't care if it's the size of the encyclopedia, I'd want to read it over and over and over.

Obviously I need to include some of my favorite passages from the book. I singled these out because I found them either sly, beautiful, funny, or because they reflected my particular views on film in a way that I could never express with words. Or just because they reflect his sweet heart and gentle way of communicating how magical it is to love movies.

Truffaut with Roberto Rossellini

"From morning to night, on American television, there is murder, brutality, suspense, espionage, guns, blood. None of these gross and manipulative productions approaches a fraction of the beauty of a film by the maker of Psycho, but it is the same material, and so I can understand in that violent atmosphere what a breath of fresh air an Italian comedy, a French love story, a Czechoslovak intimist film must be."

"An artist always believes that the critics are against him -- and have always been against him -- because his selective memory benignly favors his persecution complex." 

"Until the day he dies, an artist doubts himself deeply, even while he is being showered with his contemporaries' praise. When he tries to protect himself from attack or indifference, is it his work he defends or treats as if it were a threatened child, or is it himself? Marcel Proust answered it this way: 'I am so convinced that a work is something that, once it has come forth from us, is worth more than we are, that I find it quite natural to sacrifice myself for it as a father would for his child. But this idea must not lead me to address others about what can, unfortunately, only interest me.'"

"We saw all the good films, as well as many of the bad ones, because our love for cinema was like the explorer's thirst which moves him to drink even contaminated water."

"L'Atalante grasps the essence of both Godard's A Bout de Soffle and Visconti's White Nights -- two films which can't be compared, which are diametrically opposite, but which represent the best in each genre. Godard accumulates bits of truth and binds them together to make a kind of modern fairy tale, Visconti begins with a modern fairy tale in order to rediscover a universal truth."

"We look at this movie with a strong feeling of complicity; I mean that instead of seeing a finished product handed to us to satisfy our curiosity, we feel we are there as the film is made, we almost think that we can see Renoir organize the whole as we watch the film projected. For an instant, we think to ourselves, 'I'll come back tomorrow and see if it all turns out the same way.'" (I LOVE THIS ONE.)

"I could say that a French film moves forward like a light cart on a windy road while an American film rolls along like a train on its tracks."

"When a man makes himself ridiculous by his stubborn insistence on striking a certain pompous pose, whether he is a politician or a megalomanic artist, we say that he has lost sight of the bawling baby he was in his crib and the groaning wreck he will be on his deathbed. It is clear that the cinematographic work of Jean Renoir never loses sight of this naked man, never loses sight of man himself."

"On Lubitsch's sound tracks, there are dialogue, sounds, music, and our laughter --- this is essential. Otherwise, there would be no film. The prodigious ellipses in his plots work only because our laughter bridges the scenes. In Lubitsch Swiss cheese, each hole winks."

"[Frank Capra] was a navigator who knew how to steer his characters into the deepest dimensions of desperate human situations (I have often wept during the tragic moments of Capra's comedies) before he reestablished a balance and brought off the miracle that let us leave the theater with a renewed confidence in life."

On Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: "This isn't literature. It may be dance or poetry. It is certainly cinema."

"Frenzy is like the design of crossword puzzle squares imposed on the theme of murder."

"In a slick film every touch of boldness is a pleasant surprise, but in a daring film even the slightest compromise is exasperating."

"I'm aware that these observations may seem disjointed, but what am I to do? 'You like Cukor, you like It Should Happen to You; write a review.' I said, 'OK.' But the trouble is that Cukor isn't the kind of director you write about; he's someone to talk about with friends in the street or sitting in a cafe." (One of the many passages that felt so film-blogger-ish to me!)

On Anastasia (1956): "Don't go to see this cynical and mediocre film. Anatole Litvak despises you; despise him back" (Oh snap!)

"Like all great films, it's more beautiful and more successful each time you see it. You laugh less, but you live it more each time, and you feel increased emotion."

