Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Trouble in Paradise (1932) - Ernst Lubitsch

Prior to 2002, Trouble in Paradise was considered as a rarely seen Lubitsch gem, but when you really think about it, nearly all of his films early Hollywood films suffered a similar fate.  Trouble in Paradise was the first of what will hopefully be many Lubitsch films to receive the Criterion treatment. A film that helped to establish sophisticated romantic comedy for the sound era. Calling this a screwball comedy would be a misnomer.  This does not have the pratfalls and gags of a film like Twentieth Century or Bringing Up Baby. However what this film does have is a triangle. The title of the film is obviously derived from a playful phrase for marital strife, but of course none of the main characters in the film are married. As a matter of fact even looking at the supporting players none of them seem to be married. Kay Francis' Mariette Colet we find is a widow, and can only assume she was married to a much older man when we meet her late husband’s child hood friend played by 60+ C. Aubrey Smith.

Top billing in the film went to Miriam Hopkins as Lily, who had previously appeared in Lubitsch's Smiling Lieutenant, playing part of a triangle opposite Maurice Chevalier and Claudette Colbert. Her very next Lubitsch film would be Design for Living where again she was thrown in a love triangle only with two men clamoring for her attention. Now the three-way in this film does not have the same camaraderie that Cooper, March, and Hopkins shared in Design for Living. Francis remains completely oblivious to Hopkins throughout the film, but Hopkins never ceases to be jealous of her wealthy would be usurper. She takes her anger in part out on Gaston (Herbert Marshall) delivering my favorite line of the film "I wouldn't fall for another man if he were the biggest crook in the world". It is crime that brings these two together. Not like the lovers on the run who rob banks to get by, these two have made a life for themselves as pickpockets and have met each other with the sole purpose of robbing each other. When they meet they’re both masquerading as being attractive members of the noble aristocracy. When they both discover the other to be a thief, instead of recoiling in shock and disappointment they promptly discover they have met their soul mate.

Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins, and Herbert Marshall from left.

Their initial seduction of theft is repeated at the end of the film brilliantly reinforcing that no matter how much of a temptation Francis may have appeared, she really posed no great challenge to a woman of Lily‘s skill set. Gaston however did succumb to her charms. He was ready to risk his own possible imprisonment for a night in her bed (or his bed considering they slept next to each other in connecting rooms). In a way that few films could make explicit at the time we know that Gaston is looking to sleep with her, whether or not he is in love with her. Mariette always seems slightly more sure of herself than need be. She is almost embarrassingly trusting and she is so sure of her own sexual prowess that she remains blind to the fact that this thief has only an intention of robbing her.  Sure Kay Francis was pretty, but the film seems to imply that her money and position is what gives her confidence.  She’s used to giving orders and this naturally carries over into her personal life as well.  Her attraction to Gaston might seem a bit odd, but after being courted by the dull Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles, Herbert Marshall doesn't seem like too bad of a choice.  Although one can argue he doesn’t have the same charisma as say Gary Cooper in Design for Living.

What of course makes this film different from one that would have been made roughly 18 months later was that these two thieves do rob Mariette and they do get away with it. She lets them go, and Gaston even robs the pearl necklace that Lily had her eyes on and tells Mariette "Your parting gift to her". Again Mariette's character flaw comes out and she just lets it go. As Lily chastises her "You paid 125,000 francs for a handbag you can pay 100,000 for Gaston". Everything with these two becomes monetary. When they realize they can't wait for the 850,000 francs Gaston says "100,000 francs in the hand is worth more than 850 in jail." They're always aware of what things are worth, and in this way the film makes some indirect comment on the depression. Mariette gives Lily (who's now working as Gaston's secretary) a 50 franc raise, which she says is her payment for Gaston. When Gaston brings the bag he stole back a Bolshevik is there criticizing her for spending that money on a bag and being wasteful in this day and age. Gaston yells at him in a different language that results in nothing but a "Phooey" from the revolutionary. In this way Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson are saying "yes there is a depression going on, but these characters are in a different world". Of course with Lubitsch we're always in a different world, were people seem to wake up in formal wear and money seems to grow on trees.

Madame Colet confiding in Lily

The Venice in this film however seems a bit more rooted in reality than a much more blatantly escapist picture like Top Hat, whose canals and hotels seem better suited for Las Vegas than Italy.  The films first joke shows a trash collector singing opera on the famed canal.  A visual gag that shows the uglier side of the city.  People actually do work here and in Lubitsch’s films, but Mariette is more willing to pawn Gaston’s work on to Lily.  Despite her allure and her wealth she doesn’t seem like a real threat.  Gaston and Lily aren’t crooks who long to become legitimate, they’re just playing at it to get their next big score.  They even get the large reward for returning a purse they stole in the first place.  Gaston with as much dignity as he can muster tells her to make the check out to cash.

Gaston and Lily’s personal game of one-upping each other is as playful a sexual courtship as you’re likely to find, capped off by Gaston revealing he stole Lily’s garter.  This subtlety and sophistication is what has been described as the “Lubitsch touch” a phrase that was as widely used in it’s day as now.  A hard to define style that’s easier felt than seen, it is one of subtlety and that’s perhaps the best reason why audiences still appreciate his films, at least the more even keeled ones.  It is interesting to think Lubitsch’s first films that made their way to America where his historical epics Passion/Madame du Barry and Deception/Anna Boleyn which had many critics calling him the German D.W. Griffith.  Yet even from his early stage roles as an actor, Lubitsch seemed best suited for comedy, and his somewhat warped sense of morality made the early sound period the most interesting phase of his career.

