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Monday
Jan142019

Elvis Costello's take on "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" at 40

 

On his version of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," my main man faces up to the world, faces it down, ventures out to remake it, to set it to rights, at least in the space of the few minutes of this song. Riding in on wave after wave of slashing guitar, Steve Nieve's keys are grand and stately as they announce the song in the wake of Pete Thomas's machine-gun snare barrage, then garage-y as they swirl around those waves of guitaroil atop the water. Bruce's muscular, melodic bass and Pete's propulsive drums are a sodden, relentless undertow threatening to pull the singer back under. Yet he beats on, fights his way as the waves crash against him. His voice embodying wounded swagger, he surveys the landscape of the blasted shore, looks for hope and love and peace amidst the ruins, stands his ground as the tide rushes back beneath him, suctioning back around his legs. By the bridge he's surging, and as Pete moves to the ride cymbal the power of the music surges through him (and you): it's the life force, and he's got his second wind, and as the wave builds he's now at its crest; as it breaks he's exulting. Pete's drums are exploding all around him in the sky as he makes it to the beach. Bloodied but unbowed, he emerges gasping on the shore. He's ready for whatever comes next, to greet it defiantly with love and peace and not add to the hatred and violence and ugliness in the world (and so will you be after hearing this). He lunges snapping at that last line of the chorus, bites it off: "WHAT's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding?" Every time I draw this jam while doing the iPod shuffle, I have to replay it over and over.

Tuesday
Dec112018

LOVE ACTUALLY podcast starring Karolyn Steele-Pfeiffer, Michael G. Smith, and yours truly

Karolyn Steele-Pfeiffer makes her podcast debut on Michael G. Smith's revenant White City Cinema Radio Hour. Risking cineaste opprobrium (or at least snickers), Michael and I explain how we learned to stop worrying and love Richard Curtis's LOVE ACTUALLY, that ne plus ultra of modern rom-com. Meanwhile, the wise Karolyn explains why the movie was always great in the first place. 

Head here to give the podcast a listen.

In my 2016 writeup for Cine-File, I tried to convey a bit of this story. To get you warmed up for the podcast, I've reprinted it below.

Richard Curtis' LOVE ACTUALLY 
Of the world of modern romantic comedies, so shaped by Richard Curtis' pen (BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY, NOTTING HILL, FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL), I once knew naught. This, despite my great affection for the rom-coms of the 30s and 40s. It took a connoisseur like my wife to clue me in. Upon first viewing LOVE ACTUALLY, Curtis' maiden attempt at wielding the camera, I was scandalized. "Curtis, you have no shame!" I cried. It took repeated administerings over several holiday seasons. Slowly, my amazement grew to fascination, and pretty soon I was clamoring for it as soon as December rolled around. Today, I believe it to be one of the age's great entertainments, a milestone in the canon of UK-US Christmas pop culture. It dawned on me that it was Curtis' utter lack of shame that constituted his greatness. He is completely sincere; he cannot be embarrassed. He achieves moments of real dramatic and psychological verisimilitude, then happily chucks them in favor of fantasy. I began to see the film as a modern, cheerily explicit, sexy equivalent of my cherished P.G. Wodehouse novels. Like Wodehouse, Curtis breezily choreographs a complex farandole of plot and subplot, stacking and spinning ten storylines at once. Even after umpteen viewings, one spots new connections, marvels at Curtis' conducting of the relationships and destinies of a bevy of Londoners, embodied by pleasing players like Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightly, Laura Linney and Bill Nighy. LOVE ACTUALLY is a film that even the vinegary David Thomson, in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, calls "a triumph." It will restore your faith in humanity. It's very funny, and it gets you in the mood. My wife reckons that the transcendent detail is the way the "enigmatic" Carl (Rodrigo Santoro) plays with Linney's hair as they dance. In response, I can only muse happily over how much I still have to learn. 

Thursday
Oct042018

"Saraband" and Ingmar Bergman at 100

[Editor's note—on Wednesday, October 3, 2018, I facilitated the Gene Siskel Center Film's Center's Movie Club screening of Ingmar Bergman's Saraband. The following is a transcript of my opening remarks.
 
