Writing to you from lovely but chilly Brooklyn. It feels good to be home. We went to the playground and I made two little videos of my daughter. I’m experimenting with my home videos, trying to make them with some thoughtfulness and a sense of narrative or at least framing them in some way. I’ve only been doing it for a few days but I feel like it’s already helping me to understand better how story is conveyed through film. I was going to post the video here because it’s pretty low-key in terms of showing my daughter–you can’t see her face clearly–but apparently that would require giving WordPress access to all my photos on Google. So, I’ll put the video sharing on hold for now, until I figure out how to address all the privacy issues.
Anyway, back to the movies I saw in Florida, which, surprisingly, included Singin’ in the Rain. It was showing on Sunday night, our second night in Florida, as part of Epic Theatre’s “Flashback Cinema.” Epic Theatre seems to be a cineplex chain in the south, and our screening was introduced, via video, by one of its executives, who shared some interesting facts about the movie. For instance: did you know that Gene Kelly has a 103 degree fever when he shot the title number, “Singin’ in the Rain?” Did you know the entire movie was written around that song? I did not. Nor did I know that Debbie Reynolds was not Gene Kelly’s first, second, third, or fourth choice and that she had to prove herself. To prepare, she took dance classes for eight hours a day for six months. Which is incredible. I feel like Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling did not put that much effort in for La La Land. Their dancing style was sort of “whatever works.” Whereas Debbie Reynolds’s was “I’m gonna make this work/prove myself to Gene Kelly.” Can you imagine the pressure? Only someone as young and hungry as Reynolds was then would have been able to stomach it.
Singin’ in the Rain counts as a Thelma & Alice watch because it was co-written by Betty Comden with Adolph Green. These two were collaborators on many musicals, including Bells Are Ringing, Auntie Mame, On The Town, and It’s Always Fair Weather. I have not seen any of these musicals, by the way, but just mentioning for context. I have seen American In Paris, which was not written by Comden but was directed by Gene Kelly, who also co-directed Singin’ in the Rain. American in Paris came out right before Singin’ in the Rain and won a bunch of Oscars: for director, cinematography and best picture. Singin’ in the Rain got Gene Kelly a Golden Globe for best actor. In both of these movies, I get the sense that he’s doing just what he wants, at least as a dancer. There are some truly weird and intense ballets in both these movies, thrown in for no particular narrative reason. They seem to exist only to look beautiful on film–which I do not object to! Somewhere I read, or heard, the director Whit Stillman talk about dancing on film, and he said — I’m probably butchering this — that film is made for dancing and any chance you have to let characters dance, you should.
It’s a little unsettling to watch Singin’ in the Rain post #MeToo. Throughout the film, and in its final sequence, you see the talent and labor of women being devalued, objectified, and manipulated in a system controlled by men with questionable judgement and motives. Even the central premise, that the silent film star’s voice is too hideous and shrill to be heard by others, seems retrograde. And yet, the writing and performances are sly enough that I felt the movie ended up being honest about the sliminess of Hollywood. It’s a movie about making movies, and it shows–I think intentionally–how compromised the players are.
The other movie I saw in Florida was Faces, Places , which was co-written and co-directed by the master filmmaker and director, Agnes Varda, and JR, a graffiti artist. Varda was 88 when she made Faces Places, and JR was 33, an age gap which they address often throughout the film. She is frank about the way old age has affected her physically, and also about how death is on her mind. Varda died just a few weeks ago, and she seemed, in the movie, to be aware that she was close to death or was at least ready to acknowledge it as a real possibility. Her recent death haunted my viewing of Faces Places but not in an unpleasant way. Instead I saw a woman who remained creative, open-minded, curious, and playful until the end of her life.
In French, the movie’s title is Visages, Villages, and I wish they had retained it for English-speaking viewers, because it’s much more descriptive of the film. I was actually kind of put off by the English title because it was so bland and vague. What places? What faces? With villages, I understand the premise a lot better: to go to small places and find people within them to photograph and interview. JR’s graffiti is simple and bold: he takes photographs of local people, and then blows them up so that they can be pasted, billboard-style, on buildings.
This photo above is of a waitress who, we find out, is actually kind of shy, and overwhelmed by her minor celebrity. We meet her children, who are proud of her, and see where she works. It’s fun to bop around with Varda and JR as they go to different villages in France, meet people, take their photos, and paste them on unexpected surfaces. They collaborate easily, because they are both so playful. “Chance has always been my best assistant,” Varda says. “Ephemeral images are my stock and trade,” JR remarks, after a particularly beautiful photo of Varda’s deceased friend, Guy Bourdin, is washed away by the sea in a matter of hours:
The above photo of Bourdin was taken by Varda, when she was JR’s age. She takes JR to the spot where she took the photo of Bourdin, describing Bourdin as an ideal photographic subject because he understood what kind of image she was trying to create and could pose to suit that image. She looks at the spot where she took the photo, the wall Bourdin leaned against, and remarks that it feels as if no time has passed since she took the photo. Then the wind picks up and she grumpily says she’s leaving. To me, that passage was the heart of the film–even more so than the dull aching betrayal she is served at the end, by an old friend.
I loved Visages, Villages, and now I want to see more of Varda’s films. Before this one, I only saw Chloe from 5 to 7, which I enjoyed, but this one hit me emotionally in a way that surprised me, leaving me feeling wistful and inspired.