Friday, December 24, 2010

#107: Mona Lisa

(Neil Jordan, 1986)

Mona Lisa belongs to two crudely constructed genres which generally don't thrill me: the performance film and the slice of vaguely noirish cinema in which naive men become exposed to the dark sexual habits to which women often fall victim. The latter - to which a massively wide-ranging quality of films belong, including everything from Taxi Driver to the recent joke/surprise hit Taken - can often be either oppressively dark or weirdly fetishistic. Taken, for example, revels in the male fantasy of protecting untainted girls from the evil grasp of the rest of the horny male sex, all while pretending (albeit very vaguely) to condemn conventional concepts of sex and gender power dynamics. It's a "have your cake and eat it, too" style of filmmaking that, sadly, can be easily well received by the general moviegoing public (worst of all, Taken was especially popular among women). On the other hand, Taxi Driver, of course, leads to the destruction of civilization, to the point where even any kind of redemption that can be taken from Travis Bickle's final moments is difficult to carry under the weight. (Side note: I feel I've been comparing really amazing movies to really awful movies a lot recently.)

Mona Lisa, fortunately, avoids both of these conclusions, instead depicting an entirely realistic and extremely moving climax which avoids both exploitation and hopelessness. A big part of this success can be attributed to Neil Jordan, who manages to make the film moody without being mannered, and generally paints a melancholy but redemptive picture of London as a noir capitol. But most of the success can go to Bob Hoskins, who is simply stunning and heartbreaking as George, an ex-con who slowly falls in love with the prostitute he's charged with driving around town to her various johns. There aren't a whole lot of performances that spring to mind that can compare to Hoskins here, who is understated and controlled where his character from The Long Good Friday was oversized and full of fire.

It's easy to compare the two movies, really, since both are British noir films starring (really, entirely focused on) Hoskins. But Mona Lisa has none of the religious baggage the earlier film had (here, I guess, it's mostly sexual) and though it lacks the energy that carried The Long Good Friday through to its climax, it makes up for it in personal stories that carry far more weight and simply feel more relatable. Even if it takes some time to get going, it's a very strong picture, one of Jordan's best, and even though I usually shy away from movies that center around one major performance, Hoskins makes Mona Lisa a must see.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

#364: Monsters and Madmen

(Robert Day and Spencer G. Bennet, 1958-1959)

Monsters and Madmen is an unusual but welcome addition to the collection. It is a solid representation of a very specific kind of film from a very specific era in film history. While many of the movies from this era have become extremely campy with passing time, even the rudimentary effects of The Atomic Submarine and the ridiculous costume in First Man into Space are easy to ignore because you are invested in the story and more amazed by the filmmakers' sheer (perhaps misguided) confidence to pull it off.

Of the four films, I enjoyed Bennet's more than Day's three. Not only did The Atomic Submarine have the most enjoyable effects, the best lines, and some of the more interesting philosophical underpinnings, it was also for me the most fun by far. I loved the alien, whose look recalled The Simpsons and intentions recalled The Twilight Zone. I loved the ship, one of the most obvious models I've ever seen in a film, the kind of effect that makes you think Ed Wood wasn't so off the mark. Mostly, though, I loved the score, which was futurism at its wackiest.

Then there's The Haunted Strangler, which I actually think could be remade with a few tweaks to make the reveal a bit more believable. In fact, Karloff's performances in that film and Corridors of Blood helped carry the movies. The only one I didn't really like First Man into Space, most likely because the threat seems so unlikely to us now (the film was dated in just a few years). Still, a great collection, and while it's not the ideal set for me, it's the kind of thing that probably changed the lives of a few fellow nerds out there.

Links to individual reviews:

First Man into Space
The Atomic Submarine
The Haunted Strangler
Corridors of Blood

#367: The Haunted Strangler

(Robert Day, 1958)

 The Haunted Strangler has basically the exact same plot structure as Corridors of Blood. Boris Karloff plays a well-intentioned, well-respected man in the 1800s who is searching for a solution to a common problem and unwittingly becomes the villain. He has a younger protégé who is romantically involved with his younger relative in both, and both end in tragic finales.

On the other hand, The Haunted Strangler has a much more appealing concept behind it. Karloff is searching for a man who may have been the real killer in a serial spree twenty years earlier... though of course there's more to it than that. Karloff, for his part, gets to do some really great over the top physical work here, and the movie is a memorable one (and not just because the final victim in the initial spree was Martha Stewart!). Ultimately, though, these are the kind of movies that are more pleasurable than anything else, worthy distractions from more serious weighty topics (see the last month of Bergman viewings). I enjoyed it more than Corridors of Blood, but the genre itself fails to grab me beyond basic entertainment.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

#477: Bergman Island

(Marie Nyrerod, 2006)

Bergman Island was released on Criterion two years after the director died, and it's a testament to what he means to the collection - and of course to film in general - that they released it at all. The film is little more than an extended conversation with Bergman where he reflects on his career, his life, and his looming death. Though he wasn't sick, he had clearly not only retired from his job, but retired almost entirely from the world. He never left the island of Fåro he settled on for the last few years of his life.

The movie is ultimately a reminder of both Bergman's great mind (which was still very much alive and sharp) and his terrible personal life, mirroring in many ways the life of his most famous fan, Woody Allen. Married a number of times, uninterested in his children, generally callous towards anyone he had lost interest in, Bergman was a true "artist" in the worst sense of the word, the kind you hope isn't the norm but is instead the exception. I've always found it quite easy to ignore the unlikable life story of a director or musician or author in order to enjoy their work, and I don't think Bergman is any different. However, I don't mean to say that I absolve Bergman of his sins, or believe his work somehow makes up for what he did to a fairly large number of people (he had nine children). But especially now, years after those wounds were opened and many of them have healed, his work lives on and will continue to live on. It doesn't make him any more right (or, let's face it, any less dead) but it makes our lives richer.

#264: The Making of Fanny and Alexander

(Ingmar Bergman, 1982)

The Making of Fanny and Alexander was the first of two feature-length documentaries I watched to round out my mini Bergman fest. Included as a supplement in the Fanny and Alexander boxset (but nevertheless given a spine number due to its length), the documentary is an interesting look behind the scenes at Bergman's last masterpiece, but it's by no means a standalone piece.

The documentary is arranged as vignettes that run through the entire course of filming, broken up only by cards written by Bergman which set up each sequence (and/or make witty little asides). The result is a sparse aesthetic and a gentle hand behind the camera and in the editing room which makes for a good document but not much of a documentary. Worth viewing only for true fans of Bergman and Fanny and Alexander.

Friday, December 3, 2010

#262: Fanny and Alexander (TV Version)

(Ingmar Bergman, 1982)

Watching this four-and-a-half-hour masterpiece, I was reminded of one of the great tragedies of cinema, the (as far as we know) complete destruction of Orson Welles's original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. The surviving 90-minute version of the follow-up to Citizen Kane is still one of the great films of the 40s, and inevitably what had been done with the original cut would have been even more impressive.

Welles had complete artistic freedom when he made The Greatest Film of All Time, but the rest of his career basically consisted of him being shit on by everyone in the industry. Bergman had a much more conventional experience for a master director, so thankfully, by the time his swan song rolled around, he had been given free rein on his films for decades. This allowed him to create both a three-hour theatrical version of the film (which won Best Foreign Film, Bergman's third) and this full-length version. Based on the cuts described, I can't fathom preferring the shorter edition of the film, as some of the cuts seem to sink to the core of the film's strengths.

The movie itself is ridiculously confident, touching upon nearly all of Bergman's most recognizable themes. But it's also Bergman's warmest and most nostalgic movie, reflecting fondly upon a simulacrum of his childhood. There are certainly dark, even harrowing, moments, most notably the scene of Emilie wailing in the night after the death of her husband and the riveting scene of the showdown between Alexander and the bishop. But they are countered with the joyous banquets that bookend the film and a sense of mystery and playfulness that shines with the love of film, which is to say the love of entertainment, discovery, trickery.

