Showing posts with label Ernst Lubitsch. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ernst Lubitsch. Show all posts

Friday, 7 March 2014

Thinking about directors

Four years ago I wrote a blog post called On Authorship - or Auteurship but I was never completely satisfied with it, and as my thoughts on the subject has evolved since then I have now written a new piece, which incorporates parts of the old piece. It is primarily aimed at students:

When the first films were made at the end of the 19th-, beginning of the 20th century it was no secret who made them. The brothers Lumière for example, or Georges Méliès. As cinema evolved and developed the director became more and more important and by the 1910s some directors were global phenomenon such as D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, Fred Niblo, Cecil B. DeMille and Victor Sjöström, and it has been like that ever since. In the 1920s Ernst Lubitsch had become such a superstar that he was invited to the White House and had songs written about him. He was celebrated and influential in the US, Europe and East Asia. This background is important for this discussion since it shows that the history of directors and the history of cinema run parallel with each other. It is not an accident that the director has almost always been singled out as the most important person on the set. But they of course do not work in isolation.

The idea of the director as auteur, as the creative force behind the film, has often been criticised, even ridiculed. Pauline Kael was one who was skeptical. In the 1970s and 1980s it was customary to dismiss the director, any author, for ideological reasons. Some well-known examples of such views are Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Stephen Heath. But these efforts were never all that satisfying or successful. Films are made by living, breathing individuals with ideas, beliefs and dreams and although these individuals work with restrictions (financial, cultural, political, personal) they still impact the films that they make, and the books that they write. No film is completely unique, but no film is completely like another film either, and the differences matter. Any work of art, such as a film, is the result of the combining forces of an artist's personal agency and the context in which the artist works, just as Foucault's writings are the combination of his own beliefs and the context in which he was working. He is firmly embedded in a French post-war academic culture. So looking at the auteur/artist/author must not mean neglecting context or social circumstances; in good auteur criticism/scholarship discussing the relationship between the author and her context is key. But since one person's engagement with her surroundings and context is different from that of another person, the art works will be different too. Anthony Mann's films are easily distinguished from Budd Boetticher's, just as Picasso is different from Braque. A work of art is an expression of the particular artist's engagement with the particular context in which she finds herself, and that is true for painters, writers and directors alike, if they have that interest. Emphasising the author can also be a progressive, political act. Bringing forward women filmmakers and filmmakers from minorities and non-Western regions is an important part of auteur studies.

The extraordinary ending of Ride Lonesome (Boetticher 1959)

Some think that "auteur" is synonymous with "a good director", with particularly talented directors and "art cinema", but that is not satisfactory. It is the consistencies of the director's body of work, not the quality of it, that matters here. Auteurism is not about giving medals and awards, it is empiric work. Being called an auteur is sometimes seen as a badge of honour, a club for the elite, but that is not a good way of going about it. The way that deep focus has been seen as the exclusive style of certain filmmakers (Jean Renoir, Orson Welles and William Wyler) rather than accurately seen as a common tool used by many filmmakers, good or bad, all throughout film history, is a good example of how ideas of auteurs as exceptional can lead to wrong and ahistorical assumptions. (See my earlier post on deep focus.)

Another assumption is that there is an "auteur theory". There is not, and never has been. Even Andrew Sarris, who did unfortunately use that phrase, said almost simultaneously that it was not a theory. “[u]ltimately the auteur theory is not so much a theory as an attitude.” he wrote in The American Cinema: Directors and Directions (1968). It should preferably be regarded as an approach, one among many, of looking at films where a given film is discussed in the context of the film's director's other films. What are Hou Hsiao-hsien's trademarks, how does he view the world, and how has his style and his themes evolved through his career? How does Three Times (2005) compare to Café Lumière (2003) and Millennium Mambo (2001), and are they different from A City of Sadness (1989), and if different, how? These are questions that auteurism are concerned with, and they are the same questions that critics and scholars asked themselves in the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s as well, about Fritz Lang or John Ford and many others. And before there was cinema, these questions were asked about writers and painters. For some it may seem uninteresting or unnecessary, but that does not make it wrong or romantic. Barthes himself wrote loving tributes to several auteurs, not least Michelangelo Antonioni.

