Westerns

I saw Sergio Leone’s The Man With No Name trilogy years ago, it was Alex Cox who got me interested to revisit them. He introduced Italian westerns on Moviedrome and wrote a book on the subject called 10,000 Ways to Die which written in 1978, but was not published until 2009 by which time Cox has revised some of his theoretical framework. My friend Matt loves westerns, he wrote his Bachelor’s thesis on The Man with No Name trilogy. It was he who really made me re-evaluate westerns. There’s that great sub-genre of the western, revisionist. Which I think means that it takes the conventions of a western and laces it with deep and dark themes with some charismatic humour thrown in. Italian westerns are a great example of this and so is Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo. From John Ford I’ve only seen The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; they weren’t charismatic enough for me. You notice that the last three films I mentioned star John Wayne who appeared in a whopping 88 westerns according to Letterboxd.

I’ll start with Clint Eastwood, Eastwood’s characters in westerns are often lone wolfs; the preacher in Pale Rider, Josey Wales, The man with no name. Then comes The Beguiled, Eastwood plays a wounded soldier during the civil war in 1800s; he is taken in by a group of women at a boarding school. He seduces each of them with tragic results. It is filled with desire, a sense of baroque and an editing style which brings to mind Nic Roeg. The boarding school is a hell on earth, Eastwood’s anguish is overplayed but that’s the point, his character cannot believe where the film takes us.

Eastwood’s Italian westerns with Leone; A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and The Ugly are often regarded as the best westerns ever made. A Fistful of Dollars is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yjimbo which is turn was remade as Django in 1966. For a Few Dollars More has a great robbery sequence and features Klaus Kinski as a villain. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the best of Leone’s westerns, mainly because of the depth of its script and Eli Wallach’s comic contribution. Ennio Morricone’s music blasts through the eardrum giving the films even more inventive texture.

Sergio Corbucci is often compared with Leone as a master of Italian westerns. Corbucci made Django in 1966 followed by The Big Silence, a western in the snow filled with lyrical poetry by Morricone’s music and featuring strong performances by Jean-Louis Trintignant (who has no dialogue) Klaus Kinski and Voletta McGee. The film’s ending shocked many; an alternative ending was shown in some countries. Another film which was considered shocking was Django Kill… (If You Live, Shoot!) with its violence and unusual editing style. The women in these films think for themselves, it’s one of the reasons why they are considered revisionist westerns, think of Johnny Guitar or The Homesman.

Neo westerns spring to mind four in particular; the first is Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, it was seen to be Peckinpah’s most personal film. It’s about a bar room pianist (Warren Oates) who is in fact the best gunman in the west. He goes to Mexico to dig up the corpse of his friend Alfredo Garcia to receive a reward from a local gangster whose daughter had been impregnated by Garcia. Alex Cox sees the film as a metaphor for Peckinpah as a burnt out director slaving for Hollywood, Peckinpah said that Garcia was the only the film there the final edit was exactly as he intended. I struggled with the film’s narrative but was fascinated by Oates’ lack of interest in the money, the question of his actions just sit there.

Lone Star (Sayles, 1996) like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is about the class conflict between Mexicans and Americans. Lone Star goes further though to consider the African community in a Texas small town, both films contain buried secrets. As ever John Sayles’ motto ‘put lives on screen that have not been seen before’ doesn’t disappoint. It’s the individual scenes between his characters that make Sayles’ films so moving. Just now Sayles is in development for Django Lives! starring Franco Nero from the 1966 original. This time Django is a creative consultant/extra on the set of Birth of a Nation in 1915! We’ll have to wait and see…

A History of Violence is not commonly referred to a western but I think it is. It’s about a small town diner owner living a peaceful family life in Millbrook, Indiana who it turns out was previously a ruthless hit man for the mob in Philadelphia. He’s the gunslinger forced out of retirement, the oldest western story in the book but it has as open an ending as Lone Star and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, these films are filled with intrigue and texture over the smallest of details. One which I think is present in all three films, that of the protagonist reflecting whilst looking down at a river, their lives like ours are passing by faster than we care to mention.   

 

At look back at Alfie (Gilbert, 1966)

alfieI have always been fascinated how director Lewis Gilbert and writer Bill Naughton develop London Casanova Alfie Elkins‘(Michael Caine) relationships with women into segments. Like Naughton’s The Family Way (Boulting, 1966) where time is taken to criticise the protagonist’s sex life, criticisms of Alfie are fleeting up until a point, when the women leave him. Gilbert uses many locations around London, Sonny Rollins jazzy score and the slow motion effect give the film the fleeting blink of the eye moments of happiness for Alfie. Siddie (Millicent Martin, known for her role as Gertrude Moon in Frasier) is looking for time away from her husband; a Chelsea FC supporter with a keen interest in gardening, Alfie fills her void of boredom. Another woman Gilda (Julia Foster) is looking for a future with Alfie, they have a child together, Alfie’s self-centredness and unsurprising lack of commitment breaks their relationship. The pregnancy of his friend’s wife Lily (Vivien Merchant) is devastating; Jane Asher’s Annie is looking for a lover in Alfie after an unknown sad past about a lover named Tony. Shelley Winter’s Ruby is all flash, her rejection of Alfie has him pondering on Waterloo Bridge, ‘what it’s all about?’ in an ending so open, anything is possible, but knowing Alfie it’ll be more of the same.

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Alfie’s breaking of the fourth wall wasn’t a common technique in 1966 (viewers of my generation found the technique used in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to be groundbreaking at the time, at least I thought so.) Rollins’ theme tune with its optimistic sax invites the protagonist to take chances; cheat and live life to what he believes to be the full. One wonders what kind of trouble Alfie was in before the film starts; it surely wasn’t all fun and games. I have not seen the 2004 remake with Jude Law, but I do believe that an Alfie-type can exist today in 2017, such a narcissistic personality with never die out it seems.  The interiors from Alfie’s cramped flat, the local pub, the garage where Alfie works at the beginning all suggest a working class which Alfie would rather not focus on as he sits in his chair suggesting that Gilda should rob the till of the cafe where she works just the people make money. Caine said in later interviews that Alfie’s fast talking speech rhythm with his big hand gestures were done so that the other characters would pay attention to a working class cockney. In Get Carter (Hodges, 1971) it’s the opposite as Caine’s gangster speaks slower because he knows he can be heard. It seems Ruby is only woman Alfie considers a future with; ironically she dumps him for a younger man just because he is younger. Alfie’s real loss is his son Malcolm who he had by Gilda, Alfie speaks poignantly about the child and the montage of Malcolm and Alfie in the park are Alfie at his most fulfilled, it’s his lost moment. The agony of what might been with the women is briefly pondered by Alfie as he reflects on being cheated on just he had done so many times. All he can do is walk away and ponder his lack of peace of mind.

