Saturday, March 13, 2010

1964: Gertrud (Carl Theodor Dreyer)

1964: Gertrud (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
It's hard to think of many American equivalents, perhaps John Huston's The Dead and some of the final films from Howard Hawks and John Ford.  What I'm talking about is when a director, towards the end of their career, starts making these films that are so pure, so refined, that they take on a whole other form.  Ever chew on a Saltine for a really long time?  Okay perhaps that's not the best example, but it will at least lead you in the right direction of my point.  

Simply put, Gertrud is a UFO that doesn't quite feel like a normal film. There's something very abstract about it, something off and naked about it all.  It's distilled to the point of being transformative.  

It's enough that I find the unique form of Gertrud incredibly fascinating.  But I also respond to it as one of the most powerful love stories ever put on film.  And, if these two things weren't already enough, I'll say this:  I can't think of any final moment in any work, in any medium, that more precisely offers closure on a great artist's career.

Other contenders for 1964: A good number of things I still need to see.  These include:  Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe, Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, Arthur Hiller's The Americanization of Emily, Sergei Parajanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Mikhail Kalatozov's I Am Cuba, Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert, Cy Endfield's Zulu, Frank Tashlin's The Disorderly Orderly, and Grigori Kozintsev's Hamlet.  I need to revisit Satyajit Ray's Charulata, Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night, and Peter Glenville's Becket (high school English class) as it's been too long since I've seen any of them to know where they'd place on this list.  This year I really like Howard Hawks' Man's Favorite Sport and Don Siegel's The Killers.  I love Francois Truffaut's The Soft Skin, Bernardo Bertolucci's Before the Revolution, Chris Marker's La jetee, Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove..."  My closest runner-up is Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie.

12/27/10 I watched Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe.  Interesting that this and Dr. Strangelove... both came out this year.  Lumet's film is somewhat naturalistic, absent of music, and told almost without humor or obvious satire.  I thought it could have benefitted from color rather than black-and-white, as its earnestness feels stilted because of its aesthetic.   But as is often the case with Lumet, it is well-told and well-acted.  I just never fully connected to anyone onscreen.  

5/18/11 I watched Sergei Parajanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Parajanov's style is kinetic and certainly unique.  But I found its poetic, slightly non-narrative ambitions quickly frustrating, and was very rarely absorbed in any way.  

7/24/11 I watched Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew.  Intimate and personal telling of the Jesus story by Pasolini. He gives it a very stylish and immediate feel with an abundant use of the zoom and handheld camera.  

10/15/11 I watched Jean-Luc Godard's Une Femme Mariee. Provocative as usual chez Godard, but this one is so cerebral as to become distancing compared some of my favorite of his films from this period. 

1/8/12 I watched Robert Rossen's Lilith.  An unusually demented work about the mentally ill.  Form merges into content in a very admirable way, but this isn't completely my kind of thing.  The sickness finally becomes so claustrophobic as to shut off my empathy valve a bit.  

1/8/12 I watched Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert.  I definitely have a take it or leave it attitude when it comes to Antonioni's work.  I always admire his framing and extraordinary eye, but his fascination with bourgeois loneliness in the early sixties just simply leaves me uncaring.  

10/31/13 I watched Mark Cousins' The Story of Film: An Odyssey: The Shock of the New - Modern Filmmaking in Western Europe.  A little less exciting than I hoped, covering perhaps my favorite period in all of film history.  But I did enjoy Cousins' treatment of Bergman and Bresson.  I just wish he went a little deeper into the Nouvelle Vague and touched on Melville. 

11/24/13 I watched Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars.  The music and Leone's use of it are still so fresh and fascinating today.  And he certainly found the perfect anti-hero in Eastwood.  But this one is not totally my thing.  I prefer later Leone when he had more money and his artistry replaced a little of the crudeness at the fore.

12/5/15 I watched Guy Hamilton's Goldfinger.  An entertaining Bond for sure even if I felt it lost a little steam by the time they got to Fort Knox.  The gadgets are great and the first 30 minutes are extremely top shelf Bond.  

3/5/17 I rewatched Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  I was frustrated by the backlash against La La Land.  And I was confused by the critical preference for Moonlight.  Sure, Chazelle's film had the more robust budget.  But I felt like his film also had far more filmmaking rigor than Jenkins' and that Chazelle's formal approach in general was much clearer and achieved at a significantly higher level.  And when I hear someone compare Moonlight's color palate to the incredible work Doyle and Wong Kar-wai achieved together I really don't see it at all.  
With that out of the way,  I was looking forward to rewatching Demy's film, cited as a key influence on La La Land.   I remembered Demy's work with color as among the most impressive in film's history and it was as brash and beautiful as I remembered.  The pinks, purples, and splashes of bold colors of Demy's cinema certainly find their way into some of the clothes and onto some of the sets of La La Land (most noticeably in Emma Stone's apartment and her roommates' outfits).  What I did not remember though is just how bittersweet and powerful the final minutes of Cherbourg are.  Rewatching it now, if you felt it like I did, it seems that the secret behind the emotional power of some of La La Land's final exchanges is Chazelle tapping into the same cinema magic Demy concocted for Cherbourg's last moments.  Both films explore unrequited and both get deep rewards for staying on the other side of happily ever after.  

