‘Look upon me! I’ll show you the Weekly Recap of the Mind!’

9/9: Before Sunrise (1995)

Before Sunrise listening booth Julie Delpy Ethan Hawke

I was convinced Before Sunrise’s talky sequences, its breezy attitude towards mise-en-scene were a kind of a “fuck you” exercise. I was convinced these two young travelers, seemingly so naive and unsure and yet so cynical about the world, would never end up falling into making their own kind of plans, that they themselves were never able to resist what appears so inevitable. Alas, Richard Linklater has pulled a fast one on me.

I screen capped that particular sequence — where Etahn Hawke and Julie Delpy share a wordless moment inside a Viennese record store’s listening booth — because these actors’ skills are on complete display in a touching scene that’s devoid of any dialogue. There’s a palpable restlessness to Before Sunrise’s beginning, with a rather forward invitation to spend an evening in Austria between strangers. Uma Thurman muses in Pulp Fiction over the unsung virtues of “comfortable silences,” spaces in between conversations where neither party feels compelled to yack about mindless bullshit. In Before Sunrise’s listening booth, neither one’s eyes ever lock for more than an instant, but the slow brew of what becomes a deep, meaningful evening is right in that silence.

Richard Linklater pulled a fast one on me. Thank God for that.

9/10: Barton Fink (1991)

Barton Fink John Turturro Coen Bros

Where’s the difference in two opaque films like Barton Fink, a tremendous cinematic achievement in arthouse, and Primer, a film I do not care for, to put it lightly?

Barton Fink, among my personal favorites of the Coens Brothers, is a tremendous film, but it’s also tremendously opaque. Its images are bountiful: peeling wallpaper; rolling waves against the shore; a swimsuit-clad woman gazing out past the ocean; extreme close-ups on a typewriter; the shuddering knees of John Mahoney’s alcoholic novelist against the bathroom tile; the very fires of Perdition swallowing the Hotel Earle whole, etc. Their resonances are as evocative as they are mystifying, and at times, it seems as though not every element was designed to fit perfectly in such a way. The Coens situate John Turturro’s playwright-turned-screenwriter within disjunctive spaces, placing him next to haunting hotel neighbors and big, broad secondary caricatures. It’s a jarring world that never quite fits, but it’s also a world oddly attuned to Barton’s own displacement.

So why does Barton Fink’s lack of clarity work while another opaqe arthouse film, like Primer for example, doesn’t? Shane Carruth’s terse mini-essay on time travel presents a veritable wall of process and experimentation, but like a random chunk of thick physics textbook, it’s overwhelming and dry. Primer wants the viewer to know how hard its engineers have worked to develop their device. Barton Fink’s imagery on the other hand, is much more in keeping with the painting of that swimsuit-clad woman, seeming to beckon out to Barton as it hangs above his hotel room desk. It’s an invitation, even when the answers appear unknown. “What’s in the box?” “I don’t know.”

9/14: Liberal Arts (2012)

Liberal Arts Josh Radnor

“You are a snob.”
“No, I’m not.”
“You think it’s cool to hate things. And it’s not. It’s boring.”

If Liberal Arts has any agenda, and even that is debatable, Elizabeth Olsen and Josh Radnor’s coffee shop tête-à-tête over the merits of vampire romance criticism isn’t enough to excuse the laziness of its script. Radnor, who also directs, presents a middling drama where an admissions counselor strikes up a relationship with Olsen’s much younger and much, much quirkier college student.

Radnor, oddly enough, plays a veritable copy of How I Met Your Mother’s Ted Mosby, flighty and fickle in the social interactions that count yet professional enough to maintain a cushy middle class lifestyle. That Radnor’s character in Liberal Arts also floats around a college campus seems less than coincidental. Olsen makes good enough use of two-dimensional material, but Liberal Arts never bothers to plum the depths of its two leads’ motivations, instead settling for watered down denouement and weightless literary suggestions. Can’t I just pretend this is HIMYM fan fiction?

9/14: Army of Shadows (1969)

army-of-shadows cinematheque

The story behind Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows, unseen in the United States for nearly forty years, is a sad one. Then again, Army of Shadows is a sad story.

In her Criterion essay “Out of the Shadows,” Amy Taubin notes Melville’s Army of Shadows, despite its period setting, shares more in common with the director’s previous gangster films than with his earlier wartime pictures:

Army of Shadows was the third and final film in which Melville dealt directly with the German occupation of France—Le silence de la mer (1949), his first feature, and Léon Morin, prêtre (1961) were also set during that time—and his only film devoted to the Resistance. But it was made in the middle of his stunning late run of gangster films, preceded by Le deuxième souffle (1966) and Le samouraï (1967) and followed by Le cercle rouge (1970) and Un flic (1972), and it has more in common with them, formally, narratively, and philosophically, than with the earlier war films.

Much in the same manner that Le doulos deals with perilously flawed characters inside increasingly damning circumstances, Army of Shadows consists of complex, interlacing, and downward-spirals of narratives in several French Resistance fighters during World War II. Melville never draws any literal connections, but it’s not hard to see where Taubin was coming from. Lino Ventura’s Philippe Gerbier must lie, steal, and especially, murder under circumstances that would seemingly damn his eventual fate. As the freedom fighters squirm out of each German execution or police ambush, the walls of their collective safety slowly close in on them. Even within a historical framework, there’s a poetry to Melville’s doomed narratives here that mirrors any from Jean-Paul Belmondo.

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