I thought of The Magician, Smiles of a Summer Night, Winter Light, The Silence, Wild Strawberries, and The Seventh Seal while watching Fanny and Alexander, and I'm sure subsequent viewings would add to that list. Plenty of people have recognized or posited that the film is a sort of autobiography of Bergman, but when they say that they are often speaking of the director's childhood. Clearly there are moments that confirm this, but I think the film is far more relevant to his later years, the years of his career as a filmmaker. It makes for a rare opportunity to experience the summation of a great career within a compelling and memorable story that stands on its own.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

#292: Unfaithfully Yours

(Preston Sturges, 1948)

I hadn't seen Unfaithfully Yours in a while, so when I saw it was on Netflix streaming I decided to give it another try and see if I was wrong about ranking it a notch below Sturges's great masterpieces, most notably The Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels. The film first came to my attention in one comedy ranking list or another that I read when I was younger, claiming that it was one of the best comedies ever. Considering that the film had rarely come up in descriptions of Sturges's work - along with the two films above, most often mentioned are the screwball classic The Palm Beach Story and the Code-defying The Miracle of Morgan's Creek - my interest was piqued. However, the first viewing was a moderate disappointment. There were certainly great moments that confirmed Sturges's touch, and the film moved along at a crisp and light pace, despite the wickedly black humor at the core of the film. But it lacked any compelling characters, and Rex Harrison (though I love him) was simply unable to carry a film like Henry Fonda, or even really Joel McCrea.

Watching it again, I had many of the same issues. I generally love dark films, and there's a certain pleasure in watching Sturges's get away with a fantasy sequence in which his main character murders someone with great gusto (though the gender dynamics of the scene leave me a little cold). But I don't know if it's really earned enough to be warranted, and I think the film sags without a truly memorable star to prop up the weightiness of the subject matter. Still, it's a very enjoyable movie, and a worthwhile watch. But it's not a classic by any means, and I'd much rather see Palm Beach Story in the collection.

#255: Opening Night

(John Cassavetes, 1976)

Opening Night is the last Cassavetes film in the Criterion boxset John Cassavetes: Five Films, both chronologically and for me personally. The five films, Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night, are also the only Cassavetes films I've seen (though I did see most of Gloria a long time ago but remember little of it). Within the group, A Woman Under the Influence is the only one I really loved and this final one, Opening Night, is my least favorite.

Without any of the crackling energy of Shadows or Faces and none of the dramatic resonance of A Woman Under the Influence or The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night felt extremely dull. It didn't help that the movie was about the stage (which, as I've discussed before, holds little interest for me), but what really got to me was the trademark Cassavetes looseness of the tone and dialog. Certainly the director that has most carried the Cassavetes torch since his passing is Mike Leigh, another actor's director who turns intense rehearsal and improvisation into tight literary works that operate as a kind of technical exploration of personal interaction. It shouldn't come as much surprise to hear that I'm not much of a fan of Leigh's either.

One thing I want to get on this blog is some opening thoughts on a dismissal of either a great film or a great director. Obviously in this specific case I don't think Cassavetes is a bad director, I don't even think that people who love his films are wrong. They simply do not have any kind of significant impact on me, and his style rubs me the wrong way. I think there is a big difference between this perspective and tearing down someone's work in the way that I believe, say, Lars Von Trier's films deserve. Honestly, with a director like Cassavetes, I would much rather stay silent on his work, simply because I don't feel like I bring anything to the table since his films didn't engage me, and I certainly wouldn't write on them if it wasn't for the format of this blog.

I think this tends to be a big problem in film criticism, where new work must be reviewed regardless of the impact (or lack thereof) it had on the writer. This makes for a lot of mediocre work that sometimes dismisses films that deserve a closer look and praises films that should have a sharper critical eye taken to them. The former is the true tragedy, and I think emphasizes the responsibility of critics as cultural gatekeepers (though really in this age of technology overload more as cultural quality control). Just because a work doesn't move you is no reason to dismiss it. But it's also not a reason to discount your own personal experience with the work. Genuine art - as opposed to commercial skill-based product masquerading as art - must always demand respect, but it does not demand appreciation. John Cassavetes spent his entire life struggling to navigate a difficult studio system and the trials of raising the enormous sums of money necessary to produce films because he deeply believed in the work he was producing. While none of this separates him from Ed Wood, the fact that his work isn't merely about making films for the sake of films, but about examining the human condition makes his work worth examining, and his technical skill sets him apart. What this means is that my word, like the word I have given on every film on this blog, is by no means meant as a definitive look at a film or his work, but as a personal response meant as a soundboard for both readers and myself as I look back on these thoughts. Just as reviewing L'Avventura gave me a new perspective on the film that greatly improved my opinion of it, twenty years from now I may feel very differently about Cassavetes. Considering how well made his films are, I wouldn't be surprised.

#60: Autumn Sonata

(Ingmar Bergman, 1978)

Autumn Sonata is an infinitely better movie than Precious. Let's get that out of the way now.

Okay, that being said, let's talk about movies that punch you in the gut just because it seems like a fun thing to do. Autumn Sonata, like Bergman's earlier Cries and Whispers, is the kind of film you need to watch an episode of Entourage after viewing, just to clear your head of the bad thoughts (or any thoughts, really). Combining mentally challenged people, dysfunctional families, and stunted emotional growth with topics ranging from abortion to rape, the movie is so spiritually draining that it becomes extremely difficult viewing, even as it holds your attention completely throughout its running time.

Are movies like these really worthwhile? At a certain point, Precious, which did not have the benefit of a director who ranks among the ten or fifteen greatest of all time and two actresses that have similarly high-level talents, becomes so over-the-top tragic that it takes on a pedantic tone that turns the film into medicine instead of art, though the medicine is there for a sickness that doesn't really exist. Finally, it just ends up tasting bad for no reason. The question then becomes whether or not this effect is tied to the technique and artfulness of the film. In other words, does Autumn Sonata avoid the ditch Precious drives into, simply because it is a far better executed and intelligent movie?

Mainly because this is a difficult question to answer, Autumn Sonata isn't quite Bergman's late-era masterpiece (more on that one later) but it does have the kind of confident preciseness and masterful thematic and technical control viewers are rewarded with when an older established filmmaker nears the end of their career. The issues and motivations Bergman is most interested in exploring had been honed over thirty years of filmmaking, and with a film like Autumn Sonata they come so naturally that the movie seems to be both reality show and extended metaphor simultaneously. However, I do think Bergman covered similar themes more successfully in Cries and Whispers, while the piling on of tragedy after tragedy is not as rewarding or worthwhile here as it was there.

The film is also a pairing of Swedish cinema's two most famous (and similarly named) film icons, Ingmar Bergman and Ingrid Bergman, and this is really where its major significance comes into play. Despite the fact that Ingrid plays a horrible woman, her performance is excellent, and she is able to make us feel sorry for her without playing the victim. It's certainly weird to watch her speaking Swedish, but it's also interesting to watch her in a film that is so much more modern than movies I've seen countless times, most notably (of course) Casablanca and Notorious, both of which I have probably seen over 30 times. Seeing this film reminds me that apart from the star system that carried her through so many masterpieces throughout her career, Ingrid was truly a great actress who was beautiful to both the viewer and the camera, and one of the great stars in film history.

The last and most obvious observation I made was just how similar Woody Allen's Bergmanesque films are to this one. Interestingly, Interiors, undoubtedly Allen's most overt tribute to Bergman, was made a year before Autumn Sonata. It's almost as if Bergman saw Allen's film and said, "You think that's Bergman? Here's some fucking Bergmany Bergman."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

#71: The Magic Flute

(Ingmar Bergman, 1975)

Let's be realistic here. I tried to keep an open mind, but there was really no way I was going to like this movie.The only thing I appreciate about opera is the grand spectacle experienced first-hand, so transitioning to filmed performance ruins any energy I may have fed off of in the rendition of Mozart's work.

