Posts Tagged ‘UW Libraries’

Watching movies at Memorial Library: ‘Bed and Board’

September 7, 2009


Alright, I confess: I didn’t go to Memorial Library to watch François Truffaut’s third feature-length film chronicling the (mis)adventures of Antoine Doinel, Bed and Board (1970). Instead, nursing a slightly sore throat and a debilitating headache, I rented the film from Four Star and watched it from the comfort of my (sick)bed. What’s more, the copy of the film I watched wasn’t even the Criterion disc. I sincerely hope that y’all will forgive me for these regrettable circumstances; alas, I cannot forgive Truffaut for making such a thoroughly mediocre film.


But first, the images: Truffaut’s compositions in Bed and Board are deceptively brilliant, marked by a mise-en-scène that slowly creeps up on the viewer from behind, taps them on the shoulder and then asserts its sheer pictorial allure. This phenomenon isn’t subtle per se, but the precise staging, camera placement and camera movement are just off-beat enough to prevent these technical aspects from slipping into the shadows of imperceptibility. To his credit, Truffaut’s films seldom fail to lay bare their constituent devices; if only his termite approach to form could work in concert with a termite approach to content.


Full disclosure: I only watched the first hour or so of Bed and Board. I was tired, I had a lot of work to do, and I couldn’t shake this feeling that the film was yankin’ me around for no good reason. I’ll finish any film on principle, provided there’s something about the film worth finishing it for: I found no such substance in Bed and Board, which berated me with its cute verbal exchanges, its momentarily striking images, its dramatic moments that point nowhere while pretending to point somewhere. But most of all, I was turned off by the film’s rather orientalist depiction of a Japanese family living in Paris, portrayed so ignorantly and basely that I would hardly be surprised if the film’s final leg included a sequence set to “dun-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nah-nuh.” Also, Truffaut’s notion of the ideal aesthete (Antoine) is just as implausible, unconvincing and groan-inducing as the über-bourgeois philosophy professors and starving novelists who populate the enormous lofts of Woody Allen’s fantasy version of Manhattan.


Listen: Life is short and extremely prickly. Quitting on a viewing of a film isn’t a sin, a misdemeanor, a felony or a high-crime. Will I someday watch the rest of Bed and Board? Very probably. After all, I often find myself thinking “y’know, I actually like Truffaut’s work more than I say that I do.” But Bed and Board struck me, on this miserable Sunday afternoon, as neither especially sticky nor slippery, just sort of… skippable. However, if you’re a die-hard fan of Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Leaud and/or Antoine Doinel, Bed and Board is available at the Memorial Library Media Center (as are all five chapters of the Doinel series).


Watching movies at Memorial Library: ‘Christmas in July’

September 1, 2009


Well, the summer is functionally over, and just as months of wearing shorts and t-shirts and reading outside must come to an end, so too must my Preston Sturges kick; and what better way to see the summer off than to watch Sturges’s warmly regarded (and appropriately titled) Christmas in July (1940)? Incapable of thinking of anything better to do on this handsome afternoon (apart from devouring a waffle cone loaded with pistachio ice cream), I headed to Memorial Library to bid farewell, at least for now, to both 70+ degree temperatures and Sturges’s world of screwball calamity.


Christmas in July, like The Great McGinty, manages to be both wonderfully topical and terribly impertinent, often seeming to arrive accidentally at a place where some really incisive critique of Americanism could be made. To its credit, Christmas in July establishes its target early and hits that target often: the capitalists are whimsical morons wielding inflated wallets and overfed bellies; modern happiness is predicated entirely on the state of one’s bank account; a lie is often just as significant (or as important) as a truth; it isn’t love if there isn’t an enormous diamond involved; and so on.


But Christmas in July is just as tender as it is stern. When we first meet our protagonists, it seems as though Jimmy (Dick Powell) is going to be a turtleneck-wearing lump of hair-grease stoicism while his fiancée, Betty (Ellen Drew), is going to be all chase and no bait. However, the funny thing about first impressions is that they’re always dead-on except when they’re dead-wrong: a $25,000 check reveals Jimmy to be a likable softy and Betty to be a girl who doesn’t wear a mink coat or a gaudy wedding ring but who certainly wouldn’t turn down either if offered to her. Christmas in July, more so than any other film with which Xmas is even indirectly related, captures the whole capitalist potlatch phenomenon with irresistible correctness and incidental precision. The film feels a bit like a thematic pinata: if the truth should come spilling out of it, great, but if not, oh well, at least the acting is funny.


One has to give it up to Sturges for taking the compositional principle of clutter to new heights through his never-bare approach to mise-en-scène. Many Sturges comedies seem like attempts to fit as much crap in the frame as that sucker can hold before bursting apart and falling into the occlusive expanses of offscreen space. How many faces can one fit on the screen without compromising the clarity of appearance of a single one of them? How many wrapped gifts can one fit into the backseat of a taxi without overwhelming the dialogue going on between the lounging lovers in said backseat? Watch Christmas in July and you’ll feel as though you’ve discovered the answers to these superfluous questions.