Well, Ingmar Bergman. There's a lot to say, but I'll just talk a bit about Saraband, and how it fits as a cap, or coda, for his body of work. Then I'll put it out there for discussion. 
 
I should say, I hope you've enjoyed the Siskel's Bergman retrospective. For me, it's been wonderful to see all these films again that I first saw almost 30 years ago (wonderful but intense—I may need to go and watch Love Actually to recover). Ingmar Bergman was my gateway to world cinema, and I think that's been true for a lot of people. And now we've come to the end, with Saraband. I think it's a magnificent work but very sad—full of guilt and despair, but would Bergman fans have it any other way? And yet, I'd argue it also contains a hard kernel that's always there in his work—a broken grace note of hope and optimism, which insists that "love is real in the world of human beings."(1)  
 
Coming four years before the end of his life, Saraband is his final statement about death, as well as his last word on what comes after.
 
It's a very personal work. Bergman writes in his wonderful memoir The Magic Lantern about how his mother (who was also named Karin) had to have her womb and ovaries removed. In Saraband, the same thing has happened to Marianne. Readers of that book may also have recognized the black and white photograph of Johan's house. It's actually a photo of Bergman's grandparents' summer house in Dalarna, which he so loved to visit as a child. 
 
The first key aspect of Saraband I'd like to mention is right there at the top: this is a film, as the dedication says,"for Ingrid." It's a labor of love to the memory of his late wife, Ingrid Von Rosen. Bergman was married five times, but his longest and last marriage was to Ingrid: 24 years, from 1971 to 1995, when she died of cancer. 
 
In Saraband, the late Anna, whom everyone loves and misses so desperately, and who plays such a pivotal role, is represented by a portrait, and it's a portrait, in reality, of Ingrid. 
 
The second key also involves Anna/Ingrid, and it's what Bergman has referred to a perhaps "the core of the text." We know that the major preoccupation of his work was his lifelong terror of death. There was a very important incident in his life, which he spoke about many times, including when he first gathered together the cast and crew for Saraband
 
I had an operation once—
—and they accidentally gave me too much anesthesia
They couldn't wake me for eight hours.
This fascinated me because I thought, is this what death is like?
You're a light that's lit. And then one day it's extinguished. Then there's nothing—
no flame left.
So death is nothing to be afraid of.
Up to then I had always had such a terror of death. That what The Seventh Seal was about. So that was a relief. 
And then came...the devastating problem.
When my wife Ingrid died, that became a worry.
Because I thought, "I'll never see her again, if that's all death is."
I explained my dilemma to Erland [Josephson].
And Erland said:
"What do you really want?"
and I said, "I want to see Ingrid."
And then he said, very wisely,
"Then hold on to to that."
That's one of the most valuable pieces of advice I've ever had.
In true death, it might simply be that Ingrid is waiting for me, and that she exists.
And she'll come to me.
Imagine—all of humanity has thought endlessly about death.
Since the beginning of time, not knowing.
Can you imagine that it's so incredibly simple?"
 
Saraband, then, is an expression of this fundamental shift in his ideas about death, which he folded into the scene where Henrik meets Marianne in the church, and he talks about his vision:
 
She's walking towards me—Anna is walking towards me, by the gate.
And then I realize that I'm dead.
And then the strangest thing happens.
I think, "Is it this easy?"
 
I think another key to the movie is the idea that love can both imprison and liberate—and the same for music.(2) Bach's cello suites, and in particular the Sarabands, were great sources of consolation for Bergman his whole life.
  
Also very important is the letter Anna leaves behind. It is "the catalyst of Karin's rebellion."(3) Anna frees Karin, even in death—just as, perhaps Ingrid freed Bergman. As Karin says, "This letter is what love is, isn't it?"  
  
There's one question I always have, when I watch: Why, when Marianne first arrives, do the doors slam shut, as as if by unseen ghostly hands?
 
