First of the 2009 Best Lists

List-making is a tiresome exercise for me. I dislike the act of quantifying my enjoyment and/or appreciation of films, music, literature, et al. However, if lists do nothing else or function as nothing else, they are at the very least dialogue-starters. I look at lists I've composed from years back and gawk at how much they run counter to my current tastes, but it is often an accurate gauge of a person's tastes and a person's radar at a particular time. So, without further ado, I am inaugurating the best-of 2009 lists with the DVD and Repertory Screenings reviews. I am still in deliberation over the best films of 2009, but until then, you can nosh on these.


1. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Region 1) Pound for pound, Criterion’s release of Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece is the best DVD package of the year. The transfer looks crisp and vibrant, and the extras, which include interviews with the cinematographer (Babette Mangolte as of late has become my favorite cinematographer) and the director’s mother, which is an extraordinary interview with an extraordinary woman and justifies being a film in and of itself. I will be among the first to line up for Criterion’s release of the Chantal Akerman in the 70’s Eclipse set. If the transfers are anywhere near as good as the one for Jeanne Dielman, I am in for a very big treat. I can’t wait!

2. The Whole Shootin’ Match (Region 1) Watchmaker Films’ release of Eagle Pennell's recently resurrected independent classic of regional filmmaking is compulsory viewing for anyone who has made or wishes to make a movie on the cheap, to make it good and to live to tell about it. The release of this film on DVD inspired its own article on the blog many months ago. To read it, click here. The 2-disc special edition also features Pennell's first short film, A Hell of a Note, along with a rare interview with the director and a soundtrack for the film. Rumor has it that a Watchmaker Films DVD release of Pennell's Last Night at the Alamo (1983) is in the works. One can only hope that they do as fine a job with that one as they've done with this one.

3. The Human Condition (Region 1) Long available only in three separate heavily compressed barebones Image Entertainment releases with poor transfers, the Criterion Collection saves the day once again and delivers not just an excellent transfer of this nine-hour-plus Japanese masterpiece but also rare interviews with its filmmaker Kobayashi and the actor Tatsuya Nakadai. This is epic filmmaking to say the very, very least.

4. A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Region 2) Douglas Sirk has long been a contentious director for me, causing many a heated debate between me and his staunch defenders who say I’m either crazy or am missing something, or both (I was and am still outnumbered). This film, however, one of the few of his not currently available in the United States, held up due to American rights issues, is not just my favorite Sirk film, but also one of my favorite films period, and certainly the best melodrama to come out of the Hollywood machine at that time. It comes to DVD from Eureka!’s “Masters of Cinema” Collection, known to video-monsters stateside as the British Criterion Collection. It also may be one of the most ambitious war films on record.

5. Yentl: The Director’s Cut (Region 1) Some call it a vanity project (honestly, what Streisand-directed film has not been a vanity project?), and the DVD comes complete with wall-to-wall Babs, not just in the film itself. She introduces every single featurette, every single making-of doc and every single deleted scene as if the very fate of the world hinged on their inclusion on the DVD. Despite Streisand’s unmistakable hubris (for example, she is insistent about and constantly reminds us of the alleged “fact” that Spielberg called her film “the best since Citizen Kane”), that does not take away from the fact that Yentl is a strong, visually impressive, emotionally impactful film. I still cannot buy the movie’s central conceit that anyone, much less an entire community of the most mentally agile Talmud scholars and yeshiva buchers, would believe Streisand to be a boy. However, there’s this thing called suspension of disbelief, I guess. Test how deep yours is by seeing this film. The second disc is jam-packed with extra materials, including the original test film-rolls that were shot in order to convince the backers that the film was a viable project.

6. Inglourious Basterds: The 2-Disc Special Edition (Region 1) One of the most popular films of 2009 gets an excellent DVD treatment in both the one-disc and two-disc releases. My advice is to go for the two-disc because you can get a full sense of how fun it must be to be on a Tarantino set. Just from interviews of the likes of Rod Taylor, Enzo Castellari, Bo Svenson and other veterans, this is worth the little extra you pay over the price of the one-disc version. "Oooh, that's a bingo!"

7. L’Important c’est d’Aimer (The Important Thing is To Love) (Region 1) It would seem that Polish auteur Andrzej Zulawski’s work is a rare delicacy in both America and England. This 1975 film, which some say is his masterpiece, was one of the almost deified works profiled in the documentary Z Channel: Magnificent Obsession. I had been kicking myself for years after I had missed taping a few showings on the film on the IFC Channel years ago. That feeling has subsided now that I have this gorgeous DVD from MondoVision, featuring a commentary track and video interview with Zulawski, as well as a 24-page booklet and a whole featurette on the remastering of the film alone. It does my heart good to know that people care about movies like this, and providing extra materials for such obscure works. The cover package for the disc looks pretty deluxe. It’s a beautiful and toweringly difficult film (I mean that in a good way), and the DVD of it is something truly awesome.

8. Lookin’ to Get Out (Region 1) Hal Ashby biographist Nick Dawson resurrected Hal Ashby’s never-before-seen director’s cut of this originally panned 1982 box-office disaster from the UCLA vaults from a print that Ashby willed to UCLA Film School just before his death in 1988. The film can now finally be seen the way Ashby originally intended it to be seen. Warner Home Video gets faulted only slightly for not releasing the original theatrical cut in the same package. Just because I can access it (on my aging VHS) doesn’t mean that others will be able to do the same in an effort to see how the director’s cut differs from the version exhibited in 1982. It would have been a most valuable lesson for people on the power and importance of movie editing, and how just a little cutting makes for a completely different motion picture.

