Older films seen in 2004, continued from the 2003 edition. Note these are just quick notes, written on the fly mostly. This page was never intended to supplant the slightly more extended comments on oldies, though I guess it has really.
All films, both on this page and the previous one, can also be accessed alphabetically. You lucky people.
SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG (73) (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971): Desert finale recalls an American ANTONIO DAS MORTES, but I think (unfashionably, perhaps) this is really the black EASY RIDER - trippy, self-consciously 'relevant', a little facile and very much in love with its own exciting, obfuscatory style, all the freeze-frames and split-screens and negative images and double exposures. First 30 minutes is deliberately shocking - the opening sequence impossible today - and even then the images (like the night-time car trip, with neon signs randomly jutting through the blackness) hover on the edge of unintelligibility; then it gets seriously spacy, with broken-up rhythms and COOL WORLD-style verité urban snippets, and you'll either get in the groove (I did, obviously) or switch off completely. Helped by blistering funk score, as well as the general sense that anything might happen.
THE BLACK STALLION (86) (Carroll Ballard, 1979): Second viewing, first in 12 years; thought I'd overrated it (actually saw it with the express purpose of downgrading it on my 1979 list), but it still blew me away, all the more remarkable in that its plot is very ordinary. Nothing gets belaboured in this magical movie. First half is almost wordless, island scenes concentrate on the lines of landscape, horse and boy - the scene where they bond, starting out on opposite edges of the frame then moving back and forth in a tentative dance that must've taken ages to get right (that single shot lasts something like 4 minutes, and a horse won't always remember its choreography), the whole thing shot against the light, silhouetted against the shimmer of sun and sea, is justly famous. Things threaten to deflate when the boy returns to 'civilisation' (the structure is like TROPICAL MALADY in reverse, mystical giving way to realistic), yet again everything is subtle, pure, abbreviated: a schoolgirl's (odious) ode stands in for his homecoming, a couple of scenes sketch the boy's new home life; the decision to race the stallion is taken without fuss - and throughout the low-key rhythms convey 40s small-town life better than any 'period detail', while DP Caleb Deschanel is nailing every lyrical image and Ballard is adding his own subtle touches (even the way he introduces the hero is deft: a ship's deck, a woman walking to camera - then she turns frame-left into a cabin and he's revealed behind her, wandering around in the far background). There are lapses, at least enough to remind you it's a big-budget kidpic: needless flashbacks to the island during the climax, a Wise Old Black Man (the only bad misjudgment); Carmine Coppola's score sometimes threatens to topple over into the sickly; the star, Kelly Reno, obviously can't act, but they make his awkwardness part of the magic, like he's more at home in the world of horses (the slight stammer helps also). Nothing but style, and a hushed otherworldly gravity; at the very least, the most graceful children's film ever made.
CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON (68) (Eric Rohmer, 1972): All the usual self-delusion and rationalisation, subtly subverting a trite, apparently didactic 'Married Man tempted by Other Woman' scenario: might be an ode to married love yet the guy's clearly restless, loving the "freedom" of crowds and anything that takes him outside himself - but faced with a truly free spirit (the titular Chloe) he retreats into social norms ("in a polygamous society I'd be polygamous," he asserts, as if that changed anything) and the solid bond of uxorious feeling, when in fact his wife may already be fooling around with someone else. The final scene, making that clear without stating, is a marvel, but the opening "Prologue" is even better, taking Rohmer into seldom-explored territory - office life and especially the life of the city, what his characters feel when they're outside their little bubble-worlds (one shot has hero and friend having a drink in a cafe with a glass window, the usual introspective dialogue undermined by the rush of people in the street behind them); there's even a dream sequence (hero dreams he has a medallion that makes others do his bidding), literally pitting Rohmerian control against the sheer uncontrolled variety of life. After that the pleasures are mostly beneath the surface, the will-he-won't-he plot being rather predictable and neither of the two stars - pasty-faced Bernard Verley and sulky Zouzou - very attractive. Thought at first Chloe would pointedly not be shown naked (unlike both the wife and au pair), to make a point about the essential irreducible mystery of free spirits - but she does finally show her bottom like the others. I say it like it's a bad thing...
LOST HORIZON (71) (Frank Capra, 1937): Capra's technique - in terms of pace, image-making, knowing where to put the camera - is exemplary. Capra's - or Riskin's, or indeed James Hilton's - ideas are fascinating, a kind of quasi-Buddhist idealistic pacifism saved from woolliness by a welcome humility (and realism), as opposed to typical New Age we-know-best arrogance: "We rule with moderate strictness," explains the Shangri-La majordomo, "and in return are satisfied with moderate obedience. As a consequence, our people are moderately honest, moderately chaste, and more than moderately happy" (we can only wish our own PC and/or fundamentalist ideologues were so astute); also smart enough to know - esp. in its "days of war and rumors of war" - that quasi-Buddhist pacifism isn't for everyone, making for an unexpectedly powerful ending (which actually had me in tears) as the Shangri-La ideal, a "glimpse of the eternal", becomes an issue of faith, not just well-meaning chatter. Capra's visual taste is the only problem, proving that taste is a whole separate thing from cinematic sophistication: Shangri-La looks like Malibu, spacious mansions with a touch of the Frank Lloyd Wrights and the odd sci-fi detail (sliding doors that close by themselves, or the Margo character's 50s-space-alien costume, with one of those flaps that fold across and button near the armpit). Also starring Jane Wyatt as the lovely heroine who breeds pigeons and likes to put tiny flutes (!) on their tails, so she's surrounded by ethereal music every time she walks and they fly overhead. I know, I know...
THE TRIAL (78) (Orson Welles, 1962): Is it a dream? Is it a joke? Both are possible explanations proffered by Joseph K. to try and make sense of his predicament, both also possible descriptions of Welles' eccentric (though actually quite faithful) adaptation. Long takes and wide-shots - the better for the characters to wander through - make a visual equivalent to Kafka's run-on prose, and the picaresque narrative makes it a collection of set-pieces - many of which are stunning, though I think I prefer stuff like the magic-hour meander with Miss Burstner's sister, or the comic Beckettian dialogue of the opening scene, to the more grandiloquent ones like the interrogation in the huge arena or hundreds of drones labouring beneath giant neon lights in the open-plan office, APARTMENT-style. Welles uses distant background jazz for a hunted restless feel, and Albinoni's "Adagio" over desolate masochist moments obviously belongs on any poll of most effective uses of classical music in the movies; Anthony Perkins makes K. fiery, fastidious and rather adolescent, though knowledge of his gayness adds a funny spin to the scenes where he's dodging predatory females - and speaking of which, were all the women so slutty in the book, or is that Welles the closet misogynist? (I can barely recall Titorelli's girls in the original but here they're inescapable, descending on our hero like a pack of pubescent vixens.) May be significant that major changes from the book include the computer described as 'she' ("If it's a woman, be careful!" laughs Uncle Max) and changing Miss Burstner's profession from typist to nightclub dancer - and incidentally, those who never rated Jeanne Moreau as an actress get another chance to confirm their opinion (she's awful). Best bit may be the amazing 'pin-screen' prologue, least compelling are Welles' own scenes as the Advocate; "given the impact of screen size on what he's doing, you can't claim to have seen this if you've watched it only on video," says Jonathan Rosenbaum, and I have a horrible feeling he's right.
FAMILY DIARY (71) (Valerio Zurlini, 1962): Unfortunately turns into TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, but before that - even after that, to some extent - a very impressive film and beautiful depiction of a sibling relationship. Two brothers, separated at birth, one dark, truculent and conspicuously working-class, the other fair, golden, coddled, living in a bubble; the dark one holds the keys to power in their relationship, notably the memories of their parents which could give the younger one a sense of Identity - the camera inches significantly closer when he starts recalling "intimate things" about their mother, as if something unspoken had shifted - but is too mired in resentment (implicitly, class resentment), and can only start being a brother when it's almost too late. Zurlini - a major director whose work I'd never seen before - divulges the end from the beginning, detaches us further with frequent voice-over, and uses Marcello Mastroianni's crushed, anguished face (two sudden cuts to close-up in the first 15 minutes alone) and deliberate camera movement to create a sense of melancholy, not moving the camera at all for key scenes (lunch with the grandma, or the brothers' lengthy two-shot in the hospital) which is why they're key. Subtle stuff, full of yearning.
DECEMBER 1, 2004
THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (54) (Jerry Lewis, 1963): Disappointing on second viewing, too padded-out and disjointed, and fixated on its own roman à clef aspects; the gags work well - cartoonish seems to suit Lewis better than his flirtation with the Silent clowns - but he's too insecure and show-offy for my tastes, and really not interesting enough as a person (too much in the thrall of showbiz) to warrant all this self-examination. I might watch a couple more Jerrys, but I think I'm done for a while to be frankly honest.
THE BELLBOY (63) (Jerry Lewis, 1960): Here's the man vs. boy business again, insecure masculinity as in THE LADIES MAN, blended with infantile Jerry vs. obnoxious entertainer Jerry from THE NUTTY PROFESSOR - Jerry I is a bellboy, warned that he mustn't "talk back" or "get into mischief", Jerry II a movie star who at one point tells his entourage "We're all adults here". Here's the camera as co-conspirator, with characters talking into it and Jerry covering its 'eyes' when it happens on a roomful of half-naked women. Here's the liking for Jerry-dwarfing wide-shots, fourth-wall breaking and outrageous pantomime (exaggerated sound effects when eating an invisible apple, like the hangover scene in NUTTY PROFESSOR). It's easy - and fun - to talk about Jerry Lewis because he wears his neuroses and cinematic style right on his sleeve; he just isn't very funny (to me, obv.), his mugging too self-conscious to even be good vaudeville - what Danny Kaye could've done with the scene where he conducts an invisible orchestra! - and this thing runs out of steam even at 71 minutes. What's slightly new and different is a more explicit affinity with the classic clowns - there's even a Stan Laurel impersonator floating around - possibly because Jerry was (even) more insecure in his directorial debut; most typical gag may be the one where about two dozen people climb out of a car - a hoary old chestnut given a twist, both because the people are Jerry II's entourage (making it a joke on coddled celebrity) and because director Jerry ends the gag by craning round 180 degrees to show the people aren't just coming in through the other door (which obviously just means he rigged up a more elaborate effect, but it's interesting that he felt the need to show that). More showing off in the set-ups, esp. the shot where Jerry II goes out in one direction and Jerry I enters, in character and costume, 30 seconds later from another without a cut (impressive), though of course that too is insecurity. The pre-credits intro, warning the audience there's "no plot" in the movie, may have been studio-mandated - but more likely the pre-emptive strike of a man who hates to be hated.
THE STREET (68) (Karl Grune, 1923): Visual dazzle, especially in the early scenes: frustrated hero looks at the looming shadows of a man and girl flickering on the ceiling, symbols of the city just beyond his window; when he looks out he sees a fantasia of split-screens and double exposures, a whole city symphony (before the city-symphony films of the late 20s); later, the face of a woman in the street - Temptation - morphs into a skull as he tries to get closer. The atmosphere is dreamlike - I saw it with an ambitious, sometimes inappropriate score that played much of the first hour for subterranean menace - the film constantly imaginative in its effects (best bit: the sign on an oculist's - a large pair of glasses - lights up after hero passes, as if to comment on the action), but the plot isn't much, and it increasingly takes over. Gets boring long before the end but still a surprise, especially for 1923 (as opposed to, say, 1927); should be better known in my opinion.
THE GREAT FLAMARION (64) (Anthony Mann, 1945): A big Germanic wallow in masochism, making it clear early on what's going to happen - famous sharp-shooter Erich von Stroheim to be led on and double-crossed by a slutty femme fatale - then letting it play out, with climactic emphasis on his pain and degradation BLUE ANGEL-style. Vivid and effectively pungent, with tawdry showbiz setting - "snappy songs and sassy sayings" - and Erich von S. a great brooding presence before Love makes a sap out of him, saturnine and misanthropic ("That guy's family must've been awfully fond of children," cracks a wisecracking dame cryptically); Mary Beth Hughes is a B-movie femme, but that awkward small-town 40s chubbiness only makes her sexier imho. Not archetypally Mann, but he does skew it more towards worldly fatalism than e.g. Fritz Langian insanity.
NOVEMBER 1, 2004
W.R. - MYSTERIES OF THE ORGANISM (62) (Dusan Makavejev, 1971): Quasi-documentary on Wilhelm Reich - of "orgasm therapy" fame - turns into general hipsters-vs-squares mischief, from interviewing Reich's barber (he's also a Deputy Sheriff) in the small Maine town where he ended up ("He didn't like his hair combed like normal people") to sending an 'urban guerilla' through the streets or following a pair of transvestites, candid camera-style; most of this works better than the fictional Yugoslavia-set segments - often referred to as (gulp!) 'Brechtian' - with pot-shots at "People's Artists" and Uncle Joe Stalin himself. Feels like a riot of ideas but there's really only one idea, repeated at intervals - sex is liberation, and the Communist Party betrays the Revolution, and shows its hypocrisy, by refusing to free love as it ostensibly freed labour, surrounding it instead with the old "social disciplines" and love of power (which becomes a substitute for sex). Dated and hollow but still very lively, a kind of agitprop that nonetheless questions its ability to change minds, being therapy- rather than ideology-oriented (and Yugoslav, i.e. politically individualistic rather than conventionally Lefty): when the "People's Artist" gets seduced into sexual liberation, it only leads to violence - Reichian revolution needs to come from within, like the primal-screaming patients trying to free their minds or the tranny's admission of a painful past (ideology is all very well, but we're all responsible - so to speak - for our own orgasms). Best credit: "Erotoscope courtesy of United States of Erotica".
