Media oftentimes has an awkward relationship with other forms of media, but when celluloid documents pulp, it’s hard to lose. Such was the case for the last week at the Noir City Film Fest at the Castro Theatre in San Francsico. All old movies about the newspaper industry in a fitting, timely program curated by Noir City founder Eddie Muller, who introduced each film with his comfortable wit and contagious appreciation. Not like the crowd needed any needling: these films were outstanding. Most of them, sadly, are unavailable on DVD.
I joined the sold-out crowd for the opening double feature. Deadline U.S.A. isn’t on DVD and it’s a crying shame; Bogart as the tough-as-nails newspaper editor who refuses to see his paper sold to the tabloid without a fight is unbelievable. Muller mentioned seeing the film when he was a kid; his dad, he said, was a reporter, and the end of Deadline U.S.A. is one of the few times he saw his dad cry. It encapsulates everything that we hope newspapers truly used to be, and everything that we lament that they’re not. Some bootlegs of it can be found for sale online.Scandal Sheet showed next, a dark, gripping tale of ink and murder. A circulation-obsessed editor accidentally kills his former girlfriend and tries to cover it up; his reporters, meanwhile, pick up some suspicious evidence from the crime scene and ask to pursue it. A harrowing, tense film, as the editor tries to evade his own writers while watching his readership climb because of the juicy story. You can guess how it ends.
I woke up the next morning unable to do anything but hop in the car and drive back down to the city for more. Unsurprisingly, the line was around the block again. Chicago Deadline brought Alan Ladd and Donna Reed together on the only known print of the film in existence; Slightly Scarlet closed the night with two redhead bombshells, Arlene Dahl and Rhonda Fleming; but it was the film in the middle, Wicked as They Come, which shined, with Dahl as a kleptomaniacal, nymphomaniacal rung-climber. Dahl herself made a special appearance and sat down for an interview with Muller afterwards to dish the dirt on Errol Flynn, Clark Gable and John F. Kennedy, whom she dated at one point, long before his presidency. She called him “Jack.” It was sweet.
It was hard to stay away for the rest of the week, especially with titles like Ace in the Hole, The Big Clock, and The Sweet Smell of Success on the big screen, all three of them incredible movies about newspapers and publishing (they're on DVD, at least). Muller did a fantastic enough job picking the films last year with titles like Gun Crazy, The 3rd Voice, and The Face Behind the Mask, but by this year offering a cinematic salve for the struggling print newspaper business, he’s shown acumen and heart. The Noir City Film Fest is a treasure; here’s to next year.
I heard about Helvetica last year from a friend of mine who’s a graphic designer in New York—he was excited about it even before it came out. Since then, two more graphic designer friends of mine, including Jackie at the Bohemian, have sang its praises. I finally watched it last night, and no matter what your line of work or your level of interest in design, I hereby and totally recommend it.A film about a font might sound pretty dull. It’s not. Through interviews with over 20 design experts and with lots of montages revealing Helvetica’s omnipresent usage, the film charts the 50-year life of the most popular font in the world. You go to the factory where Helvetica was born, you are shown why it works, scientifically, as the perfect font, and you drink in its massive cultural impact.The best part is that just when you start getting sick of hearing how incredible and wonderful Helvetica is, the film brings on the haters—and they’re just as convincing. Helvetica is the font of nothing, they say; it represents conformity and blankness and corporate culture. One graphic designer goes so far as to blame Helvetica for the Vietnam war.Watching this film will change the way you look at the world, if even only for a day or two. The interviews are astounding; it’s fascinating what kinds of wild corollaries emerge when professionals start talking about their craft. Helvetica is full of those moments: incredible insight into something that most of us rarely, if ever, think about at all.It’s got a great soundtrack, too, courtesy of these guys.
A new box set of four later Godard films shows that the French director still poses a riddle"The legendary ‘French New Wave’ director" helpfully says the cover of the new Jean-Luc Godard Box Set (three discs; $34.98; Lionsgate).
Oh, that Godard. Here are four beautiful films from 1982–93; each one as intractable as the Rock of Gibraltar. Hélas Pour Moi (Oh, Woe Is Me) is the title of the most recent effort (1993), but it could fit the entire collection. The disillusioned director, plagued by questions of the death of cinema and the death of God, arranges his figures for the best lighting and indulges his love for rhetoric and classical music.Passion (1982) is the glossiest film in the set. It counterpoints the oppressed workers in a small French town with the frustrations of a Polish film director (Jerzy Radziwilowicz)—himself just an ordered-around employee, distracted by news of the Solidarity movement in his native country. This director is immersed—or rather, enchained—in a breast-heavy but otherwise useless movie that seems to be one long tableau vivant. Godard knows well the swoon of the culture vulture when seeing masterworks by Goya and others restaged by girls who seem to have escaped the Folies Bergère. Outwitting that reaction is the essence of this movie’s wit.
The other Raoul Coutard–shot film in this collection is arguably the most rewarding: 1983’s Prénom: Carmen, a sexually explicit/postmodern/modern-dress restaging of the fatal coupling of a thieving harlot (a musky Maruschka Detmers) and a callow soldier, who are linked after a ridiculously aestheticized, comic yet cool bank robbery. Here are nods to different versions of the story, from Bizet to Otto Preminger; essential to the film is the idea of the word "perhaps" as the most sexually fraught word a woman can utter. Meanwhile, the cranky filmmaker Uncle Jean (Godard himself) malingers in a hospital, trying to keep his hands clean of the whole affair.Detective (1985) is something I should like to see a few more times before weighing in on it. At first view, it seemed unusually slack, unusually cryptic and mostly there to record Godard’s growing realization that home video might displace cinema. (Worse, the master cinematographer Raoul Coutard is missing in action.)Hélas Pour Moi is about God, who loves us and kills us. A vaguely Apollonian deity (Gerard Depardieu) descends on Earth to seduce a somewhat plain but faithful married woman. A demiurge? God himself? "Looking at the invisible is exhausting," says a female commentator, and one can rely only on the visible here: the faces and shapes of women in doorways, windows and flare of light. Godard discovers new ways to display women (such as the contortionist serving a cup of coffee in Passion).
This collection—sometimes sublime, sometimes infuriating, sometimes enlightening, sometimes didactic—includes a 30-minute documentary, Jean-Luc Godard: A Riddle Wrapped in an Engima by Gidion Philips. The commentators do an agile job explaining the director’s methods, if not meaning. Who can? Richard von Busack