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Review: Film Socialisme

3.0

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Film Socialisme
Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

A friend recently asked what the point of Film Socialisme was. The answer, if there was one, seemed buried pretty deep. The film, which unfolds variously on a cruise ship, on Mediterranean terrain, at the present moment, and at the dawn of human history, seems designed to confound the viewer. A black woman stands at the ship’s prow and says, “Poor Europe”; a boy sits painting a Renoir from memory while his pet llama stands tied up nearby. My friend’s position seemed reasonable.

Still, it was tempting to resist him, especially knowing that Film Socialisme is a Jean-Luc Godard movie, and potentially his last. Susan Sontag wrote as early as 1967 that Godard’s films “retain their youthful power to offend, to appear ‘ugly,’ irresponsible, frivolous, pretentious, empty.” This was back when he had made Breathless and Weekend, films that became established masterpieces; his work has grown more and more inscrutable in the years since, and his defenders have both grown fewer and fought harder on his behalf.

The film, Godard’s first full feature on video, looks gorgeous, though its thrust often seems obscure. When the philosopher Alain Badiou appears, lecturing to an empty hall, the meaning to be immediately discerned from it—that the average middle-to-upper-class French person doesn’t care about Marxism—feels either deep or idiotic, depending on one’s point of view.

That said, it does seem like the film has a design to it, especially when seen in the context of Godard’s entire career. Sontag in fact argued that you could only discuss a Godard film as one part of a larger body of work; though the approach feels like a retreat from specificity and an act of critical cowardice, in the case of Film Socialisme, I can’t think of any other to take.

I wouldn’t dare recommend this film to someone who doesn’t know Godard’s films, because Film Socialisme seems useful primarily as an illustration of the beliefs that Godard’s 90-plus films have collectively expressed. The subsequent paragraphs will form less a review than a sampling of how this movie showcases attitudes that Godard’s work has expressed for the past half-century, from his first shorts up to now. Whether this film works depends upon one whether one thinks Godard a genius or a crackpot jackass; personally, I think he’s both.

Godard has always used clips from and references to other movies in his work, and here he goes further to use other forms of media. The cruise ship’s interior is sometimes captured with high-quality DV, sometimes with lower-grade stock, at other times in pixilated, splotchy, bright fashion probably filmed with cellphone cameras. Clips from Italian neorealist films and Hollywood classics also sneak into the film, calling attention to themselves to varying degrees (for example, we see the DVD menu for Howard Hawks’s Scarface, but no actual scenes). The film cuts back and forth between scenes from The Battleship Potemkin and the present-day Odessa Steps, between shots of present-day Greece and a shot from a gladiator film. And it seems like all these different kinds of images—the ones that Godard co-opts from other peoples’ films, and the ones that showcase all the different kinds of video technology with which he’s photographed the world—are being regarded with equal value. Fiction or documentary, cellphone or DV, the whole damn thing’s a movie, and it’s never going to break through the screen and reach the viewer to become anything else.

Godard used to be frustrated by what he saw as film’s ineffectuality; his 1976 film about the Israel-Palestine conflict was called Ici et Ailleurs (Here and There) because of his belief that he would always stay distant from his subjects, no matter how close the camera got to them. A decade later, though, he was confessing in the video Soft and Hard that movies were the means through which he understood the world. His subsequent works grew increasingly gnomic because they grew more allusive. It became harder and harder to dig through all his references, until one could believe that nothing lay beneath them at all.

This belief doesn’t hold water, though. Godard was obsessed beyond the point of reason with cinema, but he was also trying to show how other people processed the world through filmed images too. There’s a moment in Film Socialisme where a group of people work out beneath a giant video screen, imitating the aerobics class that they’re watching projected. This moment is every bit as self-reflexive as Jean-Paul Belmondo encircling his thumb around his mouth like Humphrey Bogart in Breathless was. We model ourselves after images of other people—again, either a brilliant point, or a stupid one.

When a woman imitates the meow of a cat she sees on YouTube, it may be tempting to flip Godard the bird. Yet this film also contains French, German, proper English, and English rendered through ludicrous subtitles (“Money public water”), usually not spoken for more than a few sentences, sometimes even in fragments. The cat’s meow simply seems to be one form of language. The film’s last shots are of Hellas, Barcelona, Palestine, and other places where human culture ostensibly originated, as though to say that present European culture learned how to make both art and language by studying its ancestors. The socialism of the title refers to shared intellectual currency, rather than to money. The film’s first shot is of two parrots; one could say (again, brilliant or stupid) that people learn not just to speak, but to think, by parroting each other.

