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Viola Davis, ‘Bamboozled,’ and the Impossible Standard

On Sunday night, Viola Davis accepted the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her ABC crime drama How to Get Away With Murder. Davis then unleashed a powerful acceptance speech in which she quoted Harriet Tubman’s famous remarks about an “invisible line” separating her from white women. Davis took Hollywood to task for the paucity of roles that minorities, and particularly minority women, have available to them. “You cannot win Emmys,” she told the audience at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, “for roles that are not there.”

Continue reading Viola Davis, ‘Bamboozled,’ and the Impossible Standard

On Anna Karina’s 75th: A Look at ‘Tonight or Never’

Every so often, Cinephile City takes the time to wish a happy birthday to its favorite filmmakers. Few performers in French cinema are as important as Anna Karina, celebrating her 75th birthday today.

Photo via AnnaKarina.com

As Jean-Luc Godard’s wife and collaborator during the early 1960s, Anna Karina starred in classics such as A Woman is a Woman, Vivre sa vie, Band of Outsiders, and Pierrot le Fou, which owe a great deal of their success to her delightful, and frequently heartbreaking, performances. Despite having a career that has stretched for nearly fifty years (she made her last appearance in 2008’s Victoria, which she wrote and directed), even the most hardened of cinephiles may have trouble naming more than a few, if any, non-Godard films that she’s starred in.

In a certain regard, this isn’t surprising, as in the grand scheme of things, there aren’t many directors as important as Godard. On the other hand, it’s almost unbelievable that an actor with such on-screen presence could have appeared in so many films that have been nearly forgotten. Movies like 1962’s Shéhérazade or the 1967 musical Anna, as well as many others filmed during and after her collaborations with Godard, have been mostly forgotten, particularly by American audiences. Even her most famous role outside of their work together, as Suzanne Simonin in Jacques Rivette’s The Nun, is seldom discussed (though this may simply be an issue of availability). Her sole foray into American cinema, The Salzburg Connection, is virtually unknown and completely unavailable for viewing (Writer’s Note: If you have a copy of The Salzburg Connection you better let me know).

Anna Karina And Jean-Luc Godard At Home In Paris.(Photo via AnnaKarina.com)
Anna Karina And Jean-Luc Godard At Home In Paris. (Photo via AnnaKarina.com)

One such film that remains under-seen is 1961’s Tonight or Never (Ce soir ou jamais), directed by Michel Deville. At the time of filming, Anna Karina had only appeared in Godard’s The Little Soldier, which would not be officially released until 1963. She was now living with, and soon to be married to, Godard. He, however, wanted Karina to give up acting; when she was offered the lead role in Tonight or Never, he did his best to convince her not to take it.  As Richard Brody writes in Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, “Godard told her that the script was bad and asked her mockingly how she could bear to say the lines, but Karina thought him to be ‘mad with jealousy’”. Surprisingly, her performance in the film would ultimately change his attitude toward her career; it wasn’t until Godard saw some of Karina’s work in the dailies of Tonight or Never that he decided to cast her as the lead in A Woman is a Woman. He had never intended for that part to go to her.

It’s worth taking a closer look at this movie then, as without Karina’s performance in it, there’s a very good chance she would not have appeared as Angela in A Woman is a Woman, perhaps her most defining role. Tonight or Never itself is only okay, often relying on the mistaken belief that as long as dialogue is performed quickly and loudly, it will magically become funny. Karina is the obvious standout, as transfixing as ever, even at this early stage. The otherwise unmemorable plot is made much more interesting, however, in that it very closely mirrors Karina’s relationship with Godard.

Karina plays Valérie, an actress who is set to appear in a supporting role in a musical produced by her on-again, off-again lover, Laurent. At a gathering with some of the show’s cast and crew, Laurent learns that his lead-actress has been hurt in an accident, forcing him to re-cast the part by the next day. Although Valérie is suggested as an obvious alternate, he insists she’s not right for the part and begins his search for a new actress. Valérie does her best, over the course of the night, to make Laurent as jealous as possible, especially as he begins focusing more of his attention on Nicole, the young actress who he ultimately decides should be the lead in his show. She sees this not only as a way to gain his love in full, but also as a means to prove to him that she’s more than capable of the role.

