OLDIES!

Older films seen in 2008, continued from the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 editions. Most of these are really quick comments - typically scribbled down in 10-15 minutes without benefit of notes - and any resulting wit or insight should be viewed as an accidental by-product. Slightly more thoughtful capsules may be found on the now-pretty-much-defunct old reviews page.

All films, both from this year and the five previous ones, can be accessed alphabetically. Most can be viewed ranked by rating as well, though I'm still not sure what that's all about.


THE LAST SUNSET (63) (Robert Aldrich, 1961): Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson as badman and lawman, not too successful as a battle of wills because the former is so much more interesting than the latter. The film itself is a Trojan-horse kind of Western, smuggling melodrama in a Western casing till it bursts open, literally collapsing the long-awaited showdown - Kirk and Rock are helping with a cattle drive, a final reckoning promised when they reach their destination - so it flops into irrelevance, trumped by psychological fear-and-desire (all four of the main characters are caught in some form of obsessive/unrequited love for one or more of the others, though admittedly Rock and Dorothy Malone have the less complex parts). The whole film has an unusual, slightly desultory air, caught between a suspended future - the postponed showdown hanging over the action - and the constant weight of the past, bended and misshapen into Joseph Cotten's Civil War memories or Kirk warping the memory of the love he once lost into unhealthy love for the woman's teenage daughter. Looks good (lots of brown and brick), sounds good, e.g. when Kirk waxes lyrical about the sea ("seamen shoeing the hooves of the wild sea mare"); no great shakes as a Western - too much else going on - though the early scenes have a touch of spaghetti-Western (whistling on the soundtrack, Mexican mariachis watching mutely in the background) and the action climax features quicksand, runaway horses, a dust-storm and a rain-storm.       

DESPERATE (64) (Anthony Mann, 1947): The kind of rough-edged B-movie that should've taken place over a tense couple of days - but too much happens and it grows too diffuse, though the climax (Raymond Burr's plan for avenging his doomed brother) is memorably twisted and an earlier scene, when Burr and his thugs beat up our hero under the light of a single, swinging ceiling lamp - then threaten to cut his wife with a broken beer bottle - is pure post-war harshness. Audrey Long is striking as the wife (she looks more suited to femme fatale roles), Burr is a great burly villain and there's a procession of memorable minor characters - the fleshy, conniving boss on the used-car lot, the clueless little man on the train (he thinks our couple-on-the-run are honeymooners) with grumpy wife in tow, the roly-poly country sheriff, the venal private-eye enjoying his clients' discomfiture, the pushy nerd selling life insurance outside the maternity ward. A reminder that noir - like the 'social issue' movies of the Great Depression - grew from a sense of shaken identity, post-war America taking a long hard look at itself in the wake of the recent horrors.

SHOWBOAT (73) (James Whale, 1936): Euphoria comes early on, with back-to-back renditions of "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' That Man", a 10-minute stretch that's obviously untoppable - and indeed never topped, the film wasting too much time on the vapid young lovers; Irene Dunne is especially bad (with Allan Jones you more or less expect it), doubtless through being too old for the part, and gets a blackface number which might've been offensive if the film weren't so obviously generous and sympathetic to its Black characters (good to see Mississippi's draconian miscegenation laws seemed absurd to the rest of the nation even 72 years ago). Whale adds humour - right from the opening minutes, when not just townspeople but schoolchildren, a horse and a mother pig in the midst of suckling piglets all rush off to welcome the showboat - and a feeling for small-time variety acts, ham actors bringing Culture to the hicks, dancing duos congregating in the waiting-room trying to catch a promoter's eye. He also goes for close-ups to de-stagify the song numbers, redeeming an early love song by staging it as a secret battle between Jones and Dunne's duelling faces, enfolding Paul Robeson (who's superb) in a fluid semi-circular camera move as he starts to sing about the mighty Mississippi - though he can't do much about the over-plotted final stretch, with months suddenly turning into decades. Intermittently magical, more so than the slicker 50s version.

THE FOUR DAYS OF NAPLES (56) (Nanni Loy, 1962): Patriotic WW2 drama and raucous Neapolitan comedy - not actual comedy, but the whole histrionic hustle-and-bustle - makes a bold combination, and not inappropriate since ordinary people's 'humanity', in all its yelling gesticulating glory, is what's being celebrated (the setting is Naples 1943 when, following the fall of Mussolini, the whole city basically rose up against the Nazis), but the result is rather perfunctory vignettes - the soldier just back from the front, the married woman and her lover, the man who keeps saying he's too old to be drafted, the Blackshirt who thinks his Fascist credentials will protect him - and highly-strung Neapolitan mamas doing variations on 'Please stop fighting the Nazis and come eat your dinner, dear'. Well-paced scene for scene but rather flat overall, also caught between proto-BATTLE OF ALGIERS documentary (most of the actors are unnamed) and a conventional taste for the cutesy 'humanizing' detail, also Loy doesn't stage the action all that well. His - or his AD's - crowd-control skills are impressive, though.  

PHONE CALL FROM A STRANGER (57) (Jean Negulesco, 1952): Not a lot of cinematic interest, except the use of unreliable flashbacks (Negulesco drops a hint with a photographic-negative effect, but there's no explicit indication that the flashback isn't real - except of course that it's wholly unbelievable); maybe there was something in the air in the early 50s, what with this and RASHOMON. Otherwise a writer's film (Nunnally Johnson), setting up a clever situation - this takes about half an hour - and using the rest for payoffs. Act 1 (the set-up) is great fun, not least for its incidental look at air-travel 56 years ago (no assigned seating, apparently); the three mini-stories that follow are, respectively, somewhat drab, brightly comic - Evelyn Varden scores as a showbiz termagant with a smile for the public and the heart of a viper - and inadequate, overbalanced by Bette Davis in a small-but-pivotal role (the star is Gary Merrill, a.k.a. Mr. Bette Davis). The kind of film that's now TV, and all the worse for it; seen at a young age, its strikingly morbid premise must be unforgettable.

THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (72) (William Peter Blatty, 1980): Weird and wonderful: the setting is a fog-shrouded castle, the first half a manic vaudeville à la "Catch-22" full of zany non sequiturs (doctor, to a skull on his desk: "Don't blame me, I told them not to operate"), overheard absurdity ("I know my rights! I demand to see my urologist!"), games with old-movie quotes, an inmate who's staging "Hamlet" entirely with dogs, etc - then the second half veers into philosophical (actually theological) debate plus a bar-brawl with the world's gaudiest bikers. Not just kitsch (though it is a Bad Movie, or at least a grand folly), because the compositions are superb, and Stacy Keach's performance a marvel of introverted power; I was actually close to 80+ till it fell apart at the end - and the very end, i.e. the final shot, is so dopey it makes you long for the pealing bells at the end of BREAKING THE WAVES.

DECEMBER 1, 2008

CEDDO (48) (Ousmane Sembene, 1977): Granted, its soundtrack choices are often boldly anachronistic (and funky), tying in with Black experience in the West; granted, it occasionally seems tongue-in-cheek about the pomp and ritual of village convocations; granted, above all, that its themes (militant Islam, inter-faith conflict, "no religion is worth more than a man's life") are more topical than ever - but mostly this is still the declamatory style (something of an African speciality, in my limited experience) that withers and dies onscreen, nor does it help that Sembene's rhythm is laboured even when he strays outside village meetings (e.g. the 'action' scenes with the kidnappers). Obviously a fable with Ideas, but I'm not convinced that a film about cultural/spiritual colonialism is automatically about cultural/spiritual colonialism. Seen with a sparse midday audience, sitting in front of an obnoxious crypto-racist girl who snickered and guffawed at every portentous line and long-drawn-out debate scene, but I didn't even have the heart to glare at her darkly. She was evil, but she had a point.

[Addendum: Since this is one of those 1000 Greatest Film thingys, I had a look at Kevin B. Lee's invaluable write-up, just to see what people who like it actually see in it. The point about erosion of speech due to written law (i.e. the Koran) is a good one which hadn't occurred to me, but it seems a stretch to equate the oral tradition of the village meeting with "freedom of speech", given how 90% of the villagers are mute onlookers - it's really more a case of one form of power-hierarchy being replaced by another. I was baffled to read in Serge Daney's piece (quoted by Kevin) that "In the beginning [of the film], it is clear that we are in a world where no one lies [his emphasis]", given how obviously artificial the speeches are in Sembene's declamatory staging; it's very clear that everyone onscreen is adopting a persona, playing a part in the ritual, that in fact they're lying by definition; "each person is one with what he says," explains Daney - but that's just because we're never shown the people, only what they say. In other words, though the film shows the fate of the Ceddos as a tragedy (mostly by making the imam such a nasty little man), it never really offers a convincing denotation of that tragedy; the gaps are filled by the ideological assumptions of like-minded critics.]        

DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES (77) (Terence Davies, 1988): Third viewing, and it finally comes together for me (I was 'con' the first time 20 years ago, 'mixed' on second viewing in the late 90s). Not sure why, but perhaps (a) first time I was just too young, and second time was on video (whereas this was a lustrous - if slightly scratched - 35mm print); (b) I'd attended a Davies "Masterclass" just a couple of days earlier, with him and Geoff Andrew doing their patented double-act; or (c) the domestic-violence angle no longer seems to overwhelm when you know it's coming - no more than a fifth of the running-time, maybe less - thus diminishing my main complaint, that the film rings the Victim bell a bit too hard. The poetry of the concept and structure, fragments of life matched with fragments of song, seemed perceptive and profound this time round (could be a getting-older thing), and my basic incompatibility with Davies' worldview - briefly, that I find these "still lives" and pub singalongs rather pathetic, whereas for him it's the very fabric of his childhood - made for interesting tension rather than annoyance (maybe I'm now less judgmental, which could also be a getting-older thing). Also (d) despite the passage of 20 years, I actually know a lot more of these vintage songs now than I did in 1988.

THE MONEY ORDER (54) (Ousmane Sembene, 1968): Almost the reverse of XALA (still my favourite Sembene in a walk), its protagonist being a big man at home, a small man in the wider world. He's a traditional African, contrasted with the urbanised bureaucrats, and not judged too harshly despite his buffoonish behaviour - the didactic ending even calls on him (and others like him) to rise up and help change the country, an idealism that seems to have soured in the years between this and the more embittered XALA. In itself, watchable but rather flat, missing the surreal Kafkaesque comic buzz of e.g. Gutierrez Alea's DEATH OF A BUREAUCRAT. Is it fair to criticise an African film for being insufficiently Kafkaesque?

YOU'RE ON MY MIND (55) (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 1992): Oddly enough, anyone watching this in 1992 would probably have advised the Dardennes to continue in the same style (the mise-en-scene is clearly quite solid) but find a less hackneyed subject than sub-Loach tales of working-class unemployment - whereas of course they did the opposite, staying in the same milieu but radically changing their style. This is quite conventional, with a music score, relatively becalmed camera and much more conspicuous 'acting' than the later works (esp. the actress playing the wife, though admittedly she's stuck in a threadbare Faithful Little Wife role), as well as obviously contrived devices like a death scene where the dying man bequeaths a family heirloom to his grandson with his dying breath ("Quick ... get my bag ... from the garage...") or our trumpet-playing hero finally tracked down when his brother hears the sound of a trumpet emanating from a shady bar (it's also made very clear that the climax will be set during the local carnival - and so it is). Certainly not a film you'd mistake for documentary, or recall - as per Mike D'Angelo on LA PROMESSE - as "that thing that happened to some folks I knew last year". It's not bad, though...  

THE LEOPARD (67) (Luchino Visconti, 1963): What rules the Prince? Not just a case of nostalgia for youth and the way things used to be (though there's that as well), also a case of his abiding love for Sicily - the landscape is lovingly laid out - and a case of being convinced the Old Order is intimately bound up with the Sicilian psyche, that in fact things can never change (Sicilians are asleep, he says, and he means it ruefully - as a fact of life - rather than indignantly). The twist, of course, is he may be deluding himself, projecting his own reactionary nature on the place he claims to reflect/represent - and a little more sharpness on this point would've been welcome but Visconti loves his virile patrician hero just a bit too much, though leonine, dignified Burt Lancaster is admittedly unforgettable (even more remarkable in that he's acting without his distinctive voice). Also rather muted stylistically, even on the big screen - the Criterion DVD is fine, but experiencing its hard metallic colours right after the soft, transporting fuzziness of a 35mm print was an object-lesson in the limitations of the 'clean' DVD look (likely to get worse with the advent of Blu-Ray) - though Visconti's expansive wide-shots and meticulous period detail (possible best bit: the servants keep the horses trotting round in a circle while the masters have their picnic) are so lavish you may not even realise what's missing till he pulls off an ambitious piece of style like the long, slow dolly past the entire family at church, their faces encrusted with dust from their long journey, staring past the camera in dead-eyed procession, looking like ghosts or waxworks. That shot took my breath away. 

THE SKY'S THE LIMIT (45) (Edward H. Griffith, 1943): Never imagined I'd dislike a Fred Astaire musical, but the level of wit in the script may be gauged by how often it stoops to in-jokes (the lowest form, as SHREK-haters can tell you): Fred says he'd like to be anonymous, like those +1's described as "friends" in society magazines - "Ginger Rogers and friend," he adds by way of example - while Robert Benchley's character is such a lousy lover he talks about the "love life of the polyp" instead of flirting (Mr. Benchley made "The Sex Life of the Polyp" in 1928). The highlights are unmistakable - Benchley's incompetent dinner speech and Fred's "One for My Baby" number - because they're completely unrelated to the rest of the movie, and even there I wonder if 'angry' dancing with glass getting smashed and a bar getting trashed is really such a good fit for that rueful song (Astaire did go in for the occasional dark edge in his routines, e.g. the dancers picked off one-by-one in "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails"; maybe he was working out frustration after worrying so much about them). The rest is pretty charmless, with Fred coming on like a stalker to unmemorable heroine Joan Leslie - though she does quote Wordsworth - and wartime propaganda never far below the surface. Eric Blore turns up as a butler, a sad reminder of past glories.

THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (48) (Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1935): All these 30s disaster movies (also SAN FRANCISCO and THE HURRICANE) seem to use the climactic calamity as deus ex machina, cutting through Gordian Knots of moral dilemmas or - as in this case - visiting punishment (and redemption) for turning away from God, literally so since we leave Pompeii halfway through for a lengthy BEN HUR-ish interlude in Judea, where our hero gets the chance to meet JC but instead chooses Pilate. The first half is fine, with a rather touching surrogate-son sub-plot and strong character detail as our peace-loving hero grows ever more callous at the hands of Life, but then religiosity takes over and the film becomes heavy (that old hypocrite DeMille at least kept the titty shots and bathing in asses' milk in SIGN OF THE CROSS), with our now-successful - but ruthless - hero slowly having to learn the Error of His Ways while his now-grown son schemes to free the slaves and Vesuvius rumbles ominously in the background. Awesome climax might've saved it, but it's just falling blocks of papier-mâché I'm afraid.

LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? (77) (Frank Borzage, 1934): Third time's the charm [see below]; guess it was the rom-com trappings that were throwing me in those two other Borzages. No rom-com trappings in this slice of poetic pessimism (though it's certainly not without humour), though I'd probably like it less if I'd seen the previous year's MAN'S CASTLE - which sounds awfully similar, albeit set on the other side of the Atlantic - and I'd probably like it (even) more if they'd found something for Margaret Sullavan's character to do except be delightful and luminous (yet also sensible, knowing how to use her beauty and men's infatuation). She is indeed, even or especially at odd moments - e.g. when our hero wipes a speck of mud off her chin - but everyone around her is a lot more vivid, supporting characters sketched with the brio of a political cartoon (the film comes thrillingly close to socialist propaganda) and our hero made quite complicated and often unsympathetic, played by the lean, tragic-looking Douglass Montgomery whose demeanour is pensive and dreamy almost to the point of anaemia; he's a little man - albeit not the Little Man - victimised yet mainly apolitical, convinced that "Nothing very wrong happens to the peaceful man" as he tries to coast his way through wealth gaps, rampant exploitation and a den of vice where "orgies" are strongly implied (if only it had been made a couple of years earlier!). He's prideful, self-righteous, often self-destructive - yet his love is pure and passionate (a shot where he straddles Sullavan during a walk in the woods is startlingly sexy), giving the film a constant undertow of yearning romanticism (and of course there's the memory of the last war - causing Montgomery to pause as if poleaxed when he mentions his father, who died in the trenches - and the unspoken thought of a new one building up); socialism is mostly represented by a scruffy-looking prole whose ideas of "equality" end badly, but the film is rich enough that our hero's (mild) disapproval doesn't count as judgment - after all, he's no more successful himself. The ending was inevitable, but those last two shots make it seem like a miracle. 

NOVEMBER 1, 2008

HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT (67) (Frank Borzage, 1937): Watching this together with DESIRE [see below] makes me wonder if the two were connected - possibly a case of Borzage feeling hampered by Lubitsch (and the Lubitsch touch) on that project and deciding to try again away from Paramount, with an independent (Walter Wanger producing), changing the emphasis to suit his style. Not trying to smuggle his rather heavy-set melancholia into lighter-than-air farce in this case, starting instead with a tone that's close to psychological thriller - scary Colin Clive (Frankenstein himself) as the rich, possessive husband, as obsessively jealous as the husband in CAUGHT and twice as homicidal - then using the romance as relief, its casual touches (dancing barefoot) and artful emotional deflections ("Coco"!) providing instantly-likeable contrast to Clive's psychotic intensity. The lovers are also obsessive, of course, crossing oceans and opening restaurants (our hero is "the finest headwaiter in all Europe") in their attempts to be reunited - but their obsession is tempered by humanity, jeopardizing everything to help a stranger they've never even met (a falsely-accused man who'll be saved by our hero's testimony), unlike Clive's obsession which is finally ruthless and self-destructive; a useful Message in 1937, with the world overrun by Fascism. The film is wildly unusual, with an extraordinary climax shading close to tragedy - maybe '37 was when Hollywood discovered the tolling-bell effect; it's also in THE HURRICANE - though it also drags a bit in the middle, and I much prefer Billy Wilder's flip, rueful cynicism to Borzage's rather moist melodrama when it comes to mixing comedy and drama. I should probably watch more Borzages (I've only seen 3); I suspect - like Ophuls - he'll turn out to be a near-miss with my sensibility. 

DESIRE (56) (Frank Borzage, 1936): A mixture that doesn't gel (at least for me), starting with elegant farce in the manner of producer Lubitsch (though the scam perpetrated by our heroine is very reminiscent of one worked by Cagney in BLONDE CRAZY) then shifting to the different dynamic of THE LADY EVE - innocent among hustlers - mixed with the mid-30s populism of Capra or LaCava, Gary Cooper sorting out these decadent degenerates like he did in MR. DEEDS (quite unlike the Lubitsch universe, where everyone's tolerant of each other's mischief-making). Into this already-volatile stew Borzage adds his own special ingredient, an emphasis on poetic melancholy - the crooks are unhappy with their lives, tired of forever being one step ahead of the law - and the whole thing just stalls, torn between different styles and different expectations. John Halliday helps as the roguish 'uncle' but even there I might've preferred Roland Young, and the moralistic ending is a real party-pooper.

NIGHTMARE (58) (Freddie Francis, 1964): Halfway shift is more original than either of the two halves, but the ending does keep you guessing which is rare in this genre (vintage psychological horror with Grand Guignol trappings, not a million miles from the same year's HUSH HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE if anyone feels like double-billing). Francis doesn't bring much personality - it's plot-driven more than atmosphere-driven - and can't quite lift the familiar 'who's trying to drive the fragile young heiress bonkers?' games of the first half-hour, but that's not all there is, not by a long shot. I can say no more...

BATTLES WITHOUT HONOUR AND HUMANITY (70) (Kinji Fukasaku, 1973): I realise these things are a fact of life, but it burns me up that THE GODFATHER should be such a ubiquitous talisman while this Japanese gangster saga, made a year later, should've been almost unknown till the DVD revolution (and BATTLE ROYALE) spurred renewed interest in Fukasaku. Certainly makes Coppola look staid and unimaginative (granted, he was going for a more classical feel), touching on many of the same points - nervous gangster sent to kill an enemy of the clan, constant fear of betrayal, negotiations to avert all-out internecine warfare, above all the process of honour giving way to greed and corruption - with hurtling, exhilarating visuals and a strong sense of post-war chaos birthing new factions and refashioned values (there are early attempts to retain the old yakuza rituals - e.g. cutting off one's own finger as an act of contrition - but no-one can remember how they used to work). Thought it was going to be 80+ but the title is all too accurate - it's just constant battles, the victors moving on, the losers getting a valedictory freeze-frame and epitaph, and it gets a bit repetitive. Super-cool ending makes up for a lot, though. 

ALICE IN THE CITIES (75) (Wim Wenders, 1974): "Tell me a story," says 9-year-old Alice at bedtime, and our hero obliges, telling a story of a boy who gets lost in the woods, then finds a hedgehog, then meets a horse, then reaches a road, then rides a truck, then comes to the sea ... A film that could only exist in black-and-white, lending a fleeting unreality to its landscapes and incidents, clearing a path to the free-spirited joy of travel - or motion - for its own sake; also a film that subtly indicts its protagonist, having him rail against the "inhumanity" of American pop-culture only to inhabit his own road-movie on returning to Europe, impelled by Alice who's both innocent and implacable (also one of the cinema's most convincing 9-year-olds); it's like she hasn't been infected by staid European aloofness - the kind that makes people feel lost and identity-less - and inspires him with the spirit of John Ford, duly name-checked via a magazine article near the end. The synthesis - poetic inertia informed by Westerns and road-movies - felt a bit forced in KINGS OF THE ROAD, mostly (I suspect) because those heroes were aware of what they were doing. Here, it's rather magical.   

KNIGHTRIDERS (61) (George A. Romero, 1981): Oh, to be a film programmer in 1981 and design a double-bill of this and EXCALIBUR! Biker movie meets Arthurian legend, the underlying theme being idealism (and community, i.e. Camelot) vs. selling out - another theme being stylised violence, the kind where no-one gets hurt, vs. real violence, an intriguing sidebar in the light of Romero's grisly oeuvre - held together by a likeably sloppy neo-hippy vibe. The whole thing is sloppy, by no means a faithful adaptation of the legend of the Round Table - really just medieval regalia and a wizard named Merlin - but the extended joust scenes before authentic-looking small-town crowds create their own beguiling momentum; a celebration of regional American oddballs, ranging from the disreputable lure of carnies and circus performers (e.g. Friar Tuck, who doesn't even belong in Arthurian legend) to an echo of Hunter S. Thompson in the seedy druggy lawyer tagging along with the troupe. Ed Harris looks highly-strung and nobly tragic, whipping his bare back with twigs to illustrate monastic dedication; his Queen Guinevere gets nothing to do, except what may be the film's finest moment - an exchange of glances with a local girl picked up en route, both of them perched on the backs of motorbikes holding on to men decked out in full Arthurian armour, the girl's wild excitement countered by the Queen dropping her gaze, a secret smile on her lips: Baby, you have no idea.  

RACHEL, RACHEL (77) (Paul Newman, 1968): "Tends to verge on dullness, but something always saves it," wrote John Simon, which is harsh and a little ungenerous but basically accurate, at least about the first half which is full of fine detail but struggles somewhat against its novelettish premise (lonely 30-something spinster seeking love, etc). It takes a while to notice that Newman's doing odd, Gothic things like abrupt violent ruptures or the tree full of children - encountered at dusk, its branches thick with half-seen, ghostly kids screeching at our heroine - or to gauge how important Death seems to be in the story, looming large in Rachel's background (her Dad was an undertaker), in her thoughts, even her irrational fear of dropping dead on Main Street and everyone looking at her underthings as they carry her off; it takes a while to realise that her fear - she's a very fearful person - isn't just a repressed woman's fear of life but a morbid woman's fixation with death and decay (her childhood memories of Dad conjoin death and love, e.g. his tender touch - a tenderness he seldom displayed outside the funeral parlour - when preparing a dead child for burial), hence her own obsession with getting older and her "last ascending summer" before the slow downward slide to the grave. Joanne Woodward is enough of an Actress to give that line a wry little pause before "ascending", but most of the time her Rachel seems inhabited more than acted - the pinched pale face, the dry sense of humour shading into primness, her foolish chatter when she briefly finds love and the way her face immediately darkens (she knows she's being a fool; she just can't help it), the stray moments when she relaxes and looks momentarily radiant - and the film's great achievement is to make the lonely spinster increasingly complicated, and not entirely sympathetic (she's not too supportive of her lesbian friend, though that may just be a 00s perspective). In the end it's clear her measure of happiness (if any) won't be achieved by finding a man but working through her issues - and finally accepting the reality of Death, seeing herself as she is, putting Youth behind her and gazing clear-eyed into her slowly-descending summers. "Even Woodward's ultimate triumph, when she rides out of town on a bus, is treated like a funeral procession," grumbles Danny Peary in a singularly un-perceptive capsule in "Guide for the Film Fanatic". Bingo! 

OCTOBER 1, 2008

REAL LIFE (57) (Albert Brooks, 1979): Obviously relevant and ahead-of-its-time in all sorts of ways - though now that reality-TV has caught up with Brooks' conception, his vision is also exposed as naive and superficial: turns out the problem isn't a surfeit of showbiz interfering with 'reality' but something much more sinister, reality itself turning into showbiz with participants' willing connivance. Hard to take seriously as satire, and Brooks' character is also far too broad, forever bragging about stuff being "expensive" and unable to look beyond his shallow Hollywood concerns; the monstrousness became a lot more nuanced in his 80s movies, though the character himself - a garrulous self-centred glad-hander you initially find amusing, then frustrating, then want to strangle - is clearly already in place. "If these tests could be converted into eggs, it would be enough to feed a city like St. Louis for more than two years!..."

THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER (56) (Henry Hathaway, 1965): Uninspired yet irresistible from the opening minute of Elmer Bernstein's score, cheerfully cannibalizing his main theme from MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. John Wayne and Dean Martin make unlikely brothers (ditto 58-year-old Wayne and 22-year-old Michael Anderson Jr.) but there are brawls and a mystery to solve, the Duke gets a fine entrance - perched high on an outcrop of rock peering down at the townspeople, looking like part of the landscape - and Hathaway is the confident old pro, delighting in the character turns by grizzled veterans, switching angles and shot-sizes with fluid ease. As with most second-tier Westerns (and movies in general) it falters mostly in the final stretch, after the brothers are arrested and the story steams towards resolution; even 80 minutes in you may be wondering why something so genially rousing has no reputation to speak of, but then motivations grow muddy, plotting gets loose and slapdash and you think 'Ah, that's it'. Final shot - our only (indirect) glimpse of Katie Elder - is quite lovely, however. 

SEPTEMBER 1, 2008

OUTSKIRTS (53) (Boris Barnet, 1933): Apparently an anti-war satire, as may be expected of a film with a talking horse in its opening scene ("Good Lord!" says the horse in Russian). The soldiers do play pranks on each other, and there is a strain of gallows humour - e.g. the soldier who refuses to fight because he's got a terrible toothache, is forced over the top by an unsympathetic officer and promptly mown down (at least his toothache is better) - but then WW1 is succeeded by the Revolution and propaganda starts to intrude, and in any case the film's fragmentary structure, going back-and-forth between the war and the small village where its impact is felt, means it never really gets going. My first Barnet, and it seems like he's happier with incidental comedy than storytelling, but maybe he's just trying to do too much; that said, the "fraternization" at the front - expressed in a wide-shot that suddenly fills with people, Russians emerging over the crest of a hill as Germans rush from below - is a grand populist moment.     

STRAY DOG (74) (Akira Kurosawa, 1949): "There are no bad people, only bad environment"; squalor breeds crime, "a stray dog becomes a mad dog" - and of course the cop's sense of guilt for indirectly causing the crime spree (it's being conducted with his own stolen gun) is also Japan's sense of guilt for breeding this amoral post-war generation. A major work, lavish and ambitious, working both as police procedural and socio-humanist time-capsule, and admittedly I'm never quite in sync with Kurosawa's rhythms, esp. the way he thinks in set-pieces rather than through-lines - a 10-minute impressionistic montage of Tokyo street life is stunning but it comes out of nowhere, like e.g. the duel-with-spears in THE HIDDEN FORTRESS - but in the end the image-making is just too confident and vivid to ignore. Tokyo in the sweltering heat, huge close-ups of eyes, foreground/background compositions with two characters buttressing a third - but perhaps best (and sexiest) of all are the dance-hall girls at the "Blue Bird", doing their act then silently collapsing in a heap backstage, sweat-drenched and exhausted, like wilted flowers. Takashi Shimura makes the most of a folksy cop - a bit like Barry Fitzgerald in the previous year's not-too-dissimilar NAKED CITY - but Toshiro Mifune is, on this occasion, very dull.  