On The Naked Dawn: "What counts are the delicate and ambiguous relationships among the three, the stuff of a good novel. One of the most beautiful modern novels I know is Jules et Jim by Henri-Pierre Roche, which shows how, over a lifetime, two friends and the woman companion they share love one another with tenderness and almost no harshness, thanks to an esthetic morality constantly reconsidered. The Naked Dawn is the first film that has made me think that Jules et Jim could be done as a film." (I include this one here because of its importance. Upon reading this review, Henri-Pierre Roche struck up a correspondence with Truffaut and eventually asked him to direct the film version of his novel.)

On Stalag 17: "Sefton is intelligent; that's why he acts the way he does. For the first time in films the philosophy of the solitary man is elaborated; this film is an apologia for Individualism. (Certainly, the solitary man has been a theme of films, as with Charlie Chaplin and many other comedians. But he has usually been an inept person whose only desire was to fit into society.) Sefton is alone because he wants to be alone." 

Writing about Claude Autant-Lara (surprisingly in a POSITIVE review of his film, La Traversee de Paris): "Autant-Lara seemed to me like a butcher who insists on trying to make lace."

"Everybody knows that it's better to tell a serious story lightly than to relate light matters gravely."

"Lola Montes is presented like a box of chocolates given to us as a Christmas present; but when the cover is removed, it comes out as a poem worth an untold fortune."

"One would have to say that the greatest filmmakers are over fifty, but it is important to practice the cinema of one's own age and try, if one is twenty-five and admires Dreyer, to emulate Vampyr rather than Ordet. Youth is in a hurry, it is impatient, it is bursting with all sorts of concrete ideas. Young filmmakers must shoot their films in mad haste, movies in which the characters are in a hurry, in which shots jostle each other to get on screen before 'The End,' films that contain their ideas. Later on, this succession of ideas will give way to one great, overriding idea, and then the critics will complain about a 'promising' filmmaker who has grown old. So what?" (Truffaut wrote this one in 1958, accurately predicting what critics would say about his own progression as a filmmaker some 10-15 years down the road.)

On The Legend of Nayarama: "My God, what a beautiful film!"

While describing the plot of Bunuel's Archibaldo de la Cruz: "He looks around the place, quickly finds the real woman, and invites her to visit his pottery studio the following Saturday. I've forgotten to mention that Archibaldo, who is well-to-do, is a dilettante potter." (This is one of the instances I was talking about earlier, where he adds in something he forgot rather than going back to edit it into the review.)

On Orson Welles & Citizen Kane: "When Everett Sloane, who plays the character of Bernstein in Kane, relates how, one day in 1896, his ferryboat crossed the path of another in Hudson Bay on which there was a young woman in a white dress holding a parasol, and that he'd only seen the girl for a second but he thought of her once a month all his life... ah, well, behind this Chekhovian scene, there was no big director to admire, but a friend to discover, an accomplice to love, a person we felt close to in heart and mind."

Again on Citizen Kane: "When I see Kane today, I'm aware that I know it by heart, but in the way you know a recording rather than a movie. I'm not always certain what image comes next as I am about what sound will burst forth, or the very timbre of the next voice that I'm going to hear."

"There are movies that are profound and lofty, made without compromise by a few sincere and intelligent artists who would rather disturb than reassure, rather wake up an audience than put it to sleep. When you come out of Alain Resnais' Nuit et Brouillard, you don't feel better, you feel worse. When you come out of White Nights or Touch of Evil, you feel less intelligent than before but gratified anyhow by the poetry and art. These are films that call cinema to order, and make us ashamed to have been so indulgent with cliche-ridden movies made by small talents."

"I shall never try to communicate in writing to those who do not feel the physical joy and the physical pain which certain moments of A Bout de Souffle and Vivre sa Vie caused me."

"There are films one can admire and yet that do not invite you to follow... why pursue it? These are not the best films. The best films open doors, they support our impression that cinema begins and begins again with them."

"They are so alive that in spite of their pessimistic endings they inspire in us an irresistible urge to sing in the rain."

"The more like me my film is, the less the public is going to like it. (This realization provokes a variety of reactions ranging from embarrassed denial to reluctant change. If you change your mind, you may come away scarred, or a Sergeant York, a daredevil.)"

