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Wednesday, Aug 8, 2007

Elizabeth Taylor in Dahomey, West Africa, 1967


The Comedians (1967)
Dir: Peter Glenville


The Burtons, after a string of colossal flops, (Cleopatra, The V.I.P.s, The Sandpiper), were basking in the success of their bold collaboration with Mike Nichols—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—and were looking for another piece of daring, unconventional source material for their next project. The left-wing political maelstrom of Vietnam America may have motivated them to cast their eye onto a story of the horrors of Third World dictatorship. Graham Greene’s stories of flawed, convictionless British anti-heroes discovering their humanity in turbulent countries (The Third Man, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana) seemed to be a recipe for art-house success; in any case, they provided actors with memorable character roles and crackling, ironic dialogue. Torrid love amidst political unrest in the tropics was a formula that had been popular in Hollywood since Casablanca, only in Greene’s love affairs no one ever came out a hero. 


“The Comedians:”: Smith (Paul Ford), Jones (Alec Guinness), and Brown (Richard Burton)


Greene’s The Comedians tells of self-indulgent British and American expatriates emotionally going to pieces during the nightmarish regime of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in 1960s Haiti. It blended the aching bitterness of The End of the Affair with the postcolonial anxiety and malaise of The Heart of the Matter. Greene noticed that in times of utter hopelessness, people coped through humor and self-delusion. The comedians of the title are two Brits, Brown (Richard Burton) and Jones (Alec Guinness), and an American, Smith (Paul Ford).  The deliberate banality of their names echoes some bad men’s room joke (“Three men, Jones, Brown, and Smith, walk into a bar…”).  Their neurotic personalities, amidst the tragic scale of death and murder in Haiti, are meaningless, and their identities, are essentially interchangeable.


Brown has just returned from New York in a failed effort to sell the depilated hotel he inherited from his late mother. His real reason for coming back to Port-au-Prince is to resume his affair with the Brazilian Ambassador’s German wife, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor).  Smith is a do-gooding American politician, an ex-presidential candidate of ’48, who has come to Haiti to set up a school and health center devoted to vegetarianism in the slums. He and his wife, played by the extraordinary silent-film actress Lilian Gish, were Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Movement, whose ordeal in Mississippi, they believe, has prepared them for anything.  Jones is an amateur arms dealer who has come to supply American weapons to the Tontons Macoutes (Papa Doc’s sunglassed secret police). Unfortunately, his business partner in Miami has absconded the cash advance and fled, leaving Jones at the mercy of cold blooded criminals.  Jones is the catalyst of the story, and his attempted escape from the Tontons, is the farce that unseemingly unleashes a domino effect of mistaken murders and thwarted relationships.


Peter Glenville directing the voodoo ceremony scene


The director of the film was a talented veteran of British theatre, Peter Glenville. His 1965 film, Beckett, also starting Burton, and Peter O’Toole, made him a popular, “classy” filmmaker at the time.  But The Comedians would wind up finishing his career.  The movie was such a critical and financial failure, that Glenville would never work in Hollywood again. This is one of those unfortunate incidents where history is against an ambitious project. The Comedians opened in the wake of the Black Panther Movement of the late ‘60s, and the memory of the Civil Rights riots was still fresh.  Scenes of menacing black men in sunglasses assaulting white women, murdering people in broad daylight, were unsettling for American audiences—a reminder of latent dangers at home. 


The film’s lukewarm reception and the audience’s disappointment (most moviegoers were misled by the title, expecting to see the Burtons in romantic comedy of the Doris Day-Rock Hudson mold) caused it to be largely forgotten until the a recent box set of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s films for Warner Brothers. In hindsight, The Comedians was a daring picture for its time. The crew was, naturally banned from Haiti, and had to film in Dahomey, West Africa, where the blistering white heat and humidity can be sensed in nearly ever scene.  Greene’s screenplay is the taut, slyly ironic suspense-thriller he mastered writing, as with The Third Man.  The movie boasts an early, graceful performance from the young James Earl Jones, as a surgeon moonlighting as a rebel leader.  Actor-raconteur, Peter Ustinov, brings disarming pathos and tenderness to the relatively one-dimensional role of Taylor’s cuckolded husband.


