Friday, September 28, 2012

High Noon (1952) - Fred Zinnemann

Amidst the A-List are a number of Westerns.  It is that genre that is so quintessentially American and at it’s best is a perfect setting for allegory and parallels with modern times.  High Noon was one of those classic Westerns that embodied this perhaps more than any other, at least until Johnny Guitar made their red allegory about as subtle as an Adam Sandler movie.  It was also one of the first Westerns that was designed as a serious artistic picture with designs on Oscars rather than amusing 10 year old boys.  For these reasons it’s decades ahead of it’s time and fits quite snugly into our modern world of revisionist Westerns hell bent on showing “grit” or how things “really were” back in the old West.

For what it’s worth, and this is my review for my blog so my opinion rules here, I think High Noon is a solid second tier masterpiece.  Now if you skimmed that sentence you noticed the word “masterpiece” and probably scratched your head at “second tier”.  For example wouldn’t these terms be mutually exclusive?  That’s like calling someone a great sidekick or even the smartest moron.  It isn’t a bad term in those regards so I should perhaps explain what I mean here.

In the world of film there are those good films, the great films, and the really, really great films.  That top level is reserved for a handful of films and that can be as wide as you wish to define it.  That may mean the top 20 or so films, or your top 100, or even more.  The next level could be those films that are fantastic but clearly not as great as some others.  This is like saying Rear Window is a great film but not as good as Psycho.  Well High Noon is a good to great film but not as good as say Unforgiven, The Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West, and some others.  It is a flawed film so saying it’s perfect would naturally defeat the purpose of me calling it a flawed film just now, so read on.

There are some good things to admire about the film and I feel it is only fair to start there, who wants to jump headlong into bashing criticism?  Well for starters there is Floyd Crosby.  He was the director of photography here (Cinematographer for those who have to look up what that is), and he was a veteran of the game.  He first gained widespread recognition as the DP for F.W. Murnau’s final film Tabu (1931) which was co-directed by Robert Flaherty.  In the two decades since his breakthrough, which earned him I believe the first Oscar given out to cinematography he gained some experience but most of his films were indistinguishable.  Granted he did his time in the army during WWII so that explains at least part of his gap in productivity, but in a lot of ways High Noon was a coming out party for him.  By 1952 almost all Westerns were filmed in color so the chance to shoot the old west in black and white was an appealing one, and Crosby made the most of it.  In case you were wondering, yes Floyd was David Crosby’s father.

Mr. Crosby at his finest
What is amazing despite the universal praise he has gotten for the film, is that it wasn’t even nominated for best cinematography.  This is more amazing when you consider back in 1952 they had separate categories for black and white and color.  That isn’t to take away from the great work of Robert Surtees in The Bad and the Beautiful, which won best black and white cinematography along with four other Oscars that year, but it seems a rather drastic over sight.  Crosby employs the still fashionable deep focus photography early on showing the various members of the community present at Will (Gary Cooper) and Amy (Grace Kelly) Kane’s wedding.  Always present is a clock in the background which seems to loom larger and larger in the frame as the time ticks closer to noon.  As the whistle blows signaling the arrival of the train in one of the films best remembered shots we see a lone Kane on the deserted streets as a camera pans up to show his isolation in a crane move reminiscent of Gone with the Wind.  It’s said that he and his camera operator were nearly run over by the approaching train trying to get a low angle shot of it arriving at the station, but what’s a film without suffering for a art?

The other really great thing about the film is the acting.  Gary Cooper was never much of an expressive actor, and was always revered as the “strong silent type” an archetype of hero that kept his emotions to himself.  He’s given a tall task of conveying the simultaneous dread as well as the futility of his search for help.  Cooper won his second of two Oscars for his performance here and it far surpasses his work in Sergeant York for which he won his first Academy Award back in 1941.  All the performances however are great as we see everyone in town give their reasons for sticking to themselves, Zinnemann makes a point of showing how everyone has very justifiable reasons.  The only people who unquestionably want to help Kane are a one eyed drunk with something to prove and a 14 year old boy whose eager to show how mature he is.  Kane’s one legitimate deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) quits because he feels personally insulted that he wasn’t appointed Kane’s replacement.  So here is a marshal whose supposed to be on his honeymoon, whose relieved of his job as law keeper sticking around for a fight no one wants him to have with no help.  Thus begins the problems.

The plot is decidedly banal.  Carl Foreman’s script, from a John W. Cunningham story goes through painful detail to show how isolated Kane is.  Since the film was produced by one shameless liberal (Stanley Kramer is the modern archetype for all of Hollywood’s liberal tendencies today) not to mention Foreman and director Fred Zinnemann were well known liberals the film wears it’s ideology on it’s sleeve.  Seen by many as an indictment of the ordinary citizens that wouldn’t stand up to the tyranny of McCarthyism witch hunts.  There are others who viewed it as a justification of the US involvement in the Korean war.  The whole town banded together to put Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) behind bars five years ago and now no one seems to be too interested in helping lock him up a second time.  This could be seen as the US patriotic entry in WWII and the overall reluctance to get tangled up in Korea several years later.  I think this allegory might be reaching a bit, and I don’t necessarily think the filmmakers were out to make a pro-war picture.

John Wayne famously hated the film, as did director Howard Hawks and the two made the film Rio Bravo in retaliation in 1959.  Today amongst critics the Hawks film is by far the better respected film, but popular opinion is still strong with High Noon.  As recently as 2007, the AFI voted it the 27th greatest American film ever made.  The children of Stanley Kramer have thus rejoiced.  Wayne’s claim was that any real cowboy or lawman would simply stand up and fight the gun men.  Most likely the town would rush to help in order to maintain law and order.  In Wayne’s world of Westerns, things were simpler, there wasn’t as much necessity for motivation and psychological makeup.  Hawks agreed that Kane would simply meet his attackers head on and relish the opportunity. 

