Wednesday, November 18, 2015

#788: Speedy

(Ted Wilde, 1928)

I've long been a staunch defender of Buster Keaton as the grandmaster of silent comedy over the sentimental and dated Chaplin. But here comes Harold Lloyd, the wild card exploding the idea of any binary perspective on an era's worth of the medium's humor. Lloyd is every bit as funny as the two more famous stars - as modern and clever as Keaton and as likable and charismatic as Chaplin. Perhaps because he didn't direct his own films the actor never got the recognition he deserved in the auteur age, but hopefully these Criterion releases will help spur a reevaluation of his work.

After Safety Last and The Freshman, two classics that deserve to be placed alongside the great comedies of any era, Speedy seems slight in comparison. But that doesn't take away from its energy or sheer entertainment value. The film revolves around a timeless comedic conflict - an old man's outdated business (in this case a horse-drawn trolley in New York) is trying to be gobbled up by a greedy corrupt businessman who wants to create a conglomeration to make even more money. Lloyd is charged with getting the man the compensation he deserves, mainly because he wants to marry the man's granddaughter. Hilarity (and suspense) expectedly ensue.

Along the way, the film occasionally descends into a strong of bits, most notably when the couple takes a largely unnecessary jaunt to Coney Island. Yet even in this stretch there are moments of incredible comedic sophistication. The most notable for me was the sequence in which Lloyd eats more than it seems like he really should. The film cuts to Lloyd's back and we see he is bent over and heaving, presumably from vomiting, while his fiance comforts him. Just as it seems like the shot is going on too long the camera pans back to reveal Lloyd has been blowing into a hose that tests his lungs at the carnival. There's another later bit that uses viewer obstruction involving a dog's tail - both times it's as surprising as it is funny, a masterful use of the young medium. It's also worth noting the cameo of Babe Ruth, a reminder that celebrity appearances in comedies are not a new trend and further cementing the film's appeal as a forward-looking comedy trying to deliver fresh ideas as much as it wants to make you laugh.

The other star of the film is of course New York City, and this might be what makes Speedy so special. We get a number of great looks at the Big Apple of 1928, but the most sustained exhibit is the final horse race through the streets. Lloyd rushes by the public library, slams into an elevated train post, and rushes under the Washington Square Arch and by the fountain. 1928 was the thick of change for the city, when cars were completely taking over and the Depression had yet to wreak havoc. It's a city that doesn't feel so different from the one now, albeit with more independent craft stores (including a nice stereotypical Chinese laundry owner!) and subways running overhead. It's even more thrilling than the city depicted in Lonesome, and Speedy's slick technique and artful comedy weave in and out of the city so effortlessly that the whole film buzzes with the energy of the city. I wouldn't go so far as to call Speedy a classic - its structure isn't as elegant as the other Lloyd films in the Collection - but it is a must-see for fans of silent comedy and New Yorkers interested in the city's past.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

#737: Les Blank: Always for Pleasure

(Les Blank, 1968-1995)

The best parts of Les Blank's films are when no one is talking. In these moments, people cook, dance, sing, smile, play instruments, walk through nature. The buildings hum with their unique histories, bound by their American essence; a run down house with a man playing guitar on the porch stoop; a simple roadside tavern ignited by a neon sign advertising the music within; farms and tents; kitchens and living rooms; an occasional store selling records or repairing instruments or making sausage. Parades go by. Meals are prepared by the pound. The omniscient narrator (who never learns to talk) is distracted by another song or good soup on the stove.

The themes of music and food are consistent throughout Blank's 14 films collected on Always for Pleasure (along with a handful of shorts and some extras covering his career). Even in a film like Gap-Toothed Women, which explores conventional ideas of beauty, Blank can't help but home in on an apple or an artist's portrait of musicians. But Blank is most at home filming the musicians themselves, who make up the vast majority of individuals he profiles here and even crop up in films that are ostensibly about something else like garlic or gumbo. He no doubt does this because of his own interest in music (and it's worth noting his connection to the Lomax family, as John's son and Alan's brother John Jr. introduced him to Lightnin' Hopkins and Alan's daughter Anna helped edit on a few of his films), but it's also a conscious decision to make the various elements of each culture he explores inextricably linked, thereby creating a fuller picture of the specific element he's highlighting. Other elements, such as fashion, marriage, work, and friendship, come up frequently as well. But the two constants throughout are music and food.