Bergman loved classical music, so it's no surprise to see him literally take a stab at the genre here. Filmmakers of Bergman's generation were still around for the tail end of the glory days of the stage - there are few great directors of the current generation who have the same appreciation for the medium. Since I am of the latter generation, it's not surprising that I wouldn't have the same reaction to this film that I might have had I been born a few decades earlier.

This might seem like a surprising thing to say to people who do love the stage considering the fact that Mozart's opera was originally written hundreds of years ago; surely a few decades cannot erase what a few hundred years couldn't? Yet this is the power of film and television, which have effectively replaced the cultural significance of theater, while only popular music concerts (and, to a lesser degree, stand up and improv comedy) have remained socially relevant as live performance.

Bergman does make an attempt to turn Mozart's work into a cinematic piece, using engaging camera angles and shots of audience members far more enraptured than I was. But ultimately this is still just Mozart's The Magic Flute. If you like that, you'll like this. I don't, so I didn't.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

#366: The Atomic Submarine

(Spencer G. Bennet, 1959)

This was a real surprise. After two okay inclusions in the Monsters and Madmen boxset, here's a really spectacular film. Shot in an astonishing six days of principal photography, The Atomic Submarine is just as low budget and makeshift as First Man into Space, but crackles with the kind of imagination and subversive filmmaking that film didn't provide.

The two big standouts here are the effects and the music. The former are alternately hilarious and incredibly inventive, though often both. The submarine itself is so obviously a model that you keep expecting to see a hand holding it as it floats through the water, while the alien itself was clearly more of a substantial undertaking that certainly never feels real but is so appealing constructed that you hardly mind (it was also clearly the inspiration for the aliens on The Simpsons). Effects like this remind you what has been lost with the adoption of computer generated images. Instead of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and cunning, all you can see in effects now is work. You would never go to see Spiderman and ask, "How did they do that?" because the answer is now always "Computers." This has ideally benefited the storytelling by preventing you from being taken out of the movie - and in some instances where the effects are seamless, it certainly has. But in movies like The Atomic Submarine or The Thief of Bagdad, these effects had to be made on the fly, often by people who had never encountered these issues before. Part of this is that cinema was still relatively new in the 1950s and part of it was the lack of modern technology. But what it adds up to is an extremely entertaining experience. Then there is the music, which is played over most of the moments featuring the effects. This is some strange music, certainly of its space-age time but also somewhere between the most psychedelic 70s porn music and the laid-back cool of that era's Jazz. It's mindbending and totally awesome, the kind of score that reminds you how many buried treasures there are in films like this.

The story of The Atomic Submarine is no more impressive than the story of First Man into Space: a bunch of military guys and scientists go to the north pole to find out what is preventing ships from passing through, only to find an alien intent on colonizing the earth. The narration is done in a newsreel style that reminded me of Fishing with John more than it did newsreels. But the acting is actually not too shabby and the film is bursting with so much love for film and creativity despite its low-art origins that I don't think it's possible for even the most jaded viewer to avoid its spell.

One last thing, a character here is put on the submarine because a close family member was unable to go and he is the only other person who can operate a highly technical piece of machinery, so he goes reluctantly. Remind you of anything else?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

#365: First Man into Space

(Robert Day, 1959)

First Man into Space is one of the movies in the collection that is included not because it is great or especially relevant, but because it is not exceptional. Sure, it's made with a certain indefinable confidence, born not out of ambition but out of love for film. And yes, it is really astonishing that the filmmakers were able to pull off a fairly believable (if you ignore the now-cheesy slow-moving monster) sci-fi thriller with what probably amounted to a couple thousand dollars in finds. But there have been so many movies like First Man into Space made over the years that it's hard to really get excited about it. Finally, the movie is a bit of a drag, as it doesn't really get going until about an hour in (the movie is less than 90 minutes long) and you never really care that much about any of the characters.

When people talk about movies like First Man into Space, they often speak of the genre as a dead one, first made popular in the 1950s and dying out somewhere around the early 80s when Hollywood tightened up the distribution racket and films got more and more expensive to produce (especially films like this when audiences began to demand more and more sophisticated effects). But taking a look at recent sci-fi fare reveals that there are still movies being made in a somewhat similar fashion - the recent dud Skyline is a solid example of this. This makes films like First Man into Space interesting viewing for anyone who loves film history, but it doesn't improve their quality.

I'll freely admit I am not the audience for this kind of movie. The closest I probably come to loving a film like this would be either John Carpenter's remake The Thing or Brad Bird's homage The Iron Giant. But I can't imagine kids who would love a film like Skyline or something like the recent not-totally-terrible Pandorum would be able to sit through this movie, which is dated by its glacial plot and focus on morality tales in the name of pioneering science. It's not the special effects in the film that seem most dated, it's the style of entertainment.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

#208: A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman

(Ingmar Bergman, 1961-63)

The trilogy of faith divides Bergman's career. The Silence feels to me like the first film of the second half of his life. Just as Sawdust and Tinsel had kernels of the themes that would be explored in films like The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and The Virgin Spring, The Silence is a starting point for the explorations of family, jealousy, and the passage of time as it relates to relationships that Bergman would delve further into with Scenes From a Marriage, Cries and Whispers, and the film that was most obviously influenced by this one, Persona.

Part of the appeal and revolutionary nature of the set is that it is looking forward to these films much more than it is looking backward, and this seems like the real benefit of the trilogy for Bergman. As the trilogy evolves, Bergman sheds many of the questions which had dogged him throughout his career. This break is not just thematic, but technical as well. While Bergman and Sven Nykvist had already worked together, this trilogy is really where their work began to bear fruit. Bergman's directing is also much more dynamic throughout the trilogy, both with the camera and with actors.

And yet watching Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie makes it entirely clear that Bergman wasn't thinking about this dynamic in any way, and in fact wasn't even thinking of a trilogy when he made these films. This kind of makes it even more interesting, as the themes that run between the films are so similar - most notably the manner of God's silence and his appearance as a spider. The philosophical arc of the films is incredibly powerful despite a lack of specific planning on Bergman's part (though certainly intentional continuation of his themes). This outside intention in no way impacts the immediate reactions to the films. All three films are extremely powerful, and taken together they are particularly affecting. I highly recommend them to anyone who has thoughtfully considered the nature of God and their own relationship to both personal and organized religion.

Links to individual reviews:
Through a Glass Darkly
Winter Light
The Silence
Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie

#212: Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie

(Vilgot Sjöman, 1962)

Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie is certainly not a worthy artifact on its own in the way that The Burden of Dreams is. But taken in the context of Bergman's work - and Winter Light in particular - the film is enormously fascinating and ultimately very rewarding to the Bergman fan. It's not something that would make sense as a standalone product, but in a boxset with the film it's focused on and the surrounding companion pieces it's a great and worthy addition.

The best parts of the documentary are the conversations Bergman and Sjöman have together one on one. Part of the reason for this is that Bergman refused to let Sjöman on set, so the other elements of the film are basically recreations. But the rest of the reason is that the conversations are completely awesome. Bergman feels comfortable enough with Sjöman to be totally honest with him, and Sjöman feels comfortable enough with Berman to offer his own interpretations, which Bergman cannily deflects. It's a fascinating look into the mind of one of the undisputed great filmmakers, one that any person interested in making films should surely watch.

The section which particularly moved me (and excited me) was the final episode, in which Bergman discusses critics and his response to their opinions as an artist. As someone who has been both a critic and an artist who has had their output reviewed, it was an extremely intriguing and beneficial conversation. Bergman and Sjöman raise many of the major concerns I've had on both sides of the artistic spectrum. Obviously, it's simultaneously satisfying and terrifying to know that someone like Bergman - one of the acknowledged masters in cinema - has all of the same insecurities and fears that an average artist of my mediocre caliber has. But it's also inspiring to watch someone as insightful as Bergman reflect on these things and ultimately come to terms with them.

