From the Chicago Reader (April 2, 2004). This wonderful documentary, incidentally, is now available on the Criterion DVD of Pickpocket. One of its most fascinating paradoxes for me is that Mangolte, a friend, isn’t a religious person, but this documentary strikes me as profoundly spiritual; Lasalle’s home is even treated as a sacred shrine. — J.R.
Les modèles de “Pickpocket”
Directed and written by Babette Mangolte
With Pierre Leymarie, Marika Green, and Martin Lasalle.
Not until he was in his late 90s did Robert Bresson get the recognition he deserved. He died in 1999 at the age of 98, living long enough to see his work affirmed by a retrospective the Toronto Cinematheque’s James Quandt organized that traveled around the world to full houses.
For years mainstream critics regarded Bresson as esoteric, pretentious, even something of a joke. “The chief fault is that the hero is a vacancy, not a character,” wrote Stanley Kauffmann in one of the more sympathetic reviews of Bresson’s 1959 Pickpocket, a free adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. “Martin Lasalle, who plays the part, has a bony, sensitive face, but no deader pan has crossed the screen since Buster Keaton. The besetting fallacy of modern French films and novels is the belief that nullity equals malaise and/or profundity.” And though not intended as hostile, the description offered by Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia, quoted on the Internet Movie Database, is no less representative: “One of the most rigorously ascetic directors in film history, Bresson eschewed any overt stylistic flourishes whatsoever, employing wooden but distinctive-looking nonactors to perform lead roles, and telling extremely simple, often pointedly despairing tales detailing the ruination of pure souls in a cruel world.”
I find Bresson’s films highly physical and even carnal rather than ascetic.… Read more »
A disturbing look at how people in the rural midwest respond to the Iraq war is the main focus of this 2003 documentary by Austrian filmmaker Andreas Horvath. The unabashed ignorance and/or indifference of most of his interview subjects, combined with their overall acceptance of war and gun ownership as higher principles, registers as frighteningly typical and indicates how successful the Bush administration has been at convincing Americans that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11 and armed with weapons of mass destruction. To his credit Horvath engages with these positions and doesn’t try to hide his own, but he also lingers over a hysterical evangelist, an American-flag fetishist, and a demolition derby as if they somehow explained the rest. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »
The minimalism of this Abbas Kiarostami film makes it one of the boldest experiments yet by the masterful Iranian filmmaker: its ten sequences transpire in a car driving through Tehran, with a stylish young divorcee at the wheel and a series of six characters in the passenger seat. Shot with two digital video cameras mounted on the dashboard, it’s neither scripted nor directed in any ordinary sense, but Kiarostami spent a long time preparing the nonprofessional actors (all strong performers). The best scenes involve the driver’s spiky ten-year-old son (the only male in the cast, but a fitting stand-in for Iranian patriarchy), a young woman she picks up twice near a shrine, and a prostitute. The film offers a fascinating glimpse of the Iranian urban middle class, and though it eschews most of the pleasures of composition and landscape found in other Kiarostami films, it’s never less than riveting. In Farsi with subtitles. 94 min. (JR)… Read more »
This fascinating personal essay (2003) by Canadian filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming investigates the life of her great-grandfather, the Chinese vaudeville performer Long Tack Sam (1895-1961)one of the greatest magicians in the world (and one of the key mentors of Orson Welles), who was also an acrobat, though he’s mainly forgotten today. In fact, he circled the globe so many times and experienced so much that recounting his life in many ways means recounting the 20th century. Fleming, an animator and storyteller as well as a documentarian, draws extensively on her own varied talents to approach this elusive topic from many different angles, and her speculations are often as interesting as her findings. Indeed, the way Long Tack Sam keeps sliding out of her and our grasp, even though we wind up feeling that we know him in some fashion, is part of this film’s magic. 90 min. (JR)… Read more »