However, the last aspect I'd like to highlight is Saraband as an expression of Bergman's bond with Liv Ullmann. As I would not be the first to note, it cannot be an accident that she is in the last frame of his last film. Her final words are: "I thought about the enigmatic fact that for the first time in our life together, I realized I felt that I was touching my daughter. My child." So much of Bergman's work seems to me to have been about that profound yearning to touch, to make a real human connection, especially between parent and child.
 
In the documentary Liv & Ingmar, Ullmann tells a story of a fateful day:
 
I was in Norway on the coast
and I woke up that morning
and I knew, something was happening with Ingmar which was different, and which maybe was absolute in his time here on the earth.
and I hired a plane, which I've never done before
because I knew I had to go now, this morning, this day
and I flew to Gotland and I took the ferry boat [to Faro Island]
and I came here in the afternoon, and he was here 
and at this time we couldn't speak with words.
or I spoke, and he was there. 
and then I pretended that he said to me, why did you come?
And I quoted him from the film Saraband
"I answered because you called for me."
And then I left 
and I'm happy I was here because that same night, at some time that night—we don't really know when—he continued his voyage, but now in the universe somewhere. 
 
Some see Saraband as a final work of pessimism. But I like to hold in my mind that counter idea: "Anna is walking towards me by the gate. And I think, 'Is it this easy?'" 
 
These words are what I'll hold onto from Bergman's work, which I've so enjoyed reconnecting with, and which I think comes to a grand conclusion with Saraband
 
When my aunt heard I was facilitating this discussion, she suggested a format she used in her Education for Ministry group. They used these four questions.
 
A    What amazed you, gave you an “aha” moment?
B    What bothered you?
C    What confused you?
D    What delighted you?

(1)In The Magic Lantern, Bergman writes about Mozart's The Magic Flute, wherein the hero Tamino asks, concerning his beloved: "Does Pamina still live?" "The music translates the text's simple question into the greatest of all questions. 'Does Love live? Is Love real?' The answer comes, quivering but hopeful in a strange division of Pamina's name: 'Pa-mi-na still lives.' Love exists. Love is real in the world of human beings."

(2)I'm indebted here to Ed Vulliamy in The Guardian.

(3)Ed Vulliamy, The Guardian.

Wednesday
Apr182018

Andre Bazin at 100

"So the screen reflects the ebb and flow of our imagination which feeds on a reality for which it plans to substitute."—Andre Bazin, from "The Virtues and Limitations of Montage," Cahiers du Cinema, 1953 and 1957

I've been thinking about Andre Bazin on this, his 100th birthday. I pulled the volumes by or about him down off of my shelf, and gathered up these voices as a birthday offering.

The roll call: Andre Bazin died in 1958, at the age of 40. (So, still quite a young man.) His sensibility was forged during the Occupation and Liberation. In fact, Dudley Andrew, in the preface to the 1990 edition of his biographical study, Andre Bazin, states: "Bazin's private struggles...vividly dramatize deep faults in that public terrain that goes by the names 'The Occupation' or 'The Fourth Republic.'" 

He was the man who extricated Francois Truffaut from, in Truffaut's own words, detention home, military prison, and asylum.
 
Truffaut himself, writing in the foreword to the 1977 edition of Dudley Andrew's study, says: "I was an adolescent in trouble when I met him in 1947; I was fifteen year old, he thirty. And I will die without ever knowing why Bazin and his wife, Janine, became concerned enough about me to extricate me...I assert that Bazin's absolute good faith, his generosity, made him a character who stunned, intrigued, and excited us even to a point where we had to smile to one another to hide our emotions.
He co-founded Cahiers du Cinema in 1951, the "most influential film journal in history" (James Monaco), "intellectual home" to the likes of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette. When the younger critics would get carried away, Bazin, in his essay "La Politique des Auteurs" (1957), went on to debate and critique the very auteurist movement he helped invent, or at least inspire. (This was in the spirit of a "family debate," says Bazin's biographer Dudley Andrew. It's as if Bazin, the "father," was debating his "children," like Truffaut.)
 
