Sunday, January 17, 2010

Eric Rohmer (1920-2010): A Pioneer in Hitchcock Criticism

Earlier this past week I was writing about the recently released Blu-ray edition of North by Northwest and the new documentary by Gary Leva contained therein when I learned of the passing of the French director, writer, actor, novelist, and critic Eric Rohmer.

The obits were full of laudatory quotes about Rohmer’s impressive list of credits, his impact on the French New Wave of the 1960s, his deep understanding of the female characters in his films, his standing among his contemporaries—Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol—but mentioned only briefly was his writing/editing for Cahiers du Cinéma and the subsequent impact he and his colleagues had on cinema studies over the past fifty years.

It was of course the Cahiers du Cinéma critics that first called serious attention to Alfred Hitchcock and canonized him as an auteur. Of those critics, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol were the first to compile a book-length study on the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Published in French in 1957, their groundbreaking work was later translated into English and published under the title Hitchcock: The First Forty-four Films. Taking Hitchcock’s films chronologically, from The Pleasure Garden through The Wrong Man, Rohmer and Chabrol searched for themes, motifs, and oft used devices which defined Hitchcock's signature style and more importantly, which elevated him to the status of auteur and artist—not merely an entertainer.

As Albert LaValley put it in his introduction to Focus on Hitchcock, the structural key to Hitchcock's films "discovered" by Rohmer and Chabrol was "a transfer of guilt in which an innocent weak figure yields to a stronger evil figure and thereby shares the evil desires of the latter." In its simplicity, the key fits, thus Rohmer and Chabrol opened the door for scholars like Robin Wood and Donald Spoto, whose book-length appreciations of the director remain key works in Hitchcock studies some thirty and forty years afterward. Later came writers like Stephen Rebello, Leonard Leff, and Dan Auiler who chronicled the production history of key films and collaborations of Hitchcock’s. Combined with Truffaut’s interview book Hitchcock and the scores of books and mini-documentaries (not to mention the countless websites and blogs), and its quite a dialogue this Englishman with a talent for telling stories has brought on.

There is no question that if he isn’t considered so already, within a hundred years’ time, Alfred Hitchcock will be to the cinema what William Shakespeare is to theater.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

My Top 20 Movies of the Decade

With many hours spent in transit over the past week, I've amused myself by glancing over the many best of the decade lists that are inevitably compiled as a decade comes to a close.

There are many movie lists, some with a few surprises, some fairly obvious and safe, and others with glaring omissions. These are subjective, to be sure, hence here are my own choices, in alphabetical order, of the twenty movies I shall remember best from this past decade:

1) Adaptation (2002)
What can I say? I’m a sucker for movies set against the backdrop moviemaking or more specifically in this case, screenwriting. Charlie Kaufman has some great fun here, even managing to work screenwriting guru Robert McKee into the mix.
2) American Splendor (2003)
In a decade where movies from comic books ruled, the story of the irascible Harvey Pekar, which mixed the real Harvey, his comic book persona, and Harvey as portrayed by Paul Giamatti, was thoroughly entertaining, even if you’ve never picked up an issue of American Splendor.
3) The Aviator (2004)
While Martin Scorsese finally walked away with his hard-earned, long-deserved Oscar recognition for The Departed, the story of a young Howard Hughes, 1930s Hollywood, and the birth of international air travel was really his best effort of the decade.
4) Capote (2005)
I’ve always been a fan of biopics that hone in on a specific period of time in the life of its subject (think Gods and Monsters, think Ed Wood), rather than those of the birth-to-death variety. Dan Futterman’s script focuses on how In Cold Blood forever changed both the publishing world and its author.
5) Casino Royale (2006)
I’ve never been a big fan of the Bond franchise, but the recent incarnation with Daniel Craig puts realistic, albeit high-adrenaline action sequences above the cartoonish villains and gadgets of its predecessors.
6) Choke (2008)
Not simply because it’s the only Chuck Palahniuk adaptation to make it to the screen this decade, but because Clark Gregg did such a damned good job adapting it, that he managed to retain Chuck’s voice and give the characters a cinematic life of their own—much like Fight Club did a decade earlier.
7) The Dark Knight (2008)
By the end of my first viewing of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, I was so engrossed that I was ready for the sequel to begin. One of those rare occasions when the sequel surpasses its predecessor, and all hype and drama surrounding the untimely death of Heath Ledger aside, he really owns this movie.
8) Donnie Darko (2001)
I truly do need to see this one again. And I mean the original release, not the director’s cut, which for some reason left me less taken with the film when I saw it last. Nevertheless, I’m including it on my list.
9) Elf (2003)
You just got to love it for what it is. If Will Ferrell makes you laugh and you grew up on the Rankin/Bass holiday animations, this captures the spirit of both in the Christmas movie of the decade.
10) He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (2002)
I’ve seen Amelie mentioned on quite a few other lists, but whenever anyone mentions that film or its star, Audrey Tautou, I like to point them toward this twisted little tale which uses the device of telling the same story from two completely different points of view. Although the stories are very different, this film reminded me of Joe May’s Confession with Kay Francis, which was a shot-for-shot remake of the German film Mazurka.
11) In Bruges (2008)
There is so much packed into this little gem of a film about redemption, guilt, and honor. Writer/director Martin McDonagh has got to hold some record for the Oscar nominated screenplay with the most uses of the word “cunt.”
12) Inglourious Basterds (2009)
With a starmaking performance by Christoph Waltz, Quentin Tarantino puts a nice spin on history. Admittedly, I was kicking myself about the many similarities with a script I’d written a number of years ago, which was the flipside of this situation—the hero in my story uncovers a Nazi spy ring working in Hollywood and must foil a plot to kill all of the Jewish studio heads at a single location.
13) Melinda and Melinda (2004)
Woody Allen explores the inherent comedy and tragedy of life as the same story is told in two ways by two writers. What I like about this film is how the “comic” and “tragic” stories flip, so that the comedy becomes the tragedy and vice versa. It reminded me of Billy Wilder’s later comedies which reach a point where the plight of the good-guy schnook is no longer funny.
14) Memento (2000)
Okay, by now you’ve come to see that I love movies that break away from telling a linear narrative. Thus, you’d have to be Guy Pearce’s character to forget this one.
15) Moulin Rouge! (2001)
I felt that the list needed a musical and felt that the decade’s cinematic adaptations of theatrical musicals was wanting—Chicago was overrated; The Phantom of the Opera lacked Michael Crawford’s voice; Mamma Mia!–Abba? ‘Nuff said; and Nine rated a 3 at most.
16) Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo del Toro’s masterful and beautiful children’s fairy-tale for adults.
17) The Secretary (2002)
The sheer originality and audacity of this ultra-quirky love story combined with humorous and oddly touching performances of Maggie Gyllenhal and James Spader
18) Sex and Lucia (2001)
Not only because it introduced me to the lustrous beauty of Paz Vega, but I like to point to this film as one shot on video, that has a filmic look. Compare this to Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009), which to me was the greatest waste of talent this decade—a cast that included Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, and Marion Cotilliard—it was shot on video and looks like it.
19) Sideways (2004)
This one just goes to show that a really good script paired with an excellent cast, led by Paul Giamatti, is the best recipe for a great film. Although Giamatti proved his worth as a leading man a year earlier in American Splendor, the mass appeal of this film introduced him to a wider audience.
20) Team America
You’ve just got to see it, that’s all I’m going to say. But make sure you get the uncut version to see what is unquestionably the greatest sex scene of the decade.