Now I’m not saying whose right or wrong in this regard.  I just feel like the device of having everyone abandon him seems deliberate, and the character of Kane seems really bad at getting help.  He basically turns away anyone willing to help him, and gives up trying after the first sign of opposition.  However the politics of the film, which are still the most debated aspects are hardly what’s wrong with the picture, to me there are two other much more grating flaws for me personally.

A bear with a dog mask
The first one is the presence of Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado).  Now let’s take a quick moment to forgive the comically grotesque features of Ms. Jurado who was a passable actress in a few films, notably My Darling Clementine to look at her character.  Why the hell is she in the movie?  Ok her and Kane had a history together some time ago and?  She’s a silent partner with a business man in town, and the saloon that Kane walks into where he finds some of Frank’s old friends has the name Ramirez over the door.  She also goes by Mrs. Ramirez in the film.  So well who the hell is Mr. Ramirez?  There’s no mention of her ever being married, why her and Kane split up, and why everyone seems to think they’ve each carried a torch for each other.

I mean for Christ’s sake have you seen Grace Kelly?  I mean look at her, there’s a picture of her below, seriously take a good look at it.  Has there ever been a more beautiful woman to appear in a movie before?  Hell I wonder if there has been a prettier lady to walk the earth.  How could anyone anywhere think that she could be jealous of horse face Katy Jurado?  I can only suspend disbelief for so long.  Sure there’s some racist implications, that Mrs. Ramirez has been around the block a few times and she’s probably a demon in the sack because she’s Mexican, but I don’t buy it and neither should you.  Her relationship with Harvey also makes little sense, especially how quickly she’s willing to dismiss him.  Oh and what history does she have with Frank Miller because she clearly needs to get out of town?  Simply put her character confounds me and there’s just far too much about her we don’t know to bother figuring it out.  Seriously her only redeeming quality might be the fact that she is the one who puts the idea of helping Kane fight into Amy’s pacifist Quaker head. 

Yeah seriously you might as well give her wings and a halo
My other main flaw has nothing to do with anything that happens on screen.  No this isn’t some personal vendetta against the filmmakers but composer Dimitri Tiomkin.  There was a practice back in the days of Westerns to write a theme song based on your film.  They all had one, even The Searchers, perhaps the idea was to get a hit song from a hit movie, or maybe it was just an unwritten rule that you had to have someone singing a hokey ballad over the opening credits of your Western in order to remove all doubt what genre it was.  The ballad of the film was sung by Tex Ritter and it is AWFUL.  I mean it’s bad, really bad, and rather than just subject us to it for the opening credits in a distracting painfully corny way, it is repeated over and over again.  Tiomkin builds his entire score around it and it keeps popping up in seemingly inappropriate places, because really the only appropriate place for a song this bad is in hell.  What’s more mind blowing is that Tiomkin won an Oscar for his work here.  Yep that’s right a fucking Academy Award, and Floyd Crosby wasn’t nominated.  Good lord someone was hitting the bong really hard when they were casting ballots back in 1952.  To make matters worse the aforementioned song “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin” won an Academy Award for best original song, did people in the 52 have such awful taste in music?  

These flaws should be considered minor, and really they are.  I mean Mrs. Ramirez is just someone to chew up some screen time.  We can wonder about her past, or choose to completely ignore it and wait for the inevitable showdown.  She isn’t a despicable character, and seems one of the few strong willed people in the film, in fact probably the strongest willed character.  So feminists may point to her as a powerful woman who won’t take shit from a man, who owns her own business, etc.  So yeah, girl power or something.  I also know I should block Tiomkin’s involuntary abortion to my ear drums out, but well these things can get on one’s nerves.

So these “minor” things are what make the film a second tier masterpiece.  This won’t pop up on my top 100, and even the review in the NSFC book essentially lists it as very overrated.  It lost the best picture race that year to Cecil B. DeMille’s much lauded The Greatest Show on Earth, a film that isn’t nearly as awful as it’s reputation would have you believe.  Then as now many people believe the reason for this was political, preferring to give the Oscar to the shamelessly right wing DeMille over Kramer and Zinnemann.  The fact that it’s still considered a masterpiece by some means it has had some legit staying power.  There is much to like about the film, and the final shootout is great.  It also does a great job of showing two women who aren’t just helpless victims in the male dominated world of the old West.  It’s problematic at best, but deep down inside there’s still a great film in there somewhere, even if you didn’t get that impression from my review.   

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Decalogue (1988) - Krzysztof Kieslowski

I realize that I’ve already briefly mentioned the first three episodes in last month’s film journal so forgive me if I overlap a bit here.  Conversely forgive me if I don’t pay enough attention to those first three parts as well.  Finishing this ten part series can be exhausting.  I believe the first time I saw it was in the span of about two days, so it was a much more leisurely two weeks this time around.  Since then I’ve had the pleasure of watching both A Short Film About Killing (1987) and A Short Film About Love (1988) which are expanded segments from V and VI respectively.  From what I can gather A Short Film About Killing actually premiered before the series originally aired, so for some audiences this was their first look at Kieslowski’s newest project. 

The Decalogue V - One guess what commandment this is about

Kieslowski has stated that A Short Film About Killing isn’t specifically anti-capital punishment which many people took it for.  Instead he simply stated that he’s anti-killing of any kind.  He doesn’t forgive his killer nor does he believe he should be killed.  I think it’s interesting that Kieslowski goes to show in this episode that the man killed wasn’t a particularly good person.  There is the moment when he honks his horn causing a dog to run away from it’s owner around a crowded street.  We see the almost mischievous tactic that the killer takes to get the cab, lying to another person about which direction he was heading so he wouldn’t have to share.  It’s almost like he’s saying “These two belong together” or rather maybe the driver Waldemar is the killer Jacek grown up.  Neither person is good by any Christian definition of the term, but in Kieslowski’s world neither one of them deserves to die.  There’s a reason why this is often cited as the best of the series.  It makes you wonder just how many of his characters are good exclusively?  Perhaps he is quoting the new testament here “He who is without sin, cast the first stone”. 

