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I Found It At The Movies: 1934—L’atalante (Jean Vigo)

I Found It At The Movies: 1934—L’atalante (Jean Vigo)

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Inspired by Dave Hicks’ excellent blog, I have decided to write about my favorite film for each year from 1926-2008.

1934: L’atalante (Jean Vigo)

I first saw this at one of my favorite theaters in the world, Cafe des Images in Herouville-Saint-Clair, just outside Caen, France. When it was over, I knew I’d seen something very special. Vigo died when he was only 29 years-old, but he forever left his mark on the medium. This film ranks up there for me as one of the two or three most poetic films in the history of cinema.

I think it’s fairly easy to create a poetic moment in a film. Usually, you just have to use slow-motion and some evocative music and—presto—you’ve probably created a moment of poetry. But, sustaining this lyricism and poetry for the entire duration of a narrative film is nearly impossible. For me, the only other films I can think of that accomplish this are Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, some Tarkovsky, The Thin Red Line, The Night of the Hunter and maybe McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

Without Vigo, I’m not sure we’d have two of my other favorite filmmakers: Leos Carax and Jim Jarmusch (I’m not positive about Carax, but I’ve read where Jarmusch has cited this film as a major influence.) Vigo was a master of mood, atmosphere and creating lasting images. There’s nothing else quite like this film, and it’s one I’ll continue to revisit with great enthusiasm as the years pass.

What moviemakers can learn: There are certain tools that bring movies closer to another medium—poetry. Watch other movies and keep experimenting in your own to find the tools that allow cinema, at times, to become light and poetic.

Other contenders for 1934: I’m not without my gaps in this year as well. I still need to see Yasujiro Ozu’s The Story of Floating Weeds, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow, Alfred Hitchcock’s first The Man Who Knew Too Much, Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress, Raymond Bernard’s Les Miserables, Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat and Jack Conway, Howard Hawks and William Wellman’s Viva Villa!

I need and plan to re-watch Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century. For some reason, the first time I saw it, it didn’t have much of an impact. But there are three other films from this year that did challenge for the top spot. I’m a big fan of the interplay between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. I think Gable’s cynicism probably helps offset some of Capra’s sentimental tendencies that sometimes rub me the wrong way. I haven’t seen that much of WC Fields, but Norman McLeod’s It’s a Gift had me laughing as hard as anything I’ve seen from this period. And Jean Renoir’s Toni is my second favorite film from the director. But, finally it’s L’atalante, with its one-of-a-kind beauty and lyricism, that has the most special place for me this year.

After living in Los Angeles for seven years, Jeffrey Goodman returned to his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana to direct The Last Lullaby. Co-written by the creator of Road to Perdition, and starring Tom Sizemore and Sasha Alexander, The Last Lullaby was filmed entirely in and around Shreveport and financed by 48 local investors. Goodman is now at work, raising money for his next feature, Peril.

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