DAYBREAK (67) (Jacques Feyder, 1931): Why don't they make films like this anymore? Played for laughs at first, not in a hard-sell way but a blithe, light way (what they used to call 'gay'), featuring much byplay with a clumsy, effeminate valet - then easing into romance so it all seems to come from the same joyous place, the love and high spirits. Ramon Novarro is a little comical nowadays, with his pencil moustache and bulging eyes, but Helen Chandler, whom I'd never seen before (THE LAST FLIGHT is the one to see, apparently) is a singular presence - willowy and a little moon-faced, unconventionally beautiful with a kind of patient, humorous forbearance, a mousy girl's wry enjoyment in everything, and eyes that subside into serenity, like a ship that's come into harbour, when she's in love (it's somehow more touching than the usual exuberance). Minor stuff, with a flimsy ending - C. Aubrey Smith as a crusty deus ex machina - but the sensibility is often delightful.
THE BOFORS GUN (76) (Jack Gold, 1968): 'Cinematic'? Who knows, who cares? A knockout - if obviously based-on-a-play - soldier drama with the whole 'what it is to be a man' subtext making for enormous tension then twisting in on itself as Nicol Williamson's belligerent soldier (a sallow-faced monster with rancid dreams but a visionary's hatred for 'little men') turns his machismo inward, with devastating results. David Warner as the bleeding-heart wimp (he likes classical music!) remains exasperating, and their duologue in the final act is unnecessary, a playwright's idea of climax, but the first two-thirds - with both antagonists secretly bent, in their different ways, on self-destruction, and the trap closing ever tighter - is tremendous. Vivid evocation of the muddy camp, and a creepy avuncular sergeant ("A rejected man is a bitter enemy"), and the sense of being always afraid and untrusting, and groggy from lack of sleep; ATTACK! is probably better - or at least more cinematic - but that's why Aldrich is Aldrich and Jack Gold is ... well, exactly.
TORN CURTAIN (71) (Alfred Hitchcock, 1966): Paul Newman as a spy of the mind: the McGuffin isn't secret documents but a secret in a scientist's head, which he has to pick like a lock; the mind turns out to be easily manipulated, as one might expect with this director - the body, on the other hand, is stubborn, and killing a man turns out to be a messy, long-drawn-out business. The first half at least is prime Hitchcock (more or less in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT vein), using the camera ambitiously - picking up our hero as he exits a hotel elevator then swooping up over the lobby and down the other side, where his minder is sitting and watching - with instantly memorable shots like the WS of estranged couple placed in opposite corners at the very back of the frame; bold strokes, yet it's easy to see why it must've seemed old-fashioned in 1966, its Cold War obviously contrived next to the BEDFORD INCIDENTs and SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLDs, even its technique sometimes rusty (when Newman has a conversation on a moving tractor, it's painfully obvious the tractor isn't actually moving). Last 45 minutes - the escape from Berlin - also let it down, with indulgent set-pieces and an awful performance by hammy Lila Kedrova, stopping it dead to make a meaningless (though I guess at the time meaningful) point about life behind the Iron Curtain. I guess you could say it's smart on character, sloppy on narrative, making it the opposite of today's smart thrillers; when Newman finally tells Julie Andrews the truth about himself, though - shot like a silent movie, with music doing most of the work - you're ready to forgive it anything.
GET CARTER (59) (Mike Hodges, 1971): Hodges' favourite shot (mine too), esp. in the early scenes, is a tight over-the-shoulder so half the frame is blocked by the back of someone's head, with the nominal subject half-visible in the background - a concealing, secretive shot, on a par with Michael Caine's hooded eyes. Works best while the truth is concealed, halfway - both chronologically and thematically - between POINT BLANK and CHINATOWN, keeping the former's one-man-against-the-hierarchy machismo but shading into the latter's tragic Marlowe (Carter reads Raymond Chandler on the train North), where the truth lies in sexual depravity and moral corruption; final act is shallower, however, and these extended climaxes where hero goes apeshit killing everyone in revenge for Innocence Corrupted just do nothing for me, sorry this and ALFREDO GARCIA. Elsewhere, Hodges has a good eye but also a taste for flashy detail - screws being tightened on a coffin, gratuitous catfight between fat blowsy women - and the settings often seem to have been chosen more for photogenic value than because they're natural or appropriate. An obvious model for the 90s British 'lad' films - the Guy Ritchies and GANGSTER NO. 1s - though they seem not to have noticed that it's seriously sexy when not being violent.
THE LOST WEEKEND (63) (Billy Wilder, 1945): Too much talk, basically (the climax has hero and heroine bloodlessly discussing whether he should kill himself), though the speeches are mostly well-written - esp. the one where Ray Milland talks of his insecurity, and the demon of self-doubt that speaks softly in his ear "in a thin clear voice, like the E string on a violin" (people knew about such things in the days before rock'n roll). I agree with James Agee in finding him "too robust" for the role - though I guess the point is partly that he isn't a sad pathetic drunk, but can charm the ladies and mollify the neighbours (who know him as "that nice young man who drinks"); never quite as fierce and desperate as it tries to be, but NYC location shooting and shadowy interiors (shadows used as plot devices on two occasions) help the Message Movie medicine go down. Minor points deducted for Jane Wyman as the simpering nice girl: "We're both trying, Don. You're trying not to drink. And I'm trying not to love you". Sob!
AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS (76) (Louis Malle, 1987): Second viewing, still pretty great. Some clumsy devices and a number of clichés - a Chaplin movie shown at the school, and the camera dwelling on the pupils and staff convulsed with laughter - but also sharp autobiographical detail ("vitamin cookies" at dinner, a random boy's asthmatic wheeze in the night) and an allusive, fragmentary rhythm, elegant reminiscence-mode shockingly cut short by the matter-of-fact, brutal finale. Malle is especially good on his own younger (pre-teen) self - a bright but arrogant rich kid, sensitive and resourceful but also a mama's boy, a bed-wetter and not really talented at anything: when he listens to the Jewish boy's beautiful piano playing (Irene Jacob as the piano teacher!) with a mix of admiration and black envy, it's a case of the pretentious dilettante faced with a true Artist (also mentioned later is Thomas Aquinas' proof of God - "If we have a sense of God, then He must exist" - and what the friendship gives our hero is perhaps that first glimmer of transcendence). There are flaws, but it's startling to recall how supple - and subtle - this kind of Miramax-friendly fodder used to be: no way could you put WW2, Catholics and child interest in a middlebrow-arthouse film nowadays without ending up soggy and simplistic. A scene like the one in the fancy restaurant - Pétainist militia picking on the rich old Jew, class tension in the air, other diners protesting feebly, party of Nazi officers finally saving the Jew with a flourish so they can show off their sophistication to the rich diners - may not be 'pure Cinema', but it touches so many angles, and catches so many cross-currents it's kind of exhilarating.
THE STUFF (72) (Larry Cohen, 1985): Third and final part of the 20-years-later marathon [see below], and this is the one I was sure wouldn't stand up (even as a teen, I thought it was cheesy) - but it's actually astonishing. A monster movie with homicidal ice-cream (!) as the monster, but of course it's a satire - American consumerism is consuming Americans - and paranoid conspiracy thriller too, and Cohen's filmmaking is so eccentric it's almost brilliant: scenes get cut off or seem to start in the middle (Danny Peary's right that "transitions between scenes are almost nonexistent"), everything feels jumbled together and the actors' line-readings are often perverse (Michael Moriarty channelling Jimmy Stewart as our hero); whole thing seems to have been made on the motto, 'Do whatever it takes to stop people thinking about the fact that our villain's an amorphous, obviously low-budget white goo'. Smart people flying by the seat of their pants, and the final touch - the Stuff going corporate (now called "Taste") while the real stuff goes underground - is just right.
THE TIME TO LIVE AND THE TIME TO DIE (73) (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1985): Liked it (even) more on second viewing, though it still goes in the Slightly Boring file. Hou's medium-shot long-take technique seems at first merely transparent, but he gets a real-life feel by having different parts of the frame doing different things, and subtly repeats key shots - the "tall tree" by the side of the road, the wall our hero jumps over every time he's in trouble - to make the locations familiar. Very much a film about Death, defining itself around absence (the prologue claims it's a film about the father, who's perhaps the most invisible character) - incl. of course the 'death' of the dream of returning to China, which means nothing to the aimless younger generation - which has the effect of burnishing the various bits of everyday life, so that tiny details gain disproportionate importance; oddly enough, the less it gives, the more valuable it seems. The ending once again had me bawling, which is not my usual Hou Experience.
PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (66) (Tim Burton, 1985): Second viewing, no change in rating. Hard to believe it's been 20 years, but then you look at the references and they're all Old Hollywood - the very 50s roadside cop, glimpses of Godzilla and 60s beach-movie in the chase finale, 30s-style hobo on the train, etc. A calling-card for Burton, showing he can do all kinds of genres, though in fact he can't do action - the chase is rather tedious - and I only find a handful of really big laughs, mostly in the Texas scenes (everything before the bike gets stolen is more creepy than funny imho). On the other hand: "I remember ... the Alamo!" Large Marge! Amazing Larry! Also, um, James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild? It's been 20 years all right...
OCTOBER 1, 2004
FOUR MEN AND A PRAYER (51) (John Ford, 1938): Glorious cast, though mostly for those who feel a little tingle at mention of Alan Hale or C. Aubrey Smith. Lots of padding to wade through, and the final stretch kind of falls apart - though I guess it makes sense that a story which begins with one ambivalent father should end with another - but the spirit of Boys' Own adventure is alive and well as four British brothers (calling each other by their childhood nicknames, like "Beano" and "Snicklefritz") go globe-trotting as they try to clear Dad's name, and there's an unexpectedly vivid account of a South American revolution along the way as well as a weird Asian manservant who talks like Donald Duck. Ford fans will look (and look) for Fordian touches - hopefully not including the sympathetic arms dealer, who gets a long and gratuitous apologia for his profession (to the effect that 'I only sell the guns, if people want to kill each other that's their business'). In 1938. With the world on a knife-edge, and the Sudetenland on the verge of Occupation. The mind boggles.
THE WILD ONE (55) (Laslo Benedek, 1953): "This is a shocking story" proclaim the opening credits, but not so much nowadays; biker gang - the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club! - 'terrorise' a small town, which mostly means swigging beer in a bar and talking jive at the bartender. Hopelessly torn between liberal sentiments and social-disease scare-mongering, setting it up so the sheriff's softly-softly approach is equated with weakness (and quickly taken advantage of) but also at pains to show how "getting tough" with hoodlums can lead to mob-rule, esp. since our hero turns out to be a nice boy, just misunderstood: "Can't you even say thank you?" snarls the cop at the end, when he decides to let Johnny go; "It's all right," says The Girl compassionately; "He doesn't know how". Their scenes together - Johnny's and The Girl's - work surprisingly well, possibly because sexual friction doesn't date as much as the social kind, and is what 50s Brando did best anyway. His vulnerability's almost as expressive as James Dean's - but in Hell's Angel mode he looks bilious, and his sideburns are unfortunate.
POUR LA SUITE DU MONDE (68) (Pierre Perrault / Michel Brault, 1963)
SEPTEMBER 1, 2004
SONS OF THE DESERT (58) (William A. Seiter, 1933): Ollie to Stan, who's been deputised to fetch a doctor: "Why did you get a veterinarian?!" "Well I didn't think his religion would make any difference". Has its moments - and the timing of the slapstick is impeccable - but I'm even more creeped out on second viewing by the pair's infantilism, two men in their forties cringing and cowering before their dominatrix wife-mommies. The International Laurel and Hardy Fan Club apparently call themselves after this film - which probably says less about the film than it does about the International Laurel and Hardy Fan Club.
A STORY OF FLOATING WEEDS (67) (Yasujiro Ozu, 1934)
FLOATING WEEDS (54) (Yasujiro Ozu, 1959)
SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (42) (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959): Talk, talk, talk, and degrees of phoniness: Elizabeth Taylor's is a flimsy opaque thing, Montgomery Clift's is just sad - because he's so out of it - but Katharine Hepburn's is a marvellous act, a dotty patrician aunt feeding flies to a Venus' flytrap and wrapping her voice regally round lines like "All poets, whatever age they seem to other people, die young". Bizarro climax certainly packs a punch but it's all a bit sad and sleazy, two gay writers pumping up the Horror of being gay for the titillation of a mainstream audience. Possible most florid line (though there's lots of competition): "All of us children in a vast kindergarten, trying to spell God's name with the wrong alphabet blocks!".
THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (74) (Gunther von Fritsch & Robert Wise, 1944): Approx. 80% ethereal, 20% creepy - and much better in the first half, with both elements in play: the sub-plot in the old house, with the deranged old actress and her hatchet-faced 'daughter', is genuinely eerie - making its resolution all the more affecting, a little girl's imagination bringing peace to a troubled soul (a triumph of 'her' world over the flawed damaged one). The whole film is imagination, shot to approximate a child's world of fancy and make-believe, benefiting enormously from little Ann Carter's grave, watchful face and a sense of plotless, this-child's-life wistfulness. Special mention for 'Sir Lancelot' (from I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) as the family servant, famously - if semi-accurately, since the character is Jamaican - described by James Agee as "one of the most unpretentiously sympathetic, intelligent, anti-traditional and individualized Negro characters I have ever seen on the screen". Yes.