anna-karina-posterThe parallels between the plot and Karina’s life are striking: she too was being passed over by her lover for actresses like Brigitte Bardot and Marina Vlady, who Godard felt would be better fits in  A Woman is a Woman. Just as Karina felt he was simply “mad with jealousy” when she decided to take the part in Tonight or Never, Valérie recognizes how she can take advantage of Laurent by exploiting his envious nature. This is best illustrated in a wonderful scene in which we see what very well may be the birth of Anna Karina as she came to be known. As part of her plan, Valérie flirts with Guillaume, a friend of Laurent’s. Once she sees that this has gotten Laurent’s attention, she puts a record on and launches into a dance with Guillaume that can best be described as “absolutely zany.” It’s very much worth watching in full. One can’t help but imagine Godard seeing this footage in the dailies and deciding that, yes, Anna Karina belongs in A Woman is a Woman.  Within the film, the dance serves as a display of Valérie’s ability to take on the lead role in her boyfriend’s musical, and likewise, it showed Karina herself’s ability to star in Godard’s personal version of a musical.

Sure, Tonight or Never may be a little uncool compared to the New Wave movies being made in France at the time. Despite Michel Deville coming on to the New Wave scene around the same time as the likes of Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol, he wasn’t really part of that crowd. And yet, without his film, we may have never gotten Anna Karina’s magnetic performance in A Woman is a Woman, her iconic dance scene in Vivre Sa Vie, or the Madison scene in Band of Outsiders,  which is in the running for hippest of all time. For these, we very well may have Karina’s performance in Tonight or Never to thank.

Eli Sentman is Cinephile City’s resident expert in French cinema.

9/16/2015: Wreck-It Ralph

Once a week for the past six years – a streak that could not be interrupted even by Superstorm Sandy – the New York Movie Klub has gathered its 20 or so members to share a film with each other. Cinephile City’s Mark Young is a member of the Klub, and every Monday he will share the previous week’s movie here.

Continue reading 9/16/2015: Wreck-It Ralph

Josie and The Pussycats

Sometimes there’s a movie … I won’t say classic, because what’s a classic? But sometimes there’s a movie — and I’m talking about the subject of this column, here — sometimes there’s a movie, ah, it’s the movie for its time and place. It fits right in there. We present our newest column, Movie of the Moment. Continue reading Josie and The Pussycats

#1: Paranormal Activity and the Start of Found-Footage Horror

Like any city, Cinephile City runs on debate. City Council is our regular feature in which we discuss an issue that one of our writers notices in the world of cinema. Today is the Opening Argument, tomorrow is the Debate. This week’s issue is Resolved: Paranormal Activity is the most important movie in the era of modern horror. 

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George Washington

Movies about the American South have existed for almost as long as cinema itself. Mychal Stanley discusses and explores these movies in our regular series Southern Comfort.

For as long as movies have been made in America, filmmakers have been obsessed with the South. And unlike the Old West, which has the distance of time to allow it to be mythologized, reconstructed, and recontextualized again and again, the American South still exists and has a history, a people, and a culture that remains to be reckoned with. And it’s really, really complicated.

Not that the movies have done a particularly good job with that reckoning. As a born and raised Southerner, I’ve been alternately angered, bemused, and amused by all the various portrayals of my beloved region of the country. It’s been used as a shorthand for backwardness, for genteel, bygone nobility, and, of course, for racial tension. Millions of Americans have formed an opinion on an entire region of the country based on the movies without even visiting (the Atlanta airport does not count).

This series will be an exploration of films that make the South a focal point. Some will do right by it, some will most certainly not, but most will probably be a mixture of the two. But mostly, I’m fascinated by how the movies view my region, and how that viewpoint may have influenced the perception of the South by people of other regions. Even if it were true that all Southerners just want to drive our pickups, shoot guns, listen to country music, and cry over the Confederate battle flag, the movies can’t even get that right all the time.

To start, the South is an immensely complex amalgamation of history, people, and culture that have combined to form something wholly unique, knotty, difficult, and beautiful. It has a cuisine that is vastly deep and varied within its borders, and so proudly protected that it’s surprising another war hasn’t been waged to decide the best way to smoke meat. It has the highest proportion of African-Americans of any region, and the ugliest history of how it treated that population. It bore the brunt of the economic and property destruction in the Civil War, and still bears the scars today. There is a pride and there is a guilt that outsiders find very hard to reconcile, but it is has been passed on through the generations in a cultural memory that has not forgotten the past, nor its lessons or mistakes (and oh, have there been many of both).

