Monday, August 30, 2010

#49: Nights of Cabiria

(Federico Fellini, 1957)

Nights of Cabiria is a quiet masterpiece, the kind of film that can make you fall in love with a character, only to have your heart ripped out. It's also a great example of a comedic (or at least naive) character stuck in a serious genre, in this case the melodramatic tragedy. This is a style that would go on to spawn the greatest comedy of them all, The Big Lebowski. Like the Dude, Cabiria seems trapped in the middle of someone else's movie, constantly being teased by the possibility of acceptance, or at least pleasure, only to have her rug consistently peed on. Through it all, of course, Cabiria abides.

The final moments, in which we slowly realize that all the embarrassment that has come before was only the appetizer for the giant shit sandwich Cabiria is about to eat, are so heartbreaking, so cruel, that I almost hated Fellini, not just for what he was doing to me, but what he was doing to his character. The redemption of the final moment, in which Cabiria joins a marching band of children and manages a knowing smile at the camera, makes the previous injustice even more tragic. I was worried at first that Fellini had told the story in order to punish his prostitute for the sins she had committed. But upon further reflection, and after reading some of his thoughts on the film, I think he ended the film this way to show that even the most intense tragedy could not ruin Cabiria's unwavering optimism, the naive humanism behind her cynical and rough exterior. In fact, Fellini said later in life that Cabiria is the only character he ever created that he still worried about.

I often wonder why we need to tear down people in order to believe their convictions are true. The most obvious example of this, of course, is Job. Every athiest's favorite book of the Old Testament, Job tells a truly defeating story of God's complete disinterest in the happiness of man, as he is essentially willing to destroy several lives in order to simply prove he's not a chump to the Devil. Convictions are easy, people say, until they are tested, but does that mean we have to be tested in order to be proven good people? Why does my grandparents' generation get to be called "the greatest generation" simply because they had a war break out while they were fighting age? (There are more reasons I hate that label, but it's probably best I don't go off at this point.) Quite frankly, I would not have minded if Cabiria had had everything go right for her over the course of the movie, and simply maintained her optimism. I would have taken her at her word. But, of course, the fact that I wanted everything to go right for her (which would have made for quite the boring movie... which is I guess Pretty Woman) demonstrates how much I care about this character.

One character Cabiria really reminded me of was Mia Farrow's character in The Purple Rose of Cairo, one of Woody Allen's most powerful films (and his personal favorite). Like Cabiria, Farrow's character has a terrible life, though in her case it's living poor with an abusive husband she is unable to leave. Both characters also have seemingly romantic, initially dream-perfect relationships that turn out to be too good to be true - though obviously in Farrow's case it was never really "true" in the first place, since she is courted by a movie character. The most compelling parallel is in the final moments of both films, where Cabiria and Farrow's character both retreat to entertainment in despair after learning that the lovers who had led them along had deserted them, Cabiria to music in the street, Farrow to the movies she has always loved. I had previously taken the latter ending to be more about the transformative power of movies, but most likely it was referencing the earlier work, and by extension commenting on the unwavering optimism of a dreamer (not that Fellini himself didn't believe in art and wouldn't agree with the idea that cinema, or music, can be a savior). And by the way, Farrow's name in the film? Cecilia.

Cabiria's evolution and core nature as a character is so important because it is very much where Nights of Cabiria begins and where it ends. Even more so than La Strada, which after all was as much about the strong man as it was about Gelsomina, the film is a true portrait of one character, one with which Fellini clearly identifies. His wife, Giulietta Masina, fell into larger and larger roles in his films once he realized what a passionate and expressive face she had, and while she wouldn't be mistaken for one of cinema's true beauties, there are few people in history who have been loved more by the camera. Her face could tell an entire story, and essentially does just that in the final moments of the film.

But just as later films would be inspired by Fellini, earlier films no doubt inspired him. Like her performance in La Strada, Masina is channeling the great silent film stars with her performance, most notably Charlie Chaplin (one French critic, according to Fellini, even went so far as to call her the feminine Chaplin). She also has moments in the film of pure comedy, like when she runs into a glass door she didn't know was there. The moment should be so cliche or at the very least expected by now that it shouldn't merit a mention. But the way Masina plays it is so perfect and real in that exaggerated way that only great physical comedians can accomplish that I actually laughed out loud. When combined with her unfailing ability to fascinate in front of the camera, her performance here is every bit as spectacular as her very different portrayal of Gelsomina in La Strada.