9. The Other Side of the Underneath (Region 2) The British Film Institute has, in the past year, taken to engineering the re-release and resurrection of the films of Jane Arden (who sometimes co-directed her films with filmmaker Jack Bond). Whereas I am not the biggest fan of their Anti-Clock (despite the BFI’s DVD of that being up to this same standard), The Other Side of the Underneath is a truly fascinating film, and an extremely disturbing one as well. You cannot shake this film off very easily. It lingers with you, almost as if you yourself had the mental collapse the movie depicts.

10. Comrades (Region 2) Here is yet another great BFI DVD release. It’s been a great year for them, what can I say? Bill Douglas’ bold, rugged and beautiful epic about the exile of the Tulpuddle Martyrs to the Australian Outback in the 1830’s. This is one of the hard-to-describe films. It is three hours in length, it is toweringly ambitious and yet it also seems very little known and discussed. I will say that a special badge of valor is awarded to BFI this year for resurrecting films like this and many others.

11. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: The Criterion Collection (Region 1) I am by no means an admirer of the film and, in fact, have a great many problems with it. Criterion’s two-disc DVD set of the film, however, is perhaps one of the best video releases I can think of which offers a comprehensive look at the making of a given film. The making-of featurettes and behind-the-scenes material, the interviews with all those involved, accounts of the epic history of the project (its evolution throughout a more than twenty-year timespan, throughout which time it was in turn-around) is alone worth the price of purchasing this.

Generale Della Rovere, My Dinner With Andre, Wise Blood, Palermo or Wolfsburg (R2), Sometimes a Great Notion (R2), Herostratus (R2), Zabriskie Point, Nous Ne Viellirons Pas Ensemble (R2), The Adventures of Werner Holt, Anti-Clock (R2), Grin Without a Cat, the other Chris Marker films that are now reasonably priced for the first time, every title released on the Warner Archive label, all releases from Eureka!’s Masters of Cinema Collection


1. The Free Will (Matthias Glasner, 2006)
2. Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, 2007)
3. The Arrival of Joachim Stiller (Harry Kumel, 1976)
4. Model Shop (Jacques Demy, 1969)
5. Goin’ Down the Road (Donald Shebib, 1970)
6. 12 (Nikita Mikhalkov, 2007)
7. Events (Fred Baker, 1970)
8. New York Story/Hotel New York (Jackie Reynal, 1981/1984)
9. Charlie Bubbles (Albert Finney, 1968)
10. Billy Two Hats (Ted Kotcheff, 1973)


1. Elia Kazan’s America America (1963) at Film Forum, Hosted by Foster Hirsch, who facilitated a Q&A with two of the films stars, Stathis Giallelis and Linda Marsh, following the screening of an extremely rare, beautiful print loaned to Film Forum by Martin Scorsese (a piece of privileged information I received after the film was shown). There is a funny story involving this particular screening experience. I arrived at the theater to discover that the show had been sold out. Somewhat dejected and only somewhat consoled that I owned the rare Warner VHS from the 90’s, I decided that I would use the theater’s bathroom and go home. On the way out, almost as if it were fated, I bumped into Foster Hirsch, whom I had met some time ago at a Preminger retrospective at MoMA. He remembered me by name, and asked if I was there to see the Kazan. I told him the situation. “No, no, you can’t give up,” he told me excitedly, after which he enthusiastically informed me that he believed America America to be one of the most important American films ever made. A few minutes later, he single-handedly managed to get me into the filled-beyond-capacity screening, so here is a special thanks to Foster Hirsch for an amazing night, and for the wonderful Q&A that followed the film. Film Forum gets additional kudos for an excellent Elia Kazan retrospective of which this was part.
2. Ivan Passer’s Born to Win (1971) at Museum of Modern Art A packed theater for an obscure, gritty black comedy about a heroin addict and his scraping-bottom $100-a-day drug habit? Yep, we’re must be in New York City! This is one of those nights upon which I said aloud to myself, as a cineaste, “I love living in New York!” What shocked me more, though, was just how jaw-droppingly gorgeous and pristine the print of the film shown was. It was almost as if the film had been made yesterday. No scratches, hardly any specks, sterling sound, super smooth reel-changes. At a few moments during the screening, audible “wow”s escaped my lips. I informed my friend, actress Karen Black, one of the film’s stars, about the screening of the film. She connected me with the film’s director Ivan Passer, who was tickled to learn about the conditions of MoMA’s print, the size of the audience of the recent reception of a film he made almost forty years ago. If MoMA were to screen it again in an hour’s time, I’d pick and leave for it right now. Ivan Passer’s Law and Disorder (1974, also featuring Karen Black) and Intimate Lighting (1965) were screened before this film. This screening was also the impetus for a blog-article I wrote in April, and its presence is felt in the first big article I wrote for the blog, on the topic of New York on film.
3. Ulrike Ottinger’s Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (1989) at Anthology Film Archive, which featured a Q&A with Ulrike Ottinger herself following the screening of another beautiful print. The film itself is an underappreciated and little-screened mix of social satire, Noel Coward comedy of manners, feminist drama, magical mystery tour, ethnographic documentary and sweeping epic a la Lawrence of Arabia (you got that…can you picture it?). The audience for this screening was meager compared to the audience sizes for the top two listed above,
4. Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) at Film Forum. Film Forum screened one of my favorite films in mid-2009 and I was there bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to see it with a good friend of mine. I’m not so sure there is another film quite like it, although in my e-mail correspondence with a well-known filmmaker the following day, I was met with derision when I informed him that I found Odd Man Out to be a better film than The Third Man. To each his own, I guess. That opinion still stands.
5. Milos Forman's Taking Off (1971) at Film Forum. Officially part of Film Forum's "Madcap Manhattan" series, this screening of Taking Off was introduced by Milos Forman himself, who stayed for Q&A after the film ended. The film's producer Michael Hausman was also in the audience. The print was in pristine condition and, although I had little doubt that the film still played well, the enthusiastic audience reaction proved its status as a real "audience picture".
6. Robert Kramer's Milestones (1975) at Anthology Film Archives. It seems that there is at least one Kramer retrospective a year in New York. I had already seen his Ice (1970), which was the first film ever funded by the American Film Institute. I had heard a great deal about Milestones and Anthology's July 2009 Kramer Retrospective was my first real opportunity. It blew me away, but then again, movie examinations of 60's radicalism are most certainly my cup of tea.

