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Flash Festival Review, 7-10: Pre-occupying Agnes
At Anthology, a fashion designer unveils her cinema wardrobe

Anne Wiazemsky, Jean-Pierre Leaud, and Juliet Berto in Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 "La Chinoise." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2013 Paul Ben-Itzak

All of the films programmed by agnes b. at Anthology Film Archives over the next two weeks offer moments of grim hyper-reality or quiet suffering. And yet perhaps it took a fashion designer to choose films which, even as they make you reel with horror or perturb you with pathos -- as a lake is drained to reveal a naked couple entwined in a death embrace, a middle-aged woman serenely smiles as she makes her book collection her funeral pyre, a little boy poops himself to death, a woman on a beach spreads her arms crucifixion-like to embrace an inevitable stabbing, a revolutionary cradles the bloody head of a comrade who's just killed himself -- transfix you with their aching beauty.

How better to portray books as living beings than to have their custodian insist on dying with them, as a clandestine middle-aged bibliophile does in Francois Truffaut's 1966 version of Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451"? The cinephile who revealed himself as a cineaste with the story of an incorrigible youth in the black and white simplicity of "The 400 Blows" in 1959, graduating from critiquing cinema with the upstarts of Cahiers du Cinema to making it and co-inventing the Nouvelle Vague, here bathes his landscape in crimson to set the harrowing mood. Craft comes in when Truffaut zooms in on copies of the classics slowly curling into crisp and crackling paper and being reduced to disintegrated corpses: From Melville's "Moby Dick" to Twain's "Tom Sawyer," from Jean Cocteau to John O'Hara (firmly placing the film in the '60s, when O'Hara was prematurely inducted into the canon), "Catcher in the Rye" to "Plexus," "Lolita" to the Brothers K, "Fathers and Sons" to Mad Magazine. "Zazie in the Metro" is there, as is a Spanish crossword puzzle magazine. Truffaut could not even resist including a copy of Cahiers du Cinema among the kindling. (Which is not to say that the film-maker has discarded the film critic's heroes; to stimlate our horrified response, he's even engaged Hitchcock's musical muse Bernard Hermann for the score.)

Oskar Werner and Julie Christie in Francois Truffaut's 1966 "Fahrenheit 451." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

Antoine Doinel has not been shelved; distinguishing this vision of things to come from other science fiction movies of the period, Truffaut has brought along his child's sense of play, ever present in so many of his films. "Watch her blush," a guide tips Montag, the reformed book burner (here they're called firemen, charged with dosing words that might inflame by torching them) once he's arrived in the community where exiled bibliophiles ensure their favorite oeuvres survival by memorizing them. "I'm Jean-Paul Sartre's 'The Jewish Question'!" the waifish girl sprightly announces. "I'm Ray Bradbury's 'The Martian Chronicles,'" announces a man tongue in cheekily, while a slovenly giant with worn shoes proclaims, "I am 'The Prince,' by Machiavelli. You can't judge a book by its cover." Hermann's portentious music, which have accompanied the sortis of the fire engines (a child's toy turned nightmare vehicle) which always announce an imminent literary inferno, here turns to tinkling bells which harken back to the adolescent romping of "The 400 Blows."

"Fahrenheit 451" shows July 11 at 6:45 p.m., July 13 at 6:30, and July 18 at 6:30.

Where Truffaut cleanly separates his humor from his horror, his 'Cahiers' colleague and Nouvelle Vague co-pilot Jean-Luc Godard likes to deliver them at the same time. So it is that Anne Wiazemsky's student Maoist revolutionary in his 1967 "La Chinoise," realizing that she has assassinated the wrong man because she inverted the room number of the Soviet cultural minister, is casually sent back to the crime scene by another cadre to get the job right.