FORBIDDEN GAMES (82) (René Clément, 1952): War, little kids, famous heartstring-tugging guitar theme (as vital to the overall effect as the zither in THE THIRD MAN); not a dry eye in the house. All true, of course - but it's not the whole story, since it also goes boldly (and counter-intuitively) into rustic comedy, most remarkably in the brother's death which hovers on the brink of farce - I suspect that's how people often died in rural times, carelessly allowed to slip away through a combination of negligence and poverty - purposely breaking the mood with cruel buffoonery. The point is the contrast between the kids doing the "forbidden" by having no respect for the dead (treating animals like people) and the adults around them having no respect for the living (treating people like animals) - but the key is also in the ending, when the little girl's cry of "Michel!" is replaced by "Mama!" and you realise the whole thing's taken place in a kind of limbo, her extended moment of trauma at her parents' deaths - the actual scene where they die (and the girl's dazed reaction) is heart-wrenchingly plausible - which explains the film's unusual tone, akin to a moment of shock when you don't know whether to laugh or cry; the sorrowful purity of the kids' project (associated throughout with the guitar music) co-exists with the careless chaos around them, till she finally lets go of the purity and is able to move on. At least I thought that was the key, till the Criterion DVD revealed that the perfect final scene actually just happened to be the final scene, and Clément had a (very lame) other ending in place until just before the film's release. Now I'm totally fuckin' tortured.

GIMME SHELTER (73) (David & Albert Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin, 1970): The perfect antidote to the hagiography of SHINE A LIGHT, both demystifying rock'n roll - going behind the scenes to reveal business interests putting the concert together - and de-sanctifying the Rolling Stones, bringing them face-to-face with their moral responsibility for what happened at Altamont (not too onerous, on this evidence, though there is a bit where someone whispers in Mick Jagger's ear - presumably alerting him to what's going on in the crowd - and he simply responds by dancing even more frenziedly); the film saves the concert for its final act and it's utterly nightmarish, a case of Woodstock idealism foundering on the rocks of human error (and human frailty) - too many people near the stage, an unsuitable venue chosen at the last minute, a belligerent organiser making things worse, and of course hippies and Hell's Angels in too-close proximity. Faced with the destruction of the 60s dream, Jagger (watching the horror unfold on a Steenbeck) is moody but stoical - already bigger than that, possibly planning ahead to SHINE A LIGHT and the final recycling of the 60s into a lucrative brand-name. 

THE HART OF LONDON (71) (Jack Chambers, 1970): "You've got to be very careful," is the repeated admonition at the end, raising the question whether Guy Maddin saw this film or whether counselling caution is just a national obsession. It does seem quite Canadian, if only in being structured round the annual death-and-rebirth rite in (esp. rural) Canada, the freezing and thawing of the earth: Chambers' soundtrack is a single, constantly-repeated sound that seems to oscillate, wave-like, rushing in then drifting out again - except the sound in the first half, which takes place behind a white hazy veil, is the roaring of wind (or a snowstorm) while the sound in the second half is the trickling of water (or melting ice). Death and birth, the human cycle, seems to be a governing principle - Chambers himself was under sentence of death when it was made, dying of leukaemia - and the images vary accordingly, the first half showing flickering glimpses of old cars and photos through the smothering haze (the dead past, semi-visible in often deceptive fragments) while the second is more sensual, with glimpses of flesh and a fluid feel befitting the soundtrack. Birth and death are explicitly cross-cut at one point, a baby being delivered and the death-throes of a slaughtered animal - cruelty to animals being the other recurring motif, linking past and present (even in the misty haze of the first half, we can see enough to note animal carcasses and a hunter's rifle being loaded), only countered slightly near the end by images of kids feeding a deer and a handicapped boy interacting with a caged bird; signs of future hope, the fragile human capacity for kindness breaking through our instinct to dominate - unless of course we decide to be "very careful" and refuse to give way to finer feelings. A film of either many small meanings or one huge Meaning so large and fundamental it can't even be reduced into words; I don't know which, but I'd like to see again.  

WANDA (80) (Barbara Loden, 1970): When the camera follows our heroine in extreme wide-shot as she trudges slowly across a grim rural landscape, dwarfed by huge mounds of coal - nothing else happens in the shot; she just trudges from one end of the frame to the other - you know you're watching something singular, almost an American Bruno Dumont movie. Being American, it soon turns to glossy things like crime - briefly threatening to become unconvincing - but also, being American, it creates more intriguing characters than M. Dumont ever managed (except Pharaon the floating cop, obviously): the criminal is a memorable figure in his own right (middle-aged, bespectacled, implicitly robbing people out of misanthropy as much as need) and his fraught-yet-symbiotic relationship with the titular child-woman hits one unexpected note after another - and of course there's plenty of regional atmosphere, and 70s road-signs, and sitting around in cheap motels waiting for hamburgers from the all-night place around the corner. Initially works as a one-shot curiosity - it's a scandal that Loden never made another feature - soon becomes a gripping and delicately-pitched character study; bonus points for not including a smile (or indeed any kind of resolution) in the final freeze-frame. 

THE AWFUL TRUTH (76) (Leo McCarey, 1937): The Other Man withdraws - and Irene Dunne admits (to herself) that she's still in love with ex-husband-to-be Cary Grant, making the ending a formality - with half an hour still to go; the Other Woman barely comes into it, disposed of in a single scene. The result is a rom-com so knowing and un-bothered it really shows up those modern equivalents that strain and strain to reveal what's obvious anyway, the point being not the plot - which disappears completely in the final stretch; the trip to the cabin is a total non sequitur - but the mutual love affair between the stars (and their characters), both of them directed to ad-lib and signal their delight at each other's shenanigans. McCarey uses deadpan humour to heighten the absurdity/artificiality of the goings-on at every opportunity - when it looks like Dunne will be discovered in a compromising position with her voice teacher, she and he do the whole "Oh, you must hide!"/"But where can I hide?" rigmarole with low-key equanimity, like he's looking around for a spare ashtray - and Cary Grant gets big laughs with his desultory reactions, his patented "Ah well..."s and "Is that so?..."s, precisely because they're naturalistic reactions in a rom-com setting. By the end, it feels like Grant and Dunne are playing the game for the blithe, fun-loving sake of it, stringing each other along to see who can do or say the most amusing thing before they quit horsing around and remarry. When critics say 'soufflé', this is what they're talking about.  

DAYS OF BEING WILD (58) (Wong Kar-wai, 1990): Wong, fully-formed but talkier than usual, and less invested in his Tony Leung character (not, in this case, played by Tony Leung) mooning around ineffectually than his Leslie Cheung character, who breaks women's hearts and shows them who's boss; he's like the bird without legs, which can only keep flying and comes down to earth only once, to die - or at least he likes to say that he is. Wong may be tweaking the hero's self-absorption, but he's finally as much of a poseur - or poet of sensuality, according to taste - as ever; allusion shades into affectation, insistence on facts and figures (in this case the precise timing of hero and girl's first meeting) acts as a near-autistic substitute for intimacy - CHUNGKING EXPRESS measured the distance between people and expiry-dates on pineapple tins - and the film takes care to have Maggie Cheung's hair all but hiding her face when she threatens to reveal emotion in a monologue. The (non-gay) scenes between two guys in a foreign place anticipate HAPPY TOGETHER, but a virtuoso Steadicam shot in the final stretch - as impressive as Scorsese's more-lauded work in GOODFELLAS a few months before - seems to come out of nowhere. 

STRIKE (72) (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925): Biggest surprise in ages, the propaganda angle - noble workers, evil capitalists - constantly on the verge of being forgotten as Eisenstein goes off-Message, intoxicated by the pure joy of images: photos come to life and talk back to the camera, fleshy faces peer in close-up, bodies swarm and hurtle in youthful energy (the strikers break the factory windows, like naughty children, and dunk the hated foreman in the river), then we're off to a den of "hoodlums" signposted with dead cats hanging from the rafters, then a nightclub where a couple of midgets dance on tables and pig out on cream-cakes when nobody's looking. One can actually see the seeds of IVAN THE TERRIBLE's frozen formalism in the 20s montage films (esp.this and OCTOBER), because the director has a great eye - using screens, doorways, a spray of water fanning out in close-up - and uses contrasting images in suggestive ways, but is really bad at using related images to build a story (with eye-lines, consistent POVs, etc). Lack of coherence hurts the final, action-packed third most, though it still works - like the film as a whole - if viewed as a loose collection of awesome visuals; acting is enjoyably broad, and the implication that the noble working-class would rather stay in bed and not work at all is quietly subversive, at least if deliberate.  

THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (51) (Robert Wiene, 1919): Guess it makes a difference how you watch it; may be hypnotic on the big screen, less so on VHS (not a bad copy, though tinted to within an inch of its life). Won't dismiss it as 'historical interest', since it remains such a striking visual thing, but a large part of the point is its influence as the first major horror - the mind-of-a-madman twistedness, Frankenstein and his Monster (though of course that was already old), the sting in the tail. Down a shot of absinthe each time you see an image you've seen before in film-textbook-still form.

BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (47) (Fritz Lang, 1956): "The proof of a savage theorem," claims David Thomson, but in fact the ending muddies the waters and weakens the theorem (better twist: the newspaper editor's been playing him for a patsy all along). "Tom is a deeply unpleasant man all along," claims Darragh O'Donoghue at the Internet Movie Database, but he really isn't - he seems more affable than the editor (esp. in their meeting with the DA), his hint of smugness during the trial and awkward behaviour with the strippers is understandable since he's playing a role, and in any case if Lang wanted to show a tormented schizophrenic he shouldn't have cast Dana Andrews, best described as a tentative presence (this was also the problem in WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS). In fact the premise is hilariously unlikely, Dana's relationship with the heroine underwritten, and though Lang's visuals may indeed be dominated by triangles, per Mr. O'D. (I didn't notice), most of his set-ups are boring head-on medium shots broken by a short, not-too-meaningful dolly; all I can find by way of intriguing subtext is the possible motif of media used to record facts beyond a reasonable doubt - does a fact become a fact when you photograph it? when you watch it on TV? how about when it's in a movie? - but that's probably my 00s mind adding 00s preoccupations. Why is this film so overrated?

THERE'S ALWAYS TOMORROW (74) (Douglas Sirk, 1956): Fred MacMurray is Rex the Robot, Mechanical Man, living his mechanical life (actually he's a toy manufacturer, and Rex is his latest toy); Joan Bennett is his wife, who is indeed - as she says at one point - "nice and sleepy"; Barbara Stanwyck is the glamorous "old friend" who appears on his doorstep after 20 years, shaking up his domestic-sitcom existence. You may think you know what comes next - but the film is ahead of you, supplying a pair of dirty-minded children (Fred's teenage offspring) who jump to exactly that conclusion, when in fact the truth is more nuanced and inextricable. Some may find it over-virtuous, and watching it right after LATE SPRING does act as a reminder that many of these classics double(d) as manuals on How to Conform - but in fact the villain turns out to be Life, making it impossible to vault the years and recapture one's youth, assigning one age for dreams and another for kids and family, and the tone is neither hectoring nor self-pitying but quite no-nonsense, Stanwyck projecting strength more than anything in her performance (it's an obvious companion-piece to ALL I DESIRE, once again the successful woman tempted by the life she can't have, and finally realises she doesn't want), the possibility of bucking the System all the more affecting for being so remote. All in all, a wonderful film, though the teens' dialogue is terribly stiff (not a film to watch with a modern audience, probably). Changing Times Dept.: the dance-mad little girl's ballet recital, exactly the kind of thing movie parents are pilloried for being too busy to attend in today's movies - but in this one Dad can't be bothered with such trifles after a long day at the office, and Mom only goes because the other kids are busy. Awww, poor little girl.

LATE SPRING (62) (Yasujiro Ozu, 1949): Maybe I wasn't in the mood, maybe I resist the implication that getting married is something every girl (or boy) must do, even if they have to be pushed into it - or maybe (most probably) I simply like Ozu less in these becalmed post-war films, his alleged Golden Age when he withdrew from the wandering energy in the films of his youth. The war hangs heavy over this one, in references to rationed food and forced labour as well as evidence of the New American Order - a Coca-Cola sign and of course baseball, not just played by a bunch of kids but providing a playful metaphor for divorce and remarriage - all of which makes Ozu's concern with Time passing, eternal verities and the natural order of things (e.g. daughters getting married) more appropriate and resonant. His restrained philosophy - Don't expect too much happiness, basically - is poignant in the context of a country trying to pick up the pieces after a decade of upheaval - but one also feels the heroine's being lectured, which isn't what one expects to find in 'sublime' cinema. Wasn't blown away, though I did tear up at the final bait-and-switch, Chishu Ryu's big moment and that damn apple (the Saddest Apple in the World) (*); I'm not made of stone. 

(*): Thanks to "Cinema Scope" regular and all-round good guy Christoph Huber for pointing out that the melancholy fruit in question is not an apple at all, but in fact a nashi pear. I stand corrected. Reports that an early draft of the script featured climactic nectarines, bananas and an entire watermelon (rejected by Ozu for being insufficiently 'sublime') remain unconfirmed.      

NIGHT OF THE DEMON (73) (Jacques Tourneur, 1957): Come for the demons, stay for the deep compositions - hotel corridors with doorways-in-doorways, tube-like trains, railway tracks stretching into the horizon, airports with banks of overhead lights converging in the distance, a hand creeping into extreme foreground (scary!) while our hero explores in the background. Borderline-silly - there are goofs and careless detail, and the hero's pig-headed refusal to accept he's in any danger becomes annoying - but uncommonly well-shot and indeed uncommonly realistic, a 30s Gothic made with a 'scientific' 50s sensibility (the deep visuals help, avoiding the stagy look of old horror movies): the villain is explained and coherent, a séance scene gets true-to-life detail (like the medium being a jolly middle-aged man) and even the judder-cam wide-angle effect attempts to give a 'real' sense of magic. Don't think they should've shown the demon, but (most) horror fans seem happy so there you go.  

DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (91) (Robert Bresson, 1950): Impossible to watch this after PICKPOCKET [see below] and not lament the great filmmaker Bresson used to be in the early 50s, with this and A MAN ESCAPED, when he still tempered his austere sensibility with such things as performance and photography (the priest trying to pray, his face bisected by the light so the eyes are in shadow) - and if he became more 'fully himself' with the pure style of the later films, the man who made this one must've known that purity should sometimes give way to moderation. The young priest is pure, a true believer who beats himself up over his inability to pray ("If you can't pray, just repeat the words," says the practical older priest) and lives on a Body-and-Blood diet of bread and wine; he's a failure, lacking all social skills, scorned by his parishioners, yet the film is greater than NAZARIN or WINTER LIGHT because Bresson understands these things in a way Bunuel didn't and Bergman despised: he gives the priest his triumphs too, even as he makes it clear the triumphs are mostly in his mind - makes it clear that true faith is the mark of a childish mind, that faith can succour those in pain even as it works very badly for the business of living life (that in fact it's morbid, an implicit longing for Death), that religion comes in many forms like the avid young girl's determination to "try everything" or the Foreign Legionnaire who calls the priest a kindred spirit (people often claim him as one of their own, maybe seeing their own alienation in his strangeness) and gives him a ride on his motorbike, an experience that awakens this strange young man to his youth (he's both young and old, a child dying of an old man's disease). Bresson works with slow tracks-in to his protagonist and discreet fades to black, building a perfectly-controlled portentous atmosphere matching the harshness of Nature outside; Claude Laydu - boyish, slightly jug-eared, puppy-eyed, intensely serious - ranks with Falconetti in the cinema's gallery of spiritual torments. 