The Curious Case of Hugo Stiglitz: Points of Reference in Inglourious Basterds

Here we have Round 1 in our Guest Writers Series at the ConFluence-Film Blog. Our first guest writer, Sunrise Tippeconnie, is a filmmaker and writer currently living in Oklahoma City who dabbles in film criticism and history. You can read more of his work in Sooner Cinema: Oklahoma Goes to the Movies and on The Candler Blog. To view Sunrise's original response to Inglourious Basterds, click here.

With the release of Inglourious Basterds for home viewing, I’ve culminated some suggested cinematic links to aid any Basterds study, and allow the film’s conversation to continue, and allow for a means of navigating some of the referenced materials.

While discussion about Basterds often results in it’s definition as a “war movie,” we must be specific, and just as Tarantino observers are quick to correct with definition of the film’s concept as propaganda analysis as well as a lover letter to “grindhouse” grade war-fare, we should be specific about what issues of these types of cinema are being discussed. While most war films about a squadron have a tendency to place the concept of manhood during war beneath the microscope, Basterds does not.

Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) is very clearly referenced through the initial framings in which we begin to learn about the assumed title roles, the men under watch by Lt. Aldo Reine. While this implies a connection to Aldrich’s film, what normally follows reference is thematic homage. This is where Tarantino severs the tie and we do not come to understand how these men develop a camaraderie, a code of honor among themselves, nor do we see them grow beyond their social status as “bottom of the barrel” expendables like The Dirty Dozen. While the initial response to these omissions is runtime and viewer completion, these elements are quite important in understanding the film’s satiric nature and would introduce problematic identification with these men, one that could destroy the film’s ending effect and film’s final messages.

As important as the development is of these themes, their removal allows for a better understanding of propaganda’s ability to instill pride and inspiration. Without such identification, these men appear ruthless and slightly unjustified. The introduction of “The Bear Jew” opens an opportunity for violence to be inflicted upon a Nazi soldier. This sequence also omits, and in this case it omits any context for the violence. There is no back-story given about the Nazi party, the war in Europe, nor the background histories of Raine and his collected rag-tag group of misfit soldiers. Just as audience completion requires the accessing of Aldrich’s film to understand these men might have learned to work as a group, learned the necessary war-survival skills and can be successful in their collected attempts, the film also assumes the audience will access their knowledge of history to complete the context of this violence. This is where the strength of the film’s narrative allows for the satire to plant its seed. While the violence in this section of the film feels justified, because of the Nazi agenda and tactics during the war, the mistake in assumption is what allows the satire to grow without notice until the final reel of the film. The justification for the violence comes from a specific assumption that these men have learned to develop camaraderie and honor instead of blind patriotism, which is perhaps something that we have missed between the scenes –and in omitting such moments allows for the film to play out a hidden narrative, one in which the men do not learn a value of life, nor question the meaning of war, thus becoming merciless vigilantes bent on winning in the name of patriotism. This ultimately becomes what feels like maniacal terrorism, the frightening reality of the film’s final moments of violent outburst. This is what makes Tarantino’s film diverge from most films in the war genre: without the compassion towards life on either side of the war zone there is no hope in cinema and thus such works are Tarantino-ized as propaganda.

It is important to look at the final moments of Aldrich’s film, which allows for this moment to come quite successfully when Jim Brown falls from Nazi bullets. At this moment the disheartened survivors see the fall of a man, who at the start of the film would have been seen as a less than a man because of his color. What is most incredible about this moment is twofold in the compassion for the death a fellow man as well as their ability to see beyond the limits of their racism. While this moment does not erase the possibility for future racist tendencies for these characters, and thus not suggestive of a solution to such tensions, what is important is the ability for these characters to put aside prejudices to mourn for the fatality and mortality of humanity.

