We think of the cinema of activism in documentary filmmaking as a relatively modern phenomenon, something first awakened in the 1960s and 1970s and popularized by the likes of Michael Moore and Laura Poitras and Alex Gibney. But the success films like Bowling for Columbine (2002) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006), both Oscar winners and box-office hits, not to mention such devastating investigative documentaries as The Cove (2009), the Oscar-nominated The Invisible War (Independent Lens, 2012), which directly led to a change in policy towards the prosecution of rape in the military (2012), and The Hunting Ground (2015), were built on a tradition that goes back decades.
Here are some of the landmarks in the cinema of advocacy and activism: documentary as investigative journalism, as an educational tool, as exposé of injustice and inequity, and as a vehicle for political or social change. [Note: All these films are available on various streaming services and DVD rental, while the first two are in the public domain.]
The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) / The River (1938)
In The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, both directed by Pare Lorentz and funded by the U.S. Government, two currents of non-fiction filmmaking met: the educational project and the propaganda film. These were pro-New Deal films but they addressed the dangers of over-cultivation of American farmland. The Plow casts its lens to the Dust Bowl and The River on the Mississippi River, each documenting the specific conditions that caused the ecological devastation of the regain and offering a more sustainable approach to farming. Both films are in the National Film Registry, and Lorentz now has a filmmaking fund named after him. [Watch The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River]
Life of Riley (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) – It is curious that Alain Resnais, who was the most narratively experimental and ambitious of directors at the birth of the nouvelle vague in France, spent the last two decade of his filmmaking career melding cinema and theater in productions that are both highly theatrical and uniquely cinematic. Life of Riley, the final film from the director (he passed away in 2014, a few months after the film’s debut), is his third adaptation of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn and, like his penultimate feature You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (2012), revolves around the theater. In this case it’s an amateur production, a play within a play that we only get in glimpses of rehearsals interrupted by disagreements and digressions. The biggest digression is their friend George Riley, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He never appears on screen but his presence looms over the film and his actions stir the drama between the three couples of the story: suburbanites Kathryn and Colin (Sabine Azéma and Hippolyte Girardot), wealthy friends Tamara and Jack (Caroline Sihol and Michel Vuillermoz), and George’s ex-wife Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain) now living on a farm with the older Simeon (André Dussollier).
“Drama” may not be the right word. The play itself is a pleasant frivolity, a mix of bedroom farce (without the bedrooms), romantic comedy, and self-aware theater that opens on the first day of rehearsals and ends after closing night, with a coda that brings us back to the themes of mortality and emotional connection. Resnais was 90 when he made the film and it is surely no coincidence that his final two features raise a glass to life by facing death and mortality.
Life of Riley is no funeral, though a funeral does take place before it ends. It’s a celebration, albeit a low-key one. It plays out in the gardens and lawns of the characters, represented by stylized, abstracted sets with hanging strips of heavy cloth as backdrops, with footage of driving down real country roads marking transitions and architectural drawings establishing the next location. It’s not necessarily a successful device but it is inventive and playful, just like the stylized performances. All the world is indeed a stage. This story simply takes place in the rehearsals and afterparties of the “official” performance, while between scenes George continues to play the womanizer, using sympathy and the romance of a dying man’s final fling to entice all three women into lending their attentions to his comfort.
It’s the end of a filmmaking career of over 60 years, perhaps not the last word he would have chosen (You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet is more profound, more rapturous, and more stylistically exhilarating), but a pleasant variation on a theme in a rich career, minor but sweet.
Blu-ray and DVD, in French with English subtitles, with a featurette of cast interviews and an accompanying booklet with essays by director Alain Resnais and film critic Glenn Kenny.
In the opening scenes of You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, a roll call of France’s most celebrated actors of stage and screen from the past four decades are contacted with the sad news of the passing of a playwright, the author of an updated reworking of Orpheus and Eurydice.