The next segment was the basis for A Short Film About Love which has something of an ironic title when you see the episode.  Like the previous episode, the main protagonist is a young man.  His name is Tomek, and this time he isn’t a menace to society.  However as Jacek was an outcast from the country, Tomek is an outcast in a different way as an orphan.  He’s simply a quiet guy who keeps to himself and spends his days, and nights longing for the woman across the window named Magda, rarely if ever bothering to actually let her know this.  His tactics are in turn juvenile and obsessive.  He steals her mail, spies on her, calls the gas company over when she has a man over, even takes a milk route to get closer to her.  Magda in turn is rather gracious with her affections for anyone who comes around and sets about humiliating him when she gets the chance.  It backfires a bit but it lends itself to a theme that starts to pop up in the alter episodes of The Decalogue and that is one of redemption.  The ending of the segment where he has returned to work and she visits him at the post office has an open ended quality to it.  He tells her he’s no longer peeping, and we’re left wondering if maybe now that he’s grown out of his juvenile school boy infatuation if they will try and build a real relationship?  The story is hardly uplifting but coming after the devastation of most of the earlier episodes it feels like the series is becoming more positive.

The Decalogue VI 
This “happy ending” idea pops up again later in the series particularly the last two episodes.  In episode nine an impotent man finds out his wife is cheating on him and when he thinks they’ve run off together at a ski resort he tries his hand at suicide.  However he doesn’t die and we’re left thinking that now that her affair is done, the two may be able to work on their plan of adoption and possibly build a stable relationship.  Nothing is certain but they’re both still standing and in some ways the themes of voyeurism, a man who can’t have the woman he’s watching, a failed suicide, and possible reconciliation make this a fitting companion piece to part VI. 

In the final episode, which could be considered the whole “Honor thy father and mother” commandment shows two dissimilar brothers who are united by their father’s death.  Keep in mind that neither sibling was entirely close to him and they don’t recall having any real fond memories.  At first they rummage through his stamp collection wondering what they can sell it for, and after a collector visits them he convinces him that it would be sacrilegious to destroy their father’s lifetime of work by selling them off.  The brothers soon agree and they get more and more paranoid about the collection and adopt more of their father’s traits.  Since I’m spoiling everything in this review feel free to know that in typical Kieslowski fashion the worst thing imaginable happens to the brothers and the collection, or nearly the worst.  However in a great moment both brother show that they purchased the same new set of collector stamps from the local post office unbeknownst to the other.  They are keeping the tradition alive, and somehow I can’t help but feel like they’ll get the collection back. 

It’s easy to see why these endings seem downright optimistic after so much heart break.  I suppose the episode regarding a Jewish girl who confronts the professor who refused to take her in back in 1943 starts off as a downer but that never really plummets to the depths of human emotion in the same way.  In his world everyone has their reasons, and her reasons were very sound.  Still her life’s work afterwards leaves a bit of a clue as to the guilt that she has been carrying around ever since.  When she visits the man who was supposed to shelter her in his tailor shop he is ambivalent towards her.  He doesn’t want to talk about the war and for him it’s over and done with.  It’s a segment that you can imagine a lot of people who grew up in Poland during WWII would feel today.  The war has hung over the continent for decades and he would rather not even acknowledge it anymore.  However he doesn’t do it in a way that’s deliberately mean, just politely keeps turning the conversation back to his line of business as a tailor. 

Then there’s that episode with a mother whose daughter was raised as a sister (VII), and what a joy that is.  I’m speaking sarcastically, I know this is hard to do via type but if you’ve seen the episode you would understand.  I mean Kieslowski is great at putting his characters in an ethical dilemma and letting us speculate on what we’d do in that situation.  Not to say he doesn’t offer his characters their own choices but the entire series is designed to provoke our own thoughts and ideas regarding the situation.  In the second episode (which is mentioned in VIII) we are put to the task of wondering just how we would handle a situation where we’re pregnant by a man we love who isn’t our husband, meanwhile our husband is dying.  This time it’s a question of how would we feel if we had a child at a very young age and it was raised by our parents as a sibling?  How would we resent our parents for that, or how can we display the appropriate affection for what is rightfully our own child? 

I’ve mentioned previously that the episodes don’t correspond directly with the ten commandments in a neat and orderly fashion.  The episode that I feel is about honoring thy father and mother could easily be X or IV, which deals with a girl and father whose mother has been dead since she was born.  She finds, or rather speculates that her real father might not be the man who raised her, yet rather than read the note that may or may not reveal the truth she decides it’s better to burn it.  Now some stranger things happen in the episode, but to me the last episode is just as much about honoring the deceased parents, yet that episode is also about coveting thy neighbors goods and well you get the point. 

The entire project is exhausting but also exhilarating.  It’s themes and ethical questions almost make you feel like you’ve come out of the film smarter and possibly a better person.  Most of us won’t be faced with these specific problems in our lives but like any philosophical or ethical question it’s more about the process of self examination and clarifying our own moral code and how we would react.  Would we give up a kidney for a stamp?  What if that kidney would save a young girl’s life?  How about if the stamp was the only one in existence?  I guarantee probably no one reading this will ever be put in that situation, but well ask yourself what would you do? 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Film Journal 2012 - August

Happy Labor Day everyone.  For some this signifies the end of summer.  Gone are backyard BBQs and baseball, and in it’s place are falling leaves and football.  Either way I keep watching movies.  This past month saw some serious productivity, and as you can see from the large amount of high ratings this month more than made up for the plentiful amount of awful movies seen in July.

Two Birds - One Stone

As I’ve already mentioned I’m planning on updating my overall top 100 list by the end of the year.  I put together a nice little checklist that’s got somewhere around 125 films on it.  Well that’s nice and it’s a number that should be more than doable by the year’s end.  The nice thing is that I can also work on another list/project in the meantime. 

Remember the National Society of Film Critics?  How can you forget I keep reminding you every month of all the films I watch from the list, offering some concise little tidbits on each film.  Well as you might expect a few of these films happen to also be on that gargantuan list of films I need to rewatch before I redo my top 100, so not a bad place to start.

