Friday, July 29, 2011

#177: The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum

(Volker Schlondorff and Margarethe Von Trotta, 1975)

I wish The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum seemed dated, foreign, and overblown. Instead, it's entirely relevant and horrifying, a snuff film for the media age. Constructed around a woman who spends a night with an alleged terrorist, the film charts the police and paparazzi as they slowly destroy the woman's life. The film balances issues of a male-dominated society and a fascist mindset that emphasizes guilt before innocence. Both themes are presented in a clean way that avoids overbearing statements, but this might be less because of a soft hand and more because the themes are so relevant to today that the movie can't possibly cross the line.

This is particularly easy to emphasize at the moment, when terrorism is front and center in the longview and Murdoch's phone-hacking scandal has been all over the media in the last few months. Both of these current issues are entirely relevant to the film - one in which reporters casually make up quotes to sell papers and policemen leap to judgment on terrorist-related cases and refuse to follow the law. It would be great if the movie seemed a little too black and white in these regards - perhaps the journalists would come across as too cynical, or the policemen as too eager to rush to judgment. Instead, the film's villains play as real today as ever.

There are two other significant elements of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum which enrich the film and keep it feeling so relevant. The first is the fact that - despite all of the horrible things being done to her that shouldn't be done - Blum does in fact have something to hide. That she allowed the terrorist to escape and find refuge makes the film much more complex. It reminded me a bit of Dead Man Walking, where Sean Penn's death row inmate actually did murder two people in cold blood, yet we are asked to sympathize with his cause anyway. Had that film been about an innocent man on death row, it would have avoided the most elemental question about the death penalty: regardless of a man's guilt or innocence, can we really as a society be responsible for taking a life? While Blum's crimes do not come close to the level of murder, the fact that she is not totally innocent takes the focus off of her experience and shifts it back to the system. This isn't an innocent person being targeted, but it is a person, with the same weaknesses and uncomfortable truths that everyone else has. Is the small safety that would be gained by destroying her - not to mention the entertainment and profit - worth the moral price we pay?

The second significant element is the sexism Blum experiences, both from the police and eventually from the faceless masses who send her harassment through the mail. Often, when a film deals in sexism to this degree it is identified as a film about sexism. This can be unfair, not because films about sexism aren't worth making but because work that doesn't settle into the default (in America, this means the white male experience; in the rest of the world, it at least means male) can be so easily pigeonholed. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum isn't about sexism any more than it's about infatuation or making a true connection with a person. Instead, the film depicts sexism in its natural habitat, the acts and judgments evolve out of realistic situations in ways that would effortlessly occur in real life. The police in the film are sexist and the men who send hateful letters to Blum use sexual attacks and the media plays up Blum's failures in a conventionally female role because Blum is a woman, and that's what these people do.

Anyway, I've probably gone on too long. This is a really good movie that I hope stops being relevant tomorrow and some day my son can look back at it and see what all the fuss was about and laugh.

#482: 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her

(Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)

I don't get it.

Monday, July 25, 2011

#183: Les dames du Bois de Boulogne

(Robert Bresson, 1945)

Les dames du Bois de Boulogne might be the most notable example of a movie made by a great director that is almost impossible to identify as that director's work. This is particularly true because Bresson - like most iconic directors - has such a distinct, if minimalist, style, and spent most of his career dwelling on similar themes and subjects.

Little of these touchstones is present in this early film in his catalog, a sort of Dangerous Liasons for modern French society which also calls to mind the later Ophuls masterpiece The Earrings of Madame De... This film doesn't quite reach classic status, but the richness of its cinematography and the swooning melodrama at its core are extremely appealing. The final climax - when a woman spurned finally reveals the truth to her former lover - is expertly crafted, as Paul Bernard pulls his car back and forth trying to free himself from the hell he has been placed in while the camera simply sits along for the ride. The viewer can actually feel Bresson taking charge at this moment, shedding the conventions that bound him earlier in the film (and keep the final scene a little too clean and unbelievable).

Perhaps the film's melodrama is a little too reliant upon an antiquated concept of female revenge - the film's emotional ties certainly tilt towards theatricality. But even if the movie is just a theme park ride instead of the pilgrimage of Bresson's later masterpieces, it's at least confirmation of an artist's developing hand and an extremely rewarding viewing for film lovers and melodrama aficionados alike.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

#427: Death of a Cyclist

(Juan Antonio Bardem, 1955)

Death of a Cyclist is statement film, a subtly ambitious genre pic, and a terribly entertaining message movie. It's also the earliest Spanish film (in terms of theatrical release) in the collection. This seems fully appropriate - like another ambitious genre pic, Citizen Kane, it's entirely believable that an industry could have sprung from the roots it planted, such is the impact the film seems to have even now on a stagnant cinematic landscape.