The real star turn of the movie, however, does not come from the Burtons. They both give rather mediocre performances here (Burton is relentlessly gloomy, while Taylor is inauthentic and passive). No, it arrives in the form of Alec Guinness in the role of the hapless arms-dealer.  Jones was based on Greene’s former accountant, who embezzled thousands of pounds worth of Greene’s royalties and fled to South America.  A charismatic inveterate fraud, he was intended to come off as a sort of memento mori, a reminder to us of our own selfishness, of how we are willing to value liars and cheats so long as they entertain us.  Guinness adds a fey, music-hall insouciance to the role of Jones, a man who fabricates stories about being an exalted officer in WWII in order to win sympathy and trust from his clients; he’s the antithesis of his dutiful, hard-headed Col. Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai.  Jones is the weasel to Nicholson’s wounded lion.  Mendacious in part for survival, and in part, for pleasure, he’s only truly alive when he’s acting. It’s the kind of subtle comic performance that’s influenced a generation of British character actors, from John Hurt to Geoffrey Rush to Bill Nighy.  Some of the film’s most affecting moments involve Jones’ undoing; the scene where Brown and the rebel leader/surgeon trap Jones into leading a guerrilla revolt over a game of gin rummy at the ambassador’s mansion is priceless in its mordant black humor.



It’s a shame that The Comedians is not more widely seen and appreciated.  It’s not an outstanding film, but it’s a brave one in it’s own way.  Today’s audience may easily find it patronizing and colonial: a hot jungle hell of black magic and political corruption that serves as the backdrop for a group of prominent whites. But certain scenes stay with you: the unsettling young men in dark sunglasses who vandalize the funeral hearse of a dissident, small schoolchildren in starched white uniforms being led to watch a public execution, a crowded, smoke-filled voodoo ceremony where a live chicken is decapitated and the priest brandishes the blade in the air to point it to a sacrificial inductee.



If anyone has the balls to taunt a Third World tyrant, it would be a best-selling author and a celebrity power couple. Imagine Christopher Hitchens and ‘Brangelina’ collaborating on a movie about Kim Jong-ill. The Burtons-Greene partnership opened the world’s eyes to Haiti, made them take notice of the abuse of power and trust that was going on in this small island country.  Together they gave it color through a host of colorful characters, and their depiction of the nation—its poverty, its fetid jungles, its colonial French legacy, intoxicating voodoo rituals, the terrifying blackouts and nighttime raids of the Tontons Macoutes, gave an urgency to the country’s turmoil; The Comedians brought the horrors of Third World dictatorship to life for a complacent late 60s audience. At the time, sadly, few cared.


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Friday, May 18, 2007


Bubby is 35 years old. He has lived in a grimy bunker like apartment all his life. His only companions are a feral cat, and his fanatical mother. Dictatorial and overbearing, this supposed parent treats her son horribly, making outrageous demands and ridiculous rules. Of course, with her boy now a man, she also benefits of his “matured” sexuality. Bubby cannot escape his claustrophobic world. Mother has told him that the air outside is contaminated and if the poison doesn’t get him, Jesus will. So Bubby stays inside, waiting for the next round of reprobate behavior. One day, a stranger comes knocking at the door. It turns out to be Bubby’s long lost father. Confused and scared, Bubby’s behavior turns even more twisted, and it’s not long before he has dealt with his family issues, and is off on his own. And the world turns out to be a strange and savage place for our stifled simpleton.


You have never seen a movie quite like Bad Boy Bubby. No David Lynchian surrealscape or David Cronenberg psychosexual splatter job can compare to the stellar, sinister magic director Rolf De Heer creates in this amazing masterpiece. Borrowing from his demented brothers in arms, De Heer uses many recognizable reference points to define a unique style and vision all his own. By fashioning experimental elements into a strong focus on character and narrative, the filmmaker takes us on a literal journey from Hell to Heaven. As much a coming of age as it is a mediation on the pitfalls of maturity, this is a Thomas Pynchon novel typed onto celluloid, a complex narrative where every scene has several meanings, and differing layers diverge and reform to create something wholly original and inspired with each configuration. It may be difficult to watch at first, and does deal with subjects and people that we’d never imagine tolerating, let alone taking an interest in. But somehow, with all the vileness and the vitality on hand, De Heer and his stellar cast manage to concoct a modern classic.