"To compare our hexagon (the shape of France) to a game of chess, the movies always offered us the point of view of a rook or a bishop, never of the pawns."

"I realize that it's presumptuous to write about a film one has seen only three times" (I just found this so ridiculously adorable. I've written reviews (albeit mine aren't nearly as important as his were, lol!) after watching a movie one single time, while working, while distracted by my cat, while eating, while also scrolling through twitter. Perhaps I should take this (again, ADORABLE) quote as a sign that I need to pay a little more attention to movies before I dare write about them.

All photos were scanned by me from Truffaut: A Biography and Truffaut by Truffaut

Classic film book challenge: The Cinema of Cruelty

September 11, 2016

Andre Bazin being adorable with a cat

For my fourth book in Raquel's Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge, I read The Cinema of Cruelty by Andre Bazin. The book is a collection of Bazin's writings compiled by Francois Truffaut. Bazin was a French film critic, the co-founder of Cahiers du Cinema, and a mentor & father figure to Truffaut.

This compilation focuses on his thoughts on six important directors: Erich von Stroheim, Carl Dreyer, Preston Sturges, Luis Bunuel, Alfred Hitchcock, and Akira Kurosawa -- a group Truffaut chose for their "particular style and subversive way of thinking." I wasn't sure going into it if I was familiar enough with Stroheim, Dryer, and Bunuel to understand their chapters, but Bazin's writing was descriptive enough for someone who hadn't seen the movies without giving away any spoilers -- it really made me want to seek out their films. I think I might make a list of movies Bazin discusses in the book and then revisit his writings after I've seen the films.

Bazin's reviews are brilliant, eloquent, cerebral (in a good way!) and poetic. When I watch a movie I have a hard time analyzing what I've seen -- I find it difficult to pick up on patterns, symbolism, or repetitions in a director's oeuvre. Bazin accomplishes this masterfully, and it was humbling and inspiring to read his thoughts on movies. I can completely understand why he's considered one of the greatest film critics of the 20th century. I was surprised that he wasn't too enchanted with Hitchcock (especially surprised because it was his protégés at Cahiers du Cinema who put Hitch on his pedestal) but it was actually really interesting to read about his movies from a more critical perspective. I got the sense that Bazin believed in Hitchcock's talent but didn't think he was utilizing it as fully as he could... kind of like that teacher in school who tells your parents that you're really smart but you just aren't "applying yourself."

One of the highlights of the book is a fairly lengthy interview that Andre Bazin and Cahiers co-founder Jacques Doniol-Valcroze conducted with Luis Bunuel in 1953. I'm embarrassed to admit that the only Bunuel film I've seen is Un Chien Andalou, but the interview definitely sent me scrambling to find more of his movies on DVD. I loved that he just admitted that some scenes that seem fraught with meaning and symbolism were created strictly because he liked the way that they looked. And -- a characteristic that's basically the antithesis of Truffaut's obsession with moviegoing -- Bunuel confessed that he rarely watched more than 2-4 movies per year. It seems almost counter intuitive, that someone in the film business could be so seemingly disinterested in seeing films, but I found it fascinating!

I particularly loved this quote from the Bunuel interview, "There's no better medium for showing us a reality that we would otherwise be unable to touch with our fingers. What I mean is that through books, newspapers, and our experiences we come to know an external and objective reality. Film, through its technique opens up a little window onto the extension of this reality."

But the real draw of the book is Bazin's writing -- there were so many passages that I had to write down, either because they were beautifully written or especially astute, or (most likely) both.

On Stroheim, "He is like a flame in the cinematic hell which he himself created and which twenty years of cinema contrived to forget."

"God knows, as does the reader, what we really think about the ideas put forth by the avant-garde. We do not only defend films for their intrinsic value, but, too often, for the sake of their controversial quality or the richness of their originality. Because they seem to be conforming to the idea we have of the evolution of cinematic art, we will sometimes praise films which are not as good as others that we damn."

"The cinematic sky is peopled with burned-out stars."