JUDO SAGA (67) (Akira Kurosawa, 1943): Saw this mainly for historical reasons - Kurosawa's debut, etc - but it's surprisingly gripping and assured, and clearly made in his own familiar style with grand, sweeping camera moves, visual trickery (even a touch of slo-mo), dynamic action scenes and a fight climax set against howling wind and scudding clouds that must've been a bitch to get right (though it's the grandness of the conception that's striking, more than what actually happens). Censored and irrevocably mangled during the war, shown with lengthy intertitles, but the gaps actually make it stronger - a collection of impressive set-pieces - and at least one gap is an elegant device, the cast-off shoes battered by the seasons to show Time passing as the apprentice turns into a master. Takashi Shimura scores in a small role as ageing jiu-jitsu expert, esp. after he's defeated, when he tells our hero he reached the apogee of his life in that fight; spiritual elements never get much beyond lip-service, but this is Kurosawa we're talking about. Nice flower symbolism, anyway.
THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS (74) (Jean Negulesco, 1944): Ending exemplifies why this isn't an out-and-out classic: there's the opportunity for a cinematic coup - mild-mannered hero shutting the door on the narrative, going down the stairs back to his humdrum life, pausing only to flinch at the offscreen gunshot that confirms he's free - but it isn't taken, maybe because the censors wanted the rotund semi-villain (Sydney Greenstreet)'s fate made absolutely clear, or maybe just because Negulesco didn't have the eye (or the will to fight) for a memorable ending. Mostly he stays in the background, guiding the many plot twists - funny how the action starts in the Levant and gets steadily more European, like force-of-evil Dimitrios burrowing into Europe itself (how WW2!) - though, anticipating his later status as a woman's-picture specialist, he does more than expected with Faye Emerson as the hard, harrowed-looking 'hostess' who has a "superstition about money being shown in my private room". Elsewhere, Greenstreet looms in low-angle, makes "Algerian coffee" and reads a book called "Pearls of Everyday Wisdom"; Adolph Deutsch reworks a couple of chords from his score for THE MALTESE FALCON (which this often recalls), a man introduces his two cats named Heloise and Abelard, and Peter Lorre seems at first nonplussed to be playing a good guy (he finds an offbeat way of playing it, making his hero an amused onlooker gently deflating the intrigue and chicanery around him). Talky but immensely entertaining, though you probably need an affection for 40s atmosphere and a soft spot for shady characters sharing circumlocutory dialogue: "Monsieur, I wonder what your attitude would be if I were to ask an impertinent question..."
GUNGA DIN (56) (George Stevens, 1939): No surprise that this is William Goldman's all-time favourite movie, or was at the time of "Adventures in the Screen Trade" ("I have seen it sixteen times, still start to cry before the credits are over ... It is my absolute opinion that in every conceivable way - direction, script, star performances, special effects, emotional power - it is infinitely superior to any of the five Lucas-Spielberg prizewinners"); I can't think of another 30s film that's so similar to a modern Hollywood blockbuster - BAD BOYS, say - being spectacular action set-pieces separated by raucous behaviour and comic hi-jinks: the bit where our heroes spike the punch-bowl with elephant medicine at a regimental ball then try to stop the CO drinking it could remain unaltered 65 years later, except today they'd probably spike it with laxatives (and the CO would indeed end up drinking it). Memorable bits - Eduardo Cianelli is one of the great villains - but the heroes' high spirits start to grate, the title character verges on the offensive, and I've always had a problem with Imperial tales of derring-do where the brave colonials beat the fuzzy-wuzzies (see also THE DRUM, THE FOUR FEATHERS). Beautifully photographed - esp. the silvery night scenes, or shots like a tiny sentry getting picked off a tower way in the background as Cary Grant stands in the foreground - for what it's worth.
THE FOG (67) (John Carpenter, 1980): As in other Carpenters, his sensibility counts for a lot - the loving build-up to action (the first half is nothing but build-up; one scene does nothing except follow the heroine down a steep path into a house then rummage around her, oozing nameless menace), the good taste about what to show and what to keep offscreen, the B-movie virtues of brevity and economy. The shocks aren't great, and the titular fog makes a mediocre monster - there's only so much you can get out of smoke-machine clouds creeping in from a corner of the frame - but austerity is the film's trump card, small cast of characters and it ends when it ends - not to mention Carpenter's insanely repetitive score, repeating the same few notes to hypnotic effect. Many directors (Joe Dante, say) would've made bouncy, shallow civic leader Janet Leigh - boosting a town founded on greed and murder - one of the victims (e.g. in place of the harmless old babysitter), but Carpenter has a higher agenda. Mischief isn't his thing; he needs troubled priests and guilty consciences.
DECISION AT SUNDOWN (75) (Budd Boetticher, 1957): Only my second Boetticher - after ARRUZA, which doesn't really count - so break out the champagne, etc; also of course because it's fabulous, stripped to interiors and shades of brown (and a clean, lucid style) and the ornery leanness of Randolph Scott who looks skeletal and unshakeably intense, like a monk or an Arctic explorer. Also my second consecutive Western-as-moral-lesson [see below] but the lesson here is sly and deconstructive, questioning the foundations of the genre itself : it sets up a situation that has to lead to a shootout - it's a Western law - then spends the rest of its 77 minutes asking if that law has a basis in morality (is revenge still needed, or even valid, if the object of revenge proves unworthy?), if the Right Thing shouldn't sometimes give way to the sensible thing, and if everyone concerned wouldn't just be happier without it. Actually feels a bit like 12 ANGRY MEN-ish drama transposed to the West - characters arguing their way through a stalemate - but the ironies are taut and the ending only semi-happy: plays a variation on the message of MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE - that the classic Man of the West ("They don't make men like him anymore") must be made obsolete for the moral ambiguities of Civilisation to take root - only without the waffle and sentimentality. Bring on more Boettichers in my opinion.
THE FAR COUNTRY (64) (Anthony Mann, 1955): James Stewart as the bitter, cynical cowboy whose motto is to take care of himself and have as little to do with other people as possible - an emblem, inter alia, of free-market capitalism, happy to sell his wares to the highest bidder without caring if it's right or responsible; annoying tomboy Corinne Calvet as the young heroine who stands for community and a social safety-net (she's French, of course) and believes "You should help people when they need help". Unfortunately she speaks her piece more than once (so does he), overplaying the film's moral lesson in heavy-handed indicators, putting it a notch below THE NAKED SPUR or WINCHESTER '73; still ferocious in parts - not just Stewart's misanthropy but the view of the West, towns cowed by corrupt lawmen acting as judge and jury, saloons run by tough-as-nails old maids (they also sing at the piano), a landscape of rocks and glaciers constantly looming behind, like the crest of a hill over which a gang of killers ride as Walter Brennan chatters away in the foreground. Convincingly rugged; too much of a lecture, though.
PHANTASM (44) (dir., Don Coscarelli, 1979): Gave it every possible break with the viewing conditions - empty house, lights off, 1 a.m. - but it's not remotely scary (or very good), just endearingly home-made and crappy-looking. Kind of inept, really - we're forever cutting away from people as they round corners or open doors, in what's meant to increase tension but just makes scenes look pointless - the camera's too far back (the better to expose the cheapo production design) and special effects mostly suck, though the flying spike embedding itself in the bad guy's forehead has a certain je ne sais quoi. Actors authentically awkward, locations authentically armpit-of-the-world-ish (actually Oakland); bonus points for the kind of stuff you don't find in horror movies nowadays, like full-on T&A or the young-teen hero grabbing a slug of beer when things get fraught. Probably overrating it, but the kid's haircut alone must be worth about 20 points.
THE SOFT SKIN (72) (dir., Francois Truffaut, 1964): The One Where Truffaut Got It Wrong, according to conventional wisdom, but in fact it's beautifully made: high-angle camera observing the ebb and flow of family life in a single shot, slow pan across a deserted dining-room to pick up the illicit couple talking excitedly in a corner, novelistic detail everywhere - howling wind during the couple's first meeting, a mini-symphony of light-switches clicking off as husband and wife clear up after their dinner-party guests have gone home, the cat that comes to nibble at the breakfast leftovers when the couple put their tray outside the bungalow - and such little touches as cutting a few frames of the little girl playing into the conjugal kiss (she's what the kiss stands for, etc). Ending looks like a mistake - guns have no place in this kind of drama - but it is quite funny that the boring wife turns out to be the most passionate person in the movie; 'fact, the whole thing works (even) better if you think of it as droll, dark comedy, making life sadistically difficult for its adulterous hero - the whole Reims interlude, with obstacles piling up; the final, will-he-make-it cross-cutting between hero waiting to use the phone (to call his wife) and wife getting ready to leave. Undervalued, though still a bit stodgy.
INTIMATE CONFESSIONS OF A CHINESE COURTESAN (57) (Chu Yuan, 1972): Intriguing style, making everything enclosed and oppressive: people are regularly seen from behind bars, stairs, other people, once through flickering flames, and generally with one or more foreground objects blocking parts of the frame. Visually v. pleasing - the pastel colours are also delightful - but what starts as erotic drama turns into an absolutely dreary tale of revenge, boringly staged and plotted. Looked like it was going to redeem itself right at the end - when our heroine, having used Love (or Lust) to destroy her victims, nonetheless can't vanquish Love itself, as her final victim begs for a kiss before dying : generic plot thrills trumped by an overriding romanticism - but they just use it for a cheap twist. Disappointing.
20,000 YEARS IN SING SING (46) (Michael Curtiz, 1932): Based on the memoirs of a warden at Sing Sing - which, on this evidence, must have included lots of bragging about his methods, and how he can turn the toughest hard-case into a meek, productive worker ("Work is for saps!" sneers the tough-guy hero, but soon learns better), and so on. First half is a tract, second half transforms - as these 30s Warners often did - into out-and-out melodrama, but it's all a bit perfunctory and the plot never convinces (though the ending is a killer); Bette Davis gets the most thankless role ever - most of her screen time seems to consist of being really happy to see our hero - and Spencer Tracy is cocky but foolish in gangster mode (he works much better at the end, as a tragic hero). Maybe it just needed Cagney.
CHINA SEAS (74) (Tay Garnett, 1935): The missing link between RED DUST (Gable and Harlow in exotica, with a Respectable Woman as romantic rival) and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (not least in the shamed veteran who must prove his courage in order to be re-accepted); also co-written - like the latter - by Jules Furthman, whose dialogue zings in the comic bits then soars unexpectedly (Harlow's declaration of love is a thing of beauty). Large cast of characters - most of the first half-hour is spent flitting from one to the other - makes up for a flimsy plot, and the open ending is the cherry on the cake - though the real sweetness lies in the ease and generosity with which everyone is treated, never allowed to be humiliated; villain dies with a smile on his face and a line to warm the cockles of your heart ("Loving you was the only decent thing I ever did"). Awesome entertainment, and more: the humanist cynicism of a post-WW1 generation, loving each man (and woman) even while despairing of mankind. Garnett doesn't do much beyond a few fluid dolly-shots, but he does give it verve.
FULL MOON IN PARIS (77) (Eric Rohmer, 1984): A 'dark' Rohmer, apparently, and the tone is indeed a bit more acrid: Pascale Ogier is an atypical heroine, less composed than usual, a bit of a kook with her breathless voice and giant ribbon in her hair - she's got a bit of that birdlike Carol Kane discombobulation going on - and Fabrice Luchini is like nothing else I can recall in Rohmer, a beady intellectual dandy of the Oscar Wilde school (partly it's a question of the actor's own sensibility - it's a shock seeing an actor toy with his lines, instead of just speaking them naturally as they always do in Rohmer). Insecurity and self-delusion are once again the driving forces - the heroine imagining herself much less needy and more self-sufficient than she really is, wrecking a relationship in the name of giving it 'space' - and superbly controlled from start to ambivalent finish (how unhappy is the unhappy ending? it could go either way, really). Note the party given by Pascale's friend, people standing around in formal poses like an 18th-century ball - even though the characters are all in their 20s and 30s; truly, Rohmer is a man out of Time.
PARIS, TEXAS (63) (Wim Wenders, 1984): Second viewing, first in 19 years. Couldn't recall much, spent about an hour wondering why such a simple tale of a mute man recovering his voice - by the end, when it matters most, he's nothing but a voice - was being told with such portentous stylings (and quirky touches, e.g. having a German play the Texas doctor at the beginning). The point, I think, is in showing how a 'small' drama - a family coming together - can be just as momentous in its way as the desert vistas and cityscapes, or the kid's talk of travelling at light-speed and how the universe began - which is all very noble but still feels artificially pumped-up, esp. since the drama itself is often unconvincing: the French actress is terrible, though she doesn't get much help (when she tells her husband "Everything's changed between us" you wonder what the hell she's talking about), the kid too is a fairly limited performer, while the dialogue is often clunky and lazy ("He still loves her, doesn't he?"). Long, intense finale on either side of the one-way mirror is undoubtedly powerful, but it needed technique-heavy actors with a bunch of tricks up their sleeve - not glorious, iconic masks like Nastassia Kinski and Harry Dean Stanton
AUGUST 1, 2004
REPO MAN (68) (Alex Cox, 1984): Second viewing, first in 19 years, up from 3 out of 10 (obv. too much Attitude for my teenage self); liked it for the same reason I once disliked it, viz. the way it goes increasingly haywire - esp. the last half-hour, when the narrative pretty much collapses leaving the city at night (Robby Muller gives the streets a blue-velvet sheen), everybody chasing each other, a glowing Chevy and stray lines of dialogue ("No beer is needed here"; "I love this job"). Before that, tends to fire blanks - "Blanks get the job done too!" - when it's trying to be super-bizarre (UFOs? tele-evangelists?), and slacking in the 80s lacks a certain something: slacking in the 90s had a name and Gen-X cachet, in the 70s it reflected post-Watergate malaise, but here it's just another name for the bored and run-down. Note the final credits scrolling down instead of up, a reference - like the white light in the trunk - to KISS ME DEADLY. Possible best line: "Put it in a plate, son, you'll enjoy it more". [Third viewing, March 2015: No change in rating, but I may be edging back towards my teenage conservatism because the 'haywire' last half-hour struck me as a bit tedious this time. Still very much its own thing, and the fact that human relationships are deliberately abbreviated - the mentor-student bond not quite delivering, the romance vanishing completely ("What about our relationship?"; "Fuck that!"), the petty crook getting sentimental with his moll just a minute or two before [spoiler] - is a sign of true punk spirit, even as the sci-fi overlay is a sign of a wide-eyed dreamer.]
