Monthly Archives: September 2014

Romeo and Juliet (1968) Withnail and I (1987)

The last scene of Withnail and I, Bruce Robinson’s semi-autobiographical black comedy about two struggling young actors in London, might just be one of the saddest moments in cinema. “Marwood,” the “I” of the film, and a thinly fictionalized version of Robinson himself, has just landed a plum lead role in a feature length film. It’s raining. His friend Withnail wants to walk with him to the train station. But Marwood is moving on. He’s in his late 20s. It’s the last few months of the 1960s. He’s cut his hair. It’s time to grow up. Withnail, who might best be described as a lovable, hyper-articulate, angry, drunken fuck up, suddenly changes. The expression on his face softens. An earnest tone creeps into his voice as he says goodbye. Alone, on a sudden urge, he recites Hamlet’s “what a piece of work is man” speech.

“I have of late–but
wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither.”

(Hamlet, Act II, scene ii)

“What a piece of work is man,” is not a soliloquy. Hamlet is speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but it becomes a soliloquy in Withnail and I. Withnail is too self-destructive, too much of an alcoholic to make it in film. He’s also a natural Shakespearean actor who makes the speech utterly his own. Hamlet is acting a part, putting on an “antic disposition” to throw the king off his trail while he plots revenge for his father’s murder. Withnail is not only saying goodbye to his friend. He’s saying goodbye to acting. Marwood is going on to bigger and better things. Withnail is not. He’s 29 years old, and he knows he’s a failure. He’s singing a dirge for his youth, for the days when he could dream of making his living as an actor, but, above all, for his friendship with Marwood. He’s from a privileged family — there are hints that he graduated from Harrow — so he’ll probably be able to drink himself to death instead of winding up in the hell of a 9 to 5 job. But he’ll also die young, alone, unfulfilled.

Bruce Robinson, who first wrote Withnail and I as a novel in the early 1980s before turning it into a screenplay in the later 1980s, as it turns out, also played Benvolio in Franco Zeffirelli’s classic film version of Romeo and Juliet in 1968. Withail’s lecherous, gay, and snobbish Uncle Monty is based on Zeffirelli. Monty’s aggressive sexual overtures towards Marwood are a reference to the great Italian director’s alleged sexual harassment of the young males of Romeo and Juliet’s cast. While a powerful man sexually harassing teenagers under his care is anything but amusing, a prissy old aesthete coming onto men in their late 20s, men who are using him for his country house and his wine cellar, is positively hilarious. It’s impossible to remember at the expression on Marwood’s face when he realizes that his friend Withnail has used him as “bait,” told his uncle that he was a gay hustler, a “toilet trader,” without laughing.

“But Monty. I’m not homosexual.”

“Yes you are. Of course you are.”

Withnail and I is more than a film about alcoholism, angry young men, the end of the 1960s, or a bit of gossipy revenge by Bruce Robinson against Franco Zeffirelli for feeling him up on the set of Romeo and Juliet. It becomes, whether Robinson meant it to be or not, a profound meditation on the Shakespearean actor in the age of cinema. If Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet has had such an enduring appeal, it has little to do with Shakespeare’s language. Hamlet is about language. Romeo and Juliet, on the other hand, is about youth, beauty, and sexual awakening. It is, therefore, the most cinematic of Shakespeare’s plays. Depending on how much you want to play up the incestuous vibe between Hamlet and Gertrude, you can cast Hamlet as a 20-year-old or a 40-year-old, as an angry young man of action, or as a refined philospher, paralyzed by his own logical mind. You can, therefore, chose from a wide selection of professional actors. Juliet, on the other hand, is 13. A 20-year-old actress playing Juliet is a stretch. A 25-year-old actress would be slightly ridiculous, and a 30-year-old downright ludicrous. You can cast whoever you want as Tybalt and Mercutio, but Romeo and Juliet have to be, not only young and beautiful, but able to convey that sense of urgency you feel as a teenager when you fall in love for the first time. Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, both non-professional actors in 1968, carry out their roles so well it’s hard to imagine why you’d ever have to film the play again. What’s more, the real strengths of Zeffirelli’s film, the play of light and shadow on Olivia Hussey’s face, the famous nude scene, the lush musical score, the rich palette of colors at the masked ball, the brilliantly lit, and agonizingly sad denouement in the tomb, are cinematic, not dramatic. Except, perhaps, for Michael York as Tybalt, there aren’t any good actors in Zeffirelli’s film. John McEnery is, at best, mediocre as Mercutio, but it really doesn’t matter. This is a film, not a play. If video killed the radio star, then cinema killed Shakespearean drama.

