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

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

People on Sunday (Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, 1929)

People on Sunday (Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, 1929)

Cast: Erwin Splettstößer, Brigitte Borchert, Wolfgang von Waltershausen, Christl Ehlers, Annie Schreyer. Screenplay: Billy Wilder, based on reporting by Curt  Siodmak. Cinematography: Eugen Schüfftan. 

Only a strict formalist could watch the celebrated docufiction People on Sunday (aka Menschen am Sonntag) solely for its artful blend of storytelling and preservation of the way things were. But for the rest of us, there’s no way to watch Berliners enjoying themselves on a Sunday in 1929 without thinking about it as a picture of the calm before the storm – more especially because the young filmmakers who created it were soon to be caught up in the storm. Within a few years, directors Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, screenwriter Billy Wilder,  cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan, and even his camera assistant, Fred Zinnemann, would be driven out of Germany and eventually into Hollywood by the rise of Nazism. No work of art, after all, exists ahistorically. And People on Sunday is a work of art, a charming, slightly saucy glimpse at people being themselves. The five people the film concentrates on are non-actors: a taxi driver, a wine salesman, a salesperson in a record store, a woman who makes her living as an extra in movies, and a model. They’re all marvelously un-self-conscious about playing fictionalized versions of themselves, as are the hundreds of Berliners that surround them on the screen.


Tuesday, September 27, 2022

César and Rosalie (Claude Sautet, 1972)


Cast: Romy Schneider, Yves Montand, Sami Frey, Bernard Le Coq, Eva Maria Meineke, Henri-Jacques Huet, Isabelle Huppert. Screenplay: Jean-Loup Dabadie, Claude Sautet, Claude Néron. Cinematography: Jean Boffety. Production design: Pierre Guffroy. Film editing: Jacqueline Tiédot. Music: Philippe Sarde.

There’s a reason why there’s no English word or phrase for ménage à trois. It may be a concept foreign to Anglo-American culture. Instead, we have “eternal triangle,” which implies hostility rather than affection. To be sure, César and Rosalie contains a considerable amount of hostility among César (Yves Montand), David (Sami Frey), and Rosalie (Romy Schneider), but in the end we are almost persuaded that they love one another, and even that they might make it work. Everything pivots around the woman, of course, very fetchingly played by Schneider. Rosalie has had many lovers, but perhaps none so different from each other as the bullish self-made man César and the reserved and sophisticated cartoon artist David. And yet they are both men, and they display common characteristics when it comes to women. When César has a poker night with his buddies, Rosalie is ordered about, fetching ice and beer and vodka for the guys. She flees this smoky gathering for David’s, where he’s meeting with other men about a publishing product. And sure enough, it’s not long before one of the men asks her to make coffee. David, to his credit, comes to her aid, and César, upset by her sudden disappearance, spends the evening searching for her. And so begins a series of oscillations between the two men until finally Rosalie reaches her limit, realizing that she can’t live peacefully with either of them – or with both of them. Or can she? The end leaves that question deliciously unresolved. This is a film with a great deal of charm and insight. Montand gives one of his best performances as the cigar-chomping, blustering guy who made his fortune in the scrap metal business, but Schneider and Frey in their quieter roles are equally fine.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Beauty and the Beast (Bill Condon, 2017)


Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Hattie Morahan, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky, based on a screenplay by Linda Woolverton. Cinematography: Tobias A. Schliessler. Production design: Sarah Greenwood. Film editing: Virginia Katz. Music: Alan Menken. 

As one who thinks the Disney corporation’s decision to remake its cartoon films as live action ones is wrong-headed, I was prepared to be dismissive of Beauty and the Beast. But after saying that I think Bill Condon’s film is overlong and its production design is visually cluttered, I admit that I was won over, mostly by the casting and the reprises of the original Alan Menken-Howard Ashman songs. (I think the newer songs, with lyrics by Tim Rice, are just okay, not really so catchy and memorable.) Truth be told, I will watch almost anything that features Dan Stevens, Kevin Kline, and/or Emma Thompson, even their voices. And it’s nice to hear that their singing voices, as well as that of Emma Watson, are up to the demands. I also think that the “live” version (if you can call anything with so much CGI and motion capture live) improves on the cartoon in some regards. The characters of Gaston and LeFou are way too “cartoony,” if you will, in the cel-animated version. Luke Evans and Josh Gad do a good job of making them both funny and credible, and I love the hints of LeFou’s gayness that the new  version slips in – the film didn’t even need the fleeting glimpse of LeFou dancing with another man that caused so much stupid controversy.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Made in U.S.A. (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)


Cast: Anna Karina, László Szabó, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Marianne Faithfull, Yves Afonso. Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard, based on a novel by Donald Westlake. Cinematography: Raoul Coutard. Film editing: Françoise Collin, Agnès Guillemot. 

Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in U.S.A. wasn’t released in the titular country until 2009 because Godard failed to secure the rights to the Donald E. Westlake novel on which it was based, although it’s unlikely that even Westlake would recognize the film’s relationship to the novel he published under the pseudonym Richard Stark. It’s an allusive (and some would say elusive) ramble through all manner of detective fiction and film noir, often wearing its sources on its sleeve, with references to fictional characters, movie actors (e.g., Richard Widmark, whose name László Szabó bears in the film), filmmakers (e.g. Otto Preminger), and screenwriters (e.g. Ben Hecht). But it’s also, as the character played by Jean-Pierre Léaud and bearing the name of the director Don Siegel says, “a political movie. Just like a Disney movie, only with blood.” Anna Karina’s detective Paula Nelson is searching for the killer of one Richard Politzer, except that we never hear the last name in the film: It’s always blocked out by some off-screen sound like a car horn. The reason seems to be that Godard is alluding to the Marxist philosopher Georges Politzer, a figure of some controversy in the  hyperpolitical France of the 1960s. Most of the movie’s literary, cinematic, political, and historical allusions can be ignored, if you just want to let the bright colors of Raoul Coutard’s cinematography dazzle you and the foolery of the film’s parody and nonsense scenes wash over you. (If you want more, there’s a very good short film about the allusions included with the Criterion Collection edition of the movie, which is also currently available on the Criterion Channel.)