Ultimately, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie is not worth watching for anyone who doesn't appreciate the trilogy with which it is packaged. However, for people like me who loved Winter Light in particular, it's an invaluable resource for insight into the filmmaking process, one for which I am grateful to Vilgot Sjöman for making the effort to document a crucial moment in film history.

Monday, November 8, 2010

#211: The Silence

(Ingmar Bergman, 1963)

The final film in Bergman's Trilogy of Faith is almost completely devoid of God. It feels freeing for Bergman, and features by far the most optimistic ending of the trilogy, despite the fact that the rest of the film is just as dark as the other two installments. The final shot of Johan leaves the film looking towards the future. The boy has been freed from the sensual spiritual grasp of his mother and reaching out to his intellectual aunt for an emotional connection, curious about the world and open to its ideas, even when war surrounds him and uncertainty is in the air.

Obviously the hotel in this film reminded me of Last Year at Marienbad (and by extension The Shining) even before Peter Cowie brought it up in the supplement. There aren't many similarities between the films, but they both feel like death surrounds them. The hallways that Johan explores feel more like waking dream than concrete reality. We know the dwarfs are real, yet we can't help wonder where they came from or why they are there, just as we do with the main characters. We know nothing of the war which rages outside - but then again how much do we know of the war within the hotel? The sisters despise each other, but why? They obviously serve as two sides of one person, but did anyone else get a weird incest vibe from them here?

The Silence didn't grab me 100% the way the previous two films in the series did, but it's still a memorable and moving film. Both performances by the lead women match the caliber to which any viewer of Bergman's work would be accustomed, and Nykvist again throws down, with swooping shots through the hotel hallways and dusty, ravenous moments interspersed throughout. I think further viewings of the trilogy might give me a stronger opinion of this final chapter, but these certainly aren't movies you should rewatch immediately, but instead absorb and then revisit.

One of the more interesting facts Cowie relays in the supplement is that The Silence is the Bergman film that had the highest attendance numbers. This is depressing but kind of funny, not because The Silence is not an excellent movie but because this interest so obviously stemmed from the sexual content of the film, which is almost entirely devoid of eroticism (with the possible exception of the scene in the theater, depending on whether or not that sort of thing is your bag). The idea of going to a Bergman film to get off reminds me how silly people can be about sex, especially when they are prevented from being exposed to it.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

#210: Winter Light

(Ingmar Bergman, 1962)

I have to wonder if I'm loving Bergman's faith trilogy because I was raised without religion or in spite of it. Where Through a Glass Darkly was about the misguided reliance upon God - and its devastating consequences - Winter Light is about the struggle to come to terms with God's absence. Despite essentially spending 80 minutes watching someone attempt to work through a problem I never had, I was completely enraptured by Winter Light, which I would say I enjoyed even more than Through a Glass Darkly.

I think a big part of this is something that Peter Cowie said on the bonus material (he has excellent insights on all three films). Winter Light isn't exclusively about a priest, or even about God, but instead about someone who has dedicated their life to something, only to realize they don't believe in it. The main character could easily be a doctor or a lawyer (probably not a blogger, though) and this makes the film even more universal than movies about religion usually are.

Apart from the intense emotional impact of the film, two technical things about Winter Light really blew me away. The first was the structure of the screenplay, which takes place over just a few hours. It begins with one service - the empty process - and concludes with the beginning of another. Yet the core of the film is a deconstruction of that process, a confrontation with what is performed and why. The movie is essentially a response to that first scene, and everything which follows is a rejection of the routine, the unquestioned traditions.

The second thing is Sven Nykvist's camerawork, which is extremely stark and striking. The scene in which the priest goes to see the body of the man he has essentially driven to suicide could have easily been lifted from a film noir. It's such an unusual sequence for Bergman, but is so emotionally effective that you hardly think about its place in the film until long after seeing it. Nykvist was one of the great cinematographers of all time, and would go on to work with Bergma acolyte Woody Allen on a few of his films, including Allen's own moral dilemma movie Crimes and Misdemeanors. Though Bergman had worked with other cinematographers in the 50s, he would stick with Nykvist after The Virgin Spring, which was the first full collaboration they had. Nykvist's work on the Faith Trilogy must have made Bergman very happy with his decision.

One last thing about Winter Light that has me a tad confused. Cowie views the ending of the film, in which the priest begins his sermon to an audience of just one, the woman he has just rejected, as an optimistic one, since Bergman is saying even if you only reach one person it is worthwhile. Personally, I was pretty wrecked by the ending, and felt that it was anything but positive. I don't know if I'm wrong or if Bergman purposefully left this open to interpretation. Either way, Winter Light is a remarkable film, and worthy follow up to Through a Glass Darkly.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

#552: Broadcast News

(James L. Brooks, 1987)

When Criterion announced they were releasing Broadcast News in early 2011, I'm pretty sure I let out a little yelp like a puppy. If I had to pick five movies that every American should be forced to watch in order to enter productive society, Broadcast News would be one of them. Not only does James Brooks's best movie (by a country mile, btw) represent one of the great romantic comedies of the past thirty years, it's also astonishingly - and sadly - relevant to the modern news landscape. Despite its most obviously dated element (the importance of objective network news, with no sign of cable news networks to be found - CNN was only a fly buzzing around the ears pre-Desert Storm), Broadcast News could have quite easily been made yesterday and been just as biting, sharply cynical, and tragically foreboding.

Without a doubt, my favorite scene in the film comes early, when Holly Hunter's producer character is giving a speech to her colleagues about the decline of important news coverage. As Hunter begins to lose people, she tells a horrifying (to her) anecdote about a night in network news when all the major broadcasts passed over a significant real-world development to instead show footage of a domino competition. As she attempts to make her point, she rolls the domino footage, and people go wild for it. It's not a subtle point (Brooks doesn't do subtlety) but it's an incredibly powerful one: these are the people who make the news, same as the people who watch the news. It is far too common these days to dismiss the media as a massive conglomerate protecting its bottom line, and certainly there is some of that. But above all, these are people, with the same flaws we have, who go home every day and are taken in by the same things we are.

The fact that Brooks was able to tie this point into the core romance plot of the film makes it even more impressive, and makes the movie even more essential. Hunter's struggle to come to terms with her personal feelings about William Hurt, despite her complete disgust with his professional abilities, is another unsubtle but extremely effective illumination of our inabilities to halt human nature, no matter what we have conditioned our brains to believe. Brooks makes this even more successful by avoiding the easy comedy route of making Hurt into a complete fool. In many ways, Hurt is just as intelligent as Albert Brooks. He knows the right thing to say, knows how to act on camera, knows how to make the story appealing, exciting, moving. He also knows the most important thing he can, which is what he doesn't know.

If anything, the situation is far worse now. Hurt's character would most likely feel at home in today's news environment, because people like Brooks and Hunter no longer value the things they used to value, and now recognize only onscreen intelligence. People no longer push for the good story, not just because there is less integrity but because there is no time in the 24-cycle, and less money. And do you really think Katie Couric knows what she doesn't know? (There was delicious irony in Couric, of all people, revealing Sarah Palin's ignorance, wasn't there?)

