For Reel

Place de la République (1974)
December 29, 2016, 3:40 pm
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Director: Louis Malle
3.5 Stars
place-de-la-republiqueDirector Louis Malle rejected the popularly used phrase “cinema verite” in favor of “cinema direct”, which argues for a fully improvised shooting process that relies on impulse and curiosity as the guiding factors in narrative development (an ethos exemplified most spectacularly by the Maysles brothers). Place de la Republique, which Malle shot over a few weeks in 1972, uses the simple premise of a small film crew interviewing whoever they can on the busy Parisian square. If the film is about anything, it is about the Parisian’s fascination with the act of filmmaking—nearly every scene is full of background extras eager to see and hear what Malle and his team are filming. The excitement of the people on the street is well-matched by Malle’s enthusiasm for the everyday lives of the people he encounters. As eccentric as his subjects can be, Malle treats them all without judgment, allowing them instead to dictate the pace of the conversation. The film’s biggest pleasure is not the conversations themselves (only a few of the characters are particularly memorable), but the shooting style, which is obsessively guided by the sense of setting. In a telling late scene, Malle and his team are interviewing a subject that has a small audience rapt. Suddenly, Malle’s cameraman jerks the camera away from the scene in order to observe a passerby wearing rollerskates. It’s a jarring interruption of the interview, but the purest evocation of what Malle means by “cinema direct.” The curiosity inherent to the film’s process is not limited merely to the interview, but to the image—the simple act of looking away from the subject (Malle himself doesn’t even seem privy to the motion) shows that cinema itself is only an extension of uninhibited human curiosity.


God’s Country (1985)
December 28, 2016, 9:43 pm
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Director: Louis Malle
4.5 Stars
gods-countryGod’s Country plays as a charming love affair between filmmaker and subjects. Louis Malle, originally commissioned to make a documentary about shopping malls for PBS, abandoned the project and happened upon the small town of Glencoe, Minnesota, which could stand in for any number of towns across the country. There is nothing unique about the location or the people there, but the very universality of the experience does offer a certain warmth and poignancy, particularly as Malle reflects on just how close he become to the subjects in a short time. Strangely, although the film often basks in Malle’s appreciation for a foreign way of life, misery is always around the edges—an old man solemnly telling Malle that he wants to die, haunting images of nursing home lethargy, numerous cases of racism and bigotry. When Malle returns to visit some of his subjects five years after the fact and finds little but stories about economic woes and stewing resentments, it is telling that Malle’s voiceover remarks on the authenticity and lack of pretension in his subjects. If the footage Malle captured in Glencoe is often magical in the way that only the best documentaries are, this unusual contradiction represents the push-pull between a filmmaker who was interested in telling a certain type of story and the story that was actually unfolding before him. Malle’s detached, amused perspective is oddly charming in its naïveté, with the outsider finding beauty in a multitude of stories about loneliness and bitterness.