Gaston revealing the garter he stole from Lily's leg

Trouble in Paradise also makes a wonderfully light portrait of it’s lovers criminal activities.  What would have been inexplicable a few years later is the fact that they get away with it.  They steal, they don’t get caught, and despite the fact that Francois (Horton) finally discovers who Gaston is (he robbed him in Venice just before he meets Lily), you never get a sense that they’re in real danger of being captured.  Sure Gaston is willing to risk his neck quite literally for Madame Colet, he comes to his senses and in a playful mockery of marriage and infidelity he returns to his “wife”.  The status quo is returned and the back to square one, complete with the reprisal of their stealing from each other has an ending reminiscent of a sitcom today.  Not to put the ending down by comparing it to such a low form of entertainment, but these characters don’t really grow.  Perhaps Colet has learned a lesson and will be less likely to trust her next personal secretary, but these two thieves have just escaped all consequences and despite their domestic bliss being threatened they clearly are in no hurry to mend their ways. 

For many Trouble in Paradise is his ultimate film.  It has a continental feel, playfully amorous characters, and a type of moral code that could only be possible in that brief window from 1929 to about halfway through 1934.  As the audience interest continues to grow for the celebrated Pre-Code era of Hollywood the DVD release of Trouble in Paradise can be seen as a landmark in it’s revival.  This set the stage for the release of the Complicated Women book and documentary as well as several collections of “Pre-Code Hollywood” or TCM’s Forbidden Hollywood collections.  Since it’s been available for nearly a decade now it’s hard to think back to a time when this film was never even available on VHS.  Following the Hayes code enforcement in 1934, this film was kept out of circulation for decades. 

People who discovered the Lubitsch touch had to base it on his more tame films like Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be, and Heaven Can Wait.  What a shock to see a film like this or Design for Living, which I feel takes things one step farther.  Sure other audiences might come into the film expecting some sort of raunchy sex romp and they’ll be disappointed.  If the production code was one of subtlety Lubitsch was a master of the power of suggestion.  The difference is what you could get away with suggesting.  In Design for Living a few cutaways and a line Hopkins delivers saying “But I’m no lady” clues us into all we need to know, just as a follow up shot of her new husband walking out of the bedroom in the morning and kicking a plant because he very clearly didn’t “consecrate his marriage”. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

New (and Improved?) Layout

Hello kids, I'm taking a few minutes to let you all know I've tinkered with the look of the blog.  Perhaps part of it was the fact that I was powerfully lazy when setting it up and never bothered to consider much what it would look like, or perhaps it's just been a few years so I feel like looking at something else.  So take a look see if you dig it.  If the background colors make the posts harder to read let me know.  If you hate the color blue for the titles feel free to inform me.  If you happen to love every change I've made then by all means I wouldn't mind hearing that either.

The major change I made is that you can now see the titles of all my past blog entries by clicking on the drop down tab for each month in the archive.  These are located to the left side of the page.  So if you wanted to know where my top films of the 2000s list was located, just click on 2011 and scroll down until you find March, and there you go.  I find this makes finding old entries much easier than the typical guess and check system and now that I'm closing in on my third full year, it's a little easier to navigate.

Coming Soon . . . 

Remember kids that my 100 Greatest/Favorite Horror film list is tentatively scheduled to be posted by the end of the month, possibly as early as Sunday the 21st, but almost guaranteed to be up by Halloween, so perhaps you can get a few last minute recommendations before the 31st.  Oh and by the way, see Kill List, I keep harping on this but seriously what's your excuse I even saw the DVD at my local library so it's everywhere, go get it.

Also I have already been plugging away at the overall top 100 list coming out but there's another little gem I'm getting set to unleash upon the world before then.  This is my Film Cannon.  I'll get into what exactly this means when I post it, but essentially it's a giant chronological list of what I would consider 5 star films.  So if you ever wanted to know what films from 1954 I love, this is the reference for you.  A list like this is something akin to a life's worth of film watching so it's far from final.  I plan on updating it perhaps once a year, if for nothing else to keep it current with the year's best released films.  I'm not going to make my list up to 1000, or start chopping off films when I get over that number, and consider it the good sportsmanship award of film.  Now I should also mention that if a film isn't on the list it doesn't mean I hate it, although it could mean I think it's overrated.  Hell I may even post this later today depending on how I feel.  So whenever I post it, I recommend making the page a sticky, possibly even copying it into a text file and using it for your own private checklist every time you go to rent a film or whatever it is you do when selecting what to watch.

So take a minute to browse around and check out the new layout.

One more thing . . . 

I really hope that Lena and Yulia can get past their differences and reunite for another t.A.T.u. album.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Night of the Hunter (1955) - Charles Laughton

Charles Laughton made only one film as a director and Night of the Hunter is akin to Orson Welles retiring after making Citizen Kane.  I won’t say that this film is as good as Citizen Kane, but it’s hard to think of any director whose first (and in this case only) film was this good.  Along with producer Paul Gregory the pair made a few celebrated stage productions before tackling their first screen project.  It came from a long knowledge of film, of how to tell a story and from making movies in nearly every conceivable style from slapstick comedy to horror.  Laughton had been around for decades and won an Oscar early in his career for The Private Life of Henry VIII, but his most significant contribution to cinema will most likely be remembered as Night of the Hunter.

