Quick picks: more very short reviews

What we’re viewing, reading, listening to — in under 100 words. (Words with 1 or 2 letters don’t count.)

army of shadows

Army of Shadows (L’Armée des ombres, 1969, dir. Jean-Pierre Melville)
The series of interlocking episodes that make up this film fit together like the oiled steel of a well-made gun. An astonishing shot of German soldiers parading in front of the Arc de Triomphe opens this story of a group of Resistance fighters in France and is practically the only scene in the movie without nail-biting suspense. A cold, stoic, perfectly structured film that balances beauty and terror, heroism and cowardice, duty and humanity; the taut discipline of the filmmaking and the performances makes a formal counterpart to the unrelenting risk undertaken by the characters.
–Dave B

birds in fall

Birds in Fall, by Brad Kessler (Scribner’s, 2006)
Brad Kessler’s second novel is exactly what I want a book to be: compelling, lyrical, and leaving the reader with that precious feeling of completing a journey. A plane crash off Nova Scotia introduces us to Ana Gathreaux, an ornithologist from New York City, and we follow her and other bereaved families through their journey of shock, grief, and resolution. The novel reinterprets the myth of Ceyx and Alcone; birds are the metaphorical and actual backdrop to Kessler’s writing. He has clearly done his ornithological research; his descriptions feel authentic and original. Storytelling is the most psychologically powerful art and Kessler is a master. If I exclude some of the Jane Austen canon, this will be in my all-time top ten.

amy hempel

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, by Amy Hempel (Scribner’s, 2006)
Rediscover Amy Hempel, or find her for the first time: you won’t be sorry. When I was in my early 20s, her stories were the benchmark for me and all my writer friends. Minimalist, usually only 4 or 5 pages long, they go down like gyoza, in the words of one of my old teachers, but they haunt like hell. This collection is complete — the first two books we swooned over (1985, 1990), a third from 1997 (which includes a 70-page novella), and a fourth, just out last year. Hempel won our love with opening lines that pack a whole story’s tension, like this one from “The Harvest”: “The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew accidentally killed me.” File under: essential beach or bathroom.
–Bryan Waterman

revep ep.jpg

Revep EP, by Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto (Raster-Noton, 2006)
A 3-track, 20-minute postscript to last year’s gorgeous outing Insen, this is the third collaboration between German glitch master Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva Noto) and the Japanese synth pioneer/contemporary composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, featured here improvising on piano. The set builds toward “ax Mr .l.,” a too-short recycling of Sakamoto’s “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” from his score for the 1983 movie of the same name (in which Sakamoto starred opposite Bowie). Here, Sakamoto’s Satie-like piano wanders up and down hills, turns corners, lingers; Noto’s high frequencies break through clouds while a popping Morse Code rhythm leaves you looking down from skyscraper windows at stalled city traffic: you’re too high to hear any horns.
–Bryan Waterman

5 responses to “Quick picks: more very short reviews”

  1. Tim Wager says:

    Hey Dave,

    I got the chance to see Army of Shadows when I was in NYC last week. Great flick! Interesting that it was condemned as reactionary by some lefty French film critics when it was first released in 1969. Context has so much to do with it, I guess. Even though I can see an inherent difference btw. John Wayne’s WWII movies and Army of Shadows, to a late 60s audience fresh from student strikes and riots, living with a conservative government, it would be difficult to distinguish btw. the two. From their viewpoint, it would be easy to see Melville’s movie as implicitly right-wing Gaullist.

    Also, if anyone reading this hasn’t seen Melville’s other major movies — Bob Le Flambeur, Le Cercle Rouge, Le Doulos, Le Samourai — you’ve got a big treat in store for you someday. Great crime noirs all of them!

  2. Dave says:

    Yeah, you can see that Gaullist elements, but not being French and not living in the late ’60s I wasn’t really concerned. I’m not even sure how much it’s actually Gaullist and how much it’s just a faithful recreation of the period it descibes — ascribing a postwar Gaullist viewpoint to the film might be an anachronism in this case, because I don’t get the impression Melville was really concerned about politics in this movie. In any case, I expperienced it much more as a formal tour-de-force.

    And I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t seen any other Melville films. I vow to Netflix some immediately.

  3. Tim Wager says:

    Well, I was prepared to look for political cues by a friend who had seen the movie and told me about the initial response by the French left, so it was on my mind throughout. One of the fascinating things to me is that the film seems to me to be implicitly entirely political, just because of who the ‘enemy’ is, but never explicitly gestures to politics. There are no speeches from our heroes about how bad the Nazis are or what ‘freedoms’ the Resistance is fighting for. When you look at it, as portrayed in this movie, the members of the Resistance spent all of their time either getting arrested or trying to spring each other from prison. There are no grand plans to assassinate anyone or blow up a supply bridge, as one would expect. They’re just scrambling to save their asses on a daily basis, which makes it all the more fascinating and probably all the more accurate.

    Of his other films that I’ve seen, Le Cercle Rouge is most similar to Army of Shadows – a real formal tour de force of the ensemble cast. The others focus on solo figures whose existential predicaments dominate the entire movie. Le Samourai is the most overtly philosophical (and slowest moving), while Bob and Le Doulos are more like straightforward heist/crime flicks (though quite philosophical all the same). Oh, to see them all again for the first time!

  4. Dave says:

    This is a really interesting question — could you film the same story (French resistance vs. the Germans) in a way that is not Gaullist (at least superficially)? If not, then I don’t see how it can be taken as a Gaullist movie — it’s just a movie about that time period, when de Gaulle, warts and all, happened to be the best alternative for the French, and the best of the French lined themselves up behind him and served, even though most of them were (as we learn in The Sorrow and the Pity) trade unionists or Communists or other outcasts. It’s like making a movie about 9/11 and acknowledging, without romanticizing, Rudi Giuliani’s real moment of leadership. Yes he’s an asshole and should be opposed, but he was just the guy to have around on that day. I don’t know, though. I suspect I’m being naive. I also suspect I’m giving the movie a little too much credit because I enjoyed it so much for its non-political qualities.

  5. Tim Wager says:

    I may be naive, too, but I agree with you. I think the students fresh from the barricades (or at least who claimed they were there) could not possibly see anything but a Gaullist film in Army of Shadows because they associated the Resistance with the rise of the de Gaulle, and could only see any depiction of the Resistance as romanticising Gaullism. Army of Shadows, however, cannot be found guilty of romanticism. The characters quite clearly don’t know what the hell they’re doing from moment to moment. They do not present a united front against Nazism. They’re just trying to survive without capitulating. I would say that the late 60s critics of Army of Shadows’ politics had historical blinders on that we do not.

    Not that we don’t have historical blinders of our own. If Rudy Giuliani were elected president and then someone made a movie about 9/11 that depicted the events (including his actions) fairly accurately, I think I’d have a hard time seeing the movie as anything but romanticism of the emergence of his political power on a grander scale. Perhaps an audience 30 years down the line could watch it as a well-made thriller that happens to be about 9/11. Timing means a great deal in these things. I haven’t seen United 93 yet (and I probably won’t) precisely for the reason that I think of it as yet another US attempt to display the wounds of 9/11 in order to justify overseas wars that are illegal and unjust. I may be missing one hell of a good hijacking flick, but I just can’t tear those blinders off.