Speaking about the revival of The 39 Steps in Paris in 1951, "Commercial exploitation seems to be following the example of the art theaters, which feature old hits. Why does film not follow in the footsteps of the theater, which never has qualms about digging into its repertory?" (I agree with this so much!)

When writing about the universal appeal of a good film regardless of which country it came from, "At the one hundredth viewing we would discover that language is, in the last analysis, only language, and that a great film is something more."

And lastly I loved when he referred to the way in which American films tend to neatly wrap everything up at the end, happy ending, etc. etc. as "Western dramatic requirements burdened by their artificial symmetry." This was one of the complaints that he had about Hitchcock (he suggested that Teresa Wright would have died at the end of Shadow of a Doubt if Hitchcock had stayed true to the story instead of trying to please the audience.) and as much as I love the master of suspense, I have to say that artificial symmetry is one of my biggest cinematic pet peeves and it's a beautiful thing to finally have a name for it.

Classic film book challenge: Shoot the Piano Player

September 10, 2016

For my third book in Raquel's Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge, I read "Shoot the Piano Player" by David Goodis. The book was originally titled "Down There" but was changed when Francois Truffaut released his film version in 1960, entitled "Shoot the Piano Player."

I bought a movie-tie-in copy of the book, with a Henry Miller quote on the front proclaiming that the book is "even better than the film." I really liked the book but I actually felt like the story itself worked better as a movie. A lot of the book almost felt like a script -- lots of dialogue, expository details and a fight "scene" with a blow-by-blow breakdown so tedious it really read like instructions for actors. This isn't a bad thing, obviously, it's just that every page left me thinking "I can totally see why Truffaut wanted to turn this thing into a movie." He must have felt that he was reading something cinematic, something that NEEDED to be transferred from the page to the screen.

One thing that I particularly loved about the book was the way that it followed the thoughts of the main character, and it's a detail that Truffaut must have loved as well since he retained that in the film. Interesting fact that I can't actually verify because I'm not home to double-check it in my Truffaut biography but I'm 99% certain it's correct: Truffaut felt that Charles Aznavour's voice was too confident for the self-conscious inner monologue voice overs, so he recorded it in his own voice.

So, was Mr. Miller correct? My own opinion when it comes to "is the book better than the movie?" usually depends on which one I experienced first. If I watched the movie first, I tend to like it better than the book. If I read the book first, I tend to be disappointed with the movie (the only exception that comes to mind is The Martian.) In this case, I really did like both. I personally prefer the film, but it's almost entirely because the film was the product of Truffaut and starred Charles Aznavour (who, by the way, at 92 is still performing live and I'll be seeing him at Madison Square Garden in October!) I'm definitely biased when it comes to Truffaut and Aznavour.

I really wanted to close out this post with some excerpts matched up to their corresponding movie scenes, to illustrate just how much the book feels like a movie, but I'm currently on vacation and left my DVD at home. I'm definitely planning on adding that when I get back though  :)

An American in Paris on a Roman Holiday

September 04, 2016

Alternate title: LIVING THE DREAM. In July I went to Paris and Rome and I was in movie-loving-heaven. If you're a fan of foreign cinema, hopefully this post will give you some ideas if you find yourself in the City of Lights or the Eternal City. I'm also going to link to some resources at the bottom of the post if you're trying to plan film-themed things to do on your trip. I was only there for 6 days total (3 days in each city) so I didn't get to do everything on my list. But that just means I have unfinished business there and I *have* to go back! ;)

One of the locations at the top of my list in Paris was Le Champo Cinema. At some point I'd like to time my visit with their Les Nuits de Champo, an overnight movie marathon that includes breakfast! But for this trip I only had time to stop and snap a photo. Le Champo was one of the haunts of the New Wave directors before they became famous. Chabrol called it his "second university" and Truffaut called it his "headquarters."

I missed out on what is probably the most important New-Wave-related location, The Cinémathèque Française, but it's at the top of my list for my next visit!