Defining the film in terms of genre can be problematic.  This can fall into a horror subplot because after all there is a monster in the film who is the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing (Robert Mitchum).  However the lack of supernatural elements generally lend itself more to horror’s rational cousin the thriller.  I would argue it doesn’t matter what you call the film, but since there is an impending greatest horror list I’m putting together at the end of the month, I’m willing to call it a horror film.  All of the horrific elements stem from Mitchum’s Preacher Harry Powell. 

Often in horror films there is a general sense of dread throughout the film.  False starts and spooky warnings that are foreboding, looking forward to later more tangible danger.  Laughton largely ignores these elements.  Sure the film opens with children playing around a corpse, but it doesn’t have that same supernatural “something is wrong” element that is so common among these films.  Laughton is identifying with the children here and is there any ruder way to shatter childlike innocence than that?  Powell is seen driving away right afterwards having his own one on one conversation with God.  He says he knows that God don’t mind the killing because “the bible’s full of killings”, but he knows God is on his side because God hates women just like him.  Not all women, just the ones that wear makeup, dress provocatively, curl their hair, wear perfume, and arouse man’s baser instincts.  What makes him so frightening is that he “knows this”.  He is completely convinced in his own mind that he is doing the lord’s work.  He can’t even recall if this is the 8th or 12th woman he’s married and murdered. 

The telling scene that takes place right as Powell is arrested points to perhaps one of his reasons for his incredible misogyny.  While at what appears to be a burlesque show/strip club he’s sitting around leering men watching a woman do her routine and as you notice the look of contempt on his face, he pops his knife out, through his pocket.  The phallic imagery is undeniable and it makes you ask the question.  Is his hatred based on his own inadequacies as a lover?  Is his natural instinct towards killing for his own frustration at being impotent?  Why the knife?  Why not a gun, a rope, or any other weapon?  Clearly the parallel is being drawn and it’s for this reason I believe he later turns Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) out on their wedding night.  He tells her that sex is only to produce children, but I wonder if it’s not because he simply can’t get it up.  I’m sure I’m not the first person to make this claim, and I would argue Laughton is anything but subtle in his symbolism here.

At the beginning of the film we even have a voice over warning us about wolves in sheep’s clothing and we know what to expect.  The entire film, which was based on the best selling novel by Davis Grubb, is steeped in a Southern Protestant brand of Christianity.  It differs dramatically from the catholic understanding of the bible and is something that anyone from down south can easily identify with.  The hymns that Powell sings are recognizable, and even one night Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) joins in singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” with him.  What’s noticeable about their duet is that she changes the lyrics to include Jesus in the hymn.  Powell makes no mention of Jesus and to him his brand of religion is just betwixt him and the Lord.  He has no denomination, and doesn’t even seem to acknowledge Christ in his travels. 

Some of the expressionist tendencies

Now according to Robin Wood most of the film’s more cinematic moments were part of James Agee’s script.  He was known primarily as a film critic and put out two volumes of film writing entitled Agee on Film.  Some people credit him with helping to revive Buster Keaton’s career following an article he wrote about silent comedians for Life magazine.  He was a huge alcoholic and Jeff Fahey’s character in White Hunter Black Heart was loosely based on him.  He died at the age of 45 just two years after this film was made.  The script apparently contained directions for helicopter shots, camera angles, and various other staging suggestions.  Laughton a first time director seemed content to follow his instructions, so you can make a claim which one of them really “directed” the picture.

Speaking of which Laughton was known for hating children.  So you can imagine a conflict of interest when the two main characters of the film happen to be 9 and 4 respectively.  From what I read in Danny Peary’s Cult Movies 3, Laughton detested Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce so left their direction to Mitchum.  His sympathies lie with Preacher.  Laughton spent the large majority of his career playing obsessed and ruthlessly evil one dimensional villains, so you can imagine how he saw himself in this character.  Of course one of the things that makes Preacher so effective is his charisma.  He gets nearly all the women around to fall for him, and he wouldn’t be nearly as competent at killing if they didn’t let their guard down immediately.  Charles Laughton was far from good looking ,and really he was far from average looking, the man was pretty damn ugly so there’s no way he could have pulled off this role.  Mitchum on the other hand was quite handsome and developed his own penchant for playing slightly psychotic men who seemed like good guys at first.  Although his turn in Cape Fear is all psycho. 

Pictured above, one sexy man

I won’t make the argument that the children deliver stellar performances although Billy Chapin does an admirable job.  As a child star, Chapin stopped acting entirely after 1959 so this is what he’ll always be remembered for.  Sally Jane Bruce might not be a terrible actress for her part, but the role itself is somewhat infuriating.  She seems like she’s quasi-retarded and even if she’s only 4 or 5 it seems she ought to have a much greater understanding of what’s going on.  However the story seems to dictate that women seem all but oblivious to Preacher’s evil.  It goes along with the theme that she would actually run to his arms when he finally shows up at Rachel’s house telling her the story of how he had been looking for them.  Even after being chased around, and even after he threatens to stick John like a pig and leave him bleeding with his knife (which he ironically is wielding in his hand with the letters L-O-V-E tattooed on it), she still doesn’t seem to recognize this man as pure evil. Ruby (Gloria Castillo) doesn’t even seem to fathom how evil he is when on trial for multiple murders, she lingers at the courthouse and still has that glassy eyed look in her eyes as if she believes he’s somehow not as bad as all that.