George_WashingtonYou can’t summarize the contemporary South with a paragraph, but maybe you can with a movie: David Gordon Green’s debut film George Washington, which landed with plenty of buzz on the indie circuit in 2000. Critics hailed Green as Terence Malick’s heir apparent, lauding his gorgeous, naturalistic cinematography and brilliant use of narrator. But the excellence of George Washington springs from its depiction of a small Southern town in the hands of a filmmaker from the small-town South who knows what it’s like to grow up and live there.

It’s the small details that build the foundation in this film. The way Green is able to perfectly convey a hot Southern summer, when everyone moves a little slower and no one is any particular rush to get anything done. (There’s a reason why the heat is one of the first things out-of-towners mention upon visiting the Deep South. It is omnipresent and oppressive, but it also influences the mood and actions of everyone who lives there. Southerners take it easy out of necessity; it’s hard to be in a constant rush when that results being soaked in sweat.) The kids hang out at the swimming pool every day, and when they get bored of that, explore abandoned buildings and get lost in the woods. The adults sit on the porch and try to do the least they can get away with. It’s much too hot to sit inside all day.

So the kids search for something to do and the adults sit idle. This is integral to the film’s narrative, but even if nothing in particular were to happen in the film’s plot, Green already has the attitude and atmosphere of the South down perfectly. His story takes place in the sort of  depressed town that can be found sprinkled throughout the South, the number of which has only grown in the last three decades. (Full disclosure: My father’s side of the family hails from one such town, Griffin, GA, in which I have spent far too many summer days.) These towns survive because the people who couldn’t afford to leave have fought hard to stay.

Those people who couldn’t afford to leave are usually on the same side of the tracks, white or black. Here is the greatest coup in George Washington: it is the truest display of actual, everyday race relations in the small town South. The blacks and the whites have to live together to keep their towns going. And that proximity becomes a sort of comfort which is reflected amongst the kids: Sonya hangs out with Buddy and Vernon, and Rico hangs out with George. Don’t get me wrong, racism is alive and well in the South as much as in the rest of the country, but if you live in a town like Griffin, or the one in George Washington, the black families aren’t on the other side of the town, they are right next door. Life has to go on, and that doesn’t tolerate a state of constant conflict.

GeorgeWashington2Faulkner, one of the greatest Southern writers, said it best: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Green realizes that the South has to know where it came from, know how it came to be, to know why it has to be better. That macro lesson is felt by the entire region, by every town, and indeed, by every person. Green knows this. In the film, Damascus is haunted by an incident in his childhood, just as George will be haunted by one in his. Abandoned buildings mingle with the ones still standing on Main Street. The railroad still keeps the town alive, as it did a hundred years ago. The South is continuously haunted, both by things it did to people and by things that were inflicted upon it. That past lives on today, not to be forgotten, nor to be praised, nor to be vilified. Outsiders are continuously surprised at how Southerners still recall the Civil War and Reconstruction as if it happened to them, but the effects of both events linger in the cultural memory of the multi-generation families that continue to live in the towns that their Civil War era ancestors lived in and fought for. It is in this lingering that the South is still coming to terms with; the way Damascus has to realize that the incident in his childhood affects his violent and irrational behavior as an adult. The way the ghost-like ruins of buildings can host great tragedies today.

To my mind, there is no film that condenses the modern-day small-town Southern experience better than George Washington. Towns like George’s are scattered throughout the South, with black and white families living together along seemingly dead-end railroad lines in the soul-crushing heat. These towns may not be much, but they’re home. There’s family in the soil and a history that permeates the air. If there is one stereotype about Southerners that I’m all right with, it’s that we’re all stubborn bastards. The South will go on and it will get better. Buddy will quote Job on an empty stage. Rico will find hope in a young superhero. George Richardson will live forever.

Mychal Stanley is a writer for Cinephile City.

“None of my films will ever play here. Never.”

As much as we love our Netflix accounts here at Cinephile City, there’s a certain experience you can have only when you see a film live and in person. Theatrical Experiences is an occasional series in which we tell our best/worst/creepiest/funniest stories of going to the movies. Continue reading “None of my films will ever play here. Never.”