I wasn't planning on spending any time in Pigalle while I was in Paris (this street that I was walking down was lined with sex shops, so it's not really my jam lol) but our tour guide led us this way to get back to the hotel after dinner. I wouldn't venture this way alone, but I'm really glad we ended up here. Pigalle is the backdrop of so many of my favorite French films, it was almost as unreal to me to see that up close as it was to see the Eiffel Tower.

Bob le flambeur (1956)

One of the spots at the TOP of my list was Cine Corner in the Latin Quarter of Paris. It's a tiny blink-and-you-might-miss-it shop on Rue de l'École de Médecine. They have a gigantic selection of classic foreign films (and also American movies, but I can easily get those at home.) Check out the French How to Steal a Million poster on display above!!

All of the movies sold here are Region 2, which means you'll need a region-free DVD player at home to be able to watch them. If you're a foreign film fan you've probably already got one, but just in case, this is the one that I have. No programming was necessary, it plays any region disc right out of the box!

If you don't understand French, you'll need to find discs with English subtitles. On the back of the DVD it'll say "sous-titres: Anglais" if it comes with English subs. I can understand very minimal French, so I try to stick with movies that come with subtitles, but if I'm desperate to see something I'll buy it without them. I found a few Alain Delon movies that were missing from my collection and couldn't resist bringing them home with me.

The guy at the desk was incredibly friendly and sweet and helped me find some of the movies I was looking for. When he was ringing up my order he let me know that some of the films were subtitle-less. When I acknowledged that I was totally fine with that he teased me and said "oooh, you want to learn French with Alain Delon, eh?" YES, YES I DO! ;D

I'm sure it was kind of already obvious that I was an Alain Delon fanatic at this point anyway, because when I noticed this book on the shelf behind the counter I had let out an audible gasp, and then just pointed at it with a big grin on my face. Smooth, Kate.

I called my parents from my hotel room that night and was joking that I had seen the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe and yet finding this book was the highlight of my day. I'm (mostly) kidding ;)

This one could seem kind of weird to some people, but please bear with me... it was very important to me. I went to visit Francois Truffaut's grave on my first day in Paris (it was actually the first thing I did in the city. Montmartre Cemetery was right next to my hotel.) I really wanted to get flowers or something, but I didn't know if that was silly or strange and I also didn't know how to really buy anything at all yet (I was VERY nervous about talking to anyone when I first got there since I don't speak French) When I got there I found that a few other fans or loved ones had left flowers, though, so I decided it was okay to come back again with flowers before I left Paris.

On my last morning in Paris I stopped at a little florist shop on Avenue Rachel, which leads to the cemetery, and bought a rose. I paid my respects, and sat on a bench in the cemetery and wrote in my trip journal for a while. On my way back up to the main road I took some pictures on the steps. I didn't realize until I got home and re-watched The 400 Blows that Truffaut had shot a scene on the very same steps.

The 400 Blows (1959)

My next stop was Café de la Paix. In May I went to see Anna Karina at The Film Forum, and she recounted the story of hers and Godard's first date at this very cafe. (I wrote more about that anecdote here) It was so thrilling to sit there knowing that one of the most iconic actress/director relationships began in the exact same spot. This cafe kind of played a pretty important part in the eventual creation of Vivre Sa Vie, Band of Outsiders, Alphaville, etc.!

A little later in the day I went to The Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé. They were showing Le Samourai and I had purchased my tickets online before I even left home. (A HUGE thank you to Fussy for recommending this theater!)

There was a little cafe next door, and I was early, so I stopped to grab a bite to eat before the show. All of the salads on the menu were named after classic film stars! I was so tempted to get the Lino Ventura even if the actual salad itself didn't appeal to me at all. I just wanted to be able to say I ordered a Lino Ventura salad, lol!

Seeing Le Samourai on the big screen IN PARIS was indescribable. I won't even attempt to describe this experience because it's actually impossible.

In Paris I also saw The Ritz (the exact spot where Peter O'Toole puts Audrey Hepburn into a taxi and kisses her goodnight in How to Steal a Million. I DIED.) and walked along the Seine, where Jeanne Moreau jumps into the river in Jules et Jim, where Jef Costello tosses his pistol in Le Samourai. Everywhere you turn in Paris there is something to remind you of movies. Maybe that's why I loved it so incredibly much...