The difference I think with the checklist this time is I don’t plan on making this list until I’ve seen all the films on it.  So instead of the past by-decade lists where I put together some favorites to check out but simply made the list when I got tired of it, or when I found the time, here I’m planning on exhausting all options first.  As you might expect there are plenty of movies I’ll probably revisit that aren’t even on this checklist, but hey I got about four months to do it.

Now why don’t we continue on and go over the A-List movies I’ve seen this past month:

Tokyo Story (1953)

There’s a reason why I put this film in the 4th tier of my own list.  I need to reiterate that I wasn’t bashing the movie by any stretch, but Ozu is generally an acquired taste, and despite how baffling it might be to some people it’s a taste that some people never acquire.  Tokyo Story is basically his greatest film by default.  Sight and Sound’s poll that just came out this past month (you should be thankful I didn’t bitch about it for 10 pages like I originally wanted to) and Tokyo Story came in at #3.  That’s right, only Vertigo and Citizen Kane were considered better films.  Now with that reputation preceding it Ozu’s film is almost doomed to fail for first time viewers.  I mean how open minded can you be going into a movie that’s considered the third greatest ever made?  Especially a very slow paced movie about an elderly couple whose kids are inconvenienced by their presence? 

I’ll admit that I don’t agree with this films canonical status.  I like it, it’s damn good, but I’d probably put it somewhere around 4-5 in my top Ozu films.  I believe Early Summer, Ohayu, and even one of his earlier films like Where are the Dreams of Youth deserve more praise than this.  Part of that is the fact that Leo McCarey’s 1937 film Make Way for Tomorrow is essentially the same story albeit without being filtered through Ozu.  This is possibly the only time I can think of where an American film gets a foreign remake and the American movie is the obscure title.  I know Ozu fans won’t deny the similarities but they’re certainly going to get defensive about calling it a remake.

Tokyo Story also brings up an interesting conundrum with film, namely how an audience can affect your opinion on a film.  Sometimes you watch a movie where people laugh at inappropriate moments and you find yourself infuriated at the imbeciles around you.  Other times, people’s laughter lets you know that a film is a lot funnier than you originally thought.  Sometimes seeing the joy of someone else having their first glimpse of say Chaplin in The Gold Rush or realizing how brutal an old horror movie like The Invisible Man is can make you appreciate a film far more than you thought.  However in the case of Tokyo Story, which I’ve now seen at least four times I am faced with conflicting viewpoints.  The two times I watched it by myself I thought it was great.  Perhaps not THE GREATEST film of all time, but certainly damn good.  The last viewing was only a few months ago and I began to wonder if it really did belong in the top ten of all time.  Then there’s the two times I watched it with someone else.  Both times they either fell asleep or I could actually hear them roll their eyes at how slow and boring the film was.  Asking me why the hell do they keep smiling all the time?  What’s with all the direct camera angles?  Why isn’t anything happening?  Well you’ve heard the arguments.  Seeing someone be bored to death with a movie can’t help but make you feel like “oops maybe I shouldn’t have shown this to someone”.  Perhaps Ozu is a dish best savored by yourself.

Raging Bull (1980)

Martin Scorsese’s 1980 masterpiece has pretty much been considered the best film of the 80s since it came out (or at least a year or two after), and has earned it’s status as one of the all time greats.  Based on the expanded S&S poll, Taxi Driver actually came out ahead, but for many people this is still his greatest film, and well few will deny that DeNiro was ever better.  Like Tokyo Story I’ve seen this at least 4 times, probably more than that and thanks to a sweet deal at Best Buy I got it on Blu-Ray for about $5, money well spent. 

The more I watch it the more I try to wrap my head on the virtuosity of Scorsese.  Perhaps the gritty boxing matches seemed bloody and unrealistic, but that’s the point.  Each fight was filmed differently and they all have a unique look.  He used different lenses, cameras, the ring changes size almost within a fight, sometimes appearing cramped other times looking more like the size of a football field.  La Motta is a horrible person almost from the get go.  At times he seems like some sort of Italian caricature, yelling at the top of his voice, throwing tantrums, and feeling free to cheat.  Other times there’s a humanism to him, and a pathetic quality that instead of making us grateful for his ruination, makes him something of a tragic figure, but one that shouldn’t be pitied.  You may debate which of his films is the best, but I can’t find any argument as to why this isn’t one of the greatest films ever made.

Double Indemnity (1944)

After a failed attempt to watch this back in winter that we saw the first 30 minutes of, attempt two was more successful.  In fact I had rented this once or maybe twice before without watching either, so it seemed an accomplishment in and of itself to finally see it at all.  For most people this is Billy Wilder’s first masterpiece as a director.  What’s unique about the film is that it is the only film Billy Wilder wrote with Raymond Chandler.  Yes the same Chandler who wrote The Big Sleep, and all those other books featuring Philip Marlowe.  They were adapting James M. Cain’s fantastic novel of the same name, the same Cain who also wrote Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice.  This was an interesting idea with Hollywood that often employed a great writer to help adapt another great writers work for the screen.  William Faulkner had a similar turn with Ernest Hemmingway in the same year’s To Have and Have Not. 

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere this is film noir 101, in much the same way that Caligari is expressionism 101, and nothing says surrealism in 1920s Paris quite like Un Chien Andalou.  From the score, the lighting, the narration, the evil cold hearted woman, a murder, and the inevitability of failure, this is priceless stuff.  Unlike a lot of other noir films that have become cult classics Double Indemnity was loved immediately.  Although it didn’t win many awards, it was nominated in almost every major category in 1944.  It’s best picture nomination alone is something you can’t say for Laura, Out of the Past, Force of Evil, Gun Crazy, or the Big Sleep among many others.  It was Wilder’s big break to the mainstream, and although you can argue that The Lost Weekend and The Apartment aren’t his best films, he is one of the rare multiple best director winners.  Barbara Stanwyck has never been better as the face and figure of pure evil.

