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New Magnificent, Dense, and Sprawling Projects

Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

And we thought that Sundance and the Oscar nominations would dominate the news this week. Though he’d turned ninety-six on Christmas Eve, none of us seemed prepared for the loss of Jonas Mekas. As word of his passing spread on Wednesday, a colleague exclaimed, “I thought he was immortal!” So did many cinephiles around the world. In the early 1970s, Mekas began publishing reviews in the Village Voice submitted by a young critic, J. Hoberman, who would eventually become the weekly’s senior film critic. In an appreciation for the New Yorker, Hoberman writes that Mekas “has no analogues that I can see in American or European culture . . . Every avant-garde, independent experimental-film artist in America is in some way in Jonas’s debt—as are some writers, like me.”

Here are a few other items that have struck us over the past seven days.

  • Joseph Egan, author of The Purple Diaries: Mary Astor and the Most Sensational Hollywood Scandal of the 1930s, has put together a dauntingly comprehensive site gathering essays, trailers, stills, storyboards, posters, correspondence, and just about anything and everything having to do with Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Egan tells Wellesnet that he wanted to create “something that can only be done as a website and cannot be done in any other art form, i.e., book, film, documentary, etc. I don’t know if I have succeeded, but it is an attempt.” And a mightily impressive one it is, too.
  • With The Image Book opening in New York and Toronto today before rolling out across North America over the coming weeks, the Notebook has posted Ted Fendt’s translation of Dmitry Golotyuk and Antonina Derzhitskaya’s interview with Jean-Luc Godard. There is, of course, a lot of unpacking of the densely packed allusions in the new film, but Godard also seems relaxed and amiably willing to have the conversation wander to just about anywhere. He talks about his falling out with his distributor, Wildbunch; about why he wishes Rolle, the Swiss town where he and Anne-Marie Miéville are living, were in France; about why he no longer believes that films on television are mere reproductions; subtitles versus dubbing; and the optimism—to which he subscribes—of the last line in The Image Book. But he also says he’s “tired, I don’t want to any more, or I don’t know. Because if I won the lottery, I wouldn’t make anymore films . . . Maybe a small film, something, but I don’t know . . . There’s a point when one must stop because afterwards it’s . . . it’s no longer the same thing.”
  • Sheer curiosity drove us to place Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s Dau high on our list of the most anticipated films of 2019, even though we already knew that the project that began well over a decade ago as a biopic of Soviet scientist Lev Landau had since blown up to become more than just a movie. It’s now a multimedia extravaganza that’s just opened in two theaters in Paris and will be heading to London in the spring. The Dau experience “falls somewhere between a behavioral experiment, a cinematic cycle, and an art installation,” reports Geoffrey Macnab for Sight & Sound. He’s seen most of the thirteen features that have been fashioned from the 700 hours of 35 mm footage shot over a period of two years beginning in 2009. The storylines span three decades, and taking them in, Macnab has found himself thinking of Bergman, Fassbinder, and Lars von Trier—simply as points of reference. “Provocative, demented, sometimes simply tiresome, the Dau films are the strangest cultural artifacts you’re likely to encounter any time soon,” he writes.
  • “Superlative pronouncements about the history of cinema are fatuous, but I’ll risk one nonetheless,” announces Erika Balsom in a short piece for frieze. Claire Denis’s Beau travail (1999) crescendos, she suggests, toward “perhaps the best ending of any film, ever.” If you haven’t seen the film, save that brief essay for when you do. Beau travail is screening at the TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto on March 8, and for the TIFF Review, Brad Deane surveys the oeuvre: “Marked by an intimate sensuality that contrasts with her often harsh subject matter, Denis’s films are made up of fragments constantly coalescing and dispersing, creating a visceral ‘in-the-moment’ experience that renders her characters uncannily familiar even as their motives and drives often remain mysterious.”
  • This leads us to two essays by TIFF Cinematheque programmer James Quandt, one on Aki Kaurismäki (TIFF’s retrospective begins on Thursday), the other on Max Ophüls (February 14). “Clear-eyed and compassionate,” writes Quandt, “his occasionally cruel irony now assuaged by the wisdom of age and the direness of our times, Kaurismäki’s recent films continue to offer a bracing humanist antidote to, and refusal of, the prevailing belligerence and callousness of current culture.” And further in: “Mondrian of the Finnish underclass, Kaurismäki is one of the supreme colorists in contemporary cinema.” In his essay on Ophüls, Quandt considers how, like Mizoguchi, he’s split feminist critics; agrees with Godard’s observations concerning Ophüls’s style (“not decorative, but ethical”); and argues that “Ophüls’s governing theme is the tragedy of temporality: everything, love especially, must die; there is no escape from this ‘trap of time,’ an inevitability accentuated by the director’s sumptuous, sometimes suffocating decor. Beneath gilt, glitter and gaiety, Ophüls saw inconstancy, self-delusion, and mortality.”

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