Jacques Demy in Black & White and His Quiet Heroines

Anouk Aimée “Lola”, 1961 | Rome Paris Films

 
Before using colours “like a singing Matisse” in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy made the most lyrical use of black and white in his first two films, Lola and Bay of Angels. Before singing heroines bursting on screen on a background of glorious colours and stylized sets (the citizens of Cherbourg allowed Demy to paint their houses) that paid homage to classic Hollywood musicals, a different kind of heroine glided through Demy’s fictional universe: one clearly born in the French New Wave, but one who quietly sang and danced on her own music.

Lola takes place in Demy’s native Nantes, an unremarkable provincial town port, a realistic setting but into which the film-maker introduced an air of fairy-tale romance. Demy wanted Lola to evoke “memories from Nantes, from the time when I was in college and bunked off school to go to the movies.” Filmed in black and white by Raoul Coutard, it is our first encounter with Demy’s singular, fascinating universe, dreamed up by a dreamer and shaped up by a craftsman, that balances melancholy with hope and vivacity, filmic artifice with emotional authenticity, the quest for love and happiness with the realities of everyday life, where music and dance are already informing, although in a subtle way for now, plot and characterization – “a musical without music,” is how Demy described his first feature film.

“In the films, it’s always beautiful,” declares Jeanne, one of the characters in Lola, channeling Demy’s drive to and draw from cinema. His cinema is one of an auteur, but also one of a cinephile – there is a clear allusion to the American dream as well as to other films (Demy’s Lola is a tribute to Max Ophül’s 1955 Lola Montès and also references Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 The Blue Angel and his Marlene Dietrich as Lola Lola) and at the same time it previews future Demy themes when one of the characters mentions Cherbourg, and also that her husband was a gambler, anticipating the subjects of Demy’s next two films, Bay of Angels (1963) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).
 

Anouk Aimée on the set of “Lola”, 1961 | Rome Paris Films

 

Cabaret dancer and single mother Lola (Anouk Aimée) is waiting for the return of her long-gone true love while being suited by an American sailor, Frankie (Alan Scott), and her old friend, love-struck Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) – Demy’s alter ego, who gets fired and the only thing he sees fit is going to the Cinéma Katorza to see Return to Paradise (1953). A saddening awareness of the transience of happiness and of the fragility of love pervades the film. Suggestively set in a port city, it is a story where everyone is wistful, longing for someone or something different, and on the move, either dancing or getting from one place to another in town, or waiting to sail off home, or transiting the city on the way to another gig or business. They are passers-by… through life, through love. Everybody seems to be searching for love, but nobody finds it. “There is a little happiness in wanting happiness.”

Lola is part ingénue, part sexual attraction, part mother figure and part mythical creature, the pure creation of Jacque Demy’s unique universe. But it is the fact that she is an incurable romantic that ultimately defines her as an ethereal identity. Her clothes contribute to this image, too. For much of the film, we see her in her sexy, black lace corset, black nylons, black fur boa and black pumps. Not even when she goes home to her son does she change, but simply covers her with a coat, a trench coat, naturally. Later on, she playfully pairs her outfit with Frankie’s white sailor shirt and cap. But when she goes out with Roland, she wears a simple and elegant white crocheted dress and matching jacket, contributing to her suitor’s initial vision of her as a celestial creature (her real name is Céline). The black fur boa on her jacket neckline though is a constant reminder of her other side as entertainer.
 

Anouk Aimée and Marc Michel in “Lola”, 1961 | Rome Paris Films

 
In an interview with Agnes Varda, Anouk Aimée recounted how the producers didn’t find her sexy enough, because she did not fit in the beauty canons of the time, and how Demy fought for her. He had envisioned her as this original character and Jean-Louis Trintignant told Aimée that the director wanted to meet her. “Lola is such part of me that I can’t tell which part is her and which is me. We’ve grown so close that we mimic each other,” Aimée candidly confessed. Maybe that’s why she made such a fantastic creature believable, both ideal vision of femininity and pure cinematic fabrication, “devoid of any kind of aggressiveness or vulgarity or exhibitionism.“ Demy told her to think of Marilyn Monroe while playing her character and Aimée remembers how there was such poetry in everything, and that it was the poetry of the film that made her act so freely and walk so naturally only with her nylons on. Tall, slim, and dark-haired, in her signature lingerie outfit and top hat, she became the first one of “those characters Jacques would create who stepped out of one of his poems.” But her voluble, charming, unpolished performance is one of the defining traits of the New Wave heroines, too, thus firmly establishing her as a Nouvelle Vague icon.
 

