Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Back to School, Back to School...

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Today turned out to be a pretty wet first day of classes here at Rutgers, and guess what? Somehow I totally forgot to pack in long-sleeve shirts and the umbrella I bought just yesterday at my local KMart. So guess who was one of the stupid people walking around College Ave. wearing a short-sleeve shirt and getting myself very close to soaked by the rain? (I did pack in plenty of long pants, though---somehow that seems like small consolation, though.)

Hope that isn't some kind of omen for the things to come this semester... (Yeah, negativity rearing its ugly head again.)

Today on my class menu: a French film course that covers the history of French cinema up to the 1950s, and a "Major Filmmakers" course.

I was a little disappointed to find out that my French film course would only be going up to the '50s---pre-French New Wave, so no Godard! Truffaut! Demy! No big deal, I suppose: I like to think I can keep an open mind. And of course there were still great French filmmakers before those Cahiers du Cinema upstarts: Jean Renoir is an obvious one.

Today's session was actually a full close-to-full three-hour session (1:10-4:10 p.m.), and so we did watch something: a film called The Story of a Cheat by a filmmaker named Sacha Guitry. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but otherwise I didn't really know a thing about Guitry before seeing the film. It's actually not a bad little movie: it's more or less an extended monologue---narrated by Guitry himself, playing the main character---in which he recounts his experiences as a kid who grows up learning that cheating is actually good for him. He actually gets through his life by cheating---a subversive thought, but one expressed in a stylish and witty manner in the film. It's actually a weird kind of silent film, except with one or two scenes of recorded dialogue and Guitry's voiceover narration dominating the proceedings. Guitry was a well-known playwright before he became a filmmaker, but, in spite of its inherent talkiness, there is some genuinely clever filmmaking going on in Story of a Cheat: Guitry's dominant voiceover narration suggests a play on point-of-view that may well be described as unreliable. Certainly it's entertaining---even though, I'll admit, its talkiness got just a tad monotonous to me, so that there were moments where I felt my eyelids start to get heavy...

...Or is it just my tendency to get heavy-eyed in the early afternoon? During my summer break, I often made it a point to catch some zzz's at around the 1:00 hour, because I often feel genuinely refreshed after a nap at around that time. But with this French film class starting at 1:10 p.m....well, I just hope I can stay awake during the films, because many of these films are unavailable on DVD (including the one I saw today). Dunno if I really want to take two buses to go to the Livingston Media Library all the time just because I can't keep my eyelids open in that class. (Anyone know a good energy drink I could start drinking---something that won't make me crashing-tired later on?)

In my "Major Filmmakers" class, the filmmakers we're going to be examining will be Clint Eastwood, King Vidor, and the Coen brothers. Not exactly the lineup I was expecting...but again, I'd like to think I can keep an open mind, and all three of them have certainly gotten their share of acclaim. But Eastwood as a "major filmmaker"? Well, okay, he's "major" in the sense that he's prolific and he's earned a position in Hollywood in which he can pretty much make any kind of film he wants. Not every filmmaker earns such a coveted position, to be sure. But aesthetically? Personally, I think it's pretty debatable whether he's "major" in the sense that he's actually moved the art form along in some groundbreaking way; I mean, doesn't much of his acclaim these days come from the fact that he's still making classically-told film stories in a time when speed and noise seem preferred? Most of the acclaim for his recent film Million Dollar Baby didn't come from the fact that he did anything groundbreaking or fascinating with the film's look or style or anything like that; in fact, some critics I read acclaimed him for making something that reminded one of an old-style noir boxing picture from the '40s. But, the way my professor explained his choices, one could understand why he picked the three: King Vidor is an example of classical Hollywood; the Coen brothers are considered post-classical in their style and sensibility by some; and Eastwood stands in the middle, kinda.

I half-respect more than love Million Dollar Baby---some of it strikes me as manipulative and overly melodramatic, but it does have a trio of great performances, I do like the seedy look of the film, and, in its own crude way, it does make you think about some pretty deep issues---but I do think Unforgiven and Mystic River are pretty good movies. As for the other two (or three): although I've seen a couple of Coen brothers films (Raising Arizona and Fargo), I don't feel like I have a good-enough grasp of their sensibility to be able to comment on them with any confidence. Don't know a great deal about King Vidor either, although I did see his 1928 silent The Crowd last year in an American Cinema class I took (bring that to DVD soon!). Perhaps this class will bring me closer to a greater appreciation (if not love) of all of those filmmakers.

And that has pretty much been my day. I ran into some old friends and went through the usual rigamarole ("how was your summer?" and all those pleasantries), and I got wet from the rain and had to buy myself a fleece just so I wouldn't have to get any more wet and cold than I already was. Oh, and our Rockoff apartment didn't have shower curtains last night---apparently Devco, the company that owns the building, decided not to purchase shower curtains for all of us, forcing us to go to them and get them, or something stupid like that. So I didn't shower last night. Yuck! (I'm typing this up in a College Ave. computer lab; I will be fairly annoyed if I return to Rockoff tonight and find out that we still don't have shower curtains.)

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