Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Long Gray Line (1955) - John Ford

Ok so I had a vague idea about writing a film review every week, fail.  In fact if I made that goal one a month I probably would have failed because failing is what I do.  Since I want to stay positive, I'll just say I kick ass at failing, totally dominate it. 

Anyways there's something entirely comforting about the work of John Ford.  Maybe you have to be a cinephile, maybe you have to be a bit advanced in your cinematic education, but there's something wholly familiar and un-pretentious about Ford and his work.  It seems each new film of his you see it immediately seems familiar in a comforting rather than a predictable sort of way.  It's what was vaguely referred to in some circles as the makings of an "auteur".  

Now auteur theory seems to mean everything to everyone when it comes to film and it's so vague and all encompassing that it seems pointless to try and clarify things.  This may be because the very people starting the concept seemed to have a loose definition of it themselves.  Now one way of looking at a director in terms of his status as an auteur is whether or not you can classify their work as wholly theirs.  This doesn't mean they are unique to the point of absurdity, but well you can tell when Quentin Tarantino is making a movie vs. a cheap knock off.  You can spot the difference between a Wes Anderson movie and some other quirky indie comedy.  

These are some of the markings, but there is another idea that drew a lot of flack regarding this theory and that was the belief that even the lesser films of these directors (say Death Proof and The Life Aquatic for example) are still worth watching over say some well produced slick film from a faceless director like Kings Speech or The Young Victoria.  Now this isn't necessarily saying that those lesser films are better, just that they are more worthy of your time.  They are more interesting, they will stick with you longer, etc. For example the age old comparison of Samuel Fuller over William Wyler despite the fact that Wyler made better films than damn near anyone in his generation.  

Now I can't necessarily say that the work of some idiosyncratic weirdo automatically trumps a polished effort.  That is an absurd idea to me, but you can understand how some films can warm your heart even without being particularly great.  John Ford's work is arguably the epitome of this.  He's a director with so many signature traits that manage to span virtually every genre.  

Sure there are Ford films that seem out of place and don't necessarily adhere to his trademarks, such as Mary of Scotland, and yes he made the Shirley Temple vehicle Wee Willie Winkie, but throughout his career his films took a modified stance on the "seen one, seen 'em all" mantra.  In some ways you can say he was Hollywood's answer to Yasujiro Ozu who made the same film over and over again, but whose early career has a few wild diversions from his central themes.  Ozu unlike Ford wrote the majority of his films whereas Ford seemed determined to mold each of his films into a representation of himself.  

The Long Gray Line is one of those films that fits decidedly into Ford's later line.  Like some of his other nostalgic films of the period, notably Wings of Eagles this takes into account the life of a lifetime soldier as a bumbling recruit to sentimental old veteran.  The film itself is uneven due to the somewhat abrupt way it seems to go from carefree nostalgic romp to outright tragedy.  However it doesn't seem like Ford is ever too far into grim territory.  He isn't one of those East European directors who refuses to shoot in color whose films are full of drab long takes set to haunting cello scores in a minor key.  Ford's work is of a much more lively variety.

Ma Joad ended The Grapes of Wrath with a corny speech about essentially keeping up the fight and not quitting, life goes on etc.  The words were actually John Steinbeck's (I was paraphrasing greatly) but it seems as though Ford took those lessons to heart.  Nearly all of his films seem to show a degree of that perseverance Ma Joad had.  Your newborn son dies?  Get over it.  Your wife dies?  Get over it.  You get wounded in war?  Get over it.  Life is good even great after tragedy you just have to occasionally take your medicine because in the cinematic world of Ford there is some degree of karmic balance.  Someone will catch a break, they will have some hard times and at the end of the day it always seems worthwhile.  I'll get pretentious and mention the famous Socrates quote "The unexamined life is not worth living."  Well for many of Ford's protagonists they are always doing this. 

Marty Maher (Tyrone Power) is doing just that, examining his life.  He narrates his days as a fresh off the boat Irish immigrant, to failed waiter, enlisted man, and eventually athletic director at West Point.  He is in some ways a reflection of Ford, or more appropriately Ford's father.  Ford was born in Maine with the incredibly Irish name of John Martin O'Feeney (or Sean Aloysius depending on which source you ask), but his father was an immigrant.  Throughout Ford's films you see a genuine nostalgia for Ireland but the inevitable admittance that life is better in America hard or not.  This is a sentiment that Maureen O'Hara's character Mary says to him in the film when he mentions the idea of buying a pub back in Ireland when they save enough money.  

To Marty in this film, he is constantly just marking time at West Point.  He is always planning on getting out and moving on but as the film repeatedly demonstrates there always seems to be something to bring him back in.  In some ways it seems like his destiny is to preserve over the long gray line of continuous recruits in much the same way Mr. Chips saw generations of English boys pass through his school.  There is even a generational touch here in this film which might not be a direct reference to Goodbye Mr. Chips but a friendly reminder of the lifetime Maher spent in his position.

I've read that Ford hated Cinemascope, but you wouldn't know it from this film, or really any of his wide screen pictures.  He has a way of filling the frame without cluttering it.  In Henry Koster's film The Robe, which is credited as the first feature in Cinemascope, the frame is so unbelievably cluttered that it's often hard to find what you're supposed to be focused on.  In the two years after it seems that filmmakers figured it out, or rather Ford didn't want his film to look like some cluttered Roman epic.  The scenes are balanced, spaced well, and the long stream of military marches seem perfectly suited to the wide format.