Part of the reason why Bad Boy Bubby works so well is its bravery. Obviously a product of its time – 1993 – and its place – Australia (Hollywood wouldn’t have touched this script with a script doctors glove soaked in antibiotics), De Heer pushes the limits of acceptable cinematic behavior from the very first series of shots. Using nudity as a symbol for both defenselessness and perversion, and playing simultaneously with the notions of neglect and incest, it’s hard to get a handle on what the film is offering. It’s almost like a sideshow, where freaks are paraded out for our amusement and morbid curiosity. Then slowly, as the unreal situations and circumstances become more and more agonizing, De Heer sets up his first stroke of storytelling genius.


We know Bubby is a prisoner in his hovel of a home, brainwashed into believing the world beyond the front door is filled with poisoned air, and that his mother is the only solace, physical or otherwise, he will ever require. Her overbearing browbeating has lead Bubby to become a kind of human Rosetta Stone, recording and reinterpreting everything around him as it passes through his orphaned, underdeveloped mind. So by the time the long lost – but equally bullying – father reappears, we are just as desperate as Bubby. We want to see what lies beyond that massive, ironclad apartment door. And when he does, Bad Boy Bubby becomes yet another experience all together.


Bad Boy Bubby‘s second “movement” is magically aimless, a series of vignettes and experiences as seen through the eyes – and most importantly, heard through the ears – of our lead character. The symphonic analogy is quite fitting here, as De Heer relies on music so frequently, it becomes a character in the film. Gorgeous organ solos, brash, yet equally atmospheric bagpipes, or the standard sonic boom of rock and roll, all chime in like harmonic Greek Choruses to remind us of our protagonist’s naiveté and innocence. Sound literally colors the world around Bubby. He is also filled with a lot of foul ideas, facets that have to be purged and tamed like the ferocity of an undomesticated animal. Music, in the film, does have the proverbial charms to soothe this savage, and little by little, note by note, the melodiousness sinks down inside, and starts the process of reviving Bubby’s soul.


In what has to be one of the most amazing third acts ever created, Bubby’s distress and disposition finally come full circle, able to be used and employed for both beneficial, and baneful purposes. That he becomes a rock star, and a kind of spiritual medium for the physically handicapped, may seem a bit pat (both situations seem fanciful and outside Bubby’s realm of existence), but De Heer makes them work because of the fantastic foundation he’s laid before. Throughout the course of the film, we’ve wondered how Bubby will fend for himself, as well as why fate allowed him to suffer so. The answer comes in his opposing abilities. He can use his incredible rage to vent a kind of industrial, cathartic punk rock. And he can use his naive sweetness and his non-jaded nature to speak with those whose voices are lost to “normal” people. All of this adds up to a profound and deeply moving cinematic experience.


But there is more to it than simple storytelling. The reasons for Bad Boy Bubby‘s majesty are indeed many. First and foremost, the performance by Nicholas Hope is flat out extraordinary. Looking like a more mannered Hugo Weaving (or a more insane Douglas Bradley), and mimicking many of the people he meets in the movie, Bubby is a wholly original creation, an intricate and infected innocent who may be smarter - or a lot dumber - than he appears. There are moments of high comedy in Hope’s interpretation, as well as deep, deep sadness. That we can get behind and support someone like Bubby, who seems simultaneously antisocial and empathetic, is as much a commendation of De Heer’s script as it is praise for Hope’s performance. This is the very definition of a tour de force.


So is De Heer’s direction. From the ideas floating around inside, to the way in which he chooses to illustrate them, Bad Boy Bubby brims with untold imagination. This is not just a narrative centering on mental/physical/ sexual abuse and bad parenting – it is also a discussion of God, a look at celebrity, a critique on aging and a swipe at social standards. This is a dense, dissertation of a film, a multifaceted test that offers something surprising with each and every viewing. This is the kind of movie one gets lost in, mesmerized by what they see and enraptured by what they hear. From its ominous beginnings to its optimistic end, Bad Boy Bubby retains its integrity and its power. This is one of the lost gems of world cinema.


