You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

Mathieu Amalric in You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

9 April

 

Oldest recording of a voice, 1860

On this day in 1860, Edouard-Léon Scott de Martinville made what is the oldest recording of a human voice still in existence. The recording was made on a machine called a phonautograph which Scott had invented and patented in 1857. It worked by emulating the human ear – sound travelled down a funnel, hit a membrane and was transferred to a stylus (pig bristle) which transmitted the vibrations onto smoke blackened paper or glass, the two-dimensional results being used to study amplitude and waveforms. No one at the time the recording was made had any thought of making a playback machine; the recording medium was too fragile to permit such a thing. And it took until the late 1870s for anyone to attempt to make a more durable phonoautogram which could withstand the rigours of reproduction. By which point Edison had invented the phonograph, which consigned the phonautograph to history. It was only in 2008, by scanning the original phonautograms and playing them back through a computer, that the original recordings could be heard, and it is now possible to hear a man, presumed to be Scott, singing Au clair de la lune very slowly but remarkably clearly.

 

 

 

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2012, dir: Alain Resnais)

Recording is at the heart of Alain Resnais’s rather arch drama, the sort of thing that has lovers of this sort of thing hunkering down with a bag of cerebral popcorn for the evening. If playful metadramas aren’t your thing, then this is probably the worst sort of film in the world. Its conceit, and it is full of them, is that a slew of famous French actors – Mathieu Amalric, Pierre Arditi, Michel Piccoli, Anne Consigny among them – are invited to gather at the home of a wealthy man who has just died. They comply, all assembling, beautifully dressed, for the reading of the will, which is delivered by the dead man himself, as a film he made before he passed on. He makes a bizarre request. He wants them to watch a performance of Jean Anouilh’s Euridyce, which they have all appeared in over the years, and decide whether the amateur outfit performing it is worthy of support. And here’s where the film becomes truly exasperating or delightful, according to taste. As the amateur troupe, on film, go through the motions, the seated actors start picking up and re-enacting lines from the play. Michel Piccoli is the first to “break out” – a good choice; everyone loves Piccoli. So, to recap, we have Piccoli playing a version of himself, in turn playing a role in the drama he’s watching on the screen, which itself is a play all about actors re-enacting a Greek myth. Resnais does take it a stage further later on, but let’s not go there.
What a strange and simple idea Resnais has hit on, and what reflections it throws up. For starters we get to see the actors’ simple love for what they do – the way the lights come on in their eyes as they’re invited to enter the drama; the way the various individuals’ interpretation of a role changes its meaning; how their age and looks change the meaning of, for example, a promise to be faithful. Mortality is key – Eurydice is about the attempt by Orpheus to recover his dead love from the underworld – and in the faces of the assembled actors we see time’s ravages, the approach of the Grim Reaper, no matter how artfully they’re dressed. There’s more depth to this simple film than that, and it seems strange that it’s Resnais, 90 years old when he directed it, who is interrogating the idea of role-playing, as a teenage game-playing thumb jockey might understand it, perhaps better than anyone has managed in cinema. I’m not convinced the film entirely works, to be honest. It seems to devolve into declamatory Gallic verbiage in its second act, as things get really tricky in meta terms, wobbles a bit before settling down to being about the boomer generation – how do the “forever young” (Bob Dylan) generation cope with age? But as Frank Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year” sings us out, it’s undeniable that it’s better to have seen this than not seen it, and that Resnais is having fun with us as much as making any serious point. It’s like a very good night at the theatre in fact. Which is probably the point.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The cream of French acting
  • One of the last film of Resnais, one of the kings of the nouvelle vague
  • Daring experimental film-making
  • Todd Solondz and Lars Von Trier wouldn’t be who they are without Resnais

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

We Have a Pope

Michel Piccoli as the pope, flanked by the Swiss Guard in We Have a Pope

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

11 October

 

 

Second Vatican Council convenes, 1962

On this day in 1962, Pope John XXIII formally opened the Second Vatican Council. The first Vatican Council had been held nearly 100 years before, the most remembered of its declarations being that the Pope was infallible, when speaking ex cathedra. But back, or forward, to the Second, its aim being, broadly, to work out what the hell to do with the 20th century. The solution was to modernise. Out went the insistence that the Catholic church was the only way to sanctification and truth. Out went the Latin mass. In came a renewed emphasis on Scripture. In came a more pastoral role for bishops. It also, more incidentally, ended the Catholic idea that Jews individually were somehow still responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. The Second Vatican Council has rankled with some conservatives ever since, causing some ardent “antis” to break away, usually on the matter of the Latin mass. Four subsequent popes were present at the Second Vatican Council – the future Pope Paul VI, John Paul I and II, and Pope Benedict XVI.

 

 

Habemus Papam (2011, dir: Nanni Moretti)

“Habemus Papam” (We have a pope) – the two word announcement traditionally made by a senior cardinal on the balcony of the Vatican when a pope is elected – starts off Nanni Moretti’s gentle and unexpectedly generous comedy about the papacy. There are no stories of child abuse here. Instead we get a genuinely charming story about a cardinal (a brilliantly humane Michel Piccoli) elected pope against his wishes, who then goes into a grand funk at the thought of all that responsibility. A shrink (Moretti) is hastily sent for, and after much fun has been had at the expense of Vatican protocol, and its members’ disinclination to believe that the unconscious and the soul could co-habit, the shrink has achieved very little indeed. So the pope does a bunk and goes walkabout in the streets of Rome, looking for a sign from God in the actions of the people he observes. Meanwhile, back at the Vatican, the shrink is organising the cardinals into teams for games of volleyball. Much more fun is had, this time at the sight of old clerics getting highly competitive. Habemus Papam is a comedy but it’s a film with a serious intent. In a veiled way it’s about the dilemmas facing Pope Benedict XVI – how does an old man go about wrestling with an organisation that needs to change? And more generally it’s about the way human beings get twisted into odd shapes by the structures they inhabit, and how they respond by acting the part they think they’re mean to play – “acting” turns up again and again as an idea in the film, most notably when the pope sits in on the rehearsals of a play while he’s out on walkabout. Intelligent, dramatic and funny, this film got a cooler reception than it warranted partly because it completely ignores the scandals rocking the church, partly because it presents the church as a strange (rather than laughable or corrupt) and therefore usefully countercultural organisation, partly because without changing hardly a thing the film could have been made 40 years ago. It’s a fascinating film, probably the best one there is about the papacy, and its ending (no spoilers here) also turned out to be oddly prophetic.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The great French actor Michel Piccoli, understated as ever
  • Moretti knows where the easy targets are, and avoids them
  • Impeccable set design. Or is that really the Vatican?

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

We Have a Pope aka Habemus Papam – at Amazon