Yesterday, a genuine conceptual and artistic film pioneer who was also possessed of an earnest conscience saw his final day on Earth. His genius work remains, and here's one of my favorite of his films, Mon Oncle D'Amerique, for your viewing pleasure.
I don't presume to write an obituary; these are merely a fan's personal notes. If you wanna skip the book and go straight to the movie, scroll down to the end of this blog.
Noted earlier in these pages a few months ago, the very best day I had at the movies in 2013 was during the New York Film Festival's screening of Providence, a film by Alain Resnais that I had never seen before. There, on screen (and in color, which, amidst the oeuvres of some directors whose B&W films are memory-sears from the birthing of my art-cinema-consciousness, always seems surreal for me) was Resnais's signature, magical, dreamy sense of mind-time, which, whilst perhaps alienating to the uninitiated filmgoer conditioned by trad narrative cinema-time, is actually, in its fractures and ellipses, perhaps more faithful to the genuine nature of "real" memory, perhaps much in the way a Cubist portrait delivers far greater dimension, and thus perception, of a human face and persona.
And Providence was more than a kaleidoscopic dreamscape; there was a fearless look at human resentment, and also the cost of the solitary quest for creating painfully honest work, often at the expense of human relationships. Furthering the film's greatness, it ended with a benign sense of acceptance -- not in the form of hypocrisy nor denial; rather, through an enlarged perspective on what being human means, it concluded simply with the artist surrounded by those he loved, enjoying a perhaps final picnic. After the credits, I walked out of the theater and into the sunlight, bleary and joyfully teary-eyed, eternally grateful to the Cinema Gods for this day in my hometown, at my favorite movie house.
Half a lifetime ago, Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour was, along with Bergman's Persona, Fellini's La Dolce Vita, and Antonioni's L'Aventura, full-on satori cinema to my 19 year-old self. I fell in love with Emmanuelle Riva (and it was terrific to hear Michael Haneke, at the 2012 NYFF press screening for Amour, noting that this had also been the case for him). Thanks to Hiroshima Mon Amour, I also fell eternally in love with those three little words: "French New Wave," and thus began one of the most rewarding artistic dialogues of my life.
After seeing Hiroshima Mon Amour (which also helped me take greater pride in the geometry and architecture-centric B&W photographs that I, like many a young photographer found myself obsessed with), I recall trying to find anything by Resnais, and subsequently being ridiculed by friends and family, whom I tried to recruit to watch Last Year At Marienbad (quick note: one can find a reference to this film in the lovely, albeit, color shots of a manicured lawn in Von Trier's Melancholia).
After these disastrous curatorial attempts, I realized that, well, there is some Art that you simply won't ever be able to share with the people you love. It took me many more years to learn not to resent nor judge others for their utter contempt for my selections -- actually, I'm still learning this. Like all True Love, the uniquely empathetic quest of cinematic comradeship can easily become scorn for those rejecting a would-be suitor. Thankfully, these days I enjoy the solitude and solidarity of seeing a great film alone, and I savor those moments of tension with the universe, when the heart is more than full, and purpose -- even perhaps, or especially sometimes amidst a great sense of purposelessness -- is endowed, in the quiet, desperate dignity conferred upon human existence by Art, and earnest meditation.
By way of another digression, this I why I wish my hometown had a genuine revival house. There are those who say that operating a true revival house is not possible anymore, and that limited runs of a single film are more wortwhile, and that a packed house is better anyway, and I understand this, given the financial constraints under which they are operating, yet I miss the 80s when I could go into a movie theater, see two films for a few bucks (with different films screened every day) and share a unique solidarity with the few who'd attended. I will always be grateful to the operator of the Thalia SoHo and Cinema Village, who in many ways, was one of the last of the Mohicans (even if he did fire me for watching part of a film during a shift; I had been told by a manager that this was OK, if the tasks required were completed).
Returning to Resnais, the most recently departed of our cinema mothers and fathers, (and who I hope and believe wouldn't mind the prior digression about movie houses, in this humble fan's tribute) it's crucial to note that he was infinitely more than an artist with a surreal style; I would call him a cinematic moral metaphysician of the highest order.
I find it interesting that in '63, The New York Times called his war and torture-referencing film Muriel "bewildering and annoying"; by way of an oddball justification of sorts, perhaps the fascinating documentary The Last of the Unjust (also screened at last year's NYFF), in which a concentration camp survivor recalls his role and his survival, is, in its documentary capture of a bewildering memory record, a kind of validating testimony to the sublime relevance and vitality of Resnais's cinematic approach to trauma, memory, history. Although his films aren't, as they say, for everyone, another look at trauma and history can be found in his Night And Fog, while Le Chant Du Styrène is exactly that, and it's an early, very cool "how it's made" doc. He also made a doc on Guernica and Van Gogh.
When the 2012 NYFF screened You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, I wished -- and I penned an open invite to him in these pages -- Mr. Resnais would have graced the Walter Reade theater and answered a few questions, shared a few anecdotes. Like Providence, You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet is also a kind of re-gathering of an artist with his loved ones, though the story occurs not during a night dream and writing session by a novelist reflecting on his family; instead it is a play within a film being watched by an audience of veteran actors, (gathered at the request of their beloved, recently deceased director) who then re-stage the play which they'd performed when they were younger, only to have the director, who we see on a screen within the screen delivering a filmed message, emerge from another room, still alive.
And so, in the case of Art perpetuating, immortalizing Life and Love, while the great Resnais will not be with us on this odd plane any longer, we and he can live, dream, fight, play, scorn and mourn together onscreen, through the many rooms he left for us to wander, in his uniquely real nightmind of cinema.
I'll write year-end Oscar notes tomorrow; today, I'm re-watching Mon Oncle D'Amerique, and then I'll watch The Oscars, hoping somebody acknowledges his work.
Mon Oncle D'Amerique
Herewith, en toto, for your viewing pleasure, Mon Oncle D'Amerique, which is one of Alain Resnais's most accessible films, and really, my personal favorite, perhaps because I saw it during my post-adolescence during the 'Eighties, when careerism seemed to possess everyone I knew, save for myself, and regret already seemed to limit the choices I thought I had.
Although it looks at greed and lies, this film isn't merely some indictment of same. Its brilliant paralleling of the motives, manipulations and betrayals within its characters' intertwined lives alongside clinical laboratory footage of the behavior of other animals makes for a fascinating insight on, well, human existence and life on Planet Earth. Call it a dramatized (human) nature doc -- and for those who don't like the surreal, fear not, cuz' it ain't; Mon Oncle D'Amerique follows a relatively trad narrative structure. I have said before that the cuts between the film's action and the documented animal behavior would make for a great stand-alone gallery exhibit, and in Mon Oncle D'Amerique (which features perhaps one of my favorite performances by Gérard Depardieu) these scenes make for transcendent cinema. Merci, Monsieur Resnais, I really needed this. Rest in Peace.
A 1961 interview with Alain Resnains can be found HERE
Extra-credit viewing and reading: A review of Far From Vietnam, the omnibus film from Varda, Godard, Lelouch, Marker, Resnais can be found HERE