Wednesday, December 30, 2009

#466: In the Realm of the Senses

(Nagisa Oshima, 1976)

A sexual train wreck. Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses is similar to Cronenberg's excellent Crash (which deserves Criterion treatment) in that watching it can be difficult and certainly uncomfortable. Both films are meant to expose you to the ultimate personal secrets, those of sexuality and its deviants. But beyond that, the comparison falters. This film is highly political, both in the statement it is making about Japan during the film's time period (right before WWII) and in the way it treats and depicts sexuality (the film is still banned in Japan, and has never been shown in full there). This is probably the most graphic sexual film I have ever seen that would not be classified as pornography (though I'm sure many, many people would argue with that choice). It's also one of the most haunting, moving, and brutally honest films, to the point where I would have a difficult time saying whether or not I believe it is a good movie.

The acting is excellent, the sets and cinematography are beautiful, and the direction is extremely thoughtful and challenging. So in a technical sense it is a well-made film. Yet I am sensitive to the criticisms of the film, which often rest on the assumption that an equally powerful film could have been made without what some feel is gratuitous sex and violence. The film is certainly entirely about sex - there are maybe one or two scenes that do not have sex as at least a backdrop to the actions or conversations taking place. And in no way is the film an enjoyable viewing. The question, I suppose, becomes whether or not the message of the film is worth the effort it takes to watch the film.

In the Realm of the Senses is based on the true story of a woman who accidentally murdered her lover and then cut off his penis. The event happened in the mid-30s in Japan, just as the country was marching to war, and the woman became a famous - and popular - figure in the country. Many people viewed her popularity as a rejection of the nationalist forces and as a call for individuality. This explains the title, which implies that in regards to sexuality between consenting adults, who is to judge and legislate on people? The two lovers become so obsessed with each other's bodies throughout the film that they stop eating and sleeping, only leaving their room long enough to make enough money to continue living there. Eventually this destroys them, and the death and resulting castration (which is shown in graphic detail, by the way) is juxtaposed with the destiny Japan finds itself headed towards, a different form of obsession leading towards self-destruction.

It's impossible to compare this film to the larger portion of film because there are so few films that treat sexuality in an open way that do not primarily exist to titilate. There is plenty more I can say about the film - and I recommend anyone who thinks they can take a viewing to do so and then read the excellent essays on the Criterion site - but I will instead just say that I think it ultimately succeeds because it believes in itself. If there had been a feeling during the film that the cast and crew were unsure of the movie they were producing, it could have easily shifted into a grim version of pornography that existed to attract the jaded or the disturbed. As it stands, though, In the Realm of the Senses is a movie about themes that aren't raised very often in film, if at all, and done in a forceful way that isn't afraid of its subject matter. It's an impressive feat, even if it's not an enjoyable one.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

#24: High and Low

(Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

Zodiac was my favorite movie of the 2000s and I now have little doubt that David Fincher has seen and loved High and Low, the first fully contemporary Kurosawa film I've seen. This brilliant police procedural begins with a businessman maneuvering to take over his shoe company, but quickly transitions into a kidnapping plot, told from beginning to end in painstaking detail.

It's not just the detail and procedural nature of the film that reminds me of Zodiac. Both films are intensely complex technical displays from master filmmakers, mostly for narrative suspense, but occasionally for flashier devices such as the Transamerican pyramid in Zodiac and the pink smoke here. Both films feature intense, understated performances from their leads (though admittedly Jake Gyllenhaal is no Toshiro Mifune). And both films successfully merge the suspense and intensity of the crime with the monotony and work ethic necessary to solve it.

Of course, High and Low is not based on a true story, and the killer doesn't get away, so we get a satisfying conclusion (of sorts). Where Zodiac used the obsession and wide-ranging investigation of the case to create an epic, High and Low's far-reaching ambition is in the varied elements that pull together into a solvable case. The police use taped phone conversations, scraped paint, false newspaper stories, a child's drawing, plain old boots on the ground, and finally smoke twisting and turning up into the sky. The movie's focus is so tightly constructed that the narrative lacks any excess, which makes it even more impressive how big this movie's scope seems.

Finally, Kurosawa's direction - most notably his framing and spacial work here - is what makes this film so brilliant. For anyone watching this for the first time, pay attention to the blocking in the first sequences in Mifune's house, and how Kurosawa uses the camera to cycle between the characters, eliciting the perfect emotion at every moment. This is a master at work, even better out of his traditional element, but still at the top of his game.