What seems like a conscious response to this moment results in the fascinating introduction of “Hugo Stiglitz”. Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz serves as a means to understand the vigilante wrath of a propagandized hero; he is the only Jewish solider to look like an action hero, while others in the squadron look scrawny, disheveled, and un-muscled. Sgt. Stiglitz is further presented as an extreme assassin who’s Nazi SS officer death count is unrivaled, and Tarantino ignites an adrenaline rush through a flashback sequence that depicts intense infliction of violence upon Nazi officers while we hear the theme from Jack Starrett’s Slaughter (1972). The audience is again asked to access their own knowledge of both history and cinema via the Brechtian device of a Samuel L. Jackson voice over. While accessed history implies associations of World War II, it is most important to acknowledge contemporary associations of the recent Iraqi War and the violence of Iraqi ground forces and prisoners held within Guantanamo Bay. Cinema associations recall Jim Brown, and thus a connection is made between an action hero and the real horrors of violence in the name of patriotism. This connection suggests the actions of characters portrayed by Jim Brown are just as heroic, and perhaps justified at this point within the context of Basterd’s narrative since the satiric nature of the film has yet to completely unspool. Looking at this point closer, Jim Brown’s cinematic nature is not just implied by Slaughter and The Dirty Dozen, but through another musical reference of Dark of the Sun (1969), and further implicit connections to Pacific Inferno (1979).

All of these films contain Jim Brown as heroic protagonist that utilizes violence to overwhelm an oppressive force, justified by the sides of war. While these films reinforce the issue of humanity as the true victim of war, and those that find a bond beyond the confines of political allies are those that truly learn from the atrocities depicted on screen. Clyde Peterson, in Pacific Inferno, throws the final switch that explodes the Japanese prison camp, yet the film attempts to humanize his actions through the relationship he develops with one of the camp leaders who is indebted to Clyde for saving his life. The honor of code and a reverence for life allow Clyde (and thus, the audience) to define the elements that are in opposition of these humanistic concepts allowing justification for the violent end of the Japanese soldiers as part of the prison camp. While these seems acceptable, it is only so because of the propagandistic nature of the narrative elements, as Tarantino ultimately delivers. While experiencing such heroic tales with Jim Brown, the ultimate question is whether these violent responses are appropriate.

As Basterds comes to its close, non-historical events take precedent and allows for the accessing of history to halt with a sudden error, meanwhile the accessing of cinema remains un-severed. This disconnect springs a sudden question of legitimacy. While cinema history serves the moment as possible, world history states the moment is fictive, unbelievable, and absurd. These audience threads don’t simply separate, they open the door wide for a sudden reassessment of one’s allegiance to American cinema history in its entirety: have we been lied to? Why would the actions of Jim Brown’s characters be dishonorable since his position against such oppressive forces is justified. While Slaughter’s anger (as well as Clyde Peterson’s) is justified by racism, oppression, and exploitation, the means of his violent reparations and retaliations are what is questioned.

What makes this moment of Hugo Stiglitz more complex is the nature of this character’s name, which is a direct association with a caucasian, Mexican actor of the same name. While Stiglitz is associated with the “grindhouse” aesthetic with which Tarantino has made his name, the context of his cannot be overlooked in comparison to the referenced Jim Brown roles.

Within the range of Stiglitz’s work, a good consistency of roles portray a confident, imposing character that takes charge and gets things done, often resulting in the kind of antagonist strong enough for a climactic battle. The work that Basterds seems to reference most strongly is Counterforce (1988), in which Stiglitz portrays a world-class assassin that races an American counter-terrorist squadron to a targeted Middle Eastern leader. Stiglitz is constantly out maneuvering the team with disguises, weaponry, and most notably through a surprise attack upon a theater audience during the leader’s address.

With such an antagonistic character actor serving as reference through the name for a Jewish war hero, the resulting conflict between Jim Jones and Hugo Stiglitz implies more than just race or audience identification. What results is a complicated identity that implies the real nature of a war hero: one side is an honorable man that fights against the injustice of oppressive forces and ideals, while the other side in a dishonorable man that will do whatever is necessary to stay atop of his game, and eliminate all others in the way. While Basterds eliminates the Stiglitz character after a game of deception, the violent tactics of Counterforce’s surprise attack remains. Humanity becomes a casualty that cannot survive such moments of deception within the games of war, and any character that holds the possibility of the human integrity of Jim Brown’s Clyde Peterson will not see the sight of the third act, which would imply that all those alive at the end of the film are in fact the Basterds of the film’s title. What remains is a request for audience identification removal from cinematic material that requests joyous participation in violence as an acceptable means for accomplishment. Even if American Aldo Raine obtains the upper hand in the end, the reality of this situation completes the absurdity of the actual political nature of America’s contemporary international relationships, allowing Tarantino to strongly suggest a change in allegiance to vengeance over patriotism.

A final thought, before anyone comes to the conclusion that Jim Brown is a good guy, Hugo Stiglitz is a bad guy, and therefore a racial divide occurs between “good” and “evil,” this critical analysis of the “suppressed” taking vengeance upon their “oppressors” is further paralleled by Aldo Raine’s brief comment about his moonshine exploits that mirror the plot of Burt Reynold’s Gator in White Lighting (which is also musically referenced). Although Raine’s back-story implies an empathy with Jim Brown’s Slaughter, he is not capable of completely understanding the racial tensions because of his privilege as a Caucasian male during the fifties. Raine’s own name is similar to character Aldo Ray, who played a rough mixture of Brown and Stiglitz character descriptions. The reference that serves best here is Raoul Walsh’s The Naked and the Dead (1958). In this film, Aldo Ray plays tough Sgt. Sam Croft who heads a Pacific reconnaissance squadron behind enemy lines when his tactics of leadership are questioned by his men. The film deconstructs the morality and integrity of war’s catch-22 nature, where successful leadership takes no prisoners, disregards individual humanity, and often appears murderous as a means to save lives. Failure to comply with Sgt. Croft’s hard edged and crazy rules results in what feels like negligence with life. The Naked and the Dead treads a really thin line between moral decency and reckless murder when conveying that war sometimes necessitates a clear line of division between sides for survival. When placed within the context of Tarantino’s Raine, the development of the character excludes such dichotomies that are more likely developed within the parallel character in The Dirty Dozen. This exclusion implies that Raine lacks the internal moral responsibility of Croft while maintaining the murderous exterior, which allows for the most two-dimensional character of the major cast. This vapid character further perpetuates the myth of the American hero so that there is a point for comparative analysis with Jewish war hero Hugo Stiglitz. Without such a comparison point there is no way to understand the complicated satire implied through character actions and intentions when the film’s violence comes to full climax, otherwise belief within the actions of these heroes would be misrepresented as appropriate.