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Friday, May 11, 2007


When the body of a young woman is found along an L.A. street, her body bisected and lacking a single ounce of blood, Detective Tommy Spellacy (Robert Duvall) instantly focuses on her “professional” status and thinks of his old boss, Irish mobster Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning). After all, the calculating crook/pimp turned semi-legit businessman had a thing for fresh faces and Tom used to run prostitution money for him back in the day. To make matters even more complicated, Amsterdam works closely with Monsignor Desmond Spellacy (Robert De Niro), an important priest in the local diocese and Tom’s baby brother.


Much of the Church’s real estate dealings are wrapped up in Des and Jack’s backroom backslapping. As he collects clues, it becomes clear to the veteran lawman that Amsterdam had something to do with the girl’s death. But he knows it will be impossible to implicate the scoundrel and not bring down his sibling. Similarly, Desmond recognizes that he’s fallen away from the service of God and into a web of deceit and lies, and such a crisis of faith is pulling him apart. Unfortunately, both brothers seem fated to a final, fractious confrontation, where loyalties are tested and True Confessions become meaningless in a world overloaded with graft and guilt.


Just call it the anti-noir. Unlike its far more famous cinematic brethren, 1981’s True Confessions is hard-boiled detective fiction as lazy, Southern California calm. It’s a movie with many disturbing elements bubbling right underneath the surface, but decides to keep many of those mysteries dormant, dead, or just plain buried. Offering two stellar performances by Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall, this is a film about vendettas and vice, the lure of power and the arbitrary manner in which is it wielded. Some will see the references to the notorious Black Dahlia crime (here referred to as the “Virgin Tramp” murder) and wonder why novelist John Gregory Dunne (who also wrote the script along with wife Joan Didion) decided to use such an obvious lynchpin for his narrative.


Since he’s not out to solve the case, the allusion appears to be merely symbolic—perhaps to illustrate the dualistic dynamic between equally corrupt brothers Thomas and Desmond Spellacy. Tommy, the cop, is the more outwardly dishonest. He was once a bagman for the rotten racketeer Jack Amsterdam and now spends his days living down his crooked past. Desmond is a Monsignor in the local Catholic diocese, more valuable to the Cardinal for his business acumen than his ability to save souls. Though his purpose is clearly distorted, it’s the company he keeps that sullies his basic decency.


Thus we have the perfect setting for some standard cinematic redemption. Tommy will find a way of pinning the gruesome murder on Amsterdam, and Des will rediscover his vocation and abandon the wheeling and dealing except True Confessions doesn’t want to make it that easy. Like any story wrapped around religion, salvation comes at a price and, with all the dead bodies floating around, as well as the rumors and innuendos of even more disturbing crimes, Dunne is desperate to drive this point home. The sin of late ‘40s L.A. is definitely seeping into every aspect of the Spellacys’ world and director Ulu Grosbard is out to illustrate this in his own unique, atypical manner.


Noted for his major Broadway successes (The Investigation, American Buffalo) and sporadic Hollywood output (The Subject was Roses, Straight Time), the Belgian auteur wants to peel away the forced mystery surrounding the standard thriller and turn the tide on its potboiler particulars. In Tinseltown’s golden era, this film would be steeped in dark shadows, deflected light, and a thick ambient fog of human liability. True Confessions, on the other hand, is bathed in an error-exposing luster. Even in scenes where darkness would heighten the horror, Grosbard keeps the ever-present California sun center stage.


This is specifically true in one of the movie’s more devastating moments. Tommy has traced the victim’s last days to a fly-by-night porno outfit functioning in an abandoned barracks in El Segundo. Traveling to the location midday, he wanders into a dimly lit makeshift studio. Instead of bringing out the flashlight and surveying the scene, he immediately goes for the canvases covering the windows. As each drape is ripped from the walls, more and more of the room is visible. Sure enough, Tommy finds what he is looking for—a mattress soaked in blood and a trail of gore leading to the bathroom equivalent of an abattoir. It’s the one and only time that Grosbard and Dunne allows us to see the ugly underneath.