 Café Lumière (Hou Hsiao-hsien 2003)

One of the most persistent arguments against auteurs is that cinema is a collaborative art form. Although that is true it is not the final word, a case-by-case approach is needed here. There are editors and cinematographers and composers and actors who are very important and can have a profound influence on a film, but they all do just their part. The directors are (in most cases) the only ones involved in the whole process and the director is also usually the one to whom the others answer. They usually write the scripts and if they have not written the original script they almost always rewrite it, officially or unofficially. The director is also the only one who is concerned with both the look and the sound of the film, with camera angles, editing, decor, colour, effects and so on. And, of course, the only one who directs the actors. There are exceptions. Some producers, such as David O. Selznick, have been intimately involved with all aspects of many of the films they have been producing, and some writers, like Carl Mayer in Weimar Germany, take on responsibilities that are usually the director's. Some films can have two or more auteurs of distinction. For example The Social Network (2010) has two, director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin, and it does not feel like they are really compatible. Midnight (1939) should be approached both as an important part of Billy Wilder's oeuvre (he wrote it together with Charles Brackett) and of Mitchell Leisen's oeuvre, who directed it. Another point worth making is that whether a director has a contract with a studio or not does not matter within auteur studies. Ingmar Bergman (who worked for SF most of his life) is not less of an auteur than somebody using their own digital camera and their own money. Making very personal films, like Bergman or John Ford or Andrei Tarkovsky, is more a question of integrity, ambition and judgement than whether you have a contract or not. Even in pre-1960s Hollywood many filmmakers had contracts that gave them comprehensive creative control, none more so than Lubitsch when he came to Hollywood in the early 1920s. (It is often said that Orson Welles was given unprecedented creative control when he made Citizen Kane (1941) but that is not the case. Creative control yes, but not in a unique way.) Ultimately, arguments against auteurs are best answered by pointing at the films. If there are strong links between the films of a particular filmmaker, and if those films are different from those by other filmmakers, then that is what matters.

Directors are often called auteurs as if the words were synonymous, but they are not. All directors are not auteurs, whether someone is is revealed through studying the films. But most well-known filmmakers, regardless if they are contemporary or from earlier days, are auteurs after all, be they from Iran, Brazil or working in Hollywood. Yet just calling somebody an auteur is not enough, further elaborations are needed. There are different kinds of auteurs. For example, one approach I have been developing is to distinguish between external and internal auteurs. An external auteur is somebody who just makes the films, with thematic and stylistic consistencies, but without having any personal presence in them. An internal auteur is somebody who not only makes the films but appears in them as well, and/or makes explicit autobiographical films, in short somebody whose personal presence is experienced directly. Charlie Chaplin, Hasse Ekman, Chantal Akerman, Ingmar Bergman, Clint Eastwood, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut are some obvious examples.

Hasse Ekman in The Banquet (1948), which he also wrote, directed and co-produced.

Howard Hawks might also be considered an internal auteur, and in many ways an excellent example of the whole concept of auteurs. In all his films certain recurring characters, scenes, lines of dialogue, stylistic ideas, ethical discussion, ideas about life and love and gender, are to be found (and his voice). They are easy to recognise. He also was a freelancer, and often his own producer. But just because Hawks is an auteur does not mean that he alone has contributed to his films. There were indisputable contributions from writers such as Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, Ben Hecht, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway; cinematographers like Joseph Walker and Russell Harlan; actors like Walter Brennan, Lauren Bacall, Cary Grant, John Wayne, among others, and his wife (for a few years) Nancy Keith, aka "Slim". But the strongest input, and the special particularity that separates a film by Hawks from all other films made, comes from Hawks himself. Not least since he frequently got the inspiration for the films from his personal experiences and his life. Any film by Hawks is to some extent about him, he is embodied in them.

Auteur studies is empirical work and it requires a lot of effort to figure out who is responsible for what in a given film. Only after seeing most, if not all, of a director's films is it possible to tell whether he or she was an auteur, and in addition seeing films made by other contemporary directors, and other films written by the writers this director worked with, and other films shot by the cinematographers this director worked with, and so on and so forth. There are also useful questions to help in the research, such as:

How does the director use music?
Are there particular recurring characters?
Are there visual motifs that figure throughout the director's oeuvre?
Does the director have a special view of space, or use space in a specific way?
Can any specific views on questions about death and love be found?
Are there certain words or expressions that return in different films?
If a director is working for a particular studio (like Paramount or UFA or Toho or SF), how does the style of his films compare to the films of that studio in general.

The films in themselves are not enough either but interviews, biographies, on-set reporting and history overviews are also essential tools for getting to the bottom of the issue. But most important is still looking at the films.

