THE WHOLE HISTORY OF MY LIFE
THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE
I recently saw one of those movies about which everyone is in agreement. It's one of those self-appointedly important films that comes out of the gate hot and there's scarcely a critic on the planet who doesn't give it the stamp of approval and most folks who see it agree with the critics, even if a few of them don't see what the big fuss is about. You're hard pressed to find anyone who thinks the film is out-and-out bad and most folks would, in fact, say the opposite. But it's one of those films that I can't possibly believe has affected anyone's life. There's no one who walks out of a screening of a film like that a changed person. I genuinely doubt that it leads to any epiphanies, large or small; I would be genuinely surprised to hear that it had gotten down into the soul of anyone in the audience and meant anything substantial to anybody.
But there it is, sitting at the top of all of those review aggregators, leading off the #1 slot because of the universal approval coming from sources as diverse as the print newspaper of a mid-sized mid-western city to an online blog specializing in politics. And there's something deeply depressing about that: a bunch of mediocre reviews singing praises in unison about a film that doesn't mean anything to anybody, anyway. That's the problem with those critical aggregation sites, that the proportionality is all off; anyone who knows anything about criticism, about good writing of any kind, knows that one brilliant review can (and should) outweigh 50 pointless, substance-deficient reviews. Immediately, Terrence Rafferty's New Yorker review of Do the Right Thing leaps to my mind: it's an original and complex take on a powerful, slippery and complex film about which a lot of inflammatory and stupid (both positive and negative) material was written. It's a review that responds to the material and advances ideas, it sees both positives and negatives, it's funny and knowledgeable, it's the most insightful bit of work I've ever read about Spike Lee in general. And it can't be boiled down to a simple positive or negative slant, a number or a letter grade, the review can't be reduced because it's simply too good. It concerns a film that would be poorly served by a critical description reduced to a simple aggregation of "thumbs up" and "B+'s." It's a film that's harder than that. It's a film that I completely believe could mean substantial things to substantial groups of people.
But there are many films in this world about which there is nothing to be said beyond "It's good." I don't fault critics for writing thin, pointless reviews of films deserving the meaningless critical appraisal of "it's good." And I don't even mind the unnecessary follow-up reviews picking apart said film's nonexistent politics and shallow themes - gotta write about something, I guess. I don't have nostalgia for an age that never existed, the imaginary good ol' days when great critics eloquently extolled the virtues of challenging art and their withering wit vanquished the forces of bad art - the critical aggregators are just another wrinkle in the function that reviews have always served: helping folks a get general sense of whether a movie is worth their time or not. And powerfully meaningless "it's good" type films have a long history of being met with audience and critical approval. Re-reading Francois Truffaut's The Films in My Life is a startling and invigorating experience not just because it is great film writing, but because he has an original, personal approach that few critics have used to great effect - if anything, the current blog-ish atmosphere has proven just how much exciting critical thought isn't generated simply by being colloquial and personal. Truffaut and Rafferty are anomalous phenomena, so it isn't a matter of returning to a time which such writing was ubiquitous. Still... criticism is at its least important when simply rating a film, when it's function can be simply folded into the marketing operations of a giant conglomerate. And when a film is undeniably good, but completely insubstantial, what more can a critic do but provide ad copy?
Thinking about all this, I had the urge to write about the films I really love, the films that have demonstrably meant something to me in my life, that have changed my thinking about the world and made me into the person that I am. I wanted to write about these movies and explain them, explain how film as an art-form can hold a deeper meaning and how the art has the ability to get down into a person's soul and do something to them. I wanted to write about films I struggled with and returned to, the decisions I made in life and the ideas I have floating around in my brain that can be directly traced to movies. And not just my crippling fear that an ancient Aztec snake-God is living in the Chrysler building. The 6 films I am going to write about in this series changed the whole history of my life.