PICKPOCKET (55) (Robert Bresson, 1959): Interesting Idea #1: the picking of pockets shown as a sensual act, moments of intimacy, hands reaching for bodies, caressing under lapels or engaged in a surreptitious dance as wallets are transferred between pickpockets - leading to Interesting Idea #2, a criminal who, for all his sub-Raskolnikov talk of "supermen", wants only love, though it's only made explicit in the last few seconds. Catholic guilt simmers below the surface - "Will we be judged?" wonders our hero - the Catholic reading being presumably that those who defy God and/or succumb to temptation are merely lost souls looking for His love (and can be reclaimed, albeit after an act of expiation like taking care of another man's child), though the secular can simply read a tale of Alienated Man trying to find his place in Society. All this is right on the surface, Bresson's plain style adding a certain grace but little in the way of human interest or behavioural complexity; almost everything onscreen, from the way people move to the mechanics of the actual pickpocketing, is entirely - if perhaps deliberately - unconvincing. 

LA TERRA TREMA (76) (Luchino Visconti, 1948): Not just neo-realism: Visconti is always aware of his own relationship with the villagers - a bit like Kiarostami in Koker or THE WIND WILL CARRY US - admitting his complicity in putting words in their mouths via an early bit where the V.O. says something about a woman (that she worries about her men, iirc) and she immediately repeats it word-for-word in her dialogue; detaching himself with an elegant crowd shot where the camera wanders at length amid the baying crowd of villagers - all of them talking at once - then pointedly pulls back to observe them from a distance; cutting from a young girl pushing a heavy cart to a beautiful wide-shot of the street where she's pushing it, as if to say he feels their pain but sees the bigger picture too. The village exists as a place - we get to know its beach pretty well, with its conical outcrops of rock in the distance - but also a romanticized arena for an archetypal struggle to play out, a family undone and a social injustice running its course, which is why it barely matters that the plot is oppressively doom-laden. At the very least, a major achievement in casting real-life Sicilian villagers (none of whom acted again), using their authenticity yet requiring no allowance to be made for their inexperience (scenes like the confrontation with the wholesalers, or the slimy cop talking to the flighty sister and the sensible sister, are memorably played by any standards); I'm talking to you, Jean Renoir and THE RIVER.  

A FOREIGN AFFAIR (82) (Billy Wilder, 1948): "Sorry," shrugs the handsome deceiver; "I guess this is where the funny man says: 'Shall we dance?'". "You are not a funny man, Captain Pringle," replies the heartbroken deceived. "But you are quite a dancer ... What a waltz we had. Good night." Anyone who thinks Wilder is any less of a crushed romantic than, say, Ophuls is mistaking swoony camera moves for the real thing - and that exchange comes just seconds after the shot of a woman's face in near-total darkness, the light just picking out the glint of tears under her eyes - though he's also adept at set-ups, little bits of business, literate grown-up dialogue (how many Hollywood rom-coms today have lead actresses aged 48 and 47?) and keeping the romantic rivals perfectly balanced, the ending always in suspense; unsurprising in this case since they represent the two sides of his personality, the eager American and cynical Teuton. Behind the umlaut jokes - anticipating ONE TWO THREE - lurks a genuine yearning for the Europe of his youth, buried in the ruins of Berlin.

AUGUST 1, 2008

LANDSCAPE IN THE MIST (49) (Theo Angelopoulos, 1988): Second viewing, first since my early 20s - when I didn't know enough to know it's quite atypical for Angelopoulos, toning down the lengthy tracking-shots (apart from a homage to THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS about halfway through) in favour of individual images, often composed of various elements shoehorned into the same shot (a restaurant, a violin player and a little boy; two kids, a dead horse and a wedding party). Clearly meant as a spiritual journey of some sort - 'seeing' an invisible tree in a roll of film, finally seeing it again in the titular landscape - but everything is so contrived it dies before your eyes (possible nadir: the friend who thinks he's a seagull), and working with kids only accentuates Angelopoulos' lack of interest in human behaviour - they're divested of all personality - as compared e.g. with Gianni Amelio in the similar STOLEN CHILDREN made a couple of years later. A good film to digest a heavy meal to.   

THE VANISHING (75) (George Sluizer, 1988): Second viewing, slightly less impressed - the filmmaking's average, and you need a certain tolerance for 80s B-movie clunkiness - but still a haunting thriller-of-ideas, specifically obsession and the Will to Power. Its two protagonists are linked by the compulsion to impose themselves on the randomness of Life, but Sluizer's point is that each time someone tries to become master of his destiny (e.g. by second-guessing what Fate 'wants' them to do, and doing the opposite), it only backfires or fails - from the kidnapper's plan, which flops comically (till Fate hands him a ready-made victim), to the bleak final joke, all the bleaker for being so inevitable. Doesn't really get going till the last half-hour, but still deeply chilling in a way few thrillers have matched (or even attempted); trying for a Hollywood remake was an even-more-than-usually bad idea.

HIGH HOPES (78) (Mike Leigh, 1988): "They fuck you up, your mom and dad," per Philip Larkin - to which Leigh would add families in general ("They're outdated," claims our hero), notably at the end when the elderly mother turns out to be carrying old familial scars of her own. A collision of class stereotypes, and Leigh may not quite realise that his right-on, Labour-voting protagonist couple are also a stereotype - he adds a loony-Left Marxist girl to place them in perspective but they're still "Guardian"-reading neo-hippy types, their presumed affinity with the director's own beliefs (Philip Davis even looks like him!) bringing the film close to self-congratulation - but the balance is awesome, satirical hysteria anchored by the couple's relationship plus the bitter (yet genuine) Grim Old England values of the near-catatonic old lady. Consistently funny, and most of the characters - quietly sardonic Cyril and tomboyish Shirley, neurotic Valerie with her wafer-thin veneer of self-confidence and insane laugh, even Wayne whose Mom's annoyed with him for "getting the pies wrong" - rank among Leigh's most memorable.

GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (72) (Isao Takahata, 1988): Not just Victim Cinema, but also an ostensible anti-war movie that turns - disappointingly - into an out-and-out tearjerker, though I guess the advantage of cartoons is you can get a 4-year-old to enact situations that might traumatise a 4-year-old actress (PONETTE comes close, but the viewer becomes self-conscious when it's a real child; some protective instinct gets in the way). The animation is delightfully delicate in its sense of detail - the little girl's solemn expression while undressing at the beach, or the way she shifts her foot very slightly to a more comfortable position when informed she can sit any way she wants to at the dinner-table - and the weepy coda (with repeated fade-away effect) proves the SOUND OF MUSIC dictum that shameless sentimentality in moderation is merely shameless, but when pushed into excess it attains a certain audacious grandeur. Scene-by-scene superb, though the overall scheme is a little deadening - and of course depressing; to paraphrase Guy Maddin, it's the Saddest Movie in the World.

ENJO (70) (Kon Ichikawa, 1958): A hard one to parse, since the young hero's various relationships - with mother, high priest, cynical friend - don't seem to link up in any discernible pattern. Clearly he's still trying to please his late father (the temple being a symbol of his idealization of Dad), still resenting his adulterous mother, desperate to be liked by the priest yet feeling himself unworthy, torn by implied sexual inadequacy - "a cripple", per his nervous stammer and "warped mind", not to mention an inconclusive visit to a prostitute - above all clinging to a naive vision of the Eternal, ranged against the changes in post-war Japan. Thought at first the film was going to make him a flag-bearer for traditional values (it's based on a novel by Yukio Mishima, known for hardcore nationalism plus a self-destructive final act reflecting our hero's) but it's subtler than that, a fragmentary portrait of a confused young man tied together by a suitably tormented lead performance and widescreen compositions ranging from attractive to stunning. Most poignant scene: hero's anguished plea to a visiting priest who vaguely knew his dad, begging this confused, drunken stranger to "please see the real me!".  

THE DEFIANT ONES (66) (Stanley Kramer, 1958): Tony Curtis is the bitter white-trash felon who hates the sound of "Thank you" - it reminds him of his servile life before prison - and reckons that "Everybody ends up alone", at least till he buddies up with Sidney Poitier's singing (but noble) Negro and finds out they're brothers under the skin; of course only Tony gets a love scene - with a backwoods single mom - but that doesn't turn out as expected either. There's muddy outdoor adventure, comedy involving the posse - set to a beatnik jazzy swing - anticipating the equivalent scenes in A PERFECT WORLD and occasional bits of smoky small-town atmosphere, not to mention furious dispatches from the race-wars: "Are you callin' me a weasel?" "No, I'm callin' you a white man!". Stanley Kramer or not, this is very entertaining. 

CAUGHT (65) (Max Ophuls, 1949): Alternative rating 75, but only if you think the last 20 minutes - when it basically collapses - are a perversely effective directorial choice, a theory bolstered by the fact that things begin to go wrong after a minor scene (a conversation between the two doctors) which is shot really strangely, the camera swivelling from one to the other then craning up for no apparent reason. (*) Maybe it's laying the groundwork for the perverse final act - the only time in film history, I suspect, when a happy ending has been predicated on the death of a child - collapsing the plot as if to say the central triangle can't be resolved except in madness; or maybe it's just an excellent film with a lame (ragged, unconvincing) final act, Ophuls laying on the style to disguise the novelettish story and trite 'Money can't buy happiness' moral, staging deep foreground/background shots in oppressive sets and using dramatic punctuation (the kid's annoying whistling, the flirty young woman going "Muchos gracias") or bits of business (the husband fidgeting at the billiards table as he talks) to turn scenes into flowing visual music. Ryan scores as the millionaire sociopath - he marries our heroine to spite his shrink (!), and has panic attacks when he can't get his way - apparently based on Howard Hughes, though any American Dream critique is as half-baked as the proto-feminist message. Really just a sensationally good melodrama, then a frustratingly bad one.    

(*) Riddle solved. Watched the scene again, and realised I was viewing it wrong: the point isn't the men but the space between them - i.e. our heroine's empty desk, the point being to emphasise her absence and how it weighs down on James Mason's character - which is why Ophuls keeps swivelling between them and finally cranes up to look down on the desk. Sorry about that, though knowing the truth actually makes me think less of the movie; clearly Ophuls had no connective tissue between Mason being abandoned by the heroine and setting off to find her, so he came up with this scene, but in fact it's a weak solution - there's never much doubt that he loves her and would want to go after her, the real narrative question is how he's going to find her (which the film explicitly raises, then forgets about; Mason just turns up at her marital home with no explanation). I'd have been happier if the scene were just random visual insanity, to be honest. 

DILLINGER IS DEAD (77) (Marco Ferreri, 1969): Saves its best joke for last, sidestepping the apparently inevitable ending to give its hero a much sunnier outcome - except his surreally happy ending only underscores his malaise: his problem was never that his life was oppressed or unpleasant, his problem was (and remains, even past the final credits) that he's an empty shell living for distractions, a product - as it says in the prologue - of an industrial consumer society based on a right to consume, a "right to relax", allowing One-Dimensional Man to forget even his own alienation in pleasant amusements. Startlingly modern, incredibly relevant to a media-saturated world - incidentally explaining why Antonioni's capital-A Alienation often fails to connect with young 00s audiences: we've somehow become post-alienated - though most of it merely consists of Michel Piccoli pottering around his comfy bourgeois home doing this and that (someone should pair it with I'M GOING HOME, in a double-bill of one-man Piccoli masterclasses); the form is non-narrative, veering into abstract shapes and image-play when e.g. our hero superimposes his face on the Super-8 films he's projecting, or drums with his fingers in extended screen-filling close-up. Everything seems odd, from a sleeping wife - our hero stares at her, Ferreri cuts to close-up and even the act of sleeping suddenly appears outlandish and unnatural - to Dillinger himself, reduced to a headline in a yellowing newspaper. Playful, and quietly devastating.   

BILLY BUDD (69) (Peter Ustinov, 1962): A failure, I suppose, insofar as it glimpses greatness but ends up making banal points about Law vs. Justice (not the same thing, apparently!) - but a very near-miss, always gripping and literate despite some clunky symbolism. Billy Budd is snatched from a ship called the "Rights of Man" to a military vessel where the men have no rights (he witnesses a brutal flogging, and wonders what the sailor was flogged for: "He may have spat against the wind," replies an old Danish seaman philosophically, "or mumbled in his beer. It may have been a prayer - but to them it was a protest"); it's also a vessel where everyone's ambiguous - and maybe that's the problem, or maybe Ustinov the actor is the problem, not quite reconciling the Captain's weakness ("What would you do if you were Captain?" he asks in times of crisis) with his duty-bound determination to "mould [the men] into a weapon" (he should be more of an asshole, swaying the court-martial partly by force of personality; as it is, his arguments seem feeble and he comes off as a legalistic pedant). Billy - a near-impossible role, superbly played - is also ambiguous, ethereal without being fey, angelic yet 'one of the lads', while Robert Ryan has perhaps the easiest role (at least where ambiguity is concerned) as sadistic Claggart, his other side - his essential loneliness, and homoerotic pining for "handsome sailor" Billy - revealed at specific moments, though it's still rather breathtaking when Ryan reveals it with a subtle change of expression in the night-time conversation. That scene, beautifully lit and composed, the starry sky acting as a third character, is simply magical; the rest of the movie is a Very Good Effort.

THE UNKNOWN (74) (Tod Browning, 1927): "Hands! Men's hands! How I hate them!" cries aphephobic heroine Joan Crawford, raising the question who's more cuckoo, she or the fugitive circus performer who's lethally obsessed with her. He's 'Alonzo the Armless' - hence Harmless - and Lon Chaney's performance is a thing of beauty, using his pouchy face both for dull familiarity (good old Alonzo!) and smouldering madness, going magnificently over-the-top in the pivotal scene where the dark central joke bites down hard - actually the same kind of joke as in "Gift of the Magi", only played for sexual psychosis. Actually more a short story than a proper movie, the extant version running 49 minutes which is barely even eligible (it gets in on the SHERLOCK JUNIOR Proviso, specially designed for awesome Silents); seen at a young age, the flamboyant imagery - bifurcated thumbs, crafty midgets, a climax with majestic horses galloping on treadmills in opposite directions - must be unforgettable.  