Chocolat (Claire Denis 1988)

But it is not only hard work. Watching the films of a particular director, seeing how his or her films belong to each other, how they seem to be engaged in conversations with each other, to notice how Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks 1939) is intimately connected to his Hatari! (1962), how Nicole Holofcener's Lovely & Amazing (2001) and Enough Said (2013) are dealing with similar people with similar problems yet with different emphasises and solutions, is, ultimately, the joy of auteurism, besides its scholarly usefulness.

---------------------------------------------------
A related posts about cinematographers.

2014-03-12. I always forget to include references. Here are some articles/essays:
Pauline Kael: Circles and Squares
Roland Barthes: The Death of the Author
Roland Barthes: Cher Antonioni
Michel Foucault: What is an Author?
As a bonus, a contemporary, nuanced text by James Naremore: Authorship,, Auteurism, and Cultural Politics.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

National, transnational and a-national cinema

Czech New Wave, French New Wave, New Australian Cinema. To use the nation as an organising principle when talking about films and film history is to some extent straightforward and uncomplicated. Writing a book about the film history of Chile is a perfectly legitimate subject. Nations and nationality clearly matters. But how and when is not always clear and it is easy to become lazy.

The nation is an external definition we use when discussing films, it does not come from the films in themselves, such as colour or camera movements. Sometimes we are not even aware of a film's nationality. But we run the risk of being essentialistic, when the nation is deemed to be the cause and effect of the style, theme and character of a given film. Capricious Summer (Rozmarné léto1968) is like it is because it is a Czech film. Or Bergman's films are said to be like they are because they are Swedish, or Scandinavian. But could not similar films have been made in any other national context? Does the perceived bleakness and austerity of Bergman's films make them more Swedish than films that are lightweight and colourful? If the answer is yes to the first question and no to the second, than how central is Bergman's alleged Swedishness? To be precise, is there anything other than the political borders that make us talk of national cinemas. Does a nation have a specific soul that comes across in the films made in that nation? It is very common to hear people say "Well, that film doesn't capture the true Sweden (or Scotland, or Senegal, or South Korea and so on)." as if there was such a truth to be captured. I do not believe there is, and even if there was such a truth, who would to decide what it is? A governmental committee? A vote among the readers of a popular tabloid?

An additional question is which nation we are talking about. When (self-defined) Algerians make films in France about Algerians subjects, or Greeks in Australia, should they be discussed as part of French and Australian cinema, or Algerian and Greek, or both, or neither? There are no obvious answers to these questions, but as long as the reason for one view being used over the other is clearly spelt out then that problem can be contained. Also, when a state has several nations within its borders, placing all films made in that state under one nation-heading becomes politically (in-)sensitive. My previous post about Peter Weir mentioned Green Card (1990). It is often called an American film but it is actually a French/Australian co-production, with an Australian crew, set in New York, with a French leading actor and an American leading actress. If discussing it in a national context, which context should we choose? But there is another form of nationalism, the now so popular term transnationalism, which is more suitable when discussing Green Card, especially since the theme of that film concerns migration, immigration and different nationalities.  Even though it has become popular in academic circles to talk about transnational cinema the word in itself does not signify anything important, it is just a tool. Possibly most films are transnational, in that they have cast members from different countries, crew members from different countries, are co-productions, are bilingual, are shot in different countries, and so on. Whether or not the transnational aspect is interesting or relevant depends on the specific case. In the 1940s and 1950s a number of Swedish/Norwegian co-productions were made, shot in two versions, one in Swedish and one in Norwegian. Here it would be interesting to analyse the twin-productions and see to what extent the different versions were tweaked to become more Swedish and Norwegian, or if they were identical besides the language spoken.

Another interesting topic is the transnational-ness of Hollywood blockbusters, and how they, in order to be marketable all over the world, in different ways try to engage with the world outside the US. That could involve shooting on location in China and/or having a multi-ethnic cast and/or downplaying differences between the US and other countries. The examples I gave above, of films by Algerians in France and Greeks in Australia, could be discussed as transnational rather than national. In my thesis on Hasse Ekman I also write about Ernst Lubitsch. Both as an inspiration for Ekman but also as an interesting transnational filmmaker. Lubitsch was born in Germany, this is where he made his first films, and then in the early 1920s he moved to Hollywood. But only in person. Most of his films were still set in Europe, sprinkled across the continent and Britain, and sometimes they take place in some kind of Mitteleuropa fantasy. These films are often based on plays and stories of European origins. To establish whether the themes and messages of these films are American, German, Polish, French, British and/or Hungarian would require some deep studies of nationhood and nationality and would still probably only lead to reductiveness and simplifications without having made us any the wiser. In the end, maybe their nationality is primarily Lubitschland. As Dilys Powell pointed out in the early 1940s, questions of authorship and nationality are intimately linked, but so is authorship and transnationalism. Weir, Phillip Noyce, Ang Lee, Claire Denis and Hou Hsiao-Hsien are some current filmmakers where transnationalism becomes a central part of their authorship.  