The film starts with the titular event, caused by a car driven by the two main charaters, Juan and Maria. Fearing their illicit affair would come to light if they stopped to call the police, they leave the man to die on the road. That cover shot, bicycle wheel spinning at the bottom of the frame, is the closest we get to the victim. This movie isn't about the event, but rather its aftermath, which throws everything in these characters' lives, both personally and professionally into disarray. As their fates become clear, the movie slowly builds to its inevitable climax - like Hitchcock, who obviously influenced the film, Bardem generates suspense despite the fact that there is never a doubt as to where the film is headed. The flashiest section of the film is probably the first act, where time shifts all over the place while scenes are connected by seemingly separate actions (one character blows smoke, another character in a different place and time watches smoke float across their face). But the movie is consistently fresh throughout its running time, and the final result works on many levels, from classic noir to social critique.

The characters in Death of a Cyclist are richly nuanced and defiantly conflicted. This makes the wide ambition of the movie work, because Bardem was able to say everything he wanted to say while still providing an entertaining premise. The director is the uncle of Javier Bardem - probably the most famous Spanish actor after Antonio Banderas - so his family has a substantial presence in Spanish cinema. But it's this film that remains a stand out in his career - along with The Devil's Backbone (which was directed by a Mexican), this might be the best Spanish film I've ever seen.

Friday, July 22, 2011

#91: The Blob

(Irvin S Yeaworth, Jr., 1958)

I last watched The Blob when I was about 13 and just about the only thing I remembered about it was the horrible theme song which runs over the opening credits (and by horrible, I mean awesome). Watching for the second and final time, I was most struck by two things. First of all, the idea that Steve McQueen is still in high school is not a legitimate premise - was this the beginning of the TV trend to cast 45-year-old actors as teenagers, or had that ship already sailed? (I also love that his name in the movie is Steve. Did they at least have a conversation about changing it? Or did they actually change it to Steve when they cast him? Inquiring minds..) Second was the fact that the film had an enormous amount of talking. Like a lot. In fact, most of The Blob could easily be performed as a play with very few rewrites and only minor set changes. In terms of production values, it makes Equinox look like The Rock.

It's astonishing to watch The Blob and think that just fifty years ago this movie was a blockbuster. The lack of action would have had modern-day studio execs killing themselves before their bosses did. How would they deal with all that talking in the overseas markets? The movie's novelty is no longer the amorphous blob that takes over the town before being frozen out (that is, until global warming, chillingly predicted in the film's final moments), but instead the idea that this movie would have ever entered the American mainstream. At least there's a catchy song, right?

#194: Il Posto

(Ermanno Olmi, 1961)

Unlike the neorealist masterpieces that came before it, Ermanno Olmi's second film might easily be passed over as insignificant - a small movie about common people where nothing much happens rather than a revolutionary statement about film's ability to magnify the human condition (and Hollywood's inability - or rather unwillingness - to fulfill this promise). In many ways, Olmi was able to avoid such sweeping statements because of the path those previous films by people like De Sica, Rossellini, and De Santis blazed. By the time Olmi made Il Posto in 1961, their uniquely Italian vision had been translated into countless other languages, inspiring the creation of humanist cinematic voices all over the world and establishing a powerful counterpoint to a Hollywood that had dominated global cinema since World War II. The statement was already made, the language already established.

Rather than make Il Posto seem superfluous, this foundation allows Olmi to focus on the task at hand. The film tells a simple story of a boy from a small town traveling to Milan to get work. I could explain more about his journey, but that would imply that there is more to the story rather than a richness of character and experience that cannot be described. Because Olmi avoids the trappings of allegories and social metaphors, his film can be both contained and extremely powerful - not because it says something about society (though it very much does) but because the open emotion of Olmi's protagonist and the simplicity of his story make it easy to understand what he's experiencing and to sympathize with him.

