A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, May 26, 2017

Nostalghia (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1983)

Oleg Yankovskiy in Nostalghia
Just as he would venture into Sweden with the help of Ingmar Bergman's cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, Andrei Tarkovsky made his first film outside of Russia in Italy with the help of co-screenwriter Tonino Guerra, who had written screenplays for Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini, both of whom are spiritual presences in Nostalghia, just as Bergman would be in The Sacrifice (1986). Tarkovsky's deracination shows in both films, but especially in Nostalghia, in which he imports a damp Russian climate into the Mediterranean atmosphere of Italy. I find it more accessible, or more satisfying -- such words are really inadequate to one's experience of Tarkovsky -- than The Sacrifice because Tarkovsky doesn't take on anything so enormous as nuclear holocaust in Nostalghia. In its bare essence, Nostalghia is the story of a Russian poet, Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovskiy), in Italy to write the biography of an 18th-century Russian composer, who finds himself sinking deeper into depression until he encounters a madman named Domenico (Erland Josephson) who allows Andrei a moment of transcendence. Nostalghia is a film about fire and water. Domenico, who lives in a leaky ruin into which the rain continually drips, believes that he can save the world if he carries a lighted candle through the waters of the spa at Bagno Vignoni. The authorities, however, continually prevent him from even attempting the task. Eventually, Domenico becomes a mad prophet, preaching to a scattered audience of followers before he douses himself with gasoline and sets himself on fire. Andrei then sets out to complete Domenico's task, walking across the pool -- which has, however, been drained for a periodic cleaning -- with the candle and then collapsing. Tarkovsky films this scene in a single long take, during which the wind blows out Andrei's candle twice, forcing him to restart the task, before he finally accomplishes it. This is film as poetry, the product of a singular, remarkable sensibility. Tarkovsky was one of the last romantics, still willing to ascribe virtue to enthusiasm, to find wisdom in madness, to rail against our alienation from nature as profoundly as Wordsworth or Shelley or Blake ever did.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Informer (John Ford, 1935)

Time has not been kind to The Informer, though it was celebrated as a masterpiece at the time, and won four Academy Awards: John Ford for director, Victor McLaglen for best actor, Dudley Nichols for best screenplay, and Max Steiner for score.* Today, The Informer looks a little stiff and stagy and McLaglen's performance vastly overdone. The film invites comparison to much better manhunt films like Fritz Lang's M (1931) and especially Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947), which also takes the Irish revolution for its subject. Ford has a way of overstating things, such as the constant visions that Gypo Nolan (McLaglen) has of the "Wanted" poster that inspired him to inform against Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford). And the final scene in the church now feels impossibly mawkish: Frankie's mother (Una O'Connor), veiled and -- thanks to cinematographer Joseph H. August's lighting -- as beatific as a Raphael madonna, forgives Gypo, who then expires before a crucifix proclaiming, "Frankie! Your mother forgives me!" It has to be said, though, that The Informer is full of great energy, and some of the supporting performances, like J.M. Kerrigan's Terry, who sponges off of the newly flush Gypo, or May Boley as the madam of a Production Coded brothel, are vivid and colorful. McLaglen's performance lacks the kind of nuance that would help us see Gypo as more than just a drunken loudmouth with no moral compass, which would make the ending feel less unearned, but you can't take your eyes off of him even when you wish you could. Legend has it that Ford kept McLaglen liquored up throughout the film to get the performance he wanted, but there are many long takes and ensemble scenes that suggest to me that McLaglen was more in control of himself than the legend suggests.

*It also contributed to Oscar statistics: This was the first of Ford's record-setting Oscar wins as director. The others were for The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man (1952). (None of Ford's wins were for the genre with which is is most associated, the Western.) And Nichols became the first person to decline an Oscar: As a member of the Screen Writers Guild, Nichols was suspicious of the Academy because it had been founded in part as an attempt by the film industry to reduce the influence of unions. After the Academy began to disassociate itself from union-busting efforts, Nichols quietly accepted the award.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986)


I spent much of the day trying to think what to say about Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice that doesn't make me sound like an utter fool. The director is someone I admire, and his achievement in what was his last film, finished only months before his death, is in many ways extraordinary. But The Sacrifice leaves me cold and tempts me to sarcastic assessments like "art-house profundity," a rude and inadequate phrase that I might have used about the film if I didn't respect its maker so much. For The Sacrifice is unquestionably a visionary film, drawn from Tarkovsky's heart and soul. I just wish there were a little more brain holding heart and soul in check. Is it my habitual agnosticism that makes me bridle against the protagonist's quest for metaphysical certainty? The twentieth-century search for God produced masterworks like Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet (1955), Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Tarkovsky's own Andrei Rublev (1966), and, most appropriate in this context, Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957). The Bergman connection suggests itself because Tarkovsky made his film in Sweden, with Bergman's frequent leading man Erland Josephson and Bergman's cinematographer Sven Nykvist, in a location, Gotland, that resembles the island of Fårö, the location of many of Bergman's own films. But The Sacrifice seems to me to take some of the worst aspects of some of Bergman's films -- the rather histrionic treatment of people's search for faith in Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963) -- and intensify it. Precipitating the crisis of The Sacrifice with the threat of nuclear holocaust warps the film away from psychological truth into didacticism. One of the reasons Andrei Rublev succeeds is that, like The Seventh Seal, it is set in an age of faith. Both films depict the essential downside to spiritual certainty -- bigotry and fanaticism and a loss of essential humanity -- while balancing it with a portrayal of the rewards of faith: kindness and creativity. As I said about The Seventh Seal,  "Commentators have sometimes likened the plague that threatens the world of The Seventh Seal to the threat of nuclear annihilation, but I think that misses the point: For the medieval world, the Plague was a test of faith; for the modern world, the Bomb is a test of humanity." The Sacrifice, I think, misses that point. Moreover, I think Tarkovsky's style -- enigmatic, elliptical, deliberately obscure -- becomes a stumbling block in attempts to respond both emotionally and intellectually to the film. It even betrays a sympathetic critic like David Thomson into a distracting error, when he refers to Alexander's (Josephson) son, known in the film as "Little Man," as his grandson. By failing to make relationships among the characters more explicit -- Is Marta (Filippa Franzén) Alexander's daughter? What is her connection to the doctor, Victor (Sven Wollter)? -- Tarkovsky forces us to spend a lot of our attention on matters of simple identification, distracting us from what should be the central focus of the film. And what, exactly, is that? 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Odd Man Out (Carol Reed, 1947)

The collaboration of director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker on Odd Man Out is perhaps not as celebrated as the one on The Third Man (1949), but in some ways it's more impressive. The Third Man has a tighter screenplay and a location, postwar Vienna, that lent itself more readily to the kind of expressionistic atmosphere Krasker's images of it supply. Odd Man Out is a looser, more episodic story. As its title almost suggests, it's a kind of reworking of the Odyssey, the archetypal perilous-journey narrative. Reed made a decision at some point to treat the first part of the film, the planning and commission of the heist, in a conventionally realistic fashion and then gradually to shift into something more expressionistic, something that reveals the disintegrating state of the dying Johnny McQueen's mind. He needed an actor like James Mason, who could give Johnny the necessary charisma while still suggesting the character's damaged state of mind from the outset. But he also needed Krasker's ability to present actuality and then to transform it into something stranger than reality, to suggest the menace lurking in the mundane streets of Belfast and then to work with the baroquely sinister sets designed by Ralph W. Brinton and Roger K. Furse that include the ornate Four Winds Saloon (based on an actual Belfast pub but created in the studio) and the decaying Victorian residence of Shell (F.J. McCormick) and the mad painter Lukey (Robert Newton). We first begin to see the transition when Johnny experiences vertigo while riding through the streets of the city, but from the moment when the wounded Johnny takes cover in an abandoned air-raid shelter, where reality becomes indistinguishable from Johnny's fevered prison memories and other hallucinations, the film increasingly steps away from realism. Even the weather plays a role in subverting realism: The semi-conscious Johnny is left by Shell in an old bathtub in a lot filled with junk, including a statue of an angel whose nose seems to run after the rain starts to fall. Later, when rain has turned to snow, an icicle hangs from the drippy nose. The encounters with Belfast street kids are like meeting the children of Pandemonium. The cast, much of it recruited from Dublin's Abbey Theatre, is superb, including Kathleen Ryan, Cyril Cusack, Dan O'Herlihy, and Denis O'Dea. Robert Newton received pre-title second billing with Mason, which is certainly out of keeping with the size of his role, and there are those who find Newton's Lukey out of key with the less showy performances of the other actors: Pauline Kael calls it "a badly misconceived performance in a badly misconceived role." But for me it brings the ferment of the manhunt and the increasingly bizarre handing-about of Johnny to a kind of necessary climax before Johnny's reunion with Kathleen (Ryan) and the inevitable outcome.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Querelle (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982)

