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.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

#123: Grey Gardens

(David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, 1976)

Grey Gardens is a film that could easily degenerate into a discussion of the morality of exposure - and therefore exploitation - of sick people. Cinema by its very nature focuses attention on its subjects, and at its most simplistic level, there are only two approaches: glamorization and condemnation. Because the Maysles' took such a hands-off approach to Grey Gardens, the only conclusion (if one is to be negative about the portrayal of the Beales) is that they intended for Big and Little Edie to hang themselves with their own rope.

Certainly the mother and daughter are eccentric enough to do so. Torn between the genteel upbringing they both had and the squalor in which they both live, the two larger-than-life characters are so obviously disconnected from reality that they struggle to be believed as real people. Little Edie in particular is one of the most incredible characters ever put to film, giving the kind of performance that would get most actresses laughed out of a rehearsal. And yet here she is, not at all giving a performance but simply living her life.

I find it funny that a movie like this can be thought of as taking advantage of the misfit in society when I can't honestly imagine someone who entirely fits in in society enjoying the film. In fact, it's reputation as a midnight movie is a strong indication that it is precisely the people who struggle in mainstream society who see their own idiosyncrasies reflected in the Beales. 

Instead of being that (bad) documentary where people who are twisted and confused (and isn't that funny?), the movie is much more fascinated with these people, being both sympathetic and genuinely impressed with the arc of the lives of these women. It's also fundamentally about America, like all Maysles documentaries, in that it tells a story about class that makes mobility seem all the more likely, for better or worse. Grey Gardens, then, becomes a story not of exploitation or tragedy, but of uniqueness and missed opportunites - luck, really. The story of the ups and downs of the formerly ruling class, where modern America has no place for those who don't make their own way in the world, even if just to marry the right man or dance the right dance.

#523: Night Train to Munich

(Carol Reed, 1940)

It's impossible to talk about Night Train to Munich without mentioning its predecessor, Hitchcock's perfect The Lady Vanishes. Written by the same team, starring the same woman, and featuring one of the same classically British pair of characters as sidekicks and comic relief, both films are romantic espionage thrillers with a comic slant that also happen to center around a train and getting an important person out of enemy territory. Carol Reed (a true studio craftsman, who would go on to direct many other classics, including The Third Man) doesn't have the same wryly dark sensibility that was probably Hitchcock's strongest suit, but the movie is so exciting and throws enough curve balls at the viewer that it's easy to forget the superior earlier film while watching this one.

Night Train to Munich isn't the best movie ever or anything, but it's the kind of movie that big narrative film was invented for. It's pure, unadulterated fun, never less than entertaining. For the most part, blockbuster films have forgotten this, mostly thanks to the auteur power seeping into all areas of filmmaking, imbuing skilled but soulless hacks like Michael Bay with the courage to attempt to make "serious" pictures when they should be entertaining audiences. A film like Star Trek, the franchise's excellent reboot, indicates that there are still some people who understand this. But the fact that Night Train to Munich was able to accomplish this in 1940, just one year into the war, is an astonishing accomplishment in contemporary terms. It's hard to imagine a movie made, for example, in 2002, using a plot about terrorists to not only poke fun at the enemy, but craft a film that is essentially meant as escapism, nevertheless utilizing mild propaganda and solidifying national unity. They simply don't make 'em like they used to.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

#50: And the Ship Sails On

(Federico Fellini, 1984)

Languishing in a non-anamorphic, sub-par transfer with almost literally no extra material (not even an essay, as this space is taken up by an exerpt from a book-length Fellini interview) is Fellini's final film in the Criterion collection, chronologically speaking. And the Ship Sails On is irritatingly absurd, a rambling and bizarre intellectual investigation into the idea of cinema (in its guise of society) as illusion. With a structure that is consistently detrimental to the impression of its characters, the film becomes entirely dull and impenetrable. I had a hard time making it all the way through.

Similar to his fellow masters Kurosawa and Truffaut, Fellini returns to many of the themes he had explored in his previous films with this 80s work. Fellini finally makes the silent film he has been wanting to make his whole career with the first ten minutes of the film, and the characters here are perhaps the most bizarrely deformed and visually macabre. But unlike The Last Metro, and certainly Ran, And the Ship Sails On cannot compare to earlier Fellini films, which all rested primarily if not exclusively on emotions deep within the human experience. And the Ship Sails On instead relies on ideas, and not very many of them.

