The Umbrellas of Cherbourg Review

Directed by Jacques Demy in 1964

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a very special movie.  I bet you can’t name another film that’s entirely sung from start to finish. . . . but to me, it’s special for so much more than that.

It’s deeply wise without even really letting you in on that fact.  It doesn’t play up to any sense of IMPORTANCE.  It never makes claims to be anything at all beyond a simple story of first love lost, and yet . . . after you watch it, you’re both devastated and healed, and your own hopes and regrets seem to take on just that much more clarity. You realize as the lights go up, that you’ve been under the spell of an artist who has a profound understanding of human nature. He would never openly claim such a thing, about himself personally or about his films, but at its core, it’s this gentle, almost shy understanding of the human heart, that makes “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” such a great movie.

Usually, it’s imperative for a reviewer to avoid sounding hyperbolic, but I want to state up front, that I’m not going to be able to do that here, because, to be blunt, I love this film to bits. For me, every aspect of it is like a perfectly crafted bell that—when rung—will echo through the centuries.

The score—by Demy’s dear friend and constant collaborator, the legendary Michel Legrand—is not just one of the most beautiful pieces of music that I’ve ever heard, for film or otherwise, it also represents the most perfect teaming of director and composer as there ever was. Legrand’s music and Demy’s film are in a constant dance to the point where it ceases to matter where one ends and the other begins.

The film does not function like a traditional musical. There are no “songs.” The sung dialogue is just that, dialogue–ordinary, even banal conversation—set to melodies that illuminate the depth of emotion behind these incredibly simple, straightforward statements. Seen on paper, without the music, these statements wouldn’t add up too much. If a line like “Come, my love, my love!” was spoken by young mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) to his girlfriend Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) on the night before he’s shipped off to war, it would bring me to derisive laughter. The same line sung, however, brings me to tears of loss and sorrow. The combination of Demy’s blazingly colorful imagery and Legrand’s sweeping music creates a purely emotional space that is more alive, and truer, than simply plopping speaking actors in front of a camera. The essence of the moment is that the line is sung. Having this story of such simple, yet incredibly true, human emotions play out through the immediacy of singing, and the transcendent grandeur of Legrand’s music is, more than anything, why the movie rings with truth as you watch it.

But why does it continue to ring after the lights go up? This happens because of, the spirit of Jacques Demy.

By his own admission, Demy was not an intellectual. While so many of his peers in the French New Wave—including his wife, Agnes Varda—were shattering narrative conventions and working to re-define what the word “movie” even meant, Demy was, in his own words, “always looking for emotion.” Oh, his films certainly have their political and formalist elements, just by making “Umbrellas” with all sung dialogue, he was breaking cinematic boundaries, but mostly his films are about people–their joys and sorrows, their expectations and realities, their glowing hopes and dashed dreams–and the key is that these are people who he believes in . . . even loves.

Demy doesn’t look down on the young lovers in his film. He doesn’t patronize them. He is with them. He understands that their feelings are deep and true, but that also, by their very nature, the feelings must be fleeting. Their love cannot last, in fact, it must end in order for them to grow, and they will have to endure great pain, and make major compromises, but, Demy suggests . . . that’s life. The film’s perfect final scene, where the lovers meet for the last time, feels very low-key, and although Legrand’s music builds there to its greatest crescendo, the characters don’t seem to view what happens as tragedy. In the film’s last lines, as Genevieve turns to leave Guy’s gas station—the station they once dreamed of owning together—she stops and asks him “Are you doing well?” He responds, with quiet sorrow in his eyes “Yes. . . . very well.” and the film ends as Genevieve drives away, and Guy happily greets his returning wife with a kiss, before having a quick snowball fight with their young son as they head inside.

And therein lies the genius of Demy. These characters are not destroyed, they are not forever lost. They are going to survive, thrive even. Things don’t always work out the way you want, but that doesn’t mean that you are barred from having a good life. Quite the contrary. The ability to accept loss and disappointment can and does lead to greater happiness in the long run. This notion is so rarely displayed in film, especially in romantic films, that when we do see, it can come as a minor shock, but it’s a lesson that we all need to learn. It’s a lesson I needed badly when I first saw this movie, and I will be forever grateful to Demy (and Legrand) for helping me internalize it.

The word “masterpiece” gets thrown around far too often, but if there was ever a film I would describe with that word, it would be this one. From the surface pleasures of its magnificent music and exquisite, colorful production design and sweeping camera moves, to the depth and richness of its maker’s soul, to the way all of that intertwines for a once-in-a-lifetime moment of wonder . . .  “masterpiece” is the only word I’m left with. This is a film I’ll treasure for the rest of my days, and I hope that if you see it, you will, too.