A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE (81) (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988): Third viewing - actually third and fourth, because I watched it again the next day with a friend who scoffed "Didn't see a lot of love in that," so maybe it's just me. The old ideal of Romantic love-from-a-distance - twisted, in a typical Kieslowski irony, into a peeping-Tom with a telescope, but the young man's love is (perhaps) the only true kind of love because he doesn't want anything, loves the beloved for her own sake (the most he desires is to feel what she feels, to cry when she cries) - the bitter punchline being that this kind of love is useless; all the woman can do is destroy it (for the boy's own good), then - implicitly - spend the rest of her life wishing she hadn't. No idea how DECALOGUE: SIX ends, but the final scene, with that haunting seven-note theme - Preisner is the MVP here, just as Idziak was in KILLING - and that final shot, the look in her eyes clearly saying 'I blew it' ... gets me every time.

A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING (66) (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988): Second viewing, first in 20 years. Hugely more impressed by the visuals this time round - guess I just notice these things more now - a world expressed in sickly colours, queasy bile-green and the dull yellow-brown of a fading bruise, not-so-incidentally solving the problem of 'explaining' the young hero's crime; no motivation is needed in a world so obviously septic. Wish they'd kept the same subtlety for the final act, which lost me again as it did on first viewing - not so much because it edges into Message Movie, more because it gives away too much. If the revelation of the sister's death hadn't come from the killer himself - but e.g. from his mother in a coda, when they bring her the photo - I'd have been at least 5 points higher. Simple as that.      

JULY 1, 2008

LA PISCINE (55) (Jacques Deray, 1969): Clearly the film Ozon had at the back of his mind when he made SWIMMING POOL - though best described as sub-Chabrolian, maybe a touch too impressed with its beautiful people. Chabrol tends to blend in some detachment - often by a certain abruptness in the editing - casting a shadow on his well-heeled bourgeois, but Deray fetishizes them: their sleek sports cars, their swimming pool on the French Riviera and Alain Delon lying by the pool, muscles rippling, like a recumbent Adonis. Goes for sensual languor, translating into lengthy silences and half-articulated motivations (it plays more like Art-film than thriller), very chic but rather glacial. At its best when it erupts into the violence simmering below the moody surface, whether metaphorical - the small cinematic explosion (a sudden cut from wide-shot to closer diagonal) after Romy Schneider lingers endlessly over which card to toss in a game of gin-rummy - or actual: the pivotal scene (about two-thirds of the way through) is among the most chilling and sadistic I know, a reminder of Deray's main pedigree as an action director. Third act - An Inspector Calls - is trite, and the ending unfortunate.

FORT APACHE (68) (John Ford, 1948): Was it the spectre of Fascism that created these post-war cautionary tales, martinet authoritarianism sliding into psychosis (also of course THE CAINE MUTINY)? Talk of the recent war (Civil War, in this case) and Henry Fonda's character having just come back from Europe surely touched a nerve with 1948 audiences; on the other hand, Ford's morbid military romanticism is like something out of WW1, officers and men locked in a mutually-enabling dance of death (wives and daughters watch from the ramparts as the menfolk march to their deaths). Fonda and Ward Bond understand each other perfectly across the class divide - Bond's stern rectitude is terrifying here, his whole performance incontestable; when he does a slow double-take upon his son's return then blows his nose to hide the tears, his only outward sign of emotion, it's a terrible piece of acting that's yet obscurely moving - but Ford's competing instincts are everywhere; if he cross-cuts between the stiff stylised ritual of the regimental dance and John Wayne going off amid lavish, rolling exteriors to talk with the Indians face-to-face, it can only be to contrast the hidebound nature of the former with the human (not military) solution of the latter - yet Wayne (and the film) seems happy with the flagrant print-the-legend-ism of the coda, a lie told for the Greater Good of the regiment. At some point the lies pile up a bit too unwholesomely, though Fonda's Custer-like colonel is by no means an ogre - and I wasn't even bothered (well, not much) by the much-derided slapstick Irish sergeants and sappy young lovers. Also, so much for BROKEN ARROW being the first pro-Indian Western.    

MAN OF THE WEST (75) (Anthony Mann, 1958): Second viewing, still a strange and moody Western - from the way it turns on a dime, suddenly upending affable opening act into fevered psychodrama (hero takes shelter in an apparently random farmhouse, suddenly there's fraught reunions and a 10-minute monologue by Lee J. Cobb), to its poignantly perverse final lines, IN A LONELY PLACE-ish in their bruised romanticism. Earlier, Mann does his frequent thing where the landscape changes to match the emotional arc (from lush green fields to rocky desert) and of course our hero "Link" is himself a link - the title is appropriate - between the old West of outlaws and the new West of settlers (he's still in it for the money, but this time it's the money his fellow townspeople raised to hire a schoolteacher); the theme is the LIBERTY VALANCE one of changing times, expressed in the bandit leader who's "outlived [his] kind and outlived [his] time" - but Mann takes risks and makes everything startling, the tussle with the young punk (usually over in a matter of seconds, so the old hero can prove he's Still Got It) turned into a painful dragged-out fight capped by the bizarre humiliation of forcing the young man to strip, the big heist resolving into grim anti-climax in the dusty ghost-town of Lasso. More great detail: the gunfight staged as horizontal split-screen, Gary Cooper in the top half of the frame while his "cousin" lurks underneath the porch - they're not so different, only one is respectably 'above ground' while the other lives in the shadows - and the final detail of the elderly Mexican arriving post-gunfight to weep over his dead wife, making a point John Ford was sometimes too macho to make very clearly: Let's not lament the passing of the old lawless West too much.    

THE MUSIC ROOM (71) (Satyajit Ray, 1958): Needs a big screen and pristine print (exactly the opposite of my viewing experience) to bring out the atmosphere, the old house with its mirrors and dust, the empty fields all around and our faded-aristocrat hero surveying from the roof. Could've been pathos, the Old Order giving way to moneyed middle-class philistines, but Ray is too tough and canny to romanticize the man: a lesser director might've turned the music into a badge of honour - his world is dying, but he still appreciates the beauty in music more profoundly than these jumped-up merchants! - but the film's regretful message is that this too-proud Brahmin doesn't deserve his music. Music gives him a chance to redeem himself (esp. the dancing girl's energy, bringing the memory of the lost son into this house of old age and indolence) and he does appreciate it yet he also lets the chance slip away, spoiling the girl's performance with his petty insistence on one-upping the upstarts (the worst is that he could've let the music unite them - the merchant is touchingly fond of music - and been a leader, because no-one disputes his superior culture; instead he tries to play the class card, and destroys his life). Flawed and erratically plotted - also that awful, fuzzy print - but very haunting.

RABID (64) (David Cronenberg, 1977): Not just a gimmick - this had to star a porn-movie queen, in order to retain its place in Cronenberg's Flesh Fascination (one type of fleshly desire expressed as another: the repugnant eroticised, etc); otherwise it's a Romero-style zombie movie, Marilyn's phallic armpit-drill somewhat overshadowed by the city in panic, infected victims biting new unfortunates and so on. I prefer SHIVERS, precisely because its smaller scale and single location reinforce a close, sensual atmosphere, all the more suggestive for being quite repressed and antiseptic; this one becomes too diffuse, not to mention slightly monotonous as the deaths pile up. Gore galore, and of course the sickness is also like venereal disease, only manifesting itself some time after the act itself. No predatory little kids in this case, but Santa does get caught in the crossfire.

THE DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER (63) (Yuan Chiu-feng, 1962): Think RAISE THE RED LANTERN, a cloistered hierarchical world with constant intrigue and jockeying for position ("I've had enough of the politics here," says one ingenue), only with Chinese opera - sung dialogue, not musical numbers - and the hero played by a woman, giving the whole thing a curious twist; hard to know what's intended (to make him seem unmanly? more sensitive?), but the net effect is to make the object of the women's obsession more artificial, as if they're fighting over something that only exists inside their own heads. Nature shots - birds, light on water - reinforce the sense of the hothouse atmosphere as somehow unnatural (the cross-gender casting applies here as well), though it's hard to really judge such a film given (a) unfamiliarity with huangmei opera and (b) unfamiliarity with the source material, apparently a much-loved classic text that's been filmed a number of times (Shaw Brothers themselves did a 70s remake, with Brigitte Lin). Sometimes a hard sit but lavish and intriguing, esp. the unusual fatalism at the end, not a "Romeo and Juliet"-ish tragic closure but a resigned, unfulfilled ending, basically saying that life is hard, only the dream of the next life sustains us - hence the title, apparently - and "only through Buddhism can we sense where we come from". Wacky Orientals, etc.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (57) (Billy Wilder, 1957): Third viewing, following a pattern I've noticed with other films (e.g. BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK): first seen on video as a kid, when I wasn't too impressed, seen again on the big screen during my time in London - and instantly upgraded to 70+ - seen again years later on DVD and downgraded again; dunno if the lesson is that older films should be watched on the big screen, or that watching them on the big screen after a childhood of video skewed my ratings in my teens and early 20s, but I'll go with (b) for the time being. Film itself is rather creaky and perfunctory, both in visuals and plotting - the surprise alluded-to in the title gets nothing in the way of set-up - partially redeemed by Charles Laughton (though his wizardry in the courtroom seemed a little smug this time), let down again by Marlene Dietrich, who gives the game away disastrously (Tyrone Power's character is also quite annoying). One great bit at the end, when Laughton and Elsa Lanchester walk away together arm-in-arm - though more for external factors, viz. the quirky tenderness of their real-life romance, than because it's especially well-managed.

MEDICINE BALL CARAVAN (50) (François Reichenbach, 1971): An orchestrated "happening" (Warner Bros. distributing), obviously hoping for another WOODSTOCK - post-production supervised by Martin Scorsese, who worked on that film - taking five busloads of hippies across America with organised stops for entertainment by B.B. King, Alice Cooper, etc. Interesting tension, because the film preaches Peace and Love - clearly aiming for the new niche audience - but the "caravan" bumps up against resistance, confronted by students at Antioch who accuse participants of being corporate stooges (and demand that Reichenbach turn off his cameras) and briefly joining with a "family" of wandering Vietnam vets whose barely-concealed aggression shows the dark side of the counter-culture. Could've been great, esp. when the caravan hippies start discussing the film itself with the Antioch crowd - one guy says the point is to make hippie-dom acceptable for "shorthairs", and calls on "longhairs" to stay away - but it's painfully clear that Reichenbach doesn't have the footage, whether because meta-layers weren't within his corporate remit or because everyone waited for the cameras to leave before fighting and bickering. He also patronises a very cool, middle-aged cowboy who says he'd join up with the caravan if he were 20 years younger ("You are the most amazing man I have ever met"), and babbles in French to a cop; too bad former comrade Chris Marker didn't get the gig instead.

JUNE 1, 2008

FASSBINDER'S "BRD TRILOGY":

THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN (56) (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979)

VERONIKA VOSS (69) (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982)

LOLA (74) (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1981): Viewed consecutively, so it makes sense to write about them together - though of course it's not really a Trilogy, just three different stories set during (West) Germany's post-war "economic miracle", also a kind of national amnesia. Details recur (a minor character from BRAUN called "Grandpa Berger" also has a fleeting walk-on in LOLA), all three mention football, the 1954 World Cup Final providing a sardonic backdrop to BRAUN's tragic climax - and of course all three deal in denial and complicity, Veronika Voss first denying her Nazi past then ending up a willing collaborator in her own demise (probably not a sideswipe at Jews going sheep-like to their deaths - I don't think that truism had taken hold yet in '82 - despite the presence elsewhere in the film of a pair of Treblinka survivors, merely part of Veronika's compulsion to always play a part, Norma Desmond-like). Konrad Adenauer is heard near the beginning of BRAUN, vowing on the radio that Germany will never again be involved in war - then heard again near the end, 9 years later, this time talking of German re-armament as if the war had never happened (we open on a photo of Hitler, close on a photo of then-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, not to equate them but to draw a line of succession: From this to this, the true map of Germany). In between is the tale of Maria - crafty war-widow turned corporate rich-bitch - though in fact the film is easily the most conventional of the trio, both in visual style and on-the-nose lead character - Hanna Schygulla using various men and coldly opining that "It's not a good time for feelings" - though the old order finally re-asserting itself (and Maria realising she was just the men's plaything after all) is slyly accomplished. VERONIKA is better, a chiaroscuro fantasy in gleaming b&w, at least till a dull hero's sleuthing - during which Veronika herself almost disappears - takes it down a notch from dazzling to dazzling-but-tedious. LOLA is the peak of the Trilogy, the BLUE ANGEL template appropriated for satirical purposes, with Barbara Sukowa as the soulless snub-nosed temptress, Armin Mueller-Stahl her pompous victim (endearingly given to kissing ladies' hands and telling jokes so dumb even kids refuse to laugh at them); colours are eye-popping, the feel for sleaze overpowering, but the film's sharpest joke is perhaps how its civil-servant hero only does the right thing - going after dodgy deals and corrupt building contractors - when he's mad with jealousy over the titular whore, and soon goes back to business-as-usual once allowed to be her loving (but cuckolded) husband. Never let mere morality stand in the way of Reconstruction.   

IMAGES OF THE WORLD AND THE INSCRIPTION OF WAR (71) (Harun Farocki, 1989): Not entirely rewarding - it's a little dry compared to SANS SOLEIL or FAST, CHEAP..., to cite two other wide-ranging ruminations - but rewarding to think about because it's one of those hidden-time-bomb movies that contains the seeds of its own deconstruction. Images of reproduction and representation - photography, of course, but also e.g. art students painting a nude model, a metal-press reproducing wooden forms, changes of perspective defining the world ("This is how a carpet must appear to a cat"), various kinds of measurements reducing the natural world to collatable data - and it seems to be about our human duty to interpret the world, technology's quest to make sense of its "inscriptions", whereas it's actually about the limits of such explanation, calling in the end explicitly for direct action instead of the arm's-length reality of measurement and interpretation, not the photograph of Auschwitz that revealed the camp - but failed to destroy it, because those who processed the photo chose to ignore it - but the action of inmates who rebelled, escaped, burned down one of the gas chambers, as the Allies pointedly refused to do (photography itself is a coward's way out, measurement from photos invented as a "safe" substitute by a 19th-century official who almost killed himself trying to measure directly). It's fair to say that Farocki is caught in the bind of most intellectuals, praising raw expression in the abstract but not when it impinges on his own territory - the director of TV's "Holocaust", we're told, "depicts suffering vividly" and creates only "kitsch", but surely such vivid emotive art is closer to what the film is exhorting than its own measured, cerebral approach. Still, the subtle rhymes - the human face and the face of the Earth, both prone to disguise and hard to identify - and alertness to hidden irony (esp. the accidental proximity of destruction and construction), above all the sense of a lucid mind slowly building its argument in allusive, often poetic ways, is unmistakable.