The final moments of the film reminded me of the final moments of Taste of Cherry, though as the director of that film explained, his choice was meant to have an impact on our emotional reaction to the film. By the time the artifice of And the Ship Sails On is revealed, there isn't anything left to expose as artificial.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

#149: Juliet of the Spirits

(Federico Fellini, 1965)

Juliet of the Spirits might be the Felliniest movie Fellini ever made. The film is also as reflective in a purely surreal way of Fellini's home life as 8 1/2 was in an almost literal way of his professional life, casting Giulietta as a lonely wife stuck in an elaborate kaleidoscope with a cheating husband and a life she never planned on having. The director surrounds his wife and frequent star with virtually every trick he has up his sleeve, including exaggerated caricatures in extreme close-ups and complexly staged establishing shots, startling fantasies about vague and completely obvious Catholic guilt, and over-the-top-to-the-point-of-being-dull bourgeois friends and neighbors, stumbling through modern life and struggling to keep up with their perceptions of themselves.

The movie is so jam-packed with visual flair from both the elaborate sets punched with vivid colors (this was Fellini's first film in color) and the non-stop dance of flamboyantly dressed characters that it's easy to forget that the plot is extremely simple: a woman suspects her husband is cheating on her, hires a private investigator, discovers the truth, and struggles with her new perception of life. Of course, the movie isn't really about any of that as much as it is an interaction between Fellini and his wife. Most likely because she isn't in his most famous films, La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, Masina does not receive nearly enough credit for Fellini's success as a director. The star (and almost certainly the core) of two of his best films, La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, Masina is truly one of the great movie stars of all time, and even here, where you get a vague sense that she doesn't actually want to be in the movie, her performance anchors a film that might otherwise slide off into the mystic. Not just because Giulietta is playing Giulietta, the movie feels like a conversation (or perhaps an argument) between husband and wife. Fellini is trying to convince Masina to, you know, get with the free-wheeling times, man. Clearly, Giulietta and Giulietta are both having none of it, and while the final scene of the actress walking into the woods was apparently interpreted differently by director and star with the former believing it meant she was free and the latter believing she was alone, I have to agree with Masina here. Fellini entirely fails to win the argument here, though one suspects, mostly because he clearly loves his wife, despite his indiscretions, that his heart wasn't in it from the beginning anyway.

That's kind of where Juliet of the Spirits falls apart. The crazy goings-on are not really that crazy: much like the serious-as-death orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut, the scene here of Masina passing by lovers embracing each other seems less sexy than rote. In fact, I was reminded of Kubrick's late (and severely underrated) masterpiece often during Juliet of the Spirits. Like Juliet, Cruise's doctor is drawn into a surreal night of temptation and self-reflection by a severe case of jealousy. And like Fellini, Kubrick uses an unappealing balance of malice and affection to tie his two characters together. Of course, Kubrick's characters have an enormous amount of hang-ups they are unaware of, while Juliet is very aware of her increasing number of them, especially her religious upbringing, coupled with a sense of love as doomed endeavor represented by her drowned classmate, who late in the film beckons Juliet to join her. But these hang-ups actually seem to prevent the film from being as dark as Kubrick's, making Juliet of the Spirits maybe Fellini's most lighthearted film since The White Sheik.

Piled on top of that emotional baggage are the film's extreme (and often seemingly superfluous) uses of color. The movie's palette is so ridiculous that at one point Juliet wanders through a house draped with patched curtains that feature every color in the rainbow and stretch multiple floors. They seem to be there simply to remind viewers that this is, in fact, Fellini's first movie in color. But they aren't even the most impressive uses of the format here, as scenes in nature pop with greens and blues in beautiful fashion; this is truly a spectacular visual feast, even if Fellini's meager attempts to find his way out of a bind might leave you empty and alone at the end of the night.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

#270: Casque d'Or

(Jacques Becker, 1952)

Although Becker had made a number of movies before Casque d'Or, this was the first film in his career to achieve international success (and apparently it didn't do that well in France), and is still considered his masterpiece among many. For me, I don't think Casque d'Or holds a candle to the genius of Le Trou, which is a spectacular, memorable epic. Part of the problem for me is Simone Signoret. A beautiful actress who would give a number of other truly great performances, even in Diabolique just a few years later, Signoret just doesn't have the kind of fire in her belly in this film that she should. I don't see the romance or the tragedy I need to with a story like this. I don't know, maybe it was a mood I was in, but the whole idea of this film as a romance falls flat to me.

The other thing that is funny is how much Casque d'Or seems just like other Becker movies, despite the fact that it was set in a different time period. The movie was apparently turned down by Max Ophuls and Henri-Georges Clouzot, and it would have been interesting to see how different this film would have been from these vastly different directors. In the hands of Becker, it's a good, not great one.