Therein lies the problem for Withnail, the problem that Bruce Robinson so adroitly gets on film. It is, in fact, an issue Shakespeare himself understood. When you privilege the visual, and aural, over the dramatic, sight and sound over language, you undercut the power of the actor. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern announce that the players, who Hamlet will attempt to use to get his uncle to reveal his guilt, have arrived at Elsinore, Hamlet is curious. Why do such great actors have to go on tour? There’s more money in the city.

“How chances it they travel? their residence, both
in reputation and profit, was better both ways.”

(Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii)

After Hamlet asks him if the players have “grown rusty,” Rosencrantz tells him about the “late innovation.”

“Nay, their endeavour keeps in the wonted pace: but
there is, sir, an aery of children, little eyases,
that cry out on the top of question, and are most
tyrannically clapped for’t: these are now the
fashion, and so berattle the common stages–so they
call them–that many wearing rapiers are afraid of
goose-quills and dare scarce come thither.

(Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii)

Sarah Bernhardt and Edwin Booth, in other words, have been replaced by Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting. Drama has been replaced by cinema. In the 1860s, there were hundreds of Shakespearean productions a year in New York City. By the 1960s, you were down to a few big budget productions, and the occasional movie out of Hollywood. The film director, the auteur, that same director Bruce Robinson lambasts for his lust for handsome young men, is now much more important than the man they choose to play Hamlet or the woman they chose to play Lady Macbeth.  Hamlet wonders why the dramatic impresarios of the day agreed to cast children instead of real actors, a reference, of course to the famous Blackfriars Theatre. Doesn’t it weaken the actor’s craft?

“What, are they children? who maintains ’em? how are
they escoted? Will they pursue the quality no
longer than they can sing? will they not say
afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common
players–as it is most like, if their means are no
better–their writers do them wrong, to make them
exclaim against their own succession?”

(Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii)

Throughout Withnail and I, Withnail and Marwood drink, get into trouble with the police, invade a tea shop looking for leftovers — there’s plenty of alcohol in Monty’s country house but not much food — chat with a strange, slightly creepy drug dealer, collect “benefits,” do everything, in short, but act. They are passive, proletarianized employees, not, like William Shakespeare, thespian entrepreneurs. They wait by the phone to hear from their agents. Marwood finally gets the call to star in a film, but all he really does throughout the film is to play Withnail’s straight man while he waits for it. Withnail, in turn, acts. He’s always acting. A lot of his self-destructive behavior, in fact, is designed to set him up in situations where he can act. Robinson manages to convey what we’ve lost. Back in Elizabethan England, Marwood, Withnail and Uncle Monty all would have been part of a traveling theatre company. They would have been social outcasts, and most likely impecunious, but they would have gotten to act, all the time. In fact, their drinking, carousing, lechery, their riotous behavior, and natural, bohemian free-spiritedness would have been what made them successful actors, not what doomed Withnail. “There’s a point in a young man’s life,” Uncle Monty says, “when he realizes that he will never play the Dane.” In 1605 in London, or in 1850 in New York, Uncle Monty, and Withnail both would have gotten calls to play The Dane so many times they would have gotten sick of it. What’s more, their lives would have been fun, not filled with anxiety and self-denial. In the 1960s, and certainly in the 2010s, characters like Monty and Withnail get shunted to the side in the modern world. But, whatever their flaws, it’s people like Monty and Withnail who make the world an interesting place. If the idea of going out on the town with a wild and crazy drunk like Withnail and a hilariously lecherous, flaming homosexual like Monty doesn’t sound like fun, then Shakespeare is probably not for you.

Indeed, if Withnail and I has become a cult classic, then it’s largely because it managed to convey a sense of the anarchic joy of the Elizabethan stage, of the sheer love of quotable language, that Shakespeare in Love, Gwynneth Paltrow’s mediocre 1998 star turn, could only hint at.

Tracks (2013)

“Aboriginal and Torre Strait Islander viewers should exercise caution when watching this film as it may contain images and voices of deceased persons.”

If Tracks is not he first film ever made to contain a “trigger warning” alerting Australian aboriginals to a dramatic recreation of people who might have already died, it’s the first one I’ve ever seen. The “deceased person,” the father of the explorer Robin Davidson, who appears to her periodically through her one-women trek across the Australian desert, is not portrayed as an obviously malevolent ghost. But he is. The more the heroine of Tracks tests herself against the pitiless heat, distances, and isolation, the more the memory of her mother and father puts her life at risk.

When Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska), a 27-year-old woman from an educated, middle-class family, moves to Alice Springs, a frontier town in the Northern Territory, she has a plan. Sick of the malaise of her “class, generation, and sex,” she intends to train three wild camels to carry her gear and her belongings, then simply walk to the Indian Ocean. Why? “Why not?” she answers.

Needless to say, training three wild camels, is a daunting proposition. Camel wrangling isn’t something they teach in girl’s schools, even in Australia. Davidson, however, is a particularly determined young woman. She couldn’t care less about physical comfort, money, possessions, or conforming to society’s expectations. She apprentices herself to two ranch owners, doing free menial labor in exchange for the three camels. The first ranch owner, a surly German immigrant, cheats her out of her wages. The second, an Afghan immigrant, is an honorable man. He not only gives her the camel he promised her. He teaches an important lesson that will later save her life. Davidson, unlike Chris McCandless from Sean Penn’s film Into the Wild, is well-prepared when she begins her journey into the wilderness. But she still needs money.

Eventually, on the strength of her letters, National Geographic agrees to stake her to $4000, quite a bit of money in 1977 for an unknown young woman with a plan most people considered suicidal. But it’s not that simple. Davidson may have got the $4000 dollars based on her literary ability, but it comes with a catch, a photographer named Rick Smolan, Adam Driver from the TV show Girls. Smolan is a likable enough guy, but he’s also a talkative sort, not really compatible with prickly loner like Davidson. Davidson hates being photographed. What’s more, Smolan falls in love with Davidson, so his gaze is not only invasive and objectifying, it’s sexual, invasive, and objectifying. While it’s true Davidson does like Smolan enough to sleep with him — he does drive 1000 miles out of his way to make sure she has enough water to finish her trip alive after all — she doesn’t want him “framing” her trip with his camera.

Photography, an art form that was born during the industrial revolution, has also, paradoxically, been associated with the wilderness. Some of the greatest photographs ever taken, Ansel Adams’ portraits of Denali and Yosemite, Galen Rowell’s photos of Tibet, were taken by men who considered themselves outdoorsmen first, photographers second. What’s more Davidson, and Mia Wasikowska — who’s the daughter of a Polish photojournalist — are well aware of the contradictions. Half the reason for Davidson’s cranky personality, as least as played in the film, comes from her awareness that as badly as she wants to get away from civilization, she knows she can’t. As Smolan says, it’s the eternal problem for explorers. In order to get out into the wilderness, you need money. In order to get money, you need connections.

What’s more, in order to enjoy Tracks, a fairly slow moving film, you need to enjoy looking at two things, Mia Wasikowska and camels, neither of whom is native to Australia. As Davidson explains, there would be no wild camels in Australia had it not been for the British Empire, which imported them into Australia before it’s system of railroads had been built. That they thrived in the Australian desert when they were no longer needed, became, is part of the paradox. The camels are the best possible way for Davidson to escape civilization. But the only reason they live in Australia is civilization.

Davidson, in effect, becomes, through her trek, a native Australian, a white aborigine. But she’s also a colonizer. Wasikowska, a dead ringer for Davidson. In spite of her decidedly non-Anglo-Saxon name, she looks stereotypically English. Dressed in white, or in flannels, with her sun-bleached hair and pale, then sunburned skin, she summons up the image of the British Raj in India. The movie goer becomes Rich Smolan, the photographer who annoys the hell out of her. Don’t photograph me. Stop looking at me. Don’t objectify me. But how can you not? Convince yourself she’s not beautiful? Walk out of the movie? Start a Twitter hash tag calling for the cancellation of the white girl “appropriating aboriginal culture.” Obviously not. The act of watching a film means to objectify.

Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless made no attempt to prepare for his journey, to train himself to survive in the wilderness. He saw going to Alaska as living out a dream he read about in Tolstoy and Thoreau. And he died, alone. The last image we have of McCandless is a selfie. There was no Rich Smolan to bring him water or take his photograph. The only way to leave society completely is to die.