It's tempting to make jokes about Rainer Werner Fassbinder's last film, Querelle, which does sometimes look like a staging of Billy Budd designed by Tom of Finland. But for all its often overheated, overstylized, absurd moments, there is a a deep sadness at the core of the film. It was made, after all, at the beginning of the age of AIDS, from which its star, Brad Davis, would die. And even though it misses the poetry of the novel by Jean Genet on which Fassbinder and Burkhard Driest based their screenplay, it contains the essential sympathy for transgressors and outcasts that marks the work of both Genet and Fassbinder. That it no longer has the power to shock -- you can see far more outrageous images and situations on pay TV channels almost any night of the week -- almost works to its benefit. It has become a period piece almost before its time, but to say that it's "dated" is to miss the point. Querelle reflects an age of repression: The central character of the film, I think, is Franco Nero's Lt. Seblon, dictating his lust for Querelle into his tape recorder, watching the less-inhibited society of Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau), Nono (Günther Kaufmannn), and the others who circle around Querelle like moths, swooping in for satisfaction and sometimes getting their wings singed. Is it a good film? No. The performances -- especially Davis's, whose line readings are sometimes amateurish -- don't measure up. The interpolated religious symbolism feels trite. The narrative, especially when it involves Gil and his double, Robert (Hanno Pöschl), is confusingly handled. But is it worth being annoyed and disappointed by? Absolutely.

Les Maudits (René Clément, 1947)

René Clément's Les Maudits has sometimes been known as The Damned, but lately people have turned to using the French title, perhaps to avoid confusion with Luchino Visconti's 1969 film called The Damned. The confusion is understandable: Both films are about Nazis. In Clément's film, a group of Nazi officials and their hangers-on board a submarine in April 1945. Seeing the writing on the wall, they hope to make it to South America to establish an outpost of what's left of the Reich, but as they're passing through the English channel they're spotted by a destroyer that drops depth charges. The sub is unharmed, but Hilde Garosi (Florence Marly) is knocked unconscious. She's the wife of one of the passengers, an Italian industrialist (Fosco Giachetti), and the mistress of another, a Nazi general (Kurt Kronenfeld), so a contingent is sent ashore into liberated France to find a doctor. Henri Vidal plays Dr. Guilbert, who also serves as a narrator for the film. Having been shanghaied into service on the sub, Guilbert knows that once his usefulness in treating Hilde, who has a mild concussion, is over his days are numbered, so he diagnoses a crew member with a sore throat as having diphtheria, necessitating quarantine and continued treatment. The rest is a fairly suspenseful and engaging submarine movie, with some superb camerawork in the confines of the ship. The cinematographer is Henri Alekan, who pulls off a great tracking shot down the length of the sub, which must have been quite a tour de force in the days before Steadicams. The screenplay by Clément, Jacques Rémy, and Henri Jeanson skillfully gives the mostly unsavory characters complexity, although Marly is a little too much the icily glamorous blond stereotype and Jo Dest, as the SS leader Forster, couldn't be more hissable. Michel Auclair has some good moments as Willy Morus, Forster's aide (and, by implication, boy toy). Although Vidal is the film's ostensible hero, top billing went to the great character actor Marcel Dalio (billed, as often he was in France, by only his surname) in what amounts to a small cameo role as Larga, the South American contact for the Nazis.  

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)

The opening of Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring is deceptively calm: the usual establishing shots of landscape and buildings and trains, the kind of images with which Ozu typically punctuates his narratives, and a group of women gathering for a tea ceremony. One of the women is Noriko (Setsuko Hara), whose brilliant smile is also deceptive. This is the first film in Ozu's so-called "Noriko trilogy," to be followed by Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953), in each of which Hara plays a woman named Noriko. The three Norikos have nothing in common except that they are all unmarried. (In Tokyo Story she is a widow.)  The Noriko of Late Spring lives with her father, Shukichi, who is played by Chishu Ryu. (In Early Summer, Ryu plays her brother, and in Tokyo Story her father-in-law.) The deceptions of what might be called the "get-acquainted" section of Ozu's film, which establishes for us the relationships among the characters, lie in the apparent happiness and contentment of father and daughter and the untroubled world in which they live. But Late Spring was filmed only four years after the end of the war that devastated Japan, which was still under occupation by American forces. The wounds and pain of the country and its people are invisible in the film, partly because of occupation censorship, but they provide a kind of tension in the viewer who knows what the characters must have suffered. There is only a brief mention of this in Late Spring: Noriko has been to the doctor and reports that her health has improved. Another character's reference to "forced work during the war" sheds some light on what may have caused her illness. Later, Noriko and her father visit Kyoto, and he remarks how much nicer it is than "dusty" Tokyo, obliquely referencing wartime destruction. The central deception, however, lies in Noriko's apparent contentment with her unmarried state: She feels it is her duty to spend her life caring for her widowed father, and brushes off any suggestions that at 27 she should really be thinking about getting married -- or worse, that her father might choose to remarry. She calls the second marriage of one of her father's friends "filthy." We who have seen this situation before, however, realize that the deception Noriko is perpetrating is on herself. Perhaps it's because she has lived through so much change and upheaval, Noriko is trying to persuade herself that her current happiness serving her father can be made permanent. And so she suffers a shock when her father displays interest in a beautiful widow (Kuniko Miyake), and another when he suggests that she might meet the young man her Aunt Masa (Haruko Sugimura) thinks would be a suitable husband for Noriko. What Ozu and his frequent collaborator Kogo Noda establish here, working from a novel called Father and Daughter by Kazuo Hirotsu, is worthy of Henry James or Jane Austen -- I think particularly of Austen's Emma Woodhouse and her self-deluding attachment to her father. Eventually, Noriko is persuaded into marriage -- in a masterstroke of direction we never even see the groom -- by her father's lie: He claims that he has been planning to remarry, thereby eliminating any objection Noriko could have to seeking her own path to fulfillment. The film ends with a melancholy image of Shukichi alone, peeling an apple -- a kind of Jamesian twist on an Austenian situation. This magisterial example of Ozu's late style -- low camera angles, absence of pans and dissolves, emphasis on the somewhat claustrophobic interiors of the Japanese home -- is reinforced by Tatsuo Hamada's art direction and Yuharu Atsuta's cinematography, but most of all by the superb performances of Hara and Ryu.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Angel Face (Otto Preminger, 1953)

Otto Preminger was about to take on the Production Code when he made Angel Face: His next film was The Moon Is Blue (1953), a rather tepid little romantic comedy that offended the Code enforcers because its heroine, though relentlessly virginal, demonstrated an awareness of and interest in extramarital sex that was one of the Code's taboos. With the backing of United Artists, Preminger went ahead and made the film, releasing it without the Code's imprimatur. The result was a succès de scandale, a hit far beyond any actual merits of the film, after it was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and by some local censorship boards. Two years later, Preminger and United Artists would follow the same procedure with The Man With the Golden Arm (1952), a film about drug addiction that also flouted some of the Code's prohibitions. Preminger's stand is usually cited among the landmarks leading to the end of film industry censorship. I mention all this because I was struck by how Preminger also ignores the Code's conventional morality in Angel Face, which makes it clear that Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) has been sleeping with his girlfriend, Mary Wilton (Mona Freeman) -- among other things, he reveals that he knows what she wears to bed, and when he goes to see her, she's in her slip getting ready to go out and doesn't bother coyly pulling on the usual bathrobe. The thing is, Mary is the film's "nice girl," the character meant to be the foil to the film's murderous Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons). But Diane doesn't smoke or drink, and Mary does. Some of the reason for Preminger's blurring of the lines between the usual Hollywood ideas of good and bad in these characters probably stems from a desire to build suspense, keeping us from being entirely sure that Diane is the one who turned on the gas in her stepmother's (Barbara O'Neil) room or if she really is guilty of the murder for which she stands trial. But I suspect that it has more to do with Preminger's desire to pull his characters out of the usual pigeonholes of Hollywood melodrama, to make them plausible, enigmatic human beings. To some extent he's fighting the script, adapted by Frank S. Nugent and Oscar Millard (with some uncredited help by Ben Hecht) from a story by Chester Erskine, which on the face of it is the usual stuff about a conniving woman who loves her daddy (Herbert Marshall) too much and who stands to gain from her stepmother's death, ensnaring an unsuspecting man along the way. Mitchum's sleepy-eyed raffishness could have been used to make him the usual tough-guy collaborator of a femme fatale, like Fred MacMurray's Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) or John Garfield's Frank Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946), but it's not a knock on those two great noirs to say that Preminger does something more subtle with Mitchum's Frank Jessup: He's an accomplice and a victim only by accident, letting his hormones put him in harm's (i.e., Mary's) way, and struggling ineffectually, even a little tragically, not to be dragged down by her. Angel Face is not as well-known as those other films, but with its solid performances, its effective and unobtrusive score by Dimitri Tiomkin, and its knockout of an ending, it deserves to be.      