Really, it's no wonder Fellini so quickly fell into his own mind after making a series of films about outsiders and loners. As an artist in love with entertainment, when success was achieved it was only that much easier to look at himself and see his fascination reflected back at him. Nights of Cabiria is one of those early films - one writer called it the "crown jewel in his pre-Felliniesque work" - but like I Vitelloni and La Strada, it might actually surpass in emotional and poetic impact those later masterpieces.

#189: The White Sheik

(Federico Fellini, 1952)

The White Sheik is the first film directed entirely by Federico Fellini, and it has most of his themes already intact: small town/big city, entertainment and entertainers, love vs. loyalty, etc. As was the case with La Strada, The White Sheik is in love with movies, especially silent films. The movie vaguely references Sunrise, but the plot here could have easily been a silent film of its own, as most of the dialogue is unnecessary for conveying the actions and emotions of the characters. However, unlike Amarcord, The White Sheik is very much about something, and takes place over the course of a specific day and has a simple but clearly delineated plot.

A newlywed couple arrives in Rome for a honeymoon where the husband has a long schedule prepared, but the wife deserts him to meet her secret idol, the star of a photographic romance series named the White Sheik. The film the essay in the Criterion releases references is Nurse Betty, but I actually think the better comparison is to Kiss Me, Stupid, the late-era Billy Wilder comedy. That movie was kind of the reverse of this one, in that famous people come to a small town, but the difference in mores in both the era and place that film was made is extremely large. Most of The White Sheik is taken up with both man and woman being obsessed with their honor, and Fellini pokes fun at them just as often as he shows he is sensitive to their concerns. I think it would be easy for the viewer to think the film is rather condescending to small town denizens, but Fellini - himself from a small town, and a director who would go on to make I Vitelloni and Amarcord, two very different odes to the village - is much more interested in poking fun at assumptions and airs than people. Certainly the Sheik himself is not spared a large deal of ridicule by the end of the film, so no one is really safe here.

I didn't particularly love The White Sheik, but then again I have an uneven track record with silent comedies, so it's not really surprising. The one thing that a film history fan will certainly take away form the movie, however, is once again how indebted the major arthouse directors of the 50s and 60s were to classic Hollywood, and how totally devoted to entertaining their audiences they were. It's so easy for people today to dismiss most of the Criterion Collection as movies meant for art-minded people to be challenged and provoked. But really there is no difference - when looking at intention - between this film and a movie like Nurse Betty.

#55: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

(Philip Kaufman, 1988)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a very long movie. This is probably the first thing you will notice when watching it. It's not unusual (especially these days, in the age of powerful and narcissistic directors) for a movie to be nearly three hours. But many of those movies don't feel like three hours, or at least seem like they need to be that long in order to tell their epic story. Before it is anything else, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a movie that feels too long. This is despite the fact that I was often entertained by the film, and would be hard-pressed to identify the scenes that Kaufman (who directed the similarly massive The Right Stuff) could afford to cut.

Actually, I think The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a rather good film, which I guess makes it stranger that I have this odd sense that it should be shorter. Roger Ebert often says that no good movie is too long and no bad movie is too short, and while I think that's true, I also think a mediocre movie can be made into a good movie by judicious trimming. In this case, I think a solid movie could have become a great movie at 30 minutes less running time.