I didn't have quite as many movie-moments in Rome as I did in Paris (mostly because I watch more French films than Italian, as evidenced by the fact that I think all of my Roman film anecdotes are related to French movies anyway, haha!) but there were quite a few Alain Delon-related spots!

Above I'm in Piazza del Popolo standing outside of a Borsalino hat shop. Borsalino sponsored the French gangster film of the same name in 1970, which starred Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. The movie title on the poster is literally the logo of the hat store.

On our way to the Colosseum, we passed the Arch of Constantine which was super exciting to me, because it plays a big part in the plot of the 1961 Rene Clement film The Joy of Living. It stars (SURPRISE!) Alain Delon, and with each re-watch it's been moving higher and higher on my list of favorite films. It's just a really fun movie.

I had to snap a photo of this mural in a little restaurant near the Trevi Fountain. It's a really great mural, isn't it? I wish I could have had an Anita Ekberg moment at the fountain, but there were so many people there you literally couldn't even budge. I wonder if there's any time during the year that it's less crowded (not that I'd actually go walking around in it, just to clarify, lol) or if it's this busy all year long. I'm also curious if it was such a huge tourist attraction before La Dolce Vita or if the movie solidified the fountain's iconic status.

Last but CERTAINLY not least -- I found one of the shooting locations for Purple Noon! And I found it by accident! We were wandering around Rome for hours and decided to walk up to this piazza to try to get a taxi. When we got there, I thought it looked familiar so I whipped out my phone, turned on my data, and opened up my map app. Sure enough, we were in Piazza del Popolo, the same spot where the first scenes of the movie were shot. I actually had some screenshots handy on my phone, ready for just such an occasion, and was able to stand in the exact same spot as Maurice Ronet and Alain Delon.

Do I look happy? I WAS REALLY HAPPY.

And finally here's my haul from Cine Corner! Most of my own souvenirs were dvds, books, and albums, and I think that's actually kind of perfect. Every time I watch one of these films I'll be taken back to my trip immediately :)

Here are some of the resources I used to find movie locations:

The Cine-Tourist
Movie Tourist
Welcome to Rome at the Movies
World Film Locations: Rome
World Film Locations: Paris

The Liebster Award

Nicole and Hamlette have both nominated my little blog for the Liebster Award, and I am incredibly honored and flattered! The award requires you to answer 11 questions posed by the person who nominated you (so I'm answering 22 in this post) and then draft your own 11 questions to be answered by the 11 other bloggers that you choose to nominate. (ps. I've seen this award floating around ever since I started blogging in 2009 and I've always been curious about where "Liebster" came from, but never bothered to actually look it up until now. If you're equally curious, here's a post that explains its origins!)

Are there any movie locations you would like to visit?

I’d have to actually go back in time to see this, but I would LOVE to visit the ice castle from Doctor Zhivago. I think it’s one of the most beautiful locations ever filmed.

Do you share a birthday with a famous someone?

The most famous person would be Grace Kelly, but my favorite birthday twin is Jacques Tourneur, the director of Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie!

Which films are on the top of your to-watch list?

I made a list of 30 movies to watch before I turn 30 and with two months to go I’ve only watched 9 of them. Oops!! So those would definitely be at the top of my to-watch list. The ones that I’m most excited about are The Sting, Out 1, and Red Desert. I have the whole list on letterboxd here.

If you were to make a biopic, who would it be about?

I would like to make one on Olga Horstig-Primuz. She was a French talent agent who represented icons like Brigitte Bardot, Charlotte Rampling, and Michele Morgan! She even introduced Jane Fonda to Roger Vadim! I’m especially interested in her personally because she happened to represent both of my favorite actors, Dirk Bogarde and Alain Delon. Her autobiography is only available (as far as I know) in French so I’ve slowly been translating it with the help of an app, and then cleaning up the translation manually. Ideally I’d love to eventually do some more research on her and try to get something published in English. I think her story seems absolutely fascinating so far, and she had such a far-reaching impact on European cinema. And in a climate where female voices are struggling to be heard, I think it would be refreshing to see a biopic on a woman who had such a huge influence in the filmmaking community.