He was the "spiritual father of the [French] New Wave." (Michael Temple and Michael Witt)
 
He "laid the groundwork for the semiotic and ethical theories that were to follow." (James Monaco)
 
His two great subjects were Italian Neorealism and the new American cinema.
 
He felt a special affinity for Cocteau, Welles, and Chaplin.
 
Here's critic James Monaco, from How to Read a Film (2000 ed.) on Bazin's theories about the different ways theater and cinema work:
 
"The implications for cinema are that, since there is no irreducible reality of presence [of the actor and the spectator], 'there is nothing to prevent us from identifying ourselves in imagination with the moving world before us, which becomes the world.' Identification then becomes a key word in the vocabulary of cinematic esthetics. Moreover, the one irreducible reality is that of space. Therefore, film form is intimately involved with spatial relationships: mise-en-scene, in other words."
 
Monaco again, on Bazin's theories about the moving camera:
 
"...the moving camera has an inherent ethical dimension. It can be used in two essentially different ways (like focus shifts, pans, and tilts): either to follow the subject or to change it. The first alternative strongly emphasizes the centrality of the subject of the film; the second shifts interest from subject to camera, from object to filmmaker. As Andre Bazin has pointed out, these are ethical questions, since they determine the human relationships among artist, subject, and observer."
 
And Monaco on Bazin as existentialist:
 
"Always the existentialist, Andre Bazin was working to develop a theory of film that was deductive—based in practice. Much of this work proceeded through identification and critical examination of genres. 'Cinema's existence precedes its essence,' he wrote in fine existential form. Whatever conclusions Bazin drew were the direct results of the experience of the concrete fact of film."
 
Eric Rohmer: "Without any doubt, the whole body of Bazin's work is based on one central idea, an affirmation of the objectivity of the cinema in the same way as all geometry is centered on the properties of a straight line."
 
He remains relevant. Dudley Andrew again, from 1990: "No better example [of how Bazin's thinking can illuminate our own era] could be cited than the resuscitation in the 1980s of questions concerning the status of photography. Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes invite us to return to Bazin and to the distinctive view of 'the technologies of representation' that he held by virtue not just of his genius but of his openness to such contemporaries as Andre Malraux, Gilbert Cohen-Seat, Edgar Morin, and Jean-Paul Sartre, not to mention 'photographers' like Chris Marker." Presumably, we could trace his ideas, and his ethical concerns, all the way up to today's "virtual reality." 
 
In his introduction to Bazin's posthumously published critical study of Jean Renoir (Jean Renoir, 1971), Francois Truffaut writes, "More than a critic, he was a 'writer of the cinema,' striving to describe films rather than to judge them."
 
Jean Renoir himself, in his foreword to Bazin's collected essays What Is Cinema? Volume 1 (1967 English edition):
 
"Our children and our grandchildren will have an invaluable source of help in sorting through the remains of the past. They will have Bazin alongside them. For that king of our time, the cinema, has likewise its poet. A modest fellow, sickly, slowly and prematurely dying, he it was who gave the patent of royalty to the cinema just as the poets of the past had crowned their kings. That king on whose brow he has placed a crown of glory is all the greater for having been stripped by him of the falsely glittering robes that hampered its progress. It is, thanks to him, a royal personage rendered healthy, cleansed of its parasites, fined down—a king of quality—that our grandchildren will delight to come upon. And in that same moment they will discover its poet. They will discover Andre Bazin, discover too, as I have discovered, that only too often, the singer has once more risen above the object of his song."
 
Happy birthday, Andre Bazin!

Postscript: Yours truly, reading at Andre Bazin's 100th birthday party at Comfort Station in Logan Square on April 18, 2018. 