Part of the reason the film feels overly long is that the scope is rather narrow. The film is essentially about three people, played wonderfully by Daniel Day-Lewis, Lena Olin, and Juliette Binoche. Olin in particular gives a subtle and beautiful performance that could be easily overlooked, but I feel she is the heart of the film, and not only because she ends up with crucial knowledge in the final, tragic sequence. The film has often been called the most erotic "art" film since Last Tango in Paris, and I was similarly unenthusiastic about the sex here, which feels either overblown or vaguely empty. It does often seem to be the case that films that are mostly about sex are rarely sexy - Eyes Wide Shut and Crash (1996) come to mind immediately. And here there is a similarly emotional undercurrent to the sex scenes that limit the possibility of arousal - not that I'm looking to interpersonal epics about the Prague Spring for turn-ons. Probably the most intense scene involves Olin and Binoche photographing each other naked. As in other scenes in the film, Kaufman rarely lingers on the nudity, entirely selecting his compositions based on visual and thematic cohesiveness. The lack of fetishization on his part makes the scene much more emotionally intense and personal, as the scene doesn't feel like it is made for anyone but these two women and the absent lover they share. This makes the arrival of Olin's married lover all the more jarring. It's quite the sequence.

As a whole, though, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which was based on a book that was generally considered "unfilmable," constantly refuses to leap from the page. The direct and indirect connections between the emotional lives of these characters and the political background upon which they operate are altogether too literary to come across successfully on screen. Furthermore, the movie's tone feels uneven, which is most likely the reason why the movie feels too long. Of course, there is also the annoying fact that these people really ought to be speaking Czech, but they obviously couldn't have gotten the funding necessary for a Czech-language version of the film.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being was one of the earliest Criterion releases I can remember going out of print. It's not one I think will be particularly missed. It's a good movie, well-made, brilliantly acted, ultimately moving. But it fails to carry any real heft, despite it's fairly weighty running time.

Monday, August 23, 2010

#252: Faces

(John Cassavetes, 1968)

The first half of Faces is tough going. The story seems to be swirling around the drain, not really going down, and like all Cassavetes movies, seems more concerned with letting a scene play out naturally with emotional honesty and balls to the wall performances than with advancing any kind of plot. In fact, the plot of Faces could probably be the first (or last) 20 minutes of any other movie. It's extremely dull until about an hour in when things start to get going a little bit more. For sure, the women are much more interesting than the men, and the story of the wife's infidelity is much more interesting than the husband's. And perhaps the husband's reaction to finding out his wife slept with someone else was a little more interesting in 1968, but having seen this play out a thousand times since it doesn't generate the same thought.

Sometimes I think Cassavetes was so good he made himself irrelevant. Faces doesn't need to be seen anymore because its been recreated and mainstreamed thousands of times. Cassavetes wins, but the viewer isn't any more satisfied.

#81: Variety Lights

(Federico Fellini and Alberto Lattuada, 1950)

Variety Lights is a good film, but the only reason it sits in the collection is that it represents Federico Fellini's first film as a director (though he co-directed it with the already-established but now-eclipsed Alberto Lattuada). It's maybe more relevant than other film debuts because so many of Fellini's themes were already present. The film's subjects are stage performers living hand to mouth, traveling from town to town putting on a show for the natives, and like his other films Fellini uses them to address issues of outcasts, pain associated with love, and the troubles associated with aiming for the stars a little too high.

The story of the film is very simple, but unlike the similarly basic La Strada lacks a significant emotional punch. The film's characters don't really stretch beyond their expected emotional range, and the ending is not a surprise, and in fact feels like a predetermined fate. It all makes for a movie that ends up being relevant only really to Fellini fans, few of whom I would think would single this film out as their third or fourth favorite film by the director, let alone his best.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

#239: The Lower Depths

(Jean Renoir, 1936, and Akira Kurosawa, 1957)

The Lower Depths represents a unique opportunity: two of the five or ten most revered directors in film history tackling the same source material. Originally a Russian play, it has been adapted into film an umber of times, with these two instances being the most noteworthy (ironically not being literal adaptations, with both being transferred to their director's respective native countries). Kurosawa's version is the much more faithful adaptation, which will be apparent even to people (like me) who have never read or seen the original play. It takes place exclusively in the titular slums, and is focused on its ensemble. It very much feels like a play, and for that reason feels much less interesting to me.

Renoir's version, on the other hand, is the "Hollywood" version of the play. Set in numerous locales and focused on one main protagonist/hero, played wonderfully by Jean Gabin, the film comes complete with rich mustache-twirling villain and happy ending. It's also got a sense of humor, and plays its social rifts for laughs instead of tears; in a lot of ways, it's the rehearsal for Renoir's masterpiece, The Rules of the Game, which is both funnier and more insightful.

