Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Translation - Chris Marker (The Impossible Book) (2016)

Maroussia Vossen (left) & Djaleng from Paleodia (right)
Still from Pattes de deux, 2010 (Vimeo)

For my latest (seemingly) random act of translation, I humbly present you with my 2020 quarantine project: an English translation of Maroussia Vossen's lovely memoir Chris Marker (The Impossible Book). Marker is, of course, the enigmatic filmmaker and media polymath best known for his twin masterworks, La Jetée (1962) and Sans Soleil (1983). Vossen (pictured above), a dancer and choreographer, is his adopted daughter. This slim edition from 2016, published by Éditions Le Tripode, is an unprecedentedly intimate look at the relationship the two shared from her birth to his death.

The French language book, which I greatly enjoyed reading and translating, can and should be purchased here. A first-time author, Vossen proves to be a deft guide to Marker's idiosyncratic world. More than a catalogue of obscure factoids (what he ate for breakfast every day, what his family life was like) or an inside look at his films (which she consciously avoids considering at length), hers is a personal story built from rich, diffuse connections, the same sorts of connections Marker illuminated across his varied body of work.

French speakers can watch an interview with Ms. Vossen here in which she discusses the book. English readers can click the cover image below to download a PDF of my translation. It was made in a piecemeal fashion in between work and parental duties, and, due to my excitement to post it, only edited lightly. Feedback is certainly welcome, but please be kind!

More importantly, enjoy!

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Translation - Letters to François Truffaut (1959 - 1971)

La Napoule, 1959 (source)
François Truffaut at bottom left, Jean-Daniel Pollet third from left in third row from bottom (with draped sweater)

Having found myself with some additional free time (for reasons obvious to anyone reading this at the time of publication), I've decided to try my hand at a straight-ahead French translation, a first. The piece I chose is from the March 2020 edition of the great Trafic film journal, three letters from the vastly underrated filmmaker Jean-Daniel Pollet to his mentor at-times, François Truffaut. The two interlocutors, who connected in the late 1950's at the time of their initial successes, present an odd pair; the dynamic Truffaut, an admired critic and cinematic wunderkind who became one of the most commercially-viable filmmakers of his generation, and Pollet, a little-known New Wave outlier best known for stern, poetic works that evoked Resnais and captivated Godard. Still, there is some stylistic overlap. Pollet's more conventional comedic efforts, which he alternated with his more abstract works, approached the feel-good tone of Truffaut's most popular films. Pollet's fondness for one particular actor (Claude Melki) as his on-screen alter ego also recalls Truffaut's symbiosis with Jean-Pierre Leaud. In addition to any similarities, it seems the two shared, at some point at least, some degree of mutual professional respect.

Along with the letters, I've translated a short forward by filmmaker and writer Jean-Daniel Fargier, a long-time friend and collaborator of Pollet's. Sadly, the retrospective of Jean-Daniel Pollet's films set for March 2020 at the Cinémathèque Française (which certainly spurred the publication of these letters) has been postponed due to the unforeseen international emergency. Luckily, as a sort of consolation, Les Éditions de l’Œil has recently issued eight of Pollet's newly-restored films on DVD with accompanying booklets, as well as a sorely needed biography of the relatively mysterious director by Fargier. Each and every one of these editions is highly recommended.

Issue 113 of Trafic can be purchased here. I would certainly urge all French-reading cinephiles to subscribe. With the unfortunate recent demise of Cahiers du Cinéma, Trafic is literally peerless among film journals.


Letters to François Truffaut
by Jean-Daniel Pollet

Truffaut saved everything, scripts, correspondences, photos taken on set. His archives contain many treasures that find their way, little by little, to various publications. Pollet threw away (almost) everything. A pity. We will never know exactly how the young director of The 400 Blows responded to a request from the very young director of As Long as You Get Drunk… [i] to have a look at the script for his first feature film. Nevertheless, we get an idea by reading between the lines of Jean-Daniel Pollet’s response to the comments by his famous elder.

