A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

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.      

Friday, April 28, 2017

Children of Nagasaki (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1983)

Keisuke Kinoshita
I've seen only three films by Keisuke Kinoshita, but it's clear from those three that the director was haunted throughout his life by the tragedy that militarism inflicted on his country. Morning for the Osone Family (1946) is a depiction of what one family, divided by its attitudes toward the war, went through during its waning years. Twenty-Four Eyes (1954) is a sentimental yet oddly powerful anti-war film that takes place in a pastoral setting virtually untouched by bombing raids, yet deeply wounded by the conflict just over the horizon. Children of Nagasaki was one of his last films, and also one of his least known in the West -- it has no reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, a link to only one review on IMDb, and no entry at all in Wikipedia. But of the three it's the only one that directly confronts the physical horror of the war. It's essentially a biopic of Takashi Nagai, a physician who survived the nuclear explosion in Nagasaki and devoted himself to writing about the event and its aftermath, using his training as a radiologist to document the effects of radiation. Most of Nagai's writing was censored by the occupation authorities and not published until after his death in 1951 from leukemia, with which he had been diagnosed before the bomb fell on Nagasaki.  In the film, Nagai (Go Kato) is at work when the bomb is dropped, killing his wife. His two children are in the country with their grandmother (Chikage Awashima), and with her help he goes about the task of rebuilding their home and their lives. The film, which begins with scenes from the visit to Nagasaki by Pope John Paul II in 1981, is suffused with Nagai's Roman Catholic faith, and while it's not clear if Kinoshita shared Nagai's faith -- the director is buried in a Buddhist cemetery -- he treats it with deep respect, even reverence. Children of Nagasaki is an uneven film, a little too heavily didactic, as the literally preachy use of the pope to open the film suggests. Three-quarters of the way in, Kinoshita suddenly and clumsily switches to a narrator, Nagai's grown son, reflecting on the life of his father. But he makes one striking choice: not to depict the horrors inflicted on the people of Nagasaki by the bomb at the point in the narrative when they occur, but instead to show them at the end of the film in a flashback, reinforcing the point that such a story can't really have a happy ending.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Babette's Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987)

I had an odd experience this morning when I sat down to write this blog entry: I couldn't remember what film I watched last night. Ordinarily I'd ascribe this memory lapse to a "senior moment," but once I remembered that the film was Gabriel Axel's Babette's Feast, I thought I knew what caused it. This is what I call a "mood movie," one that, like some pieces of music, is designed -- or perhaps better, destined -- to put you into a certain emotional state. In the case of Babette's Feast, it's a kind of sweet melancholy, a state so ephemeral that almost anything can sweep it away -- as my experience of Babette's Feast was wiped away when I watched Survivor and Marvel's Agents of Shield, not exactly sweetly melancholic shows, immediately afterward on TV. This is not meant as a knock on Gabriel Axel's film, the screenplay for which he adapted from a story by Karin Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen). After all, it won the Oscar for best foreign language film, beating out among other contenders Louis Malle's Au Revoir les Enfants. It does what it does extraordinarily well, which is to tell a story, evoke a particular time and place, and present us with memorable characters. It centers on two sisters, Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel), who live in a small Danish village where they tend to the aging congregation of a small, austere sect which their father gathered together many years ago. A kindly man, he nevertheless dominated their lives to the extent that suitors were discouraged from marrying them. One of Filippa's suitors was an aging French operatic baritone, Achille Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont), who was traveling through the village and happened to hear her singing in the church. Smitten with both her beauty and her voice, he offered to give her singing lessons, but when he proposed to take her to Paris and make her a diva, she took fright and turned him down. Some years later, during the unrest in Paris after the fall of the Second Empire in 1871, Papin sends to the sisters a young woman whose life has been threatened. Her name is Babette Hersant, his letter tells them, and she's an excellent cook who would be a fine housekeeper for them. Babette (Stéphane Audran) takes up residence with them and proves to be invaluable, bringing Parisian skills at seeking out the best food in the markets and bargaining for the best price. And then one day Babette receives word that an old lottery ticket has finally paid off to the tune of 10,000 francs. It is also the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the small congregation, and Babette proposes that she cook a dinner for the elderly, cranky, often fractious flock to celebrate. What the sisters don't know, but will soon learn, is that Babette had been one of the most celebrated chefs in Paris. The film climaxes in a triumphant union of the spiritual and the physical, as Babette's feast transforms the group into a true fellowship. Axel stages the feast beautifully, and cinematographer Henning Kristiansen emphasizes the transformation wrought by Babette's food with a steady focus on the faces of the congregants, which change from icy gray to rosy warmth as the meal progresses. There's a lovely little moment in which one of the sternest of the group reaches for a glass, discovers that it's filled with water, makes a face, and eagerly picks up a wine glass instead. As I've said, it's an ephemeral film, and I certainly don't think it deserved the Oscar over the more complex and powerful Au Revoir les Enfants, but on the other hand, what's so bad about feeling good?

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Last of Sheila (Herbert Ross, 1973)

Actor Anthony Perkins and songwriter Stephen Sondheim moonlighted as screenwriters to create this jeu d'esprit, a murder mystery involving the kind of elaborate games that Perkins and Sondheim and their friends used to play: treasure hunts with ingenious clues. The setup is this: A year earlier, Sheila, the wife of film producer Clifton Green (James Coburn), was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Green invites six people who were at a party the night of her death to spend a week on his yacht, which is named for her. Before they board, he arranges them for a photo under her name on the prow of the yacht. Then he announces that he is going to give each of them an envelope that contains a secret: something that a person would want to conceal about themselves. Each night, they will dock at a different location and will be given a clue that they must follow to discover the secret. If the person who holds the card with the secret on it solves the puzzle, the hunt of the night is over. So, on the first night, the clues lead to the secret: "Shoplifter." And when Philip (James Mason), a washed-up film director who holds that clue, solves it, the game ends. But the next night, the game isn't completed: Green is found murdered during the hunt. Meanwhile, realization dawns in the group that the secrets were their own: Philip wasn't a shoplifter, but the actress named Alice (Raquel Welch) admits that she once lifted a valuable fur coat from a store. And when the secret for the night Green is killed is revealed to be "Homosexual," Tom (Richard Benjamin), a screenwriter, admits that he and Green once had a brief affair. And so it appears that Green was murdered by someone who didn't want their secret to come out. But just when it appears that the murder has been solved, there's another intricate twist. The screenplay is fiendishly clever, and it's well acted: The other players include Dyan Cannon as a high-powered agent, Joan Hackett as Tom's rich heiress wife, and Ian McShane as Alice's manager-husband. Unfortunately, Herbert Ross directs things a little clunkily, although some of the awkwardness may come from the fact that shooting began on the yacht itself, but bad weather held up the shoot and sets eventually had to be constructed on a soundstage. There was also reportedly some conflict among the cast members and the director, centering on Welch. Today, some of the film's attitudes seem a little antique: Homosexuality is no longer such a terrible secret, although at the time Perkins and Sondheim, both of whom were gay, were still closeted. And perhaps not enough is made of the fact that one of the clues outs a character as a former child molester. The resulting film is something like a soufflé that didn't rise, turning out tasty but a little chewy. The best moments belong to, not surprisingly, Cannon, one of those performers who make every film they're in a little better.