Empathy is not lacking in Bicycle Thieves or any other neorealist classic. But - and maybe this is just my personal opinion - those films featured empathy from above, a sense that we must all be there to help the common man, to honor him, to acknowledge his struggle. Olmi isn't interested in helping his protagonist. He's interested in knowing him, loving him even. It is subjective distance that separates Olmi's film from his predecessors', and the intimacy with which he depicts his character's every movement makes Il Posto a truly great film.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

#338: Equinox

(Jack Woods, 1970)

Is there anything worse than computer generated effects? There was a time when special effects were all about cleverness and extreme creativity. With computers, artistry has become craft and no one asks "How did they do that?" anymore because everyone knows the answer. The biggest victim of this technological shift is spectacle (did anyone care about the mass of ships that were clearly easily duplicated in Troy?) but creature design  - with a few exceptions - has taken a real hit, since everything is drawn instead of crafted these days.

Of the old masters pre-CGI, Dennis Muren was one of the greats, most famous for his work on Star Wars. This early entry in his catalog, however, is extremely entertaining. It's an homage to the creature features of the 1950s about a group of kids that get caught up in a mystical battle for control of secret evil powers. The production value is very low, the acting only moderately passable, and the story alternates between overused tropes and campy cheese. But it's all saved by the straight-faced delivery and Muren's gloriously inventive effects, especially the monster designs. This is one of the more unusual entries in the Collection, but it's a welcomed one.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

#134: Häxan

(Benjamin Christensen, 1922)

It's hard to imagine two more different films featuring the devil than Häxan and the film I watched right before it, The Devil and Daniel Webster (Little Nicky and The Passion of the Christ?), but such is the life of a Criterion completist. Unlike The Devil and Daniel Webster, which is a fairly typical (if upmarket) Hollywood production, Häxan is one of the more interesting movies in the collection. Constructed more as an essay than a narrative film, this silent exploration of witchcraft through the last 1000 years is at once an intriguing use of film to advance an intellectual posture and a supremely pleasing recreation of supernatural moments as they were perceived in history.

Certainly the most entertaining element of the film is the presentation of Satan as a tongue-wagging prankster leading the innocent into the darkness. The devil pops up at the most opportune times, forcing women to do horrible things in the name of evil. The recreations here must have been shocking in 1922, despite the fact that the film implies that its modern era has overcome beliefs in a literal devil that oversees literal witches.

From a current-day perspective, the argument that hysteria is similar to a belief that one was possessed by the devil seems logical but somewhat antiquated - especially since the notion of hysteria itself has long gone out of fashion. Most obviously missing from the film is a feminist perspective on either "medical" movement, a much needed balance to an issue that was directly related to the role of women in society. Still, Häxan is one of the more interesting silent films I have seen, and I'm not surprised that it would amass quite a following among fans of the macabre.

Friday, July 15, 2011

#214: The Devil and Daniel Webster

(William Dieterle, 1941)

The Devil and Daniel Webster tells the story of a farmer who sells his soul to the devil and the senator who helped win it back. That senator is based on a real life politician, Daniel Webster (who twice could have become second-in-command to president who would go on to die before the end of their term), but is a bizarrely inaccurate portrayal of his political leanings, turning a big business defender into a man of the people. In fact, the bulk of the movie could stand in as a campaign video for Webster, a man who apparently loved New England and New Hampshire like God loves the Earth, could drink any man under the table, and never refused a man his time or effort. This is all before he convinces a jury of some of America's most despicable and infamous criminals that they should defy the devil (a scene parodied in The Simpsons on an early and classic Halloween special).

Of course, the film was made nearly 100 years after Webster's death, so it's hard to accuse it of party-centered mythmaking. The movie (and the short story it was based on) seems more interested in building up America as the ultimate opponent for the devil than Webster or any specific person. The movie reminded me of Darryl Zanuck's overwrought Wilson in terms of Hollywood crafting tales of American history with contemporary goals in mind. Oddly, the shift of Webster from anti-abolishionist reality to fiery orator who argues that no American can be someone's property is perhaps the most American element of the film, drawing on the country's ability to merge its history into its reality as it is reborn.

Possibly Dieterle's best-known film (with only The Hunchback of Notre Dame as its competition, though his The Life of Emile Zola is one of the more mediocre films to win best picture), The Devil and Daniel Webster is a light-hearted fable with top-notch production that makes for an entertaining viewing. But compared to some of the other films from 1941 (one of the best years ever), it's a minor work.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

#122: Salesman

(David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, 1968)

Good lord, what a depressing movie. The Maysles brothers have made a number of other rough films, two of which - Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens - are represented in the collection. But none of the films I've seen from them compare to Salesman, which depicts a group of door-to-door bible salesmen. These men - straight out of Death of a Salesman or Glengarry Glen Ross, only worse - are alternately pathetic and predatory. They live horrible lives barely scraping by in seedy hotel rooms conning poor and ignorant people out of their desperately needed money (the bibles cost around 300 dollars in today's money).