Two more films that serve as subtle reference points for comparison films for further dialog on the themes of race, violence, and the war genre: Lee Frost’s The Scavengers (1969) and Umberto Lenzi’s Desert Commandos (1967). Also a strong satire, Frost’s film follows a troop of Confederate soldiers that continue the war against the North after the Civil War has ended, and their maniacal leader holds nothing back when he retaliates against supposedly freed slaves. Lenzi, whose film Bridge to Hell (1986) also serves as a visual reference for Basterd’s violence, helms Desert Commandos’s similar plot with a clever approach towards breaking down audience identification without satire nor irony, and yet remains just as strong as Basterd’s analysis and critique.

The Permanent Satisfactions: Addressing My Love of Jacques Rivette

There has been a flurry of question-asking directed towards me recently, and this flurry has all been a single question. “Kremer, why do you love Jacques Rivette so much? Why is he your favorite filmmaker? Just what is the attraction?” Whether it be people I have known personally for years or ConFluence-Film Blog readers who have written in to me about it in the past year, there is an interest in discovering the true nature of my unbounded admiration of the beloved French auteur, whose work is little seen Stateside. I believe it is the fact that his work is so hard to track down that accounts for much of the fascination from people. Just how is it that I have even seen a lot of these films? So finally, I am, at long last willing, interested and ready to answer the question and to articulate my love and overwhelming respect for the iconoclastic French director, who has recently turned 81. It is fair to say that, as my personal hero, I might mourn his eventual death like a member of my own family. That’s a pretty big statement, but read on and I will tell you why he means so much to me as an artist and as a personality.

I am going to begin my answer by mentioning my favorite audience reaction to a film of my own. Shortly after my final cut of A Trip to Swadades was completed, I sent a copy of the film to an old friend of mine on the west coast, a documentary filmmaker. When I asked him if he liked my movie, he replied unabashedly and point-blank, “I hated it!” A little stunned and honestly rather crestfallen and hurt by the candor of his response, I nonetheless went about my business of promoting and trying to distribute and screen the film as if no such response to it had been received. Let us just say it was a quiet shellshock. But while I was hurt, I was not angry with this friend at all. I appreciated his honesty because…well, it is just so rare for someone to be so forthcoming and frank with such a terse and straightforward negative opinion. About a month later, the friend called me up at what was almost midnight east-coast time. He told me that, although he had been initially resistant and irately puzzled by my film, he had since viewed it two additional times and he grew to admire and even love it. He accounted how the film had gotten under his skin and how he couldn’t shake it off, even when he tried. He then proceeded to dissect my film, which is a work of an extremely personal nature, for me over the phone, providing his own interpretation, and a unique one at that.

When this conversation ended, I was immediately flooded with a deep well of emotion and a sense of profound accomplishment. Why, you ask? And what does this have to do with Rivette? Well, I had the occasion of seeing Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) as a senior in high school. On my first viewing, I really disliked the film, although I had a definite taste for the absurd. I thought it was nonsensical, protracted and muddled and I failed to see much of a point for it being made. I barely got past the first hour of the intimidating 193-minute running time. Time passed and I realized that the film had lingered, and it had lingered so steadfastly and unerringly that it had similarly gotten under my skin, to the extent that I could not shake it off. I could not stop thinking about it. And so I watched the film (this time, all the way through) again, and again, and again. The fact that something I made functioned in the same way, that I was able to fashion it, direct it and edit it in a way that lingered in someone’s mind — that I was able to do what Rivette did for me, which I find to be one of the greatest gifts a filmmaker can give — was, and still is, to me, my greatest accomplishment as a filmmaker thus far. The very fact that any film can do this excites me as both audience and filmmaker. That is not the only gift Rivette has given me. He also respects his audience enough to believe in their intellectual curiosity towards further discovery. This was not the only occasion of watching, hating, lingering, rewatching and loving a Rivette film. Not by a long shot.

