Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Monsieur Hulot after the Holidays

The year's film festivals are now all in the rear-view mirror. This weekend marked the last of the 2009 film programming at Yerba Buena Center For the Arts and the Pacific Film Archive. Even the Castro Theatre turns its back on repertory for a few weeks after the end of its Alfred Hitchcock series this Wednesday. Yes, Frisco Bay's cinema screens are clearing room for moviegoers to focus on the year-end releases which angle for box office boosts from critical top ten lists and nominations from awards-giving bodies. If not for exceptions like the booking of a new print of Bicycle Thieves at the Roxie, Christmas-themed programming at the Stanford and San Jose's California Theatre, and the traditional booking of Baraka at the Red Vic, local cinema addicts would have no other option but to see a 2009 commercial release if they want to attend a movie. Of the new ones available, I highly recommend Frederick Wiseman's ballet documentary La Danse, perhaps his most musical film and thus one of his most accessible. It plays the Rafael and the Balboa and the Elmwood for a few more days before moving to the Little Roxie. Claire Denis's haunting 35 Shots of Rum is making its long-awaited return to Frisco Bay this week at the Lumiere and the Shattuck. And much to my surprise, I also liked Clint Eastwood's Invictus quite a bit; though not a perfect movie it has some truly remarkable scenes, and a smart self-awareness of both the facilities and the limitations of mass entertainment to motivate social change.

In January, Frisco Bay repertory will gear up again. Arguably the centerpiece of early 2010 is the newly-struck print of Jacques Tati's international breakthrough Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot a.k.a. Mr. Hulot's Holiday, which will appear at no fewer than four venues around the bay in the next couple of months. First, on January 14th, it kicks off the new semester at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, and the complete Tati retrospective it's holding (other PFA attractions in January and February include but are not limited to tributes to Val Lewton and the early work of Frank Capra, the annual African Film Festival, and screenings of films by Jean-Luc Godard, Yasujiro Ozu, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and Nathaniel Dorsky.) From January 15-21 Mr. Hulot's Holiday spends an entire week at the North Bay's Rafael Film Center (which has also announced its For Your Consideration series of international submissions for the Foreign Language Film Academy Award). Then on January 28th it stops at YBCA, which is also hosting the touring Tati retrospective, before taking up a two-day residence at the Red Vic on February 3rd and 4th.

The PFA and YBCA Tati retrospectives are particularly exciting: not only chances to see Mr. Hulot's Holiday in a restored print with an audience to laugh along with, but a chance to contextualize the 1953 film into this woefully misremembered filmmaker's career. If Tati is thought of by modern cinema audiences at all, he is too frequently considered an anachronistic kindred to silent-era clowns like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Max Linder. It's true that like these gentlemen he developed his comedy in music halls before unleashing it on cinema screens, but unlike them his films exhibit a near-revolutionary understanding of the comedic potential of film sound. Sound effects, snatches of dialogue, and deceptively relaxing musical scores play as much a role in his peculiar brand of humor as do his physical gags and his democratic approach to mise-en-scene. Though my personal favorite of his films is Playtime (which plays the PFA Jan. 15 & 23, and the YBCA Feb. 11), it is Mr. Hulot's Holiday which introduced the character of Monsieur Hulot, and is likely the purest distillation of Tati's aesthetic. It's a film in tune with the elements: wind, water, sand, etc. The director gets great comic mileage out of the most seemingly insignificant things, like the sound a door makes when opening and closing, or a tennis swing, or the tide rolling onto the shore.

But don't take my word for it. Who better to talk about a French filmmaker than the most influential French film critic, André Bazin? Thankfully, his essay on Tati and Mr. Hulot's Holiday has been translated into English by Bert Cardullo and was published at Bright Lights Film Journal with a substantial introduction by Cardullo earlier this year.

The Evening Class has compiled the PFA and YBCA programs into one handy list. Though both venues will showcase shorts Tati directed and/or starred in as well as his features, and both include all four of the films featuring Tati's Hulot character as well as the barely-seen color version of his first feature Jour De Fete, only the PFA will be screening the director's swan song Parade. YBCA screened the latter twice earlier this month, and I attended one of the showings, never having seen Parade before. This final, post-Hulot work was shot on both film and video, showing off the advantages of both formats as they existed in 1974. It's a capturing of a circus performance filled with jugglers, animal acts, magicians and musicians, all of them doubling as clowns. Though in essence a non-narrative performance film, there are multiple micro-narratives to be found in Parade, many of them stemming out of the broken barriers between circus performers and audience members that Tati and his troupe have instigated. We follow one towheaded child from apparent boredom to full participation when he is invited to ride a mule around the circus ring, showing up animal-handling skills of the other audience volunteers attempting the task. It's one of many delights packed into this relatively brief, made-for-television feature.

The Criterion Collection DVDs of Mr. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle feature introductions by a comic director of another sort, Terry Jones of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Jones directed, or co-directed with Terry Gilliam, each of the Pythons' feature films. He will be in town early next year as well, appearing at the Castro Theatre January 21st for a double feature of Monty Python and The Holy Grail and The Life of Brian as part of the SF Sketchfest film programs. (Other Sketchfest screenings include UHF with "Weird Al" Yankovic in attendance, Brain Candy with Dave Foley in attendance, Waiting For Guffman with Fred Willard in attendance, two screenings celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers, and a live heckling of Danger On Tiki Island from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 alums at the Castro.) I'm sure the Castro will have a massive turnout of generations of Monty Python fans eager to see the Knights Who Say 'Ni' and the Peoples' Front Of Judea on the largest possible screen, with one of the chief collaborators on hand with his perspectives. Wouldn't it be great if some who have never experienced a film by one of his chief comedic influences stepped outside the zone of 'comfort cinema' to enjoy the Tati screenings on offer as well?