Jeanne Moreau in “Bay of Angels”, 1963 | Sud-Pacifique Films

 
In the sublime La baie des anges (Bay of Angels), 1963, which has not dated one bit in all these years, Jeanne Moreau pursues the goal of a doomed and reckless passion. She is Jacqueline Demaistre, or Jackie, a compulsive gambler. “I wanted to lay bare the workings of a passion” said the director. The gambling passion devours everything in Jackie, “it’s that expectation of something mysterious, it’s like a rite, a ritual”, explained Jeanne Moreau. “Gambling is my religion,” Jackie confesses, “money means nothing to me.” Beautifully shot in crystalline black and white (this time by Jean Rabier), the film is a rigorous work of art that paints an otherworldly atmosphere that delves into the mystique of gambling and is a demonstration of Moreau’s cinematic personality. Because Jeanne Moreau is the soul of the film, in the true vein of all Demy’s movies, as each of them is centered around a female character.
 

Jeanne Moreau and Claude Mann in “Bay of Angels”, 1963 | Sud-Pacifique Films

 
Jean Fournier (Claude Mann) is a bank clerk in Paris, bored with his job (he had already once run away from a life “with no risks, no surprises”), who reluctantly tags along his friend to a casino. He tries to remain cautious but immediately, decidedly becomes hooked and sets off to the gambling palaces of the Riviera, where he meets Jackie. And so he is introduced to a lifestyle he confesses he didn’t know “existed anymore… except in the movies or certain American novels” and they become this obsessed couple (with each other and with the spinning roulette), living in their own world, a world where Chance seems to be the only rule to live by (“You must never let luck pass you by,” Jackie tells Jean), and Michel Legrand’s theme music, repeatedly, obsessively playing like a ballad whenever they are winning or every time they find each other, keeps them in this dreamlike blur. Because one thing Demy’s heroine is in Bay of Angels is a femme fatale. She “embodies sin for him, but she does not know it”.

But her personality isn’t laid bare, she is an enigma, she has an electric unpredictability, there is something not quite real about her. Her appearance, from her Marilyn Monroe hair and make-up and gestures (Demy retains his passion for American movies and for Monroe from Lola), to the impeccable elegance (Demy wanted Jeanne Moreau’s costumes only in black and white and he chose Pierre Cardin to design them, from her white deux-pièces, to her floral print dress and the black gown accessorized with a black and white feather boa), is clearly a creation of her artist’s imagination. But the beauty of this character is that she believes in who she is, she believes in walking on sand in high heels, and we believe it too. Her look is make-believe, but also a well thought-out survival technique, it is formal elegance, but also a façade, a front to mask a reality that is less than pretty. She is dressed to the nines in her perfect white suit, but it’s about the only one she’s got and she wears no jewellery because she sold it all in need of money for gambling, and in a moment of sincerity she tells Jean: “I sometimes feel rotten inside.”

She puts on the best face in front of anguish and shadow, in front of the ephemerality of life. The plot is, after all, only briefly set in Paris, then, as it usually is in Demy’s films, moves on the waterfront, to Nice and Monte Carlo, and the universe it evokes is hardly realistic, but provisional, otherworldly. So is Jackie. Everything about Jackie and Jean is evanescent, everything happens on the spur of the moment, nothing but the present matters. Because Demy’s films are more concerned with poetic momentum than progressive narrative, much more aware of our fleeting happiness and existence than his more colourful, luminous, yearning romanticism of later on may allude to.
 

