Published on April 8th, 2017 | by Padraic Coffey0
My Favourite Things – Ty Burr
Ty Burr is a film critic for the Boston Globe and author of the critically-acclaimed cultural history “Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame.” He previously worked as a senior critic for Entertainment Weekly.
Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974, Jacques Rivette)
The movie that I would pick is Celine and Julie Go Boating, from 1974. It’s directed by Jacques Rivette, who is the most obscure and mysterious member of the French New Wave. Everybody knows about Godard and Truffaut and Chabrol, even Éric Rohmer, but nobody really knows about Jacques Rivette, because, for one thing, he made movies that stretch well over the two-hour mark. One of his films, Out 1, which was finally released on DVD last year, is actually 12 hours long. By contrast, Celine and Julie Go Boating is a a very modest 193 minutes.
The reason I love this movie is that it came along during a very formative time for me. I saw it a couple of years after it came out at my college in New Hampshire as a part of a film society. I was just at the point transitioning in my life as a young film geek from a love of old movies to an understanding and familiarity of all the different kind of movies being made worldwide. This was the mid-Seventies, so I was seeing a lot of early Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and familiarising myself with the French New Wave and the Japanese masters. I was really broadening my template, my palette of what I considered cinema. It was a really heady time, that time in your youth when you’re doing a lot of data input and cramming movies.
Here was this movie, which was recommended to me by my film professor, a fairly well-known critic and writer named David Thomson. He’s written about Celine and Julie Go Boating in a book he wrote called A Biographical Dictionary of Film. He turned us on to it. As I said, it’s a three hour plus movie about two women in Paris in August, when it seems like nobody else is in Paris except for these two women. It was really ahead of its time, because it’s a work of meta-fiction in a way that we’re now familiar with from seeing Charlie Kaufman movies like Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and plenty of other movies that break down the walls between storytelling and realistic film-making.
In the film, the two women discover a house of fiction, and when they get inside it, the same narrative plays out every day, unchanging. The narrative is actually derived from a pair of Henry James short stories, so it’s a lugubrious melodrama about a handsome widower and his young daughter. The widower’s sister-in-law are fighting over him, and it’s all very melodramatic. At the end of the day, the little girl ends up dead. Each day, Celine or Julie wander into this house and wind up playing a small role as the nurse maid, and comes out not remembering anything, but with a piece of hard candy in her mouth. She goes back to her friend, who goes to investigate, and she has the same experience. Eventually they realise when they start sucking on the hard candy, the whole thing replays in front of their eyes like a movie. All of a sudden they’re watching a story the way we watch movies – facing the camera, looking at us, the way we’re sitting in the theatre looking at them.
The story comes to us in shards and flashbacks, and gradually it coheres to a story and they ask, ‘How did we get into this story? How do we take this story and make it something we want? How do we get the little girl to survive?’. This was my first experience with what people call ‘slow cinema’, a movie that is different from the usual Hollywood way of storytelling, in which events and dialogue come at you – boom boom boom, there’s always something happening, and you’re always following a knowledgable through-line of narrative. This is a movie that actually takes a while for you to figure out what’s even going on. It’s simmering and stewing in this beautiful, summery Paris. It has a lot in common with Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, quite consciously. The two women meet when one of them drops a pair of sunglasses and the other one chases her, like Alice after the white rabbit. Eventually, they do go down this hole into kind of a wonderland.
It’s one of the most playful movies I’ve ever seen, but it takes its time. It’s the kind of movie that, if you are at all impatient, it will drive you up the wall. The way I saw it was very important to me. It was in about 1978. I saw it at a college film screening in a big auditorium, and it was advertised fairly heavily, and the place wasn’t packed, but it was quite full. It was a three-hour French film, and I guarantee, for the first hour, nothing seemed to be going on, if you were not able to downshift your metabolism and appreciate the vibe of these two women driving each other crazy, creating their sort of bizarre, wacky friendship.
People were streaming towards the exits after the 30 minute mark. The theatre was bleeding people, and we got about an hour and a half in, and there was an intermission. There were about thirty people left in the auditorium. Outside, there were two big bowls of hard candy. That brought us all together, and the thirty remaining people went in, saw the movie, finished the movie, came out, and it was a life-changing experience. Those thirty people were friends for life. I’m still in touch with them. It was a new way of seeing, a new way of appreciating, for one thing, stories driven by women, and a sensibility that was not plot-centred or action-oriented.
It was a revelation to me of the different ways that you can tell stories, that you can disconnect and disassemble them, and the fun you can have with them. To me, it’s like a vacation. I see it about every ten years. And here’s the thing – it’s not on DVD in this country. For a while it was up on YouTube in pieces, but I’m still waiting for Criterion to come out with a Blu-ray or DVD. They’ve got some other Jacques Rivette films, but not that one. Every now and then it’ll show in some art-house and I make sure to see it. It’s like going to church or going on a really nice picnic with some friends you haven’t seen in a while. It’s that special a movie for me.
