Thanks for the Use of the Hall - Archive

This archive contains posts from May 2007 to November 2008. More recent posts are at:

Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Notes on David Lean

Vadim Rizov asked me, in the comments for another post, for my reactions to the current David Lean retrospective at Film Forum. I don't consider myself a Lean authority, but here are notes from my journal, cleaned up a bit, on my last three Lean screenings. Unfortunately, I haven't the time right now to give the Film Forum series my full attention.

I've never been a Lean fan, always thought he belonged in "Less Than Meets the Eye" where Sarris put him. But it's not uncommon for directors to start their careers with promise (or more), and then lose the thread when their filmmaking circumstances are upgraded. I finally got interested in Lean when I saw Oliver Twist on television in 2005; and David Thomson's recent Guardian article on Lean make me curious to catch some 40s Lean films that I'd always let go by.

My journal notes:

Oliver Twist

I didn't like it for the first hour or so, but it grew on me. There is a pure expressionism to it that I find limiting, but Lean does all sorts of wacky style things, and some of them work for me: deep-focus effects where movement occurs in all layers of the image; generally a lot of density, lots of people and activity; some beautiful shots of London streets, with action moving from the front to the back of the frame; small touches of naturalism, like the excellent scenes with the dog. Overall, I feel weirdly drawn to the film. Lean seems to have less feeling for the material than Polanski, but one edge he has over Polanski is that he engages with the drama, so that the film gets better instead of worse as the hysteria mounts.


A compelling film, not original in terms of characterization, and not coherent, but full of interesting visual drama, often a result of overcrowded frames, sometimes a result of unexpected motion (like the sudden, glittering rain behind the first Todd/Desny kiss). There is a striking working-class dance-hall scene, used as an almost symbolic illustration of the lovers' state of mind, that is impressive in its density. (Unlike Thomson, I think that Lean has a taste for sex and abandon.) The most interesting aspect of the story, the brutality of the father's and the male lover's dominance, goes pretty much unexamined. At any rate, the plot mechanism in the second half makes nonsense of the first half: it requires an objective limitation of viewpoint that Lean had not tried for earlier, or even seemed to consider. I sense that he's weak on dramaturgy, though he likes drama.

The Passionate Friends

Less ridiculous in concept than Madeleine, but similar in that it doesn't seem to focus on any particular aspect of the love story. (It doesn't have much to do with duty, contrary to Thomson's implication.) The film also seemed less daring than Madeleine - on the whole, I liked it less. Its stylistic high point was a spectacular but rather meaningless ascent by cable car into the Alps. An important theme in the script - that Todd's character is a bit cold, and interested in money and security - is never manifested in characterization.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Wrap-Up

Vadim Rizov asked me for a wrap-up of Lincoln Center and IFC's Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series. I saw five films at Rendez-Vous, and had already seen one of the titles at Toronto. In approximate order of preference:

Tout est pardonné (All is Forgiven): I really like this one. The attention to ambient realism, and the chunky storytelling, reminded me a bit of Pialat, as did Hansen-Løve's willingness to let the characters contradict themselves emotionally from one scene to the next. (Pialat never would have chosen to tell a heartfelt story like this, though.) The film really kicks in in its second half, with the introduction of Constance Rousseau, who is the most expressive non-professional actor, like, ever. I loved the way Hansen-Løve declines to "narrate" the progression of the girl's feelings for her long-absent father: her plausible and understated emotions simply succeed each other across the time jumps.

Les Chansons d'amour (Love Songs): A weird movie that seems to be the expression of a genuinely weird personality. A big part of Honoré is old-fashioned surrealist, devoted to disconcerting and affronting us by various means, not the least of which is the use of the musical form in an unthinkable emotional context. And then, as if he has pushed hard enough to satisfy himself, he moves from acting out and goofiness into a solemn sincerity, and scores a number of emotionally complex coups. I kind of wish I could write the guy off, but I can't.

La Question humaine (Heartbeat Detector): A perplexing movie. I disliked it most of the way, but eventually acquired a grudging and partial respect for it. Klotz's odd distance from the fiction reminded me of Oliveira at times. When the Holocaust material is introduced in the second half, the film becomes almost too thematically tight, using the issue of the dangers of euphemistic technical language to put all its targets in one basket. The characters remain concepts and even mouthpieces, but Klotz's cold style becomes more impressive as it manages to stitch together the increasingly multifarious narrative.

Ceux qui restent (Those Who Remain): a character-based story with a few subtleties of conception but a rather heavy hand in the execution department. Both Lindon and Devos do a nice job with characters who are straitjacketed by their functions in the script. The story refuses to resolve in the expected way, failing to redeem the character who was earmarked for redemption. Not really a bad film, but not exciting enough either, suspended somewhere between the arty and the commercial.

Paris: I'm getting a little worn down by Klapisch. The film's brisk scene switches among the ensemble are interesting for a while, but practically every vignette is turned to some showy, exhibitionistic purpose. None of the characters really got their due, though there were lots of good performances, especially Binoche's.

Un baiser s'il vous plaît (Shall We Kiss?): rough sledding for me. It reminded me of a variety skit played at half-speed: characters are stripped down until they serve only the barest comic functions, discomfort and awkwardness are dragged out as long as possible. The concept of love on display here is so fantastically simplified that only a naif or a nihilist could be satisfied with it.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Toronto 2007

My coverage of the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival is now online at the Senses of Cinema site.


Monday, June 4, 2007

Brooklyn International Film Festival

The Brooklyn Film Festival started on Friday, and I didn't even hear about it until today. But someone did a very nice job with their website: their list of features is well organized and contains just about all the info one could want, including director filmographies, each film's festival history, and trailers for nearly every title. Interestingly, the trailers that appealed to me were for titles that had not looked promising at all: Cover Boy...Last Revolution, The Rocket, and Forfeit. There's something mysterious about the lighting and the grain of the images in the Rocket trailer that really grabs me.