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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Freedom Films with English Subtitles, Part II

The Class, seen Saturday February 14 2009 at the City Cinemas Angelika 6, Theatre #1.  1.5 slithy toads.

Beware of French Films!  Every once in a while there's a genuinely good one, and in fact this director Lauren Cantet even made one of them several years back.  It was called Human Resources.  It played at the New Directors New Films festival in NYC nine years ago, and I seem to recall its actual theatrical release was in the dead of night -- OK, forget the "I seem to recall,"  I can check in my Quicken file that goes back to 2000 that I saw this at the Loews State, so yes...  it's one of those new ideas that everyone recreates every once in a while where you take a bunch of art films that haven't found a distributor and do an entire release program of a bunch of them together in hopes that you can get a brand that will keep people coming back for more.  This was some program in 2000 that rented out space in quiet little Loews theatres across the country, the ones nobody went to and that were closed immediately when the chain went into bankruptcy, and this was actually a pretty good one.  But none of the programs ever last very long because it only takes one bad movie in the bunc for people to wonder about the rest of them.  So in any event this was one of the films that had me going to the Loews State.

Now since I'm off on digressions and tangents, let me go off a bit on the Loews State.  This was one of the grand old theatres on Times Square, upstairs/downstairs twinned by the time I was old enough to see movies.  It had a steeply raked old-style balcony theater, and then the main level theatre which used the old screen location.  Both had very very big screens, both seated over 1000 people, both had 70mm which was a must before Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS to get an immersive sound experience. it wasn't the fanciest of the Loews lobbies in the world but it was still kind of big and grand especially if you were heading upstairs and could get the view from the top.  I saw Kramer vs. Kramer there with my family when I was young; I guess we really wanted to see that badly to make  a special trip into Manhattan to see it.  I went there occasionally by myself on other trips into Manhattan as a teen or college student.  I saw Star Trek III, The Search for Spock which was supposed to be in 70mm but wasn't because of projector problems so I got a pass.  Scott Meredith was on the mailing list for some film company freebies  and I saw Running Scared with Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal for free in the balcony.  I saw the turgid Out of Africa there.  The last film I saw at the State, and one of its last movies ever, was Star Trek IV.

The theatre closed to make way for a big office tower.  There were development incentives in Times Square in those days that helped pave the way for the demolition of a lot of old theatres in the area because if your foundation was in place by date X you got to build a bigger building.  So this particular office building ran into trouble because construction started during the economic downturn of the late 1980s, and the developer went broke.  The building languished empty for quite a while, and then was actually bailed out by the publishing industry because Bertelsmann came in and occupied the building with its Bantam Dell and Random House publishing operations and its BMG music group operations.  That filled the top of the building.  The bottom of the building was even more difficult, though, because it was supposed to have some kind of fancy schmant retail/entertainment who knows what going on in it, and those plans fell through as well.  While it was intended for the basement of the building to have a Loews theatre to replace the State, and that was no doubt part of the term of sale for the  original building, the access to the new theatre was thru this retail space that was sitting empty and unused.  It was even longer before Virgin came in to put a Virgin Megastore into the retail space (so now if you've been to NYC and walked Times Square, you know where the Loews State was, because you've seen the Virgin Megastore.  If you're coming to NYC in the summer tough tooties because that's closing in April.) and finally once that opened it was possible for Loews to open the Loews State Quad in the basement of 1540 Broadway on the site of the original Loews State.

So the Loews State Quad...

... quick digression, reading the Cinema Treasures page as I cut and paste the link for the link reminds me that Human Resources was part of the Shooting Gallery film series...

... opened in May 1996, almost ten years after the old Loews State had been closed, certainly ten years or more after the original sale of the building had been arranged and the details of the new Loews State agreed upon.  It opened very annoyingly with all four of its screens showing Mission Impossible, which I would much rather have seen opening at my beloved Loews Astor Plaza.  

And it was obsolete the day it opened.

Because when it was conceived and designed, it was conceived and designed as a Manhattan-sized version of the typical 1980s sloped floor mall movie theatre, only not as nice as the Loews 84th St.  It had large seating capacities but was stuck in the basement with relatively low ceiling height, which meant relatively small screen sizes.  In the ten years between design and opening, AMC had successfully introduced the grand stadium seating multiplex which had become the new way of doing things, and a good half a dozen years after those started to spread around the country and even slowly into Manhattan, Loews was stuck opening a mediocre example of the 1980s sloped floor mall multiplex.  Add to that it was hard to find the State because it was stuck in the basement and had to be accessed thru the Virgin Megastore with poor signage from Times Square that got kind of lost in all the other signage.  The Loews State 4 was dead before it was born.