#337: À nos amours

(Maurice Pialat, 1983)

This is a very well made film, and it is very disturbing without being shocking or gross. The emotional and physical ordeal the lead character goes through is not pleasant to watch, and her performance pulls you in from the very beginning.

However, something about the film felt off to me. I think it is the sense that the filmmaker was somehow enjoying the path of discovery for Suzanne, rather than simply depicting it. It made me wonder what the film would have been like if it had been directed by a woman.

#53: Sanjuro

(Akira Kurosawa, 1962)

This sequel to Yojimbo is not the inarguable masterpiece that film was, but it's a great time nevertheless. The biggest hurdle to a sequel was the fact that we now know from the very beginning that Mifune's central samurai is not in it for the money, but is instead a good person. The solution is very smart: make the good guys and the bad guys clearly delineated, but make the good guys idiots that Mifune has to corral. Furthermore, the bad guys get a samurai of their own, a "tiger" in a world of cats, as Mifune says.

This all makes for a film that is extremely entertaining and satisfying, but it lacks that extra something that makes Yojimbo so great. A worthy sequel, though.

#165: Man Bites Dog

(Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoit Poelvoorde, 1992)

This is the first film I've seen during this project that I actively didn't like. Man Bites Dog is about a crew of documentary filmmakers who follow a serial killer around, learning his thoughts on life and depicting his various murders. My biggest problem with the film is that you can figure out everything the filmmakers are saying - about the media, about violence, about the inherent contradiction in verité film - from that one sentence description of the film.

Most of the references I have seen to Man Bites Dog in the last decade have been praise of its ability to predict the artificial construct of reality television. Yet the themes explored here seem cliché and well-worn even for 1992. The non-stop violence and charming racist aggression the main character displayed were more tiresome than shocking: we've seen it all before, and after all isn't that what the filmmakers are supposed to be telling us in the first place?

Monday, December 28, 2009

#11: The Seventh Seal

(Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

The Seventh Seal is the first movie during this project that I have re-watched, which is to say that years ago (possibly as long as a decade and a half) I watched this movie, and haven't seen it since. I remember nothing from that viewing except that the chess game wasn't as awesome (or as integral to the plot) as it had sounded, and the film had seemed longer than it actually was.

Watching this time, I was still not blown away by the film in the same way other Bergman films moved me, most notably Wild Strawberries and Scenes from a Marriage. But I was struck by how, well, typical the film was. Unlike other Bergman films, The Seventh Seal reminded me of Hollywood movies, much in the same way Kurosawa was able to intellectualize and "legitimize" action-adventure films in the 1950s. The film's characters speak like most characters in film in the 1950s, and there are the same emotions and explorations of interaction present here. And the movie is funny. There's comedy all around, most notably in the two most important characters, the knight's sidekick and the actor who leads his family to safety, and in Death himself.

Sure, there is that eternal Bergman theme of the silence of God, but it is so naturally tied to the film's themes and plot that it doesn't seem a stretch to believe that the same movie made in America would have raised similar points. So The Seventh Seal feels more like, say, Starship Troopers than, say, Cries and Whispers. OK, there are no giant bugs, but there is a clear sense of entertainment, of the respect and love for Hollywood. It's funny how so many of the auteurs of the first popular wave of foreign cinema in America - Kurosawa, Bergman, Godard - owe so much to early Hollywood, yet fifty years later are seen as the antithesis of that system. Watching The Seventh Seal this time around made this paradox that much more clear, and while it helped the case for the film's timeless appeal, it didn't make me love the movie any more.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

#110: M. Hulot's Holiday

(Jaques Tati, 1953)

Another Tati film, the first featuring Hulot (yes, I watched them in reverse order). This was my least favorite, as it had fewer moments of elaborately choreographed gags and sets that lacked the surreal appeal of future Tati films. In their place are jokes much more directly influenced by their silent film ancestors. Hulot is a Magoo style character, someone who inadvertently gets into trouble and then magically untangles himself through no fault of his own. This can be extremely clever when it works, but an hour and a half is a long stretch to fill with successful gags. Unlike Playtime and Mon Oncle, M. Hulot's Holiday doesn't have the visual appeal to sustain interest through these moments.

#111: Mon Oncle

(Jaques Tati, 1958)

Movies made before VHS - and certainly before television - must be viewed at home under a different light. In the eyes of the filmmaker, their movie was meant to be seen on a big screen, for as long as the movie would be seen. There are some movies that don't mind being shrunk down to size, though they are all better on a big screen. But then there are films that simply do not translate. 2001: A Space Odyssey is virtually unwatchable on a television. Lawrence of Arabia seems small and dull. Silent classics such as Sunrise and Metropolis lose their sense of spectacle almost entirely. If I had never seen Solaris in theaters, it would most likely not currently reside in my top ten favorite films of all time list.