While the films were included in one set to note the differences in approach between these two master directors, it's inevitable that everyone will decide which one they like better. For me, it's easily Renoir's version, as I had a hard time making it through the frustratingly staged Kurosawa version, despite strong direction and performances. But watching both films is an interesting test as to what you are looking for in films, and it represents one of the more intriguing sets in the catalog.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

#440: Brand Upon the Brain!

(Guy Maddin, 2006)

Let's try this again. Brand Upon the Brain was the first movie I've seen during this project that I had the opportunity to watch on the big screen. I'm thankful for that, because I might not have made it through this challenging and unique film on DVD. On the big screen, the film is absorbing and unique, a true assault on the sense that might be more easily compared to commercials or a Michael Bay film than a film by David Lynch or other filmmakers that play on the edge of narrative film.

I enjoyed a number of things about the film, especially the tone, which melds dark suspense and off-kilter humor with a mad scientist's glee. But the thing I like most about Brand Upon the Brain is the fact that Guy Maddin is totally invested in his material. The movie could so easily come off as pretentious and campy, a kind of weird joke on the audience. But instead, it feels passionate and personal. It seems like its the only movie Maddin could have made at that point in his life.

To be sure, this is a weird, weird movie. It's unlike anything you've ever seen before. Most people are going to hate it (which is not to say that most people don't like new things, but rather that most people will think this new thing is better left undiscovered). But for some people, especially people who love cinema and have a rich sense of its history, this movie will be a unique experience that is certainly worth viewing.

#168: Monterey Pop

(D.A. Pennebaker, 1967)

Honestly, it's a little embarrassing I waited this long to see this. Monterey Pop  combines two of my favorite things: Otis Redding and the Criterion Collection. You know of my love for the latter, but Redding is probably (definitely) my favorite singer of all time. His In Person at the Whiskey a Go Go is also probably my favorite record ever. The Monterey Pop Festival was the moment when Redding crossed over into mainstream success, and the same is also true of Jimi Hendrix. Both artists have standalone performances in the second half of this release (more on those in a different post), but they are also included here, in the main film. Redding in particular gives a stellar performance that is also shot beautifully by Pennebaker and his crew.

But the rest of the movie is equally awesome, and the whole work is most likely the best concert film I've ever seen, supplanting other greats like Stop Making Sense and Woodstock (which owes a great deal to this earlier film). There are great performances here from the Mamas and the Papas, Ravi Shankar, and especially Janis Joplin, who basically steals the show. Some of the lesser-known artists are great, too, especially Hugh Masekela, who is now very much on my radar for forward-thinking African jazz in the 60s and 70s. Overall, the film feels complete and compelling, a document of both the feel of the festival and the performances themselves, with the proper balance of tilting towards the latter. It's a great time, and an invaluable film that is thankfully perfectly preserved here.

#542: Antichrist

(Lars Von Trier, 2009)

Lars Von Trier is a terrible person, as I mentioned in my brief rundown of Europa. Unlike some people, I have never found it that difficult to separate my feelings towards a filmmaker from my feelings towards the film. But in the case of Antichrist, I don't have to even bother, because this movie is a piece of shit.

OK, I'm being provocative. It's not that bad. But I learned from the best, and no one provokes like Trier. (Do I have to use his fake "von" when addressing him by his last name? I hope not.) At his most technical, Trier is an excellent filmmaker. He has a great eye, his use of color in even a purposefully drab film such as this is spectacular, and he knows how to get the best out of his actors, who seem to trust him with their very lives. Both Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg give performances that completely lack vanity or self-consciousness. I often roll my eyes when I hear someone say a performance is "brave" - acting can be depicted as much more than it is - but these are truly brave performances in the sense that they give themselves over completely to the material and are not afraid to look ridiculous or damage their own psyches in the process.

Still, the actual movie to which they have given themselves over is largely worthless. The shock moments are the ones everyone focuses on, and they are here in spades: if ejaculating blood, crushing birds to death, and homemade female castration are your thing, well, there's finally a movie for you. But the most damning thing about Antichrist is how boring the whole routine is. The relationship between Dafoe and Gainsbourg is so hateful and completely separated from backstory or defining characteristics that any interaction between the two grows intolerably dull almost immediately.