Unfortunately, Godard is more niggardly with the humor here than in "Week-End," a road trip that veers between senseless violence and agit-prop diatribes, but whose comedy is so fearlessly black as to tear your rib-cages with laughter if you can enter into the spirit, as when the heroine eagerly consumes a thigh of her late husband barbecued by other revolutionaries. Perhaps the endless citations from Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book" which over-burden the first part of the film until it grinds to a dead stop are meant to mock the student rebels delivering them -- the sometimes rote recitations by Jean-Pierre Leaud, the rebel from "400 Blows" who's finally found a cause, seem to indicate this. But they're so relentless and indulgent they bludgeon the viewer and threaten to lull him to sleep, which would be a pity because he'd miss Godard's scattered 'clin d'oeil's: After a comrade tosses a bicycle handle and seat they've been using to play bull-fighter into the garbage can outside their apartment door and a neighbor is heard to retrieve it, pronouncing, "Look at that Isabelle, great racing handle-bars and a seat!," Yvonne, the naive revolutionary (who's willing to resort to selling her body when "Little Red Book" sales are down) played by Juliet Berto announces to Veronique (Wiazemsky), "He's a dumb shit." "No," Veronique corrects her, "He's a genius of a worker. Consider: With a bull's head, he's made handlebars and a seat." Then she turns and wags her finger at the camera, pronouncing, "THAT is the metamorphosis of God, Monsieur Malraux," a swipe at the author and long-time cultural minister Andre Malraux and the argument he made for art in his encyclopedic "The Psychology of Art" series of books. Malraux would become one of the bete noirs of the student - worker strikes which erupted in May 1968, the clairvoyant anticipation of which is "La Chinoise"'s greatest calling card. Godard is in effect warning anyone who will listen of what's about to happen, even if Veronique's scheme to bomb the Sorbonne -- killing some students and teachers would be sure to close the universities, as the Cultural Revolution has just done in China, she points out -- was never mirrored by reality. Unfortunately -- or perhaps inevitably -- with the exception of the eternal iconoclast Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the 68ers, as they're reverently referred to in France, eventually became the old guard, particularly in the realm of culture, with a new establishment simply replacing the old and barring the way to the new, at least so far as funding it. Late in the film, Veronique points out: "As long as they fund the homosexuals (the sub-titles mis-translate this as 'queers,' making it more pejorative than intended) of the Comedie Francaise ten times more than Roger Planchon or Antoine Bourseiller, these reforms are a dead letter because they're written in a dead language to a culture that's a culture of class, a teaching of class, a culture which belongs to a determined class and a determined politics. What does the Parti Communist Francaise do to change these things? Nothing." Plus ca change.

Anne Wiazemsky and Jean-Pierre Leaud in Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 "La Chinoise." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

Early on in "La Chinoise," a scribbled graffiti on the wall of the apartment where the five revolutionaries hang out references "les idees vagues avec des images claires." Albeit that Godard's ideas here aren't so much vague as presented in waves, the film is also worth seeing because of the new crystalline print released in 2008, which takes it out of archive-land and helps us catch contemporary relevances. You can catch it at Anthology July 13 at 9 p.m., July 15 at 6:45, and July 20 at 7. You might stick around on July 15 for the 9 p.m. showing of Bernardo Bertolucci's 1970 "The Conformist," about a fascist militant (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in Mussolini's Italy who volunteers to assassinate his liberal former professor, exiled to Paris; Bertolucci makes an interesting counterpoint to Godard. He's neat where Godard, at least in "La Chinoise," is messy, economical and efficient where Godard is indulgent. What the two films share is a clinical coldness -- the rote readings of Leaud in Godard's films, the blank response of Trintignant's Marcello when his lover, also the professor's wife (Dominique Sanda) vainly pleads with him to open the door of his car and save her from the fascists who have just killed her husband in a bush-whacking in the snowy woods of the Savoie mountains. Albeit a powerful historical document and condemnation of the conformists everywhere who allow evil to triumph, this film is the most despondent of those programmed by agnes b.; the hoped-for redemption hinted at by the hero's alliance with his victim's wife never comes. But, like all the films here, it reeks with the style of its epoch, so perhaps it's this lushness that attracts the fashion designer. Or it might just be that whether lifting or traumatic, all these films, which she saw in her 20s and 30s, taught her "to appreciate other points of view, seen from a different angle, showing passion and the wounds, of every sort, that left their mark on me forever." "The Conformist" also shows July 19 at 9:15 p.m. and July 21 at 8:45.

When he made "Dodes'ka-den" in 1970, from Shugoro Yamamoto's novel, Akira Kurosawa was still smarting from his own wounds, suffered from the back-to-back debacles of "Runaway Train" (in which the viewer's perspective would be the train's) and "Tora! Tora! Tora!," an aborted project and a project from which his participation was aborted, both American collaborations that fell apart. A production society, the Four Knights, was even formed for his next film, to save the 60-year-old Kurosawa and with him Japanese cinema. Considering the stakes -- "Tora! Tora! Tora!" had left a shadow of innuendo on his reputation -- he might have been forgiven for playing it safe. Instead, he made the film his first excursion into color. "You're the very person who should be making color films," Henri Langlois, the influential director of the Cinematheque Francaise (he shows up in "La Chinoise" as well, in a gratuitous Leaud lecture on a Langlois lecture extolling Melies over Lumiere; Godard can't resist being a smarty-pants), told him, Kurosawa recalls in the 'making of' short that accompanies the film's DVD release. "He didn't trust film stock," Daisaku Kimura, his cinematographer, explains in the same documentary. But Langlois showed him the dance section of Sergei Eisenstein's "Ivan the Terrible," a color segment, shot in 1944-46, of a film that was otherwise black and white. "Not only is the scene in color, but the colors are striking," Kurosawa recalls. "What he did," adds Kimura, "was to use color without relying on the film stock itself. He painted every object to be filmed." An intensely orange sunset, that yet retains enough reality to be credible, "was painted on stage. He said not to worry, to be like kids painting picture books."