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Cardinal

Of the countless functions of cinema, perhaps one of the most suited to the medium is "camera as peephole." The world is filled with closed-off spaces, from the bedroom to the boardroom, which you or I cannot simply enter and experience for ourselves inobtrusively. Writers and visual artists who have access to a cloistered locale can report on their experiences behind socially-constructed veils, but they act as a filter quite different from a camera and audio recorder working in tandem. Likewise, so-called "fiction" filmmaking generally employs a filter distinct from the documentary mode, but even a well-dressed Hollywood set populated by actors can simulate for an audience the look and feel of an otherwise-private sphere they could otherwise never expect to experience at all.

Herein lies the everlasting appeal of the confessional in cinema to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Films like Forbidden Games, the Godfather Hamlet and countless others memorably recreate this oh-so-priviliged space, exploiting its dramatic (or comedic) potential while reminding us that cinema is as much about the unseen (often, the priest on the other side of the wall is heard but never shown) as the seen. Otto Preminger's 1963 The Cardinal uses a confession booth as a key location, but more notably the film as a whole serves as a sort of peephole onto the inner workings of the Catholic Church. Preminger, coming off the popular success of the religious-themed epic Exodus, was allowed an unprecedented amount of access to the Vatican City for this adaptation of the 1950 bestselling novel by Henry Morton Robinson. None other than Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, was the liaison between the Church and the production.

The Cardinal is titled for its central character Stephen Fermoyle, a priest played by Tom Tryon who acquired the nickname as a youth, we're told, as he'd been preordained to go into the clergy since his birth into Boston's Irish Catholic community. An academic at heart, he's seemingly more comfortable in an ivory tower delving into his faith's distant history than out in the world helping parishioners live through history-in-action. The interwar setting of the film provides opportunities for Fermoyle to butt up against twentieth-century history, both its events and its changing social attitudes. Tryon plays him as a weak personality who employs strict Catholic doctrine as something of a surrogate spine, guiding his hard decisions no matter the personal cost.

The film is structured as a series of moral tests for Tryon's priest, and for the Catholic Church in general. Whether he (and Catholicism) passes or fails these tests will probably depend on your viewpoint on controversial subjects, though one might guess Preminger's own stances even if he's, on the whole, even-handed in his presentation. Fermoyle confronts bigotry, abortion, his family's desires for him to go against his professed beliefs, and his own ambition. He even turns away from the church for an extended sequence in Vienna, though because of a flashback-framing device, we know that he will eventually return to Rome with honor; all we don't know is just how.
"How" is the fundamental question in successful narrative, and in The Cardinal. Chris Fujiwara, in his Preminger biography the World and Its Double, argues that if The Cardinal "is one of Preminger's greatest films, it is also, inevitably, one of his most underappreciated, since the same things that make it great also make it resist appreciation." Another biographer, Foster Hirsch, introducing a screening at the Film Forum in New York City, calls it "very square" in that it deals with the inner workings of church hierarchy, an unfashionable subject in 1963 or now. But he also considers it something of a litmus test for Preminger affinity; "if you like the film, you like Preminger. If it doesn't get to you, and it won't get to all of you, Preminger is not for you."

I'm not sure if Hirsch's challenge is foolproof; I did like the Cardinal, but to be honest it's the first of his films that has truly captured my fascination. Perhaps it's the circumstances of viewing; seeing the Panavision print secured by the Film On Film Foundation projected on a large screen at a press preview a few weeks ago was naturally more involving than viewing even the likes of Laura or Anatomy of a Murder on videocassette years ago. Perhaps I've just learned better how to view such an auteur-centric film over the years.

If so, it's not small part in thanks to reading books like Film As Film, written by V. F. Perkins in 1972. (And to Girish Shambu for instigating me to read it!) The book is an eye-opening investigation of the building blocks of narrative cinema, and though Perkins draws examples from across the range of classic cinema, from Griffith and Eisenstein to Nicholas Ray and Michaelangelo Antonioni, no director save Alfred Hitchcock gets more citations in the index than Otto Preminger. Two passages single out scenes from The Cardinal. One (page 95-6) takes the instance of a bell ringing upon Fermoyle's arrival in a small, impoverished Massachusetts parish as an example of the richness in meaning available through the use of sound in cinema. The other (page 87-88) contrasts the aptly motivated moving camera in a shot of Fermoyle and Anne-Marie (played by Romy Schneider) cycling through the Austrian countryside against camera movements he considers unmotivated in John Frankenheimer's the Train. Perkins writes of the shot: "Preminger's image does not cease to offer information in order to impose a mood or meaning. Instead the viewpoint is used to provoke, out of all the possible responses to the action, the ones most relevant to the film's design." As I interpret him, he's arguing on a micro leveal that the Cardinal at a macro level is a fully-controlled work from a master who knows exactly the effects he wants to achieve with each shot. Even what is arguably an episodic or unfocused source novel has been tamed and assimilated into Preminger's cinematic worldview.

I am excited to view more Preminger films in the retrospective currently running at the Pacific Film Archive through a lens informed by reading Fujiwara and Perkins, and by my experience viewing and considering The Cardinal. The series ends December 20th with a pairing of two highly-regarded works, Bonjour Tristesse and Bunny Lake Is Missing. In the meantime, a rare chance to see the Cardinal, which was left off the official PFA Preminger program, will occur this Sunday, December 6th at that venue, thanks to the Film On Film Foundation's rental of the theatre. It occurs just after screenings of Heddy Honigmann's the Underground Orchestra and Roberto Rossellini's masterful Voyage In Italy; Frisco Bay cinephiles will need airtight excuses not to be in Berkeley that day!