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Ben met Donna on the quad at 7 a.m. (his suggestion), and they walked to the SUB to get bagels for breakfast (her suggestion).  Donna was acting strangely right from “hello” — really formal and distracted.  Out of the blue, she asked how his class was going.  Normally they only talked about their classes if they had a gripe or if a professor had told a funny joke or said something weird.  Ben felt his brain on hyper drive, and it was possible he was reading too much into such an innocent question, but he didn’t think so.  She knew what he had in mind.  Now it was inevitable, even if neither knew how to begin the cease-and-desist.  As they walked side-by-side across the grass to the SUB, he countered her small talk with small talk.  And so he began acting strangely, too.

“How are the wedding plans?” he asked.  Her sister was getting married.

“Same as always,” she said.

“Your mom still bugging you about the dress?”


“Your sister still set on the peach one?”

He felt like strangling himself.  Why did Donna not just start jabbering about the dress and the wedding and allow Ben to start working up the energy to break up with her?  She was being cruel.

………..(visit to read the full story)

Fixing the Viewer




I’m thinking of films that feature a character fixing the viewer with a gaze.  There seems to be intent on the filmmakers’ part to be inclusive of viewers.  To make viewers part of the experience of the film in an intellectual or emotional way beyond voyeurism or escapism.

This is distinct from POV shots where one character is looking at another character who is represented by the camera for a moment.  Hitchcock frequently used that POV shot (e.g. Kim Novak’s Judy emerging from the bathroom in her Madeleine dress and hairdo, looking directly at Scottie/the camera — but not really at the viewer in any deliberately challenging, accusatory, or inclusive way).

In 12 Years a Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Soloman Northup at one point surveys the night horizon in despair.  And his gaze at one point (unless I’m mistaken) meets our gaze as we watch him.  He is not looking at a character.  He is looking out at us as part of that horizon.  Is director Steve McQueen using the shot to help us understand just how alone Northup is, or just how culpable we are as a society, how barbaric the human race can be to its own?  To me, that’s the very emotional center of the film, the point that indicts us and dares us to look away.

In Chris Marker’s La Jetee, “the woman” (Hélène Chatelain) sleeps in a series of dim still photographs.  Just as we are lulled into calm sleep ourselves, the film slips in a still photo of Chatelain with eyes open, looking directly at us.  It’s possible that she is indeed looking at “the man” (Davos Hanich) whose memory we are viewing, but I think it’s more likely that her gaze is meant to show the viewer something about the magic and fallibility of memory.  That the film comprises only still photographs* seems to support this.  Memory is subjective and subject to fixed images and sensibilities.  *The one exception to the reliance on still photographs is a startling moment.  Just as we are looking at Chatelain’s eyes in that dim light, when she had just a moment before been sleeping, when we are fully sold on the idea that we’ll only being viewing still photographs, she blinks at us in real time.  She blinks.  I got a chill from it.  That moment underscores our involvement in the interaction.

In Marker’s San Soleil, the camera persona fixes several people in the center of the frame in close-up or medium shot, and practically dares them to stare back.  One strikingly beautiful woman does so, at first shyly, and then gradually more boldly.  The narrator remarks on the woman’s transformation.  We form a relationship with her in those moments.  She is not looking at a character, except that the camera may be the main character of the film.  But the camera means to be the viewer’s proxy.  The film is not exactly fiction, but it’s not exactly documentary either.  It’s a visual essay that encourages us to make connections and see the human face as more than a front.

In Bergman’s Persona, the camera fixes on silent Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) as she listens and reacts to the accusations of her nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson).  For nearly ten minutes, we see only Elisabet’s face and hear only Alma’s voice.  And then, remarkably, the scene is replayed from start to finish, this time with the camera fixed upon Alma’s face.  In those shots, Elisabet looks at Alma, and Alma at Elisabet, and so the camera is subjective.  But then the two women’s faces are abruptly sliced in half and matched together along the line of the nose.  The left side is Alma’s face; the right is Elisabet’s.  It’s an arresting shot, and the resulting face meld is at once grotesque and fascinatingly coherent as a single face.  The women are not twins in appearance, but with their hair pulled behind them and their complexions normalized in black and white they could pass for clones.  And that is part of the point.  One woman (the talker) loses herself in the interaction with the other woman (the listener, the actress who has made a life of siphoning identities).  In that melding shot, both women look at us, the viewer, and not at each other.  We are looking at the loss and gain of persona.



American Hustle and Breathless (thumbnail reviews)

Seberg & Belmondo; Adams and Bale

Adams and Bale


Seberg and Belmondo










Adams and Bale negotiate in pure heat and desperation.  Physically counter-intuitive as a couple, yet they come from similar psychic places.  They play by others’ rules grudgingly but turn the game on its head until they’re back on top.  The losers in this film are not the ones you might predict.