Christmas in July can be found at the Memorial Library Media Center right now. Come for the innovative long takes, the graceful yet modest tracking shots and the narrative’s overall controlled mayhem; stay for the genuine warmth and the subtle critique.


Essential rental: ‘Jeanne Dielman…’

August 31, 2009


Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) is widely regarded as one of the all-time greatest cinematic challenges. The film is, in part, an interrogation of cinema as a medium, and the intensity and rigor of that interrogation is unmatched except perhaps in the films of those other masterful analytic provocateurs: Bresson, Warhol, Varda, Straub-Huillet, Godard, Snow, von Trier, etc.

But all of this has already been well-established. What really sets Jeanne Dielman… apart, at least for me, is the experience that the film unleashes upon its viewer: 201 unflinching minutes of pure investigation, yielding an almost effortless dissection of domestic automation, the discreet hegemony of gender roles and daily rituals, and the physical act of shooting a film. There’s nothing quite like Jeanne Dielman…: it’s the least boring 3+ hours of nearly dialogue-free cinema you’ll ever see.

The Criterion Collection’s new DVD release of the film is obviously exceptional. Four Star Video Heaven is now carrying the two-disc set, and having rented it just the other day, I feel compelled to recommend it very, very highly. The set also contains Akerman’s No-Wave-y cinematic finger-painting (and directorial debut) Saute ma ville (1968), which is something of a must-see in its own right.

As far as background literature on Jeanne Dielman… is concerned, there’s a very helpful essay on Criterion’s website by Akerman scholar Ivone Margulies (whose book, Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday, sounds like a must-read). Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson’s collaborative analysis of the film, a short piece entitled “Kitchen Without Kitsch” (which can be found in the Farber collection Negative Space), is also worthy of a look. But the authoritative breakdown of the film is an extremely comprehensive paper written by UW-Madison professor Ben Singer, entitled “Jeanne Dielman…: Cinematic Interrogation and ‘Amplification'”, which can be found in the Winter 1989/Spring 1990 issue of Millenium Film Journal; a volume of Millenium Film Journals from 1989 is available at Memorial Library, so check it out.

You may find the prospect of a 201-minute time commitment more than slightly repellent, but trust me: You’ll never feel the same way about cinema, or about your apartment.

Watching movies at Memorial Library: ‘Unfaithfully Yours’

August 24, 2009


Having rented Claude Chabrol’s L’Enfer (1994) just the day before, I decided to fix myself an infidelity cinesandwich on Sunday afternoon, so I headed to the Memorial Library Media Center to check out Preston Sturges’s terrifically black comedy, Unfaithfully Yours (1948). While I haven’t yet seen all of Sturges’s oeuvre, I’d be surprised if Unfaithfully Yours doesn’t rank amongst his best.

Unfaithfully Yours has a surprisingly perverse, almost surrealist sense of humor, which manifests itself both in the film’s many allusions (to Wagner, to Tchaikovsky, to Henri Rousseau) and in the film’s narrative structure (especially during the stretches of what we in the business call “restricted subjective narration”; these sequences are anything but “funny”, at least in the conventional sense of the word). One can’t help but be impressed by the lengths to which Sturges and co. were willing to go in order to produce a legitimately transgressive comedy: Unfaithfully Yours features a brutal murder, an accidental suicide, even a scene featuring marital payola.

The camera snakes its way through the hallways of the apartment building where Sir Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison) neurotically tangles himself into paranoid knots over the affair that his wife (Linda Darnell) may or may not be having with his assistant (Kurt Kreuger). Long takes stretch two-shots to the point of organic uneasiness. The pratfalls feel essential rather than superfluous. This is all to say: Unfaithfully Yours is a tightly assembled film, a unified whole whose constituent parts are rich and remarkable in and of themselves. Sturges was an artist whose grasp of the medium was impeccable: his work seems to argue that cinema isn’t just about making pretty pictures, adorning them with evocative music, and calling the resulting heap of aesthetic data a film; Sturges’s style of composition more closely resembles the orchestration of a train wreck than it does the painting of a picture or the writing of a novel.

Wow, was this a hyperbolic post or what? To see why you can’t fault me for writing this way, head to the Memorial Library Media Center and check out Unfaithfully Yours. You shan’t regret it.






Watching movies at Memorial Library: ‘The Great McGinty’

August 17, 2009


My Preston Sturges kick continued on Sunday afternoon with The Great McGinty (1940), which screened here in Madison last Fall as part of the Cinematheque’s series of ‘political’ films (in honor of the 2008 presidential election). For whatever reason I wasn’t able to see the film then, but seeing it yesterday, I was struck by how the film was at once both weirdly political and deceptively unpolitical.

Dan McGinty (played by Brian Donlevy) begins as a bum, morphs into a volatile lump of hired muscle, abruptly emerges as a legitimate mayoral candidate, and finally, is elected governor of the never-named state in which the film is set; he then proceeds to fall from grace in a goofy, self-consciously implausible manner. Thankfully, most of this fantastic absurdity is treated as absurdity, and thus the film narrowly avoids being too ridiculous for its own good. In ‘real life’, politics inevitably becomes a parody of itself; but the truth is, as always, in the details, and The Great McGinty is essentially disinterested in those very details. The closest we ever come to finding out what’s really going on behind the slightly illusory surface of what seems to be going on is when, very late in the film, the charges of corruption levied against McGinty are revealed to be… true. And then he rides off into the sunset.