Another thing that makes the Preacher seem a little more classic movie monster is his persistence.  When John and Pearl spend the night hiding in a barn he hears his never ending hymn singing as he slowly rides on a horse never going too far from the riverfront.  John comments “don’t he ever sleep” and you know in classic movie monster terms, no he doesn’t.  Just like Michael Meyers or Jason Voorhees, this is a monster who will never stop his pursuit, and he also doesn’t seem like he’s in too much of a hurry to find you either.  He knows that eventually you’ll have to sleep and he’ll just keep trotting along.  Like any great monster though he of course believes he is in the right.  He wants the stolen money to build a tabernacle to the lord, and never in the film does he even admit to himself that he plans on doing anything else with the money.  The fact that John and Pearl are so determined to risk their lives to keep a promise to their irresponsible father seems almost pointless.  It plays into the black and white nature of the fair tale which this film clearly situates itself in.

The intro which features all of Rachel’s children’s heads in the sky along with hers as she mentions those fore-warnings put us in a fable.  Perhaps to Laughton this rural south resembled more of that old time “once upon a time” land.  It is set during the Great Depression which accounts not only for how many children seem to be homeless, why the father went out and robbed in the first place, and how a man can go around as a preacher and be so instantly accepted.  When Willa confesses her sins she is completely convinced that her new husband is right about sex.  She recognizes herself as a temptress and blames her own greed for her husband’s crimes.  She is now prostrating herself in front of a burning torch and repenting just like anyone at a frantic revival meeting.  It’s the type of thing that existed for years, but took deep root during the destitute times of the 30s which gives the film much more credibility than if it had taken place in the more stable Eisenhower 50s.  Not just the reference to Preacher as a wolf abound, but throughout their journey down the river we get glimpses of animals looming large in the foreground which helps link the fairy tale mythology to the film.

More oblique angles
 There have been some contrasting ideas as to why Rachel sees through the Preacher.  Some ideas pointed out that maybe she is too old for his advances, and she’s past the point of being sexually attracted to him therefore isn’t under the same spell as the other women.  However when the noisy neighbor falls hook, line, and sinker for his charms it makes me think it has nothing to do with age.  She just simply is the first rational and level headed adult in the film.  Her character is balanced and keeping with the fairy tale mythology is the mother goose figure of the story.  Perhaps she is just too good or too saintly to fall for his deal.  When he tries to go into his well rehearsed speech about his matching love and hate tattoos she cuts him off long before he gets the chance.  She not only recognizes that he isn’t the father of John and Pearl, but knows he is no preacher either.  Those tattoos have been the stuff of homage and parody in everything from The Simpsons to Do the Right Thing.

The role was a great return to the screen for Lillian Gish who for many was a symbol of the history of film, as her time in films dated from Griffith all the way to the 80s.  She lived into the 90s and her death seemed to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of the movies.  She always had that youthful look to her that allowed her to play much younger roles throughout the silent era, and it gives a certain vitality to her portrayal here.  She’s old enough to be a mother figure for these orphans but youthful enough to understand and relate to them, and energetic enough to fend off the would be predator.  There is a brief moment when she calls the children out following Powell’s arrival where you wonder if she won’t be like every other adult and send them off, but somehow we know she’s different and boy is it gratifying when she does finally call him out.

Regardless of who you wish to attribute the greatness of this film to, it can be agreed it is a collaborative effort.  Stanley Cortez does a fantastic job with the photography and even if Agee provided these shot ideas in the script, it still took a good cinematographer to realize them.  Laughton trusted in his performers and the story to make everything happen, and well would any of it had been possible without the original source novel.  The performances are strong throughout and Mitchum seems to genuinely relish going over the top at numerous turns.  The film has plenty of expressionist tendencies and he seems to be channeling some of those classic much more hysterical German performers of the silent era.  His gestures are wild and violent and he is animated in dialogue the way you’d expect a showman preacher to be.  Put together it’s just a damn good movie.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Film Journal 2012 - September

Welcome kiddies to the month of October.  For film fanatics that usually means a marathon or two (or 31 in some cases) of horror films, and well I’ll get to that in a moment.  For others, this means summer is officially gone and we can all pour out some liquor for our dead homies warm weather.  In case you didn’t know I hate fall with a passion, but well I do love horror films so October is like the “it’s not as bad as November” month so well I’ll survive.

September saw quite a bit of productivity for me.  A nice long month that saw progress made on two fronts in particular.  For starters I continued my top 100 movies research in earnest.  This coincided with the continued trek through the NSFC list which served as double duty for me.  You might be happy to know that Kate and I are at about 17 films left on that list, so I might boldly predict that we can finish this thing in the month of October.  I still have over 80 films left on my re-watch checklist for my top 100, so that one is going to take a little more time, but I anticipate it wrapping up in time for the end of the year deadline I imposed for myself.

I made a little more progress on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s list as well, and actually the first two films I watched this month were from it.  His taste is strange as always but I was thrilled to watch Robert Wiene’s Raskolnikov, which was released some places under the more familiar title Crime and Punishment.  Wiene was the director fortunate enough to be assigned The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to direct, and despite how completely disregarded the rest of his work seems to be historically speaking, there are some very interesting films out there.  This has also inspired me to start reading Siegfried Kracauer’s landmark book From Caligari to Hitler, which thus far is a pretty interesting read.  According to Kracauer the idea of the framing device in Caligari was Wiene’s idea and it transformed the story from a revolutionary anti-authoritarian picture to one of mental illness.  The screenwriters may have felt betrayed but audiences tend to see through that today.  The idea that the whole thing was some madman’s delusion never really resonated with me, and I always tended to see it for what it was, not knowing that was the original intention.