But transnationalism does not automatically mean that the national aspects disappeas. It is often a case of competing national stories in the films, rather than a genuine blending of them, or disappearance of them. However, when nationality ceases to matter, I would like to use the term a-national cinemaFilms in which the national setting is of no importance, films where the story might have taken place anywhere, or possibly nowhere. Many films might be said to fit this category. The fact that they are made in a particular country is of course unquestionable, but if that country does not matter, neither story-wise nor theme-wise or otherwise, then I would suggest they are a-national. In my thesis I am arguing that many of Hasse Ekman's films can be called a-national. That is also connected with his distinct (positive) urbanity, which makes him somewhat unusual in Swedish cinema. There are no hymns to the Swedish countryside or the Stockholm archipelago, which otherwise tends to be a central feature of a majority of Swedish films, including several of Bergman's films. But that is a discussion for a later post.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Tintin

The early Tintin albums were inspired by silent cinema, and they in turn inspired cinema. But all of Hergé's 23 proper Tintin albums, are should they be called graphic novels?, are very cinematic yet there have been few film versions. I myself have seen only one, the non-animated Tintin and the Blue Oranges (Tintin et les oranges bleues 1964), which is not based on any of the albums. I have also seen a TV-version, which was actually pretty good.

But I have never felt the need for any film adaptations. For me the albums have been enough, and I have been a Tintin fan since I was a young boy. I have read them in Swedish, English and French, and I even have an album in Japanese at home. I know them all very well, and I adore them. Especially the style, Hergé's ligne claire, which has become a very influential and easily recognisable style. Another thing about them is how they grew over time, developed in many different ways. Hergé changed when the world changed, both the global world and his own personal world, and the albums changed with him. First they were imaginative but rather crude, and in the case of Tintin in the Congo (Tintin au Congo 1931, re-edited colour version 1946) embarrassingly racist. Then came the middle period of such work as the anti-fascist King Ottokar's Sceptre (Le Sceptre d'Ottokar 1938, re-edited colour version 1947) and then the late masterpieces with the emotionally complex and beautifully illustrated Tintin in Tibet (Tintin au Tibet 1960) as the high point. That album, I think, is one of the greatest drawn art work of the 20th century. Other highlights are Blue Lotus (Le Lotus bleu 1936, re-edited colour version 1946), the album with which Hergé stopped being "just" a cartoonist and became an artist and storyteller, and the double feature The Seven Crystal Balls (Les 7 boules de cristal 1948) and Prisoners of the Sun (Le Temple du soleil 1949).
Now Steven Spielberg's film The Adventures of Tintin is here, and I saw it yesterday. Spielberg has been a fan of Tintin for several decades and got the rights from Hergé's, or to use his proper name Georges Remi's, wife in 1983, after Remi had died. Remi liked Spielberg's films and was happy for him to have the rights. But it has taken a long time before anything came of it.

I liked the film. For one thing it looks great, it is witty and it got a very strong drive. But somehow what is good about the film is also a problem. Spielberg has such a strong personality as a filmmaker, his style is easily recognisable and forceful and it all but negates Hergé's presence. What I mean is that although based on two albums there is very little left of the feel, texture and style of Tintin, whereas almost every shot clearly signals Spielberg's presence. It is not so much an adaptation as an appropriation. These means that there is a strong sense of wonder, and dazzling displays of visual imaginations, Spielberg at the top of his game. But there is also a certain breathlessness to the film, which I feel is a bit inappropriate. Hergé's albums are not breathless, they are more measured. Also, I did not like John Williams music, and there was too much of it at that. One thing that has got lost altogether is the subconscious level. Hergé filled his albums with hallucinations, dreams and nightmares, elements which he sometimes took from his own dark secrets. But the film is all surface.

They have taken the album The Secret of the Unicorn (Le Secret de la Licorne 1943) and blended it with The Crab With the Golden Claws (Le Crabe aux pinces d'or 1941, 1943). They are not related, but since they have taken so very little from The Crab..., I suppose they just wanted that album's first meeting of Tintin and Haddock . But when I saw the film and the traitorous first mate Allan appeared I thought, almost angrily, "Hey, he's not supposed to be in this adventure!" Then I realised what they had done and calmed down. It also says something about the quality of the film that I immediately recognised Allan, even though I was not expecting him to be there.