Of course, Trier does this on purpose, because the couple isn't meant to be specific. In fact, they don't even have names; Dafoe is "He" and Gainsbourg is "She." Apart from piling on more pretentious elements to the already stuffed film (the prologue of the film is so over-the-top ridiculous that I was actually laughing) these vague names are the most obvious tip-off that the film is meant to be an academic depiction of more general psychological archetypes. Trier is most likely going as general as possible, and many people have argued that the movie is essentially damning all women. I actually felt like the movie was saying the exact opposite, that Dafoe was projecting his own sorrow into violent anger about Gainsbourg creating his child - and therefore allowing him to be destroyed - to the point where he could only destroy her in return. But honestly, I don't really care, because the movie doesn't particularly make me care.

Sadly, the movie I would most compare Antichrist to is  Last Year at Marienbad, which also used nameless characters to deal with complex male/female dynamics. But it's a real tragedy to do so, because Antichrist is the giant cartoon hammer to Last Year at Marienbad's velvet glove. Trier is certainly an ambitious director, but I can never shake the feeling that his films are less an attempt to delve into his own psyche or explore the common societal dynamics and more a crass grab for the audience's attention in the form of a cruel and useless joke.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

#271: Touchez Pau Au Grisbi

(Jacques Becker, 1954)

I thought I was being insightful when I realized halfway through Touchez Pau Au Grisbi, Jacques Becker's extremely enjoyable and nearly classic noir, that the film echoed a similar near masterpiece, Melville's Bob Le Flambeur. But, alas, Roger Ebert's great movies essay on the film is largely dedicated to the clear similarities between these two movies which center around an older man, highly respected in the underworld, nearing the end of his criminal career and succumbing to his weaknesses. Perhaps I'll get a little more credit for the comparison to one scene in the film and what I take as a direct lift in Fargo? Check the scene in which two cars encounter each other and the passengers of one car gets mowed down. A fat man runs from the gunman, only to be shot in the back and fall to the ground with a thud as he is running away. Surely Joel and Ethan Coen saw this scene and took notes.

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi doesn't 100% work for me, and there's one glaring reason why. I simply didn't buy Max's relationship with his friend, and didn't feel it had been established enough. So when Max risks his entire future in order to save his friend, I was kind of like wtf. I will say one thing about the movie though. Unlike many French noirs, this one doesn't feel like it has any connection to the American films that came before it. Max doesn't feel like a Bogart rip of, he feels like a Frenchman. I like that, but more as a curiosity than as something that defines the film. As a viewing experience, the movie is just simply entertaining, and little else.

Side note: Lino Ventura, who plays Max's nemesis Angelo here, would go on to play the lead role in Melville's grand tragedy Army of Shadows.

#129: Le Trou

(Jacques Becker, 1960)

Le Trou is about humanity, concepts of freedom, and ultimately issues of loyalty and the proper delineations of society (not, like The Grand Illusion, in a class sense, but instead a more primal sense of us vs. them). This is why the final twist hits home so strongly. It throws all of these themes into question and challenges the viewer to shift his or her perception of what they have just seen.

However, where Le Trou really shines is in the depiction of process, specifically that of human work. Like the perfect Rififi, Le Trou is about professional criminals coldly executing a complex plan in silence and with unspoken trust. Coincidentally, both involve clever methods of digging through structures, and both films depict without music or dialog the intense and laborious process of carrying out their plans. The stubborn insistence in many French crime films (many of Melville's films have a similar rote quality to them) to show process with a clear and deliberate perspective serves to simultaneously deglamorize the criminals and ramp up the suspense you feel in the moment. Their work is stretched out into real time, and it makes the suspense all the more realistic.

The scenes of these men digging and crawling through tunnels - both made by them and created for the prison - are truly exciting, and turn the film into a ground-level counterpoint to Bresson's divine A Man Escaped. By the time two of the men poke their head out into the street, you actually feel like you were in prison for the rest of the film, like you had been claustrophobic without realizing it, and the open air feels just as liberating as it must have to the characters. The film's final moments come with such rapidity and unexpected power that many questions are left unanswered but it doesn't seem to matter. Le Trou is that rare kind of masterpiece which says much more than what is literally depicted, but doesn't particularly need to in order to generate an immense emotional impact.

