the good, the bad and the missing

A CN&R critic ponders the lack of quality films available in Chico

Jean-Pierre Léaud stars in Jean Eustache’s <i>The Mother and the Whore</i>

Jean-Pierre Léaud stars in Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore

Item: Peter Greenaway, who made The Draughtsman’s Contract and The Cook, the Thief, the Wife, and Her Lover, publishes 100 Allegories to Represent the World, a large-format book that combines freewheeling mythological texts with a series of elaborately collaged color photographs. It just may be his masterpiece.

Item: Jean-Luc Godard, the venerable wild man of the French New Wave, releases the soundtracks of one of his features (Nouvelle Vague) and his monumental free-form documentary (Histoire(s) du Cinema) on CD. Why just the soundtracks, without the images? “Everything is cinema,” says Godard, in typically cryptic fashion.

Item: Wim Wenders, whose recent films haven’t matched his classics of the 1980s (Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire), begins publishing books of his photographs and concentrates on writing and painting.

Item: Chris Marker, a great documentary filmmaker for half a century, makes his greatest impact late in his career with an historic video installation (Silent Movie) and a CD-ROM (Immemory).

Item: Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) takes time off from his latest film projects to show and discuss eight films by the little-known B-movie director William Witney, at the Seattle Film Festival.

Item: Francis Ford Coppola turns his attention to publishing a newsprint literary magazine, Zoetrope All-Story. Filmmakers Peter Greenaway and Dennis Hopper serve as guest designers on successive issues.

It’s the best of times for cineastes and movie buffs, and maybe the worst of times as well.

Every month a large number of new films turn up in theaters nationwide, and alongside that is the ever-growing number of films, recent and otherwise, available in various video formats. Satellite channels like Sundance and Turner Classic Movies make foreign films, classics, offbeat indies, and relics from the Golden Age of Hollywood more widely available than ever before. At the same time, there is a widespread impression that movie theaters, television channels, and video outlets are glutted with junk.

And hard-core movie buffs, in Chico and much of the rest of the country, express frustration and worse over the difficulty and sometimes impossibility of getting to see quality films, especially foreign films in any form, in this supposed era of unlimited access.

In Chico, for example, we have the dubious distinction of getting to see Pearl Harbor and Evolution and Angel Eyes on the same day that nearly everyone else in the country gets their first crack at those films. But some of the best films of the year 2000 (Time Regained, Humanité, Beau Travail, YiYi, The Wind Will Carry Us) have never reached Chico’s theaters, and the latest films of Wenders and Greenaway have turned up only on video.

And it’s not just a matter of living in Chico instead of San Francisco, Los Angeles or Seattle. Chicoans still get a good deal of access to quality foreign films, especially if they supplement their visits to the Pageant with rentals at All the Best and Blockbuster and hook-ups to Sundance and TCM. The rub is that increasing amounts of the best new cinema come to us only on TV screens, if at all.

Indeed, while movie theaters are still the best place to really see a good movie, they are starting to look like the least likely place in which to see really good films and the truly creative work of major filmmakers:

<i><p></i>Poster for Dumont’s <i>Humanité</i>;

· Want to see The Same Old Song, the latest prize-winning film from the great French auteur Alain Resnais? You can catch it on Sundance’s Bastille Day marathon of French cinema on July 14.

· Want to see Raul Ruiz’s masterful adaptation of Marcel Proust’s Time Regained? Rent it at Blockbuster.

· Want to see some amazingly inventive cinematic image making? Find a museum where they’re showing a Bill Viola video or some of Matthew Barney’s filmed performance art.

· Want to see some inspired comic filmmaking? Work your way through the beer commercials during the next sportscast on TV. And so on…

It’s a double-bind for cinéastes, provincial and otherwise: Not only are some of the very best movies being shunted aside by the theaters, much of the best movie talent is expending its energy elsewhere—books, photography, painting, videos, TV commercials, almost anywhere except in feature-length motion pictures. It’s a crisis with two faces: What is cinema? And where are the movies?