BLACK PETER (75) (Milos Forman, 1964): Teenage life and mating rituals, with a comic touch so casual it recalls the home-made slapstick of the Silent clowns - an early gag, when Peter follows the suspected shoplifter, has to be a SHERLOCK JR reference - and gleeful air of mischievous observation. The father, with his suspenders and imposing belly (the camera follows him obediently back and forth and back and forth as he paces the room while lecturing); the boy who tells his friend to "Watch me!" as he slinks across the dance hall to pick up a girl (then sits down beside her and is so overcome with nervousness he can't speak, finally muttering "Thank you" and getting up again); the boss making a telescope with his fingers, the better to observe the picture of a naked chick. Nothing terribly unique - see also DEEP END, IL POSTO (though I haven't), LOVES OF A BLONDE etc - but the lightness of touch is what makes it, even with a rather rat-like, charmless hero; title never gets explained, and that has to be the most out-of-nowhere ending I've ever seen.
BELLS ARE RINGING (53) (Vincente Minnelli, 1960): What was Minnelli thinking? Obviously a conscious decision - is there an auteurist in the house? - but what do you gain shooting an ex-Broadway musical from the middle of the stalls, so everything is medium- and long-shots with a minimum of cuts? Plot is absurd beyond the call of duty, but the airy zany quality makes for a couple of blissfully daffy interludes - a roomful of bookies sing a song mixing well-known racetracks and classical composers; a stranger saying "Hello" to another kicks off a domino effect of greetings and handshakes - and there's Judy Holliday, with her mix of common sense and eccentric flights of fancy (the two sides pull against each other, leaving her a-dither; her voice has a funny way of trailing off, like she's glimpsed where this is going and can't decide what to do about it). Minnelli gets a reference to himself in the Name-Dropping Song, and perhaps another in a faint echo of the dance in the park from THE BAND WAGON. Bonus points for Marlon Brando spoof and the "Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company".
LIFEBOAT (73) (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944): You could make yourself sick thinking how easily this could be a poster-child for John Ashcroft's 'war on terror': Nazi captain is picked up by US lifeboat, half of whose occupants want to throw him overboard on account of you can't trust the Nazis, we're at war etc, while the other half want to be fair, give him his civil rights - "It's the American Way!" - respect international law and so forth; guess who turns out to be right? Put it down to propaganda, though it's interesting even in those terms - the German triumphs not through brute force or even simple deceit but by propagating the myth of Aryan superiority, and is destroyed once the myth is exposed - and strong meat in all sorts of ways (even the dialogue is pungent for 1944, though clipped to protect delicate sensibilities: "You son of a -"; "I got caught with my p -"). No real identification figure - nominal hero is honest sailor John Hodiak, but he's quite alarming with his tattoos and sarcastic air and frequent unpleasant snarl full of teeth; most sympathetic is Tallulah Bankhead (fabulous), but she's a spoiled selfish rich girl with decadent values and doesn't she know there's a war on, etc - and the villain is the smartest person on board; characters increasingly deranged and unstable, few punches pulled and the technical stunt (whole film set on a lifeboat) is carried off so seamlessly it's soon forgotten; lifeboat is of course America - rich and poor, black and white - muddling through on luck and occasional violent explosions. Gets a little wordy in the final stages, though.
FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (56) (Amy Heckerling, 1982): Obviously knows what it's doing, but it's hard to get excited nowadays when the Teen Experience has been so dissected and deconstructed (though no way would a teacher be allowed to hold his own against the stoner in a 00s teenpic). Also, everyone seems too old for their roles, also a couple of the jokes are over-milked (e.g. Forest Whitaker going nuts at the football game); Cameron Crowe's knack for revealing the truth about his characters while also contriving to wrap things up in neat happy endings already in evidence, and already disarming - if it were more aggressive one would call it glib, but he scales everything down so the endings seem like charming little fantasies. What's Sean Penn's secret weapon? Vulnerability.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW (64) (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964): The people's Jesus: gospel songs on the soundtrack and faces - simple faces, expressive faces, long-suffering faces - in frequent close-up (Mary as a young woman is a pouty little number). Seen consecutively with THEOREM [see below], and what's strange is how that film, despite its title, provided the more spiritual pleasures, whereas this one was mostly intellectual: what's most intriguing is the view of Jesus - pushy, somewhat vain, hamming it up with the miracles, picking a fight with the Pharisees, totally aware of his Destiny and bitter at the society that doesn't appreciate him, capable of being petty and vindictive (the infamous cursing of the fig-tree). Clearly this is also what interests Pasolini the most - the middle section is the best and most detailed, showing Man and God in the same vessel; once Manifest Destiny takes over - and the camera retreats, observing him from a distance (e.g. from the disciples' POV) because he's now an icon, not a person - everything seems rushed and rather perfunctory, though it could be just post-PASSION OF THE CHRIST Syndrome. Seldom inspirational, though the desert in ultra-wide-angle is an image and a half; better than PASSION, not quite as twisted as LAST TEMPTATION.
TEOREMA (67) (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968): Titular theorem goes as follows: What would happen to the bourgeoisie if they could somehow be cured of their complexes and inhibitions? Answer: they'd go nuts, collapse, and turn into artists and mystics. (It's the opposite of Chabrol's eternal joke, where complacent bourgeois do everything wrong yet still somehow triumph; here, they do their best, but whatever they do they're still wrong.) Runs out of steam but it's still a beautiful film to watch, its composed images and very deliberate rhythm building a sense of serene detachment - it feels a lot like one of today's deadpan comedies (Jarmusch, or perhaps Martin Rejtman), coyly withholding visual information and refusing to commit on whether what we see is fantasy, or even insanity (that's the joke). Turns into one of those films perched on the edge of hilarity without ever trying to be funny (well, maybe the levitating maid): a melancholy comedy, and Ennio Morricone's theme for what sounds like kazoo - a carnival dirge, smoky and strange as a Tom Waits song - is just perfect.
THE 'MAGGIE' / HIGH AND DRY (74) (Alexander Mackendrick, 1954): The least likeable, least ingratiating Ealing comedy I've ever seen: plot has Scottish villagers outsmarting a rich American - LOCAL HERO is a gentler, more magical version - but the American is thoroughly decent, fair-minded etc whereas the villagers aren't 'canny' or 'quirky' so much as crooked, licentious, irresponsible and generally evil. Easy closure is resisted at every turn, sentimentality banished, audience sympathies all over the place, till you gradually realise the Scots' intractable nature - the gap between the cultures - is in fact the point; actually a dry run for Mackendrick (and William Rose)'s THE LADYKILLERS from the following year, set up in exactly the same way - the forces of Tradition (Mrs. Wilberforce in that one, the crew here) triumph by just being themselves, doing as little as possible, while the forces of Change (and Money) try every possible method to dislodge them, only to fail dismally. Cruel comedy with the courage of its own cruelty, fully earning its one moment of sweetness at the very end; bonus points for the near-psychotically devoted 'Wee Boy', anticipating the pre-moral, single-minded kids in Mackendrick's 60s work.
THE SCAR (71) (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1976): May have missed the occasional nuance (it's talky, and I saw it with French subs.), but what looks like it's going to be a tale of one man's moral corruption - newly-appointed head of a factory in Communist Poland - turns out to be both less and more ambitious: our hero's never a monster, but a decent man - honest according to his lights - caught in an impossible situation, and what's being examined/judged is the whole System rather than the Individual (making the film more political, and perhaps less dramatic). As in KK's early documentaries, he's critical of the Establishment yet instinctively drawn to examine those who serve it (the docs I've seen often have him focusing on cops and apparatchiks): hero's rebellious daughter tells him off - "You've never solved a human problem in your life" - but we see he's trying, even though unable to communicate effectively with the people in the village, sometimes high-handed with his staff, etc (even the coda finds him at odds with his infant grandson). Charts a project - one might say a dream - gone wrong, hero undermined by the Party and his own limitations, growing remote from the problems in the field, surrounded by yes-men, sinking into hypocrisy as he tries to deflect criticism; so subtle, fair and clear-eyed you want to cheer, made in the neat, compact Kieslowski style - scenes short, dry, often curtailed - with an eye for public spaces and the natural beauty (Slawomir Idziak DP'ing) being destroyed by the factory, plus of course a glimpse of politics in 70s Poland - which is much like politics anywhere, only with the Party as the ace in the hole: "You're bringing out the heavy artillery," says someone when the S-word - Socialism - is invoked, and the power of hidden forces is chillingly apparent in the scene where our hero is hauled before a Party committee to be formally chastised. More in the worthy-and-fascinating camp than a wild and crazy ride - but it is worthy and fascinating.
THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8th DIMENSION (54) (W.D. Richter, 1984): "No matter where you go, there you are". "Lithium is no longer available on credit". Sidekicks named Perfect Tommy and John Bigbooty ("Bigbooté!" he protests, which is really a HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART 1 joke). A McGuffin machine called an "oscillation overthruster". Hard to fault the sensibility, which is shaggy-dog silly with a blithe disregard for its own silliness - best parts have an Altmanesque casualness, and Buckaroo in neurosurgeon mode even recalls M.A.S.H. slightly - but what it feels like is like someone phoned the cast and primed them all to star in a zany sci-fi spoof, and they came to the set in high spirits ready to have a great time, and no-one ever noticed there was some kind of mix-up and they'd somehow got an old draft of the script which was actually a straight sci-fi adventure with only a few jokes here and there. Too subtle for me, I assume...
CHINATOWN (88) (Roman Polanski, 1974): Third viewing, and what can you say? It's all there in the opening scene, with Burt Young whimpering like a wounded beast when he finds out the truth about his wife: the truth hurts, better not to know - better to "let sleeping dogs lie" - yet how can we resist? A classic post-Watergate movie (speaking of painful truths), though also a classic LA movie - its corruption being also the city's - and classic Jack Nicholson movie. Possible best shot: Faye Dunaway conjured in the background like a wraith or goddess, glimpsed for an instant in the half-light as a door opens and closes.
MAN HUNT (69) (Fritz Lang, 1941): Ups and downs, starting with a wonderful 45 minutes. A man with a high-precision rifle - "in Germany, before the War" - takes aim at a target that turns out to be ... Hitler himself? Captured by guards before he can shoot, cue long conversation on the morality of the "sporting stalk" with chess-playing, monocle-wearing Nazi George Sanders (hero claims he was doing it for the sport, never planned to pull the trigger; does not wanting to murder Hitler make him sympathetic or unsympathetic?). Then extensive sadism - Lang's punishment for his isolationism - then delightful interlude on board ship with precocious cabin-boy Roddy McDowall ("Was it ... about a woman, sir?") - then middle section in London, with definite dip in quality: Joan Bennett as spunky heroine, doing creditable but obviously fake cockney accent while stuffy hero Walter Pidgeon pats her head and calls her "my child" and "my dear"; then memorable ending, back to Sanders again. As in MINISTRY OF FEAR, Lang suffers when he gets too close to Hitchcock territory: the chases and man-on-the-run thrills feel unimaginative. His gift is for baroque Expressionistic touches, murky motivations, a taste for cruelty and a camera that probes rather than expounds. Brilliant, when it's not being annoying.
THE SEVEN SAMURAI (65) (Akira Kurosawa, 1954): A major filmgoing gap finally plugged, so I'm happy just to have seen this - though it's awkward re-imagining the story after knowing THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN so well. Thought it'd blow its Hollywood remake out of the water, but in fact honours are about even: the farmers are a darker force here - "untrustworthy animals," someone calls them - and not only does it not have Horst Buchholz, it has Toshiro Mifune (who's astonishing, manic then poignant) in the Buchholz role; on the other hand, the bandits are faceless, it lacks such awesome scenes as the bandit chief coming to the cowboys/samurai to cut a deal, nobody counts off the Seven one by one on his fingers as they're brought together, and they seem fairly indistinguishable anyway, apart from Mifune and Takeshi Shimura (though I'm open to the possibility that I'm only saying that because they have unknown Japanese faces instead of Bronson, Coburn, etc). Actually closer to a WW2 movie than a Western, with emphasis on battlefield tactics and theme of the Collective over the Individual, discipline rather than individual heroism being what wins the day (the samurai get the villagers working as a team, unlike the shoot-outs in the remake where it's every man for himself); action scenes obviously impressive, but bunched together at the end and longer on spectacle than tension. Generally fun rather than the deathless masterpiece I'd been led to believe; major Kurosawa backlash coming soon, I suspect...