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60 Seconds from a De Palma Film

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Brian De Palma is famous and rightly so for his set piece sequences, from the bucket of blood sequence in Carrie (De Palma, 1976) to the Grand Central Station chase in Carlito’s Way (De Palma, 1993) to the rope through the vault sequence in Mission: Impossible (De Palma, 1996). I would argue that whilst his scripts are often Hitchcockian, his film style is unique to him. I don’t recall Hitchcock using slow motion often if at all apart maybe in the shower scene from Psycho. The sequence I have chosen is the elevator scene from Dressed to Kill (De Palma, 1980). In his book Mise en Scene and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art Adrian Martin (2014) focuses on how De Palma pumps up Pino Donaggio’s score on the first part of the scene in which Angie Dickinson is brutally murdered. I have chosen 60 seconds in which Nancy Allen discovers Dickinson dying and slowly but surely she notices the murderer through a mirror. De Palma (2015) has stated that the set up and details of these sequences ‘go on forever’. De Palma takes 6 minutes to tell the sequence. These crucial 60 seconds I speak of are spellbinding on repeated views and definitely sum up De Palma’s style.

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The sequence is done in slow motion in roughly 40 shots. Michel Chion has written that a film’s sound cannot studied without its image and film’s image cannot be studied without its sound. I believe it is a certain ambient sound like a helicopter on the soundtrack at the climax of the 60 seconds; this is what still stuns me after so many viewings. This sound bridged with De Palma’s rhythmic and artful images deliver a film style that pulls absolutely no punches. To begin with the first shot Allen sees Dickinson as she lies bleeding in the lift, Donaggio’s strings rise to the occasion of her shock. Dickinson starts to reach out her arm but before she can De Palma cuts to Allen in distress as the camera zooms in a manner that might have impressed Rainer Werner Fassbinder. De Palma is interested in the quick flash of detail as Allen’s forehead disappears from the frame to focus on her hands clenched to her face. I cannot but help be reminded of the way Nic Roeg films the eyes of the witches in his Roald Dahl adaptation from 1990 from the way De Palma sets up a reaction of a slow zoom into Dickinson’s blood pouring eyes. Donaggio’s score builds as the murderess in reaction gestures her hand forward moving the razor blade up, the audience holds its breath. Allen’s hands shake in reaction, Dickinson’s raised hand towards her murderer (who of course Allen cannot see) is almost biblical. Donaggio’s score and De Palma’s cuts align with the closing of the elevator door before Allen stops it, De Palma crucial cuts as Allen’s hand of goodwill gestures out to hold the door. De Palma then settles on Dickinson’s bracelet and the blade each reflecting light in turn. This is when De Palma really uses slow motion to full effect as the film almost stops for Allen to gesture her eyes and faces up towards the elevator mirror above, this is when De Palma’s stunning use of ambient sound kicks in and the sequence begins to unwind with rhythmic precision. Allen’s stunning facial numbness in the moment holds the scene in all of its crystal glory as one of greatest moments in cinema history.

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Xavier Dolan: Beyond His Years

Dedicated to Matt Wager

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Xavier Dolan was born eight months before me in 1989, his talent knows no bounds. A child actor by profession from Montreal, Quebec, Canada, he turned to writing and directing in 2009 with his astonishing debut I Killed My Mother (Dolan, 2009) This was followed by Heartbeats (Dolan, 2010), Laurence Anyways (Dolan, 2012), Tom at the Farm (Dolan, 2013) and Mommy (Dolan, 2014). This year It’s Only the End of the World (Dolan, 2016) won the Grand Prix at Cannes. His next film The Death and Life of John F. Donovan (Dolan, 2018) will be his first both in English and set outside of Quebec; it will be shot mostly in New York and is said to be released in 2018.

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What struck me about Mommy (which shared the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes with Goodbye to Language (Godard, 2014) was Dolan’s profound interest in the mother and son arguing and how far the actors take it with incredible intensity. Of course the same can be said of I Killed My Mother which now brings to mind arguments in the films of Fassbinder, Almodovar and Cassavetes. I Killed My Mother stars the nervy and insecure Hubert played Dolan himself, a teenager at odds with his mother (Anne Dorval). Dolan mostly films interior scenes; a family home, a local school, a teacher’s home, a hamburger bar, the crammed apartment of Hubert’s friend, Hubert’s father home, a video store and a boarding school. Dolan’s exterior scenes have a visual and/or emotional charge, think of Hubert’s mother and her friend discussing Hubert’s homosexuality or Hubert alone in a Quebec street surrounded only by street lights.

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I went to a packed screening of It’s Only the End of the World in Dublin, with his prizes at Cannes Dolan seems to be taking the film world by storm. The film concerns a family of five, a mother Martine (Nathalie Baye) her sons Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) and Antoine (Vincent Cassel), her daughter Suzanne (Lèa Seydoux) and Antoine’s wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard). Louis has AIDS; the film is a 90 minute struggle to reveal this to his family in a story of rage and turmoil. Cassel’s tall psyche and brash face embody the emotionally violent Antoine, a kind of older version of Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from Mommy. Spending five minutes with either Antoine or Steve in reality would be nearly impossible yet they are incredibly captivating to watch on screen. The arguments in It’s Only the End of the World have Dolan’s melodramatic stamp, most of the audience I saw it with responded to it as a black comedy of manners. The film is based on a semi-autobiographical 1990 play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, Dolan’s second adaptation after Tom at the Farm. The Quebec neighbourhood in the film is bright and green, a glimmer of hope if it can exist in a world of such bleak characters. There is a stunning close-up of Cotillard early on in the film which I read in the moment to be a glaze of infatuation for Louis. Dolan’s hear for the music of his generation is clear (Blink 182) and surprising (Moby) and is a reminder of the rarity of a working director who is under 30.