What are your other hobbies and interests?

Right now my main interest outside of movies would be travel. I’ve got the wanderlust bug, and I’ve got it BAD. I also love reading, although I don’t get to do it nearly as often as I’d like to. (Related: I’m determined to finish four more books for Raquel’s summer reading challenge before September 15th!)

Is there a film that appeals to your aesthetics?

Off the top of my head I’d say Elevator to the Gallows. I just re-watched it last month, and Jeanne Moreau wandering aimlessly around Paris in the rain is everything I aspire to be. If I could live in that movie I would. There are so many others though, it really all depends on my mood. Lately the ennui of black and white French melodrama has swallowed me whole but catch me in a few months and I might say Sinatra’s Come Blow Your Horn is more up my alley. Who knows!

If you could visit a specific era, which one would it be?

The 1960’s! Hands down. No question.

How did your interest in classic cinema evolve?

It started with Audrey Hepburn in How to Steal a Million when I was 13, then quickly evolved into a full-fledged obsession within a year. In high school I interviewed Robert Osborne for a school project, pasted photos of Robert Montgomery and Rudolph Valentino to my notebooks and made a website about the mysterious death of Paul Bern, Jean Harlow’s husband. Along the way my interests hopped from mainstream 50’s classics to pre-code cinema to 1960’s spy capers to mid-century British films before I settled on a pretty steady diet of pre-codes and foreign films from the 60’s-70’s in the last six years.

Which film would you like to see on the big screen?

Le Samourai. I actually got to see it (IN PARIS, OMG!) in July but it’s still at the top of my list. It’ll be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year so I’m crossing my fingers that it’s on the TCMFF schedule. I’m not holding my breath, though, since the 2017 festival theme is comedy and Le Samourai isn’t exactly funny.

Is there a movie you wish you could have taken part in?

I’m going to go with Purple Noon. It’s my favorite movie, it has prime Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet in it and it takes place along the Italian coast. That sounds like a pretty fantastic shoot to be a part of! :)

Are there any actors or directors you would like to learn more about?

Francois Truffaut. I just finished a pretty hefty biography on him but I’m still hungry for more. I love him as a director, but I love him even more as a person/movie fan. His love of cinema absolutely makes my heart burst. And from everything I’ve read so far he seemed like such a genuine, beautiful human being. I have a book of his correspondence and I think that’ll be my next read after I finish the book I’m currently working on.

Is there a movie that has really yummy-looking food in it that you'd love to eat?

Off the top of my head I can’t think of any, but I will have to come back and edit this answer later when something springs to mind. Because I KNOW there are movies that make me want to be able to eat the food the characters are eating. I think it might happen to me more often with tv shows than movies, though, simply because tv characters eat pizza or chinese takeout (two of my biggest weaknesses) way more often than classic film characters do, lol.

What era do most of your favorite movies take place in?

The 1960’s! Hands down. No question.

What two actors/actresses have you always hoped would make a movie together, but didn't/haven't yet?

I would have loved to see a movie with Dirk Bogarde and Alain Delon together. Dirk was originally supposed to play Trotsky opposite Alain (as his assassin) in The Assassination of Trotsky before Richard Burton got the role. Burton is fantastic, but I would have loved to see that combination!

If money and time and supplies (and crafting ability) were not considerations, what movie character would you love to cosplay or dress up like for Halloween?

Maybe Sophia Loren’s character in Arabesque. But only if I get to do like seven costume changes throughout my Halloween party so I don’t have to narrow it down to one outfit!

Have you ever cosplayed or dressed up like a movie or TV character for Halloween?

Yes! I can’t remember if I’ve ever dressed like a movie character (surprisingly!) but in the last few years I was Angela from The Office, Dana Scully from The X-Files, Princess Unicorn from The Office and Helena from Orphan Black. Usually I have my costume picked out almost a year in advance but with only 2 months to go until Halloween I’m still totally stumped on what to do this year!