        What is striking in this exchange is the strong sense of complicity, founded on mutual esteem. Truffaut had just won at Cannes with his first feature, and had written a few months earlier in Arts, after seeing the premiere of his “little brother’s” [ii] first short film crowned with a Golden Lion at Venice, a magnificent review that compared its author to Jean Vigo, before making this prediction: “At 21 years old, Jean-Daniel Pollet displays a sensitivity and a vitality that make him one of the four or five best emerging French filmmakers.” We can read this on page 467 of the collection Chroniques d'«Arts-Spectacles» 1954-1958, compiled by Bernard Bastide for Éditions Gallimard. [iii]

       It is also thanks to Bernard Bastide that are able to publish these letters from Pollet to Truffaut. He generously shared his discoveries with us, made while perusing Truffaut’s papers at the Cinémathèque Française with the intention of assembling a collection of his favorite filmmaker’s correspondences with writers. Thanks to our comrade from Nîmes!

       We are also very grateful to Laura Truffaut, who manages her father’s estate in concert with her two sisters, Eva and Joséphine, for authorizing this publication.

Jean-Paul Fargier

First contact after Cannes, and the success of The 400 Blows
(No date, likely May 1959)

I hardly know you, but I take great pleasure in the news of the success of your film, which makes me wish for you, as if it were for myself, the best at Cannes. The unanimous praise that I hear from all sides for The 400 Blows, from people incapable of false praise or snobbery, increases my desire to see your film… which, as it is, you certainly don’t like, but don’t cut too much of it, so there’s some left for the street (?).

Jean-Daniel Pollet

Reply to Truffaut’s response to his script for The Bastion (Le Bastion) (which would be made as Line of Sight [La Ligne de mire] in 1960)

Jean-Daniel Pollet
58, bd Maillot
Neuilly (Seine)
Tél. MAI 46 20


I received your letter with great joy, and I thank you sincerely for your interest in my project. I too would be very happy to discuss it further with you. I also impatiently await an opportunity to see your film, about which I’ve only heard good things said (except by the director of Regent!).

       Regarding the similarities of my script to The Rules of the Game, which I have seen twice (unlike my friend F. Mazel [iv]), they don’t concern me, though they now seem obvious. Nevertheless, it would be futile to try to determine how many of them stem from accident and how many from influence. I should, however, be wary of them. Perhaps unfortunately, I’ve reached a point where it may be too difficult to modify the structure of our script. My belief is that the spirit and style with which (I hope) we treat The Bastion, which are quite different from those of The Rules of the Game, are the best guarantees against the seemingly inevitable script similarities.

       The Bastion will have nothing of a continuous game of hide and seek, nor do I pretend that it will achieve the complexity and richness of The Rules of the Game. Everything will be simpler, more direct. There will be no “game” for one to enter into, no “game of love and chance,” [v] none of the enticing “moods of Marianne.” [vi]

       Ultimately, I hope to not make a “sub-Rules of the Game,” which would be excruciating, as any comparison that comes to mind would of course be unfavorable to me.

Regarding the hunting sequences, it is inevitable that they directly recall The Rules because hunting can only be shown from so many perspectives. There’s that of the trapper, that of the butcher, and that of the butcher who believes he is a trapper, the most common in our country. Here, I am less afraid. There is no more plagiarism, or even resemblance, as there is practically no choice is in the method of shooting it. There is only the renewal of the same elements. Moreover, above the theme of hunting, there will be that of war.

I will stop for fear of boring you. Besides, if you preferred, it would be simpler to give you a detailed treatment with dialogue, which I have completed. Then you will easily be able to tell me if the danger is diminishing or increasing.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Jean-Daniel Pollet

Request for support for the release of Love is Gay, Love is Sad, 1971 [vii]

Dear Truffaut,

       Love is Gay, Love is Sad will open at the Publicis-Vendôme [viii] on Friday. The decision was made 48 hours ago, and the publicity resources that have been pledged are quite feeble.

       Renoir and Resnais, one year ago, and Chabrol more recently, have, in their kindness, expressed their appreciation of my film with a few quotes. Their statements constitute an essential element upon which I rely to avoid an all-too discreet premiere.

       I would like, or wish if it’s more effective, to see your name join theirs, if you thought it possible after attending one of these preview screenings:

-       Tuesday at 3 & 9pm at la salle Pontheiu
-       Wednesday at 9pm at Studio 407, 33, Champs-Élysées, 4th floor
-       Thursday the 25th at 10am at the Petit Marbeuf

If you cannot make it to any of these screenings, you can let me know at 222 85 83 and I can organize a screening at your convenience.

In hopes that this is not a bother to you, I send all my love.

