Friday Night at the PFA

I visited the Pacific Film Archive Friday night to see two very good films.

I suppose I could say that they were both feminist films. The first was about a woman and the damage done to her because to her gender, and the second was directed by a woman. But that would be a stretch.

Here’s something they had in common: Both 35mm prints were poorly subtitled, although in different ways.

A- The Goddess

This touching, sad story, from the last days of the Chinese silent cinema, brings us into the life of a prostitute trying to raise her young son. To do so, she must not only sleep with strange men, but also fend off the prejudice of respectable people and the greedy exploitation of her cruel pimp. I’ve seen this one before, on DVD.

Seeing it on the big screen, however, bumped up my grade from B+ to A-.

The Goddess stars Ruan Lingyu, one of the great stars of the Chinese screen. Her own life was even more  tragic than the character she plays here. She committed suicide in 1935; about a year after The Goddess’ release. She was only 24.

Lingyu carries this film with sure grace. She rips out your heart with both her suffering and her occasional joy. We react to the other characters as she reacts to them. Her son is a cute, happy, smart kid. The portly pimp is scum personified.

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After the Goddess (a slang term for prostitute), the school principal is the film’s most interesting character. She sends her son to a very good school, knowing what would happen if her profession were found out. And the principal, a stiff, proper man deeply concerned with propriety, does find out . But he ends up being her, and her son’s, one true friend.

The print from a Chinese archive was a disappointment. It was scratchy and unsteady, but that’s to be expected for an Asian film of this vintage. The real problem were the English subtitles laser printed under the Chinese intertitles. They were clearly written by someone not that fluent in English. I’m not sure what "I’m a mean woman" was supposed to mean, but it wasn’t what it sounds like. Worse, the Goddess has some very long and wordy intertitles, and these lacked subtitles entirely. I just sat there, wondering what I was supposed to be reading. Sometimes, when it cut back to the moving image, subtitles would come on again and fill you in on what you were just unable to read. But sometimes they didn’t..

Judith Rosenberg did a wonderful job on the piano (of course). The Goddess is a sad enough film on its own right. Her work on the keys made it a tragedy.

The Goddess was the first screening in the series Beauty and Sacrifice: Images of Women in Chinese Cinema. Another film in the series, Center Stage, is a biopic about Ruan Lingyu, starring Maggie Cheung. That will screen November 29, and I won’t be able to attend.

A- La Pointe Courte

Ever admire an artist for their daring, original work, and then discover who they stole it from? I experienced that revelation over and over again while watching Agnès Varda’s first feature.

People argue about what was the first feature of the French New Wave. Some would say Elevator to the Gallows (1958). Others would argue for The 400 Blows (1959). Still others would give that claim to Breathless (1960). Yet in mood, an emphasis on character and atmosphere at the expense of story, and in daring technique, La Pointe Courte is clearly a New Wave film; and it was made in 1954.

Between that and Varda’s second feature, the remarkable Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), she deserves to be listed along with Truffaut and Godard amongst the major auteurs and innovators of the Wave. I strongly suspect that she would have that honor if she had been born with a penis.

Many cinephiles think that Robert Altman invented a certain kind of film–one that cuts back and forth between storylines, studying the lives of people who may vaguely know each other and live in the same town or neighborhood. Well, Varda beat Altman here by 20 years.

Just like Altman’s Nashville, the title La Pointe Courte is both the film’s setting and its main character. It’s a small, somewhat impoverished fishing village in southern France, cut up by canals. And over the film’s 90 minutes, Varda introduces us to many of the people here. There’s the fishermen worried about government health inspectors, the family with the very sick child, and the teenage girl with the over-protective father.

And then there are the young lovers–not movie-star glamorous but better looking than anyone else in the movie. He’s a local native–a prodigal son returning home for the first time in years. His wife of four years is there for the first time. The couple wander through his childhood home, discussing the past, problems with their marriage, and the possibility of divorce.

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Varda was a photographer before she became a filmmaker, and her first feature may be amongst the best photographed films ever made. Of course the setting is inherently visually interesting, but Varda shows an instinct for camera setup that rivals John Ford’s (although to a very different effect). Whether the camera is travelling along an old wall, watching people argue in a tiny yard, or following the lovers as they descend into the ribs of an abandoned boat, everything is strikingly beautiful.

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imageAnd strikingly alienating. Varda’s camera doesn’t plunge you into the action; it reminds you that you are an outside observer. Varda’s doesn’t want you to live these people’s lives, but study them from a distance. I wouldn’t want every movie to take this approach, but the emotional remoteness is absolutely right for La Pointe Courte.

For what it’s worth, the film was cut by Alain Resnais, who would take audience alienation to a much farther level (too far, in my opinion), in Last Year at Marienbad.

The print was a new one, owned by the PFA, but the subtitles had a problem I haven’t seen since the early 1970s. The light gray lettering disappeared whenever the image behind them got too light. They were often difficult to read, and it one scene disappeared entirely.