“La Chinoise,” “Le Gai Savoir,” “Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies”

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05202008_lachinoise.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

“A Film in the Making” is how Jean-Luc Godard defined “La Chinoise” (1967) in the film itself, in one of its many aphoristic title card face-slaps, and it’s a simple parameter with which to view all Godard: as a process, not a product; as interrogation, not “entertainment”; and as a refutation of commercial culture and every easy market-driven conclusion it encourages. Of course, a filmmaker can hardly take a more politically radical position, and here we have Godard entering, at the spiraling end of the ’60s, into his most radicalized and notoriously forbidding period, when the youthful ardor for old Hollywood began to slip away and a maddened attention to the unsolvable political present gripped him like a fever. I know, I’ve had my randy libertine’s way with Godard and Godard-love a good deal in this space lately, as his massive oeuvre gets digitized for home video posterity, but a few things always remain to be said, particularly since we’re celebrating the anniversary of the May ’68 strikes in France that Godard virtually prophesied — or perhaps inspired. Or perhaps he just became the atomic telescope lens through which his society could view itself (in 1967, he also released “Two or Three Things I Know about Her” and “Week-End,” and two shorts), which would make him at the very least the Balzac or Hugo of the mid-20th century.

Godard was and is more than that, and “La Chinoise” — which uses an apartment full of Maoist students spouting dogma and half-assedly planning terrorist action as base materials to form a screaming, yowling, uneasy, tongue-in-cheek collage of capitalist and Communist chic — is a fabulously ambivalent film, embracing the hot contradictions in Paris culture at the time. It was decried as being pro-totalitarian and pro-terrorism, but presumably only by people who haven’t seen it. In reality, amid its cacophony, “La Chinoise” explores the idea that Marxism in its Soviet and Maoist forms wasn’t Marxism at all, but rather new “brands” to be hawked and consumed and argued over, like Coca-Cola and Marlboro. (In fact, nothing in Godard’s filmography gets as much artillery shot at it as the cultures of advertising and marketing, especially if it’s American.)

Jingled together with news photos, laughable faux-radical pop songs, play executions, sloganeering so incessant it begins to mock itself, arguments about piddling 1967 controversies surely forgotten by the next spring, vandalism (the apartment is not the kids’ to deface, it turns out), and Godard’s most explicit self-reflexivity (the camera operator and sound man are addressed, and filmed themselves), the movie’s characters are simultaneously satirical caricatures and painfully realistic, and Godard loves them (Jean-Pierre Léaud, Juliet Berto, Anne Wiazemsky) for their self-absorbed foolishness and youthful rage, even as they brandish weapons and rationalize sacrificing lives for the greater good.

“Le Gai Savoir” (1969) is Godard wrestling with the hungover aftermath of the short-lived utopia of ’68, bringing Léaud and Berto back into a TV-studio field of complete darkness to reignite their arguments from nearly two years earlier, this time focusing on language and how it distorts history, and therefore any genuine political involvement. The resulting text, and the scrambled referential pop imagery around it, scans like the movie equivalent to an obsessive blog, inconclusively choked with links and downloads and pedantry. (Godard sticks a pin in his Truffaut doll with a sequence involving an absurd free-association-test session with a young boy, à la “The 400 Blows.”) The pair of talkers point to the subtitles, talk back to the tumultuous soundtrack (Godard often cuts to black, and lets the bubbling stew of newsreel audio and political speechifying swallow the film), comment on the nature of unknowability in a world controlled by corporate commercialism — and so naturally, the discourse itself sometimes becomes nonsensical, incoherent, inadequate. This isn’t a movie at all (as we know it), but an uncompromising statement of frustrated fury sent like a missile at the summer ground zero of 1969, as if it was meant to be witnessed just once, like a public protest, and then merely remembered.

05202008_iwasbornbut.jpgHere’s an old-school tonic water to cut the grain alcohol of Godard’s postmodernism — the new Criterion Eclipse set of three silent comedies from the first phase of Yasujiro Ozu’s unassailable career, back when Japan was just acquiring talkie technology (the first sound film came in 1931, but Ozu, a lifelong heel-digger, waited a few more years), and when he, in his late 20s, was just finding the calm and observant syntax that made him happy for the next three decades. Naturally, none of them are simply comedic. “Tokyo Chorus” (1931) is a rather pathetic tribulation about a helplessly obstinate man failing as an insurance clerk and then scrounging for work; Ozu’s gentle-at-a-distance and sympathetic eye suggests an almost Flaubertian sensibility hovering over the action, and the social satire blooms because of it, as in the scene where several salarymen attempt to spy on each other’s bonus checks and end up pissing on them in the office urinal. “Passing Fancy” (1933) is more assured, set in and around a low-rent boarding house and evolving into a portrait of a dazzlingly dimwitted single dad day worker (Takeshi Sakamoto, an infectious presence who acted in 22 other Ozu films) and his bumbling relationship with his impetuous son, which builds to a lacerating and tragic pitch. In synopsis, all Ozu films sound mundane, and the early comedies even more so — but visually there’s something mysterious going on here, as Ozu exercises his personality on the camera, the cuts, the actors and the length of shots, and comes away with experiences that feel just as large as our real lives, and just as poignant.

The masterwork here is “I Was Born, But…” (1932), which again lands on the tatami mats of a struggling salaryman family, this time blessed with two young brothers, who battle their new neighborhood’s complex and contentious schoolboy society as they reflectively confront their father’s low position on the company totem pole. It’s a film about power as it’s prized and exchanged and used on every social level, but it’s also outrageously and hypnotically funny, with the most precise and eloquent camera placement outside of Keaton, and the best cast of implacable child actors ever assembled for a comedy. Remarkably, the visual palate Ozu used until his final film is here (low angle mid-shots, skies cut by eaves and telephone wire, etc.), as well as his battery of endlessly affecting gestures (i.e., the reaction shot that begins with an inexpressive pause, as if still registering the pleasure or hurt that came before). But here, the kids rule — no crisis is so intense that the action can’t pause for a crotch scratch or the urge to pick up an odd rock off the road.

[Photos: Godard’s “La Chinoise,” 1968; Ozu’s “I Was Born, But…”, 1932]

“La Chinoise” & “Le Gai Savoir” (Koch Lorber Films) and “Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies” (Criterion Collection: Eclipse Series) are now available on DVD.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.