The playwright, Antoine d’Anthac, is fictional, the creation of real-life French playwright Jean Anouilh in the play Cher Antoine ou l’amour rate, which director / co-screenwriter Alain Resnais drafts to stand in for Anouilh as the author of his play Eurydice. The actors are real – among them Mathieu Amalric, Pierre Arditi, Sabine Azéma, Anne Consigny, Hippolyte Girardot, Michel Piccoli, and Lambert Wilson – playing fictionalized versions of themselves. In this incarnation, they have all appeared in productions of Eurydice on the Paris stage and have been invited to the playwright’s country mansion for his wake, which in this case is a posthumous request to watch a fresh interpretation performed by a young company to judge whether they are worthy of staging a new production.
You could call it a film within a play, or a play within a film, but neither really captures the Russian nesting doll quality of the deft merging and doubling of the two arts. I see it as living theater meeting the cinematic imagination of Alain Resnais, who wraps Anouilh’s two plays around one another for a new creation.
Fast & Furious 6 (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD, On Demand) was never meant to be an epitaph for Paul Walker, the lean, blue-eyed lead who, after a couple of misfire sequels, reunited with co-star Vin Diesel and revived the fuel-injected franchise into an international hit machine. But regardless of what happens with the seventh installment, which Walker was in the midst of shooting when he was killed in a car wreck during a break, this will stand as the final film in the series where Walker takes a full lead.
Walker shares those duties with Diesel, his brother-in-law and partner in speed-charged car heists, and Dwayne Johnson, returning as a federal agent who recruits the team to help him shut down an international ring of thieves. It’s all about family and the absurdly contrived plot brings one of their family back from the dead: Michelle Rodriguez has lost her memory but not her bad-ass driving skills as a member of the criminal crew. Not that the script makes much difference beyond providing comic relief between the action set pieces, and even that feels like it’s just padding. Rodriguez commits to her role with such investment in the idea of a person discovering her true identity that her character transcends the silly twist. The rest of the cast are little more than pilots driving their characters through the obstacle course of the plot. Which is pretty much all this busy franchise calls for.
Director Justin Lin, who rejuvenated the franchise with his supercharged approach of precision driving, runaway momentum, and physics bent to the crazed stunts of this gearhead fantasy, embraces the spectacle and lets the performers simply do their thing between the stunts. Jordana Brewster is pretty sidelined here but Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang, Gal Gadot and Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges are all back, with Gina Carano joining the team as a federal agent and Luke Evans leading the rival crew.
Features commentary by Justin Lin, “The Making of Fast & Furious 6,” a set visit with Vin Diesel, and deleted scenes. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is an extended version of the film and five additional featurettes plus a DVD and UltraViolet Digital HD copies.
The Hunt (Magnolia, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, On Demand) is Thomas Vinterberg’s best film since The Celebration and, no surprise, it mines similar themes and volatile emotions that are churned up the surface. Mads Mikkelsen stars as a dedicated teaching assistant at a pre-school who, through a misunderstanding, is put under investigation for child abuse, a smoldering suspicion that is fanned into a conflagration as the community passes judgment without waiting for the investigation to conclude. It’s a study in rumor and fear fueling self-righteous hysteria as one-time friends not only turn their back on him, they suddenly feel free to treat him like a convicted war criminal somehow free in a technicality. The emotions are raw and primal, not just the townsfolk fueled by a sense of betrayal but Mikkelsen’s abused innocent, fighting back with an equally valid fury of betrayal. But it’s more of a metaphor pushed to extremes than a realistic portrait, ignoring the gross negligence of supposedly serious and responsible officials and suggesting that the entire town turns a blind eye to the vigilante behavior of its citizens. It sure works on our emotions, though, while it reminds us of the power of fear to turn responsible people into very scary creatures.
Danish with English subtitles, with the featurette “The Making of The Hunt,” deleted scenes, and an alternate ending.