#325: Kind Hearts and Coronets

(Robert Hamer, 1949)

I showed this to a couple of my friends this weekend, so I thought I'd write a little about one of my favorite movies ever made. Certainly, when Kind Hearts and Coronets was announced by Criterion, I was thrilled, and I bought it the day it was released. A truly dark and biting commentary on the class system of England, the film is one of the most dryly funny films I've ever seen.

While many of the other comedies to come out of Ealing Studios post-WWII are also funny, it's a shame that some of them are so much better known. This is particularly true of The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers, both of which are strong films but nowhere near the quality of Kind Hearts and Coronets, which contains Alec Guinness's best performance(s) as the entire D'Ascoyne clan. The film has a true Oscar Wilde-style slant to it, and for a film about a serial killer, it's as light and airy as Champagne. (Incidentally, a double feature of this and the 50s rendition of The Importance of Being Earnest, also starring the wonderful Joan Greenwood, would be a seriously enjoyable evening.)

This film is highly recommended for anyone interested in the darker side of humor, especially the anglophiles. It's one of the most underrated movies in the Collection, if not all of comedy.

Friday, August 13, 2010

#251: Shadows

 (John Cassavetes, 1959)

Shadows is the first film by John Cassavetes, the father of modern independent cinema. He's also the ultimate example of commercial cinema to pay the bills/art cinema to feed the soul, having amassed a more than decent career in front of the camera in film and television alongside the dozen or so movies he made as a director.

Cassavetes is also the quintessential actor's director, the kind of filmmaker that would rather get at the truth in someone's portrayal of a character than advance the story. This makes his movies somewhat difficult for me: I don't thrill at the approach to a role that takes me by surprise. Shadows is even more difficult than his typical film, and not just because it was made on 16mm, features mostly inexperienced actors, and looks like it's been through the ringer over the past fifty years. There's a plot that wanders through the film about love and race that would be the subplot in any other film but is the only real appreciable story, while the rest of the film is more about the time and place than any kind of narrative.

Like they do in Blast of Silence, the characters take a back seat to New York City, once again shot in musty black and white as the camera crawls through side alleys into Times Square. But unlike that film, Shadows is entirely of its time, a movie made by its cast and crew to reflect exactly what they knew and what they experienced struggling to make a living in the city at the end of the decade. For this reason in particular, Shadows is just as important as a representation of one of cinema's finest goals as it is as the first film by a director that changed cinema itself. That the movie isn't particularly interesting or, well, good has to take third billing.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

#428: Blast of Silence

(Allen Baron, 1961)

Before Criterion released it, this movie was little known outside of film nerds who specialized in either New York, noir, or independent filmmaking. It is an exceptional depiction of all three. Watching this and The Naked City so close to each other was extremely enjoyable, and a great way to watch New York breathe on film in two different eras. The fact that both are noirs shouldn't be surprising: films that demand a sense of the place and therefore shoot on location are often crime based.

But unlike The Naked City, which told a basically conventional murder mystery story and argued that it was just one of the 8 million stories in New York, Blast of Silence is getting at something much darker - maybe there's only one story out there in the naked city: destruction, alienation, death. The movie's story is so simple yet executed in such a striking way that it feels as if you are hearing the story of a hitman for the first time.

The movie is far from perfect. The acting could use a few more pros (Baron wrote, directed, and starred in the film). Baron's character occasionally falls into what I like to call the James Dean school of acting, flailing about at the inner turmoil tearing him apart. Certainly the low production value shows. But the score is pure fun, the direction is interesting without being overly flashy, and the film's boiled down noir sensibility gets to you. Like some of the lesser noirs (Detour comes to mind), Blast of Silence almost seems more in line with the genre's philosophy than, say, The Postman Always Rings Twice. It's a grittiness that doesn't just come from the characters' natures or the film's abstract and ominous lighting. Add on the fact that the first murder in the film is truly harrowing, the kind of messy, violent sequence that couldn't have been made ten or fifteen years earlier when noir was in full swing.