Jeanne Moreau and Claude Mann in “Bay of Angels”, 1963 | Sud-Pacifique Films

 

Editorial sources: interviews with Anouk Aimée, Jacques Demy and Jeanne Moreau available on the special feature on The Essential Jacques Demy, released by The Criterion CollectionLola

 
 
More stories: Colour and Costume: From The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to La La Land / Travelling Wes Anderson Style / La enfermedad del domingo: In Conversation with Costume Designer Clara Bilbao

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Editorial: Through a Glass, Darkly

Film poster for “Elena”, 2011, directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev | Zeitgeist Films

 

The Editorial: thoughts, short stories
or essays about the world of cinema


 
It was three years ago when I saw a film by Andrei Zvyagintsev for the first time. It was Loveless and it turned out to be my favourite film of that year. If I were to describe the film in a few words, I would call it the tragedy of modern life. Yes, there is a tragedy occurring in the story, but the film also speaks volumes about the many social ills of our modern world, about the superficiality and nothingness of a world with an unending aspirational demand for status, money, and the social media prerogative of selfies and self-affirmation. Because this film is not just a pitiless critique on Russia, the way many American and Western reviewers rushed to describe it. It is rather, sadly, the story of us all, a loveless world, a hollow society that has lost sight of what is truly important, incapable of supporting human life, or a child’s love.

Visually speaking, the first thing that I was made aware of was that the film had a “style”. “Here is another director with a distinguished filming style,” I thought. As in Hitchcock. The cinematographer, Mikhail Krichman, who has worked with Zvyagintsev on all his feature films from the very beginning (“He found my eyes, my co-author,” the filmmaker said about Krichman in an interview for IndieWire after the film’s premiere), said he wanted to give Loveless a documentary style with realistic, natural lighting: “We wanted to make it as real as possible… That was Andrey’s idea.” The natural light pours in beautifully through the windows that are frequently used in the film, another element that caught my attention. And yet inside the colour palette is dark and steely, everything seems void of life. The windows (the screen of the phone, too, or the lonely waters in the woods on which the camera lingers) seem like portals into another world, a stale, lifeless world, one that unfortunately happens on this earth.

Last night I watched Elena (and the night before, The Return), made 6 years before Loveless, and I realised it already had the maturity of style, the impeccable stylistic control shown in Loveless, and the same realistic and contemporary feel. That striking contrast between the natural light and the dark underlay of the story is also present and it even taps into noir, but the narrative is so disquieting and subtly gripping, further enhanced by the beautiful original score by Philip Glass, with the shocking element that occurs so seamlessly entwined into the pensive minimalism of the film. There is a painterly quality to both films and Krichman confirmed that he often puts the actors in front of windows because “I like silhouettes. I like details behind windows.” The windows play the role of painting frames, and Andrei Zvyagintsev shows framed portraits of his characters. It is the window into his world, an intimate but skillfully created nonetheless world and which is all the more striking as it feels surreptitious while still rooted in the reality of our days, an unforgiving portrayal of a world where money, not the way you make it, is the only prerogative, a world deeply defined by existential unease and spiritual alienation.

Elena starts with a long shot of the branches outside the windows of the apartment where Elena, whose actions trigger the plot of the film, lives with her husband. Elena, played by Nadezhda Markina, is a former nurse from a poor background and the dutiful wife of Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), a wealthy business man, who married her after she tended to him in hospital some years ago. The film ends with the same stylisation of stillness, the shot of the branches outside the luxurious apartment (its dark colour scheme and engineered good taste will be found again in Loveless), only the scene happening inside is different now. Elena is the only link between past and present. “When you look straight in her face, you see a simple, down-to-earth, working, typically Russian woman. But if you see her sideways — and I do, in the movie, show her in profile a lot — she looks like royalty,” the director explained his choice for his leading lady. “She looks aristocratic. And this duality intrigued me.” Her face may seem familiar at first glance, but there is a mysterious quality to Elena that makes you keep asking yourself: Who is she? Those windows she keeps coming in front of invite to reflection, but no warmth or spontaneous gaiety breaks in. They only glimpse into a dark thread.
 
 
More stories: Editorial: A Raincoat in Sunny L.A. / Editorial: The Children Are Alright / Editorial: The Streets of San Francisco

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Jean Seberg’s Look on Screen: A Marker of Modernity

Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in “À bout de souffle”, 1960 | Rialto Pictures, Studio Canal

 

A preppy in Paris.