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Heartbeats concerns a love triangle between Nicolas (Niels Schneider), Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Xavier Dolan) set in a Montreal of twenty-somethings’ (Generation Y) obsessive ramblings about their love lives or lack of them. I found this film to be a similar viewing experience to My Golden Days (Desplechin, 2015), both films contain performances and individual moments that I admire but the film overall lacks something more needed at the core, an engaging narrative. With Dolan this comes with more expectation as I have not seen any other of Arnaud Desplechin’s films. As my friend Matt informed me; other Dolan films such as I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways and Mommy take something on, something of substance or more accurately something of essence. The three central performances in Heartbeats are strong, Schneider for his pretentiousness, Chokri for her desperation and Dolan for his obsession which finally reaches a breaking point. Dolan’s choice of music such as Dalida’s ‘Bang, Bang’ as the film’s theme song, House of Pain’s catchy ‘Jump Around’ and Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Cello suite No. 1 Prelude in C and G Major respectively give the film some emotion weight at times. Dolan’s use of camera placement and slow-motion technique absorb in some fine moments such as Nicolas’ birthday party sequence, Francis going to the store to buy marshmallows and eating one slowly as he fantasises about Nicolas and a walk in rain between Marie and Francis. Writing about this now I’m remembering the use of slow motion in Every Man for Himself (Godard, 1980) and In the Mood for Love (Wong, 2000). With Heartbeats Dolan draws a canvas, sets his stylistic tendency without a strong enough narrative motor, which sometimes relies on narcissistic discussion between strangers when more focus is needed for his protagonists.

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Laurence Anyways features incredible performances from Melvil Poupaud as Laurence Alia, a Montreal a high school English teacher who is a transsexual and Suzanne Clement as Fred, his girlfriend who sticks by him, they love each other deeply. Dolan experiments more with slow motion techniques, he is deeply fascinated by profiles from front and back. Quebec as always in Dolan’s films is filled with colour from its characters, costumes (designed by Dolan himself) and set design. Dolan’s soundtrack sets the tone with some songs familiar, some all the better for being discovered in the context of his and his music supervisors’ selections. Strong scenes feature Dolan’s trademark, arguments; from a confrontation between Fred and an elderly waitress with no respect and Poupaud and Clement’s dynamic scenes together. It features strange sequences of water flowing through a ceiling on Fred and another of clothes falling from the sky as Laurence and Fred roam free through the mystical Isle of Black. The film simply floats.

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Tom at the Farm has the feel of L’argent (Bresson, 1983), of a character being taken in by a farm woman with hardly any questions asked initially. It also has a strange echo of a one man version of The Big Chill (Kasdan, 1983), a man visiting a remote house for the funeral of a loved one. The film is based on a 2011 play by Michel-Marc Bouchard who co-wrote the screenplay with Dolan. Tom (Dolan) has come to pay his respects to the family of his deceased boyfriend Guillaume. Guillaume’s psychotic brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) is on par with Steve in Mommy and Antoine in It’s Only the End of the World. Guillaume’s mother Agathe (Lise Roy) is oblivious to Guillaume’s homosexuality and Francis’ sadistic nature. Tom becomes Francis’ victim for his sick and violent games which including beatings and bursting Tom’s tires leaving him trapped in a remote Quebec farm outback. Tom and Guillaume’s colleague Sarah (Evelyne Brochu) is believed by Agathe to have been Guillaume’s lover; Sarah’s appearance in the film’s narrative is a breath of fresh air. The film’s feeling of isolation is superbly photographed in stark colours of the Quebec night but I felt there was something missing at the film’s centre. Tom’s vague characterisation is intriguing however.

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It’s nearly two years ago since I discovered Dolan’s films with Mommy which I consider to be his masterpiece. Diane (Anne Dorval) one of Dolan’s most regular collaborators is a single mother taking care of her fifteen year old son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) who has ADHD and psychotic tendencies. Enter Kyla, an outsider to their relationship, who is a nervous stuttering teacher on sabbatical played by the brilliant Suzanne Clement (completely different each time she works with Dolan from I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways to Mommy). The Quebec neighbourhood is as bright as ever with autumn leaves and sunshine coming through the street of such family tragedy like in All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, 1955) and Far from Heaven (Haynes, 2002). The character Steve plays his deceased father’s  mix-tape which includes White Flag by Dido, Blue (Da Ba Dee) by Eiffel 65 and Wonderwall by Oasis. White Flag sets the tone of the family life in the Quebec suburb for Kyla with her emotionally absent husband Patrick (Alexandre Goyette) and their daughter (Isabelle Nèlisse). Blue (Da Ba Dee) sets boundaries between Steve and Kyla, Pilon has an incredibly natural ability to embody his character through stark body language and shocking intensity. What can be said for Wonderwall, perhaps the most overused pop song of the 1990s? It is given new and eternal life in this film in an astonishing sequence of Steve breaking the fourth wall (changing the screen’s aspect ratio from 1:1 to 1.85:1) it has to seen to believed and a lesser film would have made this into a gimmick but this film’s heart and intensity earns such a bold and breathtaking move. Dorval’s Diane loves her son, her facial gestures are perfect, almost devilish at times. Clement’s Kyla’s hand gestures speak volumes of nerves and repression which she lets out unexpectedly in one scene. Maybe Pilon is the Jean-Pierre Leaud of now! The film climaxes with the heavenly sound of Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die, the visual settling is white, a white of endless entrapment which is about to be set free.

