Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

14 July 2011

Revisiting The Last Waltz (1978)

I saw The Last Waltz when it first came out in 1978. I can’t say that I was the most astute viewer at that point, but as a fan of The Band and the unbelievable line-up of other musicians in the film, I loved it. I loved it for the music. I loved it for Robbie Robertson’s great-god-almighty good looks. I loved it because Lawrence Ferlinghetti read a poem in it. In the thirty-odd years since it was released, I’ve watched a lot of movies, picked up a couple of degrees, and taught a few film classes; so it was with a little trepidation that I decided to revisit this old favorite. I should confess at this point that of late I’ve felt the need for the occasional foray into nostalgic pleasure as an antidote to an extended bout of melancholy or whatever it is that strikes a person in late middle age when suddenly their life seems to jump off the tracks and they find themselves asking, “What the fuck happened and what am I supposed to do now?” If I were a heterosexual male, financially solvent, and far less given to introspection, I would probably buy a Harley and update my profile on Facebook with pictures of myself straddling the aforementioned hog and crossing my arms in that funny way that almost makes it look like you still have nice, bulgy biceps. But I’m not. So instead, I’m revisiting some of the cultural touchstones of my youth to see if they still have the power to infuse a little je ne sais quoi into my life (or at the very least, help put the present in perspective). And so I decided to take another look at The Last Waltz.

It’s no secret that The Last Waltz is one of the best rockumentaries ever made, maybe even the best. It’s a beautifully crafted film, directed by Martin Scorsese, with cinematography by Michael Chapman, and stunningly evocative set designs by Boris Leven. It documents what had to have been one of the greatest concerts in rock and roll history, including performances by everyone from Bob Dylan to Ringo Starr, from Joni Mitchell to Dr. John, from Muddy Waters to Neil Diamond. And then there’s Van Morrison, kickin’ it (literally) in a skin-tight, rhinestoned, aubergine outfit, looking for all the world like a bedazzled leprechaun. 

Commemorating, as it does, the end of a musical era, The Last Waltz is both celebration and elegy. This is conveyed beautifully through the pace of the film, which alternates between exuberance and introspection, moving from raucously energetic concert footage to quieter, more downbeat interview segments. Additional musical performances with the Staples Singers and Emmylou Harris, which were recorded some time after the concert on a stark MGM soundstage, provide an eerily liminal counterpoint. The combination of these three elements is a study in filmmaking technique: from the intimacy of the interview segments, to the fluid crane shots of the scenes on the MGM soundstage, to the dynamic coverage of the actual concert. The DVD commentaries give fascinating insights into the technical challenges of filming a six-hour live concert that pushed cameras, lights, and crews to their limits. Additional constraints were put on the camera crew by the physical limitations of the aging Wonderland ballroom and the importance of not being so obtrusive as to disrupt the audience’s experience of the concert. Yet somehow it all works beautifully. So much so that, without listening to the commentary, you’d never imagine that the remarkable three-minute close-up of Muddy Waters singing “Mannish Boy” was the serendipitous result of a miscommunication between Scorsese and cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond.

There is an inherently melancholic undertone to The Last Waltz, as it chronicles the final time that this group of people will perform together as a unit. The intentionally anachronistic, fin-de-siècle elegance of Boris Leven’s set design, the opening waltz motif, and even Michael McClure’s lovely recitation of Chaucer, all contribute a feeling of nostalgia by hearkening back to earlier times. There is a wistful quality to the post-concert interview segments, an inescapable awareness of what’s been lost. Watching the film in 2011 this feeling is, of course, compounded both by the knowledge of the bitterness that followed the breakup of The Band, and more particularly by the deaths of Rick Danko in 1999 and Richard Manuel, who committed suicide in 1986.  But these sadder undercurrents contribute to the texture of the film without ever overwhelming it. The Band had the talent and good fortune to flourish during an extraordinary period in the history of rock music, sharing the stage and recording studio with an incredible array of fellow artists. They knew and worked with just about everyone, and everyone came to their final party. The Last Waltz is our invitation to join that party.

View the trailer for The Last Waltz here.
The Last Waltz is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Make sure that you get the special edition: the commentaries are great!

03 July 2011

My Own Private Ozon-Fest

In the middle of a hot and humid Saturday afternoon, I slipped into the Gene Siskel Film Center to watch Francois Ozon’s Potiche, starring the eternally luminous Catherine Deneuve and France’s answer to the teddy bear, Gérard Depardieu. I think there is a local ordinance against going to the movies on a sunny Saturday afternoon in July when you are supposed to be either relaxing at the beach or eating an enormous turkey leg with your bare hands at the Taste of Chicago. But I’ve never been one to play by the rules, and this in particular is one that I take great pleasure in breaking whenever the opportunity presents itself. Watching Potiche was like sitting in a dainty but ornate wire café chair, snacking on meringues and champagne. This is a movie that tickled my nose and made me giggle with its silly send-ups of French sexism circa 1977 (hmmmmm…) and clever allusions to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les parapluies de Cherbourg 1964), the film that originally brought a 20-year old Deneuve international attention.