Unlike the Gospel of Mel Gibson, this dutiful 180-minute adaptation is in English and neither wallows in suffering nor aims for art-movie credentials, apart from a few brief black-and-white flashbacks. Directed by British journeyman Philip Saville from a script by John Goldsmith and produced by Cineplex Odeon magnate Garth Drabinsky, this is an ideal straight-ahead version of Jesus’s story, built around Christopher Plummer’s offscreen narration, for people who don’t already know all the details and can’t follow all of The Passion of the Christ without a synopsis. It also dwells a lot more on Jesus’s teachings and miracles than The Passion and seems to care more about the suffering of other crucified individuals. I’m still waiting for a movie Jesus who looks even half as Semitic as Gibson’s Caiphas, but Henry Ian Cusick still does a creditable job. (JR)… Read more »
This collectively made documentary by the Video Activist Network cuts between the early stages of the Iraq invasion in March 2003 and massive San Francisco street demonstrations protesting it, with particular emphasis on the war profiteering of companies that supported George W. Bush’s presidential candidacy. This also offers glimpses of international demonstrations against the American-led invasion, the parroting of government propaganda on network newscasts, and the great battle sequence in Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight. 52 min. (JR)… Read more »
In this personal and poetic 2003 video documentary, Babette Mangolte—possibly the best cinematographer now working in experimental cinema (she’s also shot major films by Chantal Akerman, Richard Foreman, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Marcel Hanoun, Sally Potter, Jackie Raynal, Yvonne Rainer, and Michael Snow)—interviews the three leading performers from Robert Bresson’s wondrous 1959 Pickpocket. Bresson wanted to convey directly, without acting, the spiritual essence of individuals, which is why he called his performers interpreters or models. These three were clearly marked by the experience of working for him, and as Mangolte moves from France to Austria to Mexico meeting them she seems as responsive to their self-aware vibrancy and as respectful of their mysteries as Bresson was. 89 min. (JR)… Read more »
The most important lesson in any education is recognizing what you don’t know, and this 2003 French video by Ali Essafi, about the everyday operations of the famous Arab news service, may be an eye-opening experience even for those who consider themselves sympathetic observers of the political turmoil in the Middle East. Furthermore, getting to see an Al Jazeera producer shape a news report helped me realize how little I know about equivalent practices at CNN or NBC. Even more valuable are the glimpses of how Al Jazeera reporters view America and American activitiesthe perspective our own news services seem least equipped or even inclined to give us. 52 min. (JR)… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (April 2, 2004). — J.R.
People seem divided by the second film (1992) in Michael Haneke’s deadpan, low-key Austrian trilogy (after The Seventh Continent, before 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance), about affectless contemporary violence. Some consider it an essential document of our time, while others (myself included) regard it as a letdown after its predecessor — overly familiar in its themes, though still somewhat potent in its depiction of an alienated 14-year-old boy from a well-to-do family who’s preoccupied with video technology and winds up committing a monstrous act. In some ways, the portrait of his parents is even more chilling. In German with subtitles. 105 min. (JR)… Read more »
Jacques Demy’s first and in some ways best feature (1961, 90 min.), shot in exquisite black-and-white ‘Scope by Raoul Coutard, is among the most neglected major works of the French New Wave. Abandoned by her sailor lover, a cabaret dancer (Anouk Aimee) brings up their son while awaiting his return and ultimately has to choose among three men. Chock-full of film references (to The Blue Angel, Breathless, Hollywood musicals, the work of Max Ophuls, etc) and lyrically shot in Nantes, the film is a camera stylo love letter, and Michel Legrand’s lovely score provides ideal nostalgic accompaniment. In his third feature and biggest hit, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy settled on life’s disappointments; here at least one major character gets exactly what she wants, and the effect is no less poignant. With Marc Michel, Jacques Harden, and Elina Labourdette (the young heroine in Robert Bresson’s 1945 Les dames du Bois de Boulogne). In French with subtitles. Music Box.… Read more »