Blow-Up (1966)

There is no director I aim to get better acquainted with more than Michelangelo Antonioni.  Amongst my re-watch checklist were no less than 6 Antonioni films.  Blow-Up might be the one I least needed to see again, but it was the one on the A-List so I couldn’t resist checking it out again.  This was his first English language film, and for many it is the definitive capsule of London in the 60s.  It was also the first film distributed by a major studio (MGM) that featured full frontal nudity since the pre-code era.  Ironically enough it was MGM’s own Tarzan and His Mate (1934) that was the last Hollywood film to feature nudity.  As a capsule of the times, this is also one of the first times where the skeletal anorexic looking models came to be in fashion.  It was a growing trend but this film showed them in all their hollowed cheek bone glory.  David Hemmings’ photographer looks a mess throughout.  He’s disheveled after pulling his undercover assignment from the get go.  He always looks like he needs sleep or at least a bath and a shave. 

For those who aren’t familiar with Antonioni this movie can be quite puzzling.  Never before had an American backed film been so baffling to audiences.  Things weren’t wrapped up, and you wonder if there was any point to it.  Watching Antonioni’s previous films it is really the continuation and culmination of his themes and ideas that first started with L’avventura, although you can argue there are traces of that upper class dissatisfaction a decade before.  The film is book ended with a group of would-be mimes who play an imaginary game of tennis.  Many critics and theorists have tried to figure out the significance of the ending.  Is it a comment on our own suspension of disbelief, that we believe something is real merely by the behavior of actors?  Does it point out that maybe Hemmings’ didn’t really see anything in that photograph but merely believes he did?  Does it even matter whether he found anything, or whether the ball is real?  Is it a metaphor for cinema, a throwback to the silent days, or is it a comment that even Hemmings can’t just be a spectator, that in order for the illusion to work you need audience participation?  Smarter minds than mine have tried to figure this one out, and like many great cinema puzzles, it doesn’t really matter what the answer is, merely what we feel it is.

Nights of Cabiria (1957)

The last of the Fellini films to see on this list was one of my absolute favorites once upon a time.  Like most Italian films back in the day this one had numerous writers, one of which was Pier Paolo Pasolini, who would certainly make his own name as a filmmaker not too long afterwards, but more on that later.  It is also something of an end of an era for Fellini.  This was his second film in a row to win a best foreign language Oscar and after this began La Dolce Vita, 8 ½, and a whole lot of strange, strange films.  For the people who never quite forgave him for getting all weird later on this and La Strada still stand as his best films.  They are grouped together on the NSFC list and it’s not too much of a stretch to put them together.  Giulietta Masina stars in both films, and seems like two variants on the same person.  In La Strada she is the country bumpkin who gets a little taste of performing and starts to come into her own.  Here she is a naively trusting city woman whose the proverbial prostitute with a heart of gold, or at least one of the most gullible women in movie history.  In both cases she is a tragic figure who suffers at the hands of men who go completely unpunished for the suffering they inflict on her.  It is her lot in life to suffer for men, cheerful subject, don’t ya think?

As a nice bonus this wasn’t just one of Pasolini’s first film experiences, but Bob Fosse’s first film as a director was a remake of Cabiria, called Sweet Charity.  Both films are tragic with unshakable heroines, but few actresses can channel Chaplin quite like Masina.  Her features seem made for the silent cinema and the ending seems like it could have been lifted right out a Chaplin film.  Like La Dolce Vita this seems to transcend the idea of the promising night and the sobering dawn theme.  It seems when there’s daylight Masina is doomed.  The film begins with her lover shoving her into a stream and leaving with her money.  The next dawn we see her tossed out by the movie star who has reconciled with his lover (while she had to hide in the bathroom), and well I won’t go into the last and most tragic of the lot.  She is one of the great hard luck women of the screen.  It was obvious by this film that Italian cinema was changing and the stories of poor unfortunate post war people were soon to be cast aside for other subjects, but for many this remains one of the best foreign films of the 50s.

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

It’s hard to comprehend the brilliance of this film on the first viewing.  Preston Sturges was riding high as can be by 1942.  He had proven himself a screenwriter, made a couple of really good comedies, struck gold with Sullivan’s Travels, and by the time he made The Palm Beach Story he was ready to play around with the medium.  Take the opening sequence for instance.  For starters it is about the craziest credit sequence films have had up to that point.  Meanwhile we see what looks like two versions of each character, struggling to get out, Claudette Colbert is tied up in a closet, people are getting flustered and a wedding may or may not go off without a hitch.  Finally after the credits we see a title card reading “And they lived happily ever” followed by another that says “Or did they?”.  Cut to five years later and not a word was spoken as to what the hell that was about.  I mean who were those people and how are you going to have such a madcap intro and leave it at that?  Sturges was having a good laugh at this throwaway intro, and who knows maybe he had a whole separate pre-quel in line for this movie.

The most inexplicably happy ending ever?

The couple is not without a touch of irony name Tom (Joel McCrea) and Gerry (Claudette Colbert).  In the sort of implausible scenario that can only make sense in a screwball comedy a hard of hearing sausage king decides to give Gerry several hundred dollars to help pay off their back rent and get them out of debt.  She decides that he hasn’t made a success of things, and she’s the one holding her husband back.  So she takes her things, and hops a train to Palm Beach to get a divorce.  The same sausage king decides to help McCrea fly down there to meet her at the train to win her back and well would you know it, they meet a brother and sister who happen to be incredibly wealthy.  Anyways the ending, which helps explain the whole twin thing from the beginning is by far the stupidest and silliest cop out ending to a movie perhaps of all time, yet somehow it’s brilliant.  It’s as if Sturges was saying “All these characters are likeable and I want everyone to be happy so . . . .”  I wonder if he was drunk when he wrote it, probably was, either way it’s so stupid it’s brilliant, and as they said about their wedding “Well that’s another story.”

Seven Samurai (1954)

See my last blog entry for a full review, just go ahead and scroll down.