You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (Kino Lorber, DVD) is a reminder that sometime the old dogs have the most creative approaches to modern storytelling. Alain Resnais direct this melding of two plays by Jean Anouilh and he pays tribute to the joys of theater in a marvelously cinematic fashion. A magnificent line-up of French acting greats (among them Mathieu Amalric, Pierre Arditi, Sabine Azéma, Anne Consigny, Hippolyte Girardot, Michel Piccoli, Lambert Wilson and longtime Resnais muse Sabine Azéma) play versions of themselves, performers who watch a new production of a play they once starred in and end up reenacting their own versions in tandem, aging actor reincarnating the young lovers of the Orpheus and Eurydice story. What a magnificent celebration of the transformative magic of theater and performance. French with English subtitles, no supplements.
Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (Lionsgate), winner of the Grand Jury Prize winner at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, debuts on DVD this week. You could say it’s this year’s Frozen River, in that it’s a genuinely independent drama about disenfranchised characters in a regionally distinctive setting (it’s the rural Ozarks here), and features dynamic roles for female characters and performers who meet the challenge (notably Jennifer Lawrence, this year’s revelation) and a strong story that doesn’t flinch from being human; the vulnerability of the characters makes their strength all the more remarkable and gives their journey powerful consequences. I review it for MSN here. On the other end of the spectrum, I review the new edition of the eighties pop culture sensation Back to the Future: 25th Anniversary Trilogy (Universal) at MSN here. The essential collectible classic of the week is Chaplin at Keystone, which I review in detail (though not as much detail as this set deserves) on the blog here, and the cult discovery is the 1977 pop-art horror blastHausu. Here are some more reviews…
Wild Grass (Sony) – Alain Resnais always seemed to me the most intellectually rigorous of the nouvelle vague directors, thanks to his demanding early features Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, but he also has a rich strain of playful larks with fantastical diversions and fairy tale dimensions. Wild Grass is a delightful reminder of the romantic streak and cinematic whimsy still in this 88-year-old cinema elder.
My feature piece on Last Year at Marienbad, the film and the Criterion DVD/Blu-ray release, is running on the Turner Class Movies website.
As the old joke goes, in the dictionary, next to the phrase “art cinema,” is the poster for Last Year at Marienbad. Characters without names, played by actors who barely change expression, walk through the lavish but coldly alienating vacation castles reserved for the rich and aristocratic. One elegantly poised man (Italian actor Giorgio Albertazzi), identified as “X” in the credits,” tries to convince a beautiful but impassive woman, “A” (Delphine Seyrig, in a hairstyle as coolly sculpted as the film itself), that they met last year and had an affair and made plans to run away together. She tells him, with a preternaturally restrained sense of calm, that they have never met. He persists. She resists. Scenes shift through time and space and perhaps reality. Any “objective” perspective is rendered meaningless in the abstractions of the storytelling, the enigma of the characters, the blurring of past and present, memory and fantasy, even space itself.
The second feature film by Alain Resnais, Last Year at Marienbad defies and confounds audience expectations of cinema narrative. The film is a true collaboration between “Nouvelle Vague” director Alain Resnais, who sought to challenge the conventions of cinematic storytelling, and novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, a leading author in the “nouvelle romain” movement, which favored elaborate observation and surface description of events without character analysis or psychological perspective. Robbe-Grillet’s script is filled with detailed description and even suggestions for camerawork, but features no indications of emotional or psychological states of the characters. Resnais helped guide and shape the story but did not participate in the actual scripting beyond notes and suggestions, and he was very faithful to the individual scenes and the overall structure while bringing his own distinctive authorial presence in his exacting direction, his acutely stylized scenes and mise-en-scene sculpted out of actors, décor and theatrical lighting.