BORDELLA (70) (Pupi Avati, 1976): Politics meets porn - the United States government launches a global chain of male brothels for its client-states, known as the American Love Company (motto: "Come one, come all") - done in the approximate style of Mel Brooks; erotic skits are variable (and could've been sexier), but non-stop inventive zaniness pretty much makes up for it. We open on Henry Kissinger answering a question from a reporter ("Gunga Din of the Wisconsin Tribune") as to whether it's true that US policy is set by Mary Pickford, who appears to the President in his dreams while riding a white horse - Kissinger regretfully replies that yes, that is indeed true - followed by a steady stream of musical numbers, Old Hollywood references (Mr. Chips, Francis the Talking Mule and other specimens of US imperialism) and wacky non sequiturs: a bartender shampoos his hair (using a plastic basin behind the bar) in between serving customers, an elevator-boy likes to trade punches with the passengers he ferries up and down, and one scene is played with our hero throwing knives at his assistant for no reason at all. Then it's back to Kissinger, who can't believe that Nixon is angling for a job as head of the brothel business; that guy's such a jerk, agrees Mr. Chips (Vincent Gardenia), you know what he did, we went to the movies together and he tried to sneak in with his old Presidential discount card, made us both look bad. Whatever happened to this mad, hilarious Avati?  

THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY (66) (Terence Fisher, 1959): Awesome genre fun - not quite horror, despite the Hammer brand, more like GUNGA DIN with a remarkable appetite for bloodthirsty detail: limbs hacked off, eyes burned out, a vein slit open on a prisoner's leg to entice a nearby cobra with the smell of blood, an entire caravan of people strangled in their sleep. Only brought down by the usual old-movie collapse in the final stretch, creepy tension giving way to fisticuffs and banal heroics; before that, the talk is good, plotting brisk, characters surprisingly nuanced - even the cult's High Priest is differentiated from his fellow killers, being apparently a True Believer who doesn't have the stomach for sadism, and is scorned by his subordinates because of it - and the local colour surprisingly interesting. Some may blanch at the portrait of Indians as devious and duplicitous, but in fact I'm happier with the natives shown as dangerous sneaks secretly conspiring against the Raj - the rather bitter view of a chastened, post-colonial Britain - than the more condescending portrait in pre-1947 British movies like THE DRUM, where they're just noisy fuzzy-wuzzies waiting to be put down by courageous Builders of Empire.

THE WITCHES / LE STREGHE (73) (Luchino Visconti, Mauro Bolognini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Franco Rossi & Vittorio de Sica, 1967): An expensive flop, a semi-guilty pleasure and certainly a grand folly, Dino De Laurentiis' mash-note to his wife - the rather inexpressive Silvana Mangano - with five different roles in five different stories (even the cartoon opening credits are a super-production). The two shorter 'joke' segments don't really work - the jokes are good, but not really explained; we have to assume Witch 2 needed an excuse to speed through the city (it's not like anyone stops her) and Witch 4 secretly wanted to dispose of all her male kinfolk - but the three longer stories complement each other nicely, the colours and design elements are a pleasure throughout (it's a good idea having only one DP and designer for all five parts), and the whole thing emerges as a kind of encyclopaedia of 60s Italian cinema: Antonioni-like alienation by way of Visconti's opener about an unhappy film star - adding his own imprimatur in the bitchy upper-class milieu - De Sica doing domestic comedy with more than a touch of Fellini in the housewife's fantasy scenes, Pasolini riffing on HAWKS AND SPARROWS with Day-Glo colours and even more absurdity (the Moral of the Story is especially fine), with the shorter segments adding Alberto Sordi in iconic Everyman mode and the Sicilian black farces of Pietro Germi. You never really know what's coming next, swinging from chilly pretension to demotic knockabout to surreal fantasy; Ms. Mangano isn't embarrassing in her one big scene - the tearful phone call in Segment 1 - and her relative blankness at least means you can put her anywhere. Also: Clint Eastwood as downtrodden Italian office drone? Who'd have thunk?

THE BELLES OF ST. TRINIAN'S (52) (Frank Launder, 1954): From a time when "good manners and good taste have been replaced by black-market values" - and admittedly the indignant matron speaking that line is a man in drag (and rowdy schoolkids were a British-comedy staple even pre-War, see e.g. Will Hay) but you still wonder how much the anarchic, proto-punk St. Trinian's girls reflect a post-war consensus that times had changed, and the new generation would be sharper, more streetwise, more cynical and even more scientific (one girl is unfazed when a teacher threatens her with 100 lines: "Lines! I've got a machine to do that!") than the war-weary older one. Also of course reflecting a desire to break out - from grey, rationed, conformist post-war Britain - that became Angry Young Man cinema (then the Beatles, Monty Python, Sid Vicious) just a few years later, making the film one of those blockbusters that also act as inadvertent time-capsules. Just wish it was funnier, but in fact the laughs are mild; shenanigans involving cockney spivs, Arab princes and prize racehorses seem closer to Norman Wisdom (as indeed they were) than the upcoming British explosion.

MOVIE MOVIE (75) (Stanley Donen, 1978): Second viewing, first since I was a kid - when I didn't really know what it was spoofing (films of the 30s) but liked it anyway. The first 'movie' (a boxing drama à la KID GALAHAD) is the better spoof, the second (a musical, à la 42ND STREET) not as sharp in pointing out clichés - but they're both very funny, zany yet affectionate, and Donen gets the shape of the compositions exactly right. Maybe GRINDHOUSE too should've led with an introduction by the 70s equivalent of George Burns (David Carradine?), explaining we're about to watch a double-feature "like in the old days" - though the stupid Greek-TV station I taped it from still seemed Unclear on the Concept, snipping all the fake trailers I recall from my first viewing so we go straight from Movie 1 to Movie 2. It's really not that difficult guys.

FINGERS (73) (James Toback, 1978): Romain Duris makes a more convincing pianist - Harvey Keitel is a little stubby-looking - and BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED had some good ideas of its own, but it looks pretty crude next to this version - which doesn't operate a gangster/artist dichotomy but makes it all part of the same character (he plays music constantly, even taking a tape-deck along when he goes out on gangster business, the music-rights being presumably what's keeping this off DVD) and creates a startling portrait of repression, a man caught between competing compulsions. He wants to please everyone - he's a noble guy, tending to practise the "heroic fuck" and stopping to cheer up a down-at-heel bag-lady - even though his insides are literally twisted with the tension of keeping it all in, the music and gangster machismo both depicted as forms of insanity (BEAT missed a trick by keeping the music 'legitimate'): on the one hand is his bug-eyed, presumably institutionalized Mom, on the other his braggart belligerent Dad and various tough-guy lowlifes, from the dandified thug whose 'au revoir' to his girl is "Be good or I'll break your face" to Jim Brown as the orgy-minded club-owner who treats women like shit; in the end - inevitably - our boy explodes, then crouches naked and bewildered in his small apartment like a feral beast (or the Bad Lieutenant). Toback is adept at flamboyant conversations - like the first meeting with Dad - but also subtle, or subtler than he later became, allowing Keitel's inner life to unfold unspoken. His music is the prime victim, something he can do for himself but freezes when he has to do it in public, implicitly because it feels wrong and unmanly; the audition-gone-wrong was a cringe-inducing fiasco in BEAT, but here emerges - for all its pain and confusion - as a kind of epiphany (at least he starts to realise something's wrong with him). A hunted, poisoned movie, scrappy but haunting.      

MAY 1, 2008

REMEMBER MY NAME (63) (Alan Rudolph, 1978): Don't often gripe about miscasting, but it's near-impossible to accept Anthony Perkins as a construction worker, and even quite difficult to accept him as a loving, settled blue-collar husband - he's just so angular and weird-looking. It makes a difference, because - even though his onscreen wife is his real-life wife - he seems from the start to belong more with fellow freak Geraldine Chaplin (he's most relaxed when they finally get together and recall old times while drinking their way through a restaurant drinks-menu, eyed by a disapproving waiter), which throws the film's balance slightly off, given that Chaplin is supposed to be a threat in the early scenes. It's a delicate balance, and Chaplin is memorably ambivalent, clearly unstable - there's a great moment when she produces a knife with a Grand Guignol flourish - almost autistic in some of her mannerisms (e.g. her detached, artificial way of speaking) yet sympathetic. The 'full' ending apparently makes her more sympathetic, casting the film as a wronged-woman's-revenge drama, which I think would also have thrown it off balance; the ending I saw was abrupt and near-incomprehensible (leaving open the possibility that Chaplin's just plain nuts), and all the better for it. Also: rather overbearing blues soundtrack, Alfre Woodard at 26, Jeff Goldblum also 26 - looking fully-formed and freakishly tall and thin, respectively.

COOGAN'S BLUFF (63) (Don Siegel, 1968): Clearly a dry run for DIRTY HARRY, with Clint - now explicitly a cowboy - ranged against bureaucrats, city folk and of course Kids Today, with their long hair and LSD and wild trippy happenings where stag-movies are projected on the wall and women kiss each other in public! Also ranged against a variety of truculent New Yorkers - cabbies, hotel clerks - which is hugely entertaining, ditto Clint's scorn for correct procedure (best bit: "I'm making a citizen's arrest!"), but it must be said that Coogan isn't as quixotic as Harry, whose battles had a Last Good Man touch of doomy nobility, and in fact is something of a selfish prick rather than a badass (even his "bluff" is kind of unnecessary); he treats the girl shabbily, and the film treats her even more shabbily, brushing aside her career-talk to stick her in front of the kitchen stove like a good little woman. Final motorcycle chase suffers by comparison with the next 40 years of action movies, though a chase climax was clearly the Big New Thing in '68; BULLITT came out two weeks later. 

TARGETS (76) (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968): Glib subject, terrific movie - and fascinating, because it's so clearly 'on the cusp' (like its changing times, like Bogdanovich himself with his Old Hollywood fetish and New Hollywood chops). The two stories - elderly horror-film star and young gun-nut gone psycho - don't just run in parallel, don't just stand for Movies vs. Reality, but also belong to two different eras: Boris Karloff's scenes feature convivial drunkenness and dated references to his "Chinese" secretary ("The Chinese have a saying about that", etc), like some cosy 50s artefact, the serial-killer scenes are chillingly modern, the violence unadorned and shockingly sudden, the settings suburban homes and arid freeways lined with used-car lots ("What an ugly city this has turned into!" muses Karloff, doubtless recalling the orange-groves and heady pioneer days of the 30s). Exemplary treatment of the young psycho, no explanation offered for why he turns his gun-mania from tin-cans to people - but various explanations implicitly offered: because shooting guns is the one thing he does well, and because the people around him (working jobs, watching TV) are barely human anyway - and it's funny how some things recall David Lynch: juxtaposition of movie-biz haggling and dreamlike horror (the initial murders are so abrupt they feel like a fantasy), rooms done up in lurid pinks and peaches, above all Bogdanovich's most radical gambit, using a lot of indistinct shots that become almost abstract (the back of Karloff's head in a dark screening-room; a smudge of blue sky in the near-darkness before nightfall; lingering on a film-within-the-film being shown at a drive-in, even though the sound from the screen is almost inaudible), though it's unclear whether that's avant-garde pretensions or just a low budget.     

GIANTS AND TOYS (68) (second viewing: 70) (Yasuzo Masumura, 1958): Looks at first like it might be the Japanese WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? but it turns out to be the Japanese A FACE IN THE CROWD - not a satire of advertising but a bleak, despairing state-of-the-nation rant, its aggressive rhythm turning just a little bit strident, its Message hammered home just a little bit too forcefully. "Japan is America", consumer capitalism slowly rotting the country's codes of honour and friendship - creating a society based on giving people "no time to think" through the constant distractions of movies, TV and media (like FACE IN THE CROWD, it feels like it could've been made 30 years later). Masumura's frames teem with life, full of angular compositions and visual delirium - at one point we're gliding alongside a conference-table, with one worried salaryman giving way to another and various electronic toys set in motion on the table, scuttling in different directions at angles to the horizontal camera; the eye barely knows where to alight first - but the plot grows sombre after the brightly comic early scenes, finally toppling over into hectoring (stuff like the chief's bad marriage is a welcome touch of darkness when merely implied, but it gets a bit much when he's coughing blood and shouting hysterically); most poignant strand is perhaps fearless Youth vs. cynical 'maturity', the System chewing up naive enthusiastic young people and turning them into husks. Dazzling, but a little exhausting. [Second viewing, June 2015: Nothing much to add - except that I was equally dazzled, and less exhausted. The way Masumura curdles the hyperactive satire of the first half with weary cynicism ("You're as tired as I am," notes the sleazy photographer) is hugely impressive; anyone can make fun of celebrity, but putting that depressing, poisoned marriage in there too takes guts.]  

CARMEN COMES HOME (70) (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1951): The first Japanese film in colour, though the colour tends to be smeary, like a Republic B-Western - at least till Carmen turns up in her striking red dress, standing out amid the brown hills and houses. She's an "artiste" (read: stripper) coming back for a visit to her small rural hometown, and the film's treatment of the culture-clash is quietly miraculous, avoiding all possible pitfalls: Carmen's an airhead, and pointedly part of the 'new' Japan - she sings in English, unlike the town's blind musician (blinded in the war) who composes a song called "My Homeland" - but Carmen also says she'd die for Art, and doesn't end up being seduced by the town's rustic charms; the villagers make fun of her but also come to watch, spellbound, when she does a show in the village hall, and even her father - who's ashamed of his prodigal daughter - nonetheless admits in a moment of weakness that he loves "that idiot" more than anything. In the end, [spoilers] neither party is convinced by the other - but Carmen gives the money from the show to Dad in a gesture of love, and he passes it on to the village school, and meanwhile our heroine's charms convince the unpleasant local merchant not to take away the blind musician's beloved harmonium, so it all turns out all right. Thin on plot, but the delicacy of feeling - on a subject that usually ends up either cloyingly pastoral (in the Ealing style) or righteously 'progressive' (in the Miramax/CHOCOLAT style) - is deeply moving; it's the only film that's ever reduced me to tears despite being viewed with French subtitles (meaning I didn't get much of the nuance). Two movies in, I'm ready to call Kinoshita a favourite filmmaker.   

LOS OLVIDADOS (73) (Luis Bunuel, 1950): Quite a bit of Dickens, esp. "Oliver Twist" - the shot in the fog with the older urchin leading off the younger, Artful Dodger-style; the kindly rescuer sending our hero on an errand to show that he trusts him, finding his trust (apparently) misplaced - also a touch of the Dead End Kids though the film is tough, remarkably so, the work of a middle-aged underachiever with nothing to lose. Some of it may be posturing, e.g. when it pointedly shows the kids fighting dirty - biting ears, gouging eyes - in their climactic dust-up, but the absence of sentimentality carries through to a very dark ending, kindness mostly turns out to be resentful weakness in disguise, and (e.g.) a boy's pain at his mother's coldness is shown a lot more unsparingly than (e.g.) in THE 400 BLOWS - making the so-called "mother-meat dream" even more potent, especially since it comes out of nowhere. Any social-realist indictment can leaven proceedings with an interlude of magic or fantasy; it takes a peculiarly grim one to feature magic that's even more disturbing than the realism.