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Ah the greatest of all Polish films shows a young Andrzej Wajda at his creative peak.  His style was masterful, the shot composition, staging in depth was the work of a master.  Thematically he far eclipsed the somewhat straightforward war stories of A Generation and Kanal.  There was a tremendous amount of ambiguity here.  Here we have a Poland that wants to be free, and while most of the country is celebrating the end of the war and the end of German occupation, a small group of soldiers are preparing the next fight.  Out with one occupying power and in with another, substitute Nazis for communists and bam the fight goes on.  What’s remarkable was that this film was made during Soviet occupation, granted during a period of relaxed state control, but it’s hard to imagine a film so critical of communist Russia being made in a communist country.  

What the film does well is show the banality of it all.  Here are a group of freedom fighter that have been fighting so long they seem to forget what they are fighting for.  Where they fighting to rid the country of Nazis, or was it to have a free and independent Poland?  Is one enemy as bad as the other.  How are the military tactics going to change.  How important will propaganda be this time around?  The film takes place over 24 hours and starts with an awful murder of some people who just happened to pass the road at the wrong time.  They missed their target and two innocent people who just got released from a German POW camp are killed the day the war ended, by accident.  It shows that our would be heroes might not be great guys at all.  Although the young Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) can’t help but be somewhat sympathetic.  He has one night with a pretty bartender and you get a sense that thanks to the war he never really had a chance to enjoy his younger years.  This woman can redeem him, but ultimately the war must go on.  It is a bitter film, but not without humor and Wajda is good at breaking the tension without making the comedic parts grotesque. 

Rome Open City (1945)

Speaking of Fellini, he was one of those multiple screenwriters on Roberto Rossellini’s seminal film.  Like Double Indemnity to film noir, this can easily be considered the same thing to Neo-Realism.  For many this film was a slap in the face to world cinema, a bold introduction of what can be done with movies.  Shot on location, utilizing any and all available film stock, some professional actors, some who weren’t.  A subject matter that matters, brutal violence, which was so subversive being made under occupying Nazi eyes.  Perhaps in response to Italy’s own involvement in the war Rossellini seems hell bent and determined not only to show the difference between Italians and Germans, but to show the Nazis as the most evil creatures to ever walk the earth.  It’s a wonder they aren’t all given devil horns and pitchforks here.  Only one officer who gets drunk tells a tale of executing French soldiers in the first war and the realization that there is no such thing as a master race.  The other Nazis chastise him and would have him brought up on charges, but he’s the only one on the German side allowed to have any sort of conscience and the one person on their side that isn’t pure unspeakable evil.

Like Wajda’s film this was also part of a WWII trilogy, but unlike Wajda it seems Rossellini was at his best first.  The film showed a violence that was lacking in American cinema, but for soldiers returning from the war, this seemed more like a film they could handle, and closer in many ways to what they saw.  The plans that are all so important that these resistance fighters have prove to be nothing in the end.  Not that they don’t have plans but resisting the interrogation is more a matter of pride and determination.  Germany at this point has pretty much already lost the war, and the officers here are simply trying to convince themselves that they have some sort of divine superiority to everyone else.  In fact the whole resistance here is something of a MacGuffin, simply a plot device to put us on the side of the good vs. evil, and as humanstic as many or Rossellini’s later films were, he seems hell bent and determined to make this as black and white as possible.  However this film was really just the tip of the iceberg and the one that put the postwar cinematic spotlight directly on Italy.  This was the first of all the new waves, and the one which French critics most often cited as an inspiration for their own new wave years later.

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Well sometimes a filmmaker can go over your head.  Robert Bresson is considered one of the quintessential transcendental filmmakers.  His work often compared to the later films of Carl Theodor Dreyer, and sometimes Ozu for some reason is in all fairness unlike anyone else’s.  Despite making a couple of good films beforehand, Diary of a Country Priest was really the first true “Bresson” film.  It is the film where he finally stripped away all artifice and emerged as the somber brilliant filmmaker who would continue to make his somber and brilliant films with a pervading sense of Catholic guilt for several more decades.  This film is about a priest who gets a parish out in the country and seeks to suffer for his parish to the point of absurdity.

The people in the town are somewhat close minded, and although his diet is essentially poisoning him, most of his parishioners view him as some sort of alcoholic who can’t keep himself together.  Like the title would suggest it is told almost entirely through the priest’s point of view and largely narrated through his own journal entries.  He is one of a series of tragic Bresson figures who suffer really for no reason, like Balthazar and Mouchette, and perhaps even Joan of Arc.  There is a grace to his pain but also some degree of madness.  This remains a great introduction to people who wonder what Bresson’s work was all about.  Maybe his later films were better, but why not start here?  Just to keep in mind, there’s a good chance you won’t quite “get it” right away, like Ozu he’s a bit of an acquired taste. 

Closely Watched Trains (1966)

Some of you may know that I know a whole hell of a lot about Czechoslovakian cinema.  I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I’ve seen a lot, it’s one of those things I prided myself on.  Well years ago this film right here, Closely Watched Trains was probably the first Czech film I ever saw.  Along with The Shop on Main Street this was probably the best known and most readily available Czech film circa-2002.  I saw both films around the same time, so forgive me if in fact this was second.  Both films deal with that age old European obsession with WWII, but with a sense of humor and strange wit that I had never seen in films before.

I wasn’t too sure what to make of the film on first viewing.  So after a few years I decided to watch every damn Czech film I could find.  After awhile you can gather I started to have a much better understanding of the culture and their unique brand of subversive humor.  So I was excited to watch this film again with my newfound understanding, only to find I really felt almost exactly the same as I did a decade ago.  I’ve never thought the film was bad but there is a certain dose of resentment that comes when a film gets a ton of attention, praise, and awards when some similar films that are better get neglected.  There are some great moments, including the family history (which includes a relative who tried to hypnotize German tanks from invading before he was run over), and the scene involving the stamps is quite good as is the absurd investigation afterwards.  However I would definitely recommend something like The Cremator, The Ear, Diamonds in the Night, or Report on the Party and the Guests before this.  It is however the second film in a row from Czechoslovakia to win the best foreign language film Oscar, and you guessed it The Shop on Main Street was the other.