Tracks, a far more progressive and anti-racist film than Into the Wild, is redeemed from being yet another ode to English pluck and grit by the way Davidson survives. She may resent Smolan’s pretense and consider herself a loner who hates people, but she genuinely respects the aboriginals. Indeed, Davidson flees to the wilderness to escape her, bad, white parents. She survives because of good, non-white surrogate parents. Davidson’s mother hanged herself when she was a little girl. She’s haunted by the memories. Davidson’s father, for reasons its difficult to guess at, had her dog euthanized after her mother’s death. As Davidson goes deeper and deeper into the desert, becoming, in effect, more aboriginal than English, she also becomes more vulnerable to the images of her dead parents, those very images the “trigger warning” at the beginning of the film warned Aboriginal Australians about. Her most faithful companion in the desert is her dog, Diggity. When Diggity finds a can of Strychnine hundreds of miles away from where a can of Strychnine should be, and dies, Davidson loses her mind. Diggity’s death triggers the memories of her parents she came into the desert to escape. She walks around without her clothes. A huge snake coils itself around her neck when she’s asleep. The journey starts to become a nightmare. Nevertheless, the lessons she learned from the Afghan camel herder, and an aboriginal elder who briefly serves as her guide through a forbidden sacred landscape, help her survive. “If you see a charging bull, camel, just shoot him,” the camel herder tells her, “don’t hesitate.” The aboriginal elder warns her not to butcher a dead kangaroo. It’s forbidden to women, a sexist reason, certainly, but one that saves her life at the end of the film when she attempts to eat the rotting, and surely poisonous, carcass of a long dead kangaroo. She’s internalized the elder’s warning so well she pulls back at the last moment.

By the end of the film, Davidson has exorcised her demons. She can admit she’s glad to see Smolan. She needs people. She needs society. She reaches the Indian Ocean. Thálatta! Thálatta! Θάλαττα! Θάλαττα! The sea! The sea! She dives into the water, a joyous expression on her face. Chris McCandess would die in the Alaskan wildness, his only monuments an abandoned bus, a selfie, and a book written by someone else. Davidson would go onto write her own book, to tell her own story.

Medium Cool (1969)

The opening shot of Medium Cool, Haskell Wexler’s fictionalized documentary about a TV cameraman at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, is so heavily influenced by Jean Luc Godard’s 1967 film Weekend that it comes close to plagiarism. There’s a car burning alongside the highway. A woman is lying on the cement in a puddle of her own blood, one leg up on the seat on the passenger side of the car, her arms limp above her head. The horn is blaring, stuck, a cacophonous negation of everything but our offended ears. Two TV reporters, John Cassellis, played by Robert Forster, and Gus, Peter Bonerz, circle the carnage, camera and sound equipment in hand. As Cassellis records footage of the dead woman, Gus reaches over and turns off the horn. They go back to their car.

“Better call an ambulance,” Cassellis says to Gus.

If Medium Cool was rated X back in 1969, yet seems tame in 2014, that’s because it’s both innovative and badly dated. An examination of the breakdown of American society in the late 60s, the images that got it the X rating — a few nude love scenes between Cassellis and his girlfriend — are positively tedious. Unlike in Weekend, which is a far more angry, pessimistic, obscene, and yet culturally conservative film, there’s no Mozart in Medium Cool, only Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Where Jean Luc Godard portrayed the counterculture as just another symptom of bourgeois materialism, Wexler holds out the hope that if we all just listened to enough Rock ‘n’ Roll and did enough drugs things might just get better. At least we wouldn’t be the pigs (cops) in Grant Park. For Godard, sex in a corrupt society is corrupt, the bourgeois men, bourgeois. For Wexler, even as he portrays photography as voyeuristic, disengaged, perhaps immoral, he still puts the cool, hip, swinging dick of a cameraman up on a pedestal. Cassellis has his faults, but he’s also a culture hero and a rebel.

Godard got it right. The counterculture would become mainstream, both in France, and in the United States. There was nothing rebellious or subversive about Rock ‘n’ Roll, drugs, casual sex, or youth. By 1980, a few years after the draft ended, the hippies would all be Republicans, Reagan voters who brought sex, drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll into the mainstream. Wexler got it wrong, and it shows. Cassellis frolicking with his glamorous blond mistress is both tedious and hilariously dated. When Cassellis romances an Appalachian single mother — who’s come to Chicago after the death of her husband – and plays father figure to her 13-year-old son, it’s cringe worthy. The movie grinds to a halt. The hippies swirling about in a drugged out haze to the Mothers of Invention look like something out of an Austin Powers film.

As Steve Jobs demonstrated, you can have capitalism and the counterculture too.

