cinephile

The Godard Connection

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Louis Garrel as Jean-Luc Godard in Godard Mon Amour by Michel Hazanavicius, a Cohen Media Group release.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about the ongoing internal debates I have about why movies matter, why I write about film, why I make films, etc., etc. Just a few days after writing that post I was offered a screener of the new film by Michel Hazanavicius, Godard Mon Amour (a.k.a. Redoubtable). The film is based on the 2015 book Un an Après  Anne Wiazemsky wrote about her love affair with and subsequent marriage to one of France’s most famous directors and general provocateurs, Jean-Luc Godard. Their relationship came about in the late 1960s, and the focus of the film is the political upheaval in Paris in May of 1968, leading to the cancellation of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in response to student and worker protests in Paris. It struck me as incredibly serendipitous for me to come across this film at this particular moment, as what emerges through the story is a Godard undergoing a reevaluation of his life, his work, and the meaning (or lack thereof) inherent in making, talking about, writing about, and seeing films.

The film begins with a huge title saying “Wolfgang Amadeus Godard,” cluing us into the geni

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The real Jean-Luc Godard

us of Godard in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Louis Garrel (son of French New Wave director Philip Garrel) plays Godard as arrogant, self-centered, and rather obnoxious, but at the same time he reveals a deeply committed artist who, like the rest of us, is uncertain about his relevance in the world, vulnerable, and awkward. As he walks in solidarity with student protestors vastly younger than him, he is supportive of them politically and philosophically, but at the same time reluctant to pass the torch. His relationship with Anne (Stacy Martin) is passionate, but at the same time Godard doesn’t really see her for who she is. It is in this context that Godard goes to Cannes at his wife’s urging, although he feels it is ridiculous to go to a film festival when there is violence in the streets, and a revolution is in the making. He goes, but along with several notable directors, shuts down screenings and convinces the jury to officially end the festival several days earlier than planned in the name of solidarity with protestors and, in a sense, an acknowledgement that the festivities do not align with the important debates and issues going on in contemporary French culture.

Hazanavicious, whom I interviewed for Cineaste several years ago in regard to his modern-day silent film The Artist, has a knack for bringing cinematic history to life using a clever interplay between form and subject matter. In The Artist, he told the story of silent actors on the cusp of obsolescence as the Sound Era arrives, and he did so in a silent (except for one part) black-and-white movie. With Godard Mon Amour, again Hazanavicius connects story and cinematic form by creating a movie about Godard that follows the  style, idiosyncrasies, and self-referential nature of Godard’s own best known films from that period. For example, in a scene in which Godard and Anne  discuss whether or not the nudity in a script she’s reading is justified or simply gratuitous, the two walk around stark naked. It is this kind of self-reflexivity in Godard’s films that really made his work so uniquely “a Godard film.”

Godard Mon Amour feels particularly relevant now in this country even as it is about something that happened 50 years ago on another continent. As we see our own, albeit less dominating, student revolt and watch the astounding responses to it, any thinking artist is wondering about the role of art and cinema in divisive times. With every day bringing forth another horror from somewhere around the globe, another reason to question our work and our futures, Jean-Luc Godard’s concerns have never seemed more relatable than they do here. It’s not only  his existential angst that resonates, but also the enfant-terrible arrogance invites some thought about separating great artists from their personalities and whether or not that’s possible.

But contemporary sociopolitical dialogues aside, Godard Mon Amour also succeeds in reminding us what was so endearing about Godard’s work and about the French New Wave itself. There’s humor to it. It’s not all theoretical cinephilia, even as that serves as a basis for much of his work. At the end of Godard Mon Amour I immediately yearned to watch Godard’s films again. Although I adored the last film I saw by Godard, his 3-D Goodbye to Language, it is those earlier, daring films I saw in film school that I craved most. Doing so did wonders for my cinematic soul, and I hope you’ll revisit them as well, especially Masculin Feminin, Pierrot le fou, Alphaville, and of course, Breathless.

Godard Mon Amour opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, April 20, and will open at the Kendall Square Theater in Cambridge, Mass., shortly thereafter.

 

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What’s the Point?…Or Something Like a Manifesto

For about a year now I’ve been struggling with my “cinephilia.” What is the point in writing about movies? What is the point in going to movies? What is the point of making movies? Wouldn’t my skills, time, and effort be better used in the service of something more directly meaningful in the world?

