Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On the Media: The Reel Sounds of Violence

The Reel Sounds of Violence
On the Media (WNYC: New York City public radio)

Most of us have been lucky enough to never witness someone's innards being spliced out of their body. Or someone's head being smashed into a wall. But in an action or horror film, we often believe that that's what actual violence sounds like. Deep in the Hollywood studios, sound editors have to create these sounds. How do they know what gruesome violence really sounds like? Brooke talks with Slate senior editor Daniel Engber who wrote about the battle between the real and created sound of violence.

To Listen to the episode

Monday, March 26, 2012

Melissa Anderson: Belle de Siècle -- From jeune fille to mother superior, the many faces of Catherine Deneuve

Belle de Siècle: From jeune fille to mother superior, the many faces of Catherine Deneuve
by Melissa Anderson
Moving Image Source


For all the degradations Deneuve endures in these movies, it's worth remembering that in the first decade of her nearly 50-year career, she became famous by starring in films that were either captivating debasements or wholesome fantasias (and sometimes a mixture of the two). But in an oeuvre that encompasses more than 100 films, Deneuve can hardly be limited to Catherine the pure or Catherine the perverted. At times she's superseded mere celebrity and stood in for an entire nation: From 1985-89, her visage was used for Marianne, the national symbol of France. Shortly after, in 1992, she starred as a grande dame colonialist in Régis Wargnier's 1992 historical melodrama Indochine, the only role for which Deneuve has been nominated for an Academy Award. And yet Deneuve, born in 1943, has refused to calcify. Since Indochine, she has shown a fearlessness in her roles—no matter how small, as witnessed by her highly memorable motorcycle mama in Leos Carax's Pola X (1999) and her imperturbable hospital psychiatrist in Desplechin's Kings and Queen (2004).

Then again, that temerity existed from the start. Repulsion (1965), Deneuve's first English-language film, came out only a year after her breakout role as Geneviève, the melancholic jeune fille in Jacques Demy's lollipop-hued, entirely sung melodrama, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. While certainly somber (some have likened Demy's film to a musical about the Algerian War), Umbrellas is far sunnier than Roman Polanski's horror show, which begins with an extremely tight close-up of Deneuve—several shots of her eyeball, her pupil dominating the entire screen. Despite the camera's proximity, Deneuve, the height of inscrutable blankness, remains remarkably distant—a damaged beauty hiding under a mane of luxuriant blond hair, her delicate, accented English rarely registering above a whisper. Plummeting into psychosis, she becomes glacially catatonic; her character, Carole, spends hours staring motionless at a crack in a sidewalk. Soon she's gazing at a slowly putrefying rabbit carcass; next she's seeing menacing shadows outside her bedroom door. Then viewers see Carole being raped—a violation that may be real or imagined.

In the recently published English translation of The Private Diaries of Catherine Deneuve Close Up and Personal (Pegasus Books), screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer asks the actress if she was "freaked out" by the role of Carole. "Absolutely not, I thought it was fantastic, I was very pleased," she responds. Her unflappable commitment to roles in which she is debauched must have been helpful when shooting Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour (1967)—which, notably, was released in France less than three months after Demy's radiant, MGM-inspired musical The Young Girls of Rochefort, starring Deneuve and her real-life sister Françoise Dorléac, who died shortly after Rochefort opened. In Belle de Jour, Deneuve is Séverine, a deeply disenchanted Parisian housewife frequently trussed up and mussed up while sporting the smartest Yves Saint Laurent finery. She emits frost: "I feel this coldness from you," laments Pierre (Jean Sorel), her doting doctor husband. In an unconsummated marriage, Séverine finds liberation through byzantine psychosexual fantasies—and the 2 to 5 shift at a brothel. As in Repulsion, there are fleeting flashbacks to childhood trauma. Yet in Buñuel's film, these scenes are almost non sequiturs, presented not as psychological "explanation" but as blips in a baroque sexual surrealism. Bondage, defilement, debasement: Séverine revels in it all.