Blank's films get more conventional as the set goes on, with his last few films featuring significantly more talking and something that approaches mainstream documentary storytelling. Yet there are unique charms to each of his films, while they all retain Blank's singular perspective. A relatively lyrical film like A Well-Spent Life crackles with the same energy as In Heaven There Is No Beer?, which could be a (still fairly quirky) PBS special, and both are equally enjoyable, even as the silences begin to come less frequently and with more action to fill up the space.

The biggest issue here is, of course, the cultural tourism label that has also dogged the Lomax family as their legacy has grown. Blank comes from a well-off family in Florida, but the bulk of his subjects, particularly in his early films, are poor country people, often black, dotting the backwaters of Louisiana. As someone who is unfamiliar with that world, it's impossible to know how "right" Blank got it, but his work here never feels disrespectful and always seems aware of his outsider status. Certainly a film made by someone of each culture would deliver a richer and truer portrait of its subject in both form and content. But this doesn't make Blank's perspective any less valuable, because for the vast majority of people his camera is the placeholder for our own forays into the world he is filming. We would dwell on the pig being slaughtered just as Blank does; we might delight in the tall tales and idealize the easy (hard) living of the Cajuns ourselves; we get caught up in the colors and sounds of Carnival in New Orleans to an even greater degree than Blank's camera.

Ultimately, Blank's career was spent documenting isolated American cultures at the dawn of mass media. While the pockets Blank highlights remain, their window to the outside world has grown larger and their choice to remain separate from the greater culture has become more conscious. The moments depicted in Blank's film already seem mournful and urgent, begging for a few more minutes with this time that might never come back. Just as he filmed a broad range of musicians at the twilights of their careers and lives, the music played and the food cooked feels short for this Earth, even as it seems like it has existed forever. America's future is homogeneous and bright, so it's best to get a good look before the past and present are gone.

Friday, November 6, 2015

#715: Bay of Angels

(Jacques Demy, 1963)

Demy's second film is more out of step with his subsequent musical rampage than Lola, though it shares a broad range of qualities with that debut. Like Lola, Bay of Angels is shot in black and white, sharply dividing it from the rest of director's catalog that is primarily known for its vibrant colors. But the film also features a milquetoast lead doomed to love a seductive woman who loves another - though in this case it's not a person. French coastal towns are seen. A happy ending is paired with the almost certain knowledge that it will not remain that way forever.

The similarities may end there, however, as Bay of Angels is a deeply sad film intently focused on two individuals. A third character sets the protagonist off on his path - and pops up again briefly just to assure us all that he was not a figment of our imagination - but other than that there are just a handful of characters with even one full scene. The only cycles in Bay of Angels are psychological, mistakes made over and over again to feed a sickness that overwhelms everything around it.

I'm not a gambler. It's perhaps the thing I know most about myself. I never make bets, I don't like going to casinos, I even feel uncomfortable putting my money in mutual funds. So the addiction of gambling is completely foreign to me. I've never been addicted to anything, but I've done drugs and can see the danger of getting sucked into the vortex, even with something as simple as coffee. My personal tendencies toward addiction are more harmless things like collecting (could you guess?), so seeing someone become addicted to gambling is, for me, a little like if someone told me they couldn't stop eating nails.

In a way, this made Bay of Angels even more sad. When you see someone succumb to a pleasure you understand, there's an immediate relatability. Outside of that appeal, you only see the disease, the empty routine of addiction. Jeanne Moreau's Jackie is a tragic figure whose life has disintegrated around her yet continues her descent. She's accepted her illness and seems unwilling to change it until the very final moment, which only feels unearned until you consider the dependency that addiction demands. Like Lola, Jackie knows what she wants and rejects the male protagonist's attempts to alter her desires. But Jackie's empowerment is empty, masking her weakness. Casting one of the all-time great movie stars in the role was a gamble in itself - we may immediately understand Jean's infatuation with Jackie but would we be able to see the fatalism through the bleached blonde glamour? Like Catherine in Jules et Jim, Jackie is trapped, but Moreau plays both characters without the rage that other women might have brought to the roles. Her tragedy is unknown to herself, even in self-reflective moments, because she seems to have so much control over herself. This is partially the character that Demy wrote, but it's mostly Moreau's dominance of the camera and complete confidence as an actress.

