Friday, November 20, 2009

Renoir's Roughness

La Chienne's a bitch of a movie: thorny edits, coarse tracking shots, bitter depth of field, those jerky pans. There's a slight brutality to the way the camera moves, something a little rough that reminds you that Renoir was often as merciless as Fassbinder. He was never elegant; who knows where that part of his reputation comes from. No, Renoir is, like any good humanist, often harsh. He loves the idea of humanity enough that he doesn't feel the need to gloss over it; even Ophüls' elegance was never glossy. To gloss over aspects of humanity is to hold it in contempt, to believe that only through falseness, or an active denial, is it possible to portray people positively. "They're all foul, and we must gloss over them to make them close to likable." That's why Michel Simon was such a good lead for Renoir; he could take it. He was strong enough to be made ugly.


I'm beginning to think that George Cukor understood more or less everything. Maybe he had the movies in his blood, maybe he spent so much time around them that he'd become irradiated. There is no experimental aspect to Cukor productions. I don't mean that Cukor was unadventurous; it's just that when he appropriated an element, when he used a new technique, he seemed to have already understood it. A Star is Born might've been his first full-color feature and his first one in 'Scope, too, but, goddamn, the man simply understood it, and not on a visceral level, like Ray, but in the way a person comes to understand the world through experience. That is: Ray lived through cinema, but Cukor lived so he could make cinema.

Monday, November 16, 2009

from Les Solitaires (2000)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Knife in Moolaadé

Ousmane Sembene was a trickster. He knew how to lull you into believing you knew where he was headed or what he was after. Then he'd flip the film sideways, or take a turn you weren't expecting -- in regards not only to narrative (or, really, "storytelling" -- if anybody deserves to have that word applied to their plots, it's him -- him and maybe James Lee), but to editing, too. Like a man who slips a careful word into the middle of what sounds like a casual conversation, he'll slip a careful image into a film, and that image would brand itself into your memory.

Sembene was mostly a director of faces, of people talking or doing. His images are almost always of human activity. John Ford, I think, is the most apt comparison. But, out of all of his films, the image that sticks with me the most is a brief shot of a hand holding a knife from the last few minutes of Moolaadé. The knife is framed more or less in the middle of the screen, and the camera turns to follow. The gathered people are out of focus. The shot comes in the middle of a speech. The knife is used for female circumcision.

What sticks with me isn't the knife's menace, but its ordinariness -- too ordinary to even be considered banal. It looks like something you would peel potatoes with. The blade's got a little rust on it. The handle is worn.