I can only really recommend this film because Ford films are always worth watching.  It's not his best, nor would it be near the top of that list, but it has a familiarity to it that makes it damn good.  In fact like Ozu this might just be a masterpiece to you.  So many of his films touch on so many similar subjects that it's easy to find one a great film and another very similar picture just average.  Maybe I'm wrong about this, but well what of it?  If you have the time you can do much worse than watching all of Ford's films.  They are all worth your time and fantastic in their own way.  It's like spending time with a sentimental but tough old Irishman who smells of whiskey 24/7 who spins the most fantastic yarns.  

Btw my apologies for spending the majority of this talking film theory again, oh well I digress often.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Tavaszi Zapor (1932) - Pal Fejos

Before I get down to business I'd like to state a new goal for this blog.  I'm going to attempt however foolhardy to write a review of one of the films I watch each week.  Since I am privy to how many people view which blog entries (don't worry I can't see who views them) I noticed that film reviews seem to garner the most attention.  In other words people who aren't friends with me on facebook find my blog easier via these reviews.  
I'd also like to review some more rare films.  This isn't an effort to necessarily shine a light on neglected masterpieces, or to be an asshole and write about a bunch of films you can't find or never heard of.  No, this is an attempt to actually contribute something to the world of film studies.  Often times I watch a movie and look it up online only to find a sentence or two written about it and that's it, so allow me to help spread the gospel of film criticism as it were.  

The Film

Now some of you might recognize the name Pal Fejos, who went by the much more Americanized Paul when he was in Hollywood.  His best known film and the one most often considered his masterpiece Lonesome (1929) was released by Criterion not too long ago.  I should probably check this version out because I saw it in a god awful transfer of a severely deteriorated print on VHS.  Which is pretty much the exact same quality of Tavaszi Zapor that I just watched, except this VHS was transferred to a digital file.
Like many foreign films, and older movies this has several titles.  The English translation was Spring Showers, and a French version named Marie, legende hongroise which was featured in Jonathan Rosenbaum's top 1000.  There's also a Romanian version Prima Dragoste which I'm pretty sure doesn't exist anymore so there you have it.  In the days before subtitles were accepted or even dubbing oftentimes films were shot in entirely different languages.  Fejos himself was credited with directing a French and German version of The Big House (1930).  I can't speak for the differences between these various versions if it is only a matter of language.

The film opens with a prologue explaining the legend "That showers are sent from Heaven by long-dead mothers to protect their daughters from the temptations of spring and love."  You have to give a slight chuckle at this foolishness but of course Fejos has a plan in store for this antiquated anecdote.  This does however prime you for the idea that this is one of those films that probably couldn't work today.  It's sense of legend and morality are far too antiquated that it would be easily laughed off the screen today.  This is perhaps the reason why the French title referred to it as a Hungarian legend.

It is interesting though that Fejos not only begins the film in the present but actually takes us into the future, with the ending taking place roughly around 1950.  The only clue however is when the law comes to ruin Maria's life they mention the baby being born in August of 1934 (which would have been about two years after the film was shot), and of course the epilogue takes place 15 years later.  Perhaps it seems like a curious choice for Fejos to assume that things like this are truly timeless rather than a thing of the past.
Maria is played by the now forgotten star Annabella who was born in France and made a number of movies in Hollywood.  She was once married to Tyrone Power and she was quite a gossip page regular in her day, which essentially led to her leaving Hollywood.  Darryl Zanuck was mad at her for marrying his top star so he essentially never put her in movies and wouldn't loan her to other studios, essentially paying her a handsome salary not to work, hey I'd take that job.

Her performance as Maria Szabo (can you get more Hungarian?) is probably her best.  It's the type of role somewhat common in the earlier days of cinema that of a naive and innocent girl from the country who gets randomly seduced, abandoned, and has to carry the burden of being an unwed mother around.  For some reason the mere possibility of two young people "hooking up" for a night was preposterous to people back then and movies in every country had to beat home the point that if you have sex even once you're going to get pregnant, it's scientifically impossible not to.  You see how it's easy to chuckle at this film's basic premise.
Like a lot of silent films with similar seduced and abandoned themes with long suffering mothers you have to take it in the right perspective.  In other words you need to adopt some ultra-conservative Victorian era morals and think of the inhumanity and the injustice inflicted upon poor women like this.  It's the type of melodrama where you are constantly bombarded with misery.  Every little respite Maria has you just know something awful is right around the corner.  Even the end *spoiler* makes you think Fejos is going to dump on Maria once more, but instead she saves her daughter from a similar fate by making it rain, literally, thus tying everything together.

Now a lot of the plot is as previously stated ridiculous and antiquated.  Where this film separates itself is in it's visuals which shine through even in this horrifically awful transfer.  Like his earlier masterpiece Lonesome this film has some magical moments.  It's story of a simple country girl has drawn some comparisons to Murnau's Sunrise, and the ending truly is a remarkably visionary feat.  Stylistically Fejos blends quite a few elements together.  There are a few sequences which feature some rather rapid cutting and there is music almost start to finish in the film, something still somewhat rare for 1932.  Early in the film Fejos uses sound in an extraordinary and irritating way to demonstrate how chaotic things are in the Szabo house, screaming kids, crying babies, piano music, and yelling on top of yelling.

The ending is particularly odd how heaven is depicted.  From pretty much ever we've heard and seen different artists try to describe heaven.  For Fejos and his Maria it is a home much like the one she grew up on, except glittering and covered in gold.  I had to scratch my head when Maria realizes she's in heaven and proceeds to get on her knees with a mop bucket and get to cleaning, I mean really your idea of heaven is scrubbing floors?  Well worth checking out considering how small Fejos' cinematic output was.  Especially worthwhile for people who picked up the Criterion DVD and were wondering what to check out next.  Hopefully this will join the ranks of recently restored films as well.