ACCIDENT (63) (Joseph Losey, 1967): Of course! What better place than academia for Losey and Pinter's coy cerebral games? Lawn parties, tennis and cricket, cosy tutorials on a first-name basis; meaningful looks, sexual tensions and the not-quite-shattering revelation that cultured highbrows too can be callous and hurtful - which is really all it builds up to, after an hour of elegant equivocation in the pastoral beauty of Oxford. Feels like the only spark of inspiration was the all-day party where all five protagonists get increasingly drunk and emotional - a terrific set-piece, after which it becomes more diffuse, ranging far and wide (a comic interlude with 'TV people', a game of indoor rugby at an upper-class shindig); mostly absorbing and intelligent, all repressed feelings and people saying one thing when they mean another, but also (with THE GO-BETWEEN) the tamest Losey I've seen - not a terrible thing, since he seemed to be sabotaging his material in some of the earlier ones, but everything I've seen points to him having been a major snob, fighting against genre in THE CRIMINAL or TIME WITHOUT PITY then meeting Pinter and starting to make the kind of 'intellectual' films he felt he deserved - calming down, becoming less volatile and also more pretentious (final caption reads "End" rather than "The End", and 10 bucks says it's deliberately trying to ape the French "Fin" or Russian "Konets"). An older man's film, the curse of growing old being also one of its themes. Coincidence?
CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (48) (Robert Siodmak, 1944): Deanna Durbin as a young woman looking for transcendence, something greater than herself : Siodmak stops the film dead twice, for lengthy excerpts of a midnight Mass and classical music in a concert hall - both shot the same way, high-angle wide-shots emphasising grandeur and vast spaces - so of course it's no surprise that she's also a romantic, in the grip of amour fou. The film itself is a mild, slightly twisted drama, unhelpfully structured so we're often watching things unfold that we already know about, but the Love-as-Rapture subtext makes it worth checking out; also wondered if there might be a latent gay subtext - Deanna's husband is "pathologically" close to his mother, who warns our heroine before the wedding that he has "certain traits" then later rebukes her for not having helped him: "You knew that he is the way he is" (she means he's a gambler - or does she?). In that role, Gene Kelly's glittery slick insincerity has seldom been better used; has its moments, but it's not even the best Robert Siodmak film of 1944.
WOMAN IN THE DUNES (59) (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964): At its best as avant-garde experience, letting the images and sounds form their own narrative - notably the sex scene, with eerie stretched-out chords screaming and creaking on the soundtrack, tangles of arms and legs and a cut to a river of sand sludging down a dune, as strange and remote in the half-light as an earthquake on Mars. Could be hypnotic on the big screen - images deliberately murky, pace slow, studying the central couple as closely as an entomologist (the hero's profession) studying insects trapped in amber; or at least studying them visually - ECUs of eyes, skin, etc - because they never really develop, nor does the worldview get beyond animalistic, Imamura-like view of life, human beings as animals getting used - don't we all? - to a non-life made up only of sex and struggle. Whole thing feels like an exercise, the full panoply of 60s arthouse style in the service of reductionism (Antonioni's people think too much; the ones here gradually learn not to): WALKABOUT without the racial socio-politics, GERRY without the snarky humour - though there's some of that, e.g. when our hero asks the heroine how she can live this way, stuck at the bottom of a sand pit shoveling sand all day, and she laughs and says "Well, I know it's not as much fun as Tokyo", as if talking about life on the farm. Hollow, but amazing images; maybe not the best-directed film I've ever seen, but certainly one of the most.
CALIFORNIA SPLIT (85) (Robert Altman, 1974): All set to give this something in the high 70s for free-form jazzy rhythms, Elliott Gould's improvised patter and assorted encounters (the opening poker game, the evening with the hookers and pudgy cross-dressing client, the girl throwing her purse after Gould at the racetrack, etc etc) - albeit still kind of wondering what the point was - but then the ending comes along and seals the deal, making the point beautifully - even if the point is that there is no point, the journey is all, just like Altman's style where the sense of Life caught on the fly is its own reward and happiness lies in the ability to appreciate what's around you - all this after a depiction of a great night at the tables that exactly captures the mounting sense of euphoria, swelling up like a joyous balloon even though nothing 'happens' in terms of quickening pace, directorial tricks, etc. Probably the purest - and most purely enjoyable - distillation of what Altman was up to in the 70s, unconstrained by Korea, Warren Beatty, Raymond Chandler, etc. Vaudeville in the style of Jean Rouch; or something.
STARS IN MY CROWN (82) (Jacques Tourneur, 1950): Echoes of other, contemporary dramas like INTRUDER IN THE DUST (South, anti-racism, child interest) or I'D CLIMB THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN (preacher, nostalgia, rural setting), but more fervent, seraphic and spiritually-minded. Tourneur finds grace-notes everywhere, in the pan along children's faces as the magic-show man performs his magic, or the clock striking the hour as the young man asks the young woman for a date, their voices mingling with the sound of the chimes. Above all a paean to the small-town ideal where no-one tells anyone how to run their business, people are stubborn and have their dignity yet also tied together by bonds of familiarity and shared experience; the climax - a lynch-mob beaten back by an invocation of common humanity - is as sanguine, idealistic and deeply moving as the appearance of good neighbour Boo in (the very similar) TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Some of it is too folksy to live, but mostly it astonishes; sounds daffy to say so, but the whole film feels imbued with the grace of God.
LOVERS AND OTHER STRANGERS (72) (Cy Howard, 1970): Second viewing (first in many years), slightly higher rating. Kind of indefensible, but there it is. Unreconstructed late-60s/early-70s sex comedy, meaning everything is very Now and dig-it and check-out-the-zoom-lens but the attitudes lag a long way behind the Attitude. Some of it grates, but there are wonderful performances - Gig Young as the serenely plastic paterfamilias who wants only that everyone should be happy (he's raised bonhomie into a religion), Marian Hailey as a pretentious bridesmaid (quoting Monica Vitti in L'AVVENTURA), Richard Castellano and Beatrice Arthur as the old married couple, their relationship based mostly on food - "You want some more soup, Frank?" - and repeating each other's sentences. Tried to resist for a while, but it's actually quite wise beneath the modish trappings, based on the old-fashioned idea that marriage is a question of compromise - though also smart enough to keep the ending open, knowing the Me Generation will never accept that as readily as their parents - and even the scenes that seem wildly sexist nowadays ring true, like the macho husband wanting his wife to admit he's the boss till she finally does ("You gotta surrender to me," he explains in desperation; "Then I'll be king of the jungle - but, as king, I will rule tenderly. But I can't rule tenderly unless you surrender to me."). Can it be our culture's so protective these days it won't let relationships between men and women appear as they really are? Or was it all conditioning and pre-conceived gender roles anyway? Discuss, etc.
ARISE, MY LOVE (72) (Mitchell Leisen, 1940): A romantic comedy that begins with a man being executed by firing squad? Absolutely - it's Brackett and Wilder repeating (and extending) the NINOTCHKA trick of romantic fluff cloaking (and balancing) political comment, marking those fateful years when the world moved from the mad blithe 30s to a wartime footing. First hour or so is banter and playing hard-to-get, a night at Maxim's and a waltz called "Dream Lover", Ray Milland's cheerful virile openness not quite a match for Claudette Colbert's knowing smile, sexy pursed lips and whims of iron; then it's war and propaganda, calling for idealism over isolationism. Bit of a patchwork, but held together by just being beautifully written - the dialogue is so literate, and the banter sparkles in a way that sneaks up on you (it's not zingers, like in today's sitcom-like romantic comedies; witty ripostes kind of emerge naturally, making the characters look good rather than the screenwriters); a scene like our hero's meeting with his still-idealistic buddies - and the way they hide their disappointment at his decision to get married and live a "quiet life" - has a lovely delicacy, while the fiery rhetoric acts as reminder that many of the chief participants (Wilder, Milland, Colbert) are European-born. Walter Abel is a bit too much of a 'character' as the harried newspaper editor - "I'm not happy; I'm not happy at all" - but gets a great moment, rushing sourly into the newsroom after war is declared: "Every time I try to see 'The Magic Flute', something happens!" Special mention for inadvertent reference to our own Smoking Nazis, courtesy a swinish Gestapo man's line to the assembled journos: "As ze Fuhrer will be present, ze smoking of cigarettes is verboten!".
A MATTER OF DIGNITY (81) (Michael Cacoyannis, 1957): More a Matter of Too Much Melodrama at the end, but still exceptionally touching and poetic. Knowing the language clearly helps - esp. given the inadequate subtitles on the Fox Lorber DVD - but it's really an actors' piece, esp. a vehicle for the swanlike, sad-eyed Elli Lambetti - one of the most beautiful actresses I've ever seen, not least because her grace comes with a touch of gawkiness (Pauline Kael called her a "classic beauty" but she's more like a long-necked secretary-bird, shifting posture or expression to miraculously reveal the soul of an angel). The story of faded aristocrats recalls Visconti but the style is harsher and cooler - and not always subtle, nor is it quite right that a lower-class character should be sacrificed to effect the heroine's redemption; still terrific, going in unexpected directions, and even that ending is intriguing, lifting the curtain to reveal what seemed like romance is in fact political, a spoiled rich girl's initiation into the proletariat. Except it also made me weep man-tears, etc.
HOUR OF THE WOLF (61) (Ingmar Bergman, 1968): One Bergman film evokes others - deconstructive it's-just-a-movie credits from PERSONA, horror-movie elements (and the name Vogler) from THE MAGICIAN, Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann as husband and wife in remote little house anticipating SHAME and PASSION OF ANNA, barren-island shots of rock and boat and sky and sea. Doesn't really work - least of all as a horror movie - but Bergman has a playwright's ear for the arresting detail, like a dream about a woman who keeps threatening to take her hat off - if she does, her face will come off as well - and a painter's eye (or maybe that's Sven Nykvist) for the light that seems to turn Ullmann's face translucent, soft as butter, as she looks up at her husband, and a great filmmaker's instincts - knowing, e.g. that a minute of screen time can feel like forever, so his hero can create tension (and seem a little mad) when he counts it down; and of course Bergman himself is the blocked artist, assailed (like a more malign version of 8 1/2) by figures from his imagination. The goings-on get silly, and the various oppressions seem jejune - Cruelty of Polite Society at a dinner party, an extended memory of childhood punishment - but then you get a weird feral boy by the beach, or the shot of the demons looking on and laughing, or a great casual ending fading to black in the middle of a sentence, and you can't not admire the intense fertile mind behind it all.
LORNA (71) (Russ Meyer, 1964): Late at night, a voluptuous blonde sidles out of bed - her husband asleep beside her - after rushed and unsatisfying sex, walks across to the open window, naked in the moonlight, and gazes out at a night buzzing with the hum of cicadas. One of those cases where style trumps content: plot is moralistic - frustrated wife cheats on her husband and gets punished - but the lyrical images are so obviously in tune with Lorna's sensuality they subvert any notion of passing judgment ("Woe to the hypocrites!" shouts a fiery preacher, played by the film's writer). Politically incorrect, but that too is a kind of honesty and anti-hypocrisy - why can't we admit sex-starved Lorna obviously enjoys being assaulted, even as she struggles against her 'rapist'? - and full of suggestive backwoods atmosphere. A riverside shack. Workers on the salt flats. A mean sallow man and a fat giggly man. A small town on a main street, with Pepsi signs and a bar called "Al's Place".
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (35) (Michael Anderson, 1956): Paralyzingly dull, though I guess it's kind of sweet that there used to be a time when extended footage of flamenco dancers, herds of buffalo and just foreign landscapes passing by was considered enough for an evening's entertainment (and the Best Picture Oscar). Wit consists mostly of stiff-upper-lip British jokes (S.J. Perelman fans will search in vain), tension's non-existent and technique rudimentary. Laziest moment: Fogg and the Princess's long, talky scene on board ship suddenly interrupted with a totally meaningless shot of their view from the deck - a vast expanse of water, held onscreen for nearly a minute as they talk - presumably because they had to break it up with something and no other coverage was available. The mind boggles. (*)
(*) This is actually so bizarre I'm now convinced the shot is something different, and my crappy recorded-from-TV tape is just pan-and-scanning it to pieces. I can't believe even a film as lazy as this one would just plonk a dead shot of water in the middle of a scene for nearly a minute of screen time. If anyone has the DVD and/or can say for sure, please put me out of my misery.
THE CRIMINAL (66) (Joseph Losey, 1960): "That's the trouble - I'm not consistent," says a borderline-schizophrenic prisoner, and it may well be Losey's all-over-the-place quality that gets in the way for me (THE DAMNED, which I haven't seen, sounds even further-gone in this respect). This is crime drama, full of gangster tropes - prison gangs, a heist on the outside - and Alun Owen's script is full of "Free Cinema" realistic detail (the punters' semaphore at the racetrack, the jailbirds' argot, an overheard conversation between shop-girls), but Losey explodes it with a very striking style - low angles and diagonal split-screen in the prison riot - Expressionist touches like the background going dark (as if onstage) when the tragic prisoner makes the Speech about life in jail (the actor directed to draw out every syllable), and a melancholy ballad sung repeatedly over the action ("All my sadness, all my joy / Came from loving a thieving boy"), turning it into a tale of Doomed Love between the Criminal and his beloved. Strange thing is, I usually like that kind of mix-and-match - when e.g. P. T. Anderson does it - but Losey's has a kind of aloofness, not like he has so much to say he can't help cross-breeding genres, more like he's bored and looking to jazz up the material. Still very impressive, the script setting up a clever subtext of prison as infantilism (talk of being "naughty", prisoners laughing like kids as they watch TV, etc), making the outside world - and thoughts of love - even more attractive. Clearly the work of a brilliant director - but maybe too brilliant?