Waterloo Sunset (1967, The Kinks)
I had an interesting growing-up experience. I was born in 1957, which means I was about 6 when The Beatles hit. My older sister was 12, so she was in the precise target demographic, so we had all the early Beatles albums in the house. I was introduced to the British invasion at an early age. It was something that my older siblings were into and, of course, when you’re a little kid, you want to be as cool as your older siblings. I was very plugged into the British invasion, and not just The Beatles, but The Rolling Stones, and The Zombies. Herman’s Hermits were unfortunately rather large in our house.
The only group that I felt was mine, by the time I was 8 or 9, where I thought, ‘I’m the only one listening to to this, and this one’s mine’, was The Kinks. Beyond the early stuff like You Really Got Me. It was The Kinks around the time that Ray Davies’ gift for weird, sideways, shambolic, sympathetic storytelling began to reveal itself in the songs he was writing. Sunny Afternoon was a big song for me because it was silly – he talked about a ‘big, fat mama’, which I thought was hilarious, because I was 8 years old. I started noticing other songs, like A Well-Respected Man, Dedicated Follower of Fashion, and I remember when Waterloo Sunset came out. It was a mystery in the way that there there is a mystery with a good poem. I couldn’t understand what the song was about. It seemed to be about this couple called Terry and Julie, who met at this station and went home at sunset – but who was the narrator, and why was he telling me about these people?
Why did everything feel very beautiful and very sad and kind of perfect in this song? I was kind of too young for it. I really chewed on it and obsessively listened to it and couldn’t figure out what it was, behind the fact that I found it quite beautiful in ways that I could not even remotely begin to articulate. Then there was a period where I didn’t listen to The Kinks at all, because they didn’t tour and they were banned from touring in the United States. I discovered great albums of theirs later when I was in college, like The Village Green Preservation Society, and all those early singles like David Watts and Two Sisters. They didn’t have a hit in America until Victoria, and Lola, of course, was a huge hit. Again, a song that was very confusing but incredibly catchy. You weren’t even sure whether it was about a transsexual or not, and that’s even built in to the grammar of the song. The last line of the song is, “I’m glad I’m a man, and so is Lola”. What is Lola? Is she glad, or is she a man? It’s ingenious!
It was good to have them back. It wasn’t until I was older and starting to write for myself that I found my back to Waterloo Sunset. I still think it’s in a handful of perfect pop songs written in the rock era. There’s no wasted moment, nothing extraneous. There’s nothing you could take out, and nothing you could put in. It’s absolutely perfect. Another thing I like is that I still have not solved the mystery of that song. I still don’t know why it’s so incredibly moving, but I know it has something to do with distance, and the distance between the person singing the song and the people he’s looking at, and between them and the sunset. It’s just about my favourite song.
Pale Fire (1962, Vladimir Nabokov)
Like Celine and Julie Go Boating, Pale Fire is kind of a meta-work. It appears to be one thing, and then turns into something else entirely. I actually recommended it to my wife’s book group and they hated it. It’s a book that plays games with the reader, and if you decide that you’re not going to play those games, if you’re not in the mood or you’re not ready to go there, you’re going to hate it.
It appears to be a long poem, followed by a commentary on the poem. A long – 999 line – poem called Pale Fire, written by the recently-deceased poet John Shade, followed by a very long, book length commentary on the poem by an academic colleague of the departed poet, named Charles Kinbote. You read the poem, and it’s quite moving. It’s easy to follow because it’s not abstract. It’s fairly narrative. Then you start reading the commentary and you quickly realise a couple of things. The commentary has almost nothing to do with the poem, and the person writing the commentary is in fact quite probably insane, and has taken the poem not to be about the life of the poet, but as a commentary on the commentator’s own psychotic inner life. This childhood that he believes he had, and may actually have had, about being a long-lost prince in a fictional country.
The commentary becomes the novel, all made up by Vladimir Nabokov, of course. If you’ve ever read Nabokov, it becomes about language, and the fun and wonder of playing with words, constructing sentences, building in-jokes and concordances and inner lines. It’s about the glory of language and writing. It’s also about how we take everything we read and turn it into us, about us telling our stories. And I’m still not sure whether the poem itself is meant to be a parody of poems, or if it’s supposed to be a good poem in its own right. Every time I read it, and I’ve read it about four times now, I can’t make up my mind. The character of the commentator who is, as I said, rather pathetic and very clearly insane, becomes this very moving figure by the end, almost held hostage by this imagined youth he had, and completely reorders the real world in ways that flatter himself and cause you to wonder. For me, it’s a book that never stops giving.