I guess the question to ask would be is it worth it? As a sharp critique of its subject and an examination of American capitalism at a turning point (when this type of con was dying out - it would eventually move to television on infomercials and HSN) the film is quite successful, but as a viewing experience I'm not so sure I would recommend the film. It can be oddly entrancing to watch a man bulldoze a weaker mark right in front of you - and it has the kind of power pieces like the two mentioned above can't produce with fictional situations. However, the train wreck quality of the film is undeniable, making this uneasy viewing for people with a heart. Ultimately, we can all be thankful that this sort of industry is now marginalized if not mostly eliminated (as far as I know), even as people continue to con people out of their money based on their faith. It's hard to imagine anything more cynical, and watching it unfold in front of you isn't exactly an enjoyable experience, regardless of the quality of the work.

Monday, July 11, 2011

#161: Under the Roofs of Paris

(René Clair, 1930)

Like Le Million, Under the Roofs of Paris is what is generally characterized as a "light confection." These are the kind of crowd-pleasing films that evolved into the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s and subsequently became the romantic comedies of today. Unlike their modern counterparts, however, Clair's films are innovative and technically playful, especially in their use of sound to elevate set pieces or gags.

The plot of the film is extremely simple, focusing on a love triangle in the streets of Paris. At this early stage in the medium's history, this was enough to make the movie novel, especially the setting, which Clair would also depict in Le Million. These days, it could use a few more twists to make it interesting. Still, the film is worthwhile because of Clair's ability to entertain in even the smallest moments, like when he uses sound to turn a shoe into an alarm clock. Under the Roofs of Paris is more of a historical curiosity than Le Million, but it's a pleasurable one thanks to Clair's notable talent.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

#146: The Cranes Are Flying

(Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957)

The Cranes Are Flying is often lumped in with Ballad of a Soldier - both films came out of the USSR in the late 50s, the years after Stalin's death when cinema was finally able to thrive, and both films focus on World War II, where the country lost by many estimates 10 million people - a truly staggering number - but eventually emerged victorious. Indeed, the two films sit just two spine numbers away from each other in the Criterion catalog (the modern masterpiece In the Mood for Love sits between them), indicating that they were clearly planned in tandem.

While all of the similarities (particularly the USSR origin) make the grouping understandable, it's hard to imagine two films that are technically more different than these two. While Ballad of a Soldier is elemental, poetic cinema, The Cranes Are Flying is flashy, abstract, and contemporary. The movie's greatest moments are big loud sequences, beginning with the angular framing of the opening scene that establishes the film's cinematic language and peaking with the undercranked sequence in which Veronica, the film's protagonist, rushes after a train.

The key phrase in that sentence might be "cinematic language," as this zeroes in on what makes these two Russian films genuinely linked in film history. Because the USSR was really just beginning its move into modern cinema, both films were first stabs at an answer to what was being produced in the US. Each movie could easily have defined Soviet cinema post-WWII - they are that elemental and moving. While The Cranes Are Flying is the easier pick, I actually preferred Ballad of a Soldier, mostly because I think it is more difficult to make a film in such a simple way, and the rarity of success makes it more exciting. I also felt like many of the techniques and even the moments of true exploration of the Soviet experience (e.g. the father dismissing the propaganda line) hid a mostly conventional plot with a clear villain and a standard heroine. But a preference for this earlier film is totally understandable, and really the most obvious thing that both films share is that each one is a masterpiece that has lasted and will last long beyond its country of origin.

#191: Jubilee

(Derek Jarman, 1978)

Punk is the most mysterious of all musical sub-genres, primarily because any rejection of mainstream society must face an existential dilemma when it is embraced by the mainstream. The irony of punk's founding was that many of the core themes of both the music and the culture that sprung up around it were no different than the themes upon which rock 'n' roll was originally based. London Calling, the best punk record ever made, doesn't sound so far from early Stones or many of the harder Lennon songs in the Beatles catalog. Yet because the movement prided itself on sprouting from working-class England and planted its flag in the decidedly anti-commercialism camp, the move into the conventional narrative of rock was an extremely uncomfortable one. This was further complicated by The Sex Pistols, an overrated band with a handful of good songs that nevertheless managed to become the quintessential punk band - despite the fact that they were in many ways an inauthentic attempt (if self-consciously and ironically so) to sell-out the movement. Punk's end goal for bands like this was to be able to say "fuck you" to the establishment while cashing the checks anyway.