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Innocence Unprotected (Dusan Makavejev, 1968)

Ana Milosavljevic in Innocence Unprotected
Oh, where to start? Perhaps by figuring out exactly what Dusan Makavejev's Innocence Unprotected is. A good movie about a bad movie? A profile of a man you've probably never heard of but who had an ego that rivals Donald Trump's? A documentary about life in a country that was at the epicenter of some of the most terrible passages in 20th-century history, from the origin of World War I through the "ethnic cleansing" of the 1990s? But all of that makes Makavejev's film sound like no fun. Granted, some of it is horrifying, particularly the use of documentary footage of Serbia during wartime, but the tone of Innocence Unprotected is more amused than appalled. That's because its central figure is the astonishing Dragoljub Aleksic, who in 1942 made the first talking picture ever filmed in Serbia. It, too, was called Innocence Unprotected, and we see what appears to be most of that movie within Makavejev's film. Aleksic was a bodybuilder, an escape artist, an acrobat, and maybe something of a con man. He is, of course, the hero of his movie, playing himself as he rescues a young woman named Nada (Ana Milosavljevic) from the clutches of her evil stepmother (Vera Jovanovic), who wants her to marry a rich and hideous older man played by Bratoljub Gligorijevic. Mostly we get to see Aleksic flex his biceps, preen for the camera, and perform death-defying stunts. He even sings (badly) two love songs to Nada. It's a godawful mess of a melodrama, which Makavejev can't resist tarting up a little with some touches of hand-coloring -- viz., Milosavljevic's lipsticked mouth in the still above. But Makavejev also interpolates interviews with the surviving cast and crew members, who recall with pride their participation in the film, even though it was suppressed by the occupying Nazi forces and went unexhibited until well after the war, when Aleksic literally dug it up from where he had hidden it. Even then, the postwar communist authorities were suspicious that Aleksic had made it without Nazi supervision and grilled him thoroughly before allowing him to show it. What holds Makavejev's film together is Aleksic's magnificently irrepressible ego along with Makavejev's own amusement and skill at putting together this improbable film. There are touches of Buñuel, of Godard, of Fellini in Makavejev's choice of images and in his montages, but the end product is startlingly vivid and original.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945)

Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street is based on the same novel by Georges de la Fouchardière that Jean Renoir had adapted for his 1931 film that retained the novel's title, La Chienne. Both films came at oddly significant points in their directors' careers: Renoir's was only his second talkie, but one in which he demonstrated his mastery of the relatively new medium by a creative use of ambient sound. Lang's was made just as World War II was ending -- a moment when it became possible for him to return to Europe, which he had fled to avoid Nazi persecution. Lang chose, however, to stay on in Hollywood for 12 more years, though he grew increasingly annoyed at the creative restrictions imposed on him by the big studios and Production Code censorship. In this context, Scarlet Street stands out as edgy and somewhat defiant. The Code prescribed a kind of lex talionis: any criminal act demands a punishment equivalent in kind and degree. But in Scarlet Street, Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) gets away with not only fraud and theft but also murder -- a double murder, if you consider that the man wrongly accused of the murder goes to the electric chair for it. Cross is punished by homelessness and by auditory delusions of the voices of those who drove him to crime, but that's much less severe than the Code usually prescribed. There were those, of course, including censors in New York State, Milwaukee, and Atlanta, who noticed the Code's laxness and proceeded to ban the film on their own. Today, Scarlet Street is regarded as a classic, one of the premier examples of film noir at its darkest. It doesn't quite measure up to Renoir's version, perhaps because Renoir was freer in expressing his vision of the material than Lang was. Renoir's film had touches of humor and a gentler, more ironic ending, but the ending of Scarlet Street is entirely in keeping with the tone of the rest of the film, with its traces of unfettered Lang: for example, the shocking viciousness of Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea), who if you know how to decode the Code is clearly the pimp to the prostitute Kitty March (Joan Bennett). And Cross's behavior at the end of the film, derelict and delusional, echoes some of the frantic paranoia of Peter Lorre's child murderer in Lang's M (1931). The screenplay is by Dudley Nichols.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Je Tu Il Elle (Chantal Akerman, 1974)

Chantal Akerman in Je Tu Il Elle
Beyond our obvious physical needs, we human beings have needs that some would call spiritual. Among these is our need for stories, and beyond those, for the images without which stories would be impossible. Our ancestors looked at the bewildering random scattering of lights in the night sky and found patterns there that they identified as bears and serpents and gods and heroes, which became the material for stories. When we sleep, random neurons fire and the mind finds patterns there that it identifies as the images of friends and enemies and parents and monsters, which become the material for the stories we call dreams. In theaters and on video screens, lights flash and form patterns that we, often but not always following the guidelines given by the director, form into stories we call movies. Myths and dreams and movies are all manifestations of a primal need. But sometimes directors do whatever they can to avoid giving us guidelines. They increase the randomness. In Je Tu Il Elle, Chantal Akerman presents three story fragments, linked only by a central character, Julie (played by Akerman herself), and allows us to make what sense we can of them. In the first, Julie settles into what appears to be a one-room apartment and proceeds to perform unexplained actions: She removes all of the furniture except a mattress from the room. She starts writing something (the narration tells us it's a letter, but the narration is problematic) on many sheets of paper. She takes off her clothes. She spreads what she has written on the floor, tacking down some of the pages. She eats sugar out of a paper bag with a spoon. She spills the sugar on the pages, then spoons it back into the bag. The images are harsh but artfully composed: There is a single apparent light source, from the windows and the door that line one wall of the room, and the patterns made by the light sometimes become strikingly abstract as we grow numb to the uneventful if eccentric routine of Julie's life. While we watch, she provides a voiceover narration, but sometimes what she says doesn't match what we see, as if the narrator Julie is only remembering and telling a story about what really happened in the room, making her own myth or dream or movie.  And then one day she puts her clothes on and leaves, and from this static, isolated scene, we shift to the dynamic, but no less routinized, outside world: We see a busy stretch of freeway, and only gradually locate Julie in the frame, standing on the roadside as traffic passes by. She then tells us that she has been picked up by a truck driver (Niels Arestrup), and we see their journey together. They stop and have a meal in a diner, sitting side by side and watching an English language cop show on a television whose screen we can't see. They ride some more and stop at a bar where he introduces her to some of his friends. She gives him a hand-job while he's driving, and he tells her about his life -- a phallocentric story about his sexual encounters, his marriage, the fact that his one and a half-year-old son's penis can already get hard, about his incestuous desire for his 11-year-old daughter, about how just driving can give him an erection. At a rest stop she watches him shave. And then he drops her off at her destination: the apartment of an ex-girlfriend (Claire Wauthion), who tells Julie she can't stay with her. Julie goes out into the hallway to the elevator, but then tells her friend that she's hungry. They go back into the apartment where the friend makes her a sandwich and gives her a glass of wine. Julie tells her she wants some more, and the friend makes her another sandwich, but it becomes clear that that's not what Julie really wants. So they go into the bedroom and make love, in an extended fixed-camera shot that lasts perhaps ten minutes. The scene is initially erotic but becomes less so, until finally the image of the two women's bodies takes on something of the character of sculpture or dance: a play of light and shadow and movement. The third section is purged of all extraneous narrative -- we never hear about their past relationship -- until the morning comes and Julie opens the curtains of the bedroom, flooding it with bright light, and leaves her friend sleeping. The film ends, and we are left to place its often beautiful, sometimes harsh images into our own narrative, to tell our own story that links the three Julies: the solitary woman of the first section, the truck-driver's companion of the second section, and the woman's lover of the third. Because nothing fits together in the film without our participation, without taking the images (the cinematographers were Bénédicte Delasalle, Renelde Dupont, and Charlotte Szlovak) and the threads of narrative (the screenwriters were Akerman, Eric De Kuyper, and Paul Paquay) and turning them into something that satisfies our need to explain, to see things as a whole. Je Tu Il Elle (the very title invites attempts to provide a narrative relationship among the pronouns) was Akerman's first feature film -- she made it after a return to Brussels from a year and a half stay in New York, where she was part of the avant-garde filmmaking community -- and while it obviously anticipates her audience-challenging masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975), it stands on its own for audacity and skill.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Woman on the Beach (Jean Renoir, 1947)