After her debut in Hollywood, with her first role, at age nineteen, in Otto Preminger’s 1957 Saint Joan, and another Preminger movie a year later, Bonjour Tristesse, this one filmed in France (both poorly received), Iowa-born Jean Seberg appeared in Jean-Luc Godard’s directorial debut, À bout de souffle (1960). Breathless came after the first films of other three emerging New Wave film-makers, Agnès Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1955), Claude Chabrol’s Le beau serge (1958) and François Truffaut’s Les 400 coups (1959), but, with Truffaut as screenwriter and Chabrol as technical advisor, it was Godard’s film that marked the definitive breakthrough towards a new language of cinema, one that went against any cinematic conventions, and brought in a new aesthetic, innovative techniques, bold and vigorous narrative, improvised dialogue, leading us through the streets of Paris, mingling actors with passers-by, in a frenetic and realistic pace similar to that of a modern day reporter. A Paris where two lovers are overwhelmed by fate and where the image of Jean Seberg as Patricia Franchini strolling down the Champs-Elysées in The New York Herald Tribune t-shirt became an everlasting style headline and the star of the French New Wave.

After À bout de souffle, Jean Seberg remained in France for much of her adult life and continued to make films both in Hollywood (Lilith, 1964, was one of them, in which she starred opposite Warren Beatty) and Europe (Échappement libre, from 1964, which reunited her with Jean-Paul Belmondo, or Claude Chabrol’s La route de Corinthe, 1967). She corresponded with André Malraux, wore Yves Saint Laurent and played poker with Françoise Sagan, as Rex Reed wrote in a 1969 profile, alluding to a Parisian life revolving around beatniks, art, culture and existentialism. She seemed to have taken on the role from François Sagan, whose heroine she played in Bonjour Tristesse, who breathed fresh air in the hyper-bourgeois France of the 1950s, becoming a symbol of Beat culture cool and postwar affluence, and carry it on through the 1960s.

In a rare interview, which shows Jean (nonchalant, self-assured, natural and fluent in French) in her apartment in Paris, she talked about her rich cultural life she was exposed to living there, where she could easily socialize with artists from so many different fields, but made it clear that she was still an American and that she didn’t want anyone to believe that she was in exile or an expat. However, she stressed out how much she valued that the French respected her privacy as opposed to what her life as a 21-year-old movie star would have looked like in Hollywood. She may have been very young, but she seemed to already have found her voice and was set out to be a marker of modernity.

Jean Seberg makes the subject for the new film Seberg, a political thriller directed by Benedict Andrews and with Kristen Stewart in the lead role, that focuses on Seberg’s post-À bout de souffle life, when she suffered years of harassment and surveillance from the FBI for supporting the Black Panthers in the late 1960s, which presumably lead to her death in 1979, classified as probable suicide. I have my reservations about the film, and Peter Bradshaw makes a very clear reasoning in The Guardian: “But this film also finds it necessary, in the apparent interests of liberal balance, to invent a fictional young FBI officer Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) who is decent, sensitive, appalled at what his organisation is doing to Seberg and makes a muddled attempt to warn her. But why? Why invent this character at all? Why make the travails of this made-up man dramatically equivalent to Seberg’s very real ordeal? It is a strange contrivance and the film never quite rings true.”

Therefore, instead of looking at Jean Seberg-the character, I am focusing on Jean Seberg’s characters, from Golden Age to Nouvelle Vague. They all ring true. It’s these stories she should be remembered by.
 

Jean Seberg in “Bonjour Tristesse”, 1958 | Wheel Productions

 
In Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse, Jean Seberg is the star of the film. “When he organised the ‘Bonjour Tristesse Competition’, Preminger was not looking for Cécile, he was looking for Jean Seberg,” François Truffaut remarked in his book, The Films in My Life, clearly stating his preference for the film and its leading lady over François Sagan’s book and character. “And, when he had found her, it wasn’t a question of whether she was worthy of Cécile, but whether Cécile was worthy of being made real by Jean Seberg.” It was Seberg whom Truffaut considered that Preminger wanted to set in motion, place in her setting, bring out her strong points.

In Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Jean Seberg plays Cécile, the amoral teenage daughter of rich playboy Raymond (David Niven). They are vacationing on the French Riviera and their free-going, pleasure-seeking existence is threatened by her father’s sudden plan to marry his late wife’s best friend, Anne (Deborah Kerr). Cécile plans to drive Anne away, but the plot takes an unexpected turn. George Périnal’s beautiful use of colour affords a striking contrast between the sun-drenched hues of summer in the South of France (the sumptuous villa where the action is mainly set belonged to Pierre Lazareff, the prominent French newspaper editor, and his wife, Hélène Lazareff, the founder of Elle magazine, who made it available to Preminger for filming) and the present, a Paris shot in a chilly black and white – the idyllic holiday compared to the dark reality of the consequences of their vacation.

The clothes dress up Seberg’s character only too well: fresh and striking. Her “wide-open blue eyes” have “a glint of boyish malice,” wrote Truffaut, and “when Jean Seberg is on screen you can’t look at anything else. Her every movement is graceful, each glance is precise. The shape of her head, her silhouette, her walk, everything is perfect; this kind of sex appeal hasn’t been seen on the screen. It is designed, controlled, directed to the nth degree by her director.”

She is a tomboy, a sensuous tomboy. Shirts, men’s shirts to be more exact, are the essential piece of Cécile’s summer wardrobe. She wears shirts stolen from her dad’s wardrobe, a hint at her ties with her father whom she doesn’t want to let go of, and she has a passion for denim shirts, paired with colourful one-piece bathing suits. Her carefree summer look is completed by Breton and gingham tops, boat-neck tops, cropped trousers, shorts slit on the side, white ballerina shoes and flat sandals. When we see her in Paris, she looks completely different dressed in a very elegant, sophisticated black cocktail dress (by Givenchy, who designed part of Seberg’s wardrobe for the film, while costume designer Hope Bryce was responsible for the rest of her outfits). True, so is the location and occasion, but the strikingly different looks mark something much deeper, the loss of innocence that occurred after that fateful summer, the theme of the child-woman and her sadness at approaching adulthood. That’s the film’s narrative, which is so effectively previewed from the very beginning, in the lyrical title sequence of Saul Bass that “exclusively captures the elusive delicacy as well as the sadness that lies at the heart of the film,” writes design historian Pat Kirkham in the book Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design.

Truffaut interestingly said that “If Preminger were making Bonjour Tristesse today” (ed. note: 1978 was the year when Truffaut’s book was published), “he’d probably have Yves Saint Laurent do the costumes.” Seberg’s modernist attitude and style, both on and off screen, would have found a liberating form of expression in Saint Laurent’s clothes, who Truffaut considered “the greatest cinephile among the fashion designers”, who “really understood what cinema costumes had to be like, and he designed them both for their movement and style.” Jean Seberg would eventually wear Yves Saint Laurent on screen, in 1965, in Mervyn LeRoy’s Moment to Moment (1965), the fashion designer’s foray into cinema, two years before Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour that marked the beginning of one of the most significant actress-fashion designer partnerships, Catherine Deneuve-Yves Saint Laurent, one of their films together including Truffaut’s La siréne du Mississippi (1969).
 

Jean Seberg in “Bonjour Tristesse”, 1958 | Wheel Productions

 
Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle, at its 60th anniversary this year, was not only one of the first films to set off one of the most important cinematic movements in the world, but also one that would have an impact on fashion and that would beguile international audiences to this day. The French New Wave films exquisitely captured the life of the young in France and especially in Paris, the fashion, the urban professional life, the ideological struggles, the carefree minds, the spirit of youth. Raymond Cauchetier, also known as the photographer of the New Wave, captured through his lens enduring moments that Godard’s shoot only implied. There is a scene on the Champs-Élysées, filmed in long shot and from overhead, in which Godard has Seberg give Belmondo a sweet peck on the cheek. Cauchetier brought the actors together to reproduce the scene in a close-up, which became one of the movie’s iconic images despite not existing in the film at all. Cauchetier caught the film’s immediacy and free-form style, as well as the star power, ease and effervescence of Seberg and Belmondo throughout the shoot.