In a sense, I guess you could say I am talking about a modern audience's desire for “immediate results” and the “instant thrill”. These audiences might watch a film and want to say, “Damn! That was good!” directly after the final fade-out. While, for instance, Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse is the best film about the artistic process ever made in my opinion, it is certainly deliberately paced throughout a four-hour running time. Although the film is greatly praised, audiences have had general difficulty wading through what they perceive as fat in desperate need of -ectomy. But in the time allotted, we are made to perceive the canvas as a battlefield, and we feel so intensely and intimately all the agony and the ecstasy to which Chuck Heston’s Michelangelo couldn’t hold a candle. Rivette is also the first person I have known to observe how an artist cannot bargain with the source of inspiration, and that a source of inspiration just is. Rivette’s films provide neither immediate results nor instant thrills. The kinds of results and thrills that are provided by Rivette, however, are most substantial and lasting than anything “instant.” To quote Warren Oates in Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, "those satisfactions are permanent." But, you know, that’s not even it really. It’s other things too, like his restrained, economical but nonetheless dynamic use of music, which rivals only Robert Bresson in Western cinema. He is a treasure as an artist because, simply put, all of his films are somehow and in some way magical. There is not a single one that is not magical to me. It is becoming, then, that many of his films are explicitly about magic (e.g. Noroit, Duelle, Histoire de Marie et Julien). My favorite film of all time is Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), and it is about the magic of storytelling, and the heroines return to a “film-within-the-film” through sucking on a magic candy-rock which places them back within the strange house where the meta-drama unfolds. I encountered the film at a flea-market when I was still in high-school. It was two dollars for a two-VHS set. No film, then or now, has so perplexed, baffled and exhilarated me as much. It knocked me on my behind like no film had. This is all without mentioning that the man has respect for effective and intriguing titles. I always say that if a filmmaker or novelist isn’t interested in naming his work effectively, I am not really interested in seeing or reading it effectively.

I cherish and I am blown away by every one of his films. Each of them is infallibly honest and could have been made by no one else except him. My fascination with the inherent power within the act of telling a story has been the subject of some of my recent reading. I have been looking at Martin Buber’s books on his collection of Chassidic tales, rapt and joyfully mired in his accounts of how integral the act of storytelling is to the Chassidic world. Storytelling is a form of prayer, an act of devotion that signifies our overpowering need to connect with eternity, to paraphrase Buber in my own words. Spirits chained in things, in both animate and inanimate objects, are unlocked through prayer, so thinking of storytelling as a form of prayer, you can just imagine the implications. Considered this way, it is more than mere escapism.

Storytelling, to me, is to be cognizant of cycles — cycles with all the shifts, the gauntlets and the cosmic tumblers we may not be immediately cognizant of, but which lead full-circle to some truth, and a braiding of elements. Human beings make sense of themselves through this sacred act. It is through my favorite filmmaker that I have come to realize my own true feelings and philosophies about the act of storytelling, and it is because of him that I am able to articulate them in such a way. Rivette, more than any filmmaker with whom I have yet been acquainted, recognizes this magic and much of his work has been successfully characterizing and analyzing the importance of theater and storytelling's grand illusion and the cathartic process(es) of creating it. It is intrinsic to humans, and this need not be illustrated further than simply watching children being let loose in a room with or without toys, and observing how they will immediately find a way to make-believe, and this is most certainly the purest form of theater. From our earliest years, we relish the idea of “going boating” (i.e. French vernacular meaning “to get wrapped up in a story you are being told”). In this sense, the films Rivette makes about theater and theatrical companies staging productions of plays (he uses this device in six separate films, including his two beloved but seldom seen/screened epics L’amour fou and Out 1) is more than just a series of tired examinations of theater and its relationship with reality, and vice versa (because that is just plain boring and grossly unoriginal, lacking imagination). It is our intrinsic need to create illusions, and the implications and ramifications of that, which fascinates him.

I often liken Rivette’s films to the music of the Sun Ra Arkestra. You hand yourself over to the wonders of dissonance, letting go of any preconceived notions of being in control and getting joyfully lost. His films have often been improvisatory with a full-on, unbridled feeling of jazz. His film Merry-Go-Round (1981) even uses the often cacophonous “Greek chorus” of a saxophonist and a bass player in a strange jam session to pace his hallucinatory story. One could almost call many of his works “jazz filmmaking”. Yet they rarely meander and, if they do, there is very just cause for them to do so (e.g. the seemingly interminable opening chase in Celine and Julie Go Boating). One of my favorite quotes about Rivette is from critic and film scholar Richard Roud who, upon seeing one of Rivette’s films, exclaimed, “Cinema will never be the same, and neither will I.” I, as a viewer, particularly in Rivette’s earlier works, am transformed with each viewing of one of his films.

His genre experiments of the 90’s are fascinating in and of themselves, and one might argue that his work starts getting more “accessible” when he enters this phase of his career. For example, his musical Up Down Fragile is an homage to the 1953 Stanley Donen musical Give a Girl a Break (a Hollywood production with economical musical numbers which, according to Rivette himself, “was shot in next to no time”). The first musical number in Rivette’s three-hour musical does not appear until almost a whole hour into the film! When it does appear, though, your brain is so happily busy and you have so much of a sense of what is at stake in the film’s story that the first musical genre element means something much more than if it were arbitrarily placed and just an excuse for a big production number. The philosophy of placing music sequences in a musical is, after all, often a disaffected “It’s about time for another song” mentality. Rivette subverts this and makes elements of the genre mean something to the audience on the levels of both emotion as well as logic. In addition, there is a single long take in the film I must have watched and rewound about twenty times, on a dance-floor as Enzo Enzo sings “Les Naufrages Volontaires”. In his thriller Secret Defense, we have the character of an ordinary woman (played extraordinarily by Sandrine Bonnaire, who it would seem was his 90’s muse) driven to the extreme task of murdering another human being who killed her father. In a marvelous long take, we observe her transformation and the maelstrom of emotion she undergoes as she prepares to commit the act, taking many trains and transferring many times on her trip up to the country to do so. He stages the Electra drama as Hitchcock, and explicitly furthers the psychological depth in the process through the use of one fraught long-take. This is all without mentioning frequent Rivette collaborator William Lubtchansky’s sublime camerawork.