Even when the “Virgin Tramp” is discovered, split in two, her body separated along different sections of a vacant lot, we are kept at a distance. The director’s camera only picks up part of the scene, eager instead to focus on the interplay between cops and coroners, ambulance attendants, and muckraking press. It’s the same during the autopsy. All we see is a single shot of a naked, pale white torso. Indeed, everything about True Confessions is misdirection and insinuation. The first-act death of a priest is really nothing more than an expositional red herring. A power play among Church administrators over the ousting of a longtime Monsignor named Seamus is another narrative non-event.


In order to make this work, Grosbard needs actors who understand the value in internalized emotion and subtle character suggestion, and the casting in this film is first rate. Robert Duvall’s Tommy always recognizes his own bad temper, but he’s much more frightening in his static, slow-burn mode. He’s the catalyst for all that will happen, and the actor does a terrific job of balancing interior and exterior importance. As for De Niro, he has the far more difficult part. Desmond is many things—priest, businessman, apologist, confidant, brother, son—and he constantly carries all of them around in a presence of non-volatility and calm. It must have been difficult for De Niro to be so mousy and controlled. Granted, he is a multi-faceted actor, quite capable of playing anything. But here, he’s supposed to be a man drowning in his own despair, eager to be free from the false life he’s leading.


True Confessions main flaw is that we never see clearly the connection between Tommy’s detecting and Desmond’s deliverance. It is apparent that the two are interconnected in ways beyond family, but the subsurface strategy to the storytelling leaves many of the mechanisms unexplored. Purposefully paced to let every restrained reaction and sudden emotional explosion sink in, it is both devastating drama and half-hearted whodunit. In the end, we come to care about neither and, oddly enough, don’t really mind at all.


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Friday, May 4, 2007


It’s the night of the big interstellar star show, and poor Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart) has to work. Holed up at the local movie house (where she’s an usher), she calls her sister to let her know she’ll be home a little later than usual. Sam (Kelli Maroney) is equally upset. She is being forced to spend the evening kowtowing to her stepmother’s mindless friends. As the big event finally arrives—Earth is passing through the tail of a massive, mysterious comet—something strange happens. Everyone on the planet just disappears—everyone except Regina and Sam, apparently.


At first, they figure they’re alone. Then Regina runs into an angry zombie with murder on his mind. Eventually the sisters make their way to a local radio station, where they confront Hector (Robert Beltran), a truck driver who’s also running from the fiends. Together they decide to look for others. Unfortunately, there are more than monsters posing a potential threat. A group of scientists is seeking human subjects for evil experiments, and Regina, Sam, and Hector will make terrific blood banks. Seems that after this Night of the Comet, no one is safe—not even the ones who managed to survive.


Night of the Comet is such an amiable ‘80s artifact that you can almost visualize Cindy Lauper making out with Duran Duran while Naked Eyes sings “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me.” Playing on several still-fresh genre types from the time period—the zombie movie, the post-apocalyptic survival epic, the quirky teen coming-of-age title—writer/director Thom Eberhardt (kind of a forgotten filmmaker, even with credits like Without a Clue and Captain Ron to his name) decided to approach each and every element in his motion picture mash-up with a fair amount of ironic humor and a sense of sly subversion.


Sure, there are members of the living dead present, but they are articulate, mobile, and very, very pissed. Yes, the planet will be instantly de-populated when it passes through the tale of an obscure comet. But this is L.A., baby, a locale with endless shopping and lots of creature comforts. And, granted, our heroines seem like a couple of kids just looking to get laid and have a little fun. Yet in Regina and Sam, Eberhardt finds character first, classification second. They may look like runners-up in the ersatz valley girl competition of 1984, but they really stand out as complex, confused personalities.


Better still, Night of the Comet knows what to do with each and every one of these cinematic scenarios. The first 30 minutes of the movie are masterful, setting us up for the pseudo-horror humor to come. Eberhardt establishes Regina’s stubbornness, her desire to determine her own life. Similarly, Sam seems ditzy and devil may care, but once her stepmother literally slaps her down, we witness a limited lifetime of disappointment in her fiery eyes. Both Catherine Mary Stewart (Reg) and Kelli Maroney (Sam) are sensational, walking a fine line between being too smart and resorting to adolescent irrationality. Their scenes together have a nice comic crackle and, when we witness the implied end of their time together, it’s a stunning, shocking moment.