Brooks is far smarter than to make the film descend into one more angry call for revolution, though. The movie avoids parody and instead strives for realism (in its own Hollywood fashion), sidestepping the surreal or occasionally preachy moments of other films that examine the media, such as the also classic but angrier Network that had been made a decade earlier. That earlier film might be more immediately satisfying as cathartic experience when compared to the more conventional but actually more challenging truth of Broadcast News. Of course, it's also a more perfect script, as Broadcast News definitely has some flaws (a tacked-on ending chief among them, along with the above mentioned occasional use of a shovel over the head). But I think Broadcast News is the film that more successfully speaks to today's modern environment, despite the major shifts in culture, medium, and technology that have occurred over the last 25 years. Part of the reason for this is that Broadcast News is, as cheesy as it may sound, not really about news, but about people with all their preconceived notions and unavoidable weaknesses and prejudices. Until we don't trust someone just because they are well put together, until we aren't more entertained by dominos than peace treaties, until we are all ready to take our medicine before we eat our dessert, things are going to get worse before they get better.

Now excuse me while I watch this video.

#341: A Canterbury Tale

(Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1944)

There was one thing I got out of A Canterbury Tale. The film begins in the time of Chaucer, with pilgrims making their way through the English countryside. As they pass by a bend in the road, a falconer lets his hawk off, and it goes soaring through the air. Before you know it, the hawk has become a fighter plane, soaring through the air, and the falconer is now a WWII soldier with a helmet strapped on.

In case you haven't figured it out, Stanley Kubrick probably saw this movie. The shot is so similar to his jump cut in 2001, probably the most famous jump cut of all time, that it is impossible not to think of the moment when watching A Canterbury Tale. It's a sharp reminder that most things in film (and art in general) are not original, that man has been around long enough that by now we show our true ability to reach someone by successfully reappropriating what has come before and applying it to our current problems.

Beyond this "holy crap" moment, A Canterbury Tale was a rather dull movie, too much of its time to have relevance today. This might seem ironic since one of the main points of the movie is that people never change, that history means something because you can learn from it, and that holding on to that history is all we have in difficult times. These are all things with which I strongly agree, but the way in which they are presented here leaves a great deal to be desired. I didn't care at all about the glue man, and while I realize that was hardly the point of the film, they could have spent a little less time on the mystery. I also had a problem with the American character, who felt more like Ralph Bellamy in a screwball comedy than an actual person, and made it a lot more difficult to feel an emotional response to the final moments of the film.

A Canterbury Tale is actually one of the most popular films Powell and Pressburger ever made, or at least the one with the strongest following. I suspect part of this affection stems from the fundamentally (lower c) conservative values the film espouses, that vague sense of nostalgia that actually has a genuinely admirable reason for existing yet can too often be carried along (especially in a country like England, and more and more in a declining empire such as our own) by people who feel that the world has passed them by. But I also think that there are few films that are so unabashedly awash in these concepts, and reward the viewer with such an almost sublime conclusion to its characters' journey. It's these final moments, most likely, that grab hold of the imagination and refuse to let go, and while I don't see that myself, I can respect it nonetheless.

By the way, I don't care much for this cover. It's not that I think it's ugly, but the painting says little about the movie and it's not especially intriguing or memorable.

#209: Through a Glass Darkly

(Ingmar Bergman, 1961)

Through a Glass Darkly is the first film in Ingmar Bergman's Trilogy of Faith, an attempt to marry chamber music, religion, theatrical acting theory, and subtly revolutionary cinematic technique. It's also a masterpiece, one of Bergman's best films. All four performances here are great (though obviously the best is saved for Harriet Andersson in the lead role), and the script is an impeccable merging of intellectual themes and emotional relationships. While the whole movie impressed me, I was especially taken by Andersson's best moments, her silent struggles alone, her desperate calls for help with her husband, and finally, the astonishing, completely enrapturing final monologue describing her encounter with God.

Ultimately, though, the biggest emotional impact came from the father character, played by Gunnar Björnstrand. As a writer myself, I sympathized immensely with his conflict, not only the idea of balancing success with respect (particularly self-respect, which for many people can be most difficult to come by) but the constant moral quandary of separating the personal life from the professional one. His character's greatest dilemma is the one faced by any artist that is seeking for truth through their work. Popular but ultimately rejected as an "important" novelist, he seeks validation with his next novel, based on his daughter's crippling mental illness. He confesses in his journal that he is torn between wanting to help her and examining her descent for the benefit of his work. His daughter reads the confession, sinking deeper into her depression and delusions.

I don't think there is a question of whether or not he is a monster for what he does to his daughter in the film; in my opinion, he clearly is. The more difficult question is whether or not that lack of caring would be necessary in order for him to produce great art. It's not that I'm asking people to forgive artists for their personal indiscretions, but rather that I believe it is important to measure these negative characteristics against the benefit to society as a whole. There are probably far too many artists who believe that being great means being callous; the vast majority of these people are forgotten by history even before they have been rejected by their loved ones. There are plenty more problems with this all too common situation, and the way the film deals with it is both intriguing and extremely affecting.

What I was most reminded of while watching Through a Glass Darkly, however, was the continual gap between what we as viewers enjoy and what we claim to be great. Through a Glass Darkly is by no means an easy viewing, and yet I probably gained more pleasure and enjoyment out of the ideas that the movie provoked in me - and by the sheer excitement of watching a perfect film unfold - that I would inevitably rather watch this film than, say, Two Weeks Notice. Yet put both of them on top of the DVD player after a hard week and, had I never seen either one, I would be unlikely to pick the Bergman film. Probably half of my ten best films list is populated by movies that I either put off watching or have a hard time going back to unless I am prepared (The Last Temptation of Christ, another film about faith, is a perfect example). Why do we put off difficult films, even when difficult films are the ones we love most? Part of this process of watching Criterion's selections has been increasingly realizing the mistake in this choice (while still completely understanding the tendency to want to watch something easy). After watching more than 150 films during this quest, many of my favorite films have been ones I most likely would have never watched otherwise. Through a Glass Darkly joins that list as a solid reminder that often despair can be transcendent, while empty entertainment can never satisfy beyond instant gratification.

Friday, November 5, 2010

#145: The Firemen's Ball

(Milos Forman, 1967)

The Firemen's Ball is a major movie in minor-movie clothing. Created by Milos Forman just before he would flee his native Czech Republic and 8 years before he would make one of the only three movies to win all five major Oscars (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), The Firemen's Ball is a bumbling comedy that lasts less than 80 minutes and seldom wanders away from its main event, a volunteer firemen's ball in a small Czech town. It's not an ambitious movie, either, trying to use some not-so-subtle metaphor to make a sweeping point about human behavior. It inadvertently becomes one, though, not just by the force of its technique, but by the context of its origins.

Filmed in 1967, the movie was released during the Prague Spring (an event depicted in another, totally different Criterion film, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and managed to piss off everyone in power, ending Forman's career in his home country, no small feat for a movie that is basically just a story of some bumbling but lovable old men trying to put on a show (but with a little sex). Underneath the surface, though, is a movie about authority and human nature that could easily be seen as a comment on decreasing trust in the government, not in a cynical or angry way, but in a way that is far more dangerous. Obviously, comedy (ridicule) can often be a more effective way to speak truth to power, not only because you reach a wider audience but because extremes can often be used to highlight the hypocrisy in things. The Firemen's Ball does this very well, even if Forman insists to this day that there is no deeper meaning to the film.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

#254: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

(John Cassavetes, 1976)

I rather enjoyed The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, but I watched it on Netflix, and for some reason they decided to include the 108-minute version instead of the original 135-minute version. I don't know if those extra 27 minutes would have turned this film from good to great, but it didn't quite make me want to go back and find out (if someone really thinks it's worth it, speak now). This was obviously an experiment on the part of Cassavetes, attempting to insert his style and approach into a conventional gangster story. Deep down, I was kind of hoping the movie would reference some of the great French impressionist gangster masterpieces, but I didn't actually expect that to happen. The movie ends up being for more Cassavetes than Melville, which inevitably has its pluses and minuses.

The big plus is undoubtedly Ben Gazzara, who is understated, deceptively deep, and ultimately heart-wrenching as the club owner forced to murder in order to resolve his debts. He reminded me very much of Philip Baker Hall's broken man in Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight aka Sydney, and both performances transcend their respective films as a whole.