Wednesday
Nov292017

Walking in Leonard Cohen's Footsteps in Montreal

Ah we're lonely, we're romantic

And the cider's laced with acid
And the Holy Spirit's crying, "Where's the beef?"
And the moon is swimming naked
And the summer night is fragrant
With a mighty expectation of relief

So we struggle and we stagger
Down the snakes and up the ladder
To the tower where the blessed hours chime
And I swear it happened just like this:
A sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
The Gates of Love they budged an inch
I can't say much has happened since
But closing time

--Leonard Cohen, "Closing Time"
 

To ensure our steps would always rhyme with Leonard Cohen's on our visit to Montreal last July, Karolyn and I drew on a few key articles. Rose Maura Lorre's Exploring the Montreal That Leonard Cohen Lovedin the New York Times, inspired the entire trip. T.F. Rigelhof's A Short Walk in Leonard Cohen's Westmount, on The Leonard Cohen Files site, led me to Leonard’s boyhood home. 

First, though, we went looking for Our Lady of the Harbour, inspired, fittingly enough, by Our Lady Of The Harbour – The Montreal Church Embedded In Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, a post by DrHGuy at the fine site Cohencentric: Leonard Cohen Considered. We found her down by the Old Port, along the St. Lawrence river. As she has since 1849, she was standing atop Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, the sailors' church.

She's on the harbourside, yet we first approached the chapel from the front. It's the first permanent church in Ville-Marie (the original name for Montreal), growing out of a congregation for women founded by Marguerite Bourgeoys, Montreal's first teacher, in 1657. The first version was established in 1678. It was rebuilt in 1773, after a fire.   

Inside, a chamber music group played, beautifully. Sitting and resonating, I imagined Leonard ducking in here, finding solace; an urban oasis in which to imagine Jesus as a sailor. 

The chapel of "good help," this church is a beacon welcoming sailors in from the tumult of the seas. Sailors "left behind votive lamps in the shapes of ships in thanksgiving for safe passage," Lonely Planet explains.

Outside, it got spiritual for me as we observed Our Lady, Mary, holding out her arms above the chapel. "And the sun pours down like honey on Our Lady of the harbour," Leonard sang in "Suzanne." It was even so on the sunny day we visited her. 

From the church's observation tower, we visited with angels standing watch over the Old Port. We left them to their perpetual watchfulness, beckoning sailors home.

Leonard met Suzannne at an old waterfront building along Rue de la Commune in the Old Port. I like to imagine it was one of these.

Our apartment was in the treetops of a little leafy neighborhood in the Plateau Mont-Royal, on the eastern edge of beautiful, convivial Parc La Fontaine. It was within walking distance of Little Portugal, the neighborhood Leonard called home in later life.

In Rose Maura Lorre's article about Leonard's Little Portugal, the one that inspired our trip, she talks to neighbors who remember friendly chats with Leonard along The Main, "Montreal vernacular for Boulevard St.-Laurent, the Plateau’s cultural artery." He could often be found knocking about in Foamtreads slippers, purchased at venerable J. Schreter. As we walked up St.-Laurent, we spotted the man himself observing our progress from this mural, painted by Kevin Ledo.

Those lingering in "pocket-size" Parc du Portugal could "once hear Leonard call out to them from across the way," writes Lorre. The park's dedicated to Montreal's Portuguese immigrant community, founded in 1953.

We stopped by Main Deli Steak House, in the words of Lorre a "scruffy Jewish deli [Leonard] famously frequented (a newspaper clipping is displayed near the door)." 

Funny: returning to the Main on her own another day, Karolyn actually ran into the photographer who took the pictures of Leonard in the above-mentioned newspaper clipping (to her right in the picture below, bottom middle), circa '88 (the "I'm Your Man" era). He told her, everything you hear about Leonard being such a wonderful manwell, double that.

We stopped by Les Anges Gourmets, Leonard's favorite patisserie. "Like many Little Portugal mainstays," writes Lorre, "Les Anges offers a cross-cultural array of goods, as renowned for its French patisserie as for its Portuguese egg custard tarts, pasteis de natas."

Of course, Karolyn and I had to try a pastel de nata for ourselves. Bites of pure happiness.

We stopped at 79-year-old Moishes Steak House, a "well-known establishment where Mr. Cohen dined several nights a week," per Lorre. Leonard loved to take friends here for lamb chops and red Bordeaux.