The Man With a Movie Camera (1929)

Of all the changes on this decades Sight and Sound poll none made me happier than seeing Man With a Movie Camera crack the top ten, especially at the expense of Battleship Potemkin.  Now I’d love to include this in my own top ten, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that this is one of the greatest films ever made.  Sure the “city symphony” subgenre had previous entries, and sure the ideas of montage had been around for several years before this movie was made but never had they been put together so brilliantly.  This is a marvel to behold in any time and it captures the wonder and amazement of creating cinema like few other films have ever done.  There is something incredible about silent film that makes every trick shot, super-impositon, or split-screen effect seem far more impressive than Hulk tearing up downtown Manhattan in The Avengers. 

Dziga Vertov was a strange filmmaker.  He made “documentaries” that really stretch the term of what that means.  It’s more appropriate to say he made cinematic experiments in cinematography and editing that continue to amaze and baffle modern audiences.  This is by far his best work and he has an incredible way of controlling the pace.  He sets the film up with shots of a city still sleeping and starting to wake up, accelerating the pace as the morning rush takes over and likening the art of movie making to any factory job as the camera becomes just another instrument of industry.  It is somehow incredibly Soviet yet very modern at once.  Granted Kate freaked out when a baby is born without any prior warning, but that’s just one of the jarring images in the film.  From the first time I saw this film, ironically right after Battleship Potemkin I thought this was a superior film, glad enough critics agree with me now.

Pather Panchali (1955)

Like Rashomon and Kurosawa, this was the other seminal film that opened up an entire national cinema to the Western world.  Then as now India has been an extremely prolific producer of movies, more than even us here in the US.  However it might seem odd to consider making a film in Bengali (as opposed to Hindi) that wasn’t a musical and under 3 hours a daring move.  Satyajit Ray who got his start working on Jean Renoir’s Indian film The River became India’s most famous filmmaker outside of his native land with this.  In turn he led a wave of Bengali filmmakers who dared to make movies closer to European art house cinema than the lavish productions that characterized Bollywood.  It was the first part of the famous Apu trilogy and to many it is still the best.

Doesn't look a day over 2000

Although the trilogy made Apu the center of the story, in the first film it is largely his sister Durga who is featured the most.  The story does begin shortly before Apu’s birth and features a somewhat comical aunt played by Chunibala Devi who was only 80 years old when she made this film.  I say only because if you’ve seen this film you’d swear she doesn’t look a day under a million.  In fact although she hadn’t appeared in a movie in roughly 16 years, she’s one of the few actors in the film with any experience.  Ray took his cue from the Italians and cast mostly non-professional actors and tries his best to film on location, although plenty of shots were actually done in a studio despite what many people thought.  It remains one of the most important films ever made and a document of profound humanism that served not only to establish Ray as a great filmmaker but showed him following in the footsteps of Renoir.

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

We watched a lot of movies on this list in the past month didn’t we?  Well after seeing Campion’s The Piano here we have the other film on the list directed by a female.  Dorothy Arzner is always that interesting footnote and anecdote about the only female director working for a major studio in Hollywood’s golden era.  This doesn’t discount Ida Lupino’s later films, but she was a movie star first, director second.  Arzner’s film also happened to be written by a woman, based on a story from Vicki Baum.  It features would be serious dancer Judy (Maureen O’Hara) who has to make a living playing stooge to Bubbles (Lucille Ball).  For many this film is noteworthy by featuring perhaps Lucille Ball’s best pre-Lucy film role.  It might also seem out of character to see her as such a brazen and vulgar burlesque performer. 

Some of the film is somewhat ridiculous.  I mean why would everyone so violently react to Judy’s ballet dancing between segments?  When her mentor dies by walking into traffic it seems clumsy and silly, but well that’s the magic of the movies.  It’s also an interesting film where romantic relationships don’t quite work the way you think, maybe because a woman wrote the film so it doesn’t have the same “Everyone wins” idea of love as you might think.  However the film does seem to wrap everything up but unlike male directed/written films about women this doesn’t end with “girl finds guy, they get married and she’s happily ever after”.  Instead it’s more of a “one girl gets money, another gets to practice her art” type of happy ending.  Showing at least in Arzner’s eyes that women want more than the man of their dreams to put a ring on their finger.  O’Hara’s soliloquy is also frequently sited as a landmark in feminist filmmaking.  Perhaps the movie is more of a novelty, it’s easily the best film Arzner made and more than worth checking out on it’s own merits.

Faces (1968)

Ah Cassavetes.  Known as an actor but perhaps best remembered today as an early pioneer in independent cinema his 1968 film Faces was for many his breakthrough.  It was the film that forever established him as a major filmmaker first, and an actor second.  It was hardly his first film, his film career began with the groundbreaking Shadows nearly a decade earlier, then proceeded with a couple of poorly received studio pictures.  Like the earlier Shadows, this was shot over a several years, and there were multiple cuts of it being made, including one supposed cut that was over 6 hours long.  So in case you find the 130 minute version a bit long winded, well it could have been a lot worse.

As a film this is hardly his best.  You can appreciate the novelty of it, or rather the groundbreaking qualities, but considering how much important American underground cinema was being made at the time Cassavetes film seems almost minor by comparison.  It did however set up a precedent for his work.  Like many a great jazz artist there isn’t much that separates a masterpiece of his from a mediocre film to even a failure, and oftentimes two people can’t agree on which film is a masterpiece and which the train wreck.  For me Faces falls somewhere in the middle.  Some of the early scenes are incredibly clumsy, the audio was poorly recorded, and so many scenes seem forced and almost every sequence goes on far too long.  Even the would be divorce seems abrupt and forced.  There are some great moments towards the end, and it’s no surprise that Lynn Carlin and Seymour Cassel received best supporting actor Oscar nominations.  Unfortunately for Carlin she never managed to get anywhere near as good of a role as she got here.  Cassel became part of Cassavetes regular troupe appearing in several other films of his.  A bit of a mess overall, but still an interesting piece of cinema history.