Wiene’s next several films also follow the expressionist doctrine which explains the near insanity of Genuine, a film that I wish some day to see released in it’s entirety.  Raskolnikov however is a film that adapts classic literature to expressionist purposes.  There is no framing device here, and the sets are still painted with sharp oblique angles on every door, crooked roofs and all those touches that make German expressionism so great, as well as early Tim Burton films before he got lazy and started using CGI for every set in all of his movies.   I would consider Wiene’s adaptation his second true masterpiece that I’ve seen anyways and it is a direct influence on Pierre Chenal’s brilliant 1935 adaptation of the Dostoyevsky classic.  Anyways as far as I know it was never released on DVD, but it is available somewhere, so feel free to search it, you’ll be rewarded. 

I also watched Wiene’s The Hands of Orlac (1924) which was later remade in America with none other than Peter Lorre as the title character.  It is one of those horror films with a plot so mind bogglingly idiotic that you can’t help but laugh and realize that only in the silent era could such a preposterous story work.  By this film which was made just after Raskolnikov Wiene had begun to move past his expressionist trademark.  The growing tendency in German film starting around 1924 was a move away from expressionism into a slightly more naturalistic filmmaking style that still incorporated elements of the old style, mainly the psychological manipulation and subjective camera devices which borrowed more from the French style emerging at the time.  There are some interesting moments in the film but I found it ultimately undone by the banality of the story and somehow I felt slightly betrayed by Wiene discarding his trademark style.

This has set the stage for perhaps a future silent German marathon, but I have enough film projects on my plate so I’ll have to put this on hold for a bit.  For the record none of the other films from Rosenbaum’s list I watched this month (save perhaps Valse Triste) made much of an impression on me.  Bruce Conner, director of said Valse Triste is rapidly becoming one of my favorite experimental filmmakers.  Not sure exactly why, perhaps because I can sense some degree of humor in his work, perhaps because his films have a little bit of structure, or maybe he just has enough nudity sprinkled throughout his work to keep it interesting.  I’ve seen a lot of abstract and powerfully boring avant-garde work over the years so it takes a lot for an experimental filmmaker to impress me.  Granted his Marilyn Times Five (1973) might very well be too much of a good thing, his heart was in the right place.  The only reason I say this is because the film itself is basically a grainy film of Marilyn Monroe nude, distorted, and manipulated for the span of about 12-13 minutes.  Sounds like a great film right?  Well except for the fact that the soundtrack consists of the same Marilyn song “I’m Through with Love” played five times in a row.  Not sure about you but anytime I have to listen to a song five times in a row I tend to stop liking that song, so I can’t explain why Conner chose the device, but well that’s my complaint.
One reason to like Marilyn Times Five (1973)
Now one subject I haven’t worked too hard on you’ll notice is horror movies.  Yes I still plan on making a top 100 list on this subject by the end of the month, so you’d assume I’d be doing some research, but not much save a couple of films at the end of the month.  My brother has already started his list and you should check his blog out to see his choices thus far.  Unlike him however I happened to be very impressed with the first Hellraiser (1987) film and plan on putting it somewhere amongst my selections.  I also watched the late Tony Scott’s feature debut The Hunger (1983) which is hardly a horror film of any kind, despite the presence of vampires.  Describing what it is exactly is a little tough to do, just consider it a really, really artsy movie about aging I suppose.

I don’t think I get it . . .

Then there’s Jacques Tati.  I recently read Kristin Thompson’s justification as to why Playtime and How Green Was My Valley were better films than Citizen Kane and although I may have shook my head the way you would when a Cubs fan tells you “this is the year”, I respected her opinion and insight.  So I decided now would be a good a time as any to revisit some Tati.  It just so happened both Mon Oncle and Playtime were on my re-watch list so it wasn’t much of a stretch.  Despite the supreme command of his mise-en-scene that Tati displays in both of these films I don’t think they’re masterpieces.  For starters there comedies, and they’re not funny.  I mean you may have a light chuckle for half a second here or there, but I can’t imagine anyone who isn’t an 8 year old French boy who grew up in the 50s actually laughing out loud during one of his movies.  Maybe I’m too jaded, or my idea of comedy is centered too much on “jokes” but well Tati isn’t funny.  There are plenty of things to admire about him, but well calling either one of these the greatest film of all time is way too much of a stretch for me.  Maybe I’m not “mature” enough to appreciate his style.  For those who do love Tati, I highly recommend Aki Kaurismaki

One of the never-ending corridors in Playtime (1967)
As a director he is a curious case, because I’d argue no comedic filmmaker has such mastery of the film medium.  He was incredibly obsessive with details and incorporated sound into his routines like few others.  I believe that although his early features Jour de fete and M. Hulot’s Holiday are good if not great films you don’t get the full sense of his artistry as you do when Tati made the switch to color.  As I was told apparently Jour de fete was shot in color and the idea was scrapped because Tati apparently didn’t like the way it looked, ever the eccentric.  By 1958 though he apparently enjoyed the hues that color stock afforded him.  Thanks to the restoration, and the fact that Playtime was shot on 70mm the films still look fantastic today.  As a means to show how a director can stage a scene on only the semblance of a story Tati is a master of economy.  He makes entire films out of anecdote, which makes him seem like something of a French version of Ozu. 