1/29/18 I watched Vincente Minnelli's Goodbye Charlie.  A bit too zany for my taste but interesting as yet another loose installment on Minnelli's obsession with Hollywood and his deep ambivalence about the system in which he made a great name for himself.  

3/3/18 I watched Eric Rohmer's Nadja in Paris.  A little known short by Rohmer is yet another great installment in the tremendous Nouvelle Vague body of work from 1958-1965.  It is ten minutes or so of pure voiceover but Rohmer announces early his extraordinary skill for capturing women and the streets and people of Paris.  

6/25/20 I watched Martin Scorsese's It's Not Just You, Murray!  A pretty clinical and unemotional early short from Scorsese that's of greatest interest for already displaying some of the visceral camera moves that would become prevalent in Scorsese's later work.

12/7/20 I watched Maurice Pialat's Bosphore.  It is striking how much weight Pialat's early work already carries.  Much of it comes from his extraordinarily strong framing but it also his depthful voiceover and his editing that confidently moves from static shot to static shot interspersed with a few beautifully orchestrated moves of the camera.

1/15/22 I watched Cy Endfield's Zulu.  I've only seen three of his films but I feel completely confident in saying that Cy Endfield is a name that should be far more common and known in cinephile circles than it is.  Each of his films has a strong directorial presence and a position to the material that encourages contemplation without being distancing.  Although not my area of expertise, I can't think of a war film set up in remotely the same way as Zulu.  We remain in one location for the first two hours with very little in terms of plot advances as we get to know characters as they prepare for what is probably their final battle.  


  1. There are a bevy of masterpieces this year Jeffrey, and the upper etchelon of my runners-up list contains them. My top film is equalled by the next several, but I didn't want to declare a tie.

    My Own #1 Film of 1964:

    Charulata (S. Ray; India)


    Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Paradjanov; Russia)
    Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini; Italy)
    Becket (Glanville; UK)
    Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy; France)
    Onibaba (Shindo; Japan)
    Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick)
    Woman of the Dunes (Teshigahara; Japan)
    Masque of the Red Death (Corman)
    Black God White Devil (Rocha; Brazil)
    Une Femme Matiee (Godard; France)
    Gertrud (Dreyer; Denmark)
    Culloden (Watkins; UK)
    Mary Poppins (Stevenson)
    A Hard Day's Night (Lester; UK)
    Hamlet (Kozintsev; Russia)
    Red Desert (Antonioni; Italy)
    Kwaidan (kobayashi; Japan)
    Scorpio Rising (Auger)

    GERTRUD is a great choice Jeffrey, though for me and Dreyer, it's mainly THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, DAY OF WRATH and ORDET, with GERTRUDE as lesser than those three, but still a formidable film in the cinematic pantheon, that rightfully has many enthusiastic supporters. That's an excellent analogy that you pose with the end of Dreyer's career going off with greatness, much as Huston's did with THE DEAD. Dreyer is one of the cinema's greatest masters.

    Off topic, but I finally got see to Jacques Audiard's UN PROPHETE this afternoon, driving through a vicious rain storm in the NYC area, and Jeffrey I am completely numb and speechless with this riveting and shattering prison drama! This is a five-star film, and will surely rate among the best films of 2010 (it didnt release in theatres until Feb. of this year, so it can't rightfully be considered for 2009).


    I can't wait to see THE PROPHET. It arrives in Shreveport in a couple of weeks. I've heard many great things and am very excited to see it.

    Thanks, Sam. Always a treat to have you, and your incredible knowledge here!

  3. Jeffrey, I've only had a passing glance at Gertrud when TCM ran it but it had a mesmerizing quality that belies its poor reputation among some critics. For 1964 I take the liberty of recommending a double-feature of Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe. The Lumet is an incredible achievement in its ability to make you take the situation seriously in the wake of Strangelove. My runners-up include the Parajanov, the Pasolini, Kwaidan and Mario Bava's master exercise in style and mood, Blood and Black Lace. I'm with you on The Killers, by the way.

  4. Samuel, I hope you'll give GERTRUD a real chance at some point. I think it's a pretty special piece, obviously.

    I haven't seen KWAIDAN or BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, but they both sound fantastic.

    Thanks, Samuel. Always a treat to have you here!

  5. OK, Jeffrey... sorry, it's been a busy couple of days for me. In catching up with the countdown, I'll make this one short and sweet - Kozintsev's Hamlet is one of the two best Shakespeare adaptations I've seen (along with Branagah's Henry V) so it is my choice. Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove comes very close.

  6. Dave, great to hear from you! You've been a tremendous supporter of this countdown (and its raison d'etre) and absolutely no need to apologize ever.

    I look forward to seeing this HAMLET!

    Thanks so much, Dave. Always great to hear from you!