-Ben Johnson

THE HATEFUL EIGHT, Film Review

THE HATEFUL EIGHT

Directed by Quinten Tarantino in 2015

I’ve always been something of a Tarantino agnostic.  I like his films.  A couple of them I like very much, but I can’t for the life of me understand all the adulation around him as some kind of divinely-inspired master.  What he is though, as far as I’m concerned, is a damn good entertainer, and for its first 90 minutes, his 2015 film, The Hateful Eight, is exactly that, crackly, witty, soaked-to-the-bone in mystery and dread entertainment.  For its second half, though, it devolves into the filmmaker throwing blood-soaked spaghetti at the wall, with a firm belief that all of it will stick, a free buffet of cruelty with no nutrition whatsoever.

Obviously, when a film has the word “hateful” right there in the title, you don’t expect it to be a happy fun time movie, but the fact that the movie is cruel and misanthropic isn’t the problem.  The problem is that it’s pointlessly cruel and misanthropic.  During the first half, Tarantino’s story of eight cold-hearted scumbags in the aftermath of the civil war forced to bunker down together to wait-out an apocalyptic blizzard utilizes slow-burn suspense that runs its way through long scenes where not much happens besides dialogue, but you have a constant feeling that the fuse is bound to blow.  Characters banter, talk about their pasts, and express distrust masked in the most ominous kind of politeness.  Every scene makes you wonder where it’s all going, and it’s gripping stuff.

Then the powder keg ignites, and we’re left with nothing but debris.

The entire second half of the movie is nothing but rushed exposition and exploding heads.  Any and all real tension vanishes, characters lose their menace and go from the kind of clever archetypes of Tarantino at his best to downright clichés, and themes touched upon in the first half from the abstract (honor, the good that can lie in bad people) to the political (slavery’s enduring scar on the USA) are left for dead, strewn among the mountain of corpses along with the pleasures of real storytelling that the director has been building.  Performances remain excellent, to be fare, and the craftmanship of Tarantino and his great cinematographer Robert Richardson is superb, but the final point of the movie, of this two hour, forty minute movie, is that people are bad. Gee, what a thought provoking, fascinating observation.

-Ben J.

I Haven’t Faked My Own Death

Hey all.  Just writing a quick update to let you know I haven’t faked my death and vanished to Antarctica.  It’s just that life, the universe, and, well, you know, all that other stuff, is going pretty slowly right now, so there’s only so much to talk about.

I will say, I’m very happy to have ace cameraman and all-round great guy David Burns working with me on my new film, “Nacre”, to be filmed this August.  He’s a real artist.  Working with him has been like playing tennis, except we’re both on the same team, which means we both win.  Well, unless he comes up with a better idea than I do, which is often, that’s a devastating loss.  Pity me! Only joking, it’s been a real privilege to have him on board.

Anyway, things are looking up in Ben Johnson land at the moment.  More updates, and hopefully reviews, to come in the near future.

– Ben J.

Life happens

Since my last blog post, I mentioned very briefly that we were in the middle of pre-production, soon to be going into principal photography on a project I’ve been fairly quiet about this year. I made a comment about how I didn’t really want to talk about it until we had our first shot off so I could have actual proof we were making this happen.

Unfortunately, my intuition of keeping quiet was well trained and not having made any promises to the rest of the world about what was to come was the right choice. For reasons outside of my control, outside of anyone’s control really (and really more of a larger problem in the way our entire system is structured), we had to put the breaks on the project entirely. It’s something I hope we can return to in the not too distant future, but due to the circumstances we found ourselves in, there was no practical way to move forward. I’m deeply disappointed that all of the work I and my colleagues have put into the project will have to sit on ice, but there are powerful lessons to be learned and practiced from something like this.

We may not get to see our work fulfilled this time around, but there’s a reassurance in our ability to plan and execute with what resources we currently have available. I like to see this as a crash course in preparedness, like a mock production where we set plans under very strict, “abstract” guidelines. Everyone needs to continually practice their craft if they plan to improve and grow. Now that my pre-production and development muscles are thoroughly stretched, we can go into our next project with the same energy carried over from the last.

Thankfully, we have a small handful of projects that were ready to go, so to speak, so the plan now is to jump straight into those as a means to keep that momentum we built up the last four months up instead of letting it falter under the disappointment of how things turned out on the last project.

Life happens, and you have to just keep pushing forward in the face of adversity. Onward and upward.

-Alex S.

  • Photo credit: Brenden Noll

Straight Into Darkness

I’ve been on an emotional roller-coaster this last week or so the likes of which I never knew existed.  For a multitude of reasons that I won’t go into here.  Partly because it would take too long, and partly because some of those reasons involve other people and I don’t want to detail anybody else’s personal life.  Suffice to say, I’ve been feeling totally out-of-synch with everything around me.  With my work, with the era we live in, and with people I love.

Until a couple of days ago, I would just wake up wanting to call it a day.  I felt there was nothing I could do, no one I could speak to, nothing I could create that would make a difference, my feelings and my worldview were just too far removed from everything I saw.  I had no sense of emotional direction, no feeling that there was anywhere I could turn to gain lasting solace.  Nothing meant anything.

Everything around me just disappeared into a black hole after promising peace and failing to deliver.  Death seemed like a viable option, because hey, I was dead already, what difference would it make?  No one would miss me anyway.  I was too behind-the-times and too emotional to be of use to anyone.  Might as well pack up and spare everyone any further dreary nonsense.

Well, I haven’t packed up, and I’m not going to.  The universe itself will tell me when it’s my time to board the shuttle, that’s not up to me, nor should it be.  The only option I have, the only option any of us have, is to persevere.  I want to tell everyone who reads this: Hang on.  Life is difficult, and there will be hurdles, sometimes a million of them will be thrown your way at once, but no matter what, you have to keep on.  Keep moving forward, and doing everything in your power to maintain your resolve to live.

Suicide is not a choice.  It’s a sickness, but it’s a sickness we can do something about.  It doesn’t have to be terminal.  We all need to continue, otherwise, we’re wasting our greatest gift, and the greatest thing we can give others.

I’m currently writing a short screenplay that I hope to film this summer with my friend Bianca Raso.  An opportunity that’s one of the many wonderful gifts in my life.

King County Crisis line:

866-427-4747

-Ben J.

Personal Exploration through Art

I don’t intend for this entry to be focused purely on our film-making ventures. This time around I want to tackle something a little more personal, something that’s been sort of itching in the back of my head for a while now.

(though, the one quick thing film related update I will touch on is that we are getting closer to shooting a project I’ve slowly been trudging through the trenches of pre-production for, and once we get a shot off during principle photography, I’ll feel like we can justify talking about it publicly).

Since this time last year, and more consciously during the last 6 months, I’ve focused directly on creating more art and exploring new mediums that practice alongside Fresh Cup’s film projects. Sketching and painting became my newest muses because of this, and have equally been the most liberating and positive choices I think I’ve made alongside with attempting to live a less sedentary lifestyle.

This brings me to what’s been on my mind; personal exploration during the act of creating art. I remember when I used to draw as a teenager, I’d get frustrated by the process and give up easily, never letting myself build skills and foundations. But at the time, there’s a chance a part of that blind frustration came from what comes out of the process. I think this might be synonymous to why I listened to music or ingested other forms of media nearly 24/7. I preferred to escape instead of look inward on myself. That’s not to say art isn’t an escape in a way, but being active vs. reactive, the results tend to leave behind a longer lasting sense of satisfaction I feel.

Life is weird, each year has been full of unique absurdity that becomes further obfuscated through an ever evolving internal lens that interprets the world around us. The last few years have been especially so, with personal growth acting as a beacon. These days, the vehicle driving me to that beacon are the lessons that the process of making art teaches me. The importance of organization and use of time, paying attention and appreciation for the little details, attempting to remain a student for life and above all else, patience. You can’t take life without a dose of balance, so it’s more like patience is balanced against appreciating how little time we may actually have left. You aim to achieve a goal but you don’t rush to the end, so that you can come out the other side with the best possible result.

The part that has felt the most profound is how these values become a part of everyday life. I feel this is about to start sounding sappy (or preachy, so forgive me), but to put it simply, life has never felt as full as it does today. Between the influences of my wife, art, career goals and just enjoying the process each day, I feel more motivated than ever to continue the momentum I’ve started up since last year.

This time last year especially, as I was still pulling myself upward out of a dull, irritating and painful depression. The sort of depression that feels like navigating a maze at the bottom of a dark chasm. The sort of depression that feels insurmountable no matter how you shift your perspective. But actively seeking out to make visual art despite of emotions has done something other potentially therapeutic acts haven’t been able to do, give me a headspace where I could really get to know myself and my more inner thoughts, the ones that loom but hardly face you eye to eye. The introspection gained while engaging in the process vs. the result made it so I had to listen to my internal voice a little more, and hear what it’s trying to communicate.

I hope to allow this shift access to how I approach making films as much as any other visual art. I took up other mediums as a way to inspire and exercise my visual vocabulary, in hopes that getting into that mental mode becomes just that much more effortless and harmonious.

Thanks,

– Alex S.  

Development/Mysterious Behavior

I feel like over the last few months my project update posts have been fairly derivative of each other, in that there’s a looming shadow over some of the projects we are working on. For some it’s that it would be too early to make any announcements or post updates on the status of these projects (and while I’m not superstitious, I don’t want to jinx the progress we are making) or say too much too early. The other projects come down to the post production process being slow, arduous and honestly fairly uninteresting to talk about. Unless we start making tutorial videos, most aren’t curious about dealing with a difficult color grade.

But the good thing is that things HAVE been moving, and I feel like once some of the gears are further in motion, we’ll have more things to share consistently. I wish I didn’t have to be so vague for now, but it’s the closest I can give to a tease.

On the bright side, I’ve been practicing my patience a lot more as of late. Good things take time and require you to respect the process it takes to get there. Until then, we’ll just keep plugging away at these exciting endeavors. Stay tuned 🙂

  • Alex S.

Creative Momentum – Starting 2019 Off Right

Photo credit  @ Martin Vlach

The above image is something I came across in the midst of research for a new project I’m working on, and it’s been on my mind since. Art moves us in ways that often avoids expression through language, and can only truly be derived by feeling and intuition. It maneuvers around our ability to articulate meaning through a limited scope, and transcends us to multiple plains of emotion.

This particular photo stands out to me not just in it’s simplistic beauty but in what it awakens inside me. It’s sort of the opposite of how I’ve been feeling, which is why I find stumbling across it to be at a perfect moment of inner reflection. I’ve recently pulled myself out of a chasm of depression, and at this moment in time I’m just relishing in the reignited flame that was snuffed by the downward spiral I had recently endured.

I was in a state similar to the figure in the photo, free fall into the unknown, into something much larger than myself. But now that I’ve had time to lay in the grass, resting only arms length away from the chasm, seeing this image only reminds me of why I love to create visual works. When something like this speaks to you, it awakens something that cannot be ignored and must be nurtured. It reminds us of our experiences, past and present and what the future might bring.

The transition into 2019 might have been the most appropriate new year to date to relate to the idea of rebirth, of a newly energized sense of self and creativity. I ended the year creating more visual art than I had in any previous year, which has become a very big part of my day to day life and a source of my overall fulfillment. So to start off a new calendar year riding this creative high, I feel many good things to come.

It’s very early in the process, but I’m to be collaborating with some really amazing people over the next few months and I think the art that we make in the process is really going to turn some heads. Between some future music video work and some shorter, more snackable content in the pipeline, I think you’ll soon see why I am so excited and feeling a surge of creative energy. But until then, there’s a lot of work to be done so that we can guarantee these things make it from being in my head to a screen near you.

Keep on keeping on,

-Alex S.

2018 Retrospective

As the year comes to a close, and the work schedule begins to slow down, I’ve had time to do a lot of reflecting on this last year and begin planning for the year ahead of us. Creatively speaking, 2018 has been a very fruitful year full of opportunity, challenge and growth.

The first half of the year was almost solely dedicated to shooting and editing Way Out of Here so that we could meet deadlines for festivals, which took a lot out of me internally as any passion project might. It’s such a personal story full of emotion and old trauma that by the time we had called the film locked on all ends, I felt both relieved and drained simultaneously. It’s an awfully conflicting feeling, and since then I haven’t really been able to to write much of anything.

Earlier in the year I discovered an interest in painting and digital photo manipulation, which in the downtime between film projects has become one of my main outlets. Since then I’ve found myself focusing heavily on creating more visual related works over writing, which I feel plays on my strongest attribute as a storyteller and artist. This doesn’t mean I’m hanging up the towel when it comes to writing, but given these personal revelations I foresee more room for collaborating with other writers so that I may really emphasize my strengths as a visual artist.

As a whole, the goals looking forward are to continue my growth as a visual artist over being a writer/director, to continue establishing a visual language and aesthetic. We have some potential projects in the works I’m very excited to put out in the world, though still too early to talk about explicitly.

I’m also proud of Way Out of Here’s reception so far in it’s limited screenings. Having it screened at Hollyshorts was a truly humbling experience and I’m stoked for the future opportunities it has. Thankfully, we get to close out the year knowing our film will be screening in early 2019 at the Mammoth Film Festival in California, so be on the lookout for more information as it comes out.

With all of that said, I’m happy to end this year feeling inspired and to enter the 2019 empowered and with a sense of vigor.

Let’s make next year count, and to further boundless creative opportunity! Keep on keeping on.

– Alex S.

 

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