If you guessed that I am middle-aged, you’re correct, however I don’t think this concern is confined to my age range. You can probably recall numerous times in your life when an existential crisis stared you in the face and left you temporarily paralyzed; I know I can. And if you are, like me, someone involved with the arts—a field that I feel stronger every day has much to offer this disturbing world, but which is rarely celebrated as “important”—that questioning of your life’s purpose probably pops up more often for you than it does for those in fields more readily accepted as valuable to society.

So why write about movies? Isn’t it a medium that vacillates between meaningless Hollywood product and inaccessible, irrelevant “small films”? I don’t really have the answer, but I do know that for me at least some of the most enlightening experiences I’ve ever had have been in a dark theater entranced by someone’s vision. And on occasion, I’ve even been transfixed by such visions on the small television screen in the comfort of my living room. I’ve seen worlds I could never witness first hand. I’ve met characters that help me understand my place in the world even as (or maybe because) they do not resemble me in the slightest. When I learn about a film coming out by a director or writer that has given me this in the past, I am delirious with excitement. So often I find that the film I am anxious to see never makes it to a movie theater near me because I do not live in a city anymore. I travel hundreds of miles to film festivals to see such films so I can share them with someone either through this blog, through my work at Provincetown Magazine, or even just in private conversations and on social media. This deeply held connection I feel tells me there is something there that is worth writing about.

Why make movies? There are lots of ways to communicate with the rest of the world creatively and otherwise, but in the 25 years that I’ve been making films professionally, I have found that there is no better way to learn about aspects of life that mystify you. Whether interviewing feminist sex workers, Cold War era veterans, or Catholic nuns, spending time with an eccentric recluse, or exploring the dimensions of my grandmother’s religious faith and mental illness, each film as forever changed me and made me into who I am today.

I can’t make any promises because this is a blog I write without compensation from anyone and with very little feedback from anyone, so it is hard to sustain my motivation. However, I am going to try to continue writing here about films and filmmakers that move me. I do not want to write about films that don’t move me or that are poorly done unless they hold some mirror up to our society and show us something about ourselves that needs discussing.

There is something beautiful about the empathy films can generate.

There is something enchanting and magical—even now, in the age of the Internet —about losing yourself in someone else’s dream on the screen.

Film is not the only art to have the capacity for building empathy or for mesmerizing us, but it is an incredibly important one because of its sheer ubiquity. Cinema came about as a working-class art form and remains that way for me, even as it’s been elevated in academic departments and media studies echelons (even ones I belong to as a Associate Teaching Professor at The New School). It will always be an art for the masses, and I think it could become an art by the masses as well. We are finally seeing films by people of color, women, and others who have been relegated to small projects in the past, and I am heartened by this.

So I will continue to write about films that stand out to me as much as I can, and I will continue to make films about people who do things I would never do. I still don’t know why I make films, why I obsessively see films, or why I write about them, but I continue to feel this powerful urge to engage with others about what I experience on the screen, and so I will continue to do that here. I hope the point will become clear to me some day, but in the mean time please forgive my self-indulgence, if that’s what it is.

Provincetown Film Festival Comes to a Close

This year’s Provincetown International Film Festival gave us another great lineup of events and screenings, showing that 18 years in, they still know how to do a festival right. The concept of “filmmaking on the edge” has always been the major identifying factor in this festival, which, while it takes place in a mecca for LGBT residents and tourists, has never been  a narrowly defined festival.

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Ang Lee receiving the Filmmaker on the Edge Award at the Provincetown International Film Festival on Saturday, June 18, 2016. Photo: Rebecca M. Alvin

The concept of “the edge” is a fluid one, and it can mean many different things, a fact that was not lost on this year’s Filmmaker on the Edge awardee Ang Lee. The Chinese-American director of such brilliant films as Brokeback Mountain, The Ice Storm, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon said in his acceptance speech at an event in Provincetown Town Hall on Saturday evening, “I don’t know what the edge is and I don’t want to know. I like the mystery… I want to keep lying to you in the dark.”

Lee also spoke about the inspiration to become a filmmaker coming from the response he had to Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, a film he confesses he did not understand, but which for some reason stayed with him. “I saw the world differently.”