Imagine The Woman on the Beach if Jean Renoir had made it in France with, say, Simone Signoret, Gérard Philipe, and Jean Gabin, and perhaps you can see what I mean when I say it's the best example of the kind of pressures Renoir felt during his war-imposed exile in Hollywood. Although the war was over, Renoir was under contract to RKO for two more pictures, but after the failure of The Woman on the Beach, the studio canceled the contract, so it was his last American film. If he had made the film in France, he wouldn't have been subjected to the heavy-handedness of Production Code censorship, which almost killed the film from the outset when the Code administrator, Joseph I. Breen,* declared the story, adapted from a novel by Mitchell Wilson, "unacceptable ... in that it is a story of adultery without any compensating moral values." Somehow Breen was persuaded to give in. But Renoir also had to put up with the studio star system, which required performers to look glamorous and handsome even in the most adverse situations. Even though Joan Bennett's character, Peggy Butler, spends a lot of time on the beach doing things like gathering firewood, her hair and makeup are always perfect. After an unfavorable preview of the film, the studio forced reshoots and made some drastic cuts -- the existing version is only 71 minutes long -- that displeased Renoir. What we have now is a sometimes fascinating, sometimes incoherent film. There's an on-again, off-again relationship between a Coast Guard officer, Scott Burnett, played by Robert Ryan, and a young woman named Eve, played by the starlet Nan Leslie, that serves no essential function in the story. Scott's nightmares about being on a sinking ship during wartime and an encounter on the beach with a ghostly woman who looks something like Eve loom large in the early part of the film but then mysteriously vanish along with any other symptoms of the PTSD Scott supposedly suffers from. The focus of the story is on Scott's affair with Peggy -- they apparently have sex in a shipwreck that has washed up on the beach -- and his suspicions about Peggy's husband, Tod (Charles Bickford), a famous painter who is now blind, the result of a fight in which Peggy threw something that severed his optic nerve. But Scott thinks Tod is faking his blindness and puts him to the test, which Tod passes by falling off a cliff without doing himself serious harm. There's a good deal of overheated dialogue: "Peg, you're so beautiful ... so beautiful outside, so rotten inside." In the end, there's a conclusion in which nothing is concluded: Scott seemingly tries but fails to drown both himself and Tod; Tod sets fire to the cabin that contains his cherished surviving paintings; he and Peggy set off for New York; and Scott retires from his commission in the Coast Guard. Some of this might have made emotional sense in a better-crafted film, one not subject to the tinkering and scrubbing that the studio and the censors enforced. Still, Bennett, Ryan, and Bickford perform with conviction, and there are those who find even the film's chaotic presentation of erotic entanglements compelling.

*Renoir doesn't seem to have nursed any hard feelings against Breen: He cast his son, Thomas E. Breen, in a key role in The River (1951).

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Princess From the Moon (Kon Ichikawa, 1987)

In eighth-century Japan, a man (Toshiro Mifune) and his wife (Ayako Wakao) are mourning the death of their 5-year-old daughter, Kaya. They live beside a forest of bamboo, whose stalks the man cuts and turns into baskets and other artifacts, which he sells to make a living. One night they see a bright light and their hut is shaken by a huge tremor. The next morning, when the man goes out to investigate he finds near his daughter's grave a large egg-shaped object. It begins to crack open and as he watches, a baby crawls from it and begins to grow rapidly until it assumes the form of his dead child. The man and his wife raise the girl as their daughter, Kaya, and discover that the egg-shaped object from which she emerged is pure gold, so they become rich enough to move into a large house. Kaya swiftly grows into a young woman (Yasuko Sawaguchi) whose beauty attracts high-born suitors. But she has brought with her a small crystal ball that eventually reveals her secret: She is from the moon, the sole survivor when the ship that was carrying her crashed. To ward off her suitors, she proposes impossible tasks to win her hand. And then the ball reveals that at the next full moon, a ship will arrive to carry her home. The entire realm has fallen in love with Kaya, and on the night of the full moon, troops are stationed about the house to shoot down any arriving ships. Up to this point, Kon Ichikawa's Princess From the Moon has been a charmingly magical fantasy film, a smart adaptation of an ancient Japanese folktale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, with beautiful sets by Shinobu Muraki, costumes by Emi Wada, and color cinematography by Setsuo Kobayashi. But suddenly Ichikawa imposes on the setting a spaceship out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), and Kaya is drawn up into it in flowing robes and accompanied by what appear to be glowing cherubs, an image that recalls Renaissance paintings of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, like this one by Rubens:
It's a startling shift in tone and technique, to say the least, especially when compounded by the insertion of a pop song, "Stay With Me," by Peter Cetera behind the end credits. Critics, too, were jarred by the overlaying of a sci-fi trope on a traditional tale, but audiences seemed to like it. A somewhat more traditional version of the story, The Tale of the Princess Kagya (Isao Takahata), was produced by Studio Ghibli in 2013 and was nominated for the animated feature Oscar.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950)

It's fun sometimes to go back and read the reviews Bosley Crowther wrote for the New York Times, panning films that are now regarded as classics. Crowther, if you've forgotten, was the lead film critic for the Times for 27 years, until he panned Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and persisted in attacking the film in follow-up articles until the Times nudged him into retirement. My generation grew up thinking of Crowther as the classic fuddy-duddy. Some of the harsh moralizing that marked his Bonnie and Clyde diatribe was present throughout his career, as in, for example, his comments in his review of Jules Dassin's Night and the City, which he called "a pointless, trashy yarn," a "a turgid pictorial grotesque," "a melange of maggoty episodes," and a "cruel, repulsive picture of human brutishness." It almost makes you want to run right out and see it, doesn't it? But there's a part of me that thinks the old foof was onto something: Night and the City is just a little too dark to be credible, and some elements of it -- such as Richard Widmark's over-the-top performance and the expressionistic camera angles of cinematographer Mutz Greenbaum (billed as Max Greene) -- verge on film noir self-parody. Still, there's a great energy in Night and the City, which often reminds me of Dickens's forays into the underworld -- the titular city is London -- especially when it comes to character names. The chief villain (Francis L. Sullivan, imitating Sydney Greenstreet) is a Mr. Nosseross -- his given name is Philip, not Rye -- and there's a minor character with the über-Dickensian name of Fergus Chilk. Widmark plays Harry Fabian, whose life is a continuous hustle, trying to gather enough money to finance his various get-rich-quick schemes. His long-suffering girlfriend, Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney, in a smaller role than her billing suggests), is a singer in a clip joint run by the Nosserosses -- Philip and his wife, Helen (Googie Withers). Eventually, Harry overreaches by trying to loosen the hold on the pro wrestling exhibition racket in London held by Kristo (Herbert Lom), whose star wrestler is known as the Strangler (Mike Mazurki). Harry cons an honest old Greek wrestler named Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko) into staging a bout between Gregorius's protégé, Nikolas of Athens (Ken Richmond) and the Strangler, but everything goes to hell when Nosseross withdraws his promised financial support. There is a great wrestling scene in which Gregorius himself takes on the Strangler, who has broken Nikolas's wrist. Gregorius wins, but dies of a heart attack afterward, one of the many deaths the movie accumulates. The film makes great atmospheric use of its London setting, which was necessitated because Dassin was about to be blacklisted in Hollywood -- it's to the credit of 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck that he warned Dassin of this and, when Dassin decided he would seek work in Europe, allowed him to make the film in London.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

