Category: The Back Catalog

Back Catalog Review: Jean Vigo’s Documentary Shorts – À propos de Nice and Taris, roi de l’eau

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The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all of the films I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films.

I was going to do all of Vigo’s shorts, which would have added Zéro de conduit to this post, but I realized that the Vigo’s first two shorts, À propos de Nice (1930) and Taris, roi de l’eau (1931), were of a different genre than that film, which is a fictional story about life in a boarding school. These two films are documentary shorts, though as I’ll go into a little later, they stretch the boundaries of that genre a little bit. First, a bit of background. À propos de Nice is a city symphony, a subgenre of film that takes a look at the city it is documenting without utilizing a traditional narrative (usually), made famous by Man with a Movie Camera. In this case, Jean Vigo and his photographer, Boris Kaufman, filmed the sights of Nice, France, including beach scenes, sporting activities, a parade, and the working men and women who contrast with the rich leisure-seekers. Meanwhile, Taris, roi de l’eau is a shorter film, commissioned to celebrate the Olympic swimmer Jean Taris’s abilities and prowess. I noticed between these two films with a total runtime of 35 minutes six interesting techniques Vigo used to innovate the documentary form and put his anarchist worldview on film.

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Back Catalog Review: Kwaidan

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The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all of the films I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films.

When I was very young, my grandmother had a picture book of Japanese folklore. I remember reading it alongside Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and together they kindled a small fire of horror fandom that would eventually turn into the deep love I have for the genre today. I was engrossed by the strange Japanese demons and ghosts in the picture book, and I was intrigued by the different art style that was more in line with the flat compositions typical of classical Japanese artwork. The memory of reading this book came flooding back when I sat down to watch Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan, a film comprised of four shorts depicting ghost stories set in Japan’s distant past.

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Back Catalog Review: The Exterminating Angel

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The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all of the films I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films.

Like a less-overt episode of The Twilight Zone, The Exterminating Angel puts people in a weird situation and then sees what happens before putting a final twist of the knife at the very end. It’s unlike most other movies in that it isn’t super concerned with characters or even a story as such. And for all of its surrealism and absurdity, the events of the film mostly follow logically from one to the next. Everything, that is, except for the first few minutes, which feature the servants in a baroque Spanish mansion trying to leave before the start of a dinner party that will prove to last quite a long time. We see two maids hide in a closet as the group of rich revelers enter the house and go upstairs to the banquet hall. Here the maids see their escape route open, only to have the same set of guests enter and perform the same actions a second time around. It’s your first hint that something is up here and it’s delightful and off-putting at the same time.

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Back Catalog Review: Blow-Up

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The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all of the films I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films.

Movies are all, in one way or another, about looking. Even experimental stuff like Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight is about looking and seeing. But movies about photographers are perhaps the kind most likely to bring looking to the forefront of the movie-watching experience. The photographer protagonist will have an eye out for compelling compositions and the film camera will often emulate those compositions so that the film audience can experience some version of the act of photographing that the protagonist is partaking in. Movies about musicians have to go to great lengths to make you feel like you have an understanding of what it means to write or play music, but with a simple camera placement and a meaningful cut, audiences can be transported into the mind (or at least the eye) of the on-screen photographer. That ease of experiential transference makes movies about photographers particularly suited to the study of looking. Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) is one such film, a beautiful movie about what happens when you look too closely.

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Back Catalog Review: Full Metal Jacket

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The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all of the films I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films.

About 2/3rds of the way through Full Metal Jacket I started to think about Paths of Glory. It’s not surprising, both are war films that are critical of war in some ways, and both are directed by Stanley Kubrick. Pretty obvious. I was struck, however, at how differently the two movies see war. This isn’t a case of a director making the same point in a different era. In fact, Kubrick conceptualizes the two wars (WWI for Paths, Vietnam for Full) almost completely differently. In Paths of Glory, his ire is aimed at the higher ups, the generals who rigidly stick to antiquated notions of what a war is and put the footsoldiers into harms way without a care for their humanity. In Full Metal Jacket, that inhumanity infects everybody. Sure, the generals are idiots for getting America into the mire and not doing anything to get us out or change anything, but now the grunts aren’t noble sacrifices to the gods of war, they see themselves as those gods personified. They willingly absolve themselves of their morals in order to fuck and kill their way through a foreign country and its people. Kubrick doesn’t have his characters call Vietnam and the warzones within it “the shit” for verisimilitude, he does it because he sees the US military as covered in the stuff, full of it, or even composed of it.

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