Last week, I talked about how the themes of this month were going to be foreign films and films made by and starring people of color, in honor of Black History Month. I have utterly failed on that last one. Films by people of color are a large hole in my cinematic viewing history and I really do need to start filling it. But like so many other times when I’ve failed at watching certain types of films during one month, it all comes down to availability. White males have dominated the film industry since there was a film industry, especially in Hollywood. The number of black directors, producers, and stars in the industry is much smaller. The number of those films readily available on your various streaming platforms is even smaller. They are out there (the Criterion Channel has done a decent job of highlighting some of them) but I’ve been slack at finding them and sitting down with them. I’ll try to do better.
Where I failed with that theme, I have excelled at smashing my Foreign Film February goals. I’ve watched numerous films from countries that I do not live in speaking languages I do not understand. So let's get to them.
The 400 Blows
François Truffaut had a difficult childhood. His parents didn’t want him, he was expelled from several schools, and went AWOL during his military service. His one refuge was the cinema. In the late 1950s, he began writing for the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma where he became renowned for his brutal critiques. In 1959, he wrote and directed his first feature-length film, the autobiographical The 400 Blows. It was a huge success. He won the Best Director award for it at the Cannes Film Festival and helped usher in the French New Wave.
I first watched it nearly twenty years ago. I was a couple of years out of college, and a full-fledged cinephile but only just beginning my love for foreign films. My wife was in graduate school at the time getting her Masters Degree in French Linguistics. She and most of her friends (which by extension meant most of my friends) were great Francophiles, lovers of all things French. While I had never heard of Truffaut at the time, they often spoke of him, especially The 400 Blows.
The local library had a copy of the Criterion edition of the film so I took it home one day and watched it. I remember being underwhelmed. It was clearly a good film, and an important one but something about it didn’t hit me just right. My rather foggy memory of that viewing is that it was rather dour, over-serious film about a juvenile delinquent getting into constant trouble.
Over the years, I’ve seen one or two of its sequels (though I can no longer remember which ones) and while they were lighter in tone, they too didn’t quite do it for me. I’ve since become a very large fan of Truffaut’s films, but I never returned to The 400 Blows until this week. Having owned the boxed set of his Antoine Doinel films (Truffaut returned to the main character of The 400 Blows in one short film and three feature-length ones) but never cracking open the packaging, I decided it would be fun to watch all of those films for Foreign Film February.
I don’t know what was wrong with me during that initial viewing of The 400 Blows because watching it this time I found it to be quite amazing. It is not the over serious film I remember it being, but one filled with adventure, action, and quite a bit of comedy. I was quite shocked watching it this time at just how funny it is.
As noted, it is semi-autobiographical with the character of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) standing in for Truffaut. He is a young boy growing up in Paris in the 1950s. His mother is constantly harsh with him (we learn later that she didn’t want him and had intended on having an abortion but was convinced by her mother to have him) and his step-father is aloof. His teachers are very strict and he often gets in trouble. The film acts as a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive story and we follow Antoine as he skips school, sneaks into the cinema, has fun at an arcade, and runs away on several occasions.
There are serious moments in the film, and Truffaut never backs away from the harsh reality of Antoine’s life, but he fills it with little moments of delight. Such as when the camera follows a group of students being led through the streets of Paris by their athletic instructor, observing them one by one slip away to have fun rather than march. Or when Antoine rides one of those gravity-defying machines at the fair turns himself upside down.
I’m very glad I returned to this film after so many years had past and found it to be so much better than I had remembered.
Antoine and Colette
In 1962, Truffaut returned to Antoine Doinel in this short film that was part of a collection of short films by five different directors entitled Love at 20. Antoine is now 17 years of age and is working at a record manufacturing company and thrilled to finally be on his own. He spies Colette ((Marie-France Pisier) at a concert, begins following her around until he can screw up the courage the talk to her, and eventually they become fast friends. Her parents like him a whole lot but she continually rebuffs his romantic advances, thinking of him only as a friend.
Truffaut fills the short amount of time he has with this film with loads of wonderful little moments. It reminded me so much of my life before I got married when I’d see a beautiful woman and want desperately to talk to her, but to have no idea how. And then when I’d finally talk myself into approaching her, I’d wind up in that dreaded friend zone. But instead of heartbreaking, Antoine and Colette is touching, warm, and delightful.