<< part one: THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE >>
<< part two: NAKED >>
<< part three: THE SMARTEST MAN IN THE WORLD >>
<< part four: METROPOLITAN >>
<< part five: THE WHITE RIBBON >>
<< part six: MIAMI BLUES >>
THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE
I had a strange habit in high school: I collected movies, but it would frequently take me months or even years to watch them. I bought a fair amount of VHS tapes, but my main method of movie acquisition was to rent films and dub them. I would take the VCR out of my parent's bedroom, hook it up to the VCR in the basement and by recording on the SLP setting get 3 films on one tape. And a lot of those films would sit unwatched for inexplicably long stretches - I guess since I had my own copy I didn't feel any urgency and there was something satisfying in and of itself about simply building a collection. Fortunately, the possibilities for my collection weren't limited to only the newest Hollywood Blockbusters because I happened to have an excellent video store near my house. Well, "near my house" in the sense that anything was "near my house:" I lived in farm country in Southern Chester County, Pennsylvania; it was a ten minute drive to the nearest convenience store and about a half an hour to the nearest city, the titanic metropolis of Newark, Delaware. Newark was a college town and therefore able to sustain a first rate foreign and specialty video store (which, you will be excited to hear, also had a back room with porno!) - they didn't just have a sparsely populated "Foreign" section, but sections divvying up "Italian," "Japanese," and "French" cinema with breakout sections for notable directors like Kurosawa and Bergman. At an age still too young to drive and with no real access to anything that could shepherd me into the world of High Culture, I had a massive purple Halliwell's Film Guide that I would thumb through for hours and write down lists of titles to look up at Video American (later re-named Video Paradiso.) Halliwell (or whoever had taken over editing his guidebooks in the mid-90's) was stingy with 4 star reviews (most films got 1 or zero stars), so those films really stood out. Looking back, I can't say I actually shared that much taste with the floppy purple guide, but its 4 star reviews did lead me to some of my favorite films like Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend and Fritz Lang's M. It also led me to Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a film I promptly dubbed and forgot about.
In those days, I was fervently (if erratically) political in my thinking. I volunteered for Amnesty International and PFLAG, I adored Ralph Nader and worked for his Public Interest Research Group, but I was also incredibly naive about more complex issues like race and religion - one of the great shocks of my young life was when I met Spike Lee and asked him "What can I do as a white person who genuinely cares about the issues raised by your films?" and he replied "Mind your own damn business." I was raised essentially as an atheist; the only overtones of religion in my house were Unitarian Universalist and since I naturally skewed towards atheism, Unitarianism certainly wasn't going to stand in the way. Plus, my dad referred to people who go to church as "those church fuckers." My mom would occasionally talk about nice little churches she had noticed in which she wanted to attend service because the churches had pretty architecture, but there wasn't much of a spiritual component to her interest in going to church. I passionately hated Bill Clinton because he didn't stand for any of the radical politics that I thought he should (and that I thought he was implicitly telling me, as a voter, that he did), I thought the Mojo Nixon/Jello Biafra team-up "Love Me I'm a Liberal" perfectly captured the bullshit political hypocrisy and self-satisfaction of the era, I was aggressively straight-edge, I was a terrible student who flunked out of everything and despised higher education it was nothing more than a means of reinforcing pre-existing class structures, I hated the black soul of Communism because of "Holiday in Cambodia," I constantly cited Atlas Shrugged as being written "for self-pitying 8th graders who are too smart to be well liked." The film that most accurately captured my political feelings was Sergei Eisenstein's Strike - another film directed to me by Halliwell's (although, if I'm not mistaken, it only received 3 stars) - a brutal, hysterical, thrilling depiction of class struggle pointedly lacking in nuance. My ideas hit all of the standard liberal notes (even if the gaps were filled in with weird, non-doctrinaire ephemera): I wanted radical, progressive, aggressive, liberal change because the other side was out to crush the working class, take more than their share of profits from work they didn't even do, leave our countryside stripped bare and polluted, give us diseases from improperly regulated chemicals, keep us dull and stupid with beer and t.v. and exciting new products, force nonsense like Christianity down our throats and then make us stand up in a school where I learned nothing and pledge allegiance to all this bullshit. I think that this was not an entirely unusual point of view for a teenager to have.