The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

Back in the day, by which I mean the early 1960s, The Seventh Seal was one of the films -- along with Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) and La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960) -- that you had to have seen just to be considered culturally literate. Its stock has fallen considerably since then, thanks to a distaste for Ingmar Bergman's inquiries into faith. I hadn't seen it for many years until I decided to watch it last night, and I was expecting my reaction to be similar to the one I had recently watching Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly (1961): too much talking, not enough showing. I had, in fact, remembered very little from The Seventh Seal beyond the knight playing chess with death and the final dance of death across the horizon -- both of which have been parodied and copied ever since. And it is, still, much too talky: Epigrams about God and Death pile up on one another tiresomely.  But I had forgotten how human a fable it is. I think it succeeds where Through a Glass Darkly fails, partly because of setting: The glum isolation of the island in the later film puts all our concentration on the actors and the torment their characters inflict on one another. If Through a Glass Darkly is intended to raise questions about faith, about human beings' relationship to a god, it misses the mark. The world the characters of the film inhabit is not a world energized by faith, so their preoccupation with it seems pointless. But the setting of The Seventh Seal is an age of faith -- perhaps the last one our civilization will ever know -- which adds an urgency to the characters' wrangling with it. It became obvious to me on this viewing that the key character is not the knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), but his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), the sardonic commentator on the events. Jöns is our surrogate, the skeptic with a decidedly modern view of his era's religious extremism, such as the Crusade he and the knight have just been on. What we're witnessing is the merciful escape from a god that for some reason Bergman's modern characters keep hunting: the god of certainty -- the kind of certainty that breeds fanaticism and bigotry. In the end, Bergman's knight sacrifices himself to Death (Bengt Ekerot) so that ordinary people -- the players Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson) and their child -- may live to continue their secular amusements that had earlier been interrupted by fanatics and flagellants. 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.  .

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Makioka Sisters (Kon Ichikawa, 1983)

I haven't read the novel by Junichiro Tanizaki on which Kon Ichikawa based The Makioka Sisters, but it seems to me that he has turned it into something like a Jane Austen novel made by Merchant Ivory.* The lushly melancholy scene at the beginning of the film in which the sisters walk through the blossoming cherry orchards in Kyoto, accompanied by an instrumental arrangement of Handel's aria "Ombra mai fu" from Serse, anticipates by two years the scenes in Tuscany in the Merchant Ivory version of E.M. Forster's A Room With a View (James Ivory, 1985) that are set to music like Puccini's "O mio babbino caro" and "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta." The Jane Austen parallel is even stronger: The plot consists of finding a husband for one of the sisters, Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga), whose marital prospects are endangered by the unconventional behavior of her younger sister, Taeko (Yuko Kotegawa), just as Jane and Elizabeth Bennet's were by the scandalous behavior of their sister, Lydia, in Pride and Prejudice. And just as Austen's novels took place against the distant background of the Napoleonic wars, so do the Japanese military incursions into China -- the film begins in the spring of 1938 -- recede into the background of the domestic problems of the Makioka sisters. There are four Makioka sisters, the proud remnants of a family whose male line has died out, but the husbands of the two oldest sisters, Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi) and Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma), have adopted the family name and are helping rebuild its fortunes. The sisters adhere to the family tradition that older sisters must marry before younger, which Taeko, the youngest, rebels against. As the film begins, she has already tried to elope with the irresponsible Okuhata (Yonedanji Katsura), and although the family thwarted that attempt, the story made it into the newspapers, which incorrectly reported Yukiko as the one who tried to elope. The family demands a retraction, but the newspaper only issues a correction. Yukiko is beautiful but shy, and attempts by a matchmaker to arrange a marriage for her have fallen through. There is a wonderful scene in which the family goes to meet a suitor, who turns out to be a terrible but funny bore. Ichikawa, who co-wrote the screenplay with Shinya Hidaka, develops and individualizes the characters of the sisters and their husbands well, and stays just this side of romantic sentimentality. The cinematography by Kiyoshi Hasegawa makes the most of the colorful settings -- spring cherry blossoms and autumn foliage -- and especially the beautiful costumes of Keiko Harada and Ikuko Murakami. Only occasionally does the note intrude that this is an ephemeral world, soon to be swept away by war.

*No, I know. Ismail Merchant and James Ivory never filmed a Jane Austen book. But those who did, like Ang Lee with Sense and Sensibility (1995), were surely working in the Merchant Ivory mode.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Fantastic Planet (René Laloux, 1973)

"Fantastic Planet" isn't a very satisfactory translation of La Planète Sauvage, the original French title, but the more accurate "Wild Planet" might have led audiences in 1973 to expect a film about a world overrun with motorcycle gangs. Conceived and written by René Laloux and Roland Topor, from a novel by Stefan Wul, designed by Topor and animated by the Jiři Trnka Studio in Prague, Fantastic Planet is a sci-fi fable about the nature of humanity and its place in the universe. The humans in Fantastic Planet are called Oms (from the French hommes), and they are tiny things in a world where the dominant species is the Draags, giant blue humanoid creatures with big red eyes. The Draags consider Oms at best curious little animals and at worst vermin that need periodic efforts at pest control. At the beginning of the film we see a female Om carrying her baby, on the run but being flicked back by a great blue Draag finger each time she thinks she has made it to safety. It turns out that she is being played with by some Draag children, and when the Om mother is accidentally killed, a Draag girl named Tiwa takes the baby as to raise as a pet and calls him Terr. Tiwa outfits Terr with a kind of electronic collar that she can use to pull him back to her if he runs off. As the years pass and Terr grows up, Tiwa tires of her pet and one day he makes his escape and joins up with other Oms, one of whom helps him remove the collar. But Terr has something to share with his rescuers: The Draags receive their education through a headset, and a glitch in Terr's collar has allowed him to listen in on her lessons. Moreover, in his escape, he has stolen Tiwa's headset, and can now share the knowledge possessed by the Draags with his fellow Oms. Eventually, this leads to a revolution in which the Oms are finally able to go to war with the Draags and exploit their vulnerabilities. Much has been made of the fact that the animation was done in Czechoslovakia, beginning in 1967 in the era of the "Prague Spring," and that work on the film was interrupted by the 1968 Soviet invasion. Laloux experienced constant interference from the suspicious authorities, delaying the completion of the film, and the political background adds a piquancy to the finished product. But Fantastic Planet is hardly an allegory of resistance to Soviet repression. It has its roots, as Laloux noted, in the satire of Rabelais, and English speakers will probably find a Swiftian echo in the confrontation of little people and giants. The animation using paper cutouts also recalls Terry Gilliam's work for Monty Python, but the imagination is all Laloux's and Topor's. Alain Goraguer's jazz soundtrack adds immeasurably to the delicate, melancholic tone of Fantastic Planet, giving it a timeless quality where other products of the psychedelic era, like Yellow Submarine (George Dunning, 1968), now seem dated.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Il Grido (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1957)

Il Grido is Michelangelo Antonioni's last venture into something like neorealism before he moved away from conventional narrative film into the great trilogy of  L'Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), and L'Eclisse (1962) that enthralled critics and tantalized audiences with their emotionally numb protagonists, unresolved stories, and symbolic use of the urban environment as a correlative for the alienation of the characters. Which is not to say that Antonioni doesn't make powerful symbolic use of the environment in which the events of Il Grido take place. It's set in the Po Valley near Ferrara, where Antonioni grew up. It's a flat, muddy, marshy, malarial environment for a story about Aldo (Steve Cochran), who has suddenly had all of his ideas about what it means to be a man thrown into question. For seven years, he has lived with Irma (Alida Valli), working as a mechanic in a sugar refinery and helping raise their daughter, Rosina (Mirna Girardi). Irma's husband left her to seek work in Australia, and when word comes that he has died, Aldo suggests that they legitimize their relationship. But Irma wants to move on, and when she tells Aldo that she's found someone else, he beats her in the public streets, then quits his job, takes Rosina, and goes on the road in search of work. His odyssey puts him in contact with three other women, all of whom turn out to be stronger than the burly, macho Aldo. He goes to see an old girlfriend, Elvia (Betsy Blair), who still loves him but quickly discovers that she's better off without him around. He and Rosina hitch a ride on a petroleum tanker that drops him off at a filling station run by Virginia (Dorian Gray), with whom he begins an affair that makes him realize Rosina would be better off with her mother. But after sending her home, he decides he's unhappy being a kept man and sets off in search of work. He takes up for a while with Andreina (Lyn Shaw), a prostitute, but finally, depressed at being unemployed, returns to the town where he lived with Irma and finds her nursing a new baby, the refinery shut down, and the town being threatened with demolition to build an airfield for a military installation. When Irma learns of his return, she goes in search of him and finds him at the refinery, where he climbs to the top of a tower and falls to his death -- whether suicide or the consequence of the fatigue and weakness he exhibits, we're left to decide. Cochran never became the Hollywood leading man he sought to be, mostly finding tough-guy supporting roles in films like The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946) and White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949), but he gives an intensely physical performance in Il Grido. He's dubbed, of course, as is Blair, but post-synchronized dialogue was common in Italy at the time, and even Dorian Gray, who was Italian, was dubbed in Il Grido by no less than Monica Vitti, Antonioni's muse-to-be. Il Grido can be faulted as melodramatic, which the piano score by Giovanni Fusco tends to emphasize, but its compensatory strengths lie in Cochran's performance and in the use of the bleak, muddy landscape by Antonioni and cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Saboteur (Alfred Hitchcock, 1942)