Deneuve, however, did not. "I felt they showed more of me than they'd said they were going to," she tells Bonitzer. "There were moments when I felt totally used." Yet that didn't stop her from starring three years later in Buñuel's equally bizarre Tristana, in which she plays a motherless innocent lusted after by a well-respected gentlemen (Deneuve's diary entry from October 4, 1969, while filming Tristana: "Have to toss my underwear on to my artificial leg lying on the bed, and it's a real challenge making the lace fall exactly on the shoed foot"). Curiously, eight months after Tristana's release in France, Demy's Donkey Skin—his third musical with Deneuve—came out. Based on a popular 17th-century fable by Charles Perrault, Donkey Skin has psychosexual perversions worthy of Buñuel: As the Queen (a brunette Deneuve) lies on her deathbed, her grieving king (Jean Marais) promises he will remarry only if he finds a princess more beautiful than she. And who could be more fetching than a dark-haired Deneuve? A blonde Catherine, of course, the demure royal daughter who's baffled by Dad's planned nuptials. Soon she's on the lam as a sullied, smelly scullion draped in an ass's pelt.

Just as significant as her work onscreen is Deneuve's unassailable role as sapphic idol. Although same-sex titillation is hinted at in Belle de Jour, Deneuve's status as lesbian icon was indelibly cemented with Tony Scott's The Hunger (1983), in which her vampiress, Miriam Blaylock, seduces a sweat-soaked Susan Sarandon. In André Téchiné's Thieves (1996), Deneuve is a whiskey-swilling philosophy prof shown enjoying some bathtub splashing with her decades-younger girlfriend (soft butch Laurence Côte). François Ozon, in 8 Women (2002), staged a memorable tussle and smooch between Deneuve and Fanny Ardant, the two actresses linked offscreen by their respective films and romances with François Truffaut. A San Francisco–based lesbian magazine was once called Deneuve until a trademark dispute with the actress (who was hawking her own line of perfume with her surname) led to a title change to Curve in 1995.

To Read the Entire Essay

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Matt Zoller Seitz: The Substance of Style (Wes Anderson)

The Substance of Style, Pt 1: Wes Anderson and his pantheon of heroes (Schulz, Welles, Truffaut)
by Matt Zoller Seitz
Moving Image Source

This is the first in a five-part series of video essays analyzing the key influences on Wes Anderson’s style. Part 2 covers Martin Scorsese, Richard Lester, and Mike Nichols. Part 3 covers Hal Ashby. Part 4 covers J.D. Salinger. Part 5 is an annotated version of the prologue to The Royal Tenenbaums.

With just five features in 13 years, Wes Anderson has established himself as the most influential American filmmaker of the post-Baby Boom generation. Supremely confident in his knowledge of film history and technique, he's a classic example of the sort of filmmaker that the Cahiers du cinéma critics labeled an auteur—an artist who imprints his personality and preoccupations on each work so strongly that, whatever the contributions of his collaborators, he deserves to be considered the primary author of the film. This series examines some of Anderson's many cinematic influences and his attempt to meld them into a striking, uniquely personal sensibility.

After the release of his second film, Rushmore, in 1998, it became obvious that Anderson was, love him or hate him, an idiosyncratic filmmaker worth discussing. In the decade-plus since then, dissecting Anderson's influences, and Anderson's influence on others, has become a bit of a parlor sport among cinephiles. Sight and Sound and Film Comment have been particularly rich resources. More recently, the Onion A.V. Club contributed a couple of playful, astute lists. Anderson himself has gotten into the act by paying tribute to his heroes in interviews and magazine articles.

This series will take the process a step further, juxtaposing Anderson's cultural influences against his films onscreen, the better to show how he integrates a staggeringly diverse array of source material into a recognizable, and widely imitated, whole. It will examine some, but certainly not all, of Anderson's evident inspirations. Along the way, it may incidentally illuminate why Anderson-esque movies—from Garden State to Son of Rambow—can seem, no matter what their virtues or pleasures, a weak substitute for the real thing.

Anderson’s scavenger-hunt aesthetic stands him in good company, alongside Quentin Tarantino, David Gordon Green, James Gray, and the other Anderson, P.T. But what makes Wes Anderson distinctive is the sheer range of art that has fed his imagination—not just recent American and foreign films, but films from 30, 50, even 70 years ago, plus newspaper comics, illustrations, and fiction. The spectrum of influence gives his work a diversity of tone that his imitators typically lack. It is a style of substance.