Sometimes, to appreciate how good a film is you have to imagine how bad it could have been. The conventional way of telling a story is beginning-middle-end, cause-effect-remedy, disease-diagnosis-cure. But if Kenneth Lonergan had taken that strict linear approach in crafting Manchester by the Sea, we would have been deprived of the element of discovery that makes it such a powerful film. To put it this way, Lonergan could have opened with the calamitous event that so blights the life of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), and then shown the breakup with his wife, Randi (Michelle Williams); his efforts to lose himself in menial work as a handyman/custodian in Boston; the death of his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), and Lee's return to Manchester; the discovery that Joe has made him guardian of Joe's son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and the subsequent attempts to arrange his life around that fact. But by postponing the revelation of the terrible event in Lee's life, placing it in a flashback, Lonergan makes it what it has to be: the very center of the film. We want to know what is troubling Lee, why he's so blocked emotionally, and Lonergan makes us wait for the answer, to speculate what it might be. When the revelation comes that he accidentally killed his small children, it probably fulfills what many of us had guessed it might be, so it doesn't come as a brutal surprise but as an elucidation. To put it at the start of the film, including Lee's aborted attempt at suicide, would have turned the film into a sentimental slog toward redemption. But by first showing us the ways in which Lee has responded by hiding away or lashing out at comforters or the curious -- by putting the middle before the beginning, the effect before the cause -- Lonergan focuses on Lee's continuing everyday pain, not on the enormity of what caused it. And then there's the ending: poignant, inconclusive, but at least somewhat hopeful. A conventional ending that provided balm for the pain, a cure for the disease, would have been phony. We may want the film to end with Lee finding some consolation like that of new fatherhood with Patrick, a rapprochement with Randi, even some kind of successful therapy or -- like Elise (Gretchen Mol), Joe's druggie ex-wife and Patrick's strayed mother -- submission into religious faith, but we would be satisfying our desire for a tidy narrative, not Lee's deep needs. Lonergan handles the traditional religious "cure" brilliantly, showing Patrick's discomfort at the evangelical piety of Elise and her new husband, Jeffrey (Matthew Broderick), and his complaint to Lee that Jeffrey is "Christian." Lee reminds him that they're Christians too -- "Catholics are Christians" -- ironically widening the gulf between Patrick and his mother and her husband. Lee's Catholicism is steeped in guilt, an emotion he knows too well and cannot imagine a life without. The strength of a film like Manchester by the Sea lies in its acknowledgment that life is too shaggy, bristly, and spiky to be neatly wrapped up with cures and fixes for whatever ails it.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Sylvia Scarlett (George Cukor, 1935)

Bear with me while I try to remember the plot of Sylvia Scarlett because I'm not entirely sure that I didn't fall asleep and dream it: When the wife of an Englishman living in France dies, he decides to return to England with his daughter. But because he is suspected of having embezzled money from the company for which he is an accountant, he and his daughter decide that she will disguise herself as a boy because the authorities will be looking for a man traveling with a girl. So on the boat crossing the Channel, they meet a cheerful Cockney con-man, to whom the other Englishman confesses that he's smuggling a bolt of fine lace through customs. But when they arrive in England, the Cockney points them out to the officials and the Englishman and his daughter-disguised-as-a-boy are detained and fined and the lace is confiscated. Then on the train to London, they coincidentally find themselves in the same compartment as the Cockney, who not only repays the fine but even gives the Englishman a little extra money, while also revealing that he's a smuggler with diamonds concealed in the heel of his shoe, who turned them in to divert attention from himself. All is square, except that now the Cockney proposes that they team up and run a few cons together. They're not very good at it, so when the Cockney reads an article saying that a rich couple are taking an extended holiday out of the country, he decides that they should rob the deserted house. The plan is thwarted by the maid the couple has left behind, so they persuade her to go on the road with them as traveling entertainers. They hire a wagon and go to Cornwall and give a show that attracts the attention of a rich young artist and his Russian girlfriend. The artist tells the son/daughter that he wants to paint him/her, but he/she swipes a dress and a hat that were left behind on the beach by a woman who has gone swimming and shows up at his studio as a woman, but the Russian girlfriend is outraged to find her there. Meanwhile, the Englishman has taken to drink and fallen in love with the maid and one night wanders out drunkenly in the fog and falls to his death from a cliff. After his funeral, the daughter and the Cockney return to their wagon (the maid has somehow disappeared for good), but they hear a cry for help from the Russian, who has apparently attempted suicide because the artist doesn't love her anymore, so the daughter plunges into the ocean and rescues her, returning her to the artist. Then the Cockney and the Russian decide to run away together, so the daughter and the artist pursue them, winding up on a train and somehow realizing that they're in love with each other. Now, to the point: Why in hell did anyone ever think this made enough sense to film? Or that the completed film would please critics and attract audiences? (It didn't.) And why is this not on the usual lists of the worst films ever made? Because the truth is, it's not unwatchable, and sometimes, if you're in the mood for the utterly bizarre, it's sort of fun to watch, mainly because the Cockney is played by Cary Grant and the son-daughter by Katharine Hepburn, in their first on-screen teaming.* And perhaps because Edmund Gwenn as the Englishman is as charming as ever. And also perhaps because George Cukor is one of the few directors of the period who could leaven this lump of Edwardian nonsense: It's based on a novel by Compton Mackenzie, a now-forgotten writer with a taste for whimsy and a tolerance for sexual ambiguity. The screenplay was mostly written by John Collier, another writer with a decidedly eccentric view of the world, with the help of Gladys Unger and Mortimer Offner. Naturally, the Production Code weighs heavily on the ambiguous sexuality of the film, though we are never really quite sure whether the artist (Brian Aherne) is more attracted to Sylvia than to Sylvester. (Hepburn is quite beautiful as either.) But mostly the film gives us a chance to see Grant before Archibald Leach, the product of a troubled working-class family, became "Cary Grant," the embodiment of sophistication: There's a darkly threatening sexuality to his character, Jimmy Monkley, that's compelling -- and makes us wonder why Hepburn's Sylvia should prefer Aherne's much softer Michael Fane. Sylvia Scarlett has a cult following today that it doesn't entirely deserve, but it remains a fascinatingly mad mess.

*They went on to make two more films for George Cukor, Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940), but their most memorable work together was for Howard Hawks on Bringing Up Baby (1938).

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935)

The 39 Steps, Alfred Hitchcock's first great film, contains an object lesson in how to end a movie, a topic I raised in passing when I blogged about Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies (2016) a week or so ago. Rather than tie everything up in a neat package with a flowery bow as Spielberg tries to do in his film, Hitchcock simply ends after the confession and death of Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) -- shot with beautiful irony against a background of high-kicking chorus girls -- in a closeup of Hannay (Robert Donat) and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) holding hands, the handcuffs still dangling from Hannay's wrist. Nothing more needs to be said or shown, although a scene was apparently shot in which it's made more explicit that Hannay and Pamela are now a couple. Who needs it? The 39 Steps established Hitchcock as the master of the romantic thriller. There are those who regret that he never moved very far out of that genre, and who wish that he could have devoted himself to more highly serious material than John Buchan, who wrote the novel on which the film is based -- Dostoevsky, perhaps. But that's the kind of aesthetic puritanism that leads directors astray into high-minded dullness. We should be grateful that Hitchcock never succumbed to it, and that he continued to devote himself to an almost unique economy of narrative and to developing his skill at creating ways to distract the viewer from noticing a story's holes. How, exactly, does Hannay get from the Forth Bridge to the Scottish Highlands? By the same sleight-of-hand that gets Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) from New York to Chicago to Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest (1959), of course. And again, who cares? It's also the first of his films to rely on star power, the charisma and charm of the young Donat and the first of the director's "icy blonds," Carroll, who was never more appealing than in this film. At the same time, he also acknowledges the necessity of supporting players who can give the film texture and depth. I'm speaking here particularly of such narrative filigree as the crofter (John Laurie) and his wife (Peggy Ashcroft), the milkman (Frederick Piper) who lends Hannay his white coat and cap, the traveling salesmen (Gus McNaughton and Jerry Verno) on the train, and the professor's wife (Helen Haye) who is so unperturbed at seeing her husband (Godfrey Tearle) pointing a gun at Hannay. These are mostly the creations of Hitchcock and his screenwriter, Charles Bennett, and not John Buchan. Who reads Buchan anymore? Who doesn't want to watch Hitchcock's film again?