"Mr. Cohen’s days routinely began with a freshly pulled espresso at Bagel Etc., a 35-year-old diner and cafe," notes Lorre.  

On another day, after much wandering and climbing up and over the mountain, we found Leonard resting at Congregation Shaar Hashomayin Cemetery, along the base of Mount Royal.

Later in the week, back at Bagel Etc., I had an allongé (tall expresso) for Leonard.

Leonard preferred to sit at a stool at this counter.

Lorre aptly describes Bagel Etc. as a place "where vintage mirrors, signage and art run amok on the brick walls." 

And, after visiting with Leonard at Congregation Shaar Hashomayin, we returned to the Main deli, where he loved the "viande fumee" (smoked meat), in his honorthis time to eat.

By the way, I'll pardon my readers if this story sounds too good to credit, but I'll tell it anyway. When we stopped by the Main deli that first time, a butterfly alighted on the window ledge. Karolyn told me, "that's Leonard." On the day we strolled through the cemetery, on our way to visit him, Karolyn said, wouldn't it be something if the butterfly was here? That instant, a butterfly flitted by, brushing her cheek.

My readers may say, well, presumably you saw lots of butterflies on your trip. Not so. Only these times, and then once more. (See below. "I swear it happened just like this," as the man himself might say).  

I had one more thing I needed to do. I went back to Westmount, the neighborhood where Leonard grew up, out past Dawson College. After climbing Murray Hill, I found his boyhood home at 599 Belmont, using the T.F. Rigelhof article I mentioned above (A Short Walk in Leonard Cohen's Westmount).

 

That's Leonard's bedroom window in the back, looking out over the city.

Sitting on a bench on Murray Hill, I took the picture above, and the one below. Looking out over the city, I thought about how this was the view Leonard had from his bedroom window as a boy. And you may say I gild the lily, but it's true: as I sat contemplating...a butterfly came flitting around me. 

I got up and began to stroll back down the hill. Soon, I found myself sitting in a diner called Chez Nick in Westmount. The joint's been there since the 20s. It was almost empty. I sat at the counter and sipped a double espresso allongé.

Behind me in a booth sat a couple of very elderly ladies. They had finished their meal and asked the woman behind the counter to call them a cab, and they were trying to put the money together for the tab. "How much did you put in?" and "how much more do we owe?" was the conversation behind me for a good 5 to 10 minutes as I sipped my espresso. I was wearing the Leonard Cohen T-shirt Karolyn had dressed me in and I was lost in reflection.

Finally, the cab appeared and the old ladies were a bit flustered. (It seemed they hadn't wanted the cab to arrive quite SO soon, as the process of squaring accounts was one that could not be rushed. However, the waitress helped them get everything in order and there was satisfaction all around.)

On their way out, one lady turned to me and said, "that's a wonderful picture of Leonard on your shirt." Her face was very close to mine. She was hunched over and so wrinkled, but she had the biggest smile in the world, and she looked very happy. She conceded that, of course, all pictures of Leonard are good. I said, well thank you: he's one of my heroes.

She said, "I'm his cousin." As you might imagine, I was gobsmacked. "Of course," she added, "he was much younger." (Now, Leonard got to be 82 when he died!) The other lady stood smiling. I exclaimed, "I was just over at 599 Belmont!" "You were?" she replied. "I grew up at 603 Belmont!"

Well, I said it was my great honor to meet them, and that I loved Leonard. They made their way towards the door. 

A gentlemen, one of the proprietors of Chez Nick, asked me the significance of that address (599 Belmont). I said, "that was Leonard Cohen's boyhood home." The lady with whom I'd spoken was already out the door, but the other stood lingering, listening with a big smile, and she nodded to him to confirm what I had said.

The waitress later told me that those ladies were regulars who'd been coming in for years and years, great customers, sisters in factand she had never known they were Leonard Cohen's cousins. She and another waitress agreed that the hunched-over sister was looking really good these days. Apparently, she was walking more uprightly than she had in some time.