Speaking of Ozu, I also revisited Good Morning this month and it might damn well be my favorite film of his.  Of course I also revisited Early Summer which also might be my favorite film of his, but for entirely different reasons.  For me Good Morning, or Ohayu for my Japanese friends out there is Ozu’s take on Tati.  Maybe it’s the fact that his non-traditional score sounds very much like the Parisian music that pops up throughout Tati’s oeuvre or maybe that it’s Ozu trying to be Tati trying to be Ozu.  Either way I find it infinitely more enjoyable than all of Tati’s films combined.  It’s hilarious at parts, charming at others, and throughout the entire film it’s utterly delightful.  When I first saw the film I used the phrase delightful, and I’m not sure that any other adequately describes it so well.  Not sure if this or Early Summer will make my overall top 100 but I’m rooting for them.

Now for the A-List

As you’ve come to expect the last part of my film journal is dedicated to the films on the National Society of Film Critics A-List that Kate and I have seen.  I have already reviewed The Decalogue and High Noon separately so consult those previous posts for reviews of them.  As for the rest . . .

Aparajito/The World of Apu (1957/1959)

I fully intended on blogging about the whole Apu trilogy for the better part of the last three weeks.  I even read Andrew Robinson’s chapter on the trilogy in his book on Satyajit Ray.  However, here we are, so sorry.  As mentioned earlier somewhere this trilogy can aptly be named “Everyone dies”.  Apu is something of a cursed figure rather than a tragic one.  It is his family that comes to feel the icy cold hands of death all the time.  Aparajito which some consider the weakest of the series is probably the most guilty of this.  Despite the fact that his sister dies in the first film from the age old cliché of being outside in the rain (no idea why that is so fatal in literature) the only other person he sees die is the billion year old aunt whose picture I posted a month ago to give you all nightmares for weeks.  In Aparajito however we see Apu’s father suddenly fall ill, and unlike say normal life where someone in their forties gets sick, they have a fever, get better and go on living, in this world however that means instant fatality.

So it goes to show later in the film that you almost start counting down the minutes until Apu’s mother dies.  It’s not that she is sick or hints at her illness early on, you just have come to expect it.  In the novel Apu’s mother’s death was considered something of a relief for him.  It isn’t as though Apu was glad to be rid of his mother but there was somehow a release for him.  She was the last of his family and ties to his early life.  He was free to live in the city, and without obligation to anyone anymore.  Despite the people in his village who would like to see Apu continue the profession his father and grandfather had, Apu is drawn far too strongly to Calcutta.  In the novel apparently Apu had a love affair in the city which helps explain the draw it had for him, but from what I read Apu cast the girl for the part of his lover and when her proposed husband found out his wife would be doing something as terrible as acting in a movie, took her away and Ray was left without an actress.  Rather than recast last minute I guess she just got written out of the film.

For this reason the relationship between Apu and his eventual wife becomes somewhat confused.  Most western audiences couldn’t fathom how he could marry a total stranger especially after the man she was supposed to marry just went crazy moments ago.  How people can so arbitrarily get married on a whim like that is baffling to us, but apparently completely normal to Bengali audiences.  It was Ray’s decision actually to make Apu a little apprehensive about the arrangement, apparently in the novel he jumped into it without a moment’s hesitation.  The brief time Apu and his wife have together in World of Apu (the only film in the series that was somehow released with an English title) is arguably the best moments of the entire trilogy.  For the first time Apu is choosing love, rather than simply being born into a family.  Yes their marriage is arranged and without love to start, but they develop a bond and wind up loving each other, making their bond somehow stronger than the attachment Ray had to his own family.  For Ray fans, World of Apu also marks the first time that he would work with Soumitra Chatterjee who plays the grown up Apu.  Apparently he read for the role when filming Aparajito but was turned down because he was too old to play the young adolescent Apu, but Ray didn’t forget him.  In all the two would make 14 films together providing one of the longest and most fruitful director/star collaborations in history.

Easy Rider (1969)

The last time I watched this film was with Dennis Hopper’s commentary a few years ago.  I wrote a review of the film and well maybe one day soon I’ll dust it off and update it a bit, until then a few random thoughts this time.  As the onslaught of hipsters continues to plague and corrupt our youth today I noticed an uncanny resemblance to a lot of things in this film.  When the two visit a hippie commune I couldn’t help but think of people I know in Madison who live in a co-op and know all about sustainable organic farming.  Granted the idea of hitting the open road, and in particular doing it on motorcycles might seem a little more 60s than 2012 it still tells a very relevant tale.  Society has clearly changed in a lot of ways and the outright antagonism that besets these “freaks” has made the film somewhat dated, although I don’t know how well hipsters thrive in the deep south.  I still love the LSD sequence and think that Hopper chose well when he got Laszlo Kovacs as his cinematographer.  For film nerds you might recall his name being given as an alias for John Paul Belmondo in Godard’s Breathless.  Too bad Hopper spent most of the 70s in drugged out exile after the failure of The Last Movie, because he really was a damn good filmmaker.