When discussing movies, one sometimes talks about visual language. The word “language” in both cases refers to the tools a person uses to express themselves. A child learns to speak by imitating the sounds their mother makes, just as the boy in this film learns to paint by imitating Renoir—and just as Godard did, 50 years ago, when he attached a Renoir print to the wall of Jean Seberg’s bedroom. This is a film obsessed with texts; the words “des choses” (“of things”) and “comme ça” (“like this”) often appear on screen in title cards, as though suggesting that we should treat every sound and image in the film alike. “Not a just image, just an image,” Godard once said. If the different kinds of visual and verbal language in this film ultimately and collectively fail, as Amy Taubin has persuasively claimed, it’s because they fail to express meaning beyond themselves. The film ultimately doesn’t break out of itself; it stays there, and we stay here.

If a work of art fails intentionally, does that make it a success? One could sit, ponder, and watch the question grow larger, or simply say yes or no and get on with one’s life. That seems to more or less encapsulate the possible reactions that one could have to Film Socialisme, with me undergoing the first reaction and my friend experiencing the second. No matter how much we tell each other, I know that neither of us will ultimately understand what the other thinks of the film—nor, for that matter, what Godard wants us to understand. In the end, language fails us.

Cast: Catherine Tanvier, Christian Sinniger, Jean-Marc Stehlé, Patti Smith, Robert Maloubier, Alain Badiou, Nadège Beausson-Diagne, Élisabeth Vitali, Eye Haidara, Quentin Grosset, Olga Riazanova Director: Jean-Luc Godard Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard Distributor: Lorber Films Running Time: 101 min Rating: NR Year: 2010 Buy: Video

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Features

Top 10 Stephen King Movies, Ranked

We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

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Misery
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

10. Stand by Me (1986)

Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

9. Creepshow (1982)

Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

8. Silver Bullet (1985)

A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)

Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

6. Misery (1990)

No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

5. Christine (1983)

John Carpenter is an ideal director for this story of a haunted 1958 Plymouth Fury that possesses its newest teenaged buyer, leading to a supernatural revenge-of-the-nerds scenario that was already a trademark of King’s writing by this point. A master of composition, Carpenter emphasizes the car’s unerring verticality and horizontality, contrasting these antique dimensions, and the American prosperity they symbolize, with the general hopelessness of the 1980s. A chillier artist than King, Carpenter dries the narrative of its overheated dimensions, which paradoxically brings the tragedy of the people that Christine ruins into starker focus. One wishes that Carpenter had attempted to stage a few of King’s crazier flourishes (such as Christine’s chilling methods of disposing of her victims), but this is nevertheless a sleekly atmospheric, disturbing, and generally overlooked entry in Carpenter’s canon.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

4. The Dead Zone (1983)

David Cronenberg’s adaptation of one of King’s best novels displays a working philosophy that will characterize the filmmaker’s future interpretations of “difficult” books by William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and Don DeLillo: He finds the thematic center of the source material, pruning or changing whatever’s necessary to heighten it. In this case, Cronenberg softens King’s kink and gore, honing the narrative to entirely reflect the yearning for “normalcy” that hounds Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) as a car accident and prolonged coma transform him from a meek, gawky schoolteacher into a tormented, decidedly Walken-esque eccentric who resembles a rock star and proceeds to alter people’s futures. Walken’s playing a classic Cronenberg protagonist: a gifted, temporarily empowered man who’s altered in a fashion that allows him to wrestle, tragically, with the differences between his internal and external selves. There’s a memorably lonely, unsettling image of a long, gray tunnel that encapsulates Johnny’s straddling of two worlds: the conventional world, and the “dead zone” that he accesses when calling on his new power.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

3. The Shining (1980)

The most hotly debated of King film adaptations, and, as in most debates, all sides are partially right. Yes, the famously grouchy author is correct in asserting that director Stanley Kubrick nulled the tragedy fueling the novel, portraying the film’s protagonist as someone who’s callous and crazy before they’ve even set foot in the haunted Colorado hotel forebodingly located somewhere in the wintery mountains. And, yes, the film is distractingly misogynistic, showing at best an obligatory amount of sympathy for the imperiled woman at its center. Yet, these qualities are precisely, in part, why Kubrick’s The Shining is so fascinating. The director admires the simplicity of King’s pulp setup, but distrusts the author’s sense of humanity and autobiographical feelings of collusion with the family; instead, Kubrick’s attempting a purely primal rendering of the ageless cruelty that resides deep underneath all horror. Kubrick fashions a brilliant formal object, a cynically existential horror companion to his 2001, suggesting what might have happened if Alain Resnais had directed The Haunting. And, yes, Kubrick’s hedge maze is scarier than King’s hedge animals.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

