Category: Film

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A stylized black and white photo of Glenn Gould performing Bach.

An Artist’s Overtaking: François Girard’s “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” (1993)

When thinking back on the sum of our lives, we don’t recall moments within some linear narrative. Rather, life becomes a series of snapshots, portraits, and photographs that manifest not just physically but also internally. How often do we see a photo that transports us to that moment, and yet in the interim, where has the present gone? Invariably, memory is similar to a time machine where in one minute we are in the present day only for us seconds later to become a child once again. Gone go the linear narratives of the everyday.

No other biopic depicts this better than François Girard’s 1993 film, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. Although listed as a documentary, the film functions as a biopic, and its technique works so well that I can’t help but wonder why more directors don’t attempt this approach. Instead, within most biopics we’re often presented with too long a lifetime, too many facts, and we never get to know the person on the inside. We remain distant, outside observers. In contrast, Thirty Two Short Films operates as a memory, because what else is time but compartmentalized moments within our minds? […]

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A shot from Bradley Cooper's "Maestro", depicting Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) smoking a cigarette and looking ahead.

The Artist’s Overwhelm: On Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro” (2023)

Upon watching Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, what struck me was how the narrative felt like two films. In the first half, we see the young Leonard Bernstein in black and white overtaking the scenes with energy and extroversion, as he admits to loving people so much that he finds it difficult to be alone (something that would plague him when it came to composing since composition requires alone time). He even goes to the bathroom with the door open. This tidbit aside, the film is not so much about Leonard as it is about his wife, Felicia Montealegre (Cary Mulligan), whom he meets at a party one night.

The film opens with an aging, chain-smoking Leonard sitting at a piano and speaking to a documentary maker about how much he misses Felicia, who died of breast cancer in 1978. The scene is shot in color and already sets the narrative up for that of a predictable soap opera, rather than a deeper exploration of an artist. And Bradley Cooper, while rendering his performance well, speaks like he is continually congested. Add a lot of makeup and prosthetics and one knows that an Oscar is not far behind. […]

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Two stylized shots from Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru" and Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life", focusing in on the portraits of each film protagonist, set side by side.

Imagined Shores: on Frank Capra and Akira Kurosawa

What does it mean for someone to give to the world? To live their life as to leave an imprint? It’s easy to contemplate this concept as it relates to the types of figures who are name-dropped in the history books. The means to this is relatively straightforward (in idea if not execution) if you are an artist, or a scientist, or an activist, leader, even an athlete. You do what you’re best at and do it as well as you can (to put it simply). But what about the rest of us? For the majority of the human race, any individual’s scope of influence is a narrow groove, constrained to those immediately around them. Any impact is going to be brief and light-handed.

With this idea on my mind, I recently rewatched two films that explore the impact of the non-Exceptional individual- Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) and Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In my opinion, both are great films (Ikiru is more complex, especially structurally, but that is not to dismiss the fact that It’s A Wonderful Life is of a higher quality than it is often given credit for). But right now, I don’t care so much to embark on a work of intricate criticism. Sitting at the brink of a new year, I just feel like pulling a few of the threads presented by both films. […]

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A stylzed shot from Emerald Fennell's "Saltburn", depicting candles, mirrors, and a reflected face.

Sordid Romp: On Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn” (2023)

What’s there to say about Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn? On the one hand, it is a very attractive movie, full of attractive people, aimed towards the sort of moviegoers who spend a lot of time on Letterboxd and gorge on A24 films. This is not an A24 film, but the studio who produced Saltburn, LuckyChap Entertainment (also responsible for the billion-dollar-grossing Barbie), certainly knows of the audience overlap between them, and knows even better the sorts of aesthetics best displayed to trap their gaze. Aesthetics, as well as thematics: a little something about class, here, and a smattering of queerness, there. Best of all, it knows how to create “conversation,” and how to mix into that hodge-podge of thematic currency a dash of sensationalism: “Wait, he did what to the bathwater? Goodness me.” These are not novel strategies, by any means, but they are strategies, nonetheless; strategies which today’s studios will happily utilize in their bid for cultural clout.

On the other hand, this is a movie about a conniving murderous pervert, whose chosen prey falls easily to the most blatant manipulations only because they are written to be rich and gullible (richly gullible?) dimwits. The audience is clued into his manipulations pretty early on, which is not an unwise decision, but the trick after that is to surprise the audience with, perhaps, the cleverness of the manipulator’s tactics, and how deftly he might weave his trap around the glamorous inhabitants of the estate. […]

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A stylized shot from Andrzej Wajda's "A Generation", depicting the protagonist as he observes Nazi soldiers walking towards him. There is text of the director's name and the film title.