NAZARIN (65) (Luis Bunuel, 1958): Second viewing, first in about 20 years - when I liked it more, maybe because I saw it (on the big screen) sitting behind two yuppie-stockbroker types who fidgeted and sighed with boredom throughout (I think they were expecting something 'surreal', like a woman's eye getting sliced with a razor). Actually quite naturalistic, its main achievement being to work on two different layers at the same time - simultaneously sympathetic to its hero, a quixotic (or Quixotic) figure who practises a form of 'pure' Christianity, and viewing him as a misguided fool who fatally lacks the common touch (the first sounds we hear are the cries of street-vendors - but Nazarin himself stays away from the street, reading a book in his bedroom). The point is perhaps that religion fails because it tries to adapt intellectual concerns to human needs, inevitably degrading into superstition - Bunuel doesn't deny the possibility of visions, but they have to be based on raw emotion (as with the girl's tremulous epiphany), not the teachings of some long-ago philosopher; it's when God gets reduced to a God that'll personally intervene to heal your sick and cure your lame that things get ridiculous (cf. FLOWERS OF ST. FRANCIS, where the monks' Christianity is also 'pure' but populist rather than cerebral). Lots of discussion-points, though more on the film's concepts than our hero's adventures - which aren't very memorable (final pineapple excepted) and occasionally hurt by the low budget; when a woman beats a child, his wails are all-too-obviously those of an adult dubber.        

SHE HAD TO SAY YES (56) (George Amy & Busby Berkeley, 1933): She had to say yes, because her job depended on it (she's a secretary asked to moonlight as a "customer-girl"), then later because it's the only way to help the man she loves. Seems there's no way a girl can avoid doing that sort of thing - though Loretta Young somehow manages to avoid it, her slightly tiresome virtue nicely offset by the fact that everyone assumes she does it anyway. Plotting falters in the final stretch, mostly because it can't decide if it wants the hero to be sympathetic or a little bit scary (still don't know why he takes her to that house in the middle of nowhere), but the standard happy-ish ending can't conceal the fact that Loretta's heart has been broken, and she'll never trust a man again; the sense of the constant dodging and weaving required to be a young girl in the city is all-pervasive. Possible MVP: Hugh Herbert, stealing scenes with his usual hooting laugh but also finding unexpected pathos in the moment when it suddenly sinks in that Loretta's been stringing him along. 

APRIL 1, 2008

FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE (55) (George Seaton, 1950): Things this has in common with MIRACLE ON 34th STREET: Seaton, Edmund Gwenn, supernatural whimsy (angels, in this case) and an amusingly incongruous taste for government machinery getting involved in the shenanigans - the legal system in MIRACLE, the IRS here. Device of the unborn children hanging around as disembodied souls, waiting for their prospective parents to give birth to them, is splendidly cute and punctuated with clever asides (those who grow old waiting finally get born as precocious child prodigies) - though also marked by dated sexual politics: a bad marriage should be saved no matter what, having children is a woman's greatest joy, etc. Much of it consists of prim Clifton Webb pretending to be a cowboy, and it takes more than heavenly intervention to make that seem funny; love to see some quirky programmer double-bill it with WINGS OF DESIRE, though. 

THE ASPHYX (39) (Peter Newbrook, 1973): British sci-fi horror with a Victorian setting, taking place mostly in sepulchral half-light (which is surely deliberate; Newbrook made his name as a DP), hopelessly stilted verging on comical (which is surely not; Newbrook never directed again). Restrained, formal style is initially welcome and appropriate - lots of talk, lots of long takes - the macabre premise reminiscent of Poe or H.G. Wells (scientist finds he can photograph the spirit of Death as it approaches a dying person, and can subsequently trap it in his apparatus meaning the person will never die), but restrained becomes sub-par then increasingly amateurish, despite some decent effects (the screaming Asphyx, primarily); rhythm is off, scenes don't build, dialogue is daft ("But why pursue Immortality?" asks the reluctant sidekick) and plotting is shaky, first in little niggly details - hero could never have filmed that close-up of his son crashing into the tree-branch - then obvious inconsistency, e.g. when Daughter alternately doesn't believe he can trap the Asphyx and does believe it but thinks it's morally wrong, all in the same scene; also the guillotine scene is giggle-inducing - mostly because it's so obvious how things could go wrong with a guillotine (*) - also Robert Stephens hams it up terribly as the scientist, clearly deprived of direction. Watched the 83-minute version (as opposed to 99 mins.) which presumably explains the butler's ailing sister, pointedly mentioned twice for no reason whatsoever. 

(*) Also - though this won't make sense unless you've seen the movie - the retardedness of thinking you can trick the spirit of Death into approaching just by pretending you're about to guillotine someone, without any intention of doing so. You might as well just point a gun at them. Safer, too.     

UNFAITHFULLY YOURS (83) (Preston Sturges, 1948): Stanley Cavell coined a good one with "comedies of remarriage" but it takes a Sturges to come up with films "that question the necessity of marriage for eight reels before concluding that it's essential in the ninth". That line's a total throwaway, hinting at the level of verbal wit on display, and the film is indeed one of those nine-reel movies but also something more - an expression of a certain sensibility, Sturges the aggressive go-getter and professional inventor who'd previously sublimated his aggression in satire and screwball (the presence of Rudy Vallee recalls THE PALM BEACH STORY) but now, with career in decline - no-one to check him, nothing to lose - brings a more manic, not to say psychotic edge to romantic comedy. His hero is clearly insane - not just his violent fantasies; his love is excessive, from his furious rage at the notion of spying on his wife to his fulsome expressions of devotion at the end - and slapstick, more than ever (even more than in SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS) acts as a lightning-rod for Sturges, a kind of safe harbour: his cynical view is that all human enterprise ends in slapstick - hence the final section, implicitly contrasting movies and real life - but it's just as well because, if people weren't so pathetic, they'd probably end up killing themselves and each other (one wonders if he subconsciously sabotaged his own career, ending up in drunken self-destructive slapstick as a way of warding off his demons). In itself, qualified only by a slightly creaky first half-hour; otherwise the manic meld of clever malice, hysterical farce and pitch-black comedy - plus Rossini, Wagner and Tchaikovsky - easily outdoes even KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS. It's also surprisingly romantic. 

PRIVATE LIVES (45) (Sidney Franklin, 1931): Wonder what Noel Coward himself had to say about this MGM-ization of his stage success; hopefully something wittily sniffy, like e.g. 'There are few things more irreparably common than the assumption of sophistication by those patently unsuited to it'. Norma Shearer is too regal for an impulsive spitfire who at one point suggests getting "roaring, screaming drunk" - she sounds like a snob when delivering the famous line "It's extraordinary how potent cheap music is" (a line that ideally contains notes of ironic resignation and awed wonder at cheap music's potency) - and Robert Montgomery doesn't even modulate for the laugh-line ("Cleanness beyond belief!") when recalling the couple's long-ago vacation in some luxurious place. Perks up in Act 3, but Franklin is no Lubitsch, shooting mostly in indifferent master-shots - plus one atrociously mismatched insert (the old man's reaction to the bickering couple) where indifference shades into incompetence.  

INTOLERANCE (75) (D.W. Griffith, 1916): Seen for the express purpose of leaving no film unwatched on the All-Time Top 50 (still five to go for the Top 100), hence without any real expectations; rating vacillated, but the film's cumulative power finally trumps its sillier moments ("Help me to be a square-jawed jane!"), stodgier bits, or the fact that its purported four stories are really two-and-a-quarter. Arbitrary shuffling from one to another remains startling the first few times, which is partly a function of the film's age (like the inescapable knowledge, even stronger in a film with such a cast of thousands, that every single person onscreen is now dead, adding to the feel of feelbad epic about Time and mortality) - startling that stories could be treated with such (post-)modern abandon 92 years ago, just like it's startling how a girl's come-hither look is still nakedly carnal after 92 years, and a matron's realisation that she's "no longer part of the younger world" is still poignant after 92 years, and Constance Talmadge is so delightful after 92 years, etc etc - but also a function of the film's exuberance, its eclectic faith in a new medium, going from battle scenes and special effects (plastic dummies gleefully decapitated) to stark social comment, leaving two French girls asleep on the eve of the St. Bartholomew's Massacre so it can stage a hilarious Babylonian "love dance". The climax, when the stories finally run free and intermingle with minimal intertitles, feels like an act of creation, as though Griffith's spent two-and-a-half hours carefully crafting a flying machine then lets go of the strings, and the thing soars up into the heavens; the film as a whole suggests a Filmgoer's Progress from straight narrative to bifurcated narrative to pure avant-garde (unsurprisingly, audiences didn't go the distance). Griffith often painted as a stuffy Victorian but the politics here are downright libertarian, Intolerance not just limited to tyrants and warmongers but also including the "meddlers" and do-gooders, those self-righteous folk - smoking-nazis? pushy NGOs? - who think they know what's best for others (and still do, 92 years later). Like I said, startling.    

PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (48) (William Dieterle, 1948): Art, Beauty, Truth, spirituality, all that aesthetic ethereal guff. "Have you found what you were looking for?" the painter is asked - his Art being a way to get "closer to the Truth of things" - and later, when he listens to a choir singing hymns in a convent, feels "as if pretty soon I would understand", or perhaps Understand. Grist to the mill of hopeless romantics (like me), but the dialogue is sludge, the Portrait itself pretty kitschy and apple-cheeked Jennifer Jones makes a poor fit for ghostly melancholy, that "gentle kind of sadness that always troubled me" in Jennie. The final shot, plunging into Technicolor to illustrate how the portrait has become "real" to our hero, typifies the overall tackiness.

MARCH 1, 2008

PUNISHMENT PARK (50) (Peter Watkins, 1971): A shrill cry of rage, and the reason why many of us treasure BAMAKO. Style is exciting (if finally repetitive), subject-matter obviously relevant to the age of Guantanamo, but it only works if approached with the cynical conviction that the System is evil, America inherently "psychotic" and capitalist life synonymous with "war and oppression"; most counter-culture movies at least capture the fun of the movement, the euphoria of being young in 1971, but this one - inevitably, given the plot - just becomes whiny and self-righteous. One aspect alone is clever, the state painting P. Park as a "choice" (and going on about the kids having made the "choice" to be radicals), perfect terminology for a consumerist democracy, when of course it's nothing of the sort - hence the MOST DANGEROUS GAME-ish plot - just as Western democracy allows no meaningful choices; the rest will seem annoying unless one extends that cynicism to the whole enterprise, seeing e.g. the trial as a total sham even though it seems semi-acceptable (certainly better than a Stalinist show-trial), giving the defendants a chance to expound their philosophy on live TV - at least if they didn't simply yell at their accusers, throw around big words like "genocide" and babble streams of slogans, ranging from fair-if-utopian (help the poor, feed the hungry) to frankly loopy (release all prisoners back into the world). Maybe it's just dated, but I suspect it was always preaching to the converted. Significant detail: the judges include not just Big Business types but also a Professor of Sociology - a reminder that academics haven't always been on the right (i.e. left) side of the barricades.

WAGONMASTER (74) (John Ford, 1950): A Western, a musical, a small-scale project - no stars, no real plot, made in the interstices of the Cavalry Trilogy - that brings out the best in Ford, the feel for Western vistas (lines of men and horses among the curves of hills, hazy veil of dust thrown up by the wagon-wheels) and balance of respect for authority/tradition and nonconformism (the same balance that defined his raucous - but conservative - Irish sergeants): the heroes are all outsiders - "Mormons, show-folk and horse traders!" says a disgusted townsperson - but they all have their codes, whether in their faith, their songs and dances, or just the "professor" in the hoochie-coochie show refusing to go a day without shaving. Whole thing is casual-picaresque, even the ending capering in out of nowhere, its tone consistently mercurial and prone to change - the Indian dance interrupted by the terrified girl, who seems at first to be part of the dance - yet it works like a piece of music, instruments chiming in round a fragile melody, the thin but effective plot - outlaws hiding out among the wagon train, waiting to strike - adding its own note of tension. Charles Kemper, a portly middle-aged devil with silvery diction and sideburns, has now been added to my personal collection of Unknown Actors Capable of Greatness; alas, he died a month later.

BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE (64) (Paul Mazursky, 1969): Second viewing, though I barely remembered it. Fun (and instructive) to watch in conjunction with TAKING OFF [see below], because Forman views middle-aged folks learning to "open up" sardonically whereas Mazursky's take is closer to a big wet kiss; a case of Central European vs. Jewish-American, or a case of the peace-and-love movement blighted by cynicism in the two years between the movies? Opening scene at the mountain retreat is like something out of "The Serial", making it quite affecting when you realise the film is naive (or generous) enough to take this stuff semi-seriously, taking satirical jabs at the contortions required to be "honest" and "beautiful" rather than mocking it outright - and it's also quite wise at the end, getting B&C&T&A in bed together only to remind them that being Honest isn't necessarily the same as being transgressive. One major problem (besides no longer being very funny): I can think of no known universe where smooth, tanned, imperturbably confident Bob and Carol would be best friends with antsy, angst-ridden, guilt-ridden Ted and Alice.    

TAKING OFF (61) (Milos Forman, 1971): Starts off strong, full of Forman's joy in human quirkiness and diversity, esp. the manifold glimpses of auditioning hopefuls; when he cuts abruptly from the hypnotist telling Buck Henry "If the thought of living is still exciting -" to a few gratuitous frames of a young lady bobbing gratuitously in mid-song, the "thought of living" merges imperceptibly with the thought of life for its own sake, and it is indeed exciting. Later goes wrong, partly because it sets itself an impossible task - how do you show the repressed, no-sex-life squares getting hip to the counter-culture without appearing condescending? - though the parents-trying-pot scene veers a shade too close to caricature by any standards, and the coda just seems muddled: hippy musician turns out to be a capitalist, capitalist parents try hard to be musical (in their square way), yet the way it's shot, the two camps seem as far apart as ever (Forman ends on "An angel like you" over the held-long shot of the daughter, which can only be implying how little their idealised conception comes close to understanding her). Also quite dated, naturally, though it's interesting that Pauline Kael (writing when the film came out) reckoned the suburbanites "seem to be living in the thirties" - which of course is as far removed from 1971 as 1971 is from now.

