Film Responses

From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1996)

Journals is at its best, I think, when Rappaport intertwines the lives and loves of Seberg, Jane Fonda, and Vanessa Redgrave. All are of the same age, all made films directed by their husbands (another of the film’s more interesting concerns), and all participated actively in radical political movements.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

It took me three tries to make it through John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence. I wasn’t bored by the film; I was in agony.

Ivan’s Childhood (1962)

Kholin’s and Masha’s encounter is a desperate act of human contact, but it’s also vaguely degrading; it’s a moment of near transcendent delight, but it’s one that feels debased and compromised. I can’t make sense of it, really, though I feel compelled to, which is probably why Ivan’s Childhood is one of the few war films that I return to with any frequency.

Children of Heaven (1997)

While the film lacks the explicit political critique of something like Panahi’s The Circle (banned by Iranian officials) or Kiarostami’s Close-Up, it offers a wonderfully told story, and it also performs a service that is terribly important right now: Our hearts should be warmed to the people of the Middle East, the people who are (or who soon will be) hiding out under the devastation of our bombing campaigns.

Beau Travail (2000)

Whereas post-colonial critics have, in turn, criticized/praised Melville for his appropriation of racist stereotypes (or his subversion of those stereotypes, depending on which side of the debate each critic stands), Denis situates Melville’s moral dilemma in an explicitly post-colonial situation, complicating further the relationships between European and African, Christian and Muslim, and calling into question the political value and motivations underlying those relationships.

Un Chien Andalou

My favorite discussion of the famous eye-slicing sequence can be found in Virginia Carmichael’s Framing History, where she compares Bunuel’s film to E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, a novel that attempts to make sense of the early Cold War years.

A Few Words Upon Discovering Cassavetes

John Cassevetes is my latest obsession. On a whim, I recently picked up a used copy of Faces, the story of Dicky and Maria Forst’s disastrous attempts to find peace and companionship outside of their loveless marriage. Shot entirely in stark, high-contrast black-and-white, and featuring Cassevetes’s trademark dialogue, Faces feels at times like a documentary — voyeuristic, discomforting, and brutally real.

Adaptation (2002)

The problems of irony, particularly when of the postmodern bent, are on mind-numbing display in Adaptation, a film that collapses under its own self-referential weight so many times that, at some point — and I think it was right about the time that Meryl Streep started humping Chris Cooper — I stopped watching the film and began waiting for it to end.

Time Out (2001)

What separates Time Out (2001) from the recent spate of “disillusioned upper-middle-class white guy has a breakdown” movies is writer/director Laurent Cantet’s interest in the specific economic forces that lead — some would say inevitably — to such discontent.

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

What Bergman does get absolutely right in Through a Glass Darkly, though, is the very real horror of the existential crisis, the moment when Camus’s Sisyphus pauses, watching his stone roll once again down the mountain.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

I wonder if it might be more useful to call FMJ an anti war-movie movie. For the auteur is obviously fascinated, in a deliberately self-reflexive way, with the influence of images and storytelling on the formation of what might be described as ideological mythology.

Ordet (1955)

That sudden, strange, and fleeting encounter with something beyond ourselves, something almost otherworldly, transcendence is both the aspect of the arts to which I’m most drawn and about which I feel least capable of writing.

Frida (2002)

Julie Taymor’s Frida is a better-than-average 2-hour biopic, evidencing many of the typical strengths and weaknesses of the genre — a fascinating life told too quickly that borders, uncomfortably at times, on hagiography.

Punch-Drunk Love

I assumed that I would witness something special in a dramatic performance from Adam Sandler, which I did, but I wasn’t expecting such precise and economical filmmaking.

What Time Is It There? (2001)

All three characters in What Time is It There? represent Tarkovsky’s ideal — those who are “outwardly static, but inwardly charged with energy by an overriding passion” — and that passion alone is reason enough to watch.

Good Men, Good Women (1995)

The first cut in Good Men, Good Women establishes several dichotomies that, over the next 100 minutes, are beautifully dismantled for explicitly political purposes.