THE SERVANT (57) (Joseph Losey, 1963): Second viewing, no change in rating; why can I never get into this movie? Possible answer may be in the last sentence of THE CRIMINAL capsule (see above) - the film is clearly brilliant, visuals properly baroque, camera moves immaculate, and Pinter's suggestive style (where you always feel the real story is in what you're not seeing rather than what you are) a perfect match for Losey's aloof intellectual restlessness, yet it all gets too clever for its own good, slowly unravels and finally seems hollow. Also oddly structured - a tension is set up, plays itself out, and we're still only three-quarters of the way through (master and servant setting up house as a bickering gay couple is a great joke to end with, but it's over-extended and peters out); still, I guess any film that begins with Dirk Bogarde suavely exiting a shop called "Thomas Crapper & Sons: Sanitary Engineers" needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
JULY 1, 2004
A WOMAN REBELS (38) (Mark Sandrich, 1936): The woman is Katharine Hepburn, but the corny material seems more suited to Bette Davis or Joan Crawford; heroine must raise her illegitimate child by pretending it's her dead sister's (doesn't tell the child either, just like Davis in THE OLD MAID), refuses to marry the man she loves because the scandal might ruin his career (doesn't tell the man either, just suffers in silence). Masochistic heroine is also a campaigner for women's rights, but the film is too dopey to make much of the irony - treats her feminism in the usual triumphal style, even though the plot is making it look silly (she can't even manage her own life). Hepburn gives her all, making it clear the heroine's real yearning is for passion, against her father's coldness; her eyes glitter at the thought of going out into the world, and she brings delightful mischief to a line like "I'll tell you a secret: I may be a woman, but I've got brains - and I'm going to use them!". Unworthy vehicle, though.
TIME WITHOUT PITY (49) (Joseph Losey, 1956): One of those cases where you can either admire the direction for being 'expressive' (which it is) or admit that whatever it's expressing doesn't really help the goings-on, pointing up absurdity where a more measured style might've disguised it. Losey aims for a kind of filmic stream-of-consciousness, the actors restless and explosive (everyone behaves like they've got the DTs, though only our hero is an alcoholic), emotional tenor constantly changing - a film explicitly about "control", deliberately perched on the edge of control (with the sidebar of capital punishment as the state's method of control, raising a debate about that). Kind of admirable but it's just too daft, the lines unplayable - "What does Vicky Harker mean to this family?" - the symbols (the house full of clocks, Leo McKern's speech about cars) ludicrous, even Losey's direction finally too flashy; it's great when he's e.g. crafting compositions with people on different levels and foreground vs background - but is there any reason, besides showing off, why a conversation in a car should end with a striking but unmotivated CU, reflecting both parties in the rear-view mirror?
BORN IN FLAMES (60) (Lizzie Borden, 1983): Radical ending, with our heroines setting bombs in the World Trade Center (right on!) shows how things have changed in 20 years - though Ms Borden insists it's just a joke, "that big phallic symbol going up" - yet the film is more relevant now than it's ever been: set in a post-sexual-revolution world, with a System that's committed to liberalism and equality, its point is that even that is inadequate - sexual prejudice is inevitable unless women actually assume power themselves, by any means necessary. Ahead of its time, and a worthy discussion-piece in a world where political correctness rules, the semblance of equality is everywhere, yet women hit glass ceilings in business and are under-represented in politics; also lots of fun for about an hour - till it just gets incoherent - with that blissfully gritty, faded early-80s look, punky theme song by Toyah Wilcox soundalike (plus one bit of primitive proto-rapping) and bracing atmosphere of balls-out - if that's the word - radical feminism calling for "the right to violence" (also young Eric Bogosian cameo, Kathryn Bigelow in supporting role and meltingly pretty Adele Bertei as the girl from 'Radio Ragazza'). Did I Really See That? Dept.: in the montage of menial jobs women are forced to do - in between assembly lines and cleaning chicken-innards - a close-up shows a condom slowly being pulled over an erect penis. Um, what?
CARNIVAL IN FLANDERS (76) (Jacques Feyder, 1935): Elegant, cynical farce, dedicated to the proposition that polite Society is a hypocritical construct ruled entirely by money, power and sex, instantly collapsing if its rules happen to get in the way. Tempting to see it in relation to the Vichy government, French capitulation in WW2, etc - that's the plot, a small town welcoming invaders instead of resisting - but it seems a little gauche to bring reality into it when everyone's being so civilised about the arrangements, and the visuals reflect 17th-century Flemish painting (Brueghel's actually among the dramatis personae) so prettily. Funny and surprising in all sorts of ways - Louis Jouvet as hilariously venal priest, the girl complaining that she's waited all day to be ravaged and no-one's ravaged her, the gay soldier having to chase away the local damsels (later bonding with a stolid burgher who turns out to have a passion for needlework) - though mostly a question of pomposity deflated in amusing ways ; also a question of Françoise Rosay, down-to-earth and practical as she bathes a child or scolds a maid (or indeed saves the town with her pragmatism), then allowing yearning to cross her face - dreams of life beyond a petit-bourgeois household in a small town - at the gaze of the handsome Spanish invader, knowing of course that the dreams are impossible - just as she knows she'll have to stay with her buffoon of a husband, and even give him credit for saving the town in return for getting away with her infidelity (yet another bit of hypocrisy). All a bit too "archly classic", thought Pauline Kael; Rosay gives it a pulse, though.
PERSONA (83) (Ingmar Bergman, 1966): The search for reality - not the world's masks and personae, not Art which is inadequate and laughable (the radio play, the interrupted performance giving only an "urge to laugh"), not language which is full of traps (and finally breaks down). Loses its grip a little in the final section, when it takes the typically bleak Bergman thesis - that the only true reality is pain (Vietnam atrocities on TV, a shard of glass that makes the actress scream, the threat of scalding water that makes her break her silence) - as far as it can go and tries to move beyond, to a oneness, a fusion of the two women that's both scary (a loss of Identity) and comforting (real because Identity is lost, and the lies become impossible). Ends with Art re-asserting itself (shots of the film crew, a giant statue taking over the frame), and of course we know from the pre-credits sequence that it's Only A Movie - reality unattainable except very briefly - though there's hope in another kind of fusion, the photo of the Holocaust boy that connects with the actress's own child (oneness of Art and Life may be the closest we can ever get to reality). Symbol-strewn and I guess pretentious, but shots like Liv Ullmann craning her face to camera as the light is ve-e-ery slowly brought down into darkness show Bergman's greatness even as a purely formalist director - and scenes like Andersson recalling the boys at the beach (utterly hypnotic, even on third viewing) show his greatness as a screenwriter. Time to move beyond the 'miserablist' tag imo.
JUNE 1, 2004
BRAZIL (65) (Terry Gilliam, 1985): Third viewing, first since the 80s, down from an 8 out of 10 (I rated out of 10 in those days). No surprise, really - even as a teen I was never that obsessed with it, finding it "somewhat hollow" according to my '86 notebook (I used words like "somewhat" in those days), but the visuals were just too overwhelming. Not quite so dazzling nowadays, and easier to be put off by Gilliam's clunky sense of rhythm and raucous, assaultive sense of humour; often feels as oppressive as the world it satirises, also Kim Greist is not my idea of a Dream Girl. Still unforgettable in bits and pieces, esp. knowing that massive dome towering above our hero at the climax wasn't CGI. Jim Broadbent Sightings Dept. (see also THE SHOUT): hey look, that's Jim Broadbent as the plastic surgeon...
RISKY BUSINESS (75) (Paul Brickman, 1983): Singular teen comedy, and I could be overrating it (slightly) due to how bland and boring the genre's become in recent years. Surprisingly nightmarish tone for the most part, aided by some neon-lit city visuals and eerie-synth Tangerine Dream score - meeting between hero and hooker is staged as though it were a dream (he's on the couch dozing, she appears out of nowhere, they make love without preamble, her dress billowing melodramatically in the wind), and the whole thing has a dreamlike edge, shooting off in unexpected directions. Totally un-cutesy, unsentimental sensibility, e.g. smart-ass anarchic best friend (what would be the Matthew Lillard character in 90s teenpic) is revealed as insecure and a little pathetic, hooker does not develop a heart of gold, relationship remains edgy (and class-conscious) to the end, etc. Style is important, because it's about a young idealist becoming a capitalist - or at least getting caught up in the real world of capitalism - which could seem a celebration of greed with a glossier style; as it is, closer to a tale of coming-of-age as a kind of moral corruption. Tom Cruise is amazing, and in fact the Ray-Bans-wearing, Ferris Bueller-type hotshot is just a tiny part of it - mostly it's sensitive boyishness and vulnerability - though of course the only part people remember. Note to Joe Pantoliano: did you somehow grow shorter and squatter in the past 20 years?
THEY LIVE (64) (John Carpenter, 1988): Important Ratings Alert! Several points - maybe like 8 - have been added for chutzpah, individualism, perverse bad-movie pleasure and even a touch of nostalgia (the closing-credits music is so 80s it brings a tear to the eye) as opposed to actual cinematic virtues. Roughly in the same Carpenter category as THE THING, i.e. taking a classic 50s sci-fi premise - INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, with slight variation - and collapsing it in wilful silliness, though not creature FX in this case but B-movie action and good-ole-boy humour (incl. the longest fist-fight maybe since THE QUIET MAN); sharp anti-Reaganite comment in the midst of it all, with pointed echoes of Depression shanty towns and wry definition of the Golden Rule ("Those who have the Gold make the Rules"), but the hero behaves too stupidly - and Roddy Piper is too terrible an actor - to make it worthwhile trying to decipher if his "I believe in America" is meant as rallying-cry or sign of terminal naiveté. Cheesy but fun, with memorably badass lines for Mr. Piper to make a mockery of: "I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all. Out. Of bubblegum."
THE TRAVELLER (74) (Abbas Kiarostami, 1974): Neo-realism or dark night of the soul? (Or something else altogether, e.g. veiled critique of a broken-down society just a few years before the Revolution? Note e.g. the bystanders who talk about having no jobs, and the way it's finessed so it doesn't sound like a criticism - "Who can work in this heat anyway?") Our kid hero steals and lies, has no scruples or compunction in chasing his dream - going to Tehran so he can see the national football team play - then finds nothing but miscommunication (e.g. with the boys in the pool) and disappointment once he gets there; the ending is desolate and nightmarish, which is not what we expect from this kind of cute-kid saga (are you listening, Majid Majidi?). Above all, even though with hindsight it's a moral tale - hero's punished for his bad behaviour - that behaviour isn't coded as 'bad', nor is there any 'good' character acting as role model: parents are ineffectual, teachers cruel, school joyless, capitalist spirit involves brazenly cheating customers (taking their photos - and money - with a camera that has no film; the plan is to tell them later that they moved, and the photos were spoiled); it's an incredibly bleak vision of childhood as a time of half-understood impulses, constant oppression, and self-centred obsession as the only way out (our hero's Vocabulary class gives a clue, Words of the Day including "rebel" and "discipline"; earlier, the kids read a story about a boy who keeps running, no matter what). Cinematically drab, all grainy b&w and dubbed dialogue; young kid actor doesn't have a lot of charm, but maybe that's the point.
BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (65) (Sam Peckinpah, 1974): [N.B. 1974 seems to be One Of Those Years for me, with this joining THE CONVERSATION, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, LANCELOT, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and CELINE & JULIE on the list of acclaimed, awesome-sounding films I should have among my favourites but somehow ... don't.] Peckinpah's moral complexity (or lack of) falls short of his filmmaking skills, going for a blood-soaked final act - Warren Oates shooting his way through the hierarchy, POINT BLANK-style, finally rescuing the abused girl as redemption for his own dead beloved - that's banal and sophomoric, breaking the spell of the middle section, which is rather magical: a lot of it seems to be shot day-for-night, like an old 'B' Western, combining with the muted colour palette for a twilit, sepia feel (surprisingly romantic, too; is this the only out-and-out love story in the Peckinpah oeuvre?). Needed a John Huston, who'd doubtless have found a more tragic-poetic ending for our small-time loser hero ("Nobody loses all the time!") than going out in a hail of bullets - though the first, roadside massacre is a fine set-piece, esp. with ambiguously gay duo of hitmen also in the mix. Oates is superb, and it's still only the third-best Warren Oates performance I've seen (after THE HIRED HAND and TWO-LANE BLACKTOP); what a waste, eh?
[Addendum: Please note the popular reading where Oates = Peckinpah, bosses = studio suits, Mexico = Hollywood, head of Alfredo Garcia = film, is not included in the above. This is because I find such 'meta' readings amusing but irrelevant, just like the GANGS OF NEW YORK reading where Amsterdam = Scorsese and riots = Harvey Weinstein (imposing a solution, not letting him make the old-fashioned film he wants to make, etc). If that floats your boat, enjoy...]
PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (55) (Brian De Palma, 1974): Unholy mix of "Faust", "Phantom of the Opera" and stray bits of "Dorian Gray" (even a PSYCHO shower scene!) - but, as someone puts it: "If it sounds [i.e. looks] good, who cares what it's about?". Setting it in the nefarious record industry was a cool idea but De Palma tries to play it very 'showbiz', camping it up Ken Russell fashion, and it takes away from his silky technique: the cutting just seems aggressive, changing camera angle all the time, whereas De Palma at his best makes filmmaking (the formal tricks themselves, tracking shots and split-screens) effortlessly sensual. Not bad, but a bit of a mismatch: the Grand Guignol anticipates CARRIE but the jerky style is closer to the old HI MOM! point-scoring, and De Palma's sense of humour is too raucous to make for sophisticated fantasy. Props to Gerrit Graham, hilarious as ROCKY HORROR-type singer ("Beef") who both minces and snarls; note also the presence of Jack Fisk as Production Designer and credit for Sissy Spacek as Set Dresser. Ah, l'amour...