Belmondo & Seberg negotiate in crosstalk, jibes, & dry kisses.  He smokes, makes faces.  She smiles radiantly at him, at the camera.  It’s a Star-crossed love story.  He just happens to be on the run from the law and infatuated with American gangsterism.

Three quick reviews

teresa wright & dana andrews - the best years of our lives 1946The Best Years of Our Lives— I finally saw this one after having it on my obligation list.  I had it in my head that it would be insufferable war propaganda, like some Capra movies.  But almost immediately I knew it is much more than that because Frederic March is so droll and because Myrna Loy’s obvious devotion to him means that he MUST be deserving of her.  And it turns out he is.  Dana Andrews is the center, and just as in Laura he’s solid playing a compellingly flawed man.  Teresa Wright’s character Peggy saves Andrews’ Fred when his ill-conceived marriage ends (or maybe she helps it end).  When Peggy comforts Fred through his PTSD nightmare, I think I loved her, too.  Hoagy Carmichael’s character Uncle Butch is fun.

Osaka Elegy— my first Kenji Mizoguchi film.  I loved the camera movement.  I can appreciate that it was probably revolutionary for its time because of the way the camera stalked the characters and moved with them and abandoned them.  The story didn’t exactly captivate.

Sweet Smell of Success — Burt Lancaster is despicable, riveting, and (it turns out) creepy.  Tony Curtis is compelling as a man who compromises what little integrity he had to begin with.  Bottom line: I found it hard to root for anyone here.  My loss, maybe.

Four Movie Reviews for the end of July, 2013


Master and Commander (r)-4 1/2 Stars; Paul Bettany as the naturalist / doctor who keeps us from taking the sailors’ macho act too seriously — you just can’t go wrong with Bettany!  Russell Crowe is perfect as “Lucky Jack.”  So many other strong performances: Max Pirkis, James D’Arcy, Max Benitz, Lee Ingleby. . .

The French Connection (r)– 4 Stars. . .; Hackman and Scheider are great together.  The chase scene is impressive (even more so when you hear how they filmed it — watch the interview with director Friedkin).  The editing is crisp.  The ending is a thumb in the audience’s eye, but it’s also so iconic–it was the only possible ending!  Otherwise, it’s Lethal Weapon.  My go-to film writer David Thomson argues that the movie’s flaw is that Hackman’s character Popeye Doyle (a fascinating, stubborn lout) doesn’t change or grow.  In fact, no one changes or grows, really.  The bad guy gets away, the “good” guy goes off half-cocked. . .no resolution.  Is it about how we can’t have satisfying endings?  Is it about how police work corrupts the police–how the good guys sometimes are even bigger thugs than the bad guys?  How about going back to Ebert. . .what happened to me?  I moved that much further away from getting cheap thrills from syrupy endings.

The Impossible — 4 1/2 Stars — These characters I cared about.  They changed from beginning to end.  My heart and lungs were in my throat for much of the movie.  In the hands of a hack, the movie could have been maudlin.  It wasn’t.  The actors playing the three sons are wonderfully real (and very well directed).  I loved how the tsunami was treated as a plot point — both as it happened (disorienting and brutal) and in flashback/dream (expressionistic).  Most affecting are the interactions between the oldest son and his mother.  The movie works its magic with economy, too.  It doesn’t give you anything more than you need.

The River— (giving stars to a Renoir film seems silly–he’s one of the masters).  A beautiful film.  What happened to me while I watched?  I gained an appreciation for amateur actors: when they’re given real emotions and compelling problems, it doesn’t matter if they don’t manage the subtle gesture.  I think I found the ultimate color movie.  The flowers, the clothes, the bales of jute, the trees, Harriet’s hair, Melanie’s eyes, the dark river itself!  Also loved: little Victoria’s adorable one-liners, obviously fed to her just before the shot by the dialogue coach.  The physical oddities: Capt. John’s leg, father’s wall-eyedness, Melanie’s father’s crooked teeth.  The name “Bogey” for the boy.  The interlude of napping before the tragedy–reminded me of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.  The interspersing of documentary-like footage.  Capt. John’s kiss on Harriet’s forehead that he intends as big-brotherly but that she takes as possibly an opening.  The boats going this way and that.  It makes one want to spend a few hours pushing a boat along a river and then take a nap in the grass.  One more gem: Rumer Godden (on whose book the film is based) said of her husband, “I had been carried away by Lawrence’s charm.  And I have mistrusted charm ever since.”