The movie itself reminded me of two movies. The first is Donnie Brasco, Mike Newell's seemingly forgotten portrait of the mafia underclass. It's easy to look at the films that are produced about nightclub owners, organized crime, and hitmen and decide that it's a glamorous world ruled by men who know what they are doing and live the good life doing it. It's movies like this which take you beneath that myth and explore the people who attempt to live this way, but aren't able to actually succeed. Gazzara is broken in the film long before his debts are called in, long before he is forced to do something that is against his best instincts. His whole life, as he basically explains in his final monologue, revolves around pretending to be someone else, performing for the crowd. It's just unclear whether that crowd is the people around him or the audience.

The second film is a Criterion film and a masterpiece of crime cinema, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Like Gazzara and Hall (and Pacino) Robert Mitchum is struggling to make ends meet as a member of the "glamorous" underworld. But The Friends of Eddie Coyle, certainly a precursor to the greatest television show of all time, The Wire, is all about reflecting reality, intertwining so many people and their motivations that the story is no longer so cut and dry, and the viewer is left with an empty feeling that the system is ready to choke down and spit up anyone that's no longer useful. With this in mind, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is no more realistic than the gangster movies to which it is a counterpoint. That doesn't make it a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, it just means that time has somewhat passed it by, whereas Eddie Coyle, made three years earlier, feels fresher than ever.

Monday, November 1, 2010

#537: The Magician

(Ingmar Bergman, 1958)

The Bergman film to receive the Criterion treatment most recently, The Magician is also one of the more unusual films in the director's entries. For starters, there's a happy ending, something that happened occasionally, as with the comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, but with very few of the director's films that are so directly tied into his core themes, as The Magician certainly is. Furthermore, moments of The Magician play out more like Corridors of Blood than The Seventh Seal. There are hands reaching out from the darkness, solemn discussions of the unknown (magic, not God... or are they one and the same to Bergman?), and criminals with a mysterious past in disguises.

The magician of the title is played (masterfully as always) by Max Von Sydow as Bergman's representative artist, facing off against the scientist. The showdown between the two (with a bit of the law thrown in) is a fascinating give and take between the two perspectives, and the final development, in which the king calls on the magician to perform for him, seems to imply that art will always win out, not because people believe despite all evidence but because they want to believe. This is what ties The Magician so strongly into the overall themes of Bergman's films, and it's what (along with the mere fact that Bergman made the movie) elevates it beyond its humble roots as a house of mirrors. I don't think the film can compare with Bergman's great films (like the one I watched after this one, Through the Glass Darkly) but standing on its own, it's a fine, entertaining investigation into our inability to ignore our own doubts about our reality and our reluctance to change it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

#412: Sawdust and Tinsel

(Ingmar Bergman, 1953)

Circuses are not my favorite, but Sawdust and Tinsel is about a circus the way La Strada is about a circus, which is to say not much. In fact, the films share a lot in common, as both feature rundown circuses struggling to get by and gruff older men attached to younger women. Of course, those women aren't exactly the same, and Bergman's film is more about issues of identity and jealousy than loyalty and love. Fellini was a fundamentally more upbeat director than Bergman (which isn't saying much) and this film, like many of his films, ends up being extremely sad and emotionally wrenching. However, Sawdust and Tinsel isn't a masterpiece, but instead a film in which a great director comes into his own. This is Bergman's 13th film, but it feels like a partially formed version of many of his films to come, a toe dip, if you will, into the themes he would continue to explore throughout his career. Because of this, it's an interesting historical artifact, and a reasonably strong film. But it would not be in the collection if it had been made by anyone else.

#74: Vagabond

(Agnès Varda, 1985)

This movie is probably my favorite Varda film yet, a deeply sad and moving portrayal of a human being on the margins. It features a remarkable performance by Sandrine Bonnaire (at just 17), who also gave an excellent performance two years earlier in À nos amours, and includes a number of professional and amateur actors who form a stunning and memorable ensemble. But the movie is entirely Varda's, and it's a remarkable display of thirty years of film experience.

Vagabond begins with Bonnaire's character, whom we later find out was named Mona, being found dead in a ditch by the side of the road. The remainder of the film is a flashback to her final months, intercut with documentary style thoughts of the people she has encountered. These thoughts are always offered once Mona has already moved on, and this to me is the essential structure of the film, perpetually one step behind this character, struggling to understand someone who lives life in a way that we are all either too smart or too cowardly to take up ourselves. Unlike junkies or criminals or crazy people, drifters are immediately understandable to people because their inability to take on responsibility or make an emotional connection mirrors our own frustration with these aspects of our lives, and the notion of total freedom is an unavoidable temptation. We all wish we had the courage to do it, even though we simultaneously know that it would never be as exciting or enjoyable as it seems. Much like poor people prefer to keep the taxes for rich people low because they might be rich someday, we hold out hope that we might one day take to the road, meet interesting people, take on interesting jobs, and live our lives with no responsibilities and no baggage.

Varda understands both sides of this perception, and makes no judgments on Mona or her way of life, instead preferring to struggle with her own place in society. It's what makes Vagabond more than an excellent character study, instead morphing it into an examination of our own fears and dreams. We reject dirt because we know we have to survive in our society, we believe in a hard day's work because if we don't then we'll starve. We insist on turning our backs on Mona, because there are too many Monas to help. One of the Criterion essays compared the film to Citizen Kane, and while the structural comparison is obvious, the more insightful point is that both films aren't so much about their titular characters as they are about the societies that surround them. Vagabond isn't about how someone becomes a drifter (we only learn that in vague terms here), just as Citizen Kane certainly isn't about why people become rich. Instead, the film is about our own place in society, the human connections we struggle to make, and a desperate desire to understand our place in the world.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

#419: La Pointe Courte

(Agnès Varda, 1955)

Easily one of the greatest female directors of all time, Agnès Varda is also (not coincidentally) one of the most underrated directors of all time, and I say that having only seen two of her designated classics (the other, Vagabond, is sitting on my DVD player) and a couple of her later works. Cléo From 5 to 7 is a masterpiece, one of the great films of the New Wave, and an extremely influential film. But it's this movie - which I actually didn't particularly enjoy - that is (or rather, should be) her claim to historical significance. La Pointe Courte was made in 1954 (it was released in '55) five years before The 400 Blows became an international sensation and reinvigorated French cinema. This movie isn't as good as that one (just my opinion), but it's every bit as revolutionary, not just because it uses amateur actors shooting on location detailing everyday life, but because it attempts to introduce a new language of film, a new way of looking at narrative.

It's the kind of movie that can't help but bring up serious issues of gender. Varda tells her story in such a confident and sprawling fashion that, had it been directed by a man, I have no doubt that it would be considered "ballsy," "defiant," and a rejection of conventional French film in many of the ways that the work of Truffaut and Godard were in the ensuing years. But the combination of male bravado (in personality rather than filmmaking, for inarguably La Pointe Courte is not a timid movie) and the general sexist tendency to move towards the biggest presence in the room then and even now has prevented most people from acknowledging the film's impact on the history of the artform. Certainly, statements like the one Godard made regarding Truffaut's first film - in which he basically said we and our swinging dicks are coming, and don't get in our fucking way - had a certain ability to transfix the cinema crowd at a time when they were looking for something different. So it's not the fact that La Pointe Courte didn't have the capacity to shock audiences and upend their preconceived notions about French cinema, but rather that Varda was most likely uninterested in crowing about it, and unlikely to be viewed as the white knight to the rescue of a film culture that was treading water. (As an aside, there is also the historical context in which the film was made, of course, that had less to do with gender. The year before La Pointe Courte was made, Max Ophüls made one of the greatest films of all time in France, The Earrings of Madame De... and Jaques Tati introduced his timeless M. Hulot in M. Hulot's Holiday. Surely, French cinema was far from dead. By the time Truffaut and Godard finally decided to roll out of bed and make a film, the time was right for revolution.)