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Lady in the Lake (Robert Montgomery, 1947)

I am not a camera. If you ever want to see what movies could be like if no one had discovered montage, crosscutting, expressive camera angles, and other techniques that make them so involving, just watch Robert Montgomery's debut* as a director, Lady in the Lake. The gimmick (and it's little more than that) of this film based on a novel by Raymond Chandler is that the audience sees everything that happens through the eyes of Philip Marlowe, thereby becoming the detective. Montgomery plays Marlowe, but except for occasional reflections in mirrors, he's on screen only in set-up segments that clue the audience into the gimmick. Naturally, the film has to cheat, as when there's a cut when Marlowe travels between one location and another, but the major problem is that what the camera mostly sees is people standing there talking to it, a point of view that soon gets tiresome. Some of the cast rise to the demand of the long takes and extended dialogue without the usual shot/reverse shot cuts. Tom Tully, for example, makes his police captain threatening and then undercuts the threat when Marlowe witnesses him on the telephone with his young daughter, promising to come home early on Christmas Eve and play "Santy Claus." (The choice to set the film at Christmas -- it isn't in the book -- is perhaps meant to create a kind of ironic dissonance. If so, it doesn't work.) Jayne Meadows is fun as the apparently scatterbrained landlady who later turns out to be a somewhat more menacing figure. But the female lead, Audrey Totter, as the Chandlerian femme fatale, is an inexpressive actress, resorting to a lot of eye-popping to express emotion. She looks like her face has been shot full of Botox, years before it was invented. Montgomery, who is heard more than he's seen, is miscast as Marlowe, his patrician handsomeness much at odds with the hard-boiled Marlowe made familiar to us by Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, and others. There are some good moments, such as an effective sequence in which the camera is behind the wheel in the car Marlowe is driving, but too often the gimmick makes us pay attention to itself rather than to the story being told.

*Official debut, that is. Montgomery had done some uncredited work behind the camera for John Ford on They Were Expendable (1945).

Monday, May 8, 2017

Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater, 2016)

Watching Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some!! a day or two after Yasujiro Ozu's Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? reminded me that one of the essential characteristics of a great director is a compassionate interest in human beings. It's not that they are both comedies about college students: They are also both "coming-of-age" films, although Linklater lets us extrapolate the course of his characters' potential maturity (or lack of it), while Ozu lets his characters mature before our eyes. Ozu and Linklater have been called "sociological" filmmakers because their movies tend to be about what happens to their characters in a given cultural context: in the case of Linklater's film a group of young jocks at a Texas college in 1980; in Ozu's, Japanese college students in the early years of the Great Depression. Linklater has acknowledged that Everybody Wants Some!! is a kind of coda to Dazed and Confused (1993), the action of which takes place four years earlier on the last day of high school. The newer film is more narrowly focused than the earlier one, which had a sampling of all types of high schoolers, male and female, from brains to jocks, from bullies to victims. Everybody is centered on a group of horny young men, highly competitive college baseball players, all of whom have dreams of making it as pros. But it's still an ensemble work, with a gallery of good young actors, mostly familiar from TV: Blake Jenner from Glee, Tyler Hoechlin from Teen Wolf, Ryan Guzman from Pretty Little Liars, among others. Linklater forces us to see through the jock stereotypes and find the brains and hearts intentionally hidden behind the bravado and braggadocio of hormones and muscles. He's interested primarily in his characters' intense competitiveness and in their swiftly fading innocence. As in Dazed and Confused, in which the older stoner Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) exhibited the Peter Pan syndrome, unwilling to leave adolescence behind, in Everybody we meet Willoughby (Wyatt Russell), a 30-year-old who masquerades as a transfer student from San Luis Obispo, trying to prolong the blissful innocence of a life spent smoking dope and playing ball. The adult world rarely intrudes on the film's characters: The coach's prohibition of alcohol and women in the residence houses is quickly ignored. But Linklater neither preaches responsibility nor sentimentalizes immaturity. In the last scene, the freshmen Jake (Jenner) and Plummer (Temple Baker) finally get to their first college class after a weekend of partying and promptly put their heads down to sleep through the history professor's lecture. They're young and have no history, or as Willoughby puts it, they're there "for a good time, not for a long time." As good as it is, Everybody "underperformed" at the box office, perhaps because it looks too much like a routine teen sex comedy for discerning audiences and didn't have enough gross-out humor or marketable stars for the usual audience for that genre.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, 1944)

Because it's based on a Raymond Chandler novel, Murder, My Sweet is inevitably subject to comparisons with another Chandler-based film noir, The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946). Which is unfortunate, because Edward Dmytryk was no Hawks, and Dick Powell and Anne Shirley were certainly not Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. But then who is? Murder, My Sweet is good stuff anyway: a steady-moving, entertainingly complicated film noir. And though Dick Powell, the first actor to play Philip Marlowe on screen, doesn't eclipse Bogart's version, he holds his own well alongside other Marlowe incarnations like James Garner, Elliott Gould, and Robert Mitchum. Powell had just turned 40 when Murder, My Sweet was released, and had lost the baby face that made him a star in Busby Berkeley musicals and in comedies like Christmas in July (Preston Sturges, 1940). (It's said that RKO changed the title of the film from that of Chandler's novel, Farewell, My Lovely, because it was afraid that people would think it was a musical.) Powell looks a little slight to take as many sappings as he does in the film -- usually accompanied by the voiceover, "A black pool opened at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom." But he handles the tough-guy lines in John Paxton's screenplay well, and there are plenty of good ones like "She was a gal who would take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle." Or: "My throat felt sore, but the fingers feeling it didn't feel anything. They were just a bunch of bananas that looked like fingers." As usual, we don't know who's good or who's bad for a while, but they're almost all pretty bad, especially Claire Trevor as Helen Grayle, whose former identity as Velma Valento, whom Marlowe is initially hired to locate by Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki), is what ties together all the various plots and subplots about jade necklaces and the like. This was the last film for Anne Shirley, who married the producer of Murder, My Sweet, Adrian Scott, and retired. Scott later became one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was blacklisted. Dmytryk was also one of the Ten, but after his initial refusal to testify, he changed his mind, and gave the unverifiable testimony that Scott and the others had put pressure on him to insert communist propaganda into his films.

Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)

Kinuyo Tanaka and Ureo Egawa in Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth?
Like his I Flunked, But.... (1930), Yasujiro Ozu's Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? is a silent comedy about college boys and their life after graduating (or not graduating), featuring some of the same cast members and some of the same opportunities for comedy: a pep squad training, elaborate attempts to cheat on exams, and so on. This time there's a group of four students, centering on the richest one: Tetsuo (Ureo Egawa), whose father is president of an import-export company. Tetsuo and his buddies are all in love with the pretty Shigeko (Kinuyo Tanaka), who works for a local bakery and delivers bread and cakes to the campus. During an exam, in which all four are industriously trying to cheat, Tetsuo receives word that his father has fallen ill. When his father dies, Tetsuo leaves college to assume the presidency of the company -- which is in fact run by its vice-president, Tetsuo's uncle, who keeps trying to find a wife for Tetsuo, none of whom matches up to Shigeko in Tetsuo's opinion. Meanwhile, Tetsuo's buddies have flunked out, and they come to him looking for employment. They have to pass a company exam, but Tetsuo slips them the answers to the questions. Then one day, out in his chauffeured limousine with his uncle's latest choice for his wife, Tetsuo spots Shigeko with a cart with all her belongings: The bakery has closed, and she is moving to a new apartment. He sends the potential bride away in a huff, gives Shigeko a lift, and offers her a job at the company. He tells his buddies that he is going to marry Shigeko, not knowing that she has already promised to marry one of them, Saiki (Tatsuo Saito). When Tetsuo announces this, however, Saiki, who is the sole support of his mother, says nothing because he's afraid he'll lose his job, and even congratulates Tetsuo. When he learns the truth, from no less than Saiki's mother, Tetsuo angrily attacks Saiki, but he also recognizes that the real problem is social inequality, and the film ends with the Tetsuo and the remaining buddies, Kumada (Kenji Oyama) and Shimazaki (Chishu Ryu), waving goodbye to Saiki and Shigeko as they set off on their honeymoon. It's a warm-hearted movie that makes a smooth transition from slapstick to sentiment, while also scoring some points against tradition and the class system. The screenplay is by Ozu's usual collaborator, Kogo Noda, and the cinematography by Hideo Shigehara.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Wings (Larisa Shepitko, 1966)

Wings was the first feature by Larisa Shepitko, who made only four of them before dying in an automobile accident in 1979, only 41. I've now seen two of her films, the other being her last completed one, The Ascent (1977), and it's clear to me how great a loss her death was. That last film was an extraordinary, harrowing adventure with a brilliant documentary realism but also a profound symbolic resonance. Her first is almost a polar opposite: a low-key character study of a woman whose adventures -- she was a decorated pilot during World War II -- are long behind her. Nadezhda Petrukhina (Mayya Bulgakova) now leads a quiet existence as headmistress of a school that prepares students for work in the construction industry. She is admired by her colleagues and students but unfulfilled by her work. She has an adopted daughter, Tanya (Zhanna Bolotova), but they have grown apart: Nadezhda hasn't even met Tanya's new husband, and when she goes to a party where he's present she mistakenly greets the wrong man as her son-in-law. In addition to supervising repairs at the school and coaching the participants in the school's entry in a theatrical contest, she also has to discipline a rebellious young male student -- with whom, we see, she has a kind of sympathy that is stifled by her official duties. She occasionally sees a man, the director of the local museum where her picture as a war hero is on display -- on a visit to the museum she overhears a girl ask if she's still alive. And occasionally she visits the local airfield to watch cadets being trained. We get a flashback to wartime, when she had a lover, Mitya (Leonid Dyachkov), a fellow pilot whose death in combat she witnessed. Flight, that eternal symbol of freedom, is a strong force even in the earthbound life she leads, and we glimpse her fantasies of soaring through the clouds. So at the film's end, having quit her job, she takes a daring move to achieve that freedom once again. Spare but poetic, with a stunning performance by Bulgakova, Wings was written by Valentin Ezhov and Natalya Ryazantseva and filmed by Igor Slabnevich.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda, 1958)