Gathering Resistance: Andrzej Wajda’s “A Generation” (1955)

It is always interesting to watch a film trilogy where one can see the progression of a director’s talent. However, unlike Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors Trilogy, which consists of three film narratives interdependent upon one another, Andrzej Wajda’s War Trilogy connects only through its similar theme—resistance. Before Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds, Wajda directed A Generation, which is set around the survival of a group of young men during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The film’s straightforward narrative details a young protagonist, Stach, who joins an underground communist resistance movement once he learns what little value his wages offer vis-à-vis those his employer makes off his labor. Young enough to still carry idealism, it is this idealism that Stach uses to comfort his depressed mother who lives in squalor with a rabbit that runs loose. He reassures her that he will find work, and in doing so, this young, idealistic man joins the resistance believing that this will be for some greater good because, as is, life can’t get any worse.

The opening scene contains Stach’s first-person voiceover informing us that he grew up in a slum outside Warsaw, and that to entertain himself, he and his friends (one played by Zbigniew Cybulski from Ashes and Diamonds) flick knives into the haystacks. The three seem to be enjoying this last moment of playfulness as rebellious youths who were forced to grow up too fast. […]

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A stylized shot from Andrzej Wajda's "Ashes and Diamonds", depicting an upside down crucifix.

Perilous Betweens: On Andrzej Wajda’s “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958)

Before an abandoned church in a patch of sunned, country grass, two men wait to assassinate the Secretary to the Polish Workers’ Party. The assassination takes place, except their target is the wrong man.

This is the opening scene of Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, the third installment within Wajda’s War Trilogy. (The first two are A Generation and Kanal, respectively.) Based on the novel by Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski, I immediately was struck by the film’s presence of hierarchy. For what does one exist? Is individuality merely a function of action? Through the effective use of shadow and low shots, an astounding modernism pervades throughout that, much like Orson Welles’s Citizen Cane, creates a bleak interior landscape. Set on the last day of World War II in Poland, the Germans have lost and are vacating the city. Despite this time of celebration, there is, however, something tragic about not only the ending of life when history indicates it should be a beginning, but also the dearth of opportunity for the protagonists. Following Wajda’s earlier film, Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds introduces a more complex sphere of human nature—not just survival, as is the case within Kanal, but the prevalence of power and to whom should one answer? […]

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A stylized shot from Franco Piavoli's "Voices Through Time", depicting a young boy entering a deep and dark forest.

Cease & Concern: on Franco Piavoli’s “Voices Through Time” (1996)

A shared language is almost inessential. Even certain specifics—place-names, surnames, titles and designations—might for the viewer remain indefinite for the entirety of Voices Through Time’s eighty-or-so minutes and still, precious little would be lost.

It’s how I saw it, anyway. I don’t speak Italian but I found that Franco Piavoli’s documentary about the lives (or the flashes of lives) of various inhabitants of the village Castellaro, in the Lombardy region of Italy, doesn’t really require of its viewer to know the language. What is spoken is subordinate to what’s being shown, and although the title of the film is Voices Through Time (Voci nel tempo, in the original) it might also be appropriately titled Volti nel tempo, or Faces Through Time, as Piavoli’s priorities seem focused just as well (if not more so) on the changing physical features of the human body as it matures as he is on the changing of its voice.

This is a gorgeous film, and one whose attractions reach the viewer rather straightforwardly; and certainly not from the same aesthetic distance as come in Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac. Its pleasures, comparatively, are simple, as they find joy and beauty in the places most people everywhere find them: in beautiful faces and locales and music. […]

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A stylized shot from Robert Bresson's "Lancelot du Lac", portraying the king, queen, and standing soldiers.

Craft & Cutting: On Robert Bresson’s “Lancelot du Lac” (1974)

The violence that opens the film will, of course, be mirrored in the end. It is portrayed in graphic detail, with the distance one might expect from Robert Bresson. It is austere, yes, and almost hilariously so: can a beheading, complete with a great spurt of too-red blood, be shown more matter-of-factly? The sequence is mechanical in its depiction: armored knights in a forest slay each other, and ride their steeds through the same forest. Corpses are strung up on trees, or burned, and churches ransacked. Bresson’s camera drives these faceless warriors again and again through the backdrop of their carnage. The repetitions seem to set up the inevitability dogging the film’s primary characters, who should be familiar to anyone acquainted with Arthurian lore. And the trees, which vertically stake the frame together—their tightness creating a cloistering effect for the figures within—will echo throughout the film in the reappearance of other lines, among which those aforementioned figures continually stare, as if entranced by the narrative they cannot help but dutifully enact. […]