To Watch the Video Essay and Access all Five Parts

More resources:

Sound on Sight: Naked Lunch Radio #4 – Wes Anderson (The music of his films)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Nick Turse: Death on Your Doorstep -- What Sebastian Junger and Restrepo Won’t Tell You About War

Death on Your Doorstep: What Sebastian Junger and Restrepo Won’t Tell You About War
By Nick Turse


War on Your Doorstep

Earlier this year, Junger reviewed a new Vietnam War novel, veteran Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn, for the New York Times Book Review. In a glowing front-page appraisal, he wrote, “Combat is not really what ‘Matterhorn’ is about; it is about war. And in Marlantes’s hands, war is a confusing and rich world where some men die heroically, others die because of bureaucratic stupidity, and a few are deliberately killed by platoon-mates bearing a grudge.” Analyzing Junger’s misreading of Matterhorn helps to unlock his misconceptions about war and explains the problems that dog his otherwise cinematically-pleasing, and in some ways useful, film.

Millions of Vietnamese were killed and wounded over the course of what the Vietnamese call the “American War” in Southeast Asia. About two million of those dead were Vietnamese civilians. They were blown to pieces by artillery, blasted by bombs, and massacred in hamlets and villages like My Lai, Son Thang, Thanh Phong, and Le Bac, in huge swaths of the Mekong Delta, and in little unnamed enclaves like one in Quang Nam Province. Matterhorn touches on none of this. Marlantes focuses tightly on a small unit of Americans in a remote location surrounded by armed enemy troops -- an episode that, while pitch perfect in depiction, represents only a sliver of a fraction of the conflict that was the Vietnam War.

It’s not surprising that this view of war appealed to Junger. In Restrepo, it’s his vision of war, too.

Restrepo’s repeated tight shots on the faces of earnest young American soldiers are the perfect metaphor for what’s lacking in the film and what makes it almost useless for telling us anything of note about the real war in Afghanistan. Only during wide shots in Restrepo do we catch fleeting glimpses of that real war.

In the opening scenes, shot from an armored vehicle (before an improvised explosive device halts a U.S. Army convoy), we catch sight of Afghan families in a village. When the camera pans across the Korengal Valley, we see simple homes on the hillsides. When men from Battle Company head to a house they targeted for an air strike and see dead locals and wounded children, when we see grainy footage of a farm family or watch a young lieutenant, a foreigner in a foreign land, intimidating and interrogating an even younger goat herder (whose hands he deems to be too clean to really belong to a goat herder) -- here is the real war. And here are the people Junger and Hetherington should have embedded with if they wanted to learn -- and wanted to teach us -- what American war is really all about.

Few Americans born after the Civil War know much about war. Real war. War that seeks you out. War that arrives on your doorstep -- not once in a blue moon, but once a month or a week or a day. The ever-present fear that just when you’re at the furthest point in your fields, just when you’re most exposed, most alone, most vulnerable, it will come roaring into your world.

Those Americans who have gone to war since the 1870s -- soldiers or civilians -- have been mostly combat tourists, even those who spent many tours under arms or with pen (or computer) in hand reporting from war zones. The troops among them, even the draftees or not-so-volunteers of past wars, always had a choice -- be it fleeing the country or going to prison. They never had to contemplate living out a significant part of their life in a basement bomb shelter or worry about scrambling out of it before a foreign soldier tossed in a grenade. They never had to go through the daily dance with doom, the sense of fear and powerlessness that comes when foreign troops and foreign technology hold the power of life and death over your village, your home, each and every day.

The ordinary people whom U.S. troops have exposed to decades of war and occupation, death and destruction, uncertainty, fear, and suffering -- in places like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, and Afghanistan -- have had no such choice. They had no place else to go and no way to get there, unless as exiles and refugees in their own land or neighboring ones. They have instead been forced to live with the ever-present uncertainty that comes from having culturally strange, oddly attired, heavily armed American teenagers roaming their country, killing their countrymen, invading their homes, arresting their sons, and shouting incomprehensible commands laced with the word “fuck” or derivations thereof.

Since World War I, it’s been civilians who have most often born the disproportionate brunt of modern warfare. It’s been ordinary people who have lived with war day after day. In Restrepo such people -- Afghan elders seeking information on someone the Americans detained, villagers seeking compensation for an injured cow the Americans butchered into fresh steaks, and a man who angrily asks the Americans and their translator to point out the Taliban among civilians killed by a U.S. air strike -- are just supporting characters or extras.

To Read the Entire Essay