The effect is a film that defies emotional connection. It holds story and characters at arm’s length, playing out as part mystery, part intellectual exercise, yet the very enigma is spellbinding. The scenes are stiffly formal, with actors positioned in space rather than directed, reciting rather than acting. They are stripped of backstory or psychological inner lives and have no ties to a world outside of this world. (Resnais originally wanted the politics of the day to infiltrate their lives but Robbe-Grillet convinced him otherwise and Resnais, in the end, realized he was right.) X tells A their story in the form of second person narration, always saying “you,” never “I.”
The very definition of art cinema, Alain Resnais’ 1960 Last Year at Marienbad defies audience identification, narrative clarity, even any assurance that anything we see is "real" in any sense. Characters without names, played by actors who barely change expression, walk through the lavish but coldly alienating vacation castles reserved for the rich and aristocratic, lost in time and space. One elegantly poised man (Italian actor Giorgio Albertazzi), identified as "X" in the credits," tries to convince a beautiful but impassive woman, "A" (Delphine Seyrig, in a hairstyle as coolly sculpted as the film itself), that they met last year and had an affair and made plans to run away together. She tells him, with a preternaturally restrained sense of calm, that they have never met. It could be a ghost story (the church organ score is appropriately eerie and ominous) in a European castle, the foreign equivalent of the Overlook Hotel. Or it could be film of memory, or perhaps dreams of a wished-for past, filled with flashbacks/memories/stories, but which are themselves full of elisions and gaps and even, at times, contradictory. It’s strange and surreal, full of odd humor and games, the most elaborate of which is the very tale that centers the narrative. Did something happen last year at Marienbad (Friedriksbaad or whatever lavish castle vacation spot was in fashion that year)? Or is it simply an elaborate tale, a seductive promise cutting through the stifling existence of social decorum?
Criterion’s new edition comes out on both DVD and Blu-ray in a superb transfer from a rich fine-grain master print that has been digitally cleaned and fine-tuned, supervised and approved by Alain Resnais. At the director’s insistence, Criterion includes the original, unrestored soundtrack along with the remastered, cleaned-up version. "By correcting so-called flaws, one can lost the style of a film altogether," he writes in the liner notes. Like The Seventh Seal released last week by Criterion, the Blu-ray edition is the a sight to behold and the closest I have come to seeing a beautifully preserved film play on my screen. The image felt alive, like perfectly restored celluloid projected from a well-tempered projector, and pulled me through the image. The DVD also features original half-hour documentary Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of Marienbad, a new, generous 33-minute audio-only interview with Alain Resnais and two early the short documentaries by Resnais: Toute la memoire du Monde and Le Chant du Styrene.
"I lost my memory. I can’t remember anything about the Lebanon war. Just one image." Waltz With Bashir is both art and autobiography from Ari Folman, a filmmaker with a deep interest in psychoanalysis. The memory gap was real ("It’s not stored in my system," he explains) and attempted to reconstruct those missing memories with the help of friends and fellow soldiers. Those conversations on his odyssey back in time and memory (a couple of them reconstructed with actors for the film, the rest recorded with the actual subjects) are the foundation of the script. "The memory is dynamic," explains psychiatrist Ori Sivan. So is Folman’s film, which uses animation not just to illustrate but explore the subjective quality of their remembrances, a mix of mind’s eye first-person observation, dream, fantasy and the exaggeration of emotional memory. Executed in bold lines and slow but fluid movements, it’s never sensationalistic but always striking vivid and immediate. What begins as an introspective odyssey into the effects of war on the young Israeli soldiers turns into a provocative expose on the Sabra and Shatila massacres, events that sent shock waves through the Israeli men who were made inadvertent collaborators. But the final word is not their emotional trauma, but the stark reality of the event itself. The film was nominated for "Best Foreign Language Film" at the 2009 Academy Awards (its absence in the “Best Animated Feature” nominations caused a minor outbreak of outrage). Ari Folman provides commentary (he introduces himself as "writer, producer, director and main protagonist of the film") and a press conference Q&A (in English) and participates in a 12-minute featurette (in Hebrew with English subtitles). Also available on Blu-ray.