It's heresy to suggest it, but Alfred Hitchcock needed movie stars. It's no accident that some of his most admired films featured Cary Grant, James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Ingrid Bergman. They seemed to inspire him to do his best work. I don't know if Saboteur would have been a better movie if Hitchcock had got his first choice of leads: Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. But I do know that they would have supplied the kind of charisma and finesse that are sorely lacking in Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane. Cooper and Stanwyck might also have inspired Hitchcock to give the film more than just more than a few now-familiar suspense tricks and one deservedly famous set piece -- the final scene on the torch of the Statue of Liberty. He might have been moved to prod his usually more-than-competent screenwriters -- Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, and Dorothy Parker -- to shape the story into something that makes a little more sense. It's the familiar Hitchcockian "wrong man" premise, one that was done far more skillfully in The 39 Steps (1935), would be improved on in Strangers on a Train (1951), and reach its apotheosis in North by Northwest (1959) -- whose climactic struggle on Mount Rushmore was surely inspired by Saboteur's Statue of Liberty sequence, one national monument standing in for another. Cummings and Lane don't strike any sparks with each other, but they aren't bad considering since they're flung into absurd situations -- his initial flight from prosecution, his encounter with a truck driver and a kindly blind man who are mysteriously motivated to help someone suspected of treason, their rescue by a troupe of circus sideshow performers, their blithely elided cross-country journey, their entrapment in a mansion full of high-society fascists, their perfunctorily treated escape, and the loony decision of the villain (Norman Lloyd) to flee to what amounts to a cul-de-sac, i.e., the Statue. Granted, almost every Hitchcock film can be picked apart on the grounds of plausibility, but he usually does a better job of covering it up. In the end, Saboteur reminds me of his earlier film, Young and Innocent (1937), another movie with charisma-deficient stars and a jury-rigged plot in which the director seems to be trying out things he will accomplish with more skill in his later work.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1984)

Like a botanist discovering rare plants pushing through cracked pavement and a littered vacant lot, writer-director Jim Jarmusch finds curiously indomitable life forms in the back streets of ungentrified New York, the frozen outskirts of Cleveland, and the parts of coastal Florida that tourists speed through on their way to Orlando or Miami. And he presents them to us in a film with a beautifully eccentric rhythm to it. Stranger Than Paradise is composed of 67 single takes grouped into three sections: "The New World," in which Eva (Eszter Balint) arrives from Budapest to stay with her cousin Willie (John Lurie) in his ratty one-room New York apartment; "One Year Later," in which Willie and his friend Eddie (Richard Edson) drive to wintry Cleveland, where Eva has gone to live with her Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark); and "Paradise," in which Willie, Eddie, and Eva go to Florida. To say that nothing happens in the film isn't entirely incorrect, especially in the New York and Cleveland sections, in which Willie and Eddie spend most of their time playing cards, smoking, and generally getting on each other's nerves, as well as Eva's. In Florida, they lose money gambling, win it back, and Eva accidentally strikes it rich when she's mistaken for a drug runner's bagman. Yet it's the blackout structure of the film that gives it the illusion of a plot, or at least forward motion. Once you catch its rhythm, you may find yourself, as I did, eagerly anticipating the way in which Jarmusch will end each scene. He rarely does it with a gag or a punchline, but somehow in ways that make each scene feel like a kind of epiphany. In one of the longest sequences, we do nothing but watch the three major characters, plus Eva's boyfriend Billy (Danny Rosen), as they sit in a Cleveland theater watching a movie that, because it has no dialogue but is punctuated with various grunts, seems to be a kung fu film. Billy, who we learn has bought the tickets for everyone, is walled off from Eva by Eddie and Willie, who sit on either side of her, and when he passes the popcorn to Eva, Eddie takes a big handful. We learn more about these characters from this wordless sequence than we do from some of the film's expository dialogue. Tom DiCillo's black-and-white cinematography makes the most of the locations that were chosen for their blandness, bleakness, drabness, or, in the case of the frozen, snow-covered Lake Erie, emptiness. The soundtrack, composed for string quartet by Lurie, is supplemented by Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You," a foreshadowing of Hawkins's appearance in Jarmusch's Mystery Train (1989).

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What Price Hollywood? (George Cukor, 1932)

Bradley Cooper is reportedly directing a remake of A Star Is Born in which he and Lady Gaga will take the roles played by Fredric March and Janet Gaynor in 1937, James Mason and Judy Garland in 1954, and Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand in 1976. So maybe it's a good time to check out the ur-Star Is Born, What Price Hollywood?, that was produced by David O. Selznick and directed by George Cukor in 1932. The name is different but the plot's the same: A successful man in the entertainment business discovers a young woman whom he helps become a star, but as her career ascends, his personal problems send him into a tailspin.* The idea for the film is a natural in a Hollywood that had become increasingly conscious of its own myth, and many real-life analogs have been found in the history of the industry. Selznick commissioned Adela Rogers St. Johns, a former reporter for Photoplay and the Hearst newspapers, to write the story for the film, and various other hands turned it into a screenplay, though St. Johns and Jane Murfin claimed most of the credit when they were nominated for an Oscar for best original story. The film begins with a touch of screwball comedy when Max Carey (Lowell Sherman), an alcoholic director, encounters Mary Evans (Constance Bennett), a waitress at the Brown Derby looking for her chance to break into the movies. After some funny scenes involving Max's drunkenness and Mary's initial ineptness as an actress, the movie unfortunately begins to get serious. Though it's clear Mary really loves Max, when she becomes a big star she marries a society polo player, Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton), after a somewhat cutesy courtship. But Borden is unhappy being "Mr. Mary Evans," and eventually storms out, though she's pregnant. Meanwhile, Max's decline continues, and after Mary rescues him from the drunk tank and promises to rehabilitate him, he shoots himself, thereby embroiling her in a headline-making scandal. But then Borden returns to apologize and all is well again. What keeps the film alive despite its clichés are the performances. Bennett is quite charming, and Sherman clearly models Max on John Barrymore, whom he knew well: He was married to Helene Costello, whose sister, Dolores, was Barrymore's third wife. The supporting cast includes Gregory Ratoff as the producer of Mary's films, Louise Beavers as (of course) her maid, and Eddie Anderson as Max's chauffeur -- five years before he became famous as Jack Benny's chauffeur, Rochester, on radio.  