2. Cujo (1983)

Lewis Teague’s gallingly underrated adaptation of an equally underrated novel embraces the unwavering, visceral brutality of King’s writing in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. The book’s central conceit—of a rabid Saint Bernard as a metaphor for unchecked addiction—is softened by narrative trimming, but the chaos, violation, and sheer velocity of King’s vision are still allowed to break through. Teague beautifully builds to the carnage, allowing us to feel sympathy for Cujo even as he devolves into a monster, emphasizing the heavy heat of the dog’s body as it grows deranged by disease, and, later, the piercing sun as it bakes a mother and son trapped by Cujo in their broken-down car. That car is a significant touch: King’s interest in addiction may be dulled here, but his understanding of the apocalyptic fear gripping those with money problems is accorded full prominence. As Cujo’s prospective victims, Dee Wallace Stone and Danny Pintauro give performances of such naked, panicked urgency that the viewer feels as if they’re eavesdropping on something privileged and primordially awful. This is the film that Mary Lambert’s misbegotten Pet Semetary wanted to be.


Ranked: The 10 Greatest Stephen King Movies

1. Carrie (1976)

The first and still greatest Stephen King adaptation is as much an announcement for director Brian De Palma as it is for King, and the artists complement one another throughout Carrie. Unlike many filmmakers, De Palma doesn’t shy away from King’s propensity for melodrama; he embraces it, finding his own footing as a formally sophisticated horror trickster in the process. Carrie was King’s first novel, and it’s structurally awkward though driven by an emotional force that would define his writing. It’s this force that De Palma keys in on, smoothing out the narrative wrinkles, deepening the ironies and characterizations, fashioning a horror opera out of alienation and estrangement, revealing an elaborate high school caste system that’s finally punished for its unwavering cruelty. One of the best and most poignant of all horror films, with astonishingly big and heartbreaking performances by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.

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First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: First Man

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Film

Review: The Changeover Enjoyably Pinballs Between Disparate Fantasy Styles

If, in the end, the film’s narrative fails to cohere, the journey getting there is at least enjoyably swift-paced.

2.5

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The Changeover
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie’s The Changeover is an unusual and mostly enjoyable hybrid of disparate fantasy styles. Based on the 1984 young adult novel by Margaret Mahy, the film suggests a superhero origin story, developing a convoluted internal mythology involving a coven of benevolent witches, an evil vampiric “larva” who sucks the youthful vitality out of young children, and a “sensitive” schoolgirl, Laura (Erana James), who receives psychic premonitions of future harm. When the larva, Carmody (Timothy Spall), picks Laura’s kid brother (Benji Purchase) as his next victim, it’s up to her to save him.

It can be a little difficult to keep the story’s mythos straight, particularly when, in its final third, the film launches into a lengthy Inception-style action sequence that takes place entirely in a dream realm. By the time the credits roll, it’s not entirely clear what just happened, and exactly why. McKenzie’s script has to resort to voiceover narration—present only in the very beginning and end of the film—to fill in some of the gaps, and even then, not every piece of the puzzle seems to fit together. This makes for an ultimately somewhat confusing and unsatisfying viewing experience, at least for anyone who’s never read Mahy’s supernatural teen romance. But sometimes it’s better to feel a little lost than to know too much: The film confidently powers ahead without feeling the need, as so many fantasy stories do, to halt the momentum every reel or two to offer a dull exposition dump.

As directors, Harcourt and McKenzie eschew the soporific melancholia of teen fantasy films like Twilight in favor of a lithe, angular visual approach—including impressionistic close-ups and skittering, almost Michael Mann-ish handheld shots—that grounds the story’s supernatural goings-on in a sense of reality without draining them of their fantastical charm. Spall strikes a similarly appealing balance between plausibility and outright camp, digging into his villainous role with teeth-gnashing glee. Pitched somewhere between a deranged hobo and Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes, his performance provides a fun yet menacing foil to James’s haunted, obsessive turn as Laura.

Even when the specific details of the film’s plot may seem silly or confused, Laura remains credible and compelling. It’s this carefully managed equilibrium between the inherent preposterousness of its mystical milieu and the convincing emotional reality of Laura’s journey that ultimately makes The Changeover, for all its muddled mythos, a lively and engaging excursion into an unusually naturalistic world of magic.

Cast: Timothy Spall, Melanie Lynskey, Lucy Lawless, Nicholas Galitzine, Erana James, Kate Harcourt, Benji Purchase, Ella Edward, Thomasin McKenzie, Claire Van Beek Director: Miranda Harcourt, Stuart McKenzie Screenwriter: Stuart McKenzie Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 95 min Buy: Book

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