Despite my soap box, you may have noticed that I said I didn't particularly like La Pointe Courte. It's not that I think it's a bad film, but instead just one that didn't especially move me, and one with which I had a hard time connecting. Like Last Year at Marienbad - which has a direct connection to the film, as Alain Renais was the editor here - the movie turns a simple story of a relationship into a dream-like exploration of human interaction, complete with stilted line readings and expressionistic framing. And like Amarcord, the film is more a portrait of a town and a way of life than a specific person or persons with one distinct storyline. But unlike either of those films, it doesn't concern itself with issues of cinema - memory, perception, spacial and visual construct - that I find perhaps the most intriguing elements of each of those films. Varda does play with the balance between narrative film and documentary formats, but it almost feels too seamless to care. Ultimately the film might be too much what it is for me to feel pulled towards any element but the story, and it was a story that didn't impact me.

I don't think you have to love a film to acknowledge its historical importance, and the importance of this film to the coming French cinematic landscape just seems unavoidably huge, towering above any other film I can think of. So the fact that it's so little known and seemingly little loved (it didn't even warrant a separate release from Criterion, being placed instead in a Varda boxset) seems like a grand travesty to me, and one of the glaring examples of women in cinema being pushed aside by their bigger, louder counterparts.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

#80: The Element of Crime

(Lars Von Trier, 1984)


Well, I will say one thing about Criterion and their insistence on liking Von Trier: it's not an overnight phenomenon. As an early addition to their DVD run, The Element of Crime is a strange frustrating installment, a bizarre mix of uninteresting trashy noir and technically impressive (but ultimately hollow) cinematic style. The movie looks beautiful, and by beautiful I mean horrible, disgusting, unappealing, and unlikable. Perhaps this is what I meant Hunger should look like, which makes me doubt why I was complaining about that film's appearance anyway. Who wants to look at crap when they can look at beauty?

And, really, The Element of Crime is crap. It's partially crap on purpose, and it's also crap for a lot of reasons I have problems with Trier's work. The two that most bother me with his work are that it's incredibly sexist, and it has a disdain for conventional filmmaking that is only matched by its constant derivation of material from classic filmmakers. But really it's crap because Trier is an incredibly talented filmmaker who has occasionally stumbled into great work, seemingly unintentionally. I don't say that because he is clueless, but instead because I genuinely don't think Trier has any interest in entertaining an audience, or even really engaging with one. He just wants to be an asshole. Sometimes assholes make great art because what they say needs to be said. I personally think that's happened a few times with Trier, but I wouldn't be surprised if I was wrong.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

#77: And God Created Woman

(Roger Vadim, 1956)

And God Created Woman is not a good movie. It is, in purely objective terms, perhaps one of the most mediocre films in the Criterion catalog, a passably directed, poorly acted, inadvertently attractive movie. The fact that it sits next to Wild Strawberries and The Seven Samurai in the collection is entirely a testament to Brigitte Bardot.

Well, check that, Brigitte Bardot's body. See, Bardot isn't much of an actress. Say what you want about Marilyn Monroe, but she displayed more energy, more sizzle, more style and wit in The Seven Year Itch a year earlier than Bardot could probably have mustered in an entire career - actually, definitely, since she tried and could never quite do it (undoubtedly, her most relevant performance was in Godard's aptly titled masterpiece Contempt, where Bardot's natural gifts are almost used against her - thankfully she quit while she was behind in the early 70s). So I say with all due respect to sex goddesses that Bardot has little to offer in And God Created Woman but her body.

The film itself is not much better, sporting a melodramatic plot that would have made Douglas Sirk roll his eyes and a jumbled mishmash of dated sexual and racial politics that is so ancient you can almost hear the creaking underneath a line like, "She's brave enough to do what she wants, when she wants." Chuck Stephens's essay which accompanied the Criterion release of the film ten years ago barely even acknowledges its existence: the author discusses the actual movie for just one paragraph, changes the conversation to the almost criminally superior Contempt for another, and devotes a full six surrounding paragraphs to Bardot specifically. "Eventually," he writes, undoubtedly while holding back laughter, "Juliette will brave fire and sea, ecstasy and despair, and - as a result of her unquenchable desire - erupt into a kind of Mambo-inspired madness." So, um, yeah. People wonder why Armageddon is in the collection.

There are a few well-executed moments in And God Created Woman. The scene of Bardot coming down to her new husband's family, who are all waiting for the couple to eat dinner with them, wearing only a robe and promptly gathering up food and carrying it back to the bedroom is fucking ballsy. It's just a "holy shit, this lady is punk rock" kind of moment. But for every moment like that, there's one where her character feels hopelessly tied to gender stereotypes, like when she knows doom is on the horizon when her brother-in-law moves home. Is this lady kick-ass or vulnerable? Is she supposed to be tamed or can nothing destroy her? Are we really meant to take away from the film that wild women will destroy the men who love them, and only through forgiveness can they both be happy?

Just to be clear, I am entirely aware that Brigitte Bardot is an incredibly beautiful woman. I just happen to feel this is not enough to sustain a film. It's impossible for me to view And God Created Woman from the perspective of a person who lived the culture of 1956. So I don't know what it would have been like to see a woman portrayed in this way for the first time in film. Obviously Vadim knew what he was doing, naming the film what he named it and shooting Bardot (his then wife, dude was creepy btw) the way he shot her. But from a modern perspective, all the sex that's left is a lingering feeling that something here was dirty that isn't anymore. Instead of feeling alive with energy, the movie feels long dead, the casualty of new paradigms of sexual politics and sexual cinema.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

#72: Le Million

(René Clair, 1931)

I almost hated Le Million. OK, maybe not hated, but it's never a good idea to thrust a musical on me unexpected. I had no idea there was singing involved in Le Million, and when people randomly break into song, well, I tend to get angry. The first half of the movie didn't go particularly well for me. "Why can't they just talk?" was a common refrain.

Then I relaxed and let an obviously brilliant movie made by a clearly innovative and inventive director wash over me. Le Million isn't contemporary the way some films will remain forever. It is most certainly of its time. But it's light and fresh as the day it was made, more of an anachronism than an artifact whose appeal has long since been lost to time. I was genuinely interested in how the film would end, and completely delighted by the process of getting there.

The most famous scene in Le Million is probably the scene in which the jacket containing the million dollar ticket is tossed around to a completely non-diagetic football soundtrack. It's incredibly smart, and just as funny as the day it was made. Yet it's also sort of astonishing if you think about it in the context of film history. Imagine, only a few years after sound was established in film, using it as a comedic punchline, playing off the story told visually. This was an entirely new form of comedy, something that, to my knowledge, had never been done before. There are only a few people in film - in history of any kind - who can honestly be credited with the invention of a new way of presenting humor. It makes Clair a much more relevant artist than he has often gotten credit for, as he is often forgotten as a pioneer of French cinema rather than a truly ingenious director who can measure up with other artists.

Le Million isn't quite perfect. I think it was a mistake to give away the ending of the film at the beginning, and I don't understand why his friend is such a dick if there isn't a pay off at the end where he has a chance to redeem himself. But it's still the kind of movie that reminds you that modern filmmakers are standing on the shoulders of giants, many of whom haven't been surpassed yet.

Monday, October 4, 2010

#20: Sid and Nancy

(Alex Cox, 1986)

Sid and Nancy is, as many people have pointed out in their reviews and essays on the film, a tale of two movies. The first is a mood piece about the London punk scene of the late 1970s, and it's only moderately successful. The second is a startlingly disturbing and moving portrayal of a love affair torn apart by many of the things which instigated it in the first place. As the couple descends deeper into their addiction and becomes more and more separated from the reality of their circumstances, the film takes on the sort of anti-Hollywood fantasy sheen reserved only for the truly brilliant iconoclastic filmmakers, a group which undoubtedly includes Cox.