What movie would your friends/family be surprised to learn you truly enjoyed?

hmm… I’m going to go with PS. I Love You. It’s the worst kind of sappy romantic drama/comedy/whatever that usually doesn’t appeal to me AT ALL. It has a happy ending. It’s from 2007. Usually the only way you’ll get me to watch something like this is if I have a crush on the lead actor, but I don’t even like Gerard Butler that much. But for some reason I’ve seen this movie like four times, and I enjoy it every time. I DO NOT EVEN KNOW WHY.

What's one book you hope no one ever makes into a film?

A lot of my favorite books have already been turned into movies, so I’m just going to list one that I have no intention of ever watching — The Bell Jar. When I read it, it felt (to me) like a story that was too sacred to be moved away from the page. I don’t want to see an actress playing Esther. I think if it *had* to be made into a movie, it’s currently in good hands and hopefully it will turn out okay… but I have zero interest in seeing it myself.

Do you know the Wilhelm Scream when you hear it?

NOOOOOOOOO!!!! But I wish I had an ear for it!

When a character onscreen has to hold their breath, to you try to hold your breath to match theirs?

Yes!! Sometimes I even hold my breath when the characters don’t have to. I get physically wrapped up in movies way too often, haha!

What upcoming movies (or TV series) are you excited about?

Right now I’m excited to see The Light Between Oceans, and my local movie theater is showing Journey to Italy in November so I’m excited about that! TV wise, I’m looking forward to Bill Nye’s new Netflix show that’s coming out next year. And I’m hoping to see what all the fuss is about and settle down to binge-watch Stranger Things sometime soon.

What are some of your favorite movie-oriented blogs?  (Or just blogs that post movie reviews sometimes.)

I’m ashamed to say this since I’m a movie blogger who always feels like nobody is reading her blog but… I don’t really get to read movie blogs or reviews as often as I’d like to. I need to rectify that and then come back and update this with a list or something!

Last time I did a blog award nobody that I nominated answered my questions, but I thought they were pretty fun and clever so I'm going to use the same ones all over again, lol. And this time I'm not going to nominate anyone in particular -- if there is actually somebody out there who is reading my blog, consider yourself nominated! Here are the questions:

1. If you were stuck on a desert island with one actor, who would you pick?

2. If you were stuck on a desert island with one actress, who would you pick? (Note - this is not necessarily your favorite actor/actress, but someone you'd want to spend months, years, possibly the rest of your life eating coconuts and building sandcastles with)

3. If you were stuck on a desert island and could only watch one movie on repeat for the rest of your life, which would you pick?

4. If you were stuck on a desert island with any movie character, who would you pick?

5. If you could watch a movie with any two actors/actresses stuck on a desert island together, who would you pick? If you've got some free time, elaborate a bit on the plot!

6. Who is the last actor you would ever want to be stuck on a desert island with (cough, Tyrone Power, cough)?

7. You're stuck on a desert island with Edmund O'Brien. What actor shows up in a giant pirate ship to whisk you away to safety and/or a life of adventure on the high seas?

8. If you were stuck on a desert island with a movie cook, who would you choose -- Felix from Christmas in Connecticut or Mildred from Mildred Pierce? Who would make the most out of all the coconuts and tree bark?

9. If you were stuck on a desert island with me, what movie would you force me to watch? I can't get away! I can't escape! I HAVE TO WATCH IT!

10. You're on a life raft with Herbert Marshall, Joel McCrea and Laraine Day but your weight is sinking the raft. Do you: a) sacrifice yourself to save these three amazing actors or b) push one of them into the water. If you chose b, who did you push and why?!

11.If you could choose any movie animal to be stuck on an island with, who would you pick? Some ideas -- Asta, Lassie, Pongo, Perdita, The Pie, Cat (from Breakfast at Tiffany's)

And thank you again to Nicole and Hamlette! It might seem silly to say this, but the fact that you chose my blog (and the fact that you visit and read and comment!) means an awful lot to me, more than I can say, and I'm incredibly grateful. Thank you!