THE STEPFORD WIVES (53) (Bryan Forbes, 1975): Hopelessly torn between satire and thriller - or maybe this material only works on the printed page, where a writer can direct our attention to inner thoughts and meaningful details; onscreen it's hard to tell what's 'wrong' with the Wives unless you go the full dead-eyed-zombie route, which would topple over into horror movie (Forbes is trapped, because getting to know the women would expose the Big Twist but showing them briefly isn't enough; placid and hausfrau-ish doesn't = creepy). Strangely pointless and insubstantial for much of its length - Stepford itself is more of an abstraction than a plausibly working community, mostly defined through our heroine's feminist outrage and by not being New York City - till the money-scene where the robot malfunctions and the film finally shows its cards, seguing into thunder-and-lightning climax. Message ends up weirdly conservative, or maybe just cynical - in a world where everyone's unhappy (even heroine's college sweetheart, whose role is otherwise meaningless), why not just submit and forego one's individualism for a life of conformist (but happy) drone-hood? No wonder the 70s turned into the 80s.

DAVID HOLZMAN'S DIARY (74) (Jim McBride, 1968): "Broadcast Yourself": YouTube culture skewered 40 years before the fact, and long before Mr. Holzman ends up talking to his beloved camera about masturbation (!), the wanky solipsistic nature of his project is apparent (made more apparent by news from Vietnam - the wide world beyond - on the soundtrack). David is wrong on just about everything - the hidden truths ("the mystery of things") he hopes to elicit, the effect of voyeurism on his girlfriend's desire to remain his girlfriend, the name of the beautiful neighbour across the street (not in fact "Sandra") - but the film gives him one (accidental) redemption in that much of the footage he shoots is rather beautiful, snippets of strangers glimpsed through lighted windows or the condensed bits-of-stories reflected in the people he meets on the street. Loveliness culminates in the film's standout scene - where McBride seems to take over from David temporarily - a tracking-shot down a line of senior citizens sitting on benches, 'scored' to the sound of a vote at the UN, all the countries of the world being called out one-by-one (it helps that the shot sways slightly, lending a magical air); personal and political briefly reconcile - one might say each of the old people is a country, with his/her lifetime of unique experiences - maybe looking forward to what David Holzman could make, if he ever gets his head out of his ass. Potent and packed with discussion-points even beyond banal what-is-reality? post-modernism, a veiled rebuke to Godard and Dziga Vertov (David knows his Eclair just as intimately as THE MAN knew his MOVIE CAMERA), also featuring one of the great nostalgia moments: a rundown, in fuzzy Flicker-Vision, of all the TV shows screened over a single night in July 1967. 

THE BIG CLOCK (65) (John Farrow, 1948): Half an hour of spectacular suspense legerdemain, built on sometimes-wobbly foundations: hero doesn't seem as hopelessly entangled as he should be for the desperation to work (he might still wriggle out of it, if it came to a frame-up; it's his word against the murderer's), and the mystery woman earlier on isn't sufficiently established to justify his lapse - basically he becomes besotted with her because that's what hapless heroes do with femmes fatales. Final half-hour is magnificent though, and Farrow also brings some offbeat subtext, the Charles Laughton tycoon-publisher being the titular Clock (all other clocks around him run according to his time) tying in with the hero's comment that there's "too much time in the world" (he, meanwhile, only wants some time to himself) - a metaphor of sorts for capitalist tyranny, the hidden oppressions of the System. When the dorky assistant makes a fool of himself, not many films would include Laughton saying "Fire him!" (it curdles the joke, for one thing), and even fewer would stretch out the scene to include the middle-manager being reluctant to do the deed, and the boss's henchman having to do it himself. Of such details is auteurist personality made. 

THE SEARCH (79) (Fred Zinnemann, 1948): Am I just a sap? Was I 'feeling fragile'? Was it due to having watched THE TRUE GLORY just a few days before? Hard to say, but second viewing of a (yes) sentimental middlebrow drama - which I fully expected to dismiss from my 1948 Top Ten - blew me away. As in GERMANY YEAR ZERO, the ruins of Berlin are as much a character as the wary, shell-shocked kids - and watching European kids three years after WW2, self-evidently carrying the trauma they've just witnessed, makes the film overpoweringly moving in a way SCHINDLER'S LIST and Co. can never match, their haunted presence sanctifying its manipulations. Turns very ordinary in the second half (the boy's command of English beggars belief, and it's hard not to cringe when he asks "Vott iss a mother?"), but it's saved by Zinnemann's trademark understatement and (especially) Montgomery Clift's unforced, humorous performance as the friendly GI; beautifully done, though it's possible 60 years of history are making its sweetness more palatable. Quoth the ever-quotable James Agee, back in '48: "At one point, while starving children grab for bread, a lady commentator informs one that they are hungry, and that the bread is bread."  

THREE ON A MATCH (70) (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932): Not conventionally 'good', but full of wild energy and jagged emotional angles. There's no reason to present this simple melodrama as a decades-spanning epic, except the frequent year-shifts allow for (still-entertaining) montages of gratuitous news headlines, and there's no reason to have three heroines when one barely features at all, esp. when she's introduced (as a child) as the smartest girl in the school's history; indeed that whole school prologue is a little off, breaking the rules of economical exposition by dwelling on a character (the Jewish boy) who isn't even in the film as an adult, and serving no real purpose except the ironic twist of the "worst girl in school" turning into a heroine while the rich popular girl ends badly (her mind turned by romantic novels at her ritzy boarding school, apparently). Then again, Ann Dvorak is wicked sexy in the latter role, morphing awesomely into a pathetic coke fiend - the film makes this explicit! - surrounded by the meanest-looking passel of thugs in a filthy tenement, and peripheral detail is generally splendid, from the passing pleb who fills us in on the plot (his friend would rather talk about his wife's cousin who went to Niagara Falls) to Edward Arnold introduced with a pair of tweezers up his nostril, to the glimpses of 30s life - diners, schoolyards, unfurnished rooms, beauty parlours - and harsh 30s look and skimpy clothes on the ladies. Moments and ambience: seems they can fill in for plot occasionally.

LOVE ME TONIGHT (72) (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932): Thought I'd like this more (as in much, much more), but it turns out dazzling technique isn't the best way to capture the blithe, casual quality that makes 30s musicals so magical; the whole elegance of the Lubitsch Touch was based on finesse and omission, on appearing effortless - i.e. not doing stuff - whereas Mamoulian is forever doing stuff, from the opening city-symphony (precursor of e.g. That Scene in DELICATESSEN) to the final Soviet-montage-like race between horse and train, and his virtuosity threatens to snuff out the romance. Best bits are the simplest, e.g. the recitative duet between Jeanette MacDonald and the doctor ("At night?" "Quite right. At night.") or C. Aubrey Smith trying to say "impertinent jackanapes", though of course one appreciates the constant flow of imaginative set-pieces, even when it doesn't really work (camera pulling back through heroine's bedroom window and dissolving to a wide-shot of the house is a great moment, even when the house is obviously a scale model). Domestics scuttling across a chessboard floor - seen from above, so they fan out like a human flower - is hugely more ambitious than anything in MONTE CARLO, but I think I'd trade most of this dazzle for 10 silly seconds of "Trimmin' the Women".

THE TRUE GLORY (60) (Carol Reed & Garson Kanin, 1945): Second viewing, first in ages - and maybe it's just that WW2 has been so over-exposed in the years since I last watched it. Approaches greatness with the liberation of Belsen and the final, measured effort to take away some lesson from the carnage, and it's obviously instructive (and admirable) that the Nazis aren't demonised, even in an official government documentary made with the war in Asia still raging. James Agee is right that it includes "several hundred" magnificent shots, though its "vernacular narration" no longer seems "free of falseness", being obviously scripted (at least the blank verse V.O. is honestly high-flown); masterfully-done for what it is, but we've seen it all before to be honest.

THE LATE GEORGE APLEY (59) (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947): A failure of nerve in the final act, which may have been Mankiewicz' fatal flaw - see also: THE QUIET AMERICAN - though I guess this failure could've been in the original (a play, based on a novel): turns into LIFE WITH FATHER when it looks like it's going to be THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, a tale of passion subjugated to social hypocrisy (Mr. Apley's motto? "putting emotion in its place and keeping it there"). What's amazing is the way it plays both sides, showing Apley as a failure - obsolete, as per the title; he can't even stop the electric sign reading "Grape Nuts" being erected on the edge of the park - yet giving him a worldview, an attention to the "little things" that keep a life going and make a marriage happy, even when it's loveless (of course they only become important once you repress the big things; still, it's a philosophy): "I'm not sure how much one can expect from Life," muses Mr. Apley (Ronald Colman is magnificent, giving the foolish old duffer a kind of bruised dignity); "It has a strange way of escaping you. Before you know it, it's slipped out of your hands" - and you have to wonder when Hollywood entertainments lost the ability to be wise and philosophical about failure; is it because it generally comes with middle age? Doesn't follow through, ending in the worst possible way - half one outcome and half the other, as if to please everyone - but there are beautiful moments (I was 70+ for a long time); add Percy Waram to the list of forgotten actors capable of Skandie-worthy performances.

HANNIE CAULDER (66) (Burt Kennedy, 1971): Light-hearted, offbeat revenge Western, with Raquel Welch as the avenging heroine - taking a bath in her new pair of pants to break them in, so they cling to her bottom - and the no-good trio of varmints played by uber-varmints Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Strother Martin, wreaking bloody mayhem even as they trade knockabout routines reminiscent of the Three Stooges ("I can't find mah horse!" "Why not?" "Because you're sitting on him, you sonofabitch!"); it's perverse to the point of being awesome when they kill Raquel's husband and unceremoniously rape her in between comic bickering, then burn her house down with a careless drunken en passant lurch of a lighted match. She visits a gunsmith in Mexico (Christopher Lee?!) to get a special gun made, like the Bride in KILL BILL - and the film sags in the home stretch, possibly explaining its lack of a cult reputation, or maybe it's Kennedy's rather lame stylistic flourishes (a shoot-out in super-slow-motion) that explain why he's never been much-esteemed as a director; his writing prowess is another matter, and there's more than enough sharp lines amid the sub-spaghetti-Western goings-on to invoke the hand that wrote most of Boetticher's Ranown Westerns. "Did you have to cut him in half?" asks a sheriff sullenly after Raquel delivers the first of the varmints. "The halves match, don't they?" she replies coolly. "I wouldn't like to be you when the other two Clemens boys find out about this." "I wouldn't like to be you anytime." You go, girl! 

THE GIRLS (49) (Mai Zetterling, 1968): Strange seeing much of Bergman's stock company in a film with such a different sensibility - muddled, flashy and more of a fantasia, with a brief strange dream sequence (?) in the woods and a scene where a rant against men ("They're all a load of shit!") morphs into footage of Khruschev, Eisenhower, Moshe Dayan, etc, which is then being projected in a theatre for an audience of women to start throwing eggs and custard pies at the screen. "Feminist cinema", I assume, but in fact it's hard to say if Zetterling is being scathing on her heroines' half-baked rebellion, or if things were so bad 40 years ago (certainly the men are absurdly boorish) that said rebellion counts as empowerment - probably the former, given the cross-cuts to a performance of "Lysistrata" (women who dared live without men), but it's not like the Girls don't try to break through, notably the Bibi Andersson character, an actress in "Lysistrata" who's determined to connect with her audience of provincial burghers and begs the uncomprehending hicks to talk about their feelings. The film makes her look like a fool, and when e.g. a militant femme tells her audience: "Nothing to complain about? That shouldn't stop us complaining!" it could either be a call to eternal vigilance or a comment on spoiled wannabe-feminists in Sweden's welfare paradise. (Moot point: Can "feminist cinema" co-exist with a scene where a wife gets non-consensually spanked, and apparently enjoys it?) Ambivalence shades into confusion, and eventually tedium, though the snowscapes look nice in bleached b&w. 

FEBRUARY 1, 2008

GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (77) (Howard Hawks, 1953): Second complete viewing, first in ages, rating upgraded; guess I never realised it was so exuberant before. All the things people talk about are here - a genuine friendship between women (analogous to those between men in e.g. RIO BRAVO), a riotous sense of colour, an easy blend of the artificial (i.e. musical numbers) and naturalistically casual (throwaway banter), a quasi-feminist insistence on surviving (and thriving) in a world of men - but mostly it's just tremendous fun, esp. the farcical hour on board ship. Note the constant theme of disguise, looking like one thing but being another - thus e.g. the python-goat misunderstanding, the passenger-list millionaire who turns out to be a kid, Marilyn Monroe wrapping a blanket around herself to disguise the fact that she's climbing out of a port-hole, Jane Russell later dressing up as Monroe, and of course MM herself, the dumb blonde who's actually not dumb at all (men just prefer her that way). Special mention for the great Charles Coburn as 'Piggy' Beekman, a flustered aristocrat out of P.G. Wodehouse.   

A JAPANESE TRAGEDY (72) (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1953): Wtf happened here? Starts off explicitly political, with documentary footage of riots and newspaper headlines framing the central story, as if to make it emblematic of the nation at large; the style is remarkable, almost New Wave - flashbacks to the war (source of the Japanese Tragedy) dropped in totally without warning (and without sound, giving the feel of home-movie footage), shuffling between different time-lines, adding surreal touches like a baby's cries over some of the found footage (Japan's newborn democracy?). Then it all disappears in the second half, which simply works as family melodrama - a mother becoming estranged from her two grown-up children, a scenario out of Ozu or Naruse; watching it soon after a Naruse retro actually helped, because it shares with e.g. LATE CHRYSANTHEMUMS the theme of post-war kids being vaguely embarrassed by their parents (tainted as they are by the past) and e.g. the sentimental cliché of the long-suffering mother recalls Naruse's MOTHER - except this is tougher because it turns out the only person who's sentimental about mother-love is the mother herself (even the little coda adds a cynical nail in the coffin). It's actually superb as family melodrama - the English teacher's wife a memorable shrew, though the daughter herself (a.k.a. the English teacher's mistress) turns out to be more complicated than she appears, her childhood secret surprisingly lurid by contemporary Hollywood standards; implications of sex are strong throughout, a reminder of US timidity in the 50s. Both halves are great, just very different; rating may go up on second viewing (hopefully on a Criterion with better subtitles), once I figure out if the halfway change - and near-total abandonment of state-of-the-nation effects - is deliberate or just a mistake.

THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (65) (Akira Kurosawa, 1958): Hey, it's the wipes from STAR WARS! In other news I'm now lower than the general consensus on all three of Kurosawa's best-loved actioners (this, SAMURAI, YOJIMBO), and I suspect it has much to do with their lurching rhythm - they don't seem to build, lurching from one event to another, and e.g. the duel with spears seems a needless interruption to the main narrative (even if it later turns out to be important). Best appreciated as a film of grandiose spaces, the sweeping high-angle crowd shots prefacing the duel, the early encounters on fog-shrouded mountain slopes, and esp. the vertiginous spaces of the Hidden Fortress itself - also reflecting the class division underlying the movie, buffoonish peasants at one end of the chasm, complex aristocrats at the other. Fun but portentous, from Mifune's heavy strutting to the ending, which could (and should) have been quick and cynical but instead gets drawn-out, tying up loose ends and teaching the peasants a Lesson.

JANUARY 1, 2008