A scene from Akira Kurosawa's 1970 "Dodes'ka-den." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

The director himself pitched in, with the delight of a child, an exuberance evident in the take-out restaurant where the hero lives with his mom, and whose walls are plastered with child-like color drawings of trolley cars. For Kurosawa, retaining the train vehicle, makes his hero a 15-year-old "Trolley Freak" (Yoshitaka Zushi, who says he believes the trolley freak was a metaphor for a film freak, e.g. Kurosawa) who trundles about the impoverished Tokyo slum on a make-believe tram, complete with lantern strapped to his waste. (At one point he almost barrels over an artist in a beret -- perhaps a stand-in for the director -- painting a junkyard study.) The device is that the "trolley freak" -- the name with which children taunt him -- will be our guide, conducting us to the homes and troubled lives of the struggling residents: Two couples whose drunken husbands -- perhaps at their wives' instigation -- swap spouses. A lazy uncle (Tatsuo Matsumura) whose teenaged niece (Tomoko Yamazaki) supports him by making paper flowers, sleeping only when she slumps over from exhaustion. A wise older man -- relatively speaking, one of the quarter's richer habitants -- who helps another man seeking to end it all because he misses his dead wife and children too much by giving him a powder guaranteed to kill him in an hour.... then convinces the man that if he dies, his loved ones will really disappear forever, re-assuring the man when he re-thinks his decision that all he gave him was a digestive. A businessman whose miserly wife's ill manners send him into sudden seizures every time he re-enters from work (Junzaburo Ban, who reports that Kurosawa insisted on 20 takes before they got it right) .... but who wrassles a colleague to the ground when he dares to criticize the wife. A dead-eyed husband (Hiroshi Akutagawa) who refuses to forgive his remorseful wife for betraying him. A man who lives in a hollowed out Volkswagen bug with his six-year-old boy, who he sends out to beg for food for them every night, but whose dreams he keeps alive by meticulously constructing an imaginary house on a hill for them.

Unless you understand the design of "Dodes'ka-den" as a painting -- Kurosawa says he was going for expressive color -- it's easy to be incredulous about the slum setting -- it's all too bold, and lacks the drabness of poorer quarters. But if you don't let the neo-colors get in the way of suspending your disbelief, it's a magical world where even privation has its privileges.

"Dodes'Ka-Den" plays July 12 at 8:45 p.m. and July 14 at 5:30.

Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed in Ken Russell's 1969 "Women in Love." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

I'm usually not keen on British period dramas made in the '60s and set earlier, but one can't help but be moved and even devastated by the ribald risks Ken Russell takes in his 1969 film of D.H. Lawrence's "Women in Love," starring the robust Oliver Reed as Gerald, the sleek Glenda Jackson as Gudrun, the quirky and slightly off Alan Bates as Rupert, and the innocent tart Jennie Linden as Ursula. Even if the juxtaposition of a drowned couple in a death's embrace with the coupling Bates and Linden is obvious, an impromptu nude wrestling match between best friends Bates and Reed, complete with pendulous schlongs, is so fearless one can't help but admire the film-maker and the uninhibited actors as they grasp and grapple with each other, colliding private parts be damned. The match bonds the two as blood brothers, as wistful Bates says he hopes they'll never break up. If anything, the male-female relationships are less cordial; noting that his dead sister's arms are clutched around her dead boyfriend's head, as he appears to have been trying to push her away and save himself from the murky water, Gerald announces, "She killed him." And when Rupert tells an earlier girlfriend, Hermaine, "You can't bear anything to be spontaneous, because then it's not in your power," she responds by spontaneously cracking his skull with a glass ball. Even the music when either pair of lovers makes out is more menacing than romantic.

"Why have you come?" asks Gudrun when Gerald arrives to try to stop her from stampeding a small heard of woolly bulls.

"And why do you want to drive them mad?" he demands.

"You make me behave like this... Don't be angry with me."

"I'm not angry with you, I'm in love with you."

