Monday, October 31, 2011

Russian Ark

Alexandr Sokurov's "Russian Ark"(2002) is a filmic tour de force. The film consists of one 96 minute Steadicam shot through the rooms and corridors of The Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. It covers three centuries of Russian history. Sokrov utilized 2,000 actors and extras, three orchestras and hundreds of film technicians. Director of Photography Tilman Büttner was also the Steadicam Operator. They apparently recorded a guide track of the actors and looped the whole thing in Post so they didn't have to stop for sound problems. As it was, they had two aborted tries and then got it on the third take. They only had access to the palace for one day.

This highwire act would be worth a look just to appreciate the feat, but the film is also very beautiful and quite engaging. We see everything through the eyes of a recently deceased ghost from 2002. Most of the others characters can't see him, with the exception of a few people from our era, and a French aristocrat from the 19th Century who the ghost dubs, "The European". The European (according to Wikipedia) is based on an actual Marquis who published a book on Russia in 1839, whose thesis was that Russian civilization was a thin veneer over the Asiatic barbarism that was really Russia.

The film occasionally lags but mostly flows gracefully, providing us with a wonderful opportunity for historical voyeurism. I recommend it.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Lemony Snicket and Occupy Wall Street

Lemony Snicket is an amusing and preceptive guy and he has some observations about the OWS protests. Here are my favorites:

10. It is not always the job of people shouting outside impressive buildings to solve problems. It is often the job of the people inside, who have paper, pens, desks, and an impressive view.

11. Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.

Do they still make tumbrels?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Bob le Flambeur

The bureau chief enjoys noting what artifacts of American culture interest people in other countries. In the 1950s, the French found the rather unremarkable name, "Bob", très cool. Boris Vian has a very amusing song called, "Je suis snob", in which the snob says, "Je m'appelle Patrick, mais on dit Bob." (My name's Patrick, but they call me Bob.)

The Bob (Roger Duchesne) of Jean-Pierre Melville's "Bob le Flambeur" is also très cool. He's actually a very nice guy in spite of being a compulsive gambler, bank robber and ex-con. He lets Anne (Isabelle Corey), a young semi-pro prostitute, stay at his apartment and doesn't try to jump her bones, which confuses her. He mentors a young aspirant gangster, Paolo (Daniel Cauchy), who falls in love with Anne. He hangs out in Montmartre, the bureau chief's favorite Paris neighborhood.

Bob is enduring an extremely long period of bad luck and finally decides that he has to return to robbery to solve his problem. This film has a very satisfying ending which I won't ruin. It's shot in beautiful black and white with lots of Parisian locations. It's well cast and is a treat for fans of French gangster films. It's out on a Criterion DVD and is highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Zazie dans le Métro

"Zazie dans le Métro" is the film version of Raymond Queneau's novel of the same name. Apparently Queneau used a lot of neologisms in his book, which is a bigger deal in French, where they have the language police (L'Académie française), than it is in English. When director Louis Malle set about making the book into a movie in 1960, he decided that the filmic equivalents of this literary playfulness were the gags of the great comedies of the Silent Era.

The best things about the film are the performances of the actors (particularly Catherine Demongeot as the wonderfully foulmouthed Zazie and Annie Fratellini as the lovestruck waitress Mado), the art direction and the Paris locations. I was with the film until the last part where it degenerated into an endless chase sequence, which was true to its silent film influences, but finally became tedious.

I was reminded of Richard Lester's two Beatles films, "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help" which were made a few years later. Actually all of "A Hard Day's Night" is a chase sequence as the Fab Four ceaselessly flee from mobs of screaming female fans. The difference between "Zazie" and Lester's films is that if the chase sequences go on too long in the latter, we have still have the Beatles and their amazing music. The score of "Zazie" sounds like Spaghetti Western music unsuccessfully repurposed for a comedy.

I don't want to end on a down note. I enjoyed a good bit of "Zazie" and can give it a qualified recommendation. It's out on a new Criterion DVD.