Eberhardt makes an intriguing choice here—he keeps Sam dressed in her pep club cheerleader-like outfit throughout the entire first half of the film, suggesting her archetype on the surface while disavowing its reality within. Reg, all big hair, sharp shoulders, and even larger attitude, is more enigmatic. We never get a hard bead on what she’s supposed to represent but, in Eberhardt’s mind, she’s a standard action hero given a girly makeover. While the rest of the cast sits around staring, Reg is the first one in, dealing with issues and applying her Army brat training with gusto.


From a plot perspective, Night of the Comet is really divided up into three separate acts. The first, prior to the precarious cosmic event, has the feel of a John Hughes comedy gone gallows. There are bitter feelings all throughout the subtext of these scenes and we really get to know our leads very well. Part two presents us with our metropolitan Mad Max meat. We’re introduced to the zombies, the well-meaning trucker (Eating Raoul‘s Robert Beltran) who wants to help the girls, and the City Limits-like band of fey gang members who threaten our ladies’ trip to the local mall. This is the action portion of the film, Eberhardt’s attempt to set up all the possible situations that can occur come Act III.


With the arrival of this final section, Night of the Comet unfortunately goes a tad catawampus. There’s an attempt to mix in some science-gone-sinister overtones while fooling us into feeling our heroines are in actual danger. It’s perhaps the only weak element in an otherwise strong genre effort. Perhaps due to budget limitations or a lack of imagination, we don’t get the fierce fireworks we’ve come to expect from this final confrontation. Instead, it’s a couple of quips, a run through a hallway or two, and a minor car explosion.


Still, Night of the Comet deserves its current status as a forgotten cult classic. In an era when terror was decidedly slice and dice, when sci-fi smelled like Ewoks, and the end of the world was draped in as many mind-blowing car chases as possible, Thomas Eberhardt and his incredibly talented company (including interesting turns by Mary Woronov and Geoffrey Lewis as maniacal medicos) wanted to shake things up. Indeed, when the first draft of your script is entitled Teenage Mutant Horror Comet Zombies, you’re not trying to make a totally serious speculative scarefest.


Though it may not be the most influential film or the best example of how the cultural conceits of the ‘80s seeped into every aspect of the pop landscape (including film), Night of the Comet manages to make its many diverse and delightful points in increasingly inventive and entertaining ways. Go in expecting too much and you’ll be pretty disappointed. If you enter remembering the time and the place evoked and recognizing the skill in selling all the varying ideas, you’ll really enjoy the ride. Night of the Comet is the kind of movie that recalls the wide-eyed optimism of the initial phases of the Greed Decade. It’s a surefire schlock sensation.


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Friday, Apr 20, 2007


A young man named Edgar is working on a “project” of sorts. Its exact identity is as confusing as his research process. His premise at least is definite—it involves couples and the four stages of love: initial meeting, physical passion, quarrels ending in separation, and reconciliation—but whether it will be a book, or cantata, or play, is never quite clear. He seeks guidance from his father, a famous art dealer, but the old man cannot seem to get beyond the basic arguments about art and history. He begins the process of “casting” his project by interviewing various people, both professional performers and everyday individuals, about their understanding of love: both the emotional (of the heart) and metaphysical (of the head).


He runs into a young woman on the street that he is sure he has met before. He wants to feature her in his project. She constantly avoids him. They do seem to get closer, but then he loses touch with her. Eventually she commits suicide and leaves him a few personal belongings, including a book that may be a hint as to when and where they met before. Apparently, two years earlier while researching a project on the French Resistance during World War II, Edgar met the young woman. In flashbacks, we see that she was the secretary for an old couple trying to sell their story to Steven Spielberg in Hollywood.