"Well, that's one way of putting it."

That's Lawrence and Russell's women and men in love for you, as inclined to joust as tryst. "Women in Love" plays July 10 at 9 p.m., July 14 at 8:30, and July 20 at 4:15.

The grappling in Milos Forman's 1965 "Loves of a Blonde" is more traditional, between a young woman, Andula (Hana Brejchova, Forman's sister in law) working in a shoe factory in a town in Northern Bohemia where the women outnumber the men 16 to 1, and a visiting jazz pianist, Milda, who seduces her with the pretense that he wants to show her some moves for defending herself from someone who wants to seduce her. She gives in, then shows up on the Prague door-step of the parents he lives with, while he's out on a gig.

In its spare and stark depiction of 1960s Eastern Europe, the film's simplicity makes it a welcome respite from the almost over-opulent designs of the Godard, Truffaut, Russell, Kurosawa, and Bertolucci films. This isn't an accident; Forman cast non-actors in some of the principal roles, including Milda's parents, played by Josef Sebanek and Mileda Jezkova; he claims he found her on a bus. Add to this that he gave the parents only a general idea of what he wanted in the scene where they're bickering over their unexpected guest as Milda joins them in their bed so Andula can have the couch, and the film has a naturalism lacking in the dialogues of the other films I previewed. While there's much that is confrontational, nothing is presentational. While the sexuality isn't explicit, it's implicit enough that, like Godard's film was for May 1968, Forman's is a harbinger of Prague's spring the same year. These kids may not yet be openly revolting like their spoiled Parisian counterparts, but their unrest is still sullenly simmering. They project an innocence that the sophisticated French kids lack; even when tussling in bed, they seem more like children at play than adults negotiating intimacy. Forman displays a similarly simple attention to details; when Andula tells Milda about putting a razor to her wrist, he zooms in on her hand fidgeting around a door-knob.

"Loves of a Blonde" regrettably plays only once, July 21 at 6:45 p.m..

Like "Loves of a Blonde," Luchino Visconti's 1960 "Rocco and his Brothers" (which clocks in at nearly three hours) benefits from the counter-intuitive effect being shot in black and white had on many films from the mid-fifties to mid-sixties, of making them seem more realistic because they were stripped down, without all the technicolor grandeur. Anthology's PR quotes the New York Times's A.O. Scott as saying that "the grandeur of 'The Godfather' ... is (not) imaginable without Visconti's example," but I don't see it; the earlier film has none of the operatic artifice of the later. A more apt line can be drawn between Al Pacino's Michael Corleone and the boyishly beautiful Alain Delon's Rocco, both entrusted reluctantly with the mantel of family leadership when an older brother goes down. In Rocco's case, brother Simon (Renato Salvatori)'s boxing career plummets (as Rocco's ascends) when he can't get over being dumped by a casual lover, Nadia (Annie Girardot) -- who then takes up with Rocco, thinking he will save her. He's on his way to doing just that, when he opts instead to save his brother, who must have her back. She leaves him anyway eventually, as he continues to spiral, with the inevitable tragic result. Rocco fails to save either. "Remember that a mason, when he starts to build a house, he throws a stone on the shadow of the first person that passes by," Rocco tells his mother and other two brothers at one point, remembering a lesson from the countryside where the family lived before moving to Milan, where their troubles began. "You have to make a sacrifice to make the house become solid." The house here is supposedly Rocco's own house of Atreus, his family, saved by either the sacrifice of Simon or the sacrifice Rocco makes to try to save him, explaining the headline "Rocco Triumphs" which blares across a row of newspapers at the end, the triumph being not just a boxing victory but that Rocco put his family's interests above his own. If anything, the modern Italian family saga which seems to owe the most to Visconti is the Sopranos.

"Rocco and his Brothers" plays July 13 at 3 p.m. and July 17 at 7:30.

As you can tell, these films range all over the map. (Also on the program are Lindsay Anderson's 1968 "If...," Ken Loach's rarely screened 1971 "Family Life," and Kurosawa's 1955 "I Live in Fear.") In considering the films chosen by agnes b. -- a longtime supporter of Anthology Film Archives and a champion of its founder Jonas Mekas, whose book she sells at her Paris boutique -- I'm reminded that, in contrast to just about any other artistic presenter anywhere in the world, one of the guarantors of the catholicity of the programming at Anthology is the cornucopia of curators making the mix. The result is a series of miniature film festivals reflecting a variety of tastes and experiences, with, incredibly and uniquely, no particular agenda beyond promoting and preserving celebrated and obscure cinema history.

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