This is the last film in this series I watched this week. I’m hoping to catch the rest of them next week. It was made in 1968 and finds Antoine once again adrift in life and love. It begins with him being discharged from the Army for he continually went AWOL no matter where he was sent. He lands a job as a night clerk at a hotel but is fired when he allows a private detective to take a man up to the room where she is cheating on him. The detective likes him enough to give him a job at the agency. For most of the film, we follow Antoine on various detective jobs where he proves to be rather lousy at them. He also tries to reconnect with his old sweetheart.
This is the funniest of the three films in the series I’ve seen thus far. At heart, it is a straight-up comedy putting Antoine into one situation after another where he clearly doesn’t belong. Truffaut gives it enough pathos and heart so that it doesn’t divert too far from the previous films, but it really is quite humorous throughout.
City of the Living Dead
I am a horror fan in general, and an Italian horror fan in specific. I don’t watch the genre nearly as much as I’d like too because my wife hates horror and my daughter is a little young to be viewing such things. I try to watch them at night when the daughter is asleep and the wife busy with other things but the list of things I want to watch during that period is long and the actual time to watch them so very small.
The three biggest directors of Italian horror are Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci. Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to watch as many films by them as I can (but again it is slow going considering the time frame I have to watch). Out of the three, Fulci is my least favorite. Bava and Argento are great stylists; they make films that are always visually interesting even when the actual stories aren’t great. Fulci seems more interested in gore. His films are often not particularly stylish or all that interesting story-wise, but are often filled with lots of bloody gore. As a horror fan, I can get behind some gruesomeness, but ultimately I need a bit more than that.
The plot of City of the Living Dead makes very little sense. There’s something about opening a portal to Hell which allows the dead to come back alive. All of which is taking place on the small village of which sits on top of what was once Salem, you know the place of the witch trials, only in this case I guess there really were witches. The editing is choppy so that it bounces from one place to another in such a haphazard way it is difficult to tell exactly what is going on.
But the reason to watch it is the gore and there is plenty of that including a woman buried alive, another woman whose eyes begin to bleed (which is a cool effect and in that very Fulci way is followed by her barfing up all her internal organs) and a windstorm full of maggots. The good is intermingled with that bad, which mostly consists of really cheap effects of various internal organs being viewed from the outside all of which look like ground beef squirming with Earthworms.
But for all its faults, if you are a fan of the genre then you simply must watch this one.
I’m usually a big fan of the Oscars. I’m never able to watch all the nominated films before the awards ceremony, and honestly, I don’t really care who wins, but I enjoy the pageantry, the spectacle, and the ridiculousness that is Film Twitter commenting on it all. This year I actually forgot that it was happening last Sunday until about half an hour before it began. We rushed home, gobbled a sandwich, and headed upstairs for the viewing (upstairs being the one place in the house where the TV picks up any kind of signal via an antenna).
It started with a wonderful song full by Janelle Monáe that hit hard on the fact that once again the major nominees were white people, but then it just kind of fizzled. Like last year, there was no host, but we were treated to a lot of celebrities introducing other celebrities who then introduced the nominees. There were a lot of random songs not actually nominated and then I tuned out and watched a movie.
That movie wasn’t Marriage Story but that film was nominated for a lot of Oscars and I actually have seen it so now I’m gonna talk about it. It was directed by Noah Baumbach and stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as a married couple going through a divorce. There’s been a lot of chatter on Twitter over whom one should root for in the story, but I found both characters compelling and thoroughly flawed. To me, it wasn’t so much about who was at fault but what a soul-sucking ordeal any divorce winds up being.
The performances are fantastic (including one by Laura Dern who was nominated and won for Best Supporting Actress) and Baumbach’s script is both funny and heartbreaking. It is the sort of film I loved but never want to see again because it made me feel so sad and to never, ever get a divorce.
The French Dispatch
The trailer for Wes Anderson's new movie dropped this week and once again it is a star-studded affair (including actors such as Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Léa Seydoux , Bill Murray, Willem Defoe, and many more). You can't tell much about the plot from the trailer but it has all the usual Anderson bits including incredible details, quirky characters, and interesting pop songs. I'm a big fan and I can't wait.