Playtime, Tati's third film starring himself as M. Hulot, is a masterpiece, and it's one of my favorite films to see on the big screen. I suspect Mon Oncle would also benefit greatly from a big screen presentation. It is hard, for example, to appreciate the elaborate process of climbing and descending stairs that Hulot goes through in his apartment building from a single long shot unless the details are made that much pleasing and accessible.

Still, it is an undeniably enjoyable moment, and there are plenty of others here. But without many words and even less plot, the film can feel drawn out at home, where patience is in higher demand. This is a strong film - though it lacks the true brilliant spectacle of Playtime. It's just better served by its originally intended viewing location.

#52: Yojimbo

(Akira Kurosawa, 1961)

This is just one of those movies I'm embarrassed to have never seen, as it is obviously one of the more famous Kurosawa films. Remade (loosely) as A Fistful of Dollars, which in turn was remade (poorly) as Last Man Standing, Yojimbo is that perfect kind of movie about which there isn't much to say.

Mifune is awesome as the masterless Samurai, and the music is classic cool. Masaru Satu, who worked with Kurosawa on many of his movies, combined jazz and traditional Japanese motifs to come up with the perfect accompaniment to the film - weirdly enough, the score it reminded me of the most is Lalo Schiffrin's score from Bullitt, though unlike that masterpiece the score here does not surpass the film itself.

This is the first of many Kurosawa films I have to watch, plus I'll be watching Seven Samurai again, since I haven't seen it in so long. If this is any indication, I'm really looking forward to the assignment.

#73: Cléo from 5 to 7

(Agnès Varda, 1962)

One of the premier films of the French New Wave, Cléo de 5 à 7 is one of the more effective "real time" films I've ever seen. The film begins with Cléo, an up and coming pop singer, having her tarot cards read. The cards are in color, but the film is in black and white. Cléo is told she is sick, and she becomes distraught. This, we learn, is why she had her cards read in the first place: she is waiting to her back about her cancer biopsy. The next hour and a half consists of Cléo wandering through Paris, encountering co-workers, friends, lovers, and strangers along the way.
The real-time structure of the film allows the movie to wind its way through Paris with Cléo as she takes taxis and buses to her destinations. The nitpick here is obvious: if the film is in real time and only lasts 90 minutes, why isn't it called Cléo from 5 to 6:30? But beyond that the gimmick is extremely successful.

The real appeal of the film lies in the subtle yet highly stylized technique of Varda, who had never made a feature-length film before (note: where'd I get that?). The camera prowls around Cléo as if she were prey, particularly in the brilliant hat shopping scene. When Cléo first encounters people she knows, we hear their thoughts about her in order to establish their relationship. And in the most moving and effortlessly surreal scene, Cléo begins singing a song her songwriters have written for her. Her voice is accompanied by piano only, but as the song gets more intense, the camera pulls in until their is no one else in the room and the music swells into something else, from another place, and Cléo is alone with the song until she collapses from the emotion of it all and is snapped back into reality. It's a show-stopping scene that makes the film worth viewing just for that one brief moment.

Friday, December 25, 2009

#227: Le Corbeau

(Henri-George Clouzot, 1943)

Clouzot made two of my favorite thrillers of all time, the peerless Wages of Fear - perhaps the most suspenseful movie I've ever seen - and the deliciously creepy Diabolique. Scratch that, Clouzot made three of my favorite thrillers of all time, because you can add Le Corbeau to that list.

The film centers around a mysterious person who begins sending letters to the inhabitants of a small village in France. These letters reveal secrets about the people in the town, and soon everyone is suspecting everyone else. The letters are signed Le Corbeau: the raven.

Le Corbeau was made during the Nazi occupation of France, and the metaphor here - where everyone's secret allegiances turn friend against friend - is subtly evoked. But the more topical theme must be that of abortion. The film begins with the lead character, Dr. Germain, emerging from a home to explain to a mother that her daughter is going to live, but he had to let the baby die in order to save her life. There aren't many American films from the 40s that begin with the protagonist performing an abortion.

The film's central mystery is what drives the film, though, and the subtle ways in which the characters play off of each other, matched with the unraveling sanity of the town, is brilliant. It's the kind of suspense only someone as skilled as Clouzot could pull off. Here, in the early years of noir, is a film that is almost defiantly joined to the genre, a dark film about dark themes that strives for redemption.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

#407: Mala Noche

(Gus Van Sant, 1985)

I'm not a big Gus Van Sant fan. I did enjoy Milk a surprising amount, but I don't like My Own Private Idaho, Gerry and Last Days were dull, and even Good Will Hunting is severely overrated. So I had little interest in this film before watching it, but it was short so I thought I would get it out of the way quickly.

Fortunately, the film turned out to be rather interesting, a sort of inadvertently gay addition to the Queer Cinema genre. I say inadvertently because the film is entirely about a gay man and his unattainable lust for a younger man, an illegal immigrant named Johnny, but it could so easily be about straight people that it seems unnecessary to categorize the film as being about gay people, or at least gayness. This is perhaps what makes the movie seem so revolutionary: unlike the tiresome films about intolerance that preach to the unconverted (films from A Gentleman's Agreement to the admittedly excellent Brokeback Mountain), the lead character in Mala Noche, Will, simply is gay, gay right from the very first words of the film, with no apologies and no persecution. The slurs against gay people in the film, like the slurs Will himself delivers towards "the Mexicans," seem less about generalizing and more about personal attacks and emotional chess.

Shot in black and while for little money, Mala Noche is kind of beautiful, and artfully made without seeming pretentious. While I don't think I'll hold onto the experience of the film, it was good enough to convince me to give My Own Private Idaho another chance.

#470: Wise Blood

(Jhon (sic) Huston, 1979)

A genuinely weird, meandering movie, perfect in tone for Flannery O'Connor, but then I never much cared for O'Connor's work. Blasphemy for some, maybe, but a devout Catholic exploring the meaning of God in people's lives is not exactly my idea of a good time.

Nearly forty years before this movie was made, John Huston made one of my favorite films ever, The Maltese Falcon. The fact that this film is so different, and so seemingly contemporary to films made around the same time, demonstrates his ability - so rare in his generation of filmmakers - to transform his vision and evolve with the times. Wise Blood is no doubt an expertly made adaptation, but its an adaptation of a book I'll never read.

#54: For All Mankind

(Al Reinert, 1989)

A Ken Burns documentary this is not. After searching through countless reels of film shot during the Apollo missions, Al Reinert  composed this artful, trance-inducing, awe-inspiring tone piece on man's first and only journeys to the moon. Accompanied by unidentified dialog from the nameless men in the air and on the ground, the Brian Eno-composed score washes over you as some of the most startling and beautiful images NASA produced during its trip to the moon are presented without contemporary talking heads or fictionalized drama to get in the way.

The film will be inherently dull to most viewers, since there's no plot, little dialog, and only the barest of narrative momentum. But taken as the kind of movie it is meant to be, For All Mankind is extremely successful, one of the most innovative and daring documentaries I've ever seen. This is a film that is entirely focused on the spectacle of human achievement, nothing more, nothing less. Its confidence is stunning, even if it pales in comparison to the moment in history it so artfully presents.

Monday, December 21, 2009

#382: Overlord

(Stuart Cooper, 1975)

This movie reminded me of three other movies I can remember, and one I can't put my finger on that also used a mix of archival footage and fictional narrative. The three I can remember are Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket, and Paths of Glory. The first two are obvious, as the film documents one soldier's journey from training to his first and last moment of battle at Normandy beach on D-Day. The latter came to mind frequently while watching because both films are about man's subversion to a system, the individual's loss of identity from a military tradition that values power or authority or even "the greater good" over a life.

Oddly enough, I found out after watching the film that John Alcott was the cinematographer on the film. Alcott worked on Kubrick's output during the 1970s, including Barry Lyndon, which was filmed using only natural light and candles, and is certainly one of the most startlingly beautiful films ever made. Though he didn't work on either of the Kubrick films that Overlord reminded me of, it makes sense that there would be a link between this film and Kubrick, who also loved documentary footage (he began his career as a photographer) and made three significant war films in his career.

The film itself is a bit slow and super depressing, but is unique in a bare bones sort of way. Destruction dominates, and the story of the soldier is so straightforward as to be drained of any real impact. We know from the beginning that he will die, so we don't really care when it happens. Perhaps it is this soul draining separation from death that the film was trying to achieve in the first place. Either way, it's an interesting film that is more unique than exemplary.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

#431: The Thief of Bagdad

(Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, and Tim Whelan, 1940)

I have a lot of Michael Powell movies left to watch. The British director is most famous for his collaborations with Emeric Pressburger, and those collaborations are in turn most famous for one of Martin Scorsese's favorite films (actually, correct me if I am wrong, but I think it is his favorite film). I've seen that film a number of times, and I actually own it, but I haven't seen many other films directed by the pair, who have a number of Criterion titles.

The Thief of Bagdad is a children's movie, the kind of big budget, effects-laden spectacle that people pretend didn't exist before the 1980s. The plot is extremely similar to Disney's Aladdin, since they are both taken from Arabian Nights, but here the thief is not also the princess's love interest who becomes the king, but is instead merely a friend to a banished king who must reclaim his throne from the evil Jafar (pronounced differently here).

There's really not that much to this movie; if you like adventure films from the 30s and 40s, you'll probably like this. If not, well, it's fun to see the special effects - which pre-computers were both more clever and less convincing - but beyond that, this seems like a case where Powell's name helped this gain the Criterion label more than anything else.

#238: A Woman is a Woman

(Jean-Luc Godard, 1961)

Here's a Godard movie I just completely fell in love with from the very beginning. As a movie, there's not much here: Anna Karina plays a stripper who wants to have a baby but her boyfriend isn't ready, so she fights with him and flirts with having one with his best friend (whose last name is Lubitsch). That's pretty much it.

But as a movie about movies - about one moment in movies mixing with every other moment that has come before it - this is perhaps Godard's most playful and least conflicted engagement with the films he loved growing up. The film uses movie techniques as gags: editing a shouting match to seem rhythmic; using quick bursts of music throughout as if the film's decidedly non-musical dialog was prelude to a song the actors are resisting; breaking the fourth wall with no regard for realism. At one point, a character says, "Hurry up, Breathless is on TV and I don't want to miss it." Karina throws an egg up in the air, goes to tell someone on the phone to hold on one second, then goes back to catch the egg and plate it.

The film is not the kind of masterpiece that some of Godard's other films are. The characters lack depth, and this shallowness is strongest in Karina's character. Though she gives it her all, she ends up coming off like the unpredictable irrational female cliché at (most) times. The fights between the lovers are more surreal than recognizable, though one brilliant sequence involves them communicating through book covers when they are not speaking to each other. But I can't remember the last time a movie got me so excited at the idea of making a movie. Most of all, A Woman is a Woman boils over with that enthusiasm and 1961-era cool. It's an interaction with the world around it that so many films lack, and to be able to bring a sense of time not just to a story or theme but to a film's aesthetic and technique is what Godard does perhaps better than any other filmmaker in history.

Friday, December 18, 2009

#486: Homicide

(David Mamet, 1991)

The thing for which any good fiction writer strives, regardless of the medium, is an authentic and unique voice. What makes David Mamet one of the great living American writers, for both stage and screen, is the fact that countless people have tried to imitate his style, but only Mamet sounds like Mamet.

Homicide might not be the film House of Games or The Verdict (which he wrote with Sidney Lumet directing) is, but this unique voice is on full display. This is also the Mamet film that is most obviously a reflection on Mamet's own world view and sense of identity: the complex identity of the modern Jew. Mamet himself is a staunch supporter of Israel, and his book on the subject of Jewish identity, "The Wicked Son," was a deconstruction of "the self-hating Jew," which he defined himself as before his "awakening" (Mamet is also now a conservative, and refers to NPR as "National Palestine Radio"). The key scene in the film is when the lead character, a Jew played by Joe Mantegna investigating the murder of an elderly Jewish woman, confesses to a Jewish woman that he had been denying his heritage for years, all because his co-workers derided him and the Jews. It's a powerful scene, one of many in the film.

The one issue with the film that I have is perhaps the expected one, which is that the movie feels too judgmental of its lead character, and too aligned with the Jews that live their lives defined by their religion. Mamet is so tied up in his own world that instead of a complex portrait of someone struggling with their identity, the film seems focused on its message. Still, a highly enjoyable movie.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

#351: The Spirit of the Beehive

(Victor Erice, 1973)

Funny how one moody, reflective film about childhood can feel so personal and moving, while another moody, reflective film like The Spirit of the Beehive can feel so distant and dull. This movie, considered one of the great Spanish films of the 70s, did not connect with me. I found the pacing dull rather than meditative, and I didn't care about the characters, who seemed totally separate from each other and devoid of genuine emotion. Ana's attraction to Frankenstein played a smaller role than I had hoped, and ultimately failed to generate more interest.

The funny thing is, the film is set in 1940, right after the Spanish civil war that brought Franco to power. This is also around the same time one of my favorite movies of this decade was set, Guillermo Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone. That film also dealt with the afterlife, albeit in a much more literal way, since the film is essentially a ghost story. Erice's film, on the other hand, is more metaphoric. It's successful in its goals, and it's a beautiful, well-made movie. But there are too many dead-ends and empty moments of promise for me to feel a connection to the material. Perhaps another day I would love this movie. Today, it feels like someone else's favorite film.

#162: Ratcatcher

(Lynne Ramsay, 1999)

Lyrical, perfectly paced, and deeply moving, Ratcatcher is the kind of film that Criterion has the potential to expose to a wider audience. Lynne Ramsay, who has only made one other movie, the glacially paced and questionably plotted Movern Callar, created with Ratcatcher not just a fascinating depiction of life in Glasgow in the 1970s, when a garbage strike littered the streets with bags of trash, but an immediately recognizable portrait of childhood's resiliency.

I was thinking two things while watching the film. The first was that, like Ballad of a Soldier, Ratcatcher was an essential kind of cinema: the high tourist travelogue. High tourism gives one a sense of the place as it is really lived, as opposed to low tourism, which reinforces the tropes already associated with a place. Ratcatcher, like George Washington, or City of God, or Atarnarjuat, or even the severely flawed Gummo, is a highly stylized but nevertheless authentic depiction of a place in time, one the viewer most likely has never been and most likely will never go. Yet we feel like we have been there after the film, we understand what motivates the people from those places, and finally, we understand that they are a lot like us.

This is the second thing I kept thinking as I was watching the film: as hard as life was for James, the lead character in the film, his attitude and desires didn't seem that different from my own growing up. We all struggle with the same difficulties reconciling our emotions and dreams with the world around us - that's what childhood is at its most basic form. It's not that I had it as hard as James; obviously, that is far from the case, and it would be ridiculous to suggest otherwise. It's that the world we are born into is the only world we know, and it's the inherent resiliency of childhood which makes us all the same. Some of us succumb to our hardships, others rise above them (and depending on your reading of the ending, James might be either of these). But we all go through the same process, the struggle to hold onto the dreams of our youth and build a real life around them.

Looking over comments and essays about the movie, I was not surprised to see that the most talked about scene in the film was the scene of James climbing through the window at the half finished house that his family will most likely never move into and running through a wheat field, basking in the sun. It is the most striking scene not just because of the photography's change in both tone and texture (this is a beautiful film, by the way), but because of the contrast between James sleepwalking through his life and his moments of bliss in the field.

It is another scene that moved me, though. James's friend Kenny takes his mouse and ties him to a balloon in order to let him float up to the moon, and the result calls to mind the earliest moments of imagination in cinema and in childhood, those pristine ideas that everything is going to be different once we learn how to fly.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

#305: Boudu Saved From Drowning

(Jean Renoir, 1932)

Renoir is, as always, obsessed with class in this rags-to-riches-to-rags story of a bum that just wants to be a bum and that's all there is to it. Boudu Saved From Drowning is Renoir's first high-profile classic, though I found it a little too absurd. A well-to-do bookseller saves a bum from drowning and takes him under his wing, only to find out the man didn't particularly want to be saved and doesn't particularly have any interest in becoming just like the bookseller. There are a lot of really obvious moments here, like when the bookseller tells his housekeeper/mistress that he has a piano even though no one in the house plays piano because people of his standing are supposed to have a piano. Or when the bookseller realizes that saving Boudu was a mistake and says something along the lines of, "I suppose one should only save someone of their own class." It's all an amusing exercise in social satire, but compared to the alternately complex and outlandish Rules of the Game, the movie is as brutish and obvious as Boudu himself.

There is an appeal here still, a sort of looking-glass version of Capra's films that were being made around the same time. But it's not enough to make this any more than an enjoyable hour and a half. Worth seeing, but beyond that, I fail to see the lasting significance.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

#421: Pierrot Le Fou

(Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

I am one of those people that is mystified and challenged by Godard, which is to say I am a person. His films make me angry, confused, and excited about film, often at the same time. Breathless, his most widely praised and accepted classic, is the only one of his films I truly love. Contempt is rough going, an angry, violent film, violent in its depiction of men and women just as much as it is in its bitter ending. I think it is a great film, but I can't say I love it in the way Breathless simply oozes love for film and Hollywood.

Pierrot Le Fou is somewhere between the two when it comes to Godard's attempts to reconcile the movies he loves with the movies he wants to make. At its heart, the film is a noir - and in fact, it is based on an entirely different conventional crime novel, the kind that inspired so many of the classics that Godard championed in his former life as a critic and then relied upon for the underpinnings of Breathless. But the film has much more in common with Godard's later, more experimental work.

There are brief moments in the film where those previous touchstones can be found, but they seem tossed together, without any of the heart and enthusiasm of the more unusual sequences, like the bizarre sequence of Uncle Sam vs. Uncle Ho (Godard, of course, would become obsessed with the Vietnam War). The early scene of the party which Pierrot hates is the best moment of the film, where all the dull and helplessly hip characters speak as if they were narrating a television commercial. But my biggest problem with the film is how difficult it is to reconcile Godard's love of gangster pics with the way he treats the genre here. He seems completely lost in the movie, unsure of which way to take his career. It makes for brief moments of brilliance (unsurprising, since I don't think I've seen a Godard movie without one), but comes off as a series of ideas that have a fairly low success rate rather than a film as a whole.

Godard never makes a bad movie, in that going to see his films in a theater would always be superior to the average film released. His weaker films leave you with just as many things to think about as his strongest (sometimes more). But with a film like Pierrot Le Fou I'm left thinking about why I didn't care for the film. I think the contempt for his own selected genre has a lot to do with it. No pun intended.

Monday, December 14, 2009

#148: Ballad of a Soldier

(Grigori Chukhrai, 1959)

Ballad of a Soldier is cinema in its most essential form. It is just as visual as it is narrative, and the film is designed to elicit an emotional connection with the material that would be impossible in any other art form. The movie depicts the USSR during World War II as a country destroyed by war. One character has lost a leg, while another his home. A child blows bubbles aimlessly into the stairwell of an apartment complex where a soldier's wife has taken a home with another man. A poor city girl hops trains to see her aunt. These characters are all encountered by the soldier in the title, an inadvertent hero we already know is dead from the opening scene, yet we follow anyway.

I haven't seen many films from the Soviet Union; besides Tarkovsky, I can't think of any Russian filmmakers off the top of my head. But Ballad of a Soldier moved me. There was propaganda here - every superior officer is strict but even-minded and kind, and the soldier hero himself is practically a saint. But there's also complexity, in the soldier's admission of fright, in the one-legged soldier's mixed emotions about returning home, and most of all in the mother's embrace of a son she will only get to see once more for a brief moment. The film could easily be dismissed as a sort of mirror image of America's tomb of the unknown soldier, an everyman story of the pride inherent in giving yourself over to God and Country. But it is so effortlessly made, so convincing in its emotional touchstones, and so poetic in its imagery of a war-torn nation, that it isn't easy to ignore. A really great movie.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

#1: Grand Illusion

(Jean Renoir, 1937)

There are only a few movies in history that would seem right sporting the #1 spine. Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion is one of them, an undisputed classic from one of the most praised directors of all time. The film's main premise - that the notion of unresolvable differences between countries pales in comparison to the chasm that separates the classes the world over - is classic 20th century political film fodder. Renoir executes it perfectly, crafting a story about men stuck in the wrong war, the one about borders rather than social structures.

World War I is the classic anti-war-movie war, both because of its pointlessness and the sense that it was the last war of its kind, one fought with a different kind of honor. I might prefer the anti-authoritarian bent of Kubrick's Paths of Glory to the socialist manifesto on display here, and Renoir's own farce Rules of the Game might seem to me the more exhilarating send-up of the upper class. But Grand Illusion remains one of the great anti-war films ever made, and a great standard-bearer to begin the DVD version of the series.

#287: Burden of Dreams

(Les Blank, 1982)

Werner Herzog is probably the most interesting person alive, so a documentary about him can't go wrong, something confirmed in Burden of Dreams, which chronicles the making of Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. There's a lot here I didn't know - for example, Jason Robards was originally the lead in the film, but had to drop out after 40% of the filming was finished when he developed an illness and had to fly home. Not only was Klaus Kinski hired as a replacement, but the role of his dim-witted sidekick was completely dropped from the film after Mick Jagger had to pull out of the role in order to record and tour for Tattoo You.

The rest of the film is primarily dedicated to the immense challenges involved in getting the film made, particularly the politics involved in dealing with the natives of the rainforest and the challenges of filming giant ships in unpredictable weather and one of nature's most difficult locale. At one point, Herzog risks the lives of 60 men by attempting to pull a ship up a hill with a pulley system that was not designed for the incline he is working on. His relentless drive is astonishing, simply because the end goal seems so abstract: a film, Herzog's dream realized. He spends years and years in the jungle based entirely on the confidence he has in his vision. The question at the end of the film is whether Herzog is completely narcissistic or just obsessive. Does Herzog really believe all of this is worth the end result, a film which may or may not succeed artistically and commercially? Or can he just not see any other way to live?

A must see for anyone interested in the making of movies.

#353: Sólo Con Tu Pareja

(Alfonso Cuarón, 1991)

I'm a huge Cuarón fan, but I had never heard of this movie before Criterion picked up the rights to it. I had actually always assumed that Cuarón had been in television before his excellent family movie, The Little Princess. But this movie is quite in line with Y Tu Mama Tambien, his best film, which similarly dealt with the consequences of sex but in a very different way.

This film is a comedy, sometimes a little too broad in the Mexican way (which is similar to the French way comedies can be a little too broad), but also sometimes brilliantly surreal and dark. It deals with AIDS in a comedic way, which must have seemed quite risqué in 1991, and features a dream sequence which is pretty funny and an ending that is emotionally satisfying (plus a couple of tower shots that remind me of the end of Babel).

Overall, not his best movie, but a movie worth bigger exposure, which is what Criterion is all about.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

#273: Thieves' Highway

(Jules Dassin, 1949)

Spectacular artwork on this one, and the movie didn't disappoint. This is a strong addition to the film noir genre, complete with backstabbing criminals, street-smart women, and the dark side of life in the city. Like all good noir, the city is as big a character in the film as any of the actors, and San Francisco doesn't disappoint, coming across as a shadowy town where people roam the streets hungry for apples and revenge.

I don't know if I would go so far as to rank it up there with classics like Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, or even Dassin's own Night and the City, which he made after this, but this is the kind of movie that was able to get made in 1949 without much fanfare. If only the average boilerplate thriller was still made with this much craft and intelligence.

#43 Lord of the Flies

(Peter Brook, 1963)

What a difference a few years might have made. In the early 60s, filmmakers were churning out adaptations like this, although Brook's theater experience definitely makes this more unique than most of those films. But put this movie in 1967, or even better, '72, and you would have a totally different movie - perhaps one I would have loved. As it stands, the film just doesn't measure up to the book - not because Brook did anything to change the novel's story and in spite of the fact that Brook elicited fairly strong performances from the child actors and filmed the movie on location on a deserted island. Instead, it's the static cinematic vision, a sense that what is going on in front of the camera is all that matters. It makes for a movie that fails to distinguish itself from the source material.

Adapting books has always been difficult because the things you can imagine are inevitably more appealing to you than someone else's vision. It's only when that vision surpasses your own or when the material is used in a new light that a film becomes the superior, or at least equal, to its book. Here, the movie seems more a reenactment of the book. In the hands of a more experienced and confident filmmaker at a different time, when he or she would feel less restrained by the language of film available, I think this would have been a better movie.

#437: Vampyr

(Carl Dreyer, 1932)

When it comes to silent films (or in this case, mostly silent), I am very opinionated, and I generally find that if I like a director, I'm going to like the film. I like every Fritz Lang movie I've seen. I love every Buster Keaton movie I've seen. And I worship every Tod Browning movie I've ever seen. I know it's heresy, but I just don't care for Dreyer, both silent and not. I was hoping I would have a different response to this one, both because it is a vampire movie - so different from his other movies - and because I had heard really good things about it. But it just didn't do it for me. I enjoyed a few of the more atmospheric moments at the end, but overall I'm pretty much done with this one. Anyone have any insight on why I should think about this one again?

#494: Downhill Racer

(Michael Ritchie, 1969)

To be honest, I had never heard of this movie before. Apparently, I'm not alone, as the movie is even overlooked in director Ritchie's career. Ritchie is much better known for The Bad News Bears, Fletch, and even the movie he made three years after this with star Robert Redford, The Candidate. (That movie remains depressingly insightful and relevant when it comes to the need to compromise yourself in order to be a successful politician, and come to think of it it would be a great addition to the Criterion catalog.) To make matters even worse for the film, Redford made a little movie called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid the same year, so even in 1969 people didn't pay much attention to this little film.

That's a shame, because it's a damn good movie. I hate snow, which is kind of well known, so I don't care much for skiing. But by the end of the film, I was making plans to watch the downhill skiing in the Winter Olympics. I don't like doing plot summaries, so I'll just say the basic idea is that Redford is an up-and-coming ski star and Gene Hackman is his coach. It's very late-60s, lots of zooming, very little music, and a deliberate pace.

[Take the jump for spoilers.]