Under the circumstances, we might do well to state a few theoretical “facts” of contemporary film-going life:

1. If you want to stay in touch with the best cinema, you’ve got to work at it—stay informed and be ready to search and shop.

2. Put your movie-watching smarts to work in all the spin-off formats.

3. Think French—they have the richest, longest-running tradition of truly creative filmmaking and the closest thing to a genuine film culture in any nation in the world today.

4. Avoid the general run of new movies. “Hot” films with big advertising budgets and massive advance promotions are probably just selling something, and even if they’ve got real talent involved, their publicity onslaughts are just making it harder for you to really see what’s going on in them.

5. Avoid new movies altogether, or at least try. A steady diet of classics and older films on video tape will very likely prove much more nourishing than any two-or-more-per-week regimen of new releases. Periodic visits to actual movie theaters will remain a necessity, but chiefly as refreshers on the proper potential scale for the movie experience (see next item).

6. “Cinema is that which is bigger than we are, what you have to look up at it. When a movie is shown small and you have to look down at it, it loses its essence. … What you see on TV is the shadow of a film, nostalgia for a film, the echo of a film, never a real film."—Chris Marker

7. Letterboxing is good (if you can’t see the image big, at least see it whole—c.f. No. 6 above).

Juliette Binoche looks upset in <i>Code Inconnu.</i>

8. DVDs are good (see No. 7 above) and even better when the extras serve the ends of film study. But what they offer is an educational experience as much as a real movie experience (see No. 6 again).

9. Diversify—strange-and-difficult is much likelier to be rewarding than familiar-and-sure-fire. As Quentin Tarantino demonstrated at delightful length during the recent Seattle Film Festival, the work of an obscure Poverty Row director (William Witney) can be rediscovered as a set of heartening accomplishments in unpromising circumstances.

10. D.W. Griffith’s old movie-making formula ("A guy, a girl, and a gun is all you need") remains true, even after you’ve filtered the Victorian sensationalism out of it. Most really good films show us something fairly simple in a way that lets us really see it. The unadorned simplicity of Taste of Cherry is much more vibrantly “cinematic” than the lavish technical and scenic flourishes of Eyes Wide Shut.

Armed with that, we can turn to a brief consumer guide to some of the items mentioned above:

· Time Regained is a great multi-character reverie that follows the narrator of Proust’s novel through the social landscape of pre-World War I France and the non-chronological memories of his own life. Like Last Year at Marienbad and 8-1/2 (its great predecessors), it is “difficult” in ways that turn out to be surprisingly rewarding and pleasurable.

· Same Old Song is an acerbic romantic comedy that interpolates French pop songs into the action, in explicit homage to the Dennis Potter of Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective. The witty interplay of relationships is very much in keeping with the director’s most famous early works (Hiroshima, Mon Amour, etc.)

· Bastille Day Marathon (July 14 on Sundance) includes several Truffaut films and a couple of extraordinary revivals from the recent past (Get Out Your Handkerchiefs and The Mother and the Whore). Another new release of exceptional interest is Code Inconnu, Michael Haneke’s stark, haunting picture of ethnically fragmented modern Europe.

· Histoire(s) du Cinema is available as a CD box set from ECM Records. The soundtrack is a fascinating experience in its own right, but it will make you wish you could see the whole thing. The CDs come with four books that translate Godard’s wide-ranging idiosyncratic voiceover narration and provide numerous samples of the film’s complexly layered images.

· Greenaway’s amazing 100 Allegories is a British publication available in the U.S. from D.A. P.

· Copolla’s Zoetrope is available at Tower Records.

· Humanité can be rented on DVD at All the Best. It’s a slow, smoldering crime story that generates astonishing emotional power and a quasi-hypnotic fascination.

· BeauTravail (France), YiYi (Taiwan), and The Wind Will Carry Us (Iran) are not yet available on video.

· Marker’s CD-ROM Immemory is available from Facets Multimedia.

· Quentin Tarantino’s next film festival "tutorial" will be in Austin, Texas, later this summer.