Of the new things that has been added to the film (but which are not in any album) a car chase, involving a hawk, a tank and a collapsing damn, was particularly breathtaking, even though they took place in a stereotypical fantasy of a Middle East kingdom. But the best part of the film was the opening, after the title sequence. It takes place on a square where there is a market, and a man is drawing a picture of somebody else. But we do not see the faces of either man. When the faces are revealed we see that it is Georges Remi drawing Tintin. I thought it was a nice gesture.

So there it is. A meeting between two of the most successful makers of popular art in the 20th century, Hergé and Spielberg (and Peter Jackson on the side), has resulted in a film which is both a dazzling piece of film, and a disappointment. It actually ties in well with what I wrote not long ago about adaptations. It is also fun to consider which other filmmaker's would have been suitable. A version of The Castafiore Emerald (Les Bijoux de la Castafiore 1963) by Ernst Lubitsch or perhaps even by Eric Rohmer would have been something. A Michael Mann version of The Calculus Affair (L'Affaire Tournesol 1956) would be interesting as well. But the beauty of the albums is still unsurpassed.

--------------------------------------------

There is a very good documentary about Tintin and Hergé called Tintin et Moi (Anders Ostergaard, 2003). Not sure of its availability but look for it, it is worth the effort.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Carole Lombard

Since it is Carole Lombard's birthday I'll take the opportunity to post some clips. She was one of the greatest of comediennes, even though she could do drama as well. She had a very interesting voice, and a slightly otherworldly allure. She was made for screwball comedy, perhaps because she was a bit of a screwball herself. It is a sad thing that she died as young as 33 (in a plane crash in the winter of 1942), but she had at least eight good years, when she became the highest paid female star in Hollywood. Her big break came in 1934 when she starred in the milestone masterpiece Twentieth Century. It was Howard Hawks's first screwball comedy (and one of my top ten favourite films), and it is pure anarchy from start to finish.

One of her more peculiar films is Swing High, Swing Low (1937). In it she plays a girl on a cruise ship who meets a man in Panama and stays there with him. So far it is a musical comedy, with the man (played by Fred MacMurray) being a trumpet player. When he gets a job in New York the tone of the film shifts dramatically. She gets more and more lonely in Panama while he is living a grand life in the big city, and forgets to write to her. Finally she follows him there, and telegraphs for him to meet her in the harbour. He isn't there. She goes to a hotel, and tries to locate him but nobody knows where he is. She gets the number to a woman whom he performs with and calls her. He answers, but doesn't recognise her voice. So she stands in the dark in the hotel room and whispers, panic stricken, to herself "What shall I do now?" It is a heartbreaking scene, beautifully shot and acted, as in a film by Max Ophüls, and it captures the full range of her talents.

That one was directed by Mitchell Leisen, and he also directed Lombard and MacMurray in Hands Across the Table (1935), another great film, and a tender love story. It might be Leisen's best. Great is also the biting satire Nothing Sacred (1937), scripted, like Twentieth Century, by Ben Hecht, and directed by William Wellman. Her greatest hit was perhaps My Man Godfrey (1936). She also did a comedy with Alfred Hitchcock, Mr and Mrs' Smith (1941), but I've never warmed to it for some reason. Then she made her final film, which was released after her death, To Be or Not To Be, Ernst Lubitsch's brave and magnificent satire of Nazism. It shows her in all her glory and, as in Twentieth Century, she plays a headstrong actress.

But now let's look at some clips. It was as usual tricky to find my favourite parts, so there's considerably less than I had hoped...

The first one is from To Be or Not To Be, an illicit scene between Lombard and Robert Stack. This one I love.



Here's a dance number between her and George Raft, from Bolero (1934). (The dance begins after about a minute.)



And here's the whole of Nothing Sacred, if you've got 80 minutes to spare.



And here's another one from To Be or Not To Be, a film in which nothing is what it seems to be.



2011-10-08 I noticed a few misplaced words and a missing title so I've updated it just a bit.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Some recommended readings (1)

The autumn semester has begun (or will soon begin, depending on where you are in the world) so this might be a good opportunity to suggest some film books that are well worth reading, and even to own, for students as well as anybody else. The five books I've chosen today are in different ways introductory overviews of cinema, history as well as theory, but they're more than that. They are inquisitive, informative and intelligent, in short, indispensable.