*As if there were any doubt, there's a clear link between What Price Hollywood? and at least the first A Star Is Born in that both were produced by Selznick. RKO, which released What Price Hollywood?, threatened to sue Selznick over the similarities, but decided against it. Selznick also asked Cukor to direct the 1937 film, but Cukor declined, so William A. Wellman took it on. But then Cukor went on to direct the 1954 Star Is Born. I don't think there's any direct connection between What Price Hollywood? and the 1976 version, produced by Streisand and Jon Peters and directed by Frank Pierson, but the lineage by then was obvious.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Early Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1958)

Recurring flashes of déjà vu as I watched Yasujiro Ozu's Early Spring alerted me to the fact that I had seen the film before. As I've said, the titles of Ozu's films make it hard for even his admirers to recall which is which, and sometimes even the capsule synopses that appear with film listings aren't much help. With some filmmakers, those who depend on suspense and plot twists for effect, this kind of vagueness about what happens in any given film could be a flaw. You'd feel cheated if you found yourself watching one of their films again by mistake. But with Ozu, it's as if what happens doesn't matter so much as how it happens. For those of you who are unsure which one is Early Spring, it's the one in which Shoji Sugiyama (Ryo Ikebe), a "salaryman" for a fire-brick manufacturing company, and his wife, Masako (Chikage Awashima), are having marital problems. They have grown apart after the death of a child: He throws himself into his work, into concern over the illness of a friend, into after-hours drinking with old war buddies, and finally into a brief affair with a young woman (Keiko Kishi) he has met on the commuter train. She's called "Goldfish" because of her large eyes, and she's a rather giddy and flirtatious woman who likes to pal around with the guys. After Shoji and Goldfish are seen together on a weekend hike put together by some of their co-workers -- Masako, who is reserved and rather traditional in manner, declined to accompany him -- gossip begins to spread. Eventually it comes back to Masako, and after several incidents -- he spends the night with Goldfish and claims he was with his sick friend, he forgets to observe the anniversary of the death of their son, and he brings home two very drunk war buddies -- she leaves him. Meanwhile, Shoji has been offered a transfer to a distant manufacturing branch of his company, where he will have to spend three years in the hope that he can return to Tokyo and a promotion. Finally, he accepts the offer, and at the end Masako has joined him, thinking they can work things out. At the conclusion they watch a train go by and reflect that Tokyo -- as symbolic for them as Moscow is for Chekhov's three sisters -- is only three hours away. In their case, of course, it's three hours and three years. Characteristically, Ozu and co-screenwriter Kogo Noda tell this story in a strictly linear fashion. Another director might have been tempted to insert expository flashbacks to, for example, the death of the child. (I've noted before how in many Japanese films of the 1930s, including Ozu's 1933 Passing Fancy, the plots hinge on the illness of children. Ozu has clearly gone beyond that motif in Early Spring.) But by letting the story play out as it happens -- beginning with a "typical" day in the life of the Sugiyamas -- Ozu builds a special kind of intimacy with his characters, as we gather the clues to their behavior and sometimes their relationships along the way. This intimacy is reinforced by Ozu's signature low-angle camera, in which we build our acquaintance with the characters from the ground up, as it were. It's a film pregnant with all sorts of larger significance: the dreariness of corporate office work, the nostalgia for wartime adventure and camaraderie, the tension between tradition and modernization, none of which is allowed to overwhelm the simple human story it tells. For that reason, and many others, Early Spring bears re-watching, even unawares.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1998)

The Coen brothers' movies are usually more in the vein of Billy Wilder's acerbic satire than the affectionately loopy take on the varieties of human eccentricity you find in Preston Sturges's films. But The Big Lebowski somehow manages to have touches of both Wilder and Sturges, with the latter, I think, finally predominating. Or maybe it's just that I find that Sam Elliott's appearance, mustache in full bloom, at the end of the film casts the entire movie in a benign light. (Elliott is one of those actors who can make almost any movie better just by showing up in it.) But what also brings Sturges to mind is the special texture he gave to his films with the use of his stock company of character actors like William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Jimmy Conlin, and the rest. And the Coens have done something similar by bringing in their usual gang: John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, among others. They also make use of such great actors as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore in supporting roles, and how can you not love a film that gives David Thewlis a bit part in which he does almost nothing but giggle? Still, The Big Lebowski would be nothing without Jeff Bridges, our least appreciated great actor, finding the right note for the stoned and indomitable Dude. He takes a licking -- gets beat up, has his rug pissed on, gets beat up again and has his replacement rug snatched from him, has his car stolen, is threatened by German nihilists, finds his car but its windows get smashed, has a mickey slipped into his White Russian, gets arrested and beaten by the Malibu police, gets thrown out of a cab because he objects to the driver's playing the Eagles, goes home to find his apartment trashed, and finally sees what's left of his car set fire to -- but the Dude abides. And somehow in the middle of all this he finds time to go bowling with Walter (Goodman) and Donny (Buscemi) and perform something like Three Stooges routines (only funny) with them. It has been labeled a "cult film," but it transcends that label. Everyone who loves it has their own favorite lines: Mine happen to be "That's the stress talking" and "Hey, careful, man, there's a beverage here!" I suppose I also have to mention the contributions of Roger Deakins's cinematography and Carter Burwell's score augmented by T Bone Burnett's invaluable work as "musical archivist," but then everyone covered themselves with glory by working on The Big Lebowski.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Home and the World (Satyajit Ray, 1984)

Revolutions are mounted in the name of human betterment, but humanists -- those who try to act upon their belief in the potential of all human beings -- make lousy revolutionaries. That seems to be the message of Satyajit Ray's The Home and the World, an adaptation of a novel by Rabindranath Tagore that Ray had wanted to film almost his entire career. He finally overcame the obstacles to its filming in the last years of his life, but paid the price of two severe heart attacks while making it. He supervised its completion by his son, Sandip Ray. While it's rich in images and performances, the film does seem a little slow in telling its complex story. Satyajit Ray, who also wrote the screenplay, resorts occasionally to voiceovers, often a sign of uncertainty on the part of a filmmaker about whether his story is getting clearly told. The film begins with Bimala (Swatilekha Sengupta), the wife of the wealthy Nikhilesh Choudhury (Victor Banerjee), being tutored in English style and manners by Miss Gilby (Jennifer Kendal). Specifically, Bimala is learning an English parlor song, "Long, Long Ago." But Nikhil, who is a nascent liberal reformer, wonders why Bimala should be learning a foreign song. He becomes determined to free her from the strictures imposed on Indian women: Among other things, she's confined to only part of their large house -- women are forbidden to enter the part where he entertains guests. So when his friend Sandip (Soumitra Chatterjee), a spokesman for Swadeshi, the revolutionary movement protesting British rule, comes to stay in that part of the house, Nikhil takes Bimala down the corridor that connects the two parts -- shocking Bimala's widowed sister-in-law (Gopa Aich), who lives a life of idle complaining about her lot -- and introduces her to Sandip. It's an electric moment. Suddenly, not only her home but also the world of politics is opened to Bimala. Eventually, Sandip and Nikhil will have to clash, not just over Bimala but also over Swadeshi's program to have the country boycott foreign goods and learn to rely only on India-produced merchandise. The year is 1907, when the British mandated a partition of Bengal into separate Hindu and Muslim regions, and the religious separation only adds fuel to the economic conflict. Nikhil is in favor of Swadeshi up to a point, but as a man who owns a largely Muslim-run market, he also knows that eliminating foreign goods will hurt the poor, who can't afford the higher-priced Indian items. Bimala becomes the film's focal point for the division between Sandip's fervor and Nikhil's idealism, with tragic results. The three central performances are superb, and the color cinematography of Soumendu Roy and production design by Ashoke Bose are handsome, but the merger of history and romantic fiction is uneasy, with occasionally sketchy results on both counts.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Topper Returns (Roy Del Ruth, 1941)

