Sunday, September 19, 2010

Back from the mists of time

When I was 17 years old and had just graduated from high school, I decided I was interested in art films (mostly foreign) and spent much of the summer going to see them in now-vanished Manhattan venues such as the Carnegie Hall Cinema and Bleecker Street Cinema. These places were a bit like the Quad Cinema or Film Forum today, except that, instead of emphasizing first runs, revivals, genre festivals, and the like, they mainly went through repertory one-day, double-bill showings of what were then the enshrined classics (Bergman, Antonioni, Godard, Truffaut, Fellini, Satyajit Ray, etcetera - though I believe Hitchcock and the American likes of Hawks and Wilder may have made it into the canon by this time). Needless to say, you couldn't otherwise see most of those films. Even Sony Betamax hadn't been invented yet, and on TV (pre-cable, at least in my household), if there was any chance at all, it would have had to be late night on channel 13. You could see them on college campuses through the student film societies, but that wouldn't be happening for me until the fall.

Early in the summer I saw what was actually (I think) a new release, Truffaut's Day for Night, starring Jacqueline Bisset and Jean Pierre Leaud, among others, and offering a fictional account of the process of a director (played by Truffaut) making a supposed film. One of the more amusing aspects is that the film-within-the-film appears to be quite hokey. It's called "Je Vous Presente Pamela," and the story line is that a young, newly married British woman, brought for the first time by her French husband to his parents' house, falls in love with the father-in-law, leading to melodrama that ends with a shooting and car crash. In the actual film, we see scenes from the fictional film being shot completely out of order, with actors flubbing lines, a cat refusing to drink milk on queue, romantic and other complications on the set continually getting in the way, etcetera.

I just loved the movie (and also, as I recall, Jacqueline Bisset), but for more than 3 decades I had never seen it again. (I once rented a VHS version, back when that was the dominant format, but gave up after 5 minutes because it was excruciatingly badly dubbed.) But I had always wondered if I'd like the movie seeing it again later in life, and also why I had liked it so much. I'm not generally a huge Truffaut fan (though he's often OK) with the exception of The 400 Blows, which I certainly still swear by. One operating theory was that Jacqueline Bisset had a lot to do with it. But when I'd seen her in other movies while a bit older, I hadn't been similarly starstruck (though obviously she was quite beautiful).

I finally decided to get Day for Night from Netflix, have now watched about 2/3, and will finish it in a day or two when I have the time. The verdict: good but not great, and the reason I liked it so much back in the early to mid 1970s was not just Jacqueline Bisset but rather the broader milieu of the film, which gave me an excited nose-to-the-glass sense of finally, at a transition stage in my life, getting an actual full inside glimpse at a sophisticated adult professional and social world.

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