The last thought I had during this movie was what would it have been like without the narration. This isn't to say the narration is bad. It's actually one of the best things about the movie. But the movie could have been made without, and might have been that much more revolutionary. Can we watch a man stand on a boat, sit in a car, follow someone down a road, all the time knowing this is the process for killing someone? It may have made the procedure, the unintroduced protagonist, and finally the deed itself more horrifying, simply because unknown evil is much more powerful than a conflicted, damaged man.

#462: The Last Metro

(Francois Truffaut, 1980)

It's kind of a shame that Truffaut was such an ambitious, serious-minded director. He could have been a great comedian. Even in a movie like this one, in which nearly every scene finds the specter of Nazi occupation hovering over it, the moments that shine through are ones of pure comedy, lighthearted jokes that would be at home in any straight comedy. Truffaut only made a few true comedies in his career, including the third installment in the Antoine Doinel series, Stolen Kisses, but many of his films use comedy in inventive ways (perhaps the most heralded and clever comes in Shoot the Piano Player when a character swears he is telling the truth or his mother will drop dead - and Truffaut jump cuts to an old woman falling to the ground). This is not to say Truffaut didn't play to his only strength, as he had many more strengths to concern himself with. Certainly a career that includes Jules and Jim is not wasted. But seeing him flex this muscle over the course of a whole career would have been not just satisfying, but potentially as revolutionary as his 400 Blows was for cinema.

This observation came to me while watching The Last Metro, but it is not particularly relevant to the film. Like Day for Night, The Last Metro is about a group of artists putting on a production, the former in cinema, the latter on stage, though this time there is the added conflict of the Nazi occupation. Truffaut uses the moment to tell the story mainly of one compelling female character, played Catherine Deneuve. It was pure coincidence that I watched two Deneuve performances back to back - I hadn't been aware she was in A Christmas Tale until I began watching it - but seeing them one after another and watching her age thirty years in reverse proves that her beauty and talent are both timeless. Deneuve is a great actress and a great movie star, and here she carries an entire film for more than two hours. The Last Metro isn't one of Truffaut's best, but it has flashes of his playful side as well as his more critic-minded nature. The whole film feels so much like a play that by the the time the epilogue's trick is revealed you have to wonder whether the whole film wasn't a play being performed in that theater, ready to be wrapped up just before the last train comes and takes everyone home.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

#492: A Christmas Tale

(Arnaud Desplechin, 2008)

A Christmas Tale is probably the weakest of the recent IFC co-releases, or at least the one least deserving of a place in Criterion's catalog. At once depressing and drunk with cinematic flourishes, Desplechin's film is epic in its attempted scope (even Criterion's description of the film calls it "messy") and ultimately more trouble than its worth, mixing in dull periods of decaying family life with fleeting moments of bliss.

The film evokes some of the better movies of the early 2000s: The Royal Tennenbaums and Amélie come immediately to mind, the former for its penetrating sadness in what is ostensibly a lighthearted family film and the latter for its reckless abandon stylistically. Desplechin surely throws the kitchen sink in here for two and a half hours, using everything from puppets to irises to breaking the fourth wall and flashbacks. Sometimes there are plot threads or flourishes of cinema that make you want to keep watching. These elements don't take you out of the movie so much as glide by you on your course, like a beautiful roadside attraction on a highway to a longer destination. Too often, though, the movie relies on the family's naturalistic relationships, which are unable to sustain interest over the running time of a film that should have been 45 minutes shorter. Instead of memorable, the moments of technical inspiration feel gimmicky, and instead of filling me with conflicting emotions about these real characters, the movie made me want to run from these immensely unlikable people.

In this last way, the movie it reminded me most of was Rachel Getting Married (though there are numerous more films that use a similarly unlikable -  usually related - group of people to get their point across, e.g. About Schmidt and Criterion entry The Ice Storm). That Jonathan Demme film is technically crafted and acted beautifully, and represents one of the more realistic and recognizable portraits of a damaged family. But who wants to sit around and watch angry, spiteful, damaged people for two hours?