This silly B-picture was just the thing to unwind with after the heaviness of the last couple of posts. It's the second of two sequels to the original Topper (Norman Z. McLeod, 1937), about a stuffy banker beset by sexy ghosts. But it doesn't have much in common with the first movie other than Roland Young as Topper and Billie Burke as his fluttery, suspicious wife who mistakes his odd behavior for infidelity when the ghosts start teasing him. Cary Grant and Constance Bennett were the mischievous ghosts in the first film, but Grant jumped ship before the first sequel, Topper Takes a Trip (McLeod, 1938), after which Bennett bailed out too. This time the sexy ghost is Joan Blondell, whose character, Gail Richards, is murdered by mistake: The intended victim was her friend, Ann Carrington (Carole Landis), heir to a large fortune. Once she passes over, the ectoplasmic Gail enlists Topper, of all people, in helping solve her murder. Young is, as always, a delight -- one of the greatest comic actors ever to be underemployed by Hollywood -- but he doesn't have a lot to do this time except be shoved around by the invisible Gail as they search for clues in the creepy mansion where she was murdered. Mrs. Topper shows up, too, accompanied by her maid (Patsy Kelly) and the chauffeur, played by Eddie Anderson, billed as Eddie "Rochester" Anderson because of his fame as the eponymous chauffeur on Jack Benny's radio show. Even though he's called "Eddie" by Topper and "Edward" by Mrs. Topper, he manages to slip in a line about how he wants his old job with Mr. Benny back. Although Anderson is given some stereotypical moments predicated on the old gag that black people are afraid of ghosts, and there's a tedious slapstick bit involving a sea lion (oh, don't ask), he's treated as more of a comic equal in the film than African American actors usually were, matching wisecrack for wisecrack. There are also some funny moments with Donald MacBride as a particularly addled police detective. The whole thing is laced through with topical gags that have lost their edge: Rafaela Ottiano plays a sinister housekeeper modeled on Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940), and if you don't get the joke immediately be sure that someone will refer to her as "Rebecca," even though her character's name is Lillian. The movie is also a reminder of how pervasive radio once was in popular culture: In addition to Anderson's reference to Jack Benny, there are also quips about Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" broadcast, and a radio giveaway show called "Pot o' Gold" in which people won the jackpot if they answered their randomly dialed telephone.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

When does beauty become a flaw? To put it another way, if beauty is only skin deep, how does an artist present it so that we don't linger on the surface of a work and fail to comprehend its depths? I raise this in connection with a viewing of Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu, a film universally praised for its beauty. It's easy to be mesmerized by Mizoguchi's visual compositions and by the sinuous fluidity of Kazuo Miyagawa's cinematography, as well as the poetry of Yoshikata Yoda's screenplay, all at the expense of feeling the coherence of the film's story and characters and ideas with our own lives. I find myself preferring Mizoguchi's less exquisite films to Ugetsu: Sansho the Bailiff (1954), surely, but also The Life of Oharu (1952) and even an earlier film like Osaka Elegy (1936). A case in point: The scene in which Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) returns home after his dalliance with the ghostly Lady Wasaka (Machiko Kyo) is a crucial and mythic one, evoking among other things Odysseus's return to Ithaca. And Mizoguchi stages it memorably: Genjuro enters the near-ruin of his house and finds it empty and littered, the fire pit cold. The camera follows him through the house in a long unbroken take, watches as he goes out the back door and sees him through the windows as he circles the house and re-enters. Only this time when he enters, the room is clean and the fire is burning brightly; his wife, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), embraces him. Overwhelmed and exhausted, he lies down and falls into a deep sleep beside his son, only to wake in the morning to find the cold empty room he first entered and to learn that Miyagi is dead. It's a magnificent sequence, a tour de force of acting, directing, camerawork and editing (by Mitsuzo Miyata). It makes a larger, deeper point: that Genjuro will never escape from ghosts. A less gifted director than Mizoguchi would have used conventional techniques like dissolves or double exposures to make the point. But there's also something distracting about instead employing a long, circular tracking shot with an invisible cut: We marvel at the technique at the expense of sharing Genjuro's experience. There is an art that conceals art, and I don't think Mizoguchi attains it here.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Through a Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman, 1961)

Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly is usually grouped with his films Winter Light (1963) and The Silence (1963) as a kind of trilogy about the search for God, though Bergman denied having any intent to make a trilogy. It remains one of his most critically praised films, winning an Oscar for best foreign language film and receiving a nomination for Bergman's screenplay. But there are many, like me, who find it talky and stagy, despite Sven Nykist's beautiful cinematography and the effective use of location shooting on the island of Fårö in the Baltic. Some of the staginess, I think, comes from the casting of such familiar members of Bergman's virtual stock company as Harriet Andersson, Max von Sydow, and Gunnar Björnstrand. Andersson plays Karin, a woman just out of a mental hospital where she has recovered from a recent bout with what seems to be schizophrenia. She is married to Martin (von Sydow) and they have come to stay on the island with her father, David (Björnstrand), and her younger brother, Minus (Lars Passgård). David is distracted by his attempt to finish a novel, and both of his children rather resent his preoccupation. Martin confides in David that although Karin seems to have recovered, the doctors say that her illness is incurable -- a revelation that David records in his diary. Of course, Karin reads the diary, which precipitates a crisis, during which, among other things, she seduces her own brother. At the climax of the film, Karin has a vision of God as a giant spider that attempts to rape her. After she and Martin are taken away to the hospital, David has a moment alone with Minus, whom he assures that God and love are the same thing, and that their love for Karin will help her. Minus seems consoled by this thought, but perhaps even more by the fact that he has actually had a connection with his father: "Papa spoke to me" are the last words of the film. This resolution of the film's torments feels pat and theatrical and even upbeat, which may be why Bergman went on to make the much darker films about religious faith that constitute the rest of the trilogy. But it also suggests to me why I find Bergman's films so much less satisfying than those of Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer, both of whom wrangled with God and faith in their films. Bresson and Dreyer liked to use unknown actors, and some of the familiarity we have with Bergman's players from other films distances us from the characters. We watch them acting, not being. When Bresson is dealing directly with religious faith in a film like Diary of a Country Priest (1951) or Dreyer is telling a story about a literal resurrection in Ordet (1955), we are forced to confront our own beliefs or absence of them. Bergman simply presents faith as a dramatic problem for his characters to work out, whereas Bresson and Dreyer drag us into the messy actuality of their characters' lives.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)

Wim Wenders's Paris, Texas has so much going for it: the performances of Harry Dean Stanton and Dean Stockwell, the dialogue by Sam Shepard, the cinematography of Robby Müller, the music by Ry Cooder. It won every major award at Cannes. So why do I feel like it's an unsatisfying film? It's not that I demand resolution from a work of art: That's a criterion long absent from modern and postmodern criticism. Life doesn't resolve itself, so why should art? I think it's partly that Paris, Texas resolves too much -- namely, its initial mystery: Why is Travis Henderson (Stanton) wandering in the desert, speechless and amnesiac? But the film doesn't make the explanation resonate with anything other than the failure of a marriage -- or perhaps two, since the marriage of Walt (Stockwell) and Anne (Aurore Clément) seems to be held together only by Travis's son, Hunter (Hunter Carson), whom they have been raising since his disappearance. It's as if L'Avventura (Michelangelo
Antonioni, 1960) had concluded with an explanation for Anna's disappearance, when in fact that unresolved disappearance is the whole point of the film: a catalyst for the experiences of Claudia and Sandro. Are we supposed to feel that the reunion of Jane (Nastassja Kinski) with Hunter -- a sex worker and an uprooted child -- is a kind of closure? It was Jane, after all, who gave up Hunter to Walt and Anne after Travis's first disappearance. For me, the first half of Paris, Texas is brilliant moviemaking: among other things in its superb use of landscape -- both the bleakness of Texas and the freeway- and airport-choked Southern California -- as a correlative for the lives of Travis and Walt. It's when Travis takes Hunter on the road in a needle-in-a-haystack search for Jane that the film falls apart. Wenders had already made a film about this kind of search: Alice in the Cities (1974), which seems to me a more satisfying film than Paris, Texas because it doesn't overreach itself, it doesn't complicate things with too many backstories and too much striving toward significance. It comes as no surprise to learn that the film was only half-written when it was begun, and that Shepard, who had been called away to work on another film, literally phoned in the climactic narrative in which Travis explains his disappearance. Though it's a tribute to the brilliance of both Shepard and Stanton that the scene comes off as well as it does, it plays as a set piece, and not as an organic part of what has gone before.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Shall We Dance (Mark Sandrich, 1937)