The Decalogue I-III (1988)

I hesitated to wait until we finished all 10 parts of this (as I did with Les Vampires), but since we still haven’t finished the Feuillade film, I’d rather discuss the first three parts here briefly.  Kieslowski made these as ten separate films, shot by ten different cinematographers, and originally planned to have ten different directors at the helm.  As legend has it though Kieslowski enjoyed the scripts so much that he decided not to share them with anybody.  So we managed to make it through the first three parts of this ten part epic and it begins with quite a bang.

The first episode is questionably the best of the series.  If each episode is based on one of the ten commandments, it’s safe to say that this one has something to do with worshipping false idols.  A father and son trust more in their computer than anything else, and when they use the computer and math to determine if ice is thick enough to skate on you can almost immediately sense that something is going to backfire.  Perhaps the saddest of the lot it does a wonderful job at setting the tone for the entire series.  The second episode poses a great philosophical question which is hard to even explain here.  The plot is the stuff of great melodrama but with Kieslowski it seems like he took a page from Renoir because “Everyone has their reasons”.  You’re not sure what to make of any of the characters who may be good, bad, but more often than not just simply human.  The third episode which may have something to do with bearing false witness is possibly the weakest of the lot, and really seems to be about little more than a man and an old flame driving around on Christmas Eve looking for someone who may or may not even be missing.  Certainly looking forward to seeing the other 7 episodes again.

The Gospel According to Saint Mathew (1964)

As promised, here’s more Passolini.  He was one of the oddest filmmakers around, a poet, author, artist who dabbled in film almost as an afterthought.  He helped give Bernardo Bertolucci his big break and his films occupy a few different realms.  There are the almost neorealist films of Accatone and this one, then there are the ridiculous fantasy films that are loaded with sex like his trilogy of The Decameron, Canterbury Tales, and The Arabian Nights.  Then we have a whole separate realm of his films, a few that border on the grotesque (Salo really is in a class by itself), and at least one wholly unique and in many people’s mind his best film, Teorema.  For others though Gospel is his best work, and it’s an odd choice.

I say it’s odd because who would think that arguably the best film about Christ was made by an atheist.  Passolini seems more attune to view Jesus as the original Communist (Passolini was also a Marxist) than as a particular religious figure.  His Jesus has a unibrow and everyone in the film is far removed from a glamorized Hollywood conception of the bible.  Everything is delivered matter of fact and many of the performances seem like they would be right at home in a Bresson film.  The film is a little long at parts but that doesn’t stop it from being great.  It’s odd that someone can tell such a familiar tale and give it any sort of unique and interesting life, but leave it to Passolini.

…and the rest

Now for all the other stuff I watched.  Sorry I didn’t quite realize at first that I watched a good 17 films from the A-List this past August, quite a productive month.  I don’t think that number will be topped in September, but I’ll try.  Scattered throughout the month were a few films from Mr. Rosenbaum’s list.  These included a Godard film I thought I already saw (Scenario du film “Passion”) a couple of experimental works (Yours, Begone Dull Care), and a few that fall into the category of other.  None of these films were particularly fantastic, perhaps the experimental films being the best of the bunch.  I also happened to pick up several more of the films on here so expect many more next month.

Rocco and His Brothers, do yourself a favor and see it

Amongst the films I revisited this month one in particular stood out better than others.  That film was Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960).  I had previously seen the film once before, maybe even twice.  Which is to say that I saw the film, fell asleep, and then watched it again.  I thought it was good, but somehow some of it’s more melodramatic moments were lost on me.  Well fast forward a bit and I was curious to check it out again.  Coming from 1960 which was arguably the greatest year in film history, or at least the greatest year in Italian film history I always looked at Rocco as the third best of the bunch.  Well I may have to reshuffle my rankings there.  Rocco turned out to be not just my favorite Visconti film (surpassing Sandra for now) but it has earned a place as one of my favorite films period.  It is rare that a film has this sort of effect on me, especially if I’ve seen it once before, but well Visconti’s film seems to transcend cinema.  Visconti made no secret his love of Opera, and this is well evident in a film like Senso, but here he seems to incorporate the best moments of opera, cinema, and even the great novels into one artistic masterpiece.  If you haven’t seen this film make sure you see it now, as soon as possible.

Now because I have to go and this blog is already far too long, here’s the list of movies I’ve seen, good night.

A Star Athlete (1937) 6/10
Scenario du film “Passion” (1982) 8/10
Yours (1997) 9/10

Tokyo Story (1953) 10/10

The Haunting (1963) 9/10

Downhill (1927) 5/10

Raging Bull (1980) 10/10

Walzes from Vienna (1934) 5/10
Double Indemnity (1944) 10/10

Blow-Up (1966) 10/10

Nights of Cabiria (1957) 10/10

The Palm Beach Story (1942) 10/10
The Wishing Ring (1914) 7/10

Jazz ‘34:  Remembrances of Kansas City Swing (1997) 8/10

A Room in Town (1982) 7/10
Seven Samurai (1954) 10/10

Ashes and Diamonds (1958) 10/10

Rome Open City (1945) 10/10

Diary of a Country Priest (1950) 10/10

Lola Montes (1955) 10/10
Johnny Guitar (1954) 9/10

Civilization (1916) 8/10
Closely Watched Trains (1966) 9/10

The Thing (1982) 10/10

The Man With a Movie Camera (1929) 10/10

Rocco and His Brothers (1960) 10/10
Pather Panchali (1955) 10/10

Dance Girl Dance (1940) 9/10

America, America (1963) 10/10

The Plot Against Harry (1969) 5/10
Faces (1968) 8/10

Kiss Me Kate (1953) 6/10
The Decalogue I-III (1988) 10/10

Age of Consent (1969) 6/10
The Gospel According to St. Mathew (1964) 10/10
Executive Suite (1954) 8/10

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) 10/10
Begone Dull Care (1949) 8/10

Best Film of the Month - The Man With a Movie Camera
Worst Film of the Month - Downhill/Waltzes from Vienna
New (Re)Discovery - Rocco and His Brothers (I know it's not a new discovery but I'm counting it)