MAY 1, 2004
WHAT'S UP DOC? (69) (Peter Bogdanovich, 1972): Second viewing, slightly higher rating - probably the highest rating possible for a film so second-hand and cheerfully unoriginal. I'm a little stunned at how tolerable (even attractive) Barbra Streisand is here - her comic touch isn't exactly light but she seems relaxed and definitely has her moments (I like her throwaways, e.g. posing as a very Noo Yawk secretary on the phone - "Got a pen, dollin'?") - and the cast in general are game. Farcical more than screwball, though it copies lots of 30s mannerisms (e.g. punctuating scenes with 'kicker' lines delivered by salt-of-the-earth cabbies, porters, etc); quotation marks around everything - mistaken-identity plot, obligatory comic chase, entire cast brought before a judge at the finale, like in MIDNIGHT (1939) - but it is what it is; lots of slapstick, inspired bits of (mostly verbal) lunacy. "My fiancée Miss Sleep is still burning..."
THE SHOUT (51) (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1978): Satisfyingly strange, as befits its premise - a human shout that can kill - but it fritters itself away. Key image may be a game where someone tips a console this way and that, trying to keep a group of ball-bearings in a tiny puddle of water - an image of control and constraint, like the cricket game (intricate rules, spotless white uniforms) in a lunatic asylum that's the film's framing device, and of course played against the shout itself (with its echoes of primal scream), smashing convention like our deranged hero with his primeval ways. Skolimowski turns the cricket game into a tour de force of eerie suggestion and unnerving detail - a peacock strutting, a hunched-over inmate clapping weakly in a wheelchair - so it feels like anything can happen, but what does happen (in the story proper) is rather thin: super-polite John Hurt, constrained by social convention, losing (frequently naked) wife Susannah York to insane shaman Alan Bates, basically. York-Bates relationship notably weak, robbing the ending of punch (which is important, since it's one of those cyclical endings where the first scene is also the last, tying the film together), final third generally confused. Incidental interest includes a young Jim Broadbent, with just one word of dialogue - but he does get to scream, and tear most of his clothes off.
BAY OF ANGELS (73) (Jacques Demy, 1963): Not much there, really - and the love-conquers-all final shot feels like an afterthought - but often transporting, esp. the casino scenes (Michel Legrand's theme soars and dips like the whirling of a ball round a roulette wheel), with the gambling turned into an extension of the characters' passion - when she bets on a number just because he bet on a number, it's a declaration of love; "You're lucky tonight" becomes another way of saying "You're beautiful". Jeanne Moreau at her most alluring (much more so than in JULES AND JIM in my opinion, perhaps because it's clear from the start that she's bad news), being a Free Spirit and seeing a "Sioux's head" in the pattern on a hotel-room ceiling, among other non sequiturs. Real-life gamblers may complain it's implausible, and no-one could survive for long in a casino throwing money away like that ; but realism - as opposed to wild, magical romanticism - was never the Demy way.
YOU'RE TELLING ME! (76) (Erle C. Kenton, 1934): "It's a funny old world. Man's lucky to get out of it alive..." Apparently a shot-for-shot remake of W.C. Fields' silent SO'S YOUR OLD MAN - which is strange, because it's impossible to imagine it as a Silent, without the weary cadences of his tailing-off voice. Small-town hypocrisy and prudishness make life difficult for the Great Man, though his wife is also unappreciative - "Mrs. Bisbee, I think you're the luckiest woman in the world!" ; (instantly) "Is my husband dead?" - and there's also incompetent golf caddies, assorted slapstick disasters and even an ostrich he tries unsuccessfully to wrangle (the punchline finds Fields and the bird side-by-side when trouble arrives, both with heads buried in the sand). Maybe not as great as the later henpecked Fields of THE BANK DICK, who's basically given up and looks at Life through a haze of mistrust and alcohol - he's still trying here, and in fact ends up becoming a success - but it's very funny, and the ramshackle nature (e.g. stopping the plot dead for the famous 'golf routine') adds to the air of misanthropy; and of course there's the Fields persona, with the dreamy subversive delivery. "Please don't drink tonight, Father" ; "No I won't, I won't ... (sotto voce, smacking lips contemplatively) It's an idea..."
WONDER BAR (79) (Lloyd Bacon, 1934): Amazing stuff, taking the fast-talking energy of the Warners musicals - Busby Berkeley choreographed this one too, and Dick Powell sings though he's not allowed to 'act' - and cross-breeding it with Lubitsch-style European sophistication; the Wonder Bar itself has a sign in many languages (incl. Russian and Japanese) and owner Al Jolson greets the peeps in a babble of different tongues, and the film similarly lets different styles combine in a rich stew. Berkeley's kaleidoscopic production number is abstract, ethereal, the showgirl patterns like unfolding flowers; his other big number is a blackface fantasy about goin' up to Heaven, which is lively and comic and borderline-tasteless - though it's hard to get mad when Jolson looks up from behind a Yiddish newspaper and rolls his eyes, still in blackface, underlining the absurdity of an echt-Jewish entertainer 'doing Negro'. There's comedy in Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert as American businessmen (from Schenectady) in Paris with their wives, constantly hit on by chorus girls and gigolos, airy cynicism in the gigolo going through pre-written love notes to decide which one to pass to the middle-aged matron (finally deciding on "You have such a kind face; you remind me of my mother", which she accepts, simpering gratefully), melodrama in lovelorn Dolores del Rio and melancholy Kay Francis, total vaudeville in Jolson's wisecracks and Groucho Marx mien (he has a long conversation - in a heavy Russian accent - with one of those whiskery Russian counts, playing like something out of ANIMAL CRACKERS esp. when they both get up and click their heels to toast the late Tsar and Tsarina); and, amazingly, the Schenectady strand is left open, with both husbands and wives going off planning later assignations, just as a running gag about a customer planning to commit suicide is shockingly allowed to run its course, and there's even an out-and-out gay joke: "May I cut in?" asks a man of a dancing couple; "Certainly," smiles the girl - and the two men join hands and start dancing as Jolson, standing nearby, cackles: "Boys will be boys! Woo-hoo!". Seems to be a celebration of individualism - the freedom to kill oneself, the freedom to be gay, the freedom for each constituent part (each story at the Wonder Bar) to be in its own particular style - which of course is exactly what the 30s ended up repressing. Great fun, and quite bizarre.
THE 400 BLOWS (73) (Francois Truffaut, 1959): Hold the front page: one of my all-time faves disappoints on third viewing (first in about 5 years). Still very charming, in a fragile sketchy way, but the flaws stand out more (little things bugged me, like the fake impatient way Antoine's mom says "Bonsoir, bonsoir" when we first see her, making the point she's Not A Good Mother; that's just bad acting, imo) and the whole thing is such a storm in a teacup - isn't it a shame how this sensitive boy is so neglected, etc etc. The school scenes are antic and quirky to the point of being toothless (I'm not a big ZERO DE CONDUITE fan either), and the toughness in the final third seems to come out of nowhere; still poetic but lacks emotional force, basically. Best scene, on this viewing: Antoine's tears as he gazes at the lights of Paris from behind the bars of the police van. Actually second-best, since the interview with the psychiatrist will always be tops, but whatever...
ANATOMY OF A MURDER (93) (Otto Preminger, 1959): A cracking courtroom drama but also more, much more: Preminger's 'objective' style - seldom going into close-ups and then mostly when the truth is at issue, as when our hero first interrogates his clients on what really happened - implicitly promises documentary evidence, the majesty of the law cutting to the heart of the matter (note the title), but in fact the trial is pure theatre. Both lawyers are performing, playing a part - James Stewart fulminates and bangs on tables, George C. Scott sidles up to witnesses like a snake - both work entirely in terms of emotion, innuendo and 'shock' revelations, even the judge has a distinct personality which he imposes on proceedings, and there's only a single point of actual law (put forward behind closed doors, immediately conceded and never mentioned again). The result is that the system gets exposed for what it really is (note the title) and, perhaps, Truth gets lost in the shuffle - the film leaving us always in doubt, cannily leaving out the lawyers' summations to the jury (which might've given us something to hold on to) and introducing enough doubt at the very end to suggest that maybe, just maybe, Justice wasn't done; yet it never spells things out, never comes down on either side and never loses that sense of the 'objective'; Preminger's control is magisterial, leaving us to make up our own minds without even having to say that's what he's doing. Compelling drama + application of cool intelligence = great film, in my opinion.
RIO BRAVO (75) (Howard Hawks, 1959): A modernist experiment - minimum exposition, characters never 'properly' introduced, self-conscious comments on the action (esp. from Stumpy), pauses for song, formal jokes like a silent first 10 mins. in a film that's otherwise all talk, etc. Obviously brilliant, and it'd take too long to try and explain why - but I still get antsy in the Angie Dickinson scenes, and John Wayne can't do romantic. Definitely liked it more on second viewing, though.
SOME LIKE IT HOT (84) (Billy Wilder, 1959): Fourth viewing, and I thought at first it was going to disappoint - the train stuff especially is a bit laboured. Gets into its groove when they reach Florida, though, and never looks back; Wilder's achievement has a lot to do with creating a tapestry of threads that keep repeating - even the details: icebergs, shells, "Wouldn't be caught dead in Chicago" - so everything in the film comments on something else, in the same way that a group of old friends talk in nicknames and in-jokes. Best scene is the extended Curtis-Monroe seduction, a five-minute back-and-forth with every line a zinger - though it's also the only scene I found 'boring' when I first saw it as a 14-year-old, so it obviously works on all kinds of levels. Think I actually laughed more at Curtis than Lemmon this time, believe it or not...
THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE (49) (Denys Arcand, 1986)
I VITELLONI (53) (Federico Fellini, 1953): 'Well-observed', is the usual phrase, but what exactly is there to observe here? Fellini's admittedly one of my blind spots but it's usually for being crude or gaudy, not just half-baked and kind of blah, as in this case: only one of the five Vitelloni gets any kind of depth (though the Intellectual has a funny sequence with the old actor), and the only thing drawn with any force is the burning desire to escape stifling small-town life and go to the city (presumably to make autobiographical movies just like this one). His talent is for summoning the lyrical or florid image, seemingly out of nowhere: the town at dawn after the fancy-dress ball (part of the Escape theme, dressing up as someone - anyone - other than yourself), or the plaster angel in the middle of the field; but the film is safe (see e.g. Fausto's comeuppance), pushing the same small-town values it despises, reductive and just not very memorable. IL BIDONE remains the one to beat, before the two early-60s masterpieces and then ... nothing.
APRIL 1, 2004
MAD LOVE (65) (Karl Freund, 1935): Scene that typifies this delirious enterprise: at the climax, as the villain is about to strangle the heroine and the cops are rushing to the house in the nick of time, we cut from the thick of the action - his hands almost round her neck - to the cop car, where the testy chief shakes his head and grumbles: "René, don't drive so fast! There's no hurry!". Collapses into camp as the plot becomes absurd in the final act, but it's clear from the start that Freund is out to have fun with it - the "Theatre of Horrors", where the box-office clerk wears a fright-mask and the hat-check girl is a suit without a head (linking with the tiny guillotine on heroine's party cake, the proper guillotine that beheads the killer, and perhaps the notion of 'losing your head' over a woman). A mad mess of ingredients including broad comic relief - a tipsy landlady, a fast-talking news hound - stray bits of horror-Gothic (a life-size wax figure, a Venus fly-trap linking Woman and Murder) and moon-faced Peter Lorre suffering for Love, with many a deep sigh as he bangs on the piano (his demonic laughter is also quite impressive). Less than the sum of its parts but still enjoyable, as is often the case when style smothers genre. Stuff to Giggle Over: assorted Lorres talking amongst themselves in the mirror scene; gratuitous mention of the Hoover Dam; romantic byplay between heroine and her man, the hopelessly wooden Colin Clive. She: "It's been so nice having you to myself these past few weeks"; He (with fond smile): "You're a selfish little thing, aren't you?"...
C'EST LA VIE (70) (Diane Kurys, 1990): Second viewing, much the same rating for this autobiographical charmer: comes awfully close to cuteness - certainly goes down smoothly, with its kiddie cast and beach-holiday locations - but also deals in strong, bitter emotions, and looking back you realise literally everyone in it (except maybe the tiny 5-year-old cousin) does at least one cruel, selfish or questionable thing at some point. Amazingly natural and vivid, with a feel for the magic moment and the added bonus of well-known names in early roles: this must be how I knew who Jean-Pierre Bacri was, even before I knew he was Jean-Pierre Bacri...
JUNIOR BONNER (61) (Sam Peckinpah, 1972): Yeah I know, the kind of film they don't make anymore, and of course should - strong sense of place, regional filmmaking, everyday detail, semi-documentary trappings. Except it's actually quite self-indulgent, trading in surface quirkiness and lazy shorthand - Junior's businessman brother constantly talking about "the future" whereas he himself is an old-style wandering cowboy, riding in a rodeo that's "part of history" - padded out with footage of parades, rodeos and such inane flights of fancy as the extended bar-brawl. Very likeable, and it's probably unfair seeing it in a double-bill with THE LUSTY MEN (which it explicitly references at least once, unless that "old saying" is indeed an old saying), but still a minor work for all concerned; Peckinpah's mastery is evident throughout but he can't (or won't) shake up the cosy script, or take the carnival barker's bounce out of Robert Preston's voice.