This was the seventh teaming of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and the fatigue is beginning to show, despite a score by George Gershwin and songs with his brother Ira. Shall We Dance is marred by a tired script -- credited to Allan Scott and Ernest Pagano -- that reworks the familiar pattern: The Astaire and Rogers characters meet cute, feel an attraction to each other that they resist, find themselves in farcical misunderstandings, and several spats, songs, and dances later assure themselves that they are in love. In this one, Astaire plays a faux-Russian ballet dancer called Petrov -- he's actually Pete Peters from Philadelphia, Pa. -- who really wants to be a tap dancer. The idea of Astaire as a danseur noble is absurd from the start, and Astaire knew it -- he had turned down the lead in the 1936 Broadway production of the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical On Your Toes, which like Shall We Dance centers on a production that combines ballet with Broadway-style dance. Gershwin, too, was not entirely happy about the idea of composing ballet music, but both men were eventually persuaded to go along with the idea. The plot gimmick is that Peters/Petrov has fallen for tap dancer Linda Keene, who initially spurns him, and through a series of mishaps the rumor gets started that the two are secretly married. After much ado, they really get married so she can divorce him and put a stop to the rumors, but by then they of course have really fallen in love. One problem is that, unlike the best Astaire-Rogers films, Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935) and Swing Time (George Stevens, 1936), the songs in Shall We Dance don't grow organically out of the screenplay. They have to be wedged in, like Astaire's number "Slap That Bass," which takes place in the engine room of the ocean liner on which Petrov and Linda are traveling -- one of the oddest of the Big White Sets for which the Astaire-Rogers musicals were famous: It's the cleanest engine room ever seen. The biggest Astaire-Rogers dance duet in the film is "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," which is performed on roller skates in a park when Petrov and Linda try to evade pursuing reporters; it, too, seems designed more to get Astaire and Rogers on skates than to contribute to the plot. On the other hand, there's an obvious missed opportunity for a romantic duet to the Oscar-nominated song "They Can't Take That Away From Me," which Astaire sings to Rogers, but he doesn't follow through by dancing with her. He does dance to a few bars of the song when it's reprised later in the film, but his partner is Harriet Hoctor, a dancer whose specialty was a deep back-bend that she performed while en pointe. There's a sequence in which Hoctor does her thing while dancing backward toward the camera, which she is facing, that's flat-out creepy. Astaire-Rogers film regulars Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore are on hand to do their usual fussbudget routines. Blore's bit in which he tries to tell Horton over the phone that he's been arrested and is at the Susquehanna Street Jail, constantly being interrupted in his attempts to spell "Susquehanna," is the film's funniest moment.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)

With John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear forms an unholy trinity of adventure films. All three are about soldiers of fortune in Latin American countries seen as ripe for the pickings by predatory outsiders. Clouzot's film is probably the most deeply cynical of the three: Houston at least lets two of his adventurers survive, and Peckinpah's bunch at least shows some sympathy for the exploited poor. But from the opening of Clouzot's film, in which a half-naked child is seen tormenting some cockroaches (a scene Peckinpah borrowed for his film's opening), we are in hell. The unnamed country is being plundered by the Southern Oil Company, known by the acronym SOC, pronounced "soak." The S and the O, however, suggest Esso, the old trademark of Standard Oil before it and Mobil morphed into the double anonymity of Exxon. An oil well is on fire 300 miles away from the SOC headquarters, which lie on the outskirts of an impoverished village, and the easiest way to deal with the fire is to seal it off with explosives. So the foreman at the headquarters, Bill O'Brien (William Tubbs), proposes sending a couple of trucks cross-country, laden with nitroglycerin. Union drivers would balk at such dangerous work, so the company hires some of the local layabouts: Mario (Yves Montand), a swaggering Corsican; Jo (Charles Vanel), a French gangster from Paris; Luigi (Folco Lulli), an Italian who has just learned that he has a terminal lung illness from his work handling cement for SOC; and Bimba (Peter van Eyck), a German who survived forced labor in a salt mine under the Nazis. All three have been idling in the village waiting for the big break that will allow them to leave, and this seems to be it. Desperation at getting out is so intense that one of the men who vie for the job commits suicide after he fails to land it. The journey is, to say the least, harrowing, and Clouzot, who adapted the screenplay with Jérôme Géronimi from a novel by Georges Arnaud, makes the most of every nail-biting moment of it. As a director, Clouzot is as smart in what he chooses not to show us and in what he does. Jo, for example, is not the first choice as a driver: O'Brien goes with a younger man. But when that man doesn't show up on the morning of departure, Jo takes his place. We don't see what Jo did to eliminate or delay his rival, but we're sure it wasn't good. And when one of the trucks explodes, we don't see the buildup to or the cause of the explosion: We witness it from a distance, and then join the surviving truck drivers as they come upon the scene, which they treat as just another hazardous obstacle on the road. The Wages of Fear was heavily cut on its first American release: The portrayal of American capitalism didn't sit well in the era of HUAC investigations. Clouzot's nihilism in The Wages of Fear sometimes feels a little heavy: One character actually dies with the word "nothing" on his lips. The screenplay for The Wages of Fear lacks the polished wit of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which also contains the great performances of Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and the undervalued Tim Holt. And The Wild Bunch displays Peckinpah's great narrative drive and unequaled handling of action sequences. But Clouzot's film easily belongs in their company, and its uncompromising darkness makes many think it the best of the three.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

That Man From Rio (Philippe de Broca, 1964)

With its nonstop silliness, Philippe de Broca's That Man From Rio became a big international commercial success, but more surprising, it got an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, written by de Broca with Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Ariane Mnouchkine, and Daniel Boulanger. It's usually characterized as a spoof of James Bond films, with their glamorous locations and over-the-top action sequences, but if a spoof is intended to laugh its target out of existence, That Man only whetted audiences' appetites for more of the same. One of its stars, Adolfo Celi, who pays the unscrupulous, fabulously wealthy Mário de Castro, turned up the following year as the unscrupulous, fabulously wealthy Bond villain Emilio Largo in Thunderball (Terence Young, 1965). And it's easy to see touches of That Man From Rio in later action-adventure films, such as the Indiana Jones series, which like de Broca's film centered on archaeological treasure hunting. In That Man From Rio, the location of a priceless treasure is discovered by lining up the sun's rays through the lens in an ancient statue, just as Indiana Jones uses the sun's rays and an ancient artifact to discover the location of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981). Jean-Paul Belmondo's Adrien picks up the help of a Rio shoeshine boy called Sir Winston (Ubriacy De Oliviera), just as Harrison Ford's Indy picks up a kid sidekick called Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Spielberg, 1984). Still, That Man From Rio stands on its own for its goofy energy, most of which is supplied by Belmondo, who with his ex-boxer's mug and physique is entirely credible flinging himself into whatever improbable situation he is called on to fight (or swim or climb or swing from vines) his way out of. Françoise Dorleac is the giddy heroine, Agnès, who spends much of the first part of the movie drugged out of her mind and never seems to find her way fully back to sobriety. It's only in retrospect -- 53 years worth of retrospect -- that the film turns sour. Today, we can see it as part of the playing out of a post-colonial environmental nightmare. There are no slums to be seen in the film's Rio: Sir Winston lives in a neatened up favela nothing like the one you see in City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002). The city of Brasília, still under construction when the film was made, is treated as a setting for Belmondo's stunts and for elaborate parties, though perhaps some of the bleakness and sterility of its Robert Moses-style urban-planning megalomania is hinted at. And at the end our hero and heroine are "rescued" by construction crews blasting and bulldozing their way through the rainforest, constructing highways that will connect to the country's new capital. There's no apparent suggestion that this constitutes a kind of environmental rape, although the villainous archaeologist (Jean Servais) is buried along with what might have been a valuable site. De Broca does allow us a glimpse of an Indian family looking on in astonishment at the raw earth uncovered by the bulldozers pushing their way through what must have been their neighborhood. It's a fleeting moment, however, one quickly passed over as Adrien and Agnès ride a truck back to civilization.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Down by Law (Jim Jarmusch, 1986)