When Medium Cool turns to politics, however, it becomes startlingly new, and startlingly relevant, superior, in its own way, to Weekend. Godard went for the jugular. In Weekend, the radicals, a pair of philosophical garbage men eating sandwiches in tight closeup in front of a trash heap and the guerrilla army of cannibal hippies are, by turns, gross, and murderous. There is no political alternative in Weekend. “The only thing that can overcome bourgeois horror,” one of the cannibals says, “is more horror.” The angry nihilism that gave Jean Luc Godard the ability to see through the fraudulent counterculture the way few other people could in 1967 turns his political critique sour. The idea that everything and everybody sucks is not radical. It’s what every good capitalist believes. Godard takes his attack on the French bourgeoisie to such an extreme it works, but it also seems like one long sneer.

Wexler calls out the corporate media for its complicity with the police and the FBI. It hits home so hard because, unlike the puritanism of the 1950s, this complicity is still here. As anybody who participated in Occupy Wall Street knows, the NYC newspapers still coordinate their coverage with the NYPD, still see themselves as helping the police. The Black Panthers who call out Cassellis for his shallow coverage of African Americans are no cannibal hippies, no depiction of radicalism as just another symptom of bourgeois decay. They are absolutely dead on. The young black militant who explains why nameless and faceless people loot stores and throw bricks threw windows could have been talking about Ferguson Missouri in 2014. When Cassellis gets fired after he gives the outtakes of a draft card burning to the protesters themselves — the station had planned on giving the footage to the cops — he realizes that he’s a fraud, that the whole corporate media is a fraud.

What’s more, Wexler blends fiction and reality in a far more innovative way than Godard. Godard makes it obvious. His repellent bourgeois couple set young Emily Bronte on fire. “She’s crying,” the wife says. “But she’s a fictional character,” the husband rejoins. They go hitchhiking. “Are you real or are you a character in a film?” they ask the driver of a car. It’s all clever, very obviously clever, and tells us little or nothing about the political chaos in France on the even of May 1968. All it means is that Jean Luc Godard has read Brecht. Haskell Wexler, on the other hand, not only screws with our perception, he shows us why it’s politically relevant. Cassellis and Gus walk through the mud of Resurrection City, the encampment Martin Luther King’s “Poor Peoples Movement” set up on the Capital Mall. Did Wexler have his two actors walk through the real Resurrection City in 1968 and include it in his fictionalized portrayal of Resurrection City, or did he re stage Resurrection City? I honestly have no idea. The romance between Cassellis and Eileen, the single mother from West Virginia, initially so tedious, comes alive during the police riot in that took place outside the Democratic Party National Convention. Deftly mixing documentary footage of the riot itself with a re staging of parts of the riot, he sends Eileen into Grant Park looking for her 13 year old son. We are no longer watching the Chicago Police beat up anonymous people in a newsreel. We are watching a single mother, a well-developed fictional character, wander into an arena where she could, quite possibly, get beaten up herself. The fictional Eileen becomes more “real” than the “real” people in the documentary footage. Godard might have told us to be conscious of the difference between reality and fiction. Wexler shows us.

The strongest scenes in Medium Cool just might be the documentary footage of the Illinois National Guard training in the Spring of 1968 to suppress the protests they know are coming in the Summer. The lines between documentary and fiction are blurred. It’s real footage of the Guard training, and yet Wexler has inserted the fictional Cassellis. What’s more, the guardsmen are playing both sides, staging a riot, and suppressing a riot. It’s the insertion of a fictional character into a a real life military exercise which is, in turn, nothing more than a staged protest. I was startled by how well the Illinois National Guard captured the sounds, the speeches, the signs, the very rhythm and flow of a typical anti-war demonstration. How can any protest be effective when the military can re stage it this easily? Indeed, after watching Medium Cool, I look back at anti-war protests I’ve been involved in and wonder if they had all just been staged to head off the possibility of genuine, effective protest. The contempt the guardsmen have for the peace movement in these scenes is obvious, and justified. Many “real” anti-war rallies no more transcend the idea of “theater” than the staged anti-war rally of the Illinois National Guard.

In the end, however, theater becomes real, as real as it can be in fiction, anyway. John Cassellis may have angrily walked out of his job as a TV cameraman when he found out that the station was giving the outtakes to the police. But he’s still basically an observer, not a participant in the protest the police attack outside the Democratic convention. Is a journalist outside of what he covers, or is he part of the story? We hear some documentary footage. A journalist got through police lines by showing his “press pass.” I’m sure it occurred to him that some other people did not. But I wonder if had ever asked himself if he should be carrying a “press pass” at all.  In the very last scene of Medium Cool, we come full circle, not only back to the first scene in the movie but back to Weekend. Cassellis becomes part of what he so callously observed in the film’s opening. Another car drives by. There’s a boy with a camera. Godard couldn’t have staged it better himself.