I forgot about The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie until I saw Whit Stillman's Metropolitan. Late in Stillman's film, one of the well-heeled Manhattanites bemoans Buñuel's depiction of the ruling class in Discreet Charm. He talks about how the title got his hopes up because he really does believe there's a subtle grace to the ranks of the affluent, but the film is actually a quite cruel and unfair portrayal of the moneyed and leisurely class. Shit, well in that case I'm in. I think I might have watched The Discreet Charm directly after Metropolitan's credits rolled. I think it's fair to say that the first time I watched Discreet Charm, I didn't really get it. I think I was expecting something like Strike. Or at least something like Weekend. But the film is not a vicious, head-on assault on the rich and powerful. It's a circuitous comedy about frustrated desires; a very hard to pin down, narratively ambiguous, deeply strange movie that embraces the comedic possibilities of any given scene much more fully than the political dimensions - or rather, it didn't seem to be advancing any political agenda with which I was familiar. Hell, the video box and poster art look like a Monty Python cartoon, not a Mayakovsky print. I went in expecting the definitive demolition of something I fully believed deserving of destruction and got an ethereal comedy about people who can't get together for dinner. Also, it should be noted that basically all I knew about Buñuel was that he was a Surrealist and my familiarity with that word extended exclusively to its debasement of "weird shit." The work of filmmakers like David Lynch and Nicholas Roeg were described as "surreal" but their style of "weird shit" actually didn't resemble Buñuel's: this was not a strenuously strange film full of shrieking malformed babies and tandoori-chicken-faced wicked stepmothers, its oddness was much more subdued, casual and ingrained. The film caught me off guard on multiple levels... but still, I instantly decided it was one of my favorite movies. In fact, I can remember in high school that whenever anyone asked me about my favorite movie, I would give them a list of my five favorites: Band of Outsiders, M, Barton Fink, Surviving Desire and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Still not a bad list. Even if Discreet Charm didn't meet my expectations and didn't particularly match up the other kinds of films I loved in that period in my life, there was something subtle and mesmerizing about it that clicked with me.
The set-up of the film is ingenious; incredibly simple, but with endless possibilities - the basic structure is one of those ideas that feels instantly distinct and obvious; like it could have been thought of by any artist but of course only one particular artist would've. A group of 6 wealthy friends (including the actors Stephanie Audran, Fernando Rey, Jean-Pierre Cassel & Delphine Seyrig) attempt to get together for dinner and are constantly stymied in their efforts to sit down for a nice meal by a variety of circumstances, ranging from the pedestrian to the fantastical. In the first scene, the group descends on the home of Audran and Cassel under the impression that Cassel had invited them over for a dinner party. Cassel is out and Audran insists the party is scheduled for the following night - they haven't prepared anything for dinner in any case. It's a simple, but very plausible mistake. From there, the couples attempt to eat at a small provincial restaurant... but the there is a modest funereal occurring the back room. It kinda kills their appetite. In another scene, the group is stymied by a restaurant out of tea... and coffee and juice and they don't serve port or wine or alcohol under any circumstances. Later a military unit on maneuvers interrupts them and eats all the pâté. The colonel invites them to dinner at his house, but when they arrive they are suddenly on stage: a curtain opens and reveals an audience watching them just as they are to begin eating. A man down-stage prompts them with the "lines" but they all get stage-fright and hurry away. Cassel awakens and tells his wife it was a dream. They go to the Colonel's house and a duel breaks out. Seyrig's husband (played by Paul Frankeur) awakens and tell her that not only was the duel a dream, but that he dreamed that Cassel had a dream that they all had dinner on stage and got stage fright. Characters interrupt scenes to tell everyone about their dreams (although, sadly, we do not get to hear "the train dream") and dinner is constantly thwarted. There's an unforced, laid-back originality to the structure of the film - it isn't in love with its own brilliance and, stylistically, the images and editing are unornamented and simple. Buñuel is not a show-off and the dreams within dreams explicitly avoid playing like twists ending - the film's false bottoms and off-track asides are not intended to trick the audience in any significant fashion, just keep the proceedings off balance and allow Buñuel to address fantasy realms head-on. It's an exquisitely made film... but...
(continued on page 2)
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