At the end of Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train (1989), his young Japanese tourists set out for New Orleans, where the writer-director had been three years earlier to make Down by Law. As he did with Memphis for Mystery Train, Jarmusch imagined the city and wrote his screenplay before he ever set foot in New Orleans, and the resulting film is a kind of fleshing out of his imagination. Jarmusch's New Orleans is a construct of legend and myth, then, not to be taken literally any more than one would a fairy tale -- which is what Jarmusch has called Down by Law.  He imagines New Orleans as a city of musicians, prostitutes, and tourists, and he casts his three central characters in the mode of each: Tom Waits as Zack, an out-of-work disc jockey; John Lurie as Jack, a small-time pimp; and Roberto Benigni as Roberto, or Bob, an Italian wandering the city to soak up American idiom, which he dutifully writes down in his notebook. But if Jarmusch's New Orleans is an imaginary construct, it is grounded in a kind of visual reality, provided at the film's beginning by Robby Müller's camera as it roams the streets of the city, showing the signs of decay it exhibited even before Katrina. And the scenes that establish Zack and Jack are rooted in a sordid poverty, as Zack is kicked out of their apartment by his girlfriend, Laurette (Ellen Barkin), and Jack is lured into a trap in which he is arrested with an underage prostitute he has never met before. (Bob makes a kind of cameo appearance in a scene with Zack, thoroughly stoned and out on the street, who tells him to "buzz off" -- a phrase Bob records in his notebook.) After Zack is tricked into driving a car that has a body in the trunk, he joins Jack in the Orleans Parish Prison, where things look like they can't get any worse. But then Bob joins them in their cell, having been arrested for killing a man with a billiard ball in a pool hall fracas, and the film turns on a dime from a noirish study of the underclass into an off-beat comedy that, among other things, validated Benigni's Italian reputation as a comic genius. Here he's a catalyst, stirring Waits and Lurie into performances that raise their characters from sleazy to endearing. But the real star of the film for me is Müller, whose black-and-white cinematography also elevates the sordid into the beautiful. It becomes a film of textures, from the silken skin of a nude prostitute to the etched graffiti on a prison cell wall to the layer of duckweed on the surface of a bayou. In an interview, Müller has commented on how black-and-white has an effect of subtraction: Color gives you more information than you need, while black-and-white helps you concentrate on particulars. Down by Law has been criticized for its slowness, and Jarmusch certainly lets the tension slack a little, but even when there's nothing much going on, Müller's images keep the pulse of life steady.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)

Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest (1959) are the best of Alfred Hitchcock's "wrong man" thrillers, in which the protagonist is suspected of a crime he didn't commit and spends most of the film trying to prove his innocence. They have something else in common: Both involve seduction scenes that take place on a train, except that in the latter film the seduction, of Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) by Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), is conventionally heterosexual. It's the gay subtext that marks Strangers on a Train from the very beginning, when we watch the feet of Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) as they board the train and eventually bump up against each other in the club car. It's Bruno's flamboyance, especially the gleaming white of his brown-and-white spectator shoes, that we notice first, before we see his lobster-patterned tie and the gold tie clasp that proclaims his name. Even the straightest viewer gets it: Bruno is cruising. And he lights upon the handsome athlete, Guy. Bruno is blatant, and he's more than a bit obnoxious, as he invades Guy's space and continues to talk after Guy has signaled that he'd be happy to be left alone with his book. Yet somehow Guy, who on the surface of it seems the kind of man who would brush Bruno aside swiftly, lets himself be talked into having lunch in Bruno's compartment. Only when Bruno makes his shocking tit-for-tat murder proposal does Guy make his exit. I think that Hitchcock is suggesting that Guy is at least intrigued by the possibility of hooking up with another man. Guy's sexuality is brought into question by his marriage to the promiscuous Miriam (Kasey Rogers, then billed as Laura Elliott) and by the obvious motive of political ambition that has led him to the daughter of a senator, Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), who looks older than he does. (Roman was, in fact, three years older than Granger.) Hitchcock goes about as far as he can under the Production Code in making his characters gay, but even this little helps heighten the paranoia that's haunting Guy.  It was 1951, after all, when homosexuality was still considered "deviance" and ferreting it out became an obsession of the FBI and other watchdog groups. That said, Strangers on a Train works even if you prefer to ignore subtext and see Guy and Bruno as a conventional hero and villain. Walker's performance is one of the best in any Hitchcock film, and his failure to be nominated for it by the Academy remains a marked injustice. Strangers received only one nomination, a deserved one: for Robert Burks's cinematography, the first of 12 collaborations with Hitchcock. Also overlooked were editor William H. Ziegler and special effects creator Hans F. Koenekamp, who gave us one of the most exciting scenes in the movies: the runaway merry-go-round. Hitchcock was deservedly proud of the film, having fought with his first choice as screenwriter, Raymond Chandler, who retained credit after he was fired and the script was rewritten, under Hitchcock's guidance, by Czenzi Ormonde and the uncredited Ben Hecht and Alma Reville, who followed an initial adaptation by Whitfield Cook of Patricia Highsmith's novel. Roman's casting is the film's major weakness: The studio forced Hitchcock to cast her, and he made no attempt to turn her into a real actress. She quickly exhausts her limited supply of anxious looks, practically the only ones the screenplay gives her; perhaps only the fear of getting lipstick on her teeth kept her from actually biting her lip. But the film launched what some think was Hitchcock's greatest decade, culminating in the amazing trifecta of Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest, and Psycho (1960).

Thursday, April 6, 2017

I Vinti (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1953)

Fay Compton and Peter Reynolds in I Vinti
Why did they burn Joan of Arc? a character asks in Michelangelo Antonioni's I Vinti. Because she got involved in politics, another replies. It's a response befitting the disengaged youth that are the focus of the three episodes in Antonioni's film, the title of which is often translated as The Vanquished. They are the postwar generation in Europe, deprived of the political fervor that drove their parents' generation into war. But Antonioni has another reason for sniping at politics: It interfered with his efforts to make and distribute the film, which was banned in France until 1963 and never received theatrical distribution in the United Kingdom, even though two of the episodes were filmed in those countries. One of the reasons for the bans was legal: The episodes were based on actual incidents and could have led to prosecution on various grounds. But Antonioni was also forced to change his original plan for the Italian episode, which was to have been about a violent act of political protest, and instead make his protagonist a kind of rebel without a cause: a young man who turns to cigarette smuggling as a reaction against his wealthy parents. The film as released also is weighed down by a didactic prologue explaining that these are stories about the plague of what was then called "juvenile delinquency" -- a heavy-handedness uncharacteristic of Antonioni as artist. The first of the three episodes takes place in France: A group of high school students play hooky, telling their parents that they're going on a class field trip, and instead go to the countryside where, in the ruins of a chateau, a boy who has boasted of how much money he has -- he ostentatiously lights his pipe with a five-dollar bill -- is shot and robbed, only to reveal that the money is fake. The Italian episode features Franco Interlenghi as Claudio, whose venture into cigarette smuggling is busted by the police. On the run, he shoots and kills a guard, but he also takes a fall from which he apparently suffers internal injuries. Rescued by his girlfriend (Anna Maria Ferrero), he returns home, but dies before the police can arrest him. In the English episode, a police reporter (Patrick Barr) for a London newspaper receives a call from a man (Peter Reynolds) who claims to have discovered a body in a park and wants to be paid for his story. Relishing the celebrity his story brings him, he eventually admits to having murdered the woman (Fay Compton), a prostitute, and is sentenced to death. Slight as the three episodes are, they are vivified by sharp writing -- the screenplay is by Antonioni, Giorgio Bassani, Suso Cecchi D'Amico, Diego Fabbri, Roger Nimier, and Turi Vasile -- and by the director's increasing virtuosity in placing his camera. The cinematography is by Enzo Serafin. Granted, what we often watch the early films of great directors for are signs of their future brilliance, and especially in the English section there are some striking foreshadowings of Blow-Up (1966). But making allowances for some of the restrictions under which Antonioni was working, I Vinti is impressive on its own. I was struck by the Hitchcockian humor in the English episode, when the reporter tangles with his unseen but hilariously incompetent switchboard operator. Unfortunately, the version I watched on FilmStruck retains the original dubbing of the French and English sections into Italian, but apparently there are undubbed DVD versions.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, 1996)