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Dolan’s films are noted highly for their performances and their stylistic tendencies of montage and slow motion. His camera tracks sometimes feel like they are a character’s POV or a POV of a vehicle in which they are traveling in but sometimes the camera is just tracking the characters like road scenes in Laurence Anyways and Tom at the Farm. Dolan sometimes likes to build up a scene slowly by showing us two characters at a table when they are in fact three and the third person vibrates the scene with inappropriate comments, we can call this trait Dolanesque. His sound turns down when you do not expect it, like when Blue (Da Ba Dee) fades out and back in for dramatic effect at a crucial moment in Mommy. Then again all moments in Dolan’s cinema are in a sense crucial, its Quebec setting of brightness and possibly hopefulness intrigues the viewer. Diane’s fantasy of Steve’s future in Mommy is like an advert, a montage between the style of the Six Feet Under (Ball, 2001-2005) finale and Boyhood (Linklater, 2014). It is like all of the fantasy sequences in Dolan’s films, soon the Quebecoise melodramatic vision of reality sets in.

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A Prowler Named Joseph Losey

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Joseph Losey was blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1950s after making some films there. He resumed his career in Britain, making some films in Italy and France as well. He was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, USA in 1909; he went to high school with Nicholas Ray. He studied at Dartmouth College and Harvard University before studying in Moscow where he met Sergei Eisenstein and Bertolt Brecht. Losey was a major figure in the New York political theatre movement in the 1930s. He worked with Brecht for preparation on Brecht’s Life of Galileo Los Angeles production in 1946 and 1947. One year later Losey’s debut feature film The Boy with Green Hair (Losey, 1948) was released starring 11 year old Dean Stockwell in his first film.

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The Boy with Green Hair was seen a political allegory about a war orphan who wakes up one morning to find he has green hair. The green symbolising his difference in society as a war orphan. Some may find this ‘message’ film too preachy. Stockwell and his guardian played by Pat O’Brien have excellent chemistry and the film is an important social document of Truman’s America of 1947. The scene of Peter (Stockwell) being confronted outside of school over his differences reminded of a scene directed by Losey’s classmate Nick Ray in which James Dean is halted back after crossing the school crest in Rebel Without a Cause (Ray, 1955). Such abuse from the cushy insiders is too much for loner outsiders like Stockwell and Dean, Stockwell expresses his feelings through a speech about war orphans and Dean expresses himself by raging at his parents.

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Losey made Stranger on the Prowl (Losey, 1952) in Italy before settling in Britain in 1953 where he made The Sleeping Tiger (Losey, 1954) starring arguably his favourite actor Dirk Bogarde with whom he worked with on five films. Bogarde plays a criminal taken into care by Alexander Knox, a psychiatrist. Alexis Smith plays the psychiatrist’s wife who develops feelings for Bogarde. The film is an excellent three hander by the actors about characters who can never be sure what they want. Raymond Durgnat (1966) rightly points out that the film could have made in the 1930s by Warner Bros. Starring Humphrey Bogart (James Mason would have been perfect), Bette Davis and Claude Rains. With Losey blacklisted the film was credited to its producer Victor Hanbury. Losey and cinematographer Harry Waxman use dark shadows to convey deep trauma and secrets. The house in The Sleeping Tiger marks for me Losey’s fascination with confined spaces; the houses in The Servant, Accident, Secret Ceremony, The Go-Between and The Romantic Englishwoman. The apartment in Blind Date, the cave in The Damned, the prison in The Criminal and the trenches in King and Country.

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The Intimate Stranger (Losey, 1956) was once again credited to its producer, this time Alec C. Snowden. Losey does what he can with what feels like a BBC Play for the Day, but with less visual imagination than say one directed by Ken Loach or Mike Leigh or those scripted by Dennis Potter. The story concerns an American film producer who resides in England after a near scandal in Hollywood. He begins receiving love letters from a woman he does not remember. The actors Richard Basehart, Mary Murphy and the wonderful Roger Livesey are all on fine form. Perhaps the most visually striking element of the film is the use of film sound stage lights being repeatedly shone on a guilty culprit.

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Blind Date (Losey, 1959) concerns a Dutch artist Jan (Hardy Kruger) who goes to the flat a French woman Jacqueline (Micheline Presle), he hears a knock on the door, police led by Inspector Morgan (Stanley Baker) enter and discover Jacqueline’s body. With this film and The Criminal Losey highlights the multicultural change which started in Britain around the 1950s. Jan as an outsider to England struggles at first to understand the police’s methods. The film also struggles in its flashbacks of Jan and Jacqueline but I suppose that’s the point. One was reminded of the domestic arguments in Contempt (Godard, 1963). Durgnat (1966) interestingly refers to the ending as having an air of ‘Godardian freedom’ in which Jan hasn’t learned much from the experience maybe this makes a second viewing more interesting.

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In The Criminal (Losey, 1960) the prisoners are stick figures for labour. Johnny Bannion’s (Stanley Baker) release from prison is short lived he almost cannot bare to leave those stone walls. The film’s ending echoes Shoot the Piano Player (Truffaut, 1960). His woman Suzanne’s (Margit Saad) presence is like that of an angel, ‘a gift from the Gods’ as Durgnat (1966) argues. Freedom is too far away from any of these characters, they are always imprisoned in some way.

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The Damned (Losey, 1963) opens with a rock ballad from the film’s composer James Bernard, entitled ‘Black Leather Rock’. It reaches its climax when a gang led by King (Oliver Reed) start whistling it, I marvel at this moment. The Damned starts out as a runaway story involving Joan (Shirley Anne Field) and Simon (Macdonald Carey) and turns into them stumbling upon a group of radioactive children whom Joan, Simon and King decide to rescue against the odds. The scenario and relationship between the head scientist Bernard (Alexander Knox) and his mistress Freya (Viveca Lindfors) echoes Doctor Génessier and his mistress Louise in Eyes Without a Face (Franju, 1960). The Damned is among the most ambitious produced by Hammer Films. Such subtleties are added to the texture of the film like the incestuous overtone in the relationship between Joan and King who are brother and sister. The film pulls no punches, it portrays an England spiralling over the edge with gang beatings, illegal scientific experiences, an England where freedom is once again denied.