The plot of Ashes and Diamonds is simple: A group of men carry out an ambush on a road in the countryside only to discover that their intended target was not among the men they killed. So they return to town to plot another way of assassinating the man. The youngest, most volatile member of the group discovers that the man has taken the room next door in the hotel, but while waiting for his opportunity, his flirtation with a pretty young woman turns serious -- they begin to fall in love. Still, renouncing that chance at happiness, he follows through with his mission: He kills the man, but before he can make his escape from the town he is gunned down. It could have been -- probably has been -- the plot of a Western, a gangster film, a spy thriller, or a war movie. But because it's a film made in Poland during the Cold War, and the story it tells is set on the very day in 1945 when the Germans surrendered, it's an intensely political film, not just in what's on the screen but also in what went on while it was being made and released. I mention this because while I want to think about movies in purely aesthetic terms -- i.e., assessing the quality of acting, writing, direction, camerawork, etc. -- it's  almost impossible to approach a film like Ashes and Diamonds without taking so-called "external" factors like politics and history into consideration. If you try to watch it without knowing anything about the political situation in Poland in 1945, with the Germans retreating, the Soviets advancing, you'll miss half of the motivation of the characters and most of the intensity of the conflict. And if you disregard the fact that Poland in 1958 was a communist country, you can't understand why the plot to kill a communist leader was such a touchy subject for Andrzej Wajda to handle in a film -- and why the way he handled it was so audacious. It's a film that asks you to do your homework. On as pure an aesthetic level as I can get in thinking about the film, it's visually fascinating, with some splendid deep-focus cinematography by Jerzy Wójcik that pays homage to Gregg Toland's work on Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). Wajda was quite open about the influence of Welles on his filmmaking -- like Welles, Wajda wanted sets to have ceilings -- but he also expressed a love of American gangster movies and film noir, citing Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932) and The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950) among his inspirations for Ashes and Diamonds. The American influence is probably most felt by viewers today in the performance of Zbigniew Cybulski in the role of Maciek, the young assassin. It's a showy, jittery, almost over-the-top performance that validates Cybulski's reputation as "the Polish James Dean." Wajda initially resisted casting Cybulski, wanting a more traditional actor for the role, but once Jerzy Andrzejewski, his co-screenwriter and author of the novel on which the film was based, persuaded him to hire Cybulski, Wajda realized that the handsome young star would attract the younger audience the film not only needed to succeed, but also to educate this audience about their country's past. He even gave in to Cybulski's demand that he be allowed to supply his own wardrobe -- not at all the kind of clothes that a young Polish partisan would have worn in 1945 -- including his signature sunglasses. (A line was inserted to explain that Maciek wore them because he had damaged his eyesight by spending too much time in the sewers of Warsaw during the uprising of 1944.) But Wajda added some idiosyncratic touches of his own to the film, including the bullets setting fire to the jacket of one of the unintended victims of the ambush, and some ventures into symbolism like the upside-down crucifix that looms over Maciek and Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska) when they visit a ruined church and the white horse that wanders the streets of the town near the film's end. Maciek is shot in a field where white sheets are drying on clotheslines, and when he clutches one of the sheets to himself, his blood shows through -- even though the film is in black and white, this is a reminder that the colors of the Polish flag, like the one the hotel keeper takes out to wave at the film's end, are white and red. Wajda also delighted in the ambiguity of Maciek's death scene, one of Cybulski's most extravagant moments, which takes place on a garbage heap. For the communist censors, he observed, this could be interpreted as the fate of rebels against their rule, while young would-be rebels could see it as the state treating them as garbage.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer, 2016)

Oscar Isaac is one of my favorite actors. I loved his work in Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013), A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor, 2014), Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015), and on the HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero (2015). He even managed to stand out in all the whiz-bang and nostalgia of the latest Star Wars installment. But I sat through the entirety of X-Men: Apocalypse without realizing, until his name appeared in the credits, that he was the one beneath all the makeup and prosthetics as En Sabah Nur, aka Apocalypse. Which makes me wonder: Why bother? Casting an actor of such skill and versatility in a role that could have been played by anyone willing to sit through hours of applying and removing body paint, silicone, and foam latex seems to me a waste of valuable resources. But I guess the same thing could be said about the entire film if you ignore the return the producers got on their estimated $178 million investment. When a film this size feels routine, something has gone awry, and X-Men: Apocalypse is nothing if not routine. There are things I enjoyed about it, like the special effects when Quicksilver (Evan Peters) rescues almost everyone from the explosion that destroys the institute. The trick of seeing everything as Quicksilver sees it -- i.e., as time standing still while he moves at superspeed, dashing from room to room to haul occupants to safety -- is nicely done. And there are good performances from Peters, from James McAvoy as Charles Xavier, Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr, Jennifer Lawrence as Raven, Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler. I enjoyed seeing Sophie Turner (as the latest iteration of Jean Grey) in something other than Game of Thrones and Hugh Jackman in an unbilled (and extremely violent) cameo as Logan/Wolverine. But there's a kind of heartlessness and thoughtlessness about it, too often characteristic of the superhero blockbuster movie genre, that my experience amounted to a kind of déjà vu. I just hope Isaac got paid well.  

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

L'Argent (Robert Bresson, 1983)

When does style become mannerism? And why is it that style is generally thought of as a good thing, and mannerism is often a pejorative? I found myself pondering these questions while watching Robert Bresson's last film, L'Argent. Bresson is one of the directors I most admire, so my first impulse is to admire L'Argent as a superb example of Bresson's austere style: his willingness to let the audience decide what's going on within the characters by restraining his actors' displays of emotion, the simplicity of his mise-en-scène, his use of ambient sound to do the job that other directors rely on musical scores to accomplish. He has a fascinating premise to explore in L'Argent, which he adapted from a story by Tolstoy: the horrible repercussions of the passing of a counterfeit bill by some schoolboys. They spend the bill in a photography shop, buying a picture frame mainly to get some real money in change. When the fake bill is discovered, the shop owner passes it off in payment to Yvon (Christian Patey), the young driver of a heating-oil delivery truck. When Yvon is arrested for passing counterfeit money, he identifies the clerk at the photography shop, Lucien (Vincent Risterucci), who gave him the money. But Lucien perjures himself, saying he had never seen Yvon before, so Yvon is convicted. Though he's given a suspended sentence, he loses the job that he needs to support his wife and small daughter. Unable to find work, he agrees to act as the getaway driver for an acquaintance who's robbing a bank, but is caught and thrown into prison. Life in prison does him no good, especially after he learns that his daughter has died of diphtheria and his wife has decided to start a new life. When he lashes out at a fellow inmate he is thrown into solitary. He attempts suicide, but survives and returns to prison where he finds that Lucien is also an inmate, having robbed the photography store and become rich through various forms of larceny. Embittered, Yvon serves out his term and is released, but he continues his descent into criminality, murdering the keepers of a small hotel and robbing them, and finally finding shelter with an elderly woman (Sylvie Van den Elsen), whom he also murders, along with her entire household. At the end, he confesses and is returned to prison. Bresson's dry, understated telling of this story gives it a kind of dreamlike matter-of-factness that a more florid and violent version couldn't achieve. But there are also moments when you become aware of the way Bresson is telling the story, moments in which, I think, style becomes mannerism, especially if you've seen enough Bresson films to recognize his particular way of dramatizing events. For example, there is one scene in which the camera focuses on a passageway in the Paris Métro: What we see for a long time (perhaps only seconds, but it feels longer given our natural impatience to want things to happen in a movie) are the foot of a stairway, the concrete floor and tiled walls, and the beginning of a passageway to the trains. Bresson holds on this empty space as we hear the train arrive and the doors open and people make their way toward the space, through it, and up the stairs past us. He stays on the space until people -- they are Lucien and two of his friends -- come down the stairs past us and enter the passage. We hear the train doors close and the train depart, and only then does Bresson cut to the platform and the train entering the tunnel. It's a moment of no real narrative importance, but Bresson's holding us there as it happens crafts a kind of suspense, a kind of anxiety of the quotidian that informs the entire film. The only problem I have with the scene is the way it sticks in my memory as an inflection of style. And remembering this moment at the expense of others more important to the theme and narrative of L'Argent makes me think of it as mannered. While it's still a fascinating and challenging film, Bresson's deadpan actors and his focus on emptiness lend themselves easily to caricature and parody, and I think he carries them too far in L'Argent, never finding the balance that make his masterworks -- Diary of a Country Priest (1951), A Man Escaped (1956), Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) -- such essential films.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, 2015)