This final half is also benefited by having two excellent performances from Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, two performers whose careers have gone in different directions. The final scene between them, in which Oldman may or may not stab Webb, is truly harrowing, the kind of dark culmination of a film that is earned through an hour plus of character establishment, and then paid off by impeccable staging and gut-wrenching acting. Combined with Walker, Sid and Nancy makes Alex Cox one of the most blatantly unique and independent voices in the collection.

Friday, October 1, 2010

#66: The Orphic Trilogy

(Jean Cocteau, 1930-1959)

It's hard to think of films made 30 years apart with no plot similarities as part of the same trilogy. Certainly when Cocteau made The Blood of a Poet he hadn't intended to make two more films in the same series, and really these films are only thought of as a trilogy because Cocteau himself declared it.

Of course, they are all connected, both thematically and aesthetically, and certainly Testament of Orpheus can be seen as a unique kind of sequel to Orpheus, wherein the creator is asked to answer for his creations. Part of what makes it so easy to attach them to each other is the fact that each explores the same things at many points, and making them a series is much easier than explaining why you repeated yourself. Cocteau subtitled the last film "Do Not Ask Me Why," intending for people to take these films at their face value and stop trying to find a real answer to the mysteries they presented. It's far too easy in art these days to need a "right" interpretation of something, especially since many artists come from school where they are often forced to explain the motivation behind their work. Cocteau was a great filmmaker because he let the work speak for itself, especially when, as was the case with this trilogy, it was speaking of itself.

Links to individual reviews:
The Blood of a Poet
Testament of Orpheus

#69: Testament of Orpheus

(Jean Cocteau, 1959)

I loved this movie for a good portion of its running time, but by the end, I was a little bored. It reminded me of Deconstructing Harry a little bit (which I'm sure was intentional on Woody Allen's part) but it also reminded me that movies were already extremely self-referential in 1959. The opening sequence of Cocteau being unstuck in time is a fascinating twenty or so minutes of film, and there are plenty of other great moments. But there ends up being a few too many backwards shots and a little too much cryptic talking by the end.

Side note: it was a surprise and pleasure to see Jean-Pierre Léaud with a cameo in the film, which was made right after his most famous film, The 400 Blows (and apparently Cocteau, having run out of money, used Truffaut's prize money from that film to finish this one). Léaud is so strongly associated with the New Wave that seeing him in a Cocteau film is a bit like being unstuck in time in its own way.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

#68: Orpheus

(Jean Cocteau, 1949)

The second film in Jean Cocteau's Orphic Trilogy comes nearly 20 years after the first, and it's simultaneously exactly the same and totally different from its predecessor. It's also, for me, a real treat, possibly because I enjoy more conventional narratives, especially when they are laced with such absurdity and cinematic flourish.

The movie is kind of the story of Orpheus (though less of a direct adaptation than another Criterion film, Black Orpheus), but it's also very much about creating art and exploring love and death, which many people would probably argue is the same thing. The film manages to feel so unique and yet so accessible that I might tend towards arguing that it is one of the most mainstream experimental films I have ever seen. Yet it also incorporates many of the visual and thematic elements of the earlier, much more cryptic work.

I didn't love love Orpheus, but I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. Just as Blood of a Poet seemed to have so much influence on film, I could see many of the elements here being spread across the coming decades, particularly the way the film deals with ghosts and supernatural events. I also wonder if the "trial" in the underworld was any inspiration for Albert Brooks's great Defending Your Life. But I digress.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

#368: Corridors of Blood

(Robert Day, 1959)

Not too much blood in the corridors here, but instead a rather surprisingly smart and taut thriller/drama about a good doctor in the 19th century before the invention of anesthesia gone crazy with a mad (but with our hindsight very realistic) quest to find a cure for pain during surgery. I have to admit I kept hoping for a little bit more awesomeness as the film careened towards its inevitably tragic conclusion. However, the fact that I was dreading this awesomeness is a testament to how much affection I began to feel towards Boris Karloff's character. This is a true testament to the film's ability to generate strong drama far beyond what I would have expected based on the packaging Criterion provides here, which is truly amazing but I feel does somewhat of a disservice to the film within.

#67: The Blood of a Poet

(Jean Cocteau, 1930)

This is a pretty weird movie, and it kind of reminds you, in the same way a film like Un Chien Andalou that cinema has never really gotten more bizarre or experimental than it was at the beginning. Jean Cocteau is mostly associated with the surrealist movement that birthed that earlier film, but I think his work is much more personal and unique. The Blood of a Poet is not really my cup of tea, but it's certainly a fascinating film that transcends its academic ambitions.

The scene in a hallway clearly influenced the recent blockbuster Inception, something which reminded me that films like this are an exploration of art in the way something like launching the first rocket into space paves the way for things like the moon landing and satellites. While I might not enjoy watching these experiments, I can see how valuable the films are to cinema as a whole, just as I can see how exciting it must have been to see a film like this for the first time, or how exciting it still is for those who are more interested in watching brilliant filmmakers grasp in the dark for something special.

This is the first movie in a trilogy that Cocteau would complete later in his career, and while I don't necessarily think I'll enjoy the other films, I'm nevertheless looking forward to them.

#79: W.C. Fields - Six Short Films

(Monte Brice, Clyde Bruckman, Edwin Middleton and Leslie Pearce, 1915-1933)

Comedy isn't easy. Great dramas are almost inevitably timeless, because they speak to the human condition in a consistently identifiable way. Love, for example, is love, no matter where you live or when you were born. Comedy can be much more topical, obviously, but it can also be tied to the times in more subtle ways, like playing to the audience's sensibilities and taste. A good drama need not be original, but comedy requires a certain element of surprise in order to succeed. This can date humor much easier than drama or even action (the latter being a matter of technology).

There is also, of course, the matter of taste, and if you think something isn't funny, well, there's not much you can do to improve your experience viewing a film. This comes into play much more often with older films, I've found, because many of the great masters of comedy from the early years of cinema represent a certain base branch of comedy, so if you find one more appealing than the other, you may gravitate towards one performer or another. Personally, I have a hard time with Charlie Chaplin, but love Buster Keaton. I find Laurel and Hardy to be hit or miss, but I can't stand the three stooges. The Marx brothers are probably my favorite, however, partially because they specialized in highbrow silliness, a soft spot in my comedic heart, but also because they represent a precursor to much of the great cinematic humor I love from the last 50 years, bridging the gap between those performers (Woody Allen, Steve Martin, the Zuckers) and the earlier Jewish vaudeville comedy of the turn of the century.

But then there is W.C. Fields. Known primarily for The Bank Dick - which is to say he's not really known at all by the average moviegoer - Fields is the comedian who may be most tied to modern humor, yet least appreciated by modern film lovers. He pioneered a dry, almost vindictive style of humor that is unmatched by any of his more contemporary malcontents such as Bill Murray and Bob Newhart. These shorts are a great introduction to that style, even if they are a bit hit or miss.

The first short in the series is Pool Sharks, Fields's first film. It's silent, and therefore mostly useless as an introduction to what makes Fields great. In fact, the actor seems to be channeling Chaplin here more than forging a new comedic voice. The Golf Specialist is better, but still seems a little gimmicky. It's not until the outright hilarious The Dentist that Fields comes into his own. Bordering on the ridiculously unlikable, Fields bumbles his way through a golf scene that's much funnier than anything in the previous golf film and into a scene at his office that is absurd and hilarious. None of the other films afterward are quite as strong, but each has a moment of comedic bliss, and each lets its star shine in a way that is truly unique and original. Fields may be too much of his time to rank with Groucho or Buster, but he's one of the great voices in film comedy, and this collection is a great example of the best (and edgiest) he could do.