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It is so difficult to write about The Servant (Losey, 1963) which I consider to be Losey’s masterpiece along with The Go-Between. Losey’s direction in The Servant is heavily emphasised by noir shadows and sharp camera movement. Pinter’s dialogue is among his best. The Servant from its opening street image is very much a London film accompanied by Johnny Dankworth’s jazzy score. A figure, Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) immerges from the wilderness in this opening sequence, he has applied for a job as aristocrat Tony’s (James Fox) servant. Tony hires Barrett which begins a spinning wheel of dishonesty, cruelty and power shifting between the men and the women, Susan (Wendy Craig) and Vera (Sarah Miles). That is not to say that The Servant is about a battle of the sexes, it is more of a battle of the classes. The final shot and abrupt end credits stunned me.

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King and Country (Losey, 1964) concerns wet and depressing trenches in the Battle of Passchendaele in World War One, 1917. When Private Hamp (Tom Courtenay) is accused of desertion Captain Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde) steps in to defend him. Losey shot the film cheaply, using a set at Shepperton Studios for the trenches and an almost deserted London street and home of Private Hamp to remind us of his life left behind. Bogarde is at his best as a no-nonsense humanitarian trapped in a bureaucratic authoritarian cesspool where the questions in the feeble heads of the chief officers are; ‘what’s best for England?’, ‘what’s the best example to the soldiers?’ etc. Keeping in mind that these questions are still relevant 100 years later is severely depressing. As Hamp lies drunk on the ground towards the end of the film, all that is still relevant in 2016 hits home (you’ll see what I mean). And Bogarde stepping up in the final scene in a reveal similar to a scene in Visconti’s The Damned (1969) is a testament to his incredible integrity as an actor in moments that are amoral and his characters know they are and bear them through emotional guilt.

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Accident (Losey, 1967) is the weakest of Losey’s films that I’ve seen; I say this as a huge admirer of his work. I saw the film about five years ago on VHS and struggled with its narrative and characters, it was my first viewing of a Losey film. Revisiting it now knowing Losey’s films a lot better and that it was one of his three collaborations with Harold Pinter I still find myself more puzzled with the film, especially as Pinter also scripted The Servant and The Go-Between both of which I believe to be Losey’s best films. I get that Losey and Pinter are interested in the bland and empty lives of these people but it not enough to sustain its narrative. It is a vagueness that works well in films of that period like Charlie Bubbles (Finney, 1967). Accident needs at least one scene to grasp onto to make it accessible in someway, I did not find one but will gladly revisit the film in another few years.

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Secret Ceremony (Losey, 1968) portrays an almost empty London like the London of The Satanic Rites of Dracula (Gibson, 1973). The huge Debenham House in Holland Park, West London is the main setting for this unsettling psychological drama which bares the tagline ‘no one admitted the last 12 minutes’. Mia Farrow lives all alone in the huge house which bares the past secret of likely incessant with her now dead family. The film at first intriguing strains its own narrative relying on slightly repetitive scenes involving Farrow. Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Mitchum give mildly interesting performances. Their encounter on the beach is the film’s best scene it breathes on its own and adds to the mystery of the incest theme. The house reminds me of Jeanne Dielman’s apartment you just cannot wait to leave.

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The Go-Between (Losey, 1971) has a score by Michel Legrand that is absolutely mesmerising, up there with Michael Nyman’s great work for Peter Greenaway’s films. From the opening shot of raindrops on the window, I was captivated by the love of life that climaxes Legrand’s main theme. The story is; Alan Bates and Julie Christie use young Dominic Guard to act as a ‘go-between’ for their correspondence of love letters. The film won Losey the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, his highest career honour. Gerry Fisher’s (a regular collaborator of Losey’s) stunning cinematography captures the beautiful English nature and the large country house filled with what I remember to be natural light leaving its mark of emotional intensity like Legrand’s music does particularly when Fisher’s zooms to a dramatic close-up.      

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The Romantic Englishwoman (Losey, 1975) is an interesting film about power once again set mostly in the surroundings of an English house. Glenda Jackson and Michael Caine are perfectly cast as a married couple with Helmut Berger as their ‘go-between’ for business and pleasure. Losey and his screenwriters Tom Stoppard and Thomas Wiseman have made a comedy of manners, for example in one hilarious scene Caine and Jackson are ‘down and dirty’ in their front garden before an unannounced guest pulls up in their driveway. Dirk Bogarde who collaborated with Losey five times reportedly turned down Caine’s role. Caine’s rants are among his best, like in A Shock to the System (Egleson, 1990).

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Mr. Klein (Losey, 1976) stars Alain Delon in a performance of subtle intensity which is maybe the best acting of any Losey film. It’s difficult to say more, Delon has encounter after encounter which builds towards an intimate experience about identity and bad timing, with an ironic final image. Losey worked until the end of his life in 1984, aged just 75. I cannot quite tell if Losey’s American identity merged with a English one after he had lived in London for 30 years.

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Philippe Garrel’s L’enfant secret (1979)

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I first heard about Philippe Garrel through Adrian Martin’s introduction of L’enfant secret (Garrel, 1979) for Sight and Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time 2012 poll. The film was made in 1979 but not shown until 1982, as Garrel needed the time to prepare it in the lab I think. I would guess that Garrel and the Cinematheque Francaise hold the only prints of this film. Martin, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Fergus Daly and nine others attended a screening of it in the IFI Cinema, Dublin (my local) in June 2001 as part of a Garrel conference, entitled Garrel Eternal (which according to Rosenbaum maybe the only Garrel conference in existence), the screenings were curated by Fergus Daly. To my knowledge one of the few other cinemas to show L’enfant secret is the Melbourne Cinematheque, Garrel holds the screening rights. Martin said of the film “I dreamed it in my mind of what it would be… It turned out to infinitely greater than anything I had dreamed’. I am lucky enough to have seen this film which has only a Japanese DVD release.

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It concerns a man and a woman in their early thirties, he is a filmmaker, Garrel’s alter-ego. She is an actress, Nico’s (of The Velvet Underground) alter-ego, (Garrel and Nico had a long and intense relationship around 1969 to 1979). The semi-autobiographical details concern the man, Jean-Baptiste (Henri de Maublanc) who goes thorough severe depression leading to electric shock treatments. The woman Elie (Anne Wiazemsky) has a child named Swann (Xuan Lindenmeyer) by another man. The film is a structure of vignettes conveying the many feelings expressed by the characters.