Catherine Deneuve in Potiche

The word “potiche” loosely translates as “trophy wife” and that is what Deneuve’s Suzanne Pujol has been for over thirty years, the charming but inconsequential wife of a mean-spirited umbrella tycoon (Fabrice Luchini), who has taken over control of the company started by his wife’s father. In the opening scene, we see Suzanne in a most un-Deneuvian red jogging suit, pausing to scribble a few lines of verse about a squirrel that she encounters on her morning run.  She is a sweet, silly, and unnecessary woman, whose children are grown and whose husband Robert chastises her if she doesn’t leave every bit of the cooking and housework to the servants. The husband, meanwhile, is getting his jollies elsewhere (including a strip club called Badaboum, which sounds much funnier when Deneuve says it than when Tony Soprano says it in New Jersey-inflected English).  But then the workers at the umbrella factory go on strike, Robert has a heart attack, and Suzanne steps in and takes control with the help of her husband’s archenemy, Maurice Babin (Gérard Depardieu), a Communist Party deputy mayor and—as we learn—Suzanne’s former lover.  As the plot unfolds, Suzanne emerges as a force of nature in pearls, a woman with a few secrets and a few tricks up her sleeve, who achieves power and success without ever losing her composure or coiffeur.

Coincidentally, I watched Ricky (2009) at home on Friday night, making Potiche my second film directed by François Ozon in twenty-four hours.  Ricky is a perversely funny movie featuring a rather un-cherubic flying baby. I’m still puzzled by some elements of it, in particular how the very grim opening scene (in which the mother tries to put her child in foster care) relates to the rest of the film. I’m also ashamed of myself for laughing so hard when baby Ricky manages to escape from a shopping cart while in a supermarket with his mother and proceeds to crash into everything in the store like a rabid bat. I thought it was really funny. I’m sorry.

Potiche is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago until Thursday, 7 July.

02 July 2011

More Fond Memories of Movies I Didn't Love

Whenever I try to think of movies I disliked, Reign of Fire (2002) leaps to mind. I remember virtually nothing about the movie itself beyond the fact that it was very pyrotechnical. I think it had something to do with flying dragons and a threat to earth’s survival -- not the kind of movie I would ordinarily have much interest in seeing. I was stunned to discover that Christian Bale and Gerard Butler were in it: I have no recollection of seeing either of them. I only went to see it because my newly arrived German houseguest really wanted to. Sadly, the aforementioned houseguest succumbed to jetlag the minute he settled into his seat and left me at a midnight showing of a movie I didn’t want to see in a theater sparsely populated with random geek-boys and one snoring German. It brought back uncomfortable memories of watching Paul Newman in WUSA at a sleazy all-night movie theater in Times Square, but that's another story.

Said houseguest (whom I love eternally) is going to read this blog and say (as he always does), “Kannst du das nie vergessen? Das war vor neun Jahren!” Actually he’ll say it in English; I’m just trying to spice things up here. So if you are reading this, erstwhile snoring German houseguest, forgive me; the hundreds of good movies that you’ve introduced me to more than make up for this one night of stupefaction in the midst of the apocalypse; but it was such a unique movie moment that I had to tell it one last time.  And now, I promise, I will retire this story and never again mention Reign of Fire, unless of course I watch it again someday and discover that I actually like it. 

01 July 2011

Just Like Romeo and Juliet

There are very few movies that I hate. I know that I’ve walked out on one or two in fifty-odd years of movie-going, but I honestly can’t remember what they were or why I was too annoyed by them to even stay and see if they would get better. But then there are the movies I love to hate, and those remain memorable largely because it isn’t so much about not liking the film itself as it is about the circumstances that led me to take such glee in hating them. The first such movie that springs to mind is Love Story (1970). I hated it for two reasons: first, because it was the first time that my callow and youthful self became aware of how egregiously a movie could pander for my tears; second, because my friends all loved it. The more they cried, the more I snorted with derision. Looking back from a vantage point of maturity and sensitivity to the feelings of others, I can now admit that I behaved like a jerk, walking around for weeks afterward, pouting my lips and calling people “Preppy,” pantomiming a deathly swoon and then cackling with laughter.  But it was certainly fun at the time.

It’s not that I’m opposed to romance; I like a good star-crossed-lovers plot well enough. In fact, my cinematic sensibilities were warped in that direction at a very early age when my older sister inexplicably took me to see Sayonara (1957), even though I was a small child in a conservative Catholic household who was not even allowed to see West Side Story several years later because, according to the Legion of Decency ratings (which my mother followed religiously, if you’ll pardon the pun), it was not “suitable for all audiences.” I recently asked my sister whatever possessed her to take a six-year old to see a movie about forbidden love, racial intolerance and suicide, but she claims to have no recollection of the event. I mention this because, much like Love Story, Sayonara is tremendously melodramatic and manipulative of the viewer’s emotions, but I absolutely loved it, possibly because I was just a little girl and it was thrilling to peek into this world of grown-up passion, pain, and Marlon Brando.  I trace a lifelong love of film back to that ill-advised trip to the movies with my sister. Is Sayonara a great movie, or even a good one? I have no idea. And I’m not about to find out. In my memory it is perfect, and beautiful, and tragic, and I’m going to leave it at that.

According to Heraclitus, we can never step into the same river twice; the same might be said of the movies. There have been plenty of movies that I’ve loved … and lost after a second viewing. And vice versa. Then there are those wonderful films that keep giving us new reasons to love them. There are films that give us insights into their historical moment in ways that the filmmakers might never have intended or imagined (Hallo, Leni Riefenstahl!), and others that seemed impossibly daring when we first saw them but now retain that reputation only as historical footnotes. There are more than a few films that I like to revisit at least once every few years just to see how our relationship has changed; but then there are a few, like Sayonara and Love Story, that I’m happy to keep preserved in my memory –for good or ill—just as they were the first time I saw them.