It goes without saying that Steven Spielberg is one of the great directors, with a seldom-equaled skill at visual storytelling and at building tension and suspense. But Spielberg tries too hard to make a statement in Bridge of Spies -- something about defending the Constitution -- when it could have been simply an engaging film about Cold War tensions. It also suffers from the wrong kind of star power: Tom Hanks has devolved from a terrific actor, skilled at both comedy and drama, into the movies' iconic Good Guy. Casting him as the lawyer James Donovan, forced to defend a Soviet spy, deprives the film of any ambiguity about Donovan's defense of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Hanks's Donovan can simply wrap himself in the Constitution and we're with him all the way, even as public opinion of the time turns against him. As a film actor Hanks has lost his dark side, so we know that whoever he plays will triumph. Imagine Bridge of Spies with Donovan played by George Clooney or Bradley Cooper, stars with just a touch of shadow in their personae, and you can see what I mean. Fortunately, the film is otherwise well-cast, including Rylance's Oscar-winning turn as Abel, as well as Scott Shepherd's impatient CIA man and Sebastian Koch's duplicitous East German lawyer, and the screenplay by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen manages a good deal of suspense. (Sometimes at the expense of historical accuracy: Donovan was never shot at in his home, as the film has it.) The Coen brothers were brought in to work on the first draft of Charman's screenplay, specifically on the section in which Donovan finds himself negotiating separately with the Soviets and the East Germans to engineer an exchange of Abel for imprisoned U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and an American student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who has been accidentally arrested in East Berlin. It's the best part of the movie, as Donovan wrangles not only with the conflicting egos and bureaucracies of the Soviet and East German officials but also with the CIA's insistence that only Powers need be included in the deal. Unfortunately, Spielberg doesn't know when his movie is over. Bridge of Spies should end with the exchange of spies at the bridge, but Spielberg keeps it running as Donovan boards the plane for home, returns to the arms of his family just as the news of his successful negotiation is breaking, gives his wife (Amy Ryan) the jar of marmalade he promised to bring her from London, witnesses her realization that he wasn't in London after all, and soon afterward rides to work on the bus where a woman who had previously frowned at him as a traitor now smiles at him as a hero after seeing his picture in the newspaper. All the while, Thomas Newman's score is telling us what we're supposed to feel. It's sheer sentimental anticlimax, of the sort that many critics decry in what are usually regarded as Spielberg's greatest films, Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Schindler's List (1993). (I happen to agree that the frame story of the aging Ryan's visit to the cemetery in Normandy is unnecessary, though I think the Yad Vashem sequence at the end of the latter film can be justified by the enormity of its subject matter.)  Bridge of Spies is by no means a bad movie, but it would have been a lot better if Spielberg hadn't given in to his instinct for overemphasis.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Il Posto (Ermanno Olmi, 1961)

The examination scene in Il Posto
Kafka was a realist. Anyone who has ever worked for a large, bureaucratic corporation knows this. Being pushed about, subjected to irrational rules and decrees, unable to do more in the face of injustice than simply duck and cover -- these are the facts of corporate life that echo throughout the stories of the former employee of the Workers Accident Insurance Institute in Prague. Ermanno Olmi's Il Posto (i.e. "the job") isn't really based on Kafka, though I suspect Olmi and/or his co-screenwriter Ettore Lombardo may have been familiar with his work, because the frustration that the film's young protagonist, Dominico Cantoni (Sandro Panseri), runs up against has a striking resemblance to the arbitrary barriers that prevent Kafka's characters from making a break toward freedom. But Il Posto is also clearly under the influence of something Olmi certainly knew firsthand: Italian neorealism. Like De Sica and Rossellini, Olmi works largely with non-professional actors in Il Posto -- on IMDb, Panseri has only two more credits and a note that he was a supermarket manager in Milan -- and the streets of Milan and its suburb of Meda are its principal setting, neither of them the beneficiary of any attempts at sprucing up and glamorizing. The human milieu of Il Posto is the office workers of the lower middle class, people who see a chance at lifetime employment with a big company as salvation from downward mobility. Domenico has left school to help support his family -- father, mother, and younger brother -- and the possibility of landing a job with the unnamed company looks like a godsend. So he rides the train into Milan and goes through a series of tests, including absurd physical and psychological exams obviously designed by someone with just enough knowledge to be a nuisance. On his lunch break, he meets a fellow job applicant, the pretty Antonietta (Loredana Detto, who became Olmi's wife two years later), and he's pleased to find, a few days later, that they've both been hired. Unfortunately, they have jobs in different parts of the company and their lunch hours don't mesh, so for the rest of the film they are unable to further their relationship. When they do manage to meet, Antonietta tells him about an employees' New Year's Eve party, which he attends only to find that she hasn't shown up. Though no clerical position is immediately available, Domenico is taken on as a messenger between departments, a job that mostly consists of sitting at a small table with his supervisor and waiting. Meanwhile, we meet some of the older employees, most of whom spend their days in the tiny office into which their desks have been crammed dozing, doing busywork, or getting chewed out for being late. Olmi takes a striking departure from Domenico's story to show us snippets of the after-hours lives of these employees, supplying a backstory that keeps them from just being caricatures. Then one of this group dies, and Domenico is promoted to his job. But when he arrives at the man's desk, it's being cleared out and another employee protests that this desk, at the front of the room, should go to someone with seniority. So when it's ready, there's a mad rush to claim it, leaving Domenico in the poorly lighted back of the room. The film ends with a closeup on his face as a mimeograph machine clacks away. He says and does nothing, but when we reflect that the young man has just seen what's involved in attaining a position that will last for the rest of his life, we can imagine his feelings. Il Posto is a small film but a brilliant one that brings to mind more celebrated films about corporate life, such as The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928) and The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960), in the company of which it stands up well.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)

David Lynch's Lost Highway is a kind of fantasia on film noir themes: shady ladies, ruthless gangsters, morally compromised protagonists, and so on. Its story (by Lynch and Barry Gifford) doesn't play out against a background of supposed "normality," the way Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks or his films Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Dr. (2001) do. In the first two, Lynch plumbs the dark depths that lie below the cheerful surface of small towns, and he opens Mulholland Dr. with the sunny, naive optimism of Naomi Watts's character as she arrives in Los Angeles, ready to make it in the movies. Lost Highway is dark from the start, though not without moments of humor: When Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), receive the first mysterious videotape, which shows only the exterior of their house, they assume it came from a real estate agent. Things get darker from then on, until finally a tape arrives that shows Fred standing over Renee's body. He is quickly tried and sentenced to death, and just as quickly somehow morphs, while in his jail cell, into someone else: an auto mechanic, some years younger than Fred, named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). Released from prison, since he's clearly not Fred Madison and the police have nothing to hold Pete on, he returns home to his parents (Gary Busey and Lucy Butler) and to his job at a garage, where he works on the cars owned by a Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia). He gets involved with Mr. Eddy's mistress, Alice (played by a blond Arquette -- Renee was a redhead), and eventually winds up having sex with Alice in the desert and morphing back into Fred, who ends the film on the run from the police after killing Mr. Eddy. Oh, there's also a mysterious figure played by a heavily made-up Robert Blake, and some other bits of Lynchian enigma. In short, Lost Highway starts weird and gets weirder, like a nightmare from which there's no hope of waking. Unfortunately, as played by Pullman, Fred is a bland protagonist who barely registers before his transformation into Pete, a character to which Getty gives a bit more substance. The best work in the movie is done by the ever-reliable Loggia, who has a wonderful scene in which Mr. Eddy takes his revenge on a driver who was tailgating him. But the film has the perversity of Blue Velvet and the narrative disjunctions of Mulholland Dr. without the wit and cinematic finesse of either. I think it suffers from its lack of roots in an identifiable reality, even the caricature of reality in those films.