All of this has bearing on Jubilee, a dull and muddled cult film that nevertheless takes an intelligent stab at quantifying the movement within the context of contemporary Britain. I never found myself grabbing hold of any of the various abstract and only tangentially connected moments in the film. The message may have been lost on me - if the film has a message at all beyond being against messages. The premise is clever enough: Elizabeth I asks an alchemist in her court to show her the future, and what is revealed is a dystopian Britain ruled by girl gangs and cackling producers. This is just a vague outline, however, for the film to wander around in, alternating between surreal fantasies and throwaway philosophical confrontations. Finally, the movie just becomes a drag.

There are two main approaches to a film attempting to capture the energy of a musical movement (or moment). The first is the document approach - depicting what being a part of the scene was like and attempting to bring to the music a better understanding of its context. Sometimes this is done on purpose (see Monterey Pop) and sometimes it just happens because of the material the filmmaker had available to them (see Border Radio). But either way these films become incredibly valuable to music fans, particularly those who are partial to the specific movement being covered. The second way is to attempt to evoke the movement's philosophy through either thematic or technical devices (or both). This is a much more perilous path - not only because music and film are such different mediums, but because films are relatively exorbitantly expensive to make. Even when you are dealing with the most lo-fi genre of all, recreating a philosophy is going to run you big numbers.

That's not to imply that Jubilee fails because it has a low budget. I just mean to emphasize the difficulty of transferring a feeling from music to film, and why virtually all of the best music films fall into the former "document" camp. Jubilee is an interesting attempt to catch the lightning of punk in England in the late 70s, it just can't keep up.

Friday, July 8, 2011

#425: Antonio Gaudí

(Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1984)

Criterion says this film is "Less a documentary than a visual poem," and it's not an overstatement - there's barely any dialog or even action throughout its barely feature-length running time. That's ok when the images of the film are works by Gaudí, shot with an enormous amount of reverence and skill by filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara (whose 3-film Criterion boxset I have yet to dive into). I'm not going to go so stereotypical as to say that his presentation has an Eastern austerity, but I do think the way the work is presented gives the impression of an outsider struggling to understand not just an artist's output, but the culture which produced such an artist. There is a love of Gaudí's buildings, but also a sense of mystery and otherness - Teshigahara manages to make his subject exotic without qualifying it as a novelty.

One interesting thing about the film was how little it reminded me of my own first-hand experiences with Gaudí's buildings. Rather than evoke the same emotions I had while traveling through Barcelona, Teshigahara's presentation emphasized the strange and oddly beautiful elements of his work. Rather than simply documenting Gaudí's work, the film was conveying the experience of seeing the buildings that was specific to Teshigahara. This is a sharp reminder of the subjectivity of film and the immense control a filmmaker can have over both his or her subject and the audience.

The 2-disc set has an enormous amount of material surrounding the documentary, including more discussion of Teshigahara's personal experiences around Gaudí's work. This makes the entire set a rich and fascinating look at the crossing point of two artists from different eras, different cultures, and different mediums. The film itself is conversely minimalistic and contained, but through the simple presentation of architectural landmarks, it may speak more to the form than the content.

#104: Double Suicide

(Masahiro Shinoda, 1969)

Spoiler alert - that's the final image of the film on the cover. Normally, that might be a problem. I'm definitely the kind of guy that doesn't like to know anything about a movie going in if I can help it. But here it seems appropriate because Double Suicide isn't really about the plot. Instead, it's about the thin line between artifice and reality and the unseen forces that guide our actions and lead us to our fates.

The film is based on a puppet play about a married man who falls in love with a prostitute. The two decide to commit suicide when they realize they cannot be together. Double Suicide opens as a depiction of the play, beginning with the puppeteers getting ready for the performance as someone whispers direction. Even as the characters become real, there is still evidence of the puppeteers all around, guiding the characters with hands and invisible strings.

Shinoda's work is a rebellious and subversive one, every bit as anti-authoritarian and radical as Kobayashi's Harakiri. The final moment of quiet death evokes the tragedy of the individual being destroyed by the system just as it presents suicide as the last refuge of freedom in a corrupt and totalitarian society.