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Characters often say goodbye to each other in Garrel’s films, as Martin (2012) notes ‘this is one of the absolutely central human moments for him’, such moments are portrayed with such intimacy through the actors and mise-en-scene. After the IFI screening in 2001, Adrian Martin walked to the back of cinema to find Fergus Daly trembling, Daly asked ‘have we just seen the greatest film ever made?! Martin replied ‘yes, we did’. A nearly tearful Martin in 2012 adds ‘and I still believe this’.

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My main critical sources of Garrel include Martin’s aformentioned 2012 introduction and his three texts, Garden of Stone: Philippe Garrel’s L’enfant secret from Senses of Cinema (2001) (now available through a 2011 revised version from Transit), A Cinema of Intimate Spectacle: The Poetics of Philippe Garrel from Cineaste (2009) and Jealousy: Terms of Endearment from Transit (2014). Also of great passion and interest are Kent Jones’ 1997 essay from Film Comment entitled Sad and Proud of It: The Films of Philippe Garrel, Review: A Burning Hot Summer (Film Comment July/August 2012) and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 2006 review for Sight and Sound, Voluptuous Defeat: Philippe Garrel and Les amants réguliers. I have previously seen three Garrel films; Regular Lovers (Garrel, 2005), Frontier of Dawn (Garrel, 2008) and Jealousy (Garrel, 2013) all are in black and white (like L’enfant secret) and star Philippe Garrel’s son Louis as his father’s alter-ego prowling the streets of Paris as a poet, a photographer and an actor respectively. Louis Garrel’s emotional turmoil of love and loss are at the centre of these films. Two of them end in suicide, one in a failed suicide attempt, L’enfant secret is almost optimistic by comparison, one character considers suicide or self harm but knows better. Kent Jones (2012) notes Garrel’s ‘intensive focus on a limited set of preoccupations and obsessions—suicide, drug addiction, the tension between individual freedom and responsibility, the memory of May ’68 [the violent demonstrations of workers, intellectuals, and students in Paris], and above all the ghost of his relationship with Nico.’ Jones continues: ‘the passage from romantic love to domesticity and its ongoing negotiations and niggling adjustments’

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Until last night L’enfant secret was my ‘holy grail’ of films to track down, I could not believe my eyes when it was in front of me. Even though it was not the best quality it still communicated all of its feelings, silences and incredible beauty. Jones (1997) states that these moments ‘have the tough beauty of poetic fragments in a quietly devastating film of almost unbearable alternations between tenderness and the harshest truths’. I could not be but taken by the silences in L’enfant secret, silences with such immense power from the actors and mise-en-scene. I wondered what I had missed in other ‘slow films’ like Jeanne Dielman (Akerman, 1975) and Tropical Malady (Apichatpong, 2004). This subtle emotional intensity is heightened by the incredibly poetic music by Faton Cahen with Didier Lockwood (only 22 at the time) playing a mournful and haunting violin accompaniment. Wiazemsky and de Maublanc give absolutely stunning performances based on their characters’ strong emotions which we feel but can never truly know. Each vignette, each close-up bears witness to a film which as Martin (2012) notes ‘nearly didn’t exist’ like Philippe Garrel, a survivor who got through his depression to make this film. Garrel uses 16mm, 35mm and a moviola to make you feel as Martin notes ‘as if the film is going to disintegrate before your very eyes’, this is the power of the film. It is a truly unique experience which bears the signature of Garrel, ‘Garrel eternal’ in the hearts and minds of every cinephile who shared a similar revelatory experience to those people who saw it unveiled on the screen in the IFI Cinema 2 on that day in Dublin in June 2001.

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A Letter to Raymond Durgnat

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Dear Ray Durgnat,

Thanks for showing that criticism is an art, an area you would call ‘matters arising’. You said of your critical thinking that it is close to the school of Positif, to me it bursts with ideas like no other critic I have ever read. Your incredible fifty year career started aged 19 with an article on melodrama for Sight and Sound in 1951, a magazine you would later despise for its way of writing about films as if they themselves were literature. I can’t define you to school of critical thinking Ray, you’re just too unique. The first article I read of yours that brought this to light was your piece on O Lucky Man! (Anderson, 1973) for Film Comment in 1973, it is the most poetic film review I have ever read. http://www.filmcomment.com/article/o-lucky-man-or-the-adventures-of-a-clockwork-cheese/

‘Fifteen (or so) uneasy pieces:—The school for salesmen.—Not the deserted village but the redundant factory.—Strange denizens of a middle-class home away from home.—Explosive events among our not-so-civil service.—Medicine à la Mammon, or Human Factory Farming.—Harvest Home, or an English Il Miracolo.—How high the finance.—Flags pass, but trade remains.—Black Power considered as double-entry bookkeeping.—Another visit from the police.—From gold bars to prison bars.—Stone walls do not a prison make, if the spirit soars on wings of high ideals.—The Birdman of Wormwood Scrubs.—With the Sliver Lady Among the Savage Dossers.—Disheartening ingratitude of the lumpen.—Film director as “enlightened” Head Master.

It’s either If… or oh unlucky Jim.
Say cheese or the Clockwork Man.
Next time you say Revolution, Smile.

North by Northeast, or Opportunity Knocks, or This Is Your Life That Was. The loneliness of the long-distance commercial traveler. Did you hear the one about the death of a salesman?’ (Durgnat, Film Comment, 1973)

Your writing is very concerned with class hierarchies, you use the word ‘bourgeois’ a lot. Hence you wrote an 8,000 word review of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Bunuel, 1972). You believe in cognitive psychology over semiotics, film theory had its limits for you, you refer to it ‘as ‘though control’ ‘another Marxist trap’ which I agree with. http://raymonddurgnat.com/publications_full_article_the_discreet_charm_of_the_bourgeoisie.htm

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A Cambridge graduate in English Literature, you did two years of National Service for the Education Corp in Hong Kong. On your return to England you worked as a staff writer for British Associated Pictures which you described as ‘Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, 1961) without the luxury’. In the sixties you attended Slade School of Fine Art at University College London where your Master’s thesis  was a foundation on many of your future writing. Across the 1970s and briefly in 1980s who are were overseas in Canada and the US, writing, teaching, thinking. Your fifty year career has included sixteen books and many students, whom I read, remember you fondly.

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I first heard about you through Jonathan Rosenbaum who said of your most famous book Films and Feelings (1967) ‘This first collection by the most thoughtful, penetrating, and far-reaching of UK film critics ever remains scandalously overlooked and undervalued. Conceivably more ideas per page can be found here than in the work of any other English-language critic’. Adrian Martin notes that you predicated the way films are now viewed on laptops in 2016 as early in 1968! Geoff Andrew said that reading your essay on Psycho, Inside Norman Bates (1967)  is the closest experience he’s had to actually watching and wondering about film as he reads it. And my favourite Kent Jones ‘Durgnat’s BFI Modern Classics book on WR [Mysteries of the Organism] was the main event of the year for me. Durgnat uses ideas the way Manny [Farber] used adjectives. He opens up every horizon around and beyond this film, and by the time I got to the end of the book, I felt like I was experiencing one of those rare days after a storm, when the wind has swept the sky clean and the clouds are racing.’ I wonder how you would react to this praise Ray, I wonder what your review of High-Rise would have said if Nic Roeg had directed it in the 70s let alone your thoughts on Bad Timing and Eyes Wide Shut, The Life of Tree etc. Your friend Charles Barr agrees with the BFI’s summation on your final book, a monograph called A Long Hard Look at Psycho (2002) is a ‘reinvention of cinema studies’. Wow, I can’t wait to read it.

Durgnat, Images of the Mind

I was very moved by Jarmo Valkola’s documentary Images of the Mind: Cinematic Visions by Raymond Durgnat, your lone walks around Highbury, London and your philosophical thoughts on Michael Powell’s England, a filmmaker who you were (to my knowledge) the first critic in England to write a major critical essay championing him in Movie magazine in 1965 under the pseudonym O.O. Green as you also wrote for a rival publication Films and Filming (1954-1974) . The book on Powell that you spoke of was never sadly never finished. Having been born in Walthamstow, North East London in 1932, Powell and Pressburger’s cinema represented times that you knew well. Powell’s visuals and Pressburger’s lyrical ideas represented something else too, wonder beyond the beyond. You said that The Red Shoes (Powell and Pressburger, 1948) is the best example of illustrating the forms of cinema. https://vimeo.com/62431429

Red Psalm

I recently found your final major essay, 10,000 words on Red Psalm (Jancso, 1972). You’re an inspiration Ray, you’ll never be bettered. I will think of you on 19th May as it is the fourteenth anniversary of your death, you were four months shy of 70. Who knows what book you might have published in 2016, maybe one on Nic Roeg, whose films you beautifully describe ‘The bloodbrother of DEVLIVERANCE is WALKABAOUT, and that of ZARDOZ is PERFORMANCE (violence meets decadence). In the films of Nicolas Roeg a self-confident civilization confronts everything which it thinks it has made alien or outgrown: the Stone Age (WALKABOUT), or pure evil (DON’T LOOK NOW), or a death-religion (PERFORMANCE), or a Houyhnhnm-like nobility (THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH)’.

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You said something in an interview in 1977 which shocked me, you said ‘It wouldn’t break my heart if all the movies in the world were destroyed tomorrow’. You also said in 1992 on The Red Shoes, ‘Perhaps that’s the moment of the realisation of one’s liberty in relation to film, that one isn’t obeying the rules of the world. But one is borrowing from the rules of the world just what one needs and no more than one needs to create this false world. A false world but arbitrary in the best sense of being artificial of being devoted to demonstration and expression’. A critic once said of you that you had so many interests, any of them could have been your field, you chose cinema. For you cinema was a way of understanding the world. To paraphrase Mark Cousins, ‘talk about being close to the contours of the movies, a place I want to be’.

Rest in Peace,

Peter Larkin

Durgnat BFI WR

The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011)

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The best films in the world divide people, they can change your life. The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011) is such a film. Thousands of reviews and articles from around the world have comes to grips with it. The tracking camera moves, the view of the world for the first time. An ending that is incredibly moving, I was numb with awe at one particular moment when the adult Jack (Sean Penn) meets his father (Brad Pitt) at the beach, the gesture of comfort. In the end we are Jack, the meeting at the beach is the end of time or is it the eternity of life after death? This numbing awe I speak of happened to me watching the opening of The Thin Red Line (Malick, 1998), the view of the world with Malick’s loving eyes. Malick loves life and people like Eric Rohmer, though Rohmer from what I remember rarely has his characters out of the frame.

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Many people really hate this film in one way or another, from its tracking shots, to whispered sometimes philosophical voiceovers and low and high angle shots of faces and nature. The evolution sequence that has many so bothered is only 16 minutes long. After this sequence they were willing to give up. Douglas Trumbull’s work on the sequence is of awe inspiring wonder. If you have the idea that tight narrative always runs a film like David Mamet says, this could very likely not be the film for you. The film is from the memory of the adult Jack, memories from Waco, Texas 1955, when Jack was 12 years old like Terrence Malick, born in 1943. Jack has two younger brothers R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan), their parents are the angelic Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) and the authoritarian Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt).

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I’ve seen The Tree of Life five times since its release five years ago. It demands repeated viewings, Adrian Martin (2011) has said that on his first viewing, he thought that the boy who drowns at the pool was an O’Brien. Also according to Kent Jones (2011) the dress that Jack steals from a bedroom is not from his mother’s room but a neighbour’s. Which makes Mrs. O’Brien look at Jack and his reaction after he returns home even more ambiguous, how could she know exactly what he’d done? Mark Cousins sums up the film in the fewest of words. ” I was in an edit suite all year but popped out to catch this, the greatest grief movie I have ever seen. It’s cut so fast that everything in it except the prehistoric scenes) is half glimpsed, as if sadness is something you see out of the corner of your eye.”

