Frenchman Olivier Assayas has been among
the most consistently interesting filmmakers of the past decade.
His breakthrough film, 1994’s "Cold Water," introduced grateful audiences to luminous actress Virginie Ledoyen. In 1996, his moviemaking spoof "Irma Vep" introduced him to his now ex-wife, Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung. His last three films have been astonishingly varied: 1998’s "Late August Early September," a serious study of adrift 20-somethings; the beautifully photographed, three-hour literary epic, 2000’s "Les Destinees"; and 2002’s cyberthriller "demonlover."
It goes without saying that Assayas’ cinematic curiosity knows no bounds.
His newest film, "Clear," starring Cheung, premieres this fall at various festivals. And a new BAMCinematek series, "I Can Hear the Guitar: Selected by Olivier Assayas" (Aug. 26-Sept. 16) shows he’s as intrigued by others’ movies as by his own.
The 16 films in the series represent Assayas’ thinking of how music informs movies. As anybody who’s seen his films knows - especially the dynamic use of rock music on the soundtracks of "Cold Water," "Irma Vep" and "demonlover" - Assayas has a playfully serious attitude toward music in movies, utilizing it in ways that cement an emotional bond with his audience. (Even Guillaume Lekeu’s chamber music during "Les Destinees" is fraught with dramatic meaning: Lekeu died in 1894 at age 24.)
The series title comes from the movie "I No Longer Hear the Guitar," directed by Philippe Garrel based on his relationship with Nico, the longtime Andy Warhol acolyte. Assayas considers Garrel to be a true cinematic poet, and his tribute to him is the witty gloss on Garrel’s title.
Opening the series on Aug. 26 is a double feature of ’60s avant-garde cinema: Kenneth Anger’s infamous "Scorpio Rising" (1963) and Warhol’s "Vinyl" (1965), both prime examples of counter-culture moviemaking and, to Assayas, highlighted by musical soundtracks deeply interwoven into that sub-cultural aesthetic.
In the late ’70s, when punk music quickly changed the landscape - and sound - of rock music, and, by extension, pop culture, several directors made low-budget, shoestring movies that corresponded to the punk aesthetic, according to Assayas, who had wondered at that time whether moviemaking could move along the same plane as music’s punkish anarchy.
Assayas found his answer in films made by three directors: John Carpenter’s "Assault on Precinct 13" (1976; Aug. 27), David Cronenberg’s "Videodrome" (1982; Aug. 29) and a double-bill from horror master Wes Craven - 1972’s "Last House on the Left" and 1977’s "The Hills Have Eyes" (Aug. 28). When Assayas began writing for the influential French film journal, "Cahiers du Cinema," he was among the only writers touting "Videodrome" as an entirely new - and welcome - direction for movies to move toward.
Since the brief explosion that was punk was so influential, it makes sense that Assayas would choose a film that touches on that era directly: 1980’s "Rude Boy" (Sept. 4), from director John Hazan, features The Clash on the soundtrack and in concert footage. "Rude Boy" also stars actor Ray Gange as the eponymous roadie; in its intermingling of staged footage and actual music-making, "Rude Boy" shares an unlikely kinship with Jean-Luc Godard’s utterly bizarre document, 1968’s "One Plus One" (Aug. 30).
Also known as "Sympathy for the Devil," Godard’s agit-prop relic of the bygone late ’60s juxtaposes the Rolling Stones rehearsing their now-classic anthem with fictional scenes of Marxist revolutionaries led by Godard’s then-wife, actress Anne Wiazemsky. Assayas remembered "One Plus One" vividly as a film that marked precisely a distinct moment in time, and although it has become considerably dated (as have most Godard works from this era), it remains a valuable historical document.
Another forgotten film that’s a vivid snapshot of a specific time and place is Bertoglio’s "Downtown 81," which closes the series on Sept. 16. Starring artist Jean-Michael Basquiat as himself in a surrealist "day in the life" and featuring a cameo by Debbie Harry of Blondie fame, "Downtown 81" is a colorful journey back in time to the bustling, "new wave" era East Village.
A trio of world-class directors rounds out Assayas’ series: Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and Assayas himself. Scorsese’s 1995 "Casino" (Sept. 6), like his previous mob movie "GoodFellas," nearly overdoses on the dozens of pop and rock songs on the soundtrack, which Assayas approvingly calls "[Scorsese’s] personal jukebox." Lynch’s "Blue Velvet" (1986; Sept. 13) is infamous for its perverse use of Roy Orbison’s hit "In Dreams," but Assayas also points out Lynch’s influential sound design, which blends music, effects and natural sounds into a sinister and creepy multi-layered montage.
Finally, Assayas’ "Cold Water" (Sept. 3) is a disturbing study of alienated youth that remains the director’s most successful blending of music with visual imagery. It’s a perfect choice for this series, whether or not it was made by the "selector" himself.
Additional films in the series include: Monte Hellman’s "Two Lane Blacktop (1971; Aug. 31), Harmony Korine’s "Gummo" (1997; Sept. 2), James William Guercio’s "Electra Glide in Blue" (1973; Sept. 7) and Richard Sarafian’s "Vanishing Point" (1971; Sept. 14).
"I Can Hear the Guitar: Selected by Olivier Assayas" plays at the BAMCinematek (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene) Aug. 26-Sept. 16. Tickets are $10, and $6 for seniors and students with a valid ID. For screening times, call (718) 636-4100 or visit the Web site at www.bam.org.