Monday, April 14, 2008

Welcome to the "American Cinema" Anniversary Blog-a-Thon!

As announced a month or so ago, this is a blog-a-thon to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema, one of my personal favorite books on film and one of surpassing influence. Starting this week (and hopefully beyond), you'll be seeing entries on directors since 1968 from all around the blogosphere. If you want to contribute something, feel free to email me at or leave a comment on this post. I'll add pieces by category below as they come in.

Links without authors attached are by me. Names without links are my personal entries that I plan to write.

About Sarris and The American Cinema
Discovering The American Cinema by itsamadmadblog2's Joseph B.

The Pantheon
Robert Altman
Paul Thomas Anderson by Acidemic-Film's Erich Kuersten
John Cassavetes
Frederick Wiseman

The Far Side of Paradise
Woody Allen
Hal Ashby
Francis Ford Coppola
Jonathan Demme by Burning Emulsion's Phil Ward
Spike Lee
Michael Mann by Radiator Heaven's J.D.
Steven Spielberg

Expressive Esoterica
John Carpenter
Alex Cox
David Cronenberg by The Sickness' Cinema's El Gigante
Elaine May
Sam Raimi
Paul Verhoeven

Fringe Benefits
Lars Von Trier by Project Film School's Gina Telaroli
John Woo

Less Than Meets the Eye
Ron Howard
Wolfgang Petersen
Ridley Scott

Lightly Likable
Mel Brooks
Joel and Ethan Coen by MovieZeal's Evan Derrick

Strained Seriousness
M. Night Shyamalan
Oliver Stone

Oddities, One-Shots, and Newcomers
Lucky McKee by Coffee coffee and more coffee's Peter Nellhaus
Richard Rush

So Far Uncategorized
Sam Peckinpah by The Agitation of the Mind's Neil Fulwood

Strained Seriousness - M. Night Shyamalan (1970- )

FILMS: 1992—Praying with Anger. 1998—Wide Awake. 1999—The Sixth Sense. 2000—Unbreakable. 2002—Signs. 2004-The Village. 2006—Lady in the Water. 2008—The Happening.

The Shyamalan universe, with writer/director/producer/actor Shyamalan at the center, is rapidly contracting with each passing film. Two low-key, earnest efforts preceded his commercial breakthrough, The Sixth Sense, but even then aims of cultural and spiritual redemption appeared that far exceeded his technical and artistic grasps. Those stories of a disaffected Indian teen and a spiritually jaded young boy were marred by, among other things, narrative shortcutting and simple inexperience. What made Sense such a success was an able blending of pop mysticism, calculated moodiness, and advantageous casting at the service of a genuinely affecting conceit. One would be hard-pressed to claim that each film’s “twist ending” is not its raison d'être, no matter what other virtues it may have; the difference with Sense is the wholeness it gains from Shyamalan’s off-balance, ambient spookiness and the still revelatory naturalism of Haley Joel Osment. Compared to this film, M. Night’s two follow-ups contain equally taut handling of continually more schematic narratives, and Sense remains his only film that rewards multiple viewings because of its ending.

A Shyamalan film refers to nothing outside itself yet strives higher. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs start from narrative foundations of collective pulp memory: ghost story, comic book, and alien invasion, respectively. To his major credit, Shyamalan then elides most of the traditional genre thrills, leaving us only glimpses of vengeful spirits, superheroics, or UFO landings. The fact that audiences responded so well to such resolutely melancholy, unexciting genre fare proved that Shyamalan’s was a distinctly new pleasure in the multiplex landscape at the turn of the millennium. Underpinned by vaguely religious themes ranging from transcendence to sacrifice to Manichean duality, Shyamalan’s first three successes (even the explicitly faith-centric Signs) balance moderate artistic aspirations and overriding commercial considerations. His stab at social relevance, The Village, despite effective work from Bryce Dallas Howard and cinematographer Roger Deakins, thwarted an interesting utopian plot with unnecessary contrivances and the almighty twist, never mind the absurd studio advertising. This relative failure led to the unfortunate fiasco-cocoon of Lady in the Water, an amalgam of Shyamalan’s most solipsistic auteurist quirks: his biggest on-screen role since Praying with Anger, the barest of generic frameworks (this time a "bedtime story”), and the conveniently rushed acceptance of the fantastic by the average person. What began as a successful genre entertainment/spirituality hybrid, with only touches of over-ambition, has reduced itself to egotistical, Shyamalan-as-savior shtick. The swallowing of his own hype grew steadily more evident post-Signs, and audiences and critics seem to have caught on. The three successes, however, still carry considerable cachet, and whether Shyamalan can parlay that residual good will with another crackerjack plot remains to be seen.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Le Beau Serge (1958, Claude Chabrol)

Equal parts overbearing Catholic allegory and interesting, visually unadorned on-location examination of the inhabitants of French village Sardent, Claude Chabrol’s debut Le Beau Serge (Handsome Serge), considered one of the opening salvos of the French New Wave, starts out strong and richly textured but eventually succumbs to an overly schematic and redemptive conclusion. Jean-Claude Brialy portrays Francois, a theology student returning to his native town after years away to recover from a bout of tuberculosis. It isn’t exactly how he left it, especially his childhood friend Serge (Gérard Blain), now a drunk with a troubled past and marriage. With the town pastor having resigned to let the village spiritually crumble, Francois takes it upon himself to redeem his friend and oppose the corrosive and entangled influences of the other villagers. The bourgeois town hides an underbelly of mortal sins and squandered promise.

The film has an obvious narrative trajectory towards redemption, even if it is complicated by similarly religious stirrings of guilt and transference, modes that would play more decisive influences on Chabrol’s subsequent thrillers. Themes of incest, rape, and congenital deformity bring a sordid reality to bear on the film’s otherwise Catholic overtones, diluting the protagonist’s faith in human nature and transformation. Nineteen-year-old Bernadette Lafont played a two years younger sexpot, reflecting the distasteful possibilities that awaited Serge’s stillborn son and upcoming child, just as Serge and Francois are the same train running on separate, parallel tracks. This doubling, as well as some brutal violence between the former friends and a thorough investigation of the dark side of French village life, reveals Chabrol’s literary and cinematic debts to Hitchcock and such sturdy native genre directors as Clouzot and Duvivier.

What also separates this debut from the likes of Le Boucher or Les Biches ten years later is also what animates the other first films of Nouvelle Vague directors: a nod towards neorealism by respecting and utilizing personal, lived-in space and performers. Indeed, how less dynamic would The 400 Blows or Breathless be without their genuine locations? Serge’s bravura opening sequence of Francois’s arrival allows the viewer to effortless gain their bearings and to situate himself in the naturalistic milieu. Even if the narrative becomes overtly symbolic and a few of the performances are mannered, Chabrol stays true to the location’s obscuring simplicity and its constricting impact on the inhabitants’ worldviews.

Yet for all the efficient if superfluous camera movements, Le Beau Serge is resolutely a young novice’s film; wildly inappropriate music overtakes perfectly subtle moments, and the ending undeservedly concludes on a hopeful note, despite the undeniably nuanced and problematic interactions throughout the film, for the sake of bludgeoning thematic significance. Perhaps knowing what would come later forces me to underrate the work, for Chabrol would certainly develop as a screenwriter and filmmaker even if the technical skills were there. As it is, Serge remains a merely good film with great timing.

IMDb page