In Praise of Love is a work of staggering genius. It is also a self-indulgent exercise in mental masturbation. It’s a moving and visually stunning film of depth and soul. It is also a disjointed and meandering mess that can never quite get its valid points across clearly. It’s beautiful and it’s embarrassing, philosophical as well as rote and fundamentalist. While it is clearly not the greatest work of legendary French new wave genius Jean-Luc Godard (whose credits are too numerous and importance in film too great to attempt to explain in a single review), it does represent a return to form for the once formidable cinematic force of nature. Those unfamiliar with his work should seek out the many classics of his oeuvre post-haste (Breathless, Contempt, and Alphaville to name a few) to see why so many clamor about him.


But the uninitiated should perhaps steer clear of this arcane, artistic triumph that mixes the ethos of love with visually stunning imagery and a clear anti-American/Hollywood sentiment. This is just not a movie for the first timer. It’s not that Godard’s methods are totally inaccessible. Indeed, much of the film is painfully obvious. But just like tossing a neophyte into David Lynch’s Eraserhead unprepared, someone approaching In Praise of Love without at least some background in Godard’s method and ideology will feel lost and unimpressed. That is because for most of its running time, In Praise of Love functions as a jigsaw puzzle, an intricate combination of treatise, tease, and tone poem that uses the backdrop of Paris (Godard once again shooting in the city after a long absence) and its mostly shadowed inhabitants as pawns in an enormous examination of emotion. But the epiphanies are hidden in strange scene juxtapositions, missing scene sections, overlapping dialogue/narrative strings, and long dramatic pauses of pristine lushness.


As Godard is known for his experiments in pushing the boundaries of the cinematic art, a little overindulgence can be expected. But there are some aspects of In Praise of Love that will leave even those most seasoned convert rubbing their temples to reduce the irritating throb of confusion. One has to assume that the lack of a full English translation for the film is Godard’s intention (judging how much he hates Americans, it’s not much of an inference) and the resulting incompleteness leaves huge gaps in dialogue that a non-French speaking audience will never understand. It’s like the in-joke about immigrants talking about you behind your back as you stand in line at their convenience store. Godard obviously has punches to pull and he really yanks them back quite harshly.


He’s also not afraid to be vague and repetitious, using title cards and bits of music to re-emphasize issues over and over again (a series of cards that say—and this is a rough translation—“in consideration of…love” are flashed more often than the multiplication tables in a third grade math class) while failing to connect them to anything that remotely resembles what he wants to discuss. This manner of misdirection may just be the point, but it leaves a viewer feeling bitter and unaccompanied, as if they stumbled onto a play that they have neither the native tongue nor the necessary mental skills to understand. Idealistic rhetoric is bantered about in heavy-handed doses and those famous French hating allies from across the Atlantic take a definitely moralistic beating at the hands of the characters in this film. Steven Spielberg and, indirectly, his treatment of the Holocaust are leveled with one of the most mean spirited and spurious denouncements ever in a motion picture.


And yet, In Praise of Love is a sparkling diamond, a movie that contrasts crass commentary with the subtle black and white beauty (and eventually hyper-digital colorization) of France to make a universal point about love, life, history, and art. With a visual sense reminiscent of Woody Allen circa Manhattan and Stardust Memories, Godard’s Paris in In Praise of Love is a world of hazy lights and lazy shadows, of the ancient edifices being meshed with the technology of modern man to form a new version of the old architectural traditions. Just as the film champions history, this use of monochrome shows that pure art is best derived from simple, straightforward visual dramatics. When memories (or “archives” as they are title carded) are presented, they are seen in bright near-fluorescent digital video images that recall the paintings of the old masters combined with the unreality and incompleteness of recollection.


Godard wants it known that the opening exercise in shadow and light represents the real world, the indecipherable structure of meetings, greetings, lamentations, and pontifications. When we move into the times of yore, we become lost in the mind’s eye, an unreliable recorder of events that adds undue importance to the trivial and over-romanticizes the simplest things. Indeed, the main character’s search for “adulthood,” that missing sense of personal resonance between childhood and old age, can be seen as a battle between the eras, a war of the hues and the grays. While it can meander off into mean-spirited vitriolic attacks (which have some validity buried in their brutal truths) and be jagged for juxtaposition’s sake, In Praise of Love is still a brave, bold statement that will satisfy the cinematic urges as it completely confuses your linear logic leanings. Synapses may misfire, but they will do so in visual bliss.


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