When I make new films, I find that I am often thinking, “What would Jacques do? Would he like it? Would he approve?” He is, after all, the filmmaker I most want to emulate, a filmmaker whose sensibility, I feel, is closest to my own. I am heading into my next feature film and find that I am constantly asking myself these three questions. I remember being at a Hollywood party a couple years ago and being asked by my host, “What artist makes you feel so full of life that he or she almost makes you cry just by how much you are inspired by their work?” I do not, in this circumstance, have to answer that for you. What I have said about my so-called hero should speak for itself. It is not just in the work, of which there is no real equal, but it is also the way Rivette comports himself in public and in interviews. How he comports himself also speaks to the fact that while he may be concerned with illusion in his work, he is not consumed by any of it in the reality. He feels a great deal of comfort, it seems, in being slightly lesser known than his French New Wave contemporaries, almost as if he has consciously willed it to be. He seems happiest with a smaller cluster of fans who are devoted in a most hardcore sense. Another interesting aspect of his work: He has been known to recut his films into completely different other films. For example, La Belle Noiseuse becomes Divertimento and Out 1 becomes Out 1 Spectre. I've never known any other filmmaker to do that in this manner.

Jonathan Rosenbaum is without a doubt the foremost American champion and scholar of his work, and contributors to the Criterion Forum have long been in an uproar over Criterion’s overdue release prospects of any of his films through the Criterion Collection. It speaks to his appeal, however, that many screenings during a comprehensive 2006 Rivette retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image sold out. I have most of his films on DVD, many of them foreign discs and bootlegs, but would buy them yet again if they were officially released here. Truffaut said in 1977, “French New Wave and cinema itself would not be what it is today without Jacques Rivette.” Highly esteemed film scholar David Thomson called Celine and Julie Go Boating “the most important narrative film since Citizen Kane. It's the only film where everything is invented.” All I know is that I believe he is one of the very few living genius still working in cinema, and in the order of poets.

I want to end this article with Jonathan Romney’s review of Celine and Julie Go Boating in Time Out London, because I think it’s a beautiful review which encapsulates at least part of Rivette’s mission as an artist: “Favorite films are always the hardest to describe. There are the two pairs of actresses, Berto/Labourier and Ogier/Pisier. The first play a magician and a librarian who meet in Montmartre and wind up sharing the same flat, fiance, clothes, identity and imagination; the other are the Phantom Ladies Over Paris, whom Celine and Julie either invent or stumble upon (or both) in a haunted house, along with a man and his child. There is also Rivette’s love cinema—the movies he cherishes—and the childishness of his and our and Celine and Julie’s rapt attention as we embark on the adventure together, experience a collective form of narrative rape, all spinning a tale that is spinning us. It’s scary, evocative, exhilarating and essential.” I couldn't have tied it up better.

Coming Soon!

Next up at bat is New York City filmmaker and "No Wave Movement" luminary Amos Poe, who will be discussing his recent work as well as the evolution of so-called "punk cinema" since his pioneering of it in the late 70's. Elliott Gould is still also forthcoming. We're just awaiting a window of time. Karen Black is on the roster to be interviewed as well. Plus, we still have the Guest Writers series to look forward to as well. Stay tuned!

Old Friends and Teachers: An Interview With Randal Kleiser on the Upcoming DVD Release “Nina Foch: Directing the Actor”

I met director Randal Kleiser at a premiere screening at the Director’s Guild of America Theater on Sunset Boulevard. Our meeting at this premiere was brief and none-too-memorable. As a matter of fact, I simply told him, “I grew up on Big Top Pee-Wee,” which he of course had directed. He met this with a polite thank you and went about the business of schmoozing. Now, what I had told him was an honest statement but, in all honesty, how are you going to begin any substantive conversation with that? In any case, as Pee-Wee himself would sardonically exclaim, “I love that story!”.

A few months later, however, we better acquainted ourselves at a Midwestern film festival where I was premiering my film A Collection of Chemicals and where he was being honored for a lifetime of work. This, after all, is the man who gave us beloved mainstream American films like Grease, Flight of the Navigator, The Blue Lagoon and many others. An appearance in George Lucas’ student short film Freiheit is also noteworthy (he and Lucas were college roommates and remain friends to this day). Offhandedly one day, he mentioned that he was working on promoting a directing workshop somehow centered around the teachings of actress Nina Foch. When I told him that I was an admirer of the classic Hollywood actress’ work and rattled off a few of my favorite performances of hers, including her role as Dyan Cannon’s cartoonishly vain pseudo-beauty-queen mother in Otto Preminger’s Such Good Friends, he informed me that he had been on the set of that film as an observer in 1970. I got all misty-eyed.

The festival ended as all things do, and we found ourselves together at the airport, catching the same connecting flight home, on separate coasts mind you. When we parted, I gave him a copy of my film and asked him to stay in touch. His mention of the Nina Foch project lingered on my mind and, for many months, I wondered about the specifics of it.

Some months later, I called Randal up to ask about something technical (i.e. pertinent to the pre-production of my upcoming movie project). At this time, I then asked him if he would be willing to sit down for a phone interview to talk about the Nina Foch project, of which I had just superficial knowledge. Little did I know that the project had its roots as far back as 1965 during Kleiser’s tenure as a film student at University of Southern California, at which time he himself was a student of Foch’s.