#169: Jimi Plays Monterey & Shake! Otis at Monterey

(D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, 1986)

These two films make up a separate disc in the Monterey Pop set, as well as a standalone that can be purchased separately. Hendrix's set is nearly an hour, but unfortunately Redding only plays for about 20 minutes. But what a spectacular 20 minutes! Although both films occasionally cut away from the performances, they are fairly straight ahead, especially Redding's, which avoids all interviews and extraneous dialog entirely.

The real treat here is the extra material, especially the commentaries by Charles Shaar Murray on the Hendrix film and the esteemed Peter Guralnick on the Redding film. Both men put the performances into context and hammer home how important these two performances were.

Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding were undoubtedly two of the most important musicians of the modern pop era, and the fact that their careers took such a huge jump at the same festival is a sad irony when considering the fact that neither one of them made it out of their 20s. As I've mentioned before, Redding is my favorite singer of all time, and while I can't say that I obsess over Hendrix in the way that some do, many of my fondest musical memories revolve around his output. This disc is a vital document of possibly the biggest on stage moment for each of these performers, and it's essential for anyone trying to understand American pop history.

Monday, July 4, 2011

#84: Good Morning

(Yasujiro Ozu, 1959)

A few months ago I was looking through the (still long and very intimidating) list of films I had yet to watch and settled in on the Ozu films to come. At the time, I had yet to see the diptych that makes up Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu, and the director's work still seemed disconcertingly foreign to me. In this context, Good Morning stood out as a different kind of Ozu film, one I might even be able to enjoy. These days, my appreciation of Ozu's signature style has improved greatly, and I ironically longed for the subtle and deep rhythms of his earlier works while watching Good Morning.

That's not to say there aren't signature Ozu moments in the film. The plot - in which a boy and his younger brother decide to forgo speaking until their parents get a television set - is simple enough that the movie exists virtually on slight social cues and the minutiae of everyday life alone. The back-and-forth gossip of the middle-class housewives is both entirely recognizable in Western suburban culture of the time and oddly political - it doesn't feel too far from the machinations behind the plot of The Wire, oddly enough - which might just be a different way of saying the motivations feel realistic instead of forced, natural rather than dramatic.

Of course, there aren't many Ozu films centered around fart jokes. Even aside from the farting, Good Morning is Ozu's most Western film of the handful I've seen to date - it's certainly the only one that could be transferred to a suburban US setting without substantial changes. Oddly enough, it's the first Ozu film Criterion released on DVD, way back in 2000. It's a good entry point for Ozu's work, but it's somewhat lacking for the budding Ozu fan who needs a hit, and it's far from his best work.

#532: Louie Bluie

(Terry Zwigoff, 1985)

Louie Bluie is a thoroughly entertaining entry in the subgenre of documentaries centered around one noteworthy protagonist. Within this subgenre are two types of subjects: famous or historically notable people - think General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait or even Zwigoff's follow-up to this film, Crumb - and quirky or unique individuals that are interesting enough to carry a film. Louie Bluie focuses on the latter type, an obscure blues musician named Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong.

Armstrong is an incredible musician, a folk artist, an impressive calligrapher, and a witty, charming older man with a fascinating life story - basically the perfect subject for a documentary. He's also another reminder of how many wildly talented people end up as also-rans commercially. So much of what we deem artistic success can be attributed to the luck of timing - knowing the right people, getting the right break, and, um, not being born black in the American South before 1940.

Louie Bluie was announced along with Crumb, Zwigoff's much-higher-profile breakthrough documentary of the famous counter-culture comic artist. It might seem reasonable to wonder - had Zwigoff not requested that the two films be released separately - if Criterion would have made Louie Bluie an extra on Crumb, as they have done with lesser-known first films in the past. Two things make me happy they didn't go this way even if they could: aside from superficial comparisons (folk art, marginalized subjects) the two films are almost totally different in both theme and tone and more importantly Louie Bluie stands on its own rather well. In fact, it might be my favorite of the two films - on a macro level, it's a love letter to a generation of artists who were often taken for granted and too quickly forgotten. But as a work that is quietly contained and lacking in ambition in the most appealing way, Louie Bluie is a simple document of a fascinating man that can now reach an audience that can appreciate it.

#172: Pépé le moko

(Julien Duvivier, 1937)

Pépé le moko is a reminder that the French weren't simply inspired by film noir, but instead had a hand in creating that most American of genