Goodbye to Language
Jean-Luc Godard's latest free-form essay film may be, more than anything else, a documentary of a restless mind.
Q. When you reviewed "Before Sunrise" in 1995, you got a response from a man named Daryl, who, inspired by the film, went out and had a similar experience, and met a woman named Jessica. Now, nine years later, we have a sequel named "Before Sunset." Have you heard what happened to them? Rob Kelly, Marlton, N.J.
A. In May 1995, Daryl Enfield wrote me this heart-rending letter:
"I recently saw the movie 'Before Sunrise,' where Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy meet each other on a train, start talking, and end up spending the night walking around Vienna, Austria. Caught up in the romance of it all, I boarded a train from Philly to Charlottesville, Va. (I had to go there, anyway). On the train I met a woman dressed exactly like Julie Delpy and about as beautiful. So began a rather romantic trip that began with her asking me to come to Atlanta with her and ended with my return to law school two days later.
"But now the story takes an interesting twist, and could probably be called 'After Sunrise.' Since I had missed some school, I felt the need to explain to a professor where I had been. Unfortunately, I was too embarrassed to relate the full details, so I informed him I was sick. Two weeks later I was asked to leave the school for lying to a professor. My legal career is probably now over."
At the time, I talked with Enfield, with the woman named Jessica, and Alison Kitch, one of his law professors at Washington and Lee University, who told me: "I am quite sympathetic with what happened to him. But he indeed broke the rules. He got thrown out for doing what the honors book says you will be thrown out for: He lied. If he had only told his professor he missed class because he met a young woman on a train and spent two days with her in Atlanta, he might have gotten a bad grade, but he wouldn't have been thrown out of school."
Now it is 2004 and Hawke and Delpy have co-written and starred in Richard Linklater's "Before Sunset." I Googled the hapless Enfield, but found no trace of him. Daryl, if you hear about this item, can you tell us the rest of the story?
Q. In your recent "Great Movies" review of Jacques Tati's "Playtime" you cite Noel Burch as observing, "the film has to be seen not only several times, but from several different points in the theater to be appreciated fully."
At the Seattle International Film Festival screening of "Playtime" recently, the presenter told this anecdote: Upon the release of "Playtime," Tati wanted the audience to experience the film as a community and to bring all of their viewpoints (both mental and geographical from within the theater) to the table. So he encouraged audience members to shout out curious visual details and actions as they saw them. Erik Hustad, Issaquah, Wash.
A. American audiences have been doing that for years.
Q. Your interview with Vincent Gallo and his recent film was enlightening. Thank you for not holding grudges before taking the time to find out the truth, and giving second chances to films and to people. I was going to go see the film anyway, but now am able to be excited rather than lower my expectations. Phillip Kelly, Studio City, Calif.
A. The difference between the film that played at Cannes and "The Brown Bunny" after 26 minutes of cuts is astonishing, and could be used in film classes as an example of editing being used to find the good film within a bad one.
Q. In "The Three Musketeers," the new made-for-DVD animated feature from Walt Disney Productions starring Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Donald Duck, Goofy falls in love with Clarabelle the Cow. Which leads me to wonder: Is this the first interspecies romance ever depicted in a Disney cartoon? Joe Leydon, Houston
A. Few people know more about animated characters and even their sex lives than my friend and colleague Leonard Maltin, who responds: "The first thing that comes to mind is Donald Duck's aggressive flirting with human bathing beauties in 'The Three Caballeros.' For the most part, Disney kept the animal species together, as nature intended, but the very same Clarabelle Cow kept company for years with Horace Horsecollar -- a horse -- which no one ever seemed to question!"
Q. You said once that movies must not be judged by the politics behind them, and you mentioned "The Birth of a Nation" and "Triumph of the Will" as examples. I don't think that any human being can apply that concept 100 percent. Let's imagine a masterpiece directed by a radical terrorist (a modern issue that we can relate to, unlike racism in the first half of the 20th century). Now, can you really be fully neutral? I'd love to say yes, I'd love to play the role of fair critic, but I don't think it's in our nature, even if we say it is. Hazim Ibrahim, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
A. I do in fact sometimes judge movies by the politics behind them, but try to make my politics clear when I do so -- as in my review of "Fahrenheit 9/11." Remaining neutral is not the task of a critic, who is expected to take a position.
I think what I was trying to say is that a work of art can express artistic greatness, even if it is in the service of a cause one despises. "Triumph of the Will" exalts Nazism, but it also helps us to understand how Hitler rose to power through the exploitation of nationalistic propaganda. And it helps show us how documentary films can involve events that were staged for the screen, or exist only on the screen.
Q. I was perusing a Web site that gives estimates on when DVDs will be released, and I noticed with puzzlement what they claim is your position on Disney's decision to not release the controversial film "Song of the South." They claim you are in favor of keeping it shelved. Is that true? You've spoken of the value of "Birth of a Nation," despite its distasteful overtones; what is the difference between that film and "Song of the South"? Alex Mayo, Cincinnati
A. Well, one difference is that "Birth of a Nation" is incomparably more vile and blatant in its racism. Disney has made a corporate decision to hold "Song of the South" from release because of its stereotyping of some of the African-American characters, and I have expressed sympathy with that position because the film is directed primarily toward children who see films literally. I would not want to be an African-American child at a screening of the film, but I would support its screening for mature audiences.
Q. I read somewhere that you are working on compiling a database of all your movie reviews, even pre-1985. There are tons of older reviews of yours that people would like to be able to reference. Is this project still in the works?Steven Frenda, New York City
A. The in-progress Web site www.rogerebert.com will include my reviews back to 1967, plus a searchable Answer Man database, all the Great Movies, lots of interviews, festival coverage and photographs. We're aiming for a mid-September launch.
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