The "prestige motion picture" is a familiar genre: It's typically a movie derived from a distinguished literary source or a biopic about a distinguished historic figure, with a cast full of major actors, but designed not so much to advance the art of film as to attract critical raves and awards -- particularly Oscars. There are plenty of examples among the best-picture Oscar winners: A Man for All Seasons (Fred Zinnemann, 1966), Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981), Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, 1982), Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984), Out of Africa (Sydney Pollack, 1985), and The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987). (The 1980s seemed to be particularly dominated by prestige-seekers.) The trouble is that once the initial attraction of these films has faded, few people seem to remember them fondly or want to watch them again. I'd rather watch The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) today than sit through A Man for All Seasons, and I would say the same for Atlantic City (Louis Malle, 1981), Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), Starman (John Carpenter, 1984), Prizzi's Honor (John Huston, 1985), and Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987) when put in competition with the prestige best-picture winners of their respective years. So I watched The English Patient last night to test my theory that prestige movies don't hold up over time. It fits the category precisely: It's based on a Booker Prize-winning novel by Michael Ondaatje; it has a distinguished cast, three of whom were nominated for acting Oscars, including Juliette Binoche, who won; it earned raves from The New Yorker, the New York Times, and Roger Ebert; it raked in 12 Oscar nominations and won nine of them -- picture, supporting actress, director Anthony Minghella, cinematographer John Seale, art direction, costumes, sound, film editor Walter Murch (who also shared in the Oscar for sound), and composer Gabriel Yared. And sure enough, there are films from 1996 that I'd rather watch again than The English Patient, including  Fargo (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen), Lone Star (John Sayles), and Trainspotting (Danny Boyle). But I also have to say that of all the "prestige" best picture winners, The English Patient makes the best case for the genre. It's a good movie, with a mostly well-crafted screenplay by Minghella from a book many thought unfilmable, though it still tries to carry over too much from the novel, such as the character of David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), whose function in the film, to provoke Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) into uncovering his story, could have been served equally well by Hana (Binoche). But the performances still seem fresh and committed. Binoche, though designated a supporting actress, carries the film by turning Hana into a kind of central consciousness. I was surprised at how much heat is generated by Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas as Katharine, considering that they are both usually rather icy performers. There are some beautifully staged scenes, like the one in which Kip (Naveen Andrews) "flies" Hana so she can view the frescoes high in a church. And Murch's sound editing gives the film a marvelous sonic texture, starting with the mysterious clinking sounds at the film's beginning, which are then revealed to be the bottles carried by an Arab vendor of potions. Murch's ear and Seale's eye make the film an enduring audiovisual treat.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Jean de Florette / Manon of the Spring (Claude Berri, 1986)


There's no good reason why Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring should have been two films rather than one. They were shot together over the course of seven months, but released separately, Manon following Jean after about three months. Shown together as one film, they would total some 230 minutes -- only a bit longer than Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959) at 212 minutes or Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) at 222 minutes. But the length of those films seems consistent with their epic pretensions, whereas Jean/Manon together amount to a domestic melodrama -- an entertaining one, with a beautiful Provençal setting, but far from an epic. Their separate releases feel a bit like a con -- as in economics. Films of that blockbuster length are a drag on the exhibitor, who must schedule fewer showings per day, so it probably made sense to release Jean, which unabashedly announces at the end that it's "part one," to whet an appetite for Manon, whose posters announced it as the second part of Jean de Florette. Voilà! double the box office take. In fact, Manon of the Spring had been filmed before, by Marcel Pagnol in 1952, and it had been a long film, as much as four hours, before being cut by the distributor. Pagnol was so upset by this experience that he turned the screenplay into a novel, L'Eau des Collines, adding the story of Manon's father, Jean, which had been only a backstory in his film. And it's this novel that Claude Berri decided to adapt into his two films. The problem I see, having just watched Berri's films back to back, is that there's not quite enough material for two. Jean de Florette is an overextended prequel, introducing the characters of César Soubeyran (Yves Montand) and his nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil), and their villainous attempt to cut off the water supply to Jean (Gérard Depardieu), the newcomer who inherits the estate they covet. Or perhaps Manon of the Spring is a thinly developed sequel, in which Jean's daughter, Manon (Emmanuelle Béart), avenges her father. If Jean had been trimmed of some of the scenes of Jean raising rabbits and Manon of some of the shots of Manon gamboling with her goats in the hills -- as well as the romantic subplot involving the new village schoolteacher (Hippolyte Girardot) -- both stories could have fitted nicely into one movie. Manon climaxes with a scene in which César learns an uncomfortable truth about Jean's parentage, but Berri and co-screenwriter Gérard Brach drag the film out after that revelation, which should have been left to make its impact. Still, Berri's films have much to recommend them, especially the performances of Montand, Auteuil, and Depardieu (the last is sorely missed in the second film) and the beautiful cinematography of Bruno Nuytten. Jean-Claude Petit's score makes good use of themes from the overture to Giuseppe Verdi's La Forza del Destino.  

Monday, April 3, 2017

Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin, 1947)

At the end of Monsieur Verdoux, Charles Chaplin, in the title role, walks away toward his execution by guillotine, just as his Little Tramp character used to walk away toward the horizon in his earlier films. It's a richly ironic moment, not just because Chaplin is parodying the endings of his other movies, but also because it would come to symbolize the beginning of the end of his career. He would make three more films, only one of which, Limelight (1952), would attract an audience (mainly in Europe) and earn some critical respect. Of the other two, A King in New York (1957) was not even released in the United States until 1973, and although The Countess From Hong Kong (1967) did get American distribution, it was generally panned even by critics inclined to favor Chaplin and was a major box office flop. Monsieur Verdoux is a key work in its revelation of Chaplin's strengths and weaknesses. His strengths are still there: He was, when he wanted to be, a very funny actor, and there is one scene -- Verdoux and Annabella (Martha Raye) in a rowboat -- that is among the most hilarious sequences ever filmed. His weaknesses stemmed from his desire to be more than funny: to make statements about the way he saw the world. The ending of The Great Dictator (1940) was marred when he shifted from satire to sermon, and the rather muzzy anticapitalism expressed by Verdoux in the final scenes strikes us today as banal. Unfortunately, in 1947 it struck many as worse than that. In the increasingly heated anticommunist fervor of the day it was at least heresy, at worst treason. Monsieur Verdoux was picketed and banned and eventually withdrawn from circulation in the United States, not to be seen here until 1964. It confused most of the critics in 1947 with its shifts in tone and its rather old-fashioned mise-en-scène and cutting, but it had its defenders, chief among them James Agee, who wrote a long, impassioned multipart essay for The Nation defending the film. "I love and revere the film as deeply as any I have ever seen," Agee wrote, "and believe that it is high among the great works of this century." Not many people would go that far today. Monsieur Verdoux has its longueurs and its unfortunate wanderings into Chaplin's particular brand of sentimentality, especially the wheelchair-bound wife and adorable child. It betrays Chaplin's perennial weakness for the pretty girl in his casting of the wooden Marilyn Nash in what seems to have been intended as a key role but which fizzles because it's awkwardly written and performed. Even the title role is inconsistently written and performed: Chaplin's dapper Verdoux suddenly turns into a slapstick clown and just as suddenly back into the suave and sinister serial killer, undercutting the high-minded pseudo-Shavian irony of his final apologia: "As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? And done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison." Monsieur Verdoux feels something like a scene from Act IV in the tragicomedy that was Chaplin's life. If the first three acts were about his rise to success, despite controversy over his personal life and his politics, the fourth act finds his artistic instincts failing him and the controversies forcing him into exile. Only in the fifth act does the adulation that once surrounded him revive.