That ease is spoken through their costumes, too. The film does not credit any costume designer for the wardrobes. It is very likely that Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg made their own sartorial choices or even wore their own clothes on set. He set the standard for smoky French sex appeal, and she, with her infusion of French chic into her American sporty, preppy style (just like Seberg in real life), finally made a big entrance on screen and would be admired and copied by the worldwide public for generations to come, creating the stereotype of the French gamine. She is all light and cool and mischief. Patricia Franchini, an American student working for the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune in Paris, made style news with her pixie haircut, black eyeliner and a wardrobe packed with sailor stripes, oversized men’s shirts, ballet slippers, loafers, trench coat, skinny pants and Trilby hat borrowed from Jean-Paul Belmondo/Michel.

In another rare interview talking about the movie, taken just before shooting a scene in À bout de souffle, Jean, dressed in the striped dress that Patricia wears in the film, said that Godard described her character as “the one in Bonjour Tristesse two years later”. Godard was a cinephile and when he went from the front of the camera as editor of Les Cahiers du Cinéma, to behind the camera as a film-maker, he frequently made allusions to his director peers whom he admired. There are many “film in film” sequences in Breathless, such as the one when Patricia hides in a cinema, the famous Le Mac Mahon, from the police, and the show that they are announcing next is Preminger’s very own Whirlpool (1949).

Further discussing her character, Seberg depicted her as “a very franchised American girl, a very sophisticated American girl, I suppose what some would call a very liberated American girl” and further concluded that she was one of the first Americans to speak French in a French movie. Belmondo was one of the anti-heroes of La nouvelle vague and she was the anti-heroine of this new cinema that had new life in it, that questioned the establishment, that wanted to experiment in new ways with everything. It’s the only way you can find your true identity.
 

Jean Seberg in “À bout de souffle”, 1960 | Rialto Pictures, Studio Canal

 
 
More stories: Le Redoutable: In Conversation with Costume Designer Sabrina Riccardi / Clothes and Character in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Films / François Truffaut’s Heroines


 

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The Culture Trip: March Newsletter

”Romy” by Marianna Gefen, an exclusive collaboration with Classiq Journal, available on shop.classiq.me

 

A regular round-up of the latest talks, films,
music, books, interviews and cultural news.

 
 
The arrival of spring comes with a new series of portraits of Romy Schneider. The two portraits (here is the second one) are part of our very own collaboration with Russia-born, Berlin-based illustrator Marianna Gefen and they are available exclusively in our shop, either separately or as a set. Here is what the artist says about her “Romy” portraits: “I was inspired by the mysterious aura, grace and charisma which surround Romy Schneider to this day. She is untamed beauty, determined yet fragile, flawed yet real. With different layers, colours, abstract shapes and transparency, I wanted to represent these aspects.”

Writer and illustrator Quentin Blake talks about bringing some of the most cherished children’s characters to life (Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox remains one of my favourite children’s books), about his new book, The Weed (out this week), about self-publishing a series of books, QB Papers – “an excuse for nonsensical drawing, really” – and about the most important book he bought as a teenager. “Reading is the only thing I’ve got a qualification for,” he chuckles (he studied English at Cambridge). “I like drawing for myself but all those books, they’re so different in character… People often ask me where I get my ideas from and I say: ‘I get them from writers.’” That’s why the children will be alright.

Todd Haynes talks to Edith Bowman about Dark Waters, one of the best and most underrated films of last year, inspired by the true story of Robert Bilott (played remarkably by Mark Ruffalo), the attorney who took on the DuPont company in an environmental suit exposing a decades-long history of chemical pollution in West Virginia. It’s stark, and realistic, a great piece of docu-drama. Todd Haynes also has a new film in the making, a documentary about Velvet Underground, which I am very much looking forward to. In the meanwhile, for a healthy dose of rock stories, you can read Nick Kent’s selected writings on rock music (he also writes about Lou Reed, the lead guitarist, singer and songwriter of The Velvet Underground, among many others), and watch Hayne’s Velvet Goldmine, his 1998 film set in Britain in the early rock days of the 1970s.
 