So suffice to say when the Shooting Gallery needed cheap theatres to rent the Loews State was a good candidate for the film series that put Human Resources into theatres.  I did somewhat misspeak about these being the kinds of theatres that closed the moment Loews went into bankruptcy, because Loews had gotten a decent deal I'm sure as part of selling the old Loews State.  So what actually happened was that the white elephant of the Cineplex Odeon Worldwide Cinemas closed when Loews went into bankruptcy, and the discount policy of the Worldwide eventually moved to the Loews State 4 as Loews went thru the motions for the duration of what must have been a ten-year lease, because the State closed in January 2006 just enough shy of the 10th anniversary of the May opening to account for time at the beginning to put the seats in and time at the end to take the seats out.

So that's where I saw Human Resources.

Which was a very good film about a college kid full of big ideas who comes into an executive position at the factory where his father worked, and the two come into conflict as the new way of doing things for a 1990s bean-counter (i.e., screw the employees as much as you can) comes into conflict with the old-fashioned ethics of his father's generation.

I liked Human Resources so much that I went to see Cantet's next film, Time Out, at the New York Film Festival.  This lavishly praised movie wasn't very good at all.  It was based on the true story of a man who lies to his family about being out of work and creates an imaginary fantasy of long drives to nowhere during the day to keep the illusion alive.  I found it dramatically inert and just quite quite dreadful.

The reviews for The Class, which won the Palm d'Or at Cannes and is an Acadamy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, have been as or more rapturous as those for Time Out.  The film itself is in-between the two.  Like Time Out, this is derived from truth.  It's based on a teacher's own experiences, the teacher was involved with the script, and it's essentially a year in the life of the class. During the first 15 or 20 minutes I was inclined to think the rapture was indeed at hand, because the interplay between the students and the teacher was some really good, really high level stuff.  Some of the same dynamics as you might find in a Lean on Me, but for intellectuals.  As the students and teacher feel each other out and deal with the usual kinds of disciplinary things, they're talking on a very very high level that makes a yuppie white person like me feel oh so good about themselves.

The problem is that this doesn't go anywhere.  There's no drama or point to it,I started to get very sleepy by the midway point of the movie, and the movie ends without this sense of anyone having gone anywhere.  Essentially, the movie builds up to a major scene where the teacher calls two of the girls in his class "skanks," or whatever that is in French because this is after all French with subtitles, and this leads a student from Africa to a violent outburst, which leads to a disciplinary hearing where he's expelled, and which leads to some tension with the students.  I can see why this might appeal to high-minded critics.  There's big Ethical Debate about why they bother with the hearing which will just end as all the others do with the student being expelled, and is there Some Other Way to do things.  But in the end, none of the conversations lead to anything.  The hearing is held, the student is expelled, do we even find out if the student is sent home to Africa like his father threatens, just like I don't think (don't think, maybe I was dozing off then) we find out what happens when a parent of one student is arrested for being an illegal.  The last scene takes place on the last day of class, and everyone heads off.  But what of it?  There's no scene in which the tension between the teacher and students that resulted from The Big Scene is firmly resolved, and no clear sign even at the end that there's been a resolution to any of this.  The students will go off, the teacher will come back, it will all be the same as it was.

So tell me, please, why this is such a wonderful movie?

Yes, it is in French.  Critics always like films spoken in French more than if the exact same film were done word for word and shot for shot in English.

Yes, it does depict schools as being a place for deeply intellectual sparring.  These aren't the schools most of us go to.

Yes, it does battle with some assumptions instead of simply assuming them.

But it's a journey that goes nowhere from its beginning to end and doesn't take you anywhere very exciting in the middle.

In some ways it's like a cross between a fictional film and a Frederick Wiseman documentary.   The camerawork is purposely designed to be unobtrusive and to have a fly on the wall quality to it.  Yet it seems to me that even Wiseman in distilling his many hours of film into a documentary like High School tries to find a narrative arc or to give some sense of structure.  

I say skip it, but you can decide for yourself if the things it does have to offer are things you really really need in your life.

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