#302: Harakiri

(Masaki Kobayashi, 1962)

Like Melville and Ophuls, Masaki Kobayashi is becoming one of my major finds during this Criterion quest. I had previously seen - and greatly admired - Kwaidan, his anthology of ghost stories, but had not made the connection between that film and his other three inclusions in the collection, the invigorating and satisfying Samurai Rebellion, his epic miniseries The Human Condition (which I have yet to see), and this film, the best of the three I have seen so far, Harakiri.

Apart from the pure emotional impact of the story, which is as moving, involving, and ultimately tragic as it wants to be, two things stuck out to me while watching the film. The first is that Kobayashi is a visual artist first and foremost. He is interested in the spaces in which Japanese culture is experienced. Unlike someone like Ozu, however, he isn't concerned with those depictions of space reinforcing traditional concepts within the culture. So shots here are almost impossibly complex in their conception, most notably in the blocking and camera movement, particularly pans which creep across the samurai compound, bending and shifting with their wide angle lenses. The positioning of figures becomes almost parody through the movie, as if someone accidentally standing directly behind another person would be immediately removed from the set. The movie is packed with visually striking images - wars of symmetry, extreme close-ups broken with wide shots, blood splattered walls - making the movie's themes that much more memorable.

These themes are the second thing which struck me about Harakiri. Unlike Samurai Rebellion, which seemed to be a call for samurai honor within the individual, this film rejects the samurai philosophy entirely. In the same way that The Wild Bunch or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance were myth-busting Westerns, Harakiri is the anti-samurai film, a rejection of the honor, courage, and sacrifice that were the keystones of earlier Japanese films. It's also one of the most anti-establishment films I've ever seen. A largely cynical look at the nature of power and its ability to make the concerns of the individual essentially invisible, the film hopes to shed light on power's inability to empathize, or even recognize its own missteps in the face of suffering and disaster. The final shot of the armor restored to its place is at once pessimistic and optimistic: there is always someone there to replace the trappings of power, just as there is always someone who will have the courage to risk and ultimately sacrifice all to destroy it.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

#469: The Hit

(Stephen Frears, 1984)

The Hit represents a prime example of one of the most challenging subgenres in filmmaking, the literate gangster pic. While gangster movies occasionally reach for deeper meaning and greatness (cough cough, The Godfather), it's a rare movie that attempts to alter the usual surface motivations and contemplations of its law-flouting pro- and antagonists and almost flaunt the genres conventions for the sake of a deeper philosophical meaning. Terence Stamp was actually in more than a few of them, most notably Soderbergh's The Limey in 1999, which even used footage of Stamp from an earlier gangster film as flashback footage. He's just as good here, twenty-five years earlier, playing a thoughtful and complex stool-pigeon on his way to payback and gangster justice. Tim Roth is so young in the film I didn't recognize him until halfway through, but now I know why Tarantino made him his half-dead cop in Reservoir Dogs eight years later - he certainly saw this picture and knew.

I respect this slant far more than I enjoy it, so The Hit didn't excite me the way I had hoped it would. I was especially hopeful since the film was directed by Stephen Frears, who has made some of my favorite movies of the past 25 years, including Dangerous Liasons, High Fidelity, The Queen, and especially The Grifters, which I consider one of the best films of the 90s. This film was made a year before he would have his big breakthrough with My Beautiful Laundrette, and it's not surprising that it took another go round to get Frears widespread attention. The Hit is a deeply philosophical, almost daringly dry film years before that sort of thing became a standard in indie filmdom (in fact, the same producer later made the overrated Sexy Beast, which had a remarkably similar plot). It's also almost mockingly devoid of plot, and skips through its running time on existential energy alone. The final twist of Stamp's personality, combined with the dark ending for pretty much everyone involved, makes the movie more fascinating on an intellectual perspective, but hardly any more appealing to watch. In fact, before that final shoot out, it doesn't seem like anyone much cares about what's happening in the film other than the woman they drag along.

I would love to read more intensive explorations of the film and its characters, but that doesn't necessarily mean I enjoyed watching it. The Hit is a well-made movie, and a thoughtful one, but it isn't especially fun to watch.