Jean-Daniel Pollet

[i] Pourvu qu'on ait l'ivresse... (1958), Pollet's first short film, distributed by Cocinor, the same company that marketed Truffaut's breakthrough feature. (link to view)
[ii] Fargier used the French word "cadet," which, militaristic English connotations aside, means "youngest sibling."
[iii] Released in March 2019. (link)
[iv] François Mazel, writer and brother-law of Pollet. Mazel is credited with the story and dialogue for Pollet's aborted first feature, Lost Nights (Les Nuits Perdues), undertaken and abandoned in 1958. (source)
[v] A reference to The Game of Love and Chance (Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard, 1730), a romantic comedy written by Marivaux in the tradition of the Commedia dell'arte. Presumably, a dig at the staidness of The Rules of the Game.
[vi] A reference to The Moods of Marianne (Les Caprices de Marianne, 1833), a play by Alfred de Musset that served as the basis for The Rules of the Game.
[vii] L'amour c'est gai, l'amour c'est triste (1971), Pollet's fifth feature and one his "commercial" projects, starring Bernadette Lafont and Chantal Goya alongside his actor of choice, Claude Melki.
[viii] Movie theater formerly located on the Champs-Élysées.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Subtitles - Tokyo Days (1988)

Having caught something of the subtitling/ translating bug, I'm back sooner than expected with another tiny treat. This time it's a short but very special film from one of my favorite filmmakers, Chris Marker's little-seen short 'Tokyo Days' from 1988. A lighthearted post-script to his 1983 masterpiece 'Sans Soleil,' 'Tokyo Days, is one of Marker's simplest and most accessible works, a lithe little video journal made on one of his many trips to the Japanese capital. It's mostly dialogue free, but actress Arielle Dombasle (a regular of Eric Rohmer, whom she lovingly name-drops) does flit in early on to provide dizzying French-language commentary (thus the need for subtitles). I've provided partial subs for the film, and once again, my friend Jon at the inestimable has graciously agreed to host it for streaming and downloading.

Watch or download 'Tokyo Days' here. Take heed; as Jon says, it's "probably the best copy you’ll be able to find for this one."

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Subtitles - Farewell, Summer Light (1968)

For my annual year-end act of giving, I present you with my latest sporadic translation done over Christmas/ New Year's holiday break. Rather then a port of an essay or piece of writing not available in English, I've opted to translate subtitles for a lovely film that deserves the attention of Anglophone cinephiles everywhere, yet gets almost none: the great Yoshishige Yoshida's 'Farewell, Summer Light' (1968). It's a rare beauty, a romantically photographed road-movie/ European reverie made by Yoshida in the transitional period between his poetic, black-and-white films of the mid-60's, and the more expressly political works he undertook subsequently, starting with 1969's 'Eros + Massacre.' You can watch a brief, head-scratcher of a trailer here, courtesy of the Art Theatre Guild's bountiful Vimeo page.

I do not read or understand Japanese, but 'Farewell, Summer Light' is currently available in a French language DVD (from which the image below is taken). The original subs that I translated come from this release. To my knowledge, no acceptable English subtitles of the film exist online. Even if they do, I offer mine all the same, in the spirit of seasonal goodwill. I both enjoyed and was humbled by the experience of translating French subtitles for a Japanese film into English, even if just as an exercise. I intend to try more translating soon.

To round out this particular project, I hope to re-rip the film and fine-tune the English subtitles, so that at some point, I can upload a screening-caliber version of this shamefully obscure gem. As such, any feedback is appreciated. (Also, please let me know if the link goes down.) Thank you, and enjoy!

** Update: As of 1/13/20, 'Farewell, Summer Light' is available to stream and download with hardcoded subtitles via the wonderful RF has long been a source for cinema finds, offering easy access to lost gems as obscure and disparate as Visconti's Camus adaptation, Varda's ‎'Nausicaa,' and Naruse's 'Wife,' all with no strings attached for viewers. Thank you for hosting Jon, and keep stockpiling these treasures!

Friday, December 28, 2018

Translation - The Cinema, Tenth Muse (1925)

Unfortunately, it's been more than a full year since I've written a word about film, not counting my sporadic pontification on social media. While I have still yet to find the impetus to write regularly, I have recently decided to try my hand at translating from the Spanish. My first subject is an almost 100 year-old piece from the great Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, full-time novelist of the magical realist school and part-time champion of cinematic modernism. It's the lead article from his collection of film writing of the same title, El Cine, Decima Musa. I do hope you enjoy it, I will certainly try to translate some more in the near future.