Diner (1982)

Barry Levinson’s debut feature shows an incredibly capable filmmaker full of promise.  Despite the fact that he made several decent to good films afterwards (The Natural, Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man, Bugsy) he never really seemed to live up to this promise.  Perhaps it’s because this film seemed so personal and he never really returned to it’s roots, although the poorly received Liberty Heights is another nostalgic look at Baltimore.  I can see how some people would compare this to George Lucas’ American Graffiti, which represents another filmmaker completely abandoning a personal film in exchange for never ending tinkering with Star Wars.  The cast of then unknowns is also quite remarkable, and fans of The Wrestler can see what Mickey Rourke looked like before he became a circus freak.  Some of the scenes involving endless Baltimore Colts trivia or Daniel Stern’s endless musical knowledge sound like Levinson giving voice to his personal obsessions but the actors make it seem genuine.  Levinson has a nice tendency to teeter on the brink of melodrama without going over.  Plenty of drama threatens to happen but everything always seems to work out in the end which leaves you feeling rather pleasant by the end of the film rather than emotionally distraught.  It’s the reason you know the wedding is going to take place regardless of the outcome of the football test, or that somehow Boogie (Rourke) will somehow solve his financial woes. 

Red Sorghum/Ju Dou (1987/1990)

It seemed a stretch when reading this book to group three of Zhang Yimou’s films together as different as Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, and Raise the Red Lantern but they did it nonetheless.  Since we still haven’t watched Raise the Red Lantern I’ll save that for later.  Yimou’s first film as a director, Red Sorghum is one of his best to a point of frustration.  Just as I watch Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice and ask myself “what the hell happened to Tim Burton?” I can’t help but wonder the same thing of Yimou.  Sure he had a few early films that weren’t that great, but considering the extraordinary visual sense he displayed in these first few films (he was a former cinematographer after all) the drama seems real, if not a little outrageous.  Red Sorghum treads a fine line between historical fable that can be set in any time and brutal war drama that instantly places it in history.  When the Japanese show up it stops being a tale of old rural China and making wine and becomes a film of atrocities.  To me this is when the movie really takes off and well the first scene of the Japanese soldiers is unsettling to say the least.

Gong Li in Red Sorghum (1987)
Ju Dou might seem much more melodramatic and again takes place in a very vague and exotic “past” that has no real relevant timeframe.  The bastard son who never speaks and is inexplicably hostile to everyone except the man who isn’t his real father is confusing.  This film takes the subjugation of women to another extreme and as the family pretty much condemns her to a life of secrecy when they forbid her to re-marry makes the film seem antiquated and sexist, but to us Western audiences we can only suspect that it’s just the way things are in China.  The fact that both films feature a woman played by Gong Li who has a bastard child that happens to be a boy is not a coincidence.  Like The Road Home, Red Sorghum is narrated by a grandson, and it plays off the ancient Chinese belief that people only have sons.  Visually Ju Dou is probably the most striking film, but both films are not without some problems.  The blaring soundtracks are particularly distracting and there’s an awful lot of yelling and seemingly silly rituals which strike me more as Yimou emphasizing the “exotic” qualities of his work for export.  Unfortunately both films which were released by New Yorker and Kino on VHS were both made available to me by a shoddy Chinese company that provided awful transfers and laughably bad and inaccurate subtitles.  Hope these films fare better on Blu-Ray.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Like Easy Rider I wrote a decent review of this a few years ago that may one day appear on this blog in some form.  After the last viewing, which was confirmed again I would pick this as my favorite Frank Capra film.  His brand of sentimentality or wide eyed optimism has either affectionately or condemningly been referred to as “Capra-corn” and I admit it is really a love it or hate it phenomenon.  I understand how the various aspects of this can seem hokey to modern dejected audiences or moving and positive.  I have always admired these ideas in his work and I would make the argument that this is his best directed film, which is something considering he had already won three best director Oscars by this point.  I love the scene where Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) is talking to Susan Paine (Astrid Allwyn) and the camera simply follows Smith’s hat and how awkwardly he keeps fumbling it.  The gag is repeated somewhat later when he is talking to her on the phone and has no business to be that fidgety.  Sure Jean Arthur was far prettier than Astrid Allwyn but Capra goes to show her more as one of the guys.  Arthur is a woman, who works no less and is not only as capable but probably more capable than any man in the film.  We don’t even find out her last name until more than halfway into the film, as if she is embarrassed to even be a woman.  The thought of corrupt politicians has become commonplace by now thanks to a man named Nixon, but the film was not without controversy in 1939.  It received it’s premiere in Washington DC and the congressmen present were not amused to say the least.  Capra who was born in Sicily in 1897 firmly believes in the American dream in the way only an immigrant who achieved it can and that comes through in the film.  Call it sentimental but it holds up as well as any 30s movie and is still one of my all time favorites.

The Entertainer (1960)

Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer (1960)
 I am under the impression that our national film critics seem to hate British cinema.  No Third Man, Ealing films, none of the British work of David Lean or Alfred Hitchcock, no Monty Python, etc. on this ranking.  The only film that you can unequivocally call British is this offering from Tony Richardson.  Granted I know 2001 and Lawrence of Arabia were UK productions, but they were also co-financed by American studios.  The Entertainer might fit into that period of British cinema known as the “Angry young man films” or the “Kitchen sink cinema” but it represents a period of their cinema that put an emphasis on the lower working class families typically in crowded and cramped apartments who find their solace in momentary flings and plenty of booze.  For many Richardson was the forerunner of the movement and his first feature Look Back in Anger (1958) was the start of Britain’s own “New Wave”.  Both that film and The Entertainer were based on John Osbourne plays and both were directed on stage by Richardson.  Laurence Olivier played Archie Rice in both stage and screen adaptations and it’s arguable he’s never been better.  Despite his reputation as perhaps the finest Shakespearean actor of this or any generation it’s easy to forget how good he could be in a contemporary setting and his failed music hall performer is a quintessential man out of time and a simultaneously tragic and pathetic figure.  In a slight odd bit of trivia Joan Plowright who plays Olivier’s daughter in this film wound up marrying him after this film and they stayed married until his death in 1989.  It certainly makes it interesting when she laughs at his question about marrying a woman her age in the film.