Weekend (1967)

Halfway through Weekend, Jean Luc Godard’s best known and least watched film, we are treated to a performance of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 18 in D Major. A grand piano is set up in the courtyard of a farm in rural France. As the pianist, no romantic Liszt or Chopin, but an ordinary looking man in a sweater smoking a cigar, plays the sonata, which has the sublime grandeur of a baroque cathedral, the camera pans 360 degrees, twice. We notice the shabby looking peasants, the run down farmhouse, the agricultural equipment scattered about as though it were in a junkyard, the bored petty bourgeoisie couple. How different the visuals are from what we’re hearing.

A man and a woman stroll by. The man, who I don’t recognize, is discoursing to the woman, who I do recognize — She’s Anne Wiazemsky from Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar and Godard’s own La Chinoise, a coltish beauty descended from the grandest Russian nobility — on music.

There are two kinds of music,” he says, “the kind of music people listen to and the kind they don’t. Mozart is the kind of music you listen to. Imagine the royalties that poor man would get if he were alive today. Modern music, serious music, nobody listens to that.”

A perceptive, honest film goer will immediately scratch his head and wonder how it applies to Weekend. Is it the kind of film people enjoy? Or is it the kind of film they pretend to enjoy? Is it Mozart? Or is it John Cage?

Many film critics, the kind of people who say things like “non-linear narrative,” “resists interpretation,” “difficult work,” “one of Godard’s least accessible films,” won’t, unlike Godard himself, admit that the question exists. If you’ve spent any time in hipster Brooklyn or on a college campus, you’ve met them. They talk about the Brecht/Lukacs debates as if it’s a settled question. Brecht won. There no arguing the point. Of course, they say, no great work of art is meant to be enjoyed. That was for Mozart’s day. These days, a great work of art is supposed to be “difficult, ambiguous, alienating.” Anybody who disagrees should just go back to the Midwest, or Jersey.

Then they pen their articles for Salon or Slate about Game of Thrones or True Detective.

Weekend, is all of those things, alienating — oh my God is it alienating — difficult, full of people we hate, Brechtian, but it certainly does not “resist interpretation.” On the contrary, it invites interpretation. The pretty young girl dressed like Alice from Alice in Wonderland but who’s supposed to be Emily Bronte, what exactly is she reading? It’s nothing from Emily Bronte I recognize. Do you know who Joseph Balsamo is? Have you heard of The Affair of the Necklace? You probably have, if you’re French. If you’re American? Well, I had to look it up. What is Saint-Just –- played by Jean-Pierre Léaud from 400 Blows –- doing here? Does it make any sense? Or is it like Family Guy or The Simpsons, vapid trash designed to do nothing but flatter us when we get the cultural reference? The two philosophical garbage men discoursing on Frederick Engels in front of a pile of trash, are we supposed to listen to their words, or just get annoyed at how rude they are eating during a tight closeup?

Indeed, Weekend not only invites interpretation. It demands it. If, like many critics, you decide it’s all about form, not meaning, that it’s an “anti-narrative,” you’re not only missing the point, you’re precisely what Godard is attacking. Weekend is a highly moralistic, cultural conservative attack, not only on the shallow, materialistic, French bourgeoisie, but also on the counterculture and the May 68 generation. Weekend is not a fun movie to watch. In fact, you don’t watch it. You study it. But it is a fun movie to have watched. Had I known it existed when I was 16, and had I been able to understand what it meant — and I doubt I would have been — I would have immediately felt validated for rejecting popular music in favor of Beethoven and Brahms. It’s true. I did. I hated the 1980s as much as Godard hated the 1960s. I would have just as soon set myself on fire as listen to heavy metal.

The plot?

(And yes, there is one.)