THE LUSTY MEN (72) (Nicholas Ray, 1952): "A proud gesture to assert his independence," reckons David Thomson of the ending, but it seemed more a case of the badman-individualist sacrificing himself for the sake of bourgeois values (complicated in this case by Love, but a fairly common theme in classic Westerns - see also SHANE, THE SEARCHERS, LIBERTY VALANCE). Still a great ending - the young girl's whispered "I love you" is a heartbreaking touch - and the first act is even better, the desolation of a wind-blown arena after the rodeo or a country road with a lone bus coming round the bend, then the conversation with the crushed old man in the sad childhood home ("Are you a thinkin' man?"). The middle section is the problem, settling into a slightly tedious dynamic of nominal hero seduced into immoral lifestyle by charismatic devil Robert Mitchum (as 'Jeff McCloud') while good little wifey shakes her head and wrings her hands in despair. Ray is a lot like Hawks here, alternating raw footage of the rodeo (like the racing scenes in THE CROWD ROARS) with a sense of tough, unsentimental community - except the tone is more pessimistic, and fear (esp. fear of Death) much more present (even the open spaces seem constrained, compositions anchored rather than spectacular). Special mention for Arthur Hunnicutt, stealing the show in this and THE BIG SKY in the same year; why isn't this man a cult figure?...
RUN OF THE ARROW (63) (Samuel Fuller, 1957): My first exposure to Fuller's West, a scrappier vision - as you might expect - than the solemn archetypal place in Ford and Anthony Mann - less ordered, and even more unfair. The portrait of the Sioux is a triumph (best character: the old renegade), making them a real community with rituals, rivalries, some wisdom and compassion - but also just a bit too savage for our 'civilised' hero to ever really grasp or understand (cf. DANCES WITH WOLVES); the film's message is on one level reactionary - stick to your own people, Ethan Edwards-style - but in fact all allegiances are examined and found wanting (hero is a proud Southerner, but not when it doesn't suit him - the KKK are "nothing to do with me"), except perhaps being an American, which contains all the others. Surprisingly, ragged surface turns out to conceal what's almost a thesis paper - a didactic Western, like DEAD MAN - with characters stopping the action to discuss the Morality of Nationalism (what happens when national allegiance clashes with religious, etc), tailor-made for critics to pore over - though the film qua film lacks cohesion and a through-line, not as powerful as other Fuller moral tales like VERBOTEN. Steiger's absurdly exaggerated Irish brogue is 'interesting', but distracts more than it adds to the story.
SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON (77) (Bryan Forbes, 1964): The kind of film some might be ashamed of liking, given that it's basically a talk-piece and contains a fair bit of virtuoso, capital-A Acting (not to mention being made by an unfashionable director). Still superbly tense and compelling, great on the moment-to-moment suspense of ordinary people turned criminals - will they be found out, etc - but also building to uncertainty and breakdown (madness, in fact) with a combination of spare exposition and bold dramatic strokes (the scene in the fog-shrouded woods! the final police interview, with inserts of anxious-looking coppers adding to a nameless sense of dread!). Harsh lighting in the 60s b&w way, a John Barry score with weird percussive packages, as if played entirely on the dull end of a xylophone, and powerfully off-kilter work by matronly Kim Stanley (Richard Attenborough, as her mousy husband, is even better). Bit of a slow start, then it grips like a vise.
BABES IN ARMS (46) (Busby Berkeley, 1939): Caught uneasily between comedy and drama (both pretty lame) - incl. patriotic drama, with WW2 just broken out : climactic song (which feels unconnected to the rest of it) hymns America, rhyming "Fuhrer" with "Norma Shearer", though before that we get Mickey Rooney doing impressions of big 30s stars (the film contains about a million references to Clark Gable) and show-must-go-on corn with people being called "good troupers" and the like. Dynamic has older generation standing in the way of younger, though the kids co-opt the sad oldsters as consultants after they make it big (it's supposed to be touching rather than condescending) - but the main attractions are Rooney's still-incredible energy, Judy Garland's still-potent charm (underused) and a bunch of bizarre musical numbers. The minstrel show is a matter of changing tastes, though you have to wonder how Rooney and Garland felt doing 'Negro' mannerisms in front of a chorus of real black people - but pride of place goes to the title song, with a gravel-voiced 'kid' (18 going on 30) marching along singing "They call us babes in arms!" as the others march behind him and bonfires burn in the background; it plays like a rancid, non-comedy version of "To war! We're going to war!" from DUCK SOUP.
MAISIE (55) (Edwin L. Marin, 1939): Not much there really, but Ann Sothern as showgirl-out-West Maisie isn't just a proto-feminist icon ("It would be years before women like Maisie, at ease with their own voluptuous bodies and calmly aware of their sexuality, appeared on screen without dire consequences," wrote Jeanine Basinger in the Nov/Dec '99 "Film Comment") but a prime example of the straight-talking Hawksian heroine, tomboyish but sexy and always aware of who she is, even in a declaration of love: "I'll talk you deaf, dumb and blind. Sometimes I'll make you so mad you'll want to murder me. But I'll never lie to you, and I'll never cheat you". Robert Young is the pipe-smoking cowboy who "jest doesn't like women", and the film unwisely turns into a courtroom drama in its final stages, but it's still worth seeing ; Maisie gets strip-searched (offscreen, natch) and gets a Maisie Moment when she says she'll do anything for a job and a sleazy carny type looks her up and down with his tongue all but hanging out ("Within reason," she adds drily) - but mostly stands in opposition to the villainess, who's rich, mendacious and dependent on men: the anti-Maisie...
LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (68) (Alain Resnais, 1961)
PLATINUM BLONDE (71) (Frank Capra, 1931): Capra clearly ambitious, using this modest comedy as a springboard for bigger things, shooting the lovers' kiss through a shimmering fountain and trying stuff out apparently for the sake of it (e.g. that totally gratuitous high-angle shot when newspaperman hero first meets the family) - though he's also locked in constant, if unconscious, battle between his great sense of humour and sometimes unsavoury values. Plot and structure are simplistic populism, with a hero (as in MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN) whose preferred style of argument is a sock to the jaw, but the gags are superbly timed - note e.g. the stretched-out pause before hero's farewell line, having first walked the gauntlet of indignant Schylers ("Well if that's the way you feel about it, here's a nickel for the phone call") - and every time the plot threatens to wear it down it comes up with another delightful non sequitur, like the canoodling that turns into a singing contest or the butler's demonstration of "puttering" (I also like his stone-faced but polite response to a wisecrack: "I beg your pardon, sir. But I've heard that one before"). Special mention for star Robert Williams, a fast-talking smart-aleck in Lee Tracy mould who can seem as stately as Herbert Marshall or slack-jawed-sleazy as Robert 'Freddy' Englund. Wonder if this is where Adam Sandler - whose comedy is actually quite similar, if cruder - got the idea for the echo gag in his own MR. DEEDS?...
VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (36) (Jaromil Jires, 1970): Pre-dating THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, i.e. a period fantasy that's really an allegory of a young girl's sexual coming-of-age - apparently expressed as an invitation to join the Sisterhood (lesbian overtones optional) and rejection/destruction of the patriarchy (incl. her monster father and the hypocritical priest who both fears and lusts after her young-womanhood), though it's actually hard to decipher much meaning. Surface pleasures feel tacky and dated, Eastern European fairytale with the tinkly music, shaggy early-70s hairstyles (esp. on the boys) and people in pancake makeup pretending to be vampires and demons; dialogue is stiff, as if post-synched, and the filmmaking (esp. editing) too haphazard to hold the attention. Seems wrong to judge poetry - even wannabe poetry - by these standards, but even the images seemed pretty tame and lacking definition, to be honest. Maybe it's my Czech blind-spot acting up again...
MARCH 1, 2004
THE SECRET LIFE OF AN AMERICAN WIFE (66) (George Axelrod, 1968): Second viewing, no change in rating for this arch, singular comedy. Walter Matthau as the world's leading sex symbol (!). Anne Jackson as a frustrated housewife who quotes Edna St. Vincent Millay and speaks in long, funny, literate sentences with convoluted sub-clauses and phrases like "those dear dead days beyond recall". Clearly sophisticated, but it's not visual sophistication and it's hard to see who it's meant to appeal to, except perhaps hardcore 'New Yorker' readers slumming at the movies; also quite patchy, even on its own terms, but still enough - with the equally flawed, even more amazing LORD LOVE A DUCK - to confirm Axelrod as the most original American satirist of the 60s. Sample gag: the husband who's "great at lunch".
STAR WARS (70) (George Lucas, 1977): Third viewing, first in many years, and my first exposure to the not-so-Special Edition: don't know the film well enough to judge all the changes, but anyone who thought that Jabba the Hutt scene was a good idea needs their head examined - it adds nothing, repeats most of the dialogue from the earlier scene (when Solo kills Jabba's agent) and stops the film so dead it takes about a quarter of an hour to recover. That's actually part of why it still works, the fact that it seldom stops (the constant wipes, speeding up transitions, are a nice touch) and the second half is all-action - you expect some sort of homecoming when they get to the rebel base, but there's only the tiniest of pauses before they're being briefed on the next mission - plus a certain hesitant charm, as in AMERICAN GRAFFITI (Mark Hamill's bony, angular look helps a lot, albeit inadvertently, and the clunky banter between Han and Leia is rather sweet, like a shy boy asking for a date); also of course massive historical importance, though the videogame action scenes are only mildly exciting nowadays. Oh, The Irony! #1: Luke can only triumph at the climax by turning off his computer. Oh, The Irony! #2: "That R2 unit of yours looks pretty beat-up. Why don't I get you a new one?"; "Not on your life! That little droid and I have been through a lot together". Practise what you preach, Mr. Lucas.
WOMEN OF THE NIGHT (73) (second viewing: 65) (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1948): Whatever I may have been expecting - having seen only Mizoguchi's post-1950 work - this wasn't it. Kinuyo Tanaka is the nice girl trying to make ends meet, trying to avoid the lure of becoming a "woman of the night" - finally succumbing due to a broken heart - but OHARU-style melodrama detours unexpectedly into state-of-the-nation rant and girls-in-prison movie, with vivid use of locations that makes it seem more Italian (i.e. neo-realist) than Japanese. Also savage and surprisingly frank, part of an outpouring of violent feeling in immediately post-war Japan that seems to have affected even the usually more delicate filmmakers (see also Ozu's A HEN IN THE WIND, though admittedly I haven't); plotting gets increasingly wild and arbitrary - as her lover is about to beat our heroine the door opens and cops rush in, apropos of nothing, to arrest him for being part of an opium ring - and the initially staid camera style, observing from a distance, builds to a zany overhead shot looking down on a frame full of penitent whores all weeping and writhing on the ground. Not one for the 'sublime Mizoguchi' crowd, probably... [Second viewing, March 2013: Definitely a grim post-war document, à la GERMANY YEAR ZERO, and it is quite explicit - the girls talk about having sex and being raped, and ask "Do you want to shoot up?" - but for whatever reason (maybe seeing it again without the element of surprise, maybe seeing it for the first time with English - as opposed to French - subtitles) it felt a bit flat this time, a Message Movie seemingly made for educational as much as artistic reasons (it's explicitly didactic when e.g. the friendly doctor at the shelter tells the girls to be patient, warning them that nice things can seem a little boring at first). Mizo doesn't really seem into it, his mind on the final-act eruption into melodrama and that overhead shot with the writhing whores. Which, yes, remains pretty awesome.]
THE LATE SHOW (64) (Robert Benton, 1977): Slightly in the shadow of THE LONG GOODBYE when it comes to quirky private-eye movies (Altman produced, appropriately), though Benton works in a more down-to-earth register, with nods to the protagonist's advancing years - Art Carney is superb as the irascible hero - and a passing elegy to LA as it used to be, back in the day. A very original mix - surprisingly graphic violence blended with Carney's old-school locutions ("I play the game by the house percentages") and Lily Tomlin's stand-up patter as the scatty New Age heroine. Just lacks a little something to push it over the top; bit too obvious what it's trying to do, possibly.
ZELIG (77) (Woody Allen, 1983): Third viewing, first in >10 years, and I was so sure it wouldn't hold up - but it does, even if the joke still runs out before the end. Combination of Woody's trademark Jewish humour (Zelig's father on his deathbed, telling him Life is basically meaningless and urging him to "save string") and documentary trappings with found footage and sober narration does occasionally open up a head-spinning alternate universe, where everyone behaves like Woody Allen. Often very funny when it's not being thought-provoking (the innate human need to belong, etc), and the pre-computer manipulation of images remains awesome - is there some sixth sense that floods the aesthetic cortex when something is real as opposed to CGI? Totally nerdy side-note: 1983 is a really strange year for me, with two films I adore (#s 1 and 2, obviously) then 14 runners-up way behind the leaders, all within four percentage points of each other. Guess I need to see some of these again...
THE CONVERSATION (55) (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974): Due to the outcry this rating has caused (I'm not kidding) I've decided not to try and explain myself at any length, since (a) it'd take ages to rebut all the arguments and (b) it's already been over a week since I saw it (for the second time, first viewing being about 8 years ago). Suffice to say the score is brilliant and the lengthy middle section where Harry brings the gang to his office/studio is a very impressive piece of staging - though also very obviously a set-piece, something distinct from the rest of the movie, designed for Coppola to Show His Mastery. But the hero is a very thin conceit (a one-dimensional control freak), playing his sax in conjunction with the solo is a pretty maudlin detail, the ending is so much cruder and snarkier than e.g. the one in REMAINS OF THE DAY (a similar tale of repression), Harry's "I can't let it happen again" is so clumsy it takes you right out of his dilemma (though the clumsiness makes some sense, given the sting in the tail), the Catholic guilt is so shallow and tacked-on it's almost insulting, the dream sequence sucks big-time, and I've never understood how the crucial line gets a different inflection at the end when we've heard it being spoken over and over. Am I missing something?...
FEBRUARY 1, 2004