Jailhouse Rock (1957)

Then as now I’ve always scratched my head at this one, an Elvis film?  Sure he may be the king of rock and roll but his films are almost universally dismissed as either insignificant or downright awful.  Jailhouse Rock was perhaps included to showcase that small sub-genre of “rock films” that included the much better A Hard Days Night or doubling as a “youth in revolt” film.  Truth be told Jailhouse Rock is a pretty good movie.  It’s story is somewhat simple, Elvis has a short temper kicks a guys ass, accidentally kills him, goes to jail, learns to play the guitar, gets out and becomes a rock star.  Along the way he has a one track mind hell bent on getting as much money as humanly possible while disregarding everyone on the way.  His character is a dick and I can’t tell if it was an effort to make him seem like a “bad boy” or just a jerk.  However rather than see him as just a greedy self-centered rock star the character does have some depth.  He decides to honor the bogus contract he signed with his cell mate, although not 50/50, and well at the end of the day you still think he cares about people.  It’s just in his world he doesn’t figure anyone cares about him, or rather he tries to pass off his own misgivings back onto those around him.  There are some good songs in the film, and the title track is of course great.  I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this film for an Elvis fan but I still can’t fathom why it’s on this list above so many more deserving movies.

In closing
After a scary and hilarious scene in Sleepwalk With Me (2012)

You’ll notice I saw a few films from this current year, including two trips to an actual movie theater.  First was comedian Mike Birbiglia’s somewhat autobiographical Sleepwalk With Me which I knew nothing about.  Turned out to be a pretty funny and good film although it seems like it’s already out of theaters, so keep an eye out for it on DVD.  The other was Paul Thomas Anderson’s much anticipated The Master.  Now I didn’t want to blog too much about this film because as often happens with new films, especially ones as open ended as this the internet becomes littered with bloggers offering their two cents on the film.  I still don’t know entirely what to make of the film and I think that’s the point.  I don’t think things are deliberately explained for us because we’re supposed to do some thinking on our own.  There are plenty of references to earlier cinema and Joaquin Phoenix ends his very brief retirement with a stellar performance.  I wonder if this will be the film Anderson finally wins an Oscar for, but I can’t tell, it certainly helps his case that the almighty Weinstein company is behind it and as you know from countless Oscar posts how powerful their powers of persuasion are.

I also watched two music/concert documentaries.  The first was Shut Up and Play the Hits which details the last show LCD Soundsystem played.  Interesting at parts you unfortunately have to deal with pretentious Chuck Klosterman asking pretentious questions, but the concert footage is excellent.  Sadly just last night The Music Box in Chicago played the entire 4-hour concert film and I missed it.  Perhaps it’ll be available on Blu-Ray, for fans of the band it’s well worth checking out.  The other film was Katy Perry’s snore fest Part of Me.  Perhaps Madonna set an unfair benchmark with Truth or Dare, but since then I expect more out of a musical expose/concert film particularly with a female artist.  The testimonials of dumb teenagers talking about how great Katy Perry is and some of the would be drama seems to horribly miss the point.  I figured this could have been so much more but I can’t help feeling like the always image conscious Katy Perry wasn’t willing to go all in for the picture, which I guess makes the title Part of Me seem very fitting.

Anyways hopefully I get to more contemporary films this next month, but well in the meantime here’s the run down of everything I watched complete with ratings as always:

Peter Pan (1924) 8/10
The Scenic Route (1978) 6/10
Glen or Glenda (1953) 10/10
The Decalogue IV (1988) 10/10

When Strangers Marry/Betrayed (1944) 6/10
From This Day Forward (1946) 7/10

The Decalogue V-VI (1988) 10/10

The Decalogue VII VIII (1988) 10/10

The Decalogue IX X (1988) 10/10

Wages of Fear (1953) 7/10
Strike (1925) 9/10
La Ronde (1950) 10/10
Aparajito (1956) 10/10

Viridiana (1961) 8/10
Mon Oncle (1958) 9/10
Easy Rider (1969) 10/10

School for Postmen (1947) 7/10

Valse Triste (1977) 9/10
The World of Apu (1959) 10/10

Play Time (1967) 8/10

Diner (1982) 10/10
L’Avventura (1960) 10/10
Ju Dou (1990) 10/10

An Inn at Osaka (1954) 9/10
The 39 Steps (1935) 10/10

Flame and Women (1967) 7/10
Sleepwalk with Me (2012) 8/10

Stalker (1979) 8/10
Early Summer (1951) 10/10
Katy Perry - Part of Me (2012) 4/10

White Heat (1949) 10/10

L’Age D’Or (1930) 10/10
Raskolnikov (1923) 10/10

Marilyn Times Five (1973) 8/10
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) 10/10

The Hands of Orlac (1924) 6/10
Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012) 8/10

High Noon (1952) 10/10

The Entertainer (1960) 9/10

La Notte (1961) 9/10

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) 9/10

The Hunger (1983) 7/10
The Master (2012) 9/10
Jailhouse Rock (1957) 9/10

Hellraiser (1987) 9/10
Red Sorghum (1987) 10/10

Best Film of the Month - Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Worst Film of the Month - Katy Perry:  Part of Me
Best New Discovery - Raskolnikov
Raskolnikov/Crime and Punishment (1923)