Her counterpoint in Claude Mann is less memorable, and here is where the film fails to live up to its predecessor. Mann has been in other strong movies (most notably Army of Shadows) and he looks a bit like a young Dominic West, but he lacks any real magnetism as a leading man. As I mentioned, Demy has created his second-straight boring young white guy protagonist here, but without the colorful secondary characters and plot complications of Lola, Bay of Angels suffers much more for it. The straightforward narrative here demands two memorable leads, and the lack of balance means Jackie as a character is significantly more notable than the film itself.

That being said, Bay of Angels is an entertaining movie even if it is pretty sad and at times hard to watch, though again that speaks to the strength of Moreau's performance. This Demy box is shaping up to be a real treasure.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

#714: Lola

(Jacques Demy, 1961)

Lola is the first film both in Criterion's boxset of Jacques Demy's core early films and of the director's overall filmography. Built with overlapping stories of relationships both emotional and fleeting, the film straddles the many worlds of French cinema. At times it seems like a quaint relic of the French system, a light and occasionally Soapy romance of criss-crossed lovers. Other moments feel like kin to the New Wave classics being made at the same time, in love with movies and reality in equal measures. The film recalls Ophuls (to whom it is dedicated) as often as it predicts Jeunet. It hints at the darkness of his next film, Bay of Angels, as easily as it predicts his technicolor-splashed later work. It manages to feel playful without resorting to comedy and tragic without delivering bad endings for its characters. I think it's an undersung masterpiece.

The story of Lola isn't much of one at all, as simple coincidences give way to poignant exchanges of love both sexual and familial. Characters remind characters of other characters, cities pop up in the past, future, and fantasies of various people who are unaware of the connections they share. The nature of the city of Nantes is reflected in the various players, constantly coming and going - when they are there, they want to leave, when they are away they wonder when they will return. The movie is at once as fantastical as a David Lynch movie (is Cecile perhaps literally Lola, whose real name is after all Cecile?) and as humanistic as a Marcel Carne melodrama. Frankie, one of the sailors that defines Nantes as a constant state of flux, sleeps with Lola but bonds with Cecile, who reminds him of his sister. Roland pines for Lola, whose heart belongs to Michel, but desires to flee to an island in the South Pacific, where unbeknownst to everyone Michel has made a fortune. The plot doubles back on itself frequently and revolves around a cafe where Roland lounges with a painter - it's apparent that the film had a huge influence on Amelie.

All of these elements make Lola a joy to watch. There's a certain feeling of serendipity and a charmed melancholy that Demy is able to deliver here that is almost never present in a director's debut. His work is not as stylized as Wes Anderson's - though simultaneously more about movies than the younger director - but the combination of a breezy tone and deep sadness is shared by the two filmmakers. It's much more in line with Truffaut's elemental 400 Blows than the aggressive newness and removed cool of Breathless, but it has none of the animosity toward conventional (or maybe safe) filmmaking that both directors had in their earliest work. A casual viewing of Lola would do fine, which ironically is perhaps what has made its place in history less noted than its contemporaries.

But dig a little deeper and what's here delivers elements that reward investigation and reflection. Lola is a powerful woman, perhaps saddled with the cliche dancer/seductress role so overused in film but defiant in her self-sufficiency. Anouk Aimee is both perfectly cast and perfect as Lola, to the point where she seems as inseparable from the character as the character feels separated from the world of the movie. Demy's deliberate technical flaws are also gems waiting to be reevaluated for their influence on future filmmakers, their own small ripple in the torrent of New Wave's storm. Then there is Nantes itself, shot as sleepy and wild, a temporary town of fairs and dances and markets where scheming smugglers hide, as mysterious as Casablanca but without the wartime tension, so people and things and ideas and love flow freely through its ports. The city is just as much the star of Lola as Lola, and it makes the movie feel just as alive and magical now as it must have felt fifty years ago.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

#704: Riot in Cell Block 11

(Don Siegel, 1954)

What a find. Riot in Cell Block 11 is a certain kind of film Criterion puts out rarely, but always with impressive confidence and great value to the marketplace. Created as a b-level social picture in the wake of a series of prison riots in the early 1950s that stemmed from poor treatment of the prisoners, this is a lesser-known early picture from Don Siegel, who would go on to direct Criterion release The Killers before producing the higher profile Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz. It's not the best-acted movie I've ever seen, and it can often feel a bit preachy in its consistent social message. But it also rings just as true today as it did in its time.