The Cinema, Tenth Muse…

To say that one prefers the cinema to a certain type of theatre still strikes many as a sort of droll boutade, tossed off with the more or less obvious intent to shock.

            This misunderstanding is derived from the fallacy that one form must necessarily be superior to the other, and that expressing a predilection for the “seventh art” is equivalent to a total betrayal of all traditional and respectable stage productions. However, with the considerable technical advances made recently by filmmakers in American studios, there are no two forms more divergent, in means or aesthetics, than theatre and cinema; while the former is relatively “static,” the latter, dominated by speed, is increasingly schematic, and utilizes means of expression that one could only try in vain to bring to the stage.

            The considerable superiority of American filmmaking over that of most of Europe is owed, above all, to the fact that Yankee directors do not consider the screen inferior to, or a caricature of the stage. While French studios chase down stars of the Comédie-Française and even opera singers to play in the their films, the studios in California are home to specialists trained for the screen, who possess the gift of mimicry and are versed in the minute secrets of the camera.

            The great virtue of Chaplin, which makes him one of the exceptional artists of our times, is his mastery of imitation. That marvelous clown, who has lampooned the wholly human tragedy of “misery striving to be decent,” is himself a caricature; that creator of a silhouette as painful as a Courteline comedy does not move his lips, and never speaks on screen. All of his eloquence, all of his humor, lives in the precision of his gestures. Thus, Chaplin is the prototype of the artist who will only grow in importance as his art moves, with great strides, away from the stage.

            Otherwise, the growing sympathy that today’s audience feels for the cinema is completely logical. Privately, the spectator senses the perfect accord established, between the aesthetics of this new art form and their actual living conditions. The pace that tyrannically rules over our daily lives prevails on the screen, where, in less than two hours, hundreds of scenes, scores of locations and an infinite number of expressions parade by. The almost narrative-free vision of the filmmaker speaks to our times, which require of us a mind as segmented as a fly’s eye, and endowed with the power of simultaneity.

            Moreover, we take intimate pleasure in the spectacle in which everything is perfect and calculated, where nothing is left to chance, which transports us in seconds, with complete ease, from a rural village to the top of a skyscraper.

            But perhaps the cinema’s greatest strength lies in the endless possibilities of the “trick,” original and unique to the cinematographic arts. The camera already has the ability to make us experience new sensations, not yet stripped of their aesthetic value. There is a rare and powerful beauty, for instance, in the image of a leaping horse, or a body falling au ralenti; the instantaneous flowering of a plant; the reversed dive of a swimmer; street traffic receding, or advancing with an absurd slowness… There are also amusing photographic enhancements, dissociative images, visions, and disappearances.

            These merge into an evermore-masterful mise en scène, created through a collaboration of talented artists who achieve wonderful effects like those we admire in The Thief of Baghdad, and so many Griffith productions.

            Glorifying artifice, the filmmaker must cut the ties that bind him to the theatre. While the theatre is, as mentioned earlier, a “static” art of expected effect and marked limits, the cinema initiates the pursuit of a new technique, from which none of the marvelous and inexhaustible devices of artifice should be excluded.

            This is why, aesthetically speaking, I consider the cinema, that youthful art, the art of the “tenth muse” as Cocteau referred to it, far more interesting than bad theatre.

            “But what about good theatre?” you will ask. Good theatre is an art form so distinct from film that to declare a preference for one over the other is to demonstrate that I understand neither. They are located on two altogether different planes.

Alejo Carpentier
El Pais, Havana, July 3, 1925

Monday, December 18, 2017

Notes on... The Piano (1993)