A married couple, Roland, Jean Yanne, and Corinne, Mireille Darc, are planning to go away for the weekend to visit Corinne’s father, a fabulously wealthy man on his deathbed, who they both want to “help” cross the final threshold before he plans to change his will. In case that’s unclear, they’re planning to murder him. What’s more, Roland, who looks like a sleazy French gangster, and Corinne, a bourgeoisie cunt who looks like a thirty-year-old Joan Rivers, are planning to murder each other. Are you offended by my use of the word “cunt,” you politically correct? You probably are, but get over it. Weekend has rape, torture, murder, carjackings, cannibalism, rape with eggs, rape with raw fish (although admittedly the fish might have been consensual), rape with a saw, and the very breakdown of the social order. If you demand that I react only with polite, decorous language, you’re missing the point. It’s an obscene, ugly film about a pair of bourgeois psychotics who care about nothing but money. The only time Corinne shows any emotion at all is when her Hermes handbag goes up in flames. Weekend is a harsh, angry film designed to “push the boundaries,” to piss you off, to throw shit at western civilization, and, ultimately, to mourn the loss of western civilization.

It’s a film for when “fuck” just isn’t obscene enough.

The most celebrated scene in Weekend comes near the beginning, the famous 10 minute long traffic jam. If it’s overrated, that’s partly because it’s the only thing you really understand on the first viewing. Jean Luc Godard, the son of a Swiss banking family, hates the car culture. The car culture is centrifugal, chaotic, loud, ugly. It’s part of the breakdown in the universal order, the universal order that gave us Mozart. I was less impressed than Godard because, rather then being a sissy Frenchman, I’m from the great state of New Jersey, and I’ve seen worse. Indeed, I was a little puzzled as to why everybody was letting Roland and Corinne pass them on the left. Nobody’s ever let anybody cut the line in any traffic jam I’ve ever been in. It’s a good way to get yourself shot. But I suppose it was necessary for the progression of the movie. Ironically, I probably got Godard’s point better than he did. There’s something about the car culture that brings out the beast in any bourgeoisie. That Jersey soccer mom in her Range Rover might be a perfectly nice woman at PTA meetings, but get in her way on the road, and she’ll run you down without a hint of remorse. She’ll be pissed that she got to the red light 5 seconds late. That’s about it.

The most under-appreciated thing about Weekend is how Godard is as cynical about the counterculture as he is about the bourgeoisie. The 1960s were a bit before my time. I mainly learned about them during the blast of Woodstock nostalgia that came in the late 1980s. Weekend’s hippie culture is no Woodstock. The cannibal hippie guerrilla army that kill Roland and admit Corinne as a member — the last scene has her happily dining on a mixture of pig, English tourist, and her husband —are more than just violent. Violence can be glamorous. In a movie, especially a Hollywood movie, it usually is glamorous. Samuel Jackson never looked more cool than when he read the Bible and tortured a couple of young drug dealers in Pulp Fiction. But in the last 15 minutes of Weekend, the hippie culture, and popular music, is just ugly. The cannibal hippies can’t even play the drums or the guitar. They just bang on their instruments like the mentally ill in a lunatic asylum. The hippies, Godard tells us, the May 68 generation, are just as bad as the French bourgeoisie. In the end, they won’t eat the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie will eat them, consume them then spit them out with their own values, greed, predatory capitalism, materialism, a lack of appreciation for Mozart or a cute young Emily Bronte, whom Corinne and Roland set on fire rather than go on listening to her read poetry. The hippies, Godard tells us, were pigs.

Sadly, nobody understood Godard’s film well enough to take his advice: overthrow capitalism but put the counterculture behind you. Build something better. If you can’t, then stay home and listen to Mozart. The modern world is a pile of shit.

Late Spring (1949)

Unlike Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu is not well-known in the United States, his films often considered “too Japanese” to appeal to Americans. Until a few months ago, when a friend suggested that Late Spring was “the best film ever made,” I had never even heard the name. A typical ignorant American, I was completely unaware of one of Japan’s most acclaimed directors, a man who made 53 films over the course of a 35-year career, 4 or 5 of which are considered masterpieces on the level of the greatest works of Italian neorealism.

Having seen Late Spring, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s “the best film ever made,” but it is a dense, beautifully filmed, emotionally rich work of art that demands, and deserves repeated viewings. That it’s more “Japanese” and less “American” than films like The Seven Samurai — which was influenced by John Ford’s westerns — is part of its appeal. The strangeness of Japanese culture, the aesthetic, the body language, the verbal inflections, the rules of courtship, all of it forced me to pay much closer attention to the interactions between the characters than I would have for a similar French or American film. It threw the narrative into such great relief that an intimate family drama wound up feeling as if it had also made a profound statement about postwar Japan.

My guess is that it was intentional.