The style of the film is a reminder that throughout film history movies that were considered lesser or even exploitative often had more to say about the ills of society than the prestige pictures of their era. The movie that won best picture the year Riot in Cell Block 11 was released was another future Criterion film, Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront, and while I'm not here to discount that masterpiece, I do think the message of Siegel's film is more complicated and more relevant in today's America.

The scenes with the warden are generally didactic, but it's the final scene, in which the warden explains to the leader of the riot that he has been betrayed, where the message is most loud and clear. It's the truth no one wants to believe but everyone should see as obvious: riots work. They work because people are afraid of society crumbling, and part of the way society stays afloat is that the people with less and who are forced to stay that way agree to keep the peace (at least generally speaking). That detente is broken only when things get so bad that the system needs a virus to run through its body and clear out all the toxins. In Riot in Cell Block 11 (as in the US of the early 50s), the oppressed community was prisoners, growing up in LA it was black people in the early 90s. As the movie shows, riots don't solve everything, but they do bring the kind of attention to oppression that only violence can bring.

People who think prisoners should rot in jail for whatever they did to get there will probably be able to ignore the message of Riot in Cell Block 11. For people like me, the film is preaching to the choir. Yet there is a whole middle of the population that simply hasn't considered these kinds of issues because they didn't need to. These are the people Cell Block 11 was made for, and just as the political message of riots had to be draped in violence, so too does a message such as this need to be drenched in noir and simmering with pulpy aggression. Does Riot in Cell Block 11 raise to the level of many of the classics in the Collection? Of course not. But it doesn't need to - it does what it was meant to do, now just as well as in 1954. This is a vital thread of film history in the American system, and this particular film represents one of the best, making it a great addition.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

#697: Tess

(Roman Polanski, 1979)

Look, I'm not the audience for Tess. I knew that going in. I held out some hope mainly because I do generally like Roman Polanski movies and one of the few costume dramas I do like was another Henry James adaptation, Wings of the Dove (a movie that had no business working as well as it did considering it was bookended by Hackers and K-Pax in its director's catalog). Was I worried about the nearly three-hour running time? Of course, but I prepped myself.

I might as well get the good thing out of the way first and just say the cinematography in the film - particularly the outdoor shots - are spectacular, and while they aren't as flashy as those in Days of Heaven, they rival them in their technical proficiency and sheer pleasure. Sadly, these scenes were mostly shot by Geoffrey Unsworth, who died in the middle of shooting the film (he also shot 2001), leading to another cinematographer taking his place for the rest of the shoot (they shared an Oscar for the film). This really is the best part of the movie, and I probably could have gotten along watching it on mute for most of the time.

Of course, it wasn't on mute, and that's were things get pretty depressing. I'm not one to entirely reject out of hand a nice tragedy, but I am fairly wary of the ones that revolve around a young woman and her sexual experiences (particularly when set in the past). When you add on top of the subject matter the awkward fact that the film was directed by Roman Polanski and it was 1) his first film since fleeing the US after pleading guilty to rape and 2) a movie he dedicated to his dead wife, who, after giving him the Henry James novel to make into a movie starring her, was promptly murdered by the Manson Family, well, things get a little complicated. I don't think the way the Alec is portrayed is problematic - he's a pretty straightforwardly bad guy - but I did find it a little uncomfortable how picturesque the scene was set for the rape sequence, however consciously this was meant to contrast with her experience. Overall, though, it was mainly how dour Tess's story was that got me down. I never really cared that much about her, so in a way it was even more tiresome to see her beaten down over the course of nearly three hours.

I do also have to say that regardless of how the Criterion essay felt about it, I didn't think Natassja Kinski's accent made her stronger in the role. She seemed out of place from the beginning and I didn't feel like Polanski picked her for any other reason than that she's a pretty lady.

It's funny, I was always a huge Roman Polanski fan growing up. Knife in the Water, Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion, and especially Chinatown were huge films in my development as a cinephile. As I got older, I discovered Bitter Moon and Death and the Maiden, and I even really really like The Ninth Gate in a trashy kind of way. But both Cul-de-Sac and this I found underwhelming, and I haven't liked any of his movies since The Ninth Gate (The Pianist is beautiful, but slight in its genre and certainly undeserving of the weird statement Oscar he received). Maybe if I had a different disposition Tess wouldn't have rubbed me the wrong way, and I'll be the first to admit that once those frills come out, it's hard for me to turn off the 12-year-old in me that just wants to put on Die Hard or whatever. But at the moment Tess just seems like another "life is hard for women, even if they're beautiful" movie, and I've seen enough of those.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

#749: The Soft Skin

(Francois Truffaut, 1964)

A few weeks ago, a fellow Criterion completist posted a quote from Truffaut that basically invalidates my whole blog. As revenge, I thought it fitting that I should queue up Truffaut's follow-up to the masterpiece Jules et Jim, The Soft Skin, the only film of his in the Collection that I have yet to see (Day for Night was released after this one, but I have seen that film a couple of times, though it was years ago at this point). The film was poorly received when it was released, and despite some vocal proponents it remains a lesser entry in the director's catalog. I've had it in my Hulu queue since it appeared there and I was pleased when it received a proper release because it would force me to watch it sooner rather than later.

The Soft Skin is an odd film. On the surface it's a French morality tale that nods to the country's history of domestic melodramas. Yet this might be Truffaut's most technically sophisticated and rich cinematic display to this point in his career. Though the film provides little of the flash and overt style of earlier films like The 400 Blows or Shoot the Piano Player, the way Truffaut uses the basics of framing, shot selection, pacing, and the underrated POV makes it his most assured and neatly composed film.

Because of the narrow focus of the story and its traditional arc, Truffaut could focus entirely on these technical elements; Molly Haskell notes in the Criterion essay that Truffaut was working on his Hitchcock book at the time and it certainly shows. Look at the way Truffaut shoots the scene where the two lovers stop for gas and Françoise Dorléac sneaks away to change into a skirt - although the stakes seem as small as possible, the tension in the way Truffaut cuts back and forth from the characters to the car to the road to the meter on the pump is more reminiscent of the final sequence in Fat Girl than of a typical trip to the gas station. There are plenty of moments like this elsewhere: the claustrophobic style of the dinner Desailly finds himself trapped at while his mistress waits in the hotel room, the extended build of tension from the moment we see the gun to the final explosive act, even the way Desailly is filmed once he realizes he's been caught in a lie by his wife - all of these sequences are treated as high suspense when even the gun would barely register in other hands as anything other than a domestic detail.

The Soft Skin reminded me immediately of Tarantino's films. The way pulp is elevated by style and technique in QT's work makes the act of movie watching interactive and expectation-defying. Here, Truffaut's dedication to the story extends beyond his deft hand behind the camera by consistently damning Desailly's celebrity professor through his actions. But it even extends beyond the scope of the movie, as Truffaut himself would go on to leave his wife shortly after the film's release. In fact, a close look at Lachenay makes his similarities to the director (who was himself a celebrity who initially stood on the shoulders of artists before him to catapult to fame) seem hardly more obscured than those of Fellini or Allen to their respective alter-egos in 8 and 1/2 and Stardust Memories. The more Desailly seems like a stand-in for Truffaut, the more the film feels like a self-loathing confession and punishment, though just as Godard would long to be Belmondo in Breathless, so too would Truffaut be thrilled to die in a hail of bullets, sacrificed for the tragic passion of an ill-fated affair.

Despite the impressive execution of The Soft Skin, I have to wonder if this effort wouldn't have been better served with a stronger story. I don't think Truffaut earns Franca's choice to take up arms, just as Nicole's immediate turn on Lachenay (and his implied contempt toward her) felt more like a plot device than a realistic depiction of the end of an affair. Similarly, the depiction of Lachenay's adolescent impulses and his evolution as a husband and lover doesn't break any new ground. An A+ presentation of a B- story can't save the overall impression from being one of a missed opportunity, and The Soft Skin becomes a mid-level Truffaut film, a must-see for fans of the director but well behind the timeless masterpieces he made before and after.