The World in a Frame by Leo Braudy
Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell
The Story of Film by Mark Cousins
Film as Film by V.F. Perkins
Cinemas of the Mind by Nicolas Tredell

Then I'd like to recommend a book which isn't about cinema but is in keeping with the previous post on westerns and the West. A poignant, funny and sincere book: Sacagawea's Nickname - Essays on the American West by Larry McMurtry

Here's are also links to three good essays about various aspects of cinema. 

Stephen Prince's early attempt to formulate a theory about digital cinema:

http://fdm.ucsc.edu/~landrews/film178w09/Film_178_THE_RECONSTRUCTED_IMAGE_files/True%20Lies-%20Perceptual%20Realism.pdf

Luc Moullet's critic of Gilles Deleuze's Cinema Book 1 and 2:


David Kalat about Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown (1946):


Happy readings!



Monday, 11 July 2011

You've Got Mail and Nora Ephron

One reason You've Got Mail (1998) is so good is because it works on several levels.

It can be enjoyed as a typical romantic comedy.

It can be enjoyed as an essential part of Nora Ephron's oeuvre as an auteur. It has got the Ephron-esque combination of quirkiness and melancholia and it is rich with her typical motifs, such as the daily presence of dead loved ones and a strong connection between two people who have never met (compare it with Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and Julie & Julia (2009) for example). It is also filled with links, puns and references to older films, besides being a remake of Lubitsch's magnificent The Shop Around the Corner (1940).

And it is also a good, mature sociological study of city life in an era of neoliberal policies and the corporisation of the city landscape. The changes are hard and uncomfortable, but unfortunately often inevitable, and after we've fought and lost against the force of time, we must mourn and move on.

You've Got Mail can be appreciated on each of these levels, independently of the others, should you so wish, but combined they make the film so much richer.

So have a look if you haven't seen it before. As an example, here's a good scene (that won't embed).

--------------------------------------------------
I've written about Nora Ephron before, with focus on Julie & Julia: http://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2009/10/nora-and-meryl.html


Monday, 15 February 2010

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Nora and Meryl

There are not that many directors working today who's new film I want to see the very minute it opens. But one of them is Nora Ephron, and last Saturday I saw her latest film Julie & Julia, which has now come to Scotland.

Admittedly, I haven't seen Lucky Numbers (2000), and not much particularly want to either, but Ephron has a certain style and tone which I find bewitching, and that includes Bewitched (2005), although very few people liked it. She's got a delicate touch, and she makes her characters and images glow. Never more so than Sleepless in Seattle (1993), which, more than a romantic comedy, is a film about grief and loss, which it handles intelligently and very moving. Michael (1996) and You've Got Mail (1998) are also very good. I honestly couldn't say if I prefer Lubitsch's earlier version (The Shop Around the Corner 1940) or Ephron's.

And now there's Julie & Julia, which tells the kind of story that is so ridiculous that it has to be based on a true story. Which it is. It's the story of Julia Child, the tall American woman who, after having worked as a spy during World War II (if you google her you'll get links to CIA), went to France with her diplomatic husband, took a cooking class and then wrote a book which changed the way Americans cook their food. And it's the story about Julie Powell, who in 2002 started a blog, writing about how she cooked herself through Julia Child's cook book. Now, to be honest, which of these two stories do you find most interesting? Me, I couldn't care less for Julie Powell's blogging. And even though Amy Adams is good in the role of Julie Powell, it's just not why I bought the ticket. I wanted to see Meryl Streep as Julia Child. And I was not disappointed. That part of the film was tender, witty, moving and delicious, and these days that has gone since I saw it, the feelings it awoke in me has stayed on.

It's in many ways a Nora Ephron film, just as it is a Meryl Streep film. The Ephron part is for instance the little gestures and hesitations that tells so much but are so quiet and brief, like when Julie Powell mumbles her delight and affection for her husband, or the first scene which implies that Julia Child can't have children. There's also the very Ephronian concept of the film, of a person's life, unbeknownst to him or her, touching someone else's, of having the main characters hardly or never meeting.

The Streep part is obviously her performance. It's a complete makeover yet again, so rich in body language and syntax it's uncanny, without ever going over the top. She becomes the person she's playing, and gives the role so much depth and nuance. It's brilliant.

Here's Stephanie Zacharek review in Salon. (Good as always.)

And here's the real Julia, guest at Letterman: