Did You See This?

Does Any of This Make Sense?

On Film / The Daily — Oct 9, 2020
Jean-Pierre Léaud in Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996)

Late last week, we lost two unique figures in American theater and cinema, Thomas Jefferson Byrd and Murray Schisgal. Byrd was nominated for a Tony for his performance as Toledo, the piano player, in a 2003 production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and appeared in a good number of other plays by August Wilson as well. Spike Lee frequently called on Byrd, casting him in Clockers (1995), Girl 6 (1996), Get on the Bus (1996), He Got Game (1998), Bamboozled (2000), Red Hook Summer (2012), Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014), and Chi-Raq (2015). “What Joseph Cotton was to Orson Welles, Byrd was for Spike,” tweeted Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Malcolm X). “The ‘everyman’ character actor.” According to Bryan Pietsch and Neil Genzlinger in the New York Times, Byrd, who was seventy, was shot multiple times in the back by a man he’d been arguing with while walking back to his home in Atlanta.

Murray Schisgal was nominated for two Tonys for writing the 1964 Broadway hit Luv, which also scored three wins, including one for director Mike Nichols. The 1967 film adaptation of the absurdist comedy directed by Clive Donner starred Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, and Elaine May. Schisgal shared nominations for an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA for the screenplay for Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie (1982) with Larry Gelbart, even though they never collaborated. As Will Dudding explains in the NYT, the development of the script is a long and convoluted story, but Schisgal was brought on board—for two separate go-rounds—by his friend, Dustin Hoffman. Schisgal was ninety-three.

This week’s highlights:

  • 4Columns film editor Melissa Anderson revisits Irma Vep (1996), and like all of us, including director Olivier Assayas, she’s “besotted” with Maggie Cheung. But she’s got a terrific read, too, of Jean-Pierre Léaud’s performance as René Vidal, the director of the film-within-the-film. “That this faltering filmmaker is played by Léaud, who, having made multiple movies with François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, stands as the most paradigmatic actor of the Nouvelle Vague, signals Assayas’s sly humor about French cinema’s putative decrepitude,” she writes. “Though only in his early fifties when Irma Vep was made, Léaud looks a hundred years older. Yet René, no matter how prone to tantrums, isn’t the butt of an easy joke; by the end, he emerges as something of a valiant figure, proving himself to be an avant-garde genius. Léaud, for his part, brings to the fore his character’s indestructible dignity; beneath René’s outsize outbursts lies pathos, not buffoonery.”

  • In December, Godard will turn ninety and Michael Snow will turn ninety-two. Nicole Brenez, who worked with Godard as an editor on The Image Book (2018), has put together a program of JLG’s trailers and other promotional shorts for his own films presented in three parts at the Portuguese festival Curtas Vila do Conde. The third part screens tonight, and for Artecapital, Dasha Birukova talks with Brenez about how Godard “reinvents what we call in France le film de commande: A film produced by and for a company or institution.” Early Snow, in the meantime, an exhibition presenting more than forty works created from 1947 to 1962 and curated by James King, the author of a critical biography of the Canadian artist, is currently on view at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in Ontario through January 3. For Sabzian, Brandon Kaufman has struck up a conversation with Snow via email. “It’s wonderful to know that Wavelength [1967] will probably outlive me,” writes Snow.

  • At Vulture, Eric Vilas-Boas and John Maher have assembled a team of film historians and writers to put together a list that is as much fun to watch as it is to read, “The 100 Sequences That Shaped Animation.” Introducing the clips and blurbs that take us from Charles-Émile Reynaud and his Théâtre Optique in 1892 through samplings from Disney and Warner Bros., Czech puppeteers and Japanese anime to last year’s final season of Steven Universe, Vilas-Boas and Maher note that they have chosen “the deliberately flexible element of a ‘sequence’ because it felt the most focused: It is often in one inspired moment, more so than a single frame or entire work, that we are able to see the form progress.”

  • American Cinematographer has pulled up a meticulously researched piece from its September 1987 issue on the making of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s brisk pre-Code thriller, The Most Dangerous Game (1932). George E. Turner works in biographical sketches of just about every player and crew member involved in telling the story of a hunter who stocks his game preserve with terrified humans. During the shoot on an excruciatingly tight budget, a leopard escaped its trainer and Leslie Banks, who played the hunter, was bitten by a Great Dane, possibly one of the dogs borrowed from Harold Lloyd. But Cooper was “delighted with the jungle set because it fit into his plans for what was to be the next Cooper-Schoedsack venture, King Kong [1933],” writes Turner.

  • How do we make sense of the present moment and the chaotic tumble of events that have led up to it? CNN’s Jake Tapper has a piece in the new Atlantic drawing a parallel between the here and now and A Face in the Crowd, screenwriter Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan’s 1957 movie about the rise and fall of an American demagogue. But as Tapper points out, Kazan himself eventually realized that the film wasn’t cynical enough. In the Los Angeles Times, Charles McNulty finds that even the narrative models offered by Shakespeare and Chekhov will only take us so far. “Television, the medium that launched Trump’s political trajectory and temporarily replenished his broken bank accounts, would seem to be a more obvious source of dramatic templates,” he writes. “The only problem is that his presidential series has been ‘jumping the shark’ from Day 1.” There is no resolution in an endless succession of crises, each usurping the last. Instead, “we have been living the last four years on the metabolism of Twitter,” McNulty argues. “Anything can happen at any time. The only mode that can be discerned is accretion, a flooding of the zone so that nothing can be properly weighed or valued. With sensation mainlined into our veins through our phones and laptops, art has little chance of keeping pace.”

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