2 X 50 Years of French Cinema

Walker Art Center, Friday at 7 p.m.

Cinema of Tears

Walker Art Center, Friday at 8 p.m.

          AUDIENCES GO INTO the theater, but individual people watch the movie. If we are "lost in the crowd" of the collective experience of moviegoing, then we are still admittedly lost, isolated, still with our own version of the forms and sound being projected to everyone. It may seem a lonely proposition, but the isolation of being a moviegoer is the wise guiding concept behind The Century of Cinema. Avoiding the Ken Burns Civil War/The West approach of multiple narrators describing some shared truth, this film series instead has individual artists responding to what they see as their own country's role in this 100-year birthday party.

          The concept is a guaranteed magnet for both singular and gloriously myopic perspectives. This week's iconoclasts include Swiss-born Jean-Luc Godard, representing France, and Brazilian Nelson Pereira dos Santos, representing Latin America. Godard has long made movies (and now videos) that consistently challenge comfortable cinematic ideas, and dos Santos once made an anti-colonial epic celebrating cannibalism, How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman: surefire clues that the past won't be embalmed in their films.

          In 2 X 50 Years, Godard is true to form. Created with longtime collaborator Anne-Marie Mieville, his 50-minute movie (actually, a video) layers text, casual conversation, aloof narration, clumsy dissolves, and shots from bland positions lasting longer than most stylistic conventions could bear. I loved it, even though the preview I saw had no English subtitles. (The version shown this Friday will be subtitled, never fear.) At first, the absent translations seemed to be just one more Godard gimmick. As for "celebrating" the 100th anniversary of cinema, his two-part response appears to be that a) film is already celebrated enough, so why bother; and b) no French person knows or cares much about French film history, so why explain further something that's either overly familiar or already junked, in the public's mind? But I also gathered that Godard does, in fact, care about what has come before, even though he's spent a career taking much of it apart.

          No one familiar with their work could call Godard or Mieville conservative softies. But they've taken just the right touch for this moment, making it clear that history is always written for a contemporary audience. Their script is a semi-fiction: Godard interviews the "President of the First Century of Cinema," played by famed actor Michel Piccoli, and plants many doubts in the president's mind about the worthiness of his job. "We've got 50 channels on cable TV," Godard explains, adding that this old stuff is always around. What does an arbitrary round number mean?

          Brooding in his hotel room, Piccoli can't seem to reestablish his prior certainties. He interviews various maids and room service people about what they know of French film. "If I said, Jacques Becker?" he asks, naming a director of the '40s and '50s, and the hotel guy says, "no, Boris Becker," miming a tennis stroke. The guy can't name favorite French films but admits to liking Pulp Fiction and Neuf et demi Semaines, the much-honored Mickey Rourke/Kim Basinger vehicle about tender moments in odd locations.

          Sarcasm aside, the Godard/Mieville piece is both angry and respectful. Piccoli's dilemma is left aside as the filmmakers conclude with a long sequence of stills, clips, and memorably provocative voiceover text from some 15 French writers and directors, including Godard's old sparring partner Francois Truffaut. These selfless final words--as much as I could comprendre them--manage to revive the past, like taking a fly out of amber and bringing back its buzz.

          Cinema of Tears has an even more fictional premise, and narrows its interests to one kind of movie. But in doing so, director dos Santos manages to touch on both the past and the present. The middle-aged Rodrigo, a former film director who now does stage plays, is haunted by a childhood memory of his single mother, who came home late one night and told him she'd seen a sad film that was not for children. He needs to know what that film was. So when a young researcher named Ives mysteriously shows up to propose an extended interview, Rodrigo explains his personal quest and invites him along to some cinémathequès.

          This is a movie is about the love of popular movies, and about the possible love for someone else. Rodrigo watches clips from luridly passionate old films, while Ives reads from a scholarly text reinterpreting melodrama as a politically and emotionally repressive, yet necessary, genre. Ives disappears from time to time, while Rodrigo carries on, pointedly walking by posters for much more celebrated Latin American movies as he heads to each screening. When the film is finally found, Rodrigo--almost like the unseen Godard and Mieville--recognizes the tragic yet inescapable power of movies that are nearly forgotten. As many of us do, he staggers from a dark room into the sunlight, wishing he could be permanently somewhere between the two, and with someone who matters. This may not sound like a "celebration," but you couldn't find a more honest depiction of the movieogoer's eternal dilemma.

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