La Promesse (1996)

La Promesse is a wonderful film whose beauty is born from the Dardennes’ suffusion of honesty and moral complexity into standard narrative conventions: the simple two-act structure, Igor’s bildungsroman, the basic quest for human connection.

Claire’s Knee (1970)

Last night I watched Claire’s Knee (1970), the fifth entry in Eric Rohmer’s series of “Six Moral Tales.” This one is built around Jerome, an unusually self-absorbed rake (even by Rohmer’s standards) who spends the weeks leading up to his marriage on holiday at Lake Annecy. While there he meets an old acquaintance, Aurora, an […]

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Letter essentially follows the trajectory of a Thomas Hardy novel: Lisa pines desperately, refuses the proposal of an honorable suitor, and abandons her parents — all sacrifices made to her absurd romantic delusions.

The Scent of Green Papaya (1993)

The film actually becomes more interesting to me if I imagine Mui in twenty years, her beauty faded, her husband gone, and her spirit empowered.

La Notte (1960)

Like Edward Hopper, Antonioni composes the frame with his heroine in the lower right corner, alienating her completely from her surroundings.

Breathless (1960)

Godard caused a sensation forty years ago with this, his first film, by not only tearing down cinematic and narrative conventions, but by doing so with a sly, mocking wink to his audience.

Cries and Whispers (1972)

Cries and Whispers is built from the simplest of premises: two wealthy women, both trapped in loveless marriages, return home to the family estate to comfort their dying sister.

Vive L’Amour (1994)

Walker Percy characterizes the 20th century American novel as a recurring investigation of “the essential loneliness of man.” It’s hardly an original conceit, but I was reminded of it constantly yesterday as I watched Vive L’Amour.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

The problem with The Man is that the Coens have invested a character with genuine pathos, but seem to have done so only in the interest of later undercutting it with their typical brand of cynical Nihilism.

L’Humanite (1999)

Walt Whitman would be proud. It’s remarkable to hear echoes of Whitman in the voice of a contemporary filmmaker, but there he is, still singing the “body electric” and sounding his “barbaric yawp.”

Day of Wrath (1943)

Day of Wrath is a damning critique of hypocritical authoritarian power told in very human terms, a modern fable that interrogates faith and sin, love and family, desire and its consequences.

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

There’s a scene in The Sweet Hereafter in which Mitchell Stephens — a big city ambulance chaser played to perfection by Ian Holm — sits in a cramped airplane seat, telling the passenger beside him a story from when his daughter, Chloe, was a child.

The Home and the World (1984)

In 1907, British rulers of India have partitioned Bengal, dividing the Muslims from the Hindus and silencing their collective political voice in the process. In response, Swadeshi, a burgeoning nationalist movement, demands a boycott of all British goods.

Winter Light (1963)

A crisis of faith, however, is a process, an on-going debate that can often seem frustratingly one-sided. Reducing such a debate to a simple question and an even simpler answer — as often happens both in the movies and the Church — only trivializes it.

The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant (1972)

The title character (played by Margit Carstensen) is a successful fashion designer whose happiness has been shattered by the death of her first husband and by a bitter divorce from her second.

My Night at Maud’s (1969)

Jean-Louis, a young engineer, spies his ideal woman at Sunday Mass. Francoise is young, attractive, blonde, and, most importantly, a practicing Catholic. Before they have even met, Jean-Louis determines that Francoise will be his wife.

The Eel (1998)

“If my films are messy,” Imamura has said, “this is probably due to the fact that I don’t like too perfect a cinema.” He has also said, “I love all the characters in my films, even the loutish and frivolous ones. I want every one of my shots to express this love.”

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Cleo (Corrinne Marchand) is a beautiful, spoiled, self-obsessed pop singer. As the film opens, she is having her fortune told by a tarot reader, who is startled to discover death and cancer in the singer’s immediate future.

A Taste of Cherry (1997)

Mr. Badii (played by Homayon Ershadi, an architect friend of Kiarostami) is a middle aged man who spends much of the film driving through the hill country surrounding Tehran, looking for someone to help him commit suicide.

Attack! (1956)

The following was written for a graduate seminar on Cold War military history. It examines the confluence of social, political, and economic events that allowed the financing and production of such an ambivalent anti-war film in Eisenhower America.