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Is this the greatest film ever made? A perfect film. It’s tracking shots swoon around the O’Brien household, through the trees nearby and up to the sky. The ending is so profound because Jack is us, his whole life right in front of him. After watching the film yesterday and re-watching the ending twice today, I cried, I felt my life in front of me. The sequence has Malick’s imagery combines with Hector Berlioz’ Agnus Dei [Requiem, Op. 5 (Grande Messe des Morts) with its stunning choral accompaniment make the bridging relationship of audio and visual quite literally out of this world. It reminds me of a another film’s ending that of My Dinner with Andre (Malle, 1981) Wally Shawn’s monologue about the streets and buildings of New York connected in his mind; buying an ice cream after school and buying a suit with his father.

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Of course The Tree of Life also heavily reminds the viewer of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968). Michel Chion (2014) states “Two grandiose companies in which the universe as revealed shows modern science is at stake, but made of two opposing views. A break with the family and all earthly bonds, in the first film, meets, in the second, the strong presence of the family of affect. The gesture retained the dinosaur, this is an extraordinary idea of Malick’s, comparable to the bone thrown by the monkey in 2001.” I have debated with myself if The Tree of Life is as great as I think it is, my head buzzing with its images over the past few days has confirmed it as a masterpiece beyond the beyond.

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I have re-watched Badlands (Malick, 1973), Days of Heaven (Malick, 1978) and The Thin Red Line (Malick, 1998), they filled are with breathtaking imagery. To the Wonder (Malick, 2012) and The New World (Malick, 2005), have their moments, I really struggled with the latter. Knight of Cups (Malick, 2015) Malick’s latest offering, lost me, though it is like an extending of adult Jack’s life at home and in the working world. A friend of mine told me if he ever taught a film class he would show The Tree of Life to youngsters and tell them to spend weeks breaking it down, scene by scene, shot by shot. The Tree of Life will be remembered in a 100 years. My friend continued, in that time, people will look at the film and say ‘wow, that man was so in tune with life and the planets’. He told me all of this the day after seeing it for the first time. The Tree of Life can do that to you. Some people see the film as a technical exercise, I see it as a eulogy.

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Kent Jones and French Cinema

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Kent Jones was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, USA in 1960. He has written about cinema since the 1980s and has contributed to Film Comment since 1996, he also contributes to Cahiers du Cinema and Trafic. He dropped out of NYU studying first Film Production then Film Studies. He worked as a carer for people with autism in the 1980s. He has worked with Martin Scorsese since the early 90s first as an archivist. Jones was also a film programmer at Film Society at Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater and New York Film Festival Selection Committee between 1998 and 2009, after which he become the director of World Cinema Foundation (2009-2012). He is currently the director and chairman of Selection Committee for The New York Film Festival (2012-) .His favourite films include Fanny and Alexander (Bergman, 1982) The Puppetmaster (Hou, 1993) and The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles, Fleck and Wise, 1942).

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Jones stated in 2003, “I got interested in French cinema in the early ’90s. I went there and saw Van Gogh (Maurice Pialat, 1991), J’embrasse Pas (Techiné, 1991), Paris At Dawn (Assayas, 1991) and Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf (Léos Carax, 1991). I was working for Marty at that point and made sure he saw that movie, because I thought he’d be excited about it. At that point, the American view of modern French cinema was limited to say the least. Olivier remembers coming here when he showed Disorder (Assayas, 1986) and seeing a marquee that said “Yves Robert is the glory of French cinema.” In those days, that’s what it was like. In everyone’s minds, French cinema was Truffaut, even though he’d been dead for six years, still fighting with Godard. That’s why Maurice Pialat was never popular here. Waves just come and go. Once they come, there’s a lot invested in keeping it new, especially for people who lived through them.”

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Amongst Jones’ favourite directors other than those already menti.ned are Chantal Akerman (1950-2015), Robert Bresson, (1901-1999), David Fincher and Arnaud Desplechin. Jones was inspired to be a film critic by the writing of Manny Farber (1917-2008) and Andrew Sarris (1928-2012) who Jones both knew personally. Andre Bazin (1918-1958) also shaped his ideas on cinema. Jones has written five books, The first Memorable Movie Roles and the Actors Who Played Them (1992) Andre Techine: Strategy of Tension (1997, available only in Spanish) L’Argent (BFI Modern Classics, 1999), Physical Evidence: Collected Film Criticism (2007) and Olivier Assayas (editor and contributor, 2012). Jones’ book on L’Argent is a lovely tribute to Bresson, which discusses amongst other things Bresson’s use of doorways in his films and how he sees Bresson not as a filmmaker of grace, he states (2000) “No one ever made films at once so concentrated and so expansive, so precise in their mapping of action and so careful to allow for a resonance beyond the imagination of almost anyone else who has ever worked in the medium. No other filmmaker has followed everyday existence with such patience, care and love. The tension between what is seen and what is felt, what is understood and what is undefinable yet present, lies at the core of Bresson’s work.” Physical Evidence is a ten year anthology of Jones’ writing for various publications. I love how he describes Lucrecia Martel’s films, her use of framing and sounds, his piece on Hou Hsiao-hsien is also beautiful at describes Hou’s  uses of colour, sounds and framing.  Jones is also a filmmaker, he has directed four films, Lady by the Sea: The Statue of Liberty (Scorsese and Jones, 2004) Val Lewton: A Man in the Shadows (Jones, 2007) A Letter to Elia (Scorsese and Jones, 2010) and Hitchcock/Truffaut (Jones, 2015). He also co-wrote My Voyage to Italy (Scorsese, 2001) and Jimmy P. (Desplechin, 2013).

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I find Jones’ writing style to be personal, articulate and clear, he comes across so an interviews to very passionate cinema and life. His first piece for Film Comment was on Olivier Assayas, it is a very beautiful piece of writing. I have not seen the films that Jones refers to but I could picture them in my head. Jones (2001) said of In the Mood for Love (Wong, 2000), “But even within the film’s locked-down symmetries (which replace Wong Kar-wai’s usual lachrymose voiceover as a structuring device), every shot remains a quietly ravishing event. Cheung passing her hand over her husband’s back as he plays mahjong, then sitting on the edge of his chair, in slow motion: a sad, graceful moment, where the line of her body conveys the sense of a woman playing the dutiful, admiring wife. The palette may be more restrained than in the previous movies (heavy on grays, whites and beiges, with great swathes of red), but every object glows as ecstatically as ever”.