Jane Campion's 1993 film 'The Piano' is, for the most part, just what it appears to be: a big, rigid, slavishly realized period drama of the sort that were popular in the 90's. Women wear bonnets and gaze wistfully out of windows, men intercept love letters from their wives to other men, and quarreling parties topple into the mud, ruining their finery. Still, it contains some interesting wrinkles. Holly Hunter's mute, disempowered Ada starts out as the victim of voyeuristic coercion at the hands of a man, played by Harvey Keitel, but surprisingly ends up as the sexual aggressor when they begin a physical relationship. It's a rare instance of female sexual reclamation, even rarer when you consider her double-outsider status (as a single-mother and disabled person). There are also the figures of the Maori people, natives of New Zealand, who shadow the white protagonists; they serve as cheap comic relief early on, but end up providing an endearing cultural counterpoint, as uninhibited and grounded as the European characters are repressed and puritanical. In terms of more traditional criteria, the acting is uniformly strong. Hunter is otherworldly in the central role, Sam Neil is at his hangdog best as the cuckolded husband, as relatable as he is contemptible, and Keitel, as usual for this period, is magnetically intense and totally naked. Anna Paquin, as a young girl biding her time while her mother has her assignations, may be the best of them all. She dances, she sings poorly, she reinvents her life story, she inadvertently betrays her mother. In other words, she is just like a real child.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Review - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Note: This review was undertaken for a class I audited in Fall of 2017, with the specific directive of writing something positive and complimentary. As such, it focuses squarely on the film's strengths, and glosses over several of its shortcomings. Still, I think the writing and structuring is somewhat redeemable.

Roughly two decades after her career-making turn in Fargo as Marge Gunderson, a salt-of-the-earth Minnesota police chief on the trail of two killers, Frances McDormand returns as a Midwestern avenger of a markedly different stripe. Mildred Hayes, her latest masterful creation and the unshakeable presence at the center of Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, is, in many ways, antithetical to Marge. She's a civilian, foul-mouthed whereas Marge was a stickler for manners. She is divorced rather than married, and while Marge was glowingly pregnant and brimming with hope for mankind, Mildred nurses the unbearable grief of a lost child, an ever-present pain that embitters and isolates her. Some months prior, her daughter was raped and brutally murdered, a crime still unsolved at the film's opening. Mildred, like Marge, refuses to rest until the perpetrator is caught.

The trio of billboards referred to in the title are Mildred’s idea, a ploy to galvanize the Ebbing police department, which she feels has given up on her daughter’s case. In bold black-on-red print, they directly accuse the amiable Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) of negligence, a charge that rankles many of her scandal-averse neighbors. In a scene as funny as it is casually shocking, Willoughby asks Mildred nicely to take the incendiary signage down, and in an effort to gain sympathy points, reveals that he’s dying from pancreatic cancer. She coolly responds that she already knew, and the whole point of putting them up when she did was to shame him into action before he dies. Small town nice, she cannot afford to be.

Mildred carries on in this manner, barrelling through law enforcement officials and other disparagers like a tank in search of the truth about her daughter’s death. She earns their scorn, but also gains allies; the weaselly yet thoroughly decent advertising agent who rents her the billboards (Caleb Landry Jones), a romantically-interested car salesman turned conspirator (Peter Dinklage), and in a twist of fate (and brilliantly realized character arc), a violent, racist, dim-witted police deputy (Sam Rockwell) whose moral evolution from the start to the end of the film is a joy to witness. The sizable supporting cast, loaded with fine actors, forms a convincing communal body, the stubborn heart of which is McDormand’s grieving mother.

Defiant, immutable, impressive in her single-mindedness, she acts as the ballast in writer/director Martin McDonagh first foray into such dramatic territory. Thanks to Mildred’s bristling, literally ball-busting tenacity, the film stays on track, even as it veers into broadly comedic territory (the previously hinted-at crotch kicking scene) and melodrama (her tearful monologue to an obviously computer-generated deer that happens upon the site of her daughter’s murder just as she is freshening the flowers). Mildred does not demur, nor does she stay put developmentally. As she progresses in her quest, she furtively reveals a great warmth buried under her bandana and coveralls, a maternal love undiminished by sorrow. Similarly, beneath McDonagh’s sometimes flamboyant dialogue and jet-black comedy lies an earnest portrait of imperfect small town residents who find their much-needed redemption in one another.

Not every aspect of Ebbing is as nuanced as its crusader-matriarch. The town itself feels oddly flat as a backdrop, perhaps owing to the director’s background as a playwright, one who primarily writes about the English and Irish milieus he’s familiar with. While the denizens of the fictional Missouri burg come off as authentic for the most part, they do the occasional odd thing, like quote Oscar Wilde to jarring effect. There’re also some conspicuously stagey set pieces, like Mildred’s front yard, which dramatically overlooks the billboards, and the police precinct and advertising agency, both crucial to the plot, which happen to be located right across the street from each other. These are minor gripes, however, trifles that do not mar this accomplished film, or the commanding performance it hinges on. In the end, Mildred Hayes may not quite match the iconic Marge Gunderson, but she comes awfully close.