In 1949, Yasujirō Ozu and the Japanese film industry was subject to strict censorship by the United States military government. The rules could probably best summed up by the classic line from the British comedy show Fawlty Towers. “Don’t mention the war.” On the surface, Late Spring is serene, placid, detached from the bitter cares of most of the world. Even though Late Spring is set in Tokyo and its suburbs, there’s no sign of the massive American firebombing campaign that had taken place only 4 years before. There are no American military police, no returning Japanese veterans, no missing arms or legs.

Shukichi Somiya, a widowed, 56-year-old university professor lives with Noriko, his unmarried 27-year-old daughter. They have a close, even incestuous relationship. Noriko thinks of her father as an absent-minded professor, who wouldn’t be able to deal with the problems of everyday life without her around. Shukichi seems in no great hurray to push her out of the nest. Enter Masa Taguchi, Shukichi’s sister and Norito’s aunt. Norito, at 27, well into adulthood. Isn’t it time she got married?

Shukichi, reluctantly, agrees. He suggests his assistant, Shuichi Hattori, a young man who does seem to be interested in Norito, but who is also engaged to another woman. Just how strong a romantic attachment Hattori does in fact have for Norito is suggested later when he invited her to a concert, she turns him down — once her father suggests they be more than friends she suddenly feels guilty about moving in on his fiancée — and he goes to the concert himself, leaving the chair next to his empty. One might assume that, as the daughter of a university professor, the attractive Norito would have no shortage of suitors, but there seems to be a wall between her father’s domestic life and his academic life. We never see him teach a class, for example. So Masa Taguchi arranges a marriage, finds an eligible 34-year-old college graduate named Satake. He’s from an upper-middle-class family, and he supposedly looks like Gary Cooper. In other words, he’s a good catch. Late Spring ends with Norito and him getting married.

But here’s the rub. We never see him.

What exactly is Yasujirō Ozu trying to do here? Having only seen Late Spring twice, and as a novice to Japanese film and Japanese culture, I can’t speak with any authority on why he chose to make a film about a marriage, and yet show neither the groom nor the wedding ceremony. But I will venture a guess.

Yasujirō Ozu is making a comment about the survival of traditional Japanese culture through the American bombing and the American occupation. In the United States we have taken the idea of “romantic love” and turned it into an industry. Even back in the late 1940s, Americans believed in the fairy tale, Hollywood ideal of the “perfect” mate. Americans often get offended if you suggest that sex and marriage have anything to do with class or economics, that both are part of and indeed controlled by a larger society.

Ozu is telling us that, like like graduating from college and getting a first job, a heterosexual relationship is a step towards adulthood, nothing less, nothing more. A happy marriage isn’t something that falls out of the sky. It’s something you work at. For Norito, any eligible man more or less her own age and class will do. The very last thing she needs is a deep romantic attachment, a grand passion where she meets the love of her life and they both live happily ever after. That is, in fact, what she needs to get away from.

Indeed, Norito has already met the man of her dreams, the love of her life, Romeo to her Juliet. That’s the problem. It’s her father. While Late Spring is a serene, placid film, there’s something deeply unhealthy about the the relationship between Norito and Shukichi. Norito is 27, and yet she giggles like a school girl. She has no job or means of support. When Jo Onodera, a colleague of her father, also a widower, tells her that he’s remarried, Norito’s response is startlingly cruel and harsh. She calls him dirty, unclean, perverse. That Onodera takes it all in stride suggests that he sees her hostility merely as the reaction that any teenage girl would have towards the idea that her parents, or people her parents age, would be sexually active. “Eew, that’s icky.” But Norito, of course, is pushing 30. A romantic attachment to her father, giggling like a schoolgirl, thinking a second marriage is “unclean,” it’s all something she needs to grow out of. She needs to take that step towards adulthood and get married.

The week before her marriage, Norito and her father take a trip to Kyoto — the ancient Japanese city President Roosevelt and his Secretary of War Henry Stimson decided was too precious and full of history to bomb — to visit her mother’s grave. Shukichi’s talk with his daughter, his painful, reluctant decision to push her out of the nest, is one of the most beautiful moments between a parent and child I think I’ve ever seen on film. Shukichi wants to keep the status quo as much as Norito does. But he knows he can’t. Even at 56, he lacks maturity If he wants his daughter to grow up, he has to grow up too. But there’s still a sadness at the end of Late Spring. Yasujirō Ozu has seduced us into seeing things from Norito’s point of view. We want Norito’s and and Shukuchi’s serene, placid isolation to last. We also know that, if it does, Norito will end up as a lonely old woman with no children of her own. Their postwar idyll, like the film, has to end.

Yasujirō Ozu is a director who deserves to be much better known in the United States.