 

”My Mother Laughs” by Chantal Akerman | “Dark Waters”, directed by Todd Haynes, 2019 (Focus Features) |
Quentin Blake illustration for his book, “The Weed”

 

The entire board that oversees the César Academy resigned before this year’s César Awards held on February 28th, in response to the protests against Roman Polanski and his 12 César nominations for J’accuse (An Officer and a Spy). The Academy board declared they “should not take moral positions” in giving awards and that they took this decision because they wanted to “honour those men and women who made cinema happen in 2019, to find calm and ensure that the festival of film remains just that, a festival”. That film festivals and awards should not take moral stands, I completely agree with, and everything else I wanted to say about the enemies of culture and writing I already have in our previous newsletter. Polanski eventually won the César for best director and best adapted screenplay. Which brings me to the recently published book The Long Goodbye, by Sam Wasson, which tells the story of the making of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, one of the best films in the history of cinema.

In The Washington Post, Glenn Frankel, who is currently writing a book about New York in the 1960s and the making of Midnight Cowboy, says: “Wasson grounds his account in the intriguing people who made Chinatown: Polanski, Towne, Nicholson and the mercurial Robert Evans, who oversaw the making of the movie while head of production for Paramount. Using these four gifted and complicated men at the zenith of their talents and their egos, Wasson, in “The Big Goodbye,” weaves a tale in a voice that is intimate and sympathetic, yet critical.” When I laid eyes on the book, its title immediately made me think of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. I wonder if Altman’s film, also part of the revisionist films of the 1970s, which came out the year before Chinatown, is intertwined in the story.

This year’s César for best film went to Les Misérables, directed by Ladj Ly, which is not another adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel. It portrays life in a poor Parisian suburb where the police are corrupt and the residents are struggling just to get by. “People may not want to see certain parts of this film, but I’m going to make you see what real life looks like in this neighborhood. I’ve lived through this,” said the director.

In My Mother Laughs, released in the autumn of last year, “among the imperfectly perfect fragments of writing about her life,” Austrian filmmaker Chantal Akerman places “stills from her films. My Mother Laughs is both the distillation of the themes Akerman pursued throughout her creative life, and a version of the simplest and most complicated love story of all: that between a mother and a daughter.”

Posted by classiq in Books, Culture, Film | Leave a comment

Riding on the Highest Creative Crests and Living on the Edge of Darkness


 

“Believe me, the records don’t even begin to capture the special magic of the Dolls on a good night playing in a prissy little club to their elite little crowd of mascara-daubed misfits and vagrant vamps. Misty glitzy memories of the way we were. So cute. So vital. So star-crossed,” Nick Kent writes about the New York Dolls in his selected writings on rock music gathered in The Dark Stuff. About the arrival of The Rolling Stones, Kent says that “they looked simply out of this world, like a new delinquent aristocracy, and they played music of stunning arrogance and unbridled potency,” while “upon falling out of St Mary’s into the outstretched arms of the dole queue in 1975, Steven Morrissey’s life appears to have revolved around the music of the New York Dolls and sixties girl singers, the crucial ‘symbolic’ importance of James Dean, and the continuing lure of the written word.”

The written word is something Kent is really good at, too, and he uses it to great effect to to talk about rock, combined with a peering critical eye, an instinct for what is truly great, a devil-may-care attitude towards speaking his mind and a refusal to veneer stardom just for the sake of stardom or just because sometimes greatness comes at the cost of fame. These are intimate not glamorous, sincere not market-driven, stripped-down not sugar-coated portraits of some of the most influential musicians in rock history, be it truly gifted or simply rock stars, authentically dammed youths or legends who lived on to tell their own stories, all of them more or less self-destructive (from Brian Wilson, Brian Jones, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, to Keith Richards, Neil Young, Kurt Cobain and Axel Rose). And it all comes from a man who really knows his stuff as well as he really lived it right along with the ones he writes about. It encapsulates both riding on the highest creative crests and living on the edge of darkness (often at the same time) that come with making rock music and trying to live through it. Hell or high water.

Here are some of the best rock songs mentioned in “The Dark Stuff”.
 
 

 
 

“The Dark Stuff” is part of the Faber Social, released by Faber & Faber,
a selection of the best writings on music and culture.

 
 
More stories: In His Own Words, Morrissey / But Beautiful / M Train

Posted by classiq in Books, Culture, Sounds & Crafts | | Leave a comment