The Great McGinty is not nearly as relentless or as hilarious as Sturges’s comparatively conventional screwball masterpieces; indeed, throughout the film’s latter half, the depiction of McGinty’s personal transformation is bogged down by an unnecessarily generous coating of melodramatic shellac. The film manages to redeem itself with an ending that’s nihilistic in the sneakiest of ways. To be sure, Sturges’s subsequent pinnacles (like Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve, etc.) are more dramatically dazzling, and those films are also staged in a more overtly (though not more obviously) expressive style; that said, at a concise 80 minutes in length, one certainly wouldn’t be harming oneself to check this DVD out from Memorial Library’s Media Center.





Watching films at Memorial Library: ‘French Cancan’

August 14, 2009


One thing’s for certain: mood matters, especially when watching a film on your laptop in a darkened cubicle at Memorial Library. I was apparently in no condition this afternoon to watch and appreciate Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1954); I couldn’t wait for the film to end, despite occasionally finding myself smacked in the face by a really striking Technicolor composition. Renoir is a director whose work certainly demands respect and at least a measure of admiration, yet his visual style and his narratives always seem like manifestations of a cheery, resilient sensibility, even when dealing with thematic anvils like betrayal and mortality, and I just can’t relate to that every time I sit down to watch one of his films. I typically don’t think of myself as a connoisseur of cinematic angst, but my favorite Renoir is one of his least happy-go-lucky (though still quite triumphant): La Grande illusion (1937). One thing I can’t deny, no matter how pissy I’m feeling, is that the man has a mind for mise-en-scène like you wouldn’t believe.





Library Haul, revisited again

August 12, 2009


Pardon me if the following sounds a bit dorky, but… folks my age probably watch more films in their rooms and on their laptops than they do in movie theaters; so if you find yourself with nothing better to do in the middle of the afternoon, and you’ve had your fill of mid-80’s temperatures and blaring sun, why not head to Memorial Library, check out a DVD or two, grab a cubicle in the stacks somewhere and watch the film on your laptop? It’s private, quiet, fairly dark and temperate; sure, the wooden seat is stiff as a corpse, but you can always bring a sweater or something like that to sit on. I tested this activity out for the first time just this afternoon, watching Preston Sturges’s excellent The Palm Beach Story (1942), which is available at the Media Center.



For all the folks facing 24 hours of homelessness this Friday, might I suggest checking out some films you’ve always wanted to see, if nothing else so that you can have a roof over your head for a little while?


Library Haul, revisited

August 10, 2009

As promised, in order to illustrate just how useful UW’s library system is for the purposes of student cinephiles, whenever I find a truly worthwhile DVD at Memorial and/or College Library, I’ll report it here.

Yesterday afternoon I paid a visit to Memorial Library’s Media Center for the first time in about a week; I checked out two classics: Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Oscar Hammerstein’s musical Carmen Jones (1954). The Media Center seems to have a fairly complete collection of Sturges’s screwball comedies of the 1940s, all of which are worth a look (and while you’re at it, read Manny Farber’s short yet potent essay on Sturges, which can be found in Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies). Thunderstorms look likely for this afternoon (but don’t quote me on that), so you’d better get going if you want to avoid getting caught in the rain and/or electrocuted.

Library Haul

August 5, 2009

If you’re a UW student and you’re not yet renting DVDs from Memorial and/or College Library, then, well, you’re a sucker. Both Memorial and College Library have nearly inexhaustible collections of DVDs, most of which can be checked out for several weeks at a time, and all of which are free as air. Granted, neither library has a very user-friendly browsing system. MadCat is certainly vast and exact, but in order to use it effectively, one must know precisely what one is looking for; I personally like to do searches of a director’s name + “videorecording” (so, for example, “jean renoir videorecording”). Memorial Library’s Media Center is located on the 4th floor, and it’s a valet service of sorts, so you give them the call number (which you find on MadCat) for the DVDs you’re looking for and they fetch the discs for you. It’s a very easy process once you get a handle on using MadCat.

And when I say that the two libraries have humongous collections, I’m not exaggerating. To illustrate just how invaluable their DVD collections truly are, I’ll periodically write a post about my latest haul from Memorial and/or College Library. Hopefully, you’ll be so impressed, not by my taste (iffy) but by my findings, that you’ll see the light and head to the library for the future satisfaction of your cinematic cravings.

Last week I found John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) on the 3rd floor of College Library. Currently, I have Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Puppetmaster (1993), which I got at Memorial Library’s Media Center. The Media Center also has a copy of Hou’s A City of Sadness (1989), which I rented a week ago, only to find that the menus were all in Taiwanese with no apparent way to active the DVD’s English subtitles. That was a really sucky experience. Anyway, the Media Center is stocked with tons of international DVDs (as I’ll demonstrate through these posts), so it’s definitely worth investigating.