He informed me that 200 hours of footage had been recorded of Nina Foch teaching her “Directing the Actor” class at USC. shot over the span of fifteen weeks. Foch passed away in December of 2008 and, in her wake, Kleiser and others have been aiming to package Foch’s videotaped classes to new and upcoming generations of writers, directors and actors, intending to market them to a DVD audience. The DVD package will be entitled “Nina Foch: Directing the Actor” and will be available in early 2010 (with no exact date set at this time).


DK: Can you discuss your relationship to Nina Foch and this project?

RK: When I took Nina’s class way back in 1965, it was the most amazing class I had ever taken and, in retrospect, I’d say it still is the most valuable film-school course I have taken. I had long considered it an ambition to somehow record her teachings and to keep them for posterity because I was convinced that it would be a really great tool for teaching directors how to direct actors. In 2002, George Lucas financed the taping of a whole semester. The project then grew and morphed into an interactive DVD, with the theory being that the viewer can either play everything and take the whole course, or view specific lessons. What was recorded of her…there are details in directing the actor in all areas. You learn how to breakdown a script for one, and there is no way the worth of that can be overestimated. Nina had been at this for forty years and had made a lasting impression on such directors as John McTiernan, Amy Heckerling, Ron Underwood, many others. It wasn’t even just actors and directors she touched and influenced. Singers like Barry Manilow, Natalie Cole, Melissa Manchester, Julie Andrews, Neil Diamond. Nina taught them how to comport themselves on stage in the presence of an audience, how to command the space, how to make a performance more compelling and intriguing—this was all stuff that Nina taught like no one else taught it. Barry Manilow said, for one, that his whole career changed and that everything became fresh. He said that everytime he is on stage, he feels as if she is up there on the stage with him.

She also gives tips on how to treat the crew. She teaches you to never rely solely on your AD [assistant director] and how a director needs to be proactive and alert to the tasks of every department. She teaches you how to properly prepare for shooting a scene the night before you shoot it, how to be as organized as possible…for actors how there is a separate physical action for every line. There are so many things of value that actors and directors can learn, and so much knowledge to be accrued from her classes and her teachings.

DK: Do you have any of them talking about her influence on their careers on the DVD?

RK: Yes, we have gotten many of them commenting on how important and vital Nina had been to their careers, and they share anecdotes about her as well. Their interviews will be included in the final product.

DK: How are you going about distribution?

RK: We are initially going through USC. I just got a call from Sony, so there is a possibility of it being distributed over there. We’ve also gotten advice from George Lucas. Peter Broderick, who runs the site, has also been a help in terms of our distribution plans.

Below is a clip from Executive Suite (1954), for which Nina Foch was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

DK: You’ve worked with Nina Foch as her director?

RK: [laughing] I directed her twice, if you could really call it that. How can you direct the greatest directing teacher you’ve ever had? How can you direct someone as intelligent and naturally intuitive as Nina? Maybe you can imagine. I worked with her on It’s My Party (1996), which is my favorite of my own work. I worked with her on Shadow of Doubt (1998) with Melanie Griffith. I remember I was directing a scene with 500 extras in black tie. Nina was at a podium on one side of them, I was on the other on a crane. It got to the point where we were talking back and forth to each other over PA systems, saying things like, “Isn’t it great to still be working after all these years?!” That was one of my fondest on-set memories. She was one of my greatest friends as well as my greatest teacher. She just teachers you how to get in there in do your thing and do it right. I consider it something of a Bible for actors and directors, without question. It’s just going to be a great resource for people. Even for animators, it will be something of tremendous worth. She also teaches you how to light actors. For a woman who was sixty or seventy years in the business, she knew more than a great deal about that. She actually physically lit the set a couple times on my films.

DK: I now want to touch on something that is in a way related but is kind of a diegression.

RK: Okay.

DK: Back in 1965—I don’t know because I was not around then—but I can’t imagine anyone really and truly knowing about how accessible the film medium would become in the future. Nowadays, films can be made so easily and so cheaply within the digital form. A class that you take back in 1965 with Nina Foch would one day be available to not just USC students but everyone via a home-viewing format. With the development of the medium, with more stuff being produced, are you concerned with a loss of quality and the process of having to wade through the junk to get through the stuff of value and worth?

RK: One thing I’ve learned is that the cream always rises to the top. I know that the Sundance Film Festival has four times as many submissions for festival consideration as they once did so, as you were saying, there is more being produced and a lot of it isn’t good. But, again, I will say that the cream always rises to the top and if something is good, it will get seen. I went to a financial distribution seminar at the DGA a couple of nights ago. There were a lot of people present saying how everything in film distribution has changed completely, and how a great deal of personnel have moved over to television. They were also saying that there is little to no room for small films these days because they are competing with these other forums, and television is getting steadily more ambitious. Films get seen more and more online and work gets disseminated more easily. When I was learning to make films, that obviously didn’t exist. You had to physically schlep a film-print of your movie from venue to venue. There were no easy distribution avenues like there are today. Now, you can just log on to the Net and you can watch these shorts that people make on there. It’s completely different and everything has changed so absolutely. I am grateful and enormously thrilled that not just USC students can learn from Nina, but everyone with a DVD player can learn from her. There are many things to be grateful for in the digital age. I guess you could say Nina is one of them.


To view a tribute article written shortly after Nina Foch's passing, visit the ALT Film Blog.