Asked by a young man in the audience what advice he’d give to aspiring filmmakers, Lee was frank in saying, “Don’t do it.” He explained it is such a difficult path to take that no one should go into it lightly. “I’m very fortunate to do what my heart tells me to do,” he said. “You have to really like it to do it, and if you do you don’t need my encouragement.”

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Cynthia Nixon, the Festival’s Excellence in Acting awardee speaking about her work this past Saturday at Provincetown Town Hall. Photo: Rebecca M. Alvin

The Festival also gave out an Excellence in Acting Award to Cynthia Nixon, who is perhaps best know for her role as Miranda in Sex in the City, but also has numerous award-winning credits in television, movies, and theater. In fact, she’s been performing professionally since she was 9 years old. Nixon, who is married to a woman, said she’d been working on the television movie Killing Reagan, which premieres this fall, and that this was her first time in Provincetown. “I’d just come from a month of playing Nancy Reagan… It’s nice to wake up from 1981 and see where we all are. It’s good to be here.”

When asked how her work for gay marriage in New York and in support of public education connected with her acting work, Nixon was clear, saying “When you make art with a political agenda, it often sullies in in a way… I like to keep my politics and my art separate.”

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Agata Kulesza in The Innocents (2016), which won this year’s Audience Award for best narrative feature.

On Sunday, after the Closing Night film Strike a Pose, the festival film awards were announced. Of special note was the HBO Audience Award winner for Narrative Feature: The Innocents, a beautiful, heartbreaking film about nuns in a convent in Poland in 1945 who seek the help of a young French woman training to be a doctor with the French Red Cross when several of them find themselves in the late stages of pregnancy. Beautifully photographed and so well acted, it is no surprise this was chosen as the best narrative film of the festival.

In addition, the following awards were also given:

– HBO Audience Award / Best Documentary Feature (tie): The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, directed by Morgan Neville and Political Animals directed by Jonah Markowitz and Tracy Wares
– HBO Short Documentary Award: Territory, directed by Eleanor Mortimer
– The John Schlesinger Award, presented to a first time feature filmmaker (narrative): Blood Stripe, directed by Remy Auberjonois
– The John Schlesinger Award, presented to a first time feature filmmaker (documentary): Off the Rails, directed by Adam Irving
 – Here Media Award – Best Queer Short Film: One Last Night, directed by Kerem Blumberg
– Best Narrative Short Film: Thunder Road, directed by Jim Cummings
– Best Animated Short Film: Glove, directed by Alexa Haas and Bernardo Britto
– Best New England Short Film: Black Canaries, directed by Jesse Kreitzer
– Best Student Short Film: The Mink Catcher, directed by Samantha Buck
– Special Mention: ¡Mais Duro!, directed by Camila Saldarriaga
The Short Film Jury consisted of Ian Samuels (filmmaker, Myrna the Monster), Lisanne Skyler (filmmaker, Brillo Box (3¢ Off)) and Kim Yutani (Senior Programmer, Sundance Film Festival).

Woods Hole’s Own Kristin Alexander Kicks off the 2016 Season

Back in 2002, I started a film screening series in the basement of the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse in Chatham. We showed underground indie films by filmmakers from New York, San Francisco, Boston, and elsewhere in two 10-week seasons a year on Friday nights. That went on for a couple of years and then I began showing films at various venues on the Cape, including the Provincetown Art Association & Museum, the Woods Hole Film Festival Winter Series, WHAT in Wellfleet, and Payomet Performing Arts Center in North Truro.

Now the Cape Cod Film Society screenings are back, this time at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod, right smack in the middle of the Cape, in South Yarmouth. Although the series is no longer a weekly program, this monthly format is going to be great, with screenings generally at 3 pm on the second Sunday of every month, September through May.

Woods Hole filmmaker Kristin Alexander is an extraordinary talent, with a background so diverse it includes dance, nursing, and of course, filmmaking. She kicks off our series this Sunday, January 10th at 3 pm with two short films she made about different aspects of life in Bermuda. One is about Mwalimu Melodye Micëre Van Putten, a fascinating educator bringing an Afrocentric curriculum to schools in order to rectify the systematic disenfranchisement of students of African descent, like many of the residents of Bermuda. The film, called Healing History, is an eye-opening account of Van Putten’s work and objectives that everyone needs to see.

 

The second film we’re showing, Trusting Rain, discusses water conservation efforts in Bermuda, which is something that should be of great interest on Cape Cod, even as we routinely waste water, in denial of the potential for drought.

I asked Kristin to answer a few questions to introduce you to her work. She will be attending the January 10th screening so you can ask your own questions of her at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod that afternoon at 3 pm.

Rebecca Alvin: When did you begin making films, and what drew you to fillmmaking?
Kristin Alexander:  I find filmmaking a creative outlet that also allows me to bring a voice to people and ideas that I feel are important.  Sort of visual advocacy.  I had some experience with film as a teenager, coming to Cape Cod in summer:  MAW productions, started by two brothers who made 8mm short films, which involved all the neighborhood kids in some way.  It was great fun and the films were quite good.  I studied communication and film for a time in college, in the days of linear editing.  When the digital revolution hit, I picked it up again.  At that time I was integrating film into dance performances on stage.  My first documentary Nothing without Joy followed 5 women on Cape Cod surviving cancer.  That was in about 2001.  I really enjoyed all aspects of making that film, from the cinematography to editing.  Since then I have completed 12 short documentaries, several of which have won awards on the festival circuit.  I have also assisted in several films as cinematographer, and participated in fundraising using my skills as a filmmaker.

RA: How did you come up with the idea for Healing History? What was your connection to it?
KA: Healing History evolved out of meeting Melodye, who is a teacher, poet and performance artist.  She is teaching African history from a new perspective, not one that most of us learned in history books.  I found her to be passionate and interesting.  We met through her husband, who had been in my film Trusting Rain [also screening on January 10th].  I asked if I could do a video portrait of her, and she declined.  I later asked again, and she looked at some of my previous work, and decided to give it a try.  She was skeptical, as her previous experiences with white folk had not been overwhelmingly positive.  She was teaching primarily black children and adults, to give them a sense of themselves and their history, teaching that they are descendants of genius, and are desperately needed in the world today.  The filming took several years, and spanned between her work in Philadelphia and Bermuda.  During this time it became apparent (via current events), that her work was even more necessary.

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RA: What has been the reaction to the film?
KA: Healing History has been on the festival circuit, from Bermuda, to several cities in the U.S., Africa World in St. Louis and in Cameroon, Jamaica and the Pan African Cannes.  Interestingly, it has been invited to almost all of the Black festivals in which we applied, and only two of the mainstream festivals (as well as the Cape Cod Film Society).  It has been positively received, overwhelmingly in the Black festivals.  The Pan African Cannes and Bermuda Film Festival had a mixed audience, and the discussion was controversial at times, and quite extensive.

RA: Tell me about the film Trusting Rain? How did that originate?
KA: Trusting Rain is a film about rainwater collection in Bermuda, and the island residents’ relationship to water.  The island has no rivers or streams, and has historically been dependent on rain collected on roofs and stored in tanks below the house.  Times have changed, and as the island becomes more populated, this precious resource is dwindling.  Many tourists who come to Bermuda have no idea that the water used for drinking and showers is collected from rain.  I was fascinated by the stories of the ‘old timers’ and how careful they were with water, to the new generation and the overall waste, requiring desalinization plants to maintain the self sufficiency.

RA: That film seems to connect very directly to issues we have around water on Cape Cod. Do you agree?
KA: Potable water is a worldwide problem.  Certainly on Cape Cod, where there is seemingly not much concern about water shortage.  I had done a film about a scientist who is using a natural process to clean wastewater for re-use (Green Eco-Machine).  This kind of technology is so needed, but seems so foreign to people.  I feel clean water has become one of the great worries of our time.  We need to change our relationship to water, as a precious resource.

RA: You’ve made a lot of different films about different topics and in different styles.  Is there some sort of through-line in your work?
KA: My documentary films tend toward portraits of people, delving into their lives in various countries and at home.  I am very interested in people who are doing things to make a change in the world.  I enjoy filming nature, and finding positive work that is being done to help the environment.

RA: Are you working on any new films now?
KA: Currently I am finishing the edit on an older portrait, and have two ideas that I am working on, we shall see how that plays out!

Kristin Alexander’s films will be shown on Sunday, January 10, 3 pm at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod, located at 307 Old Main St., South Yarmouth, Mass. Tickers ($10) can be purchased in advance by calling the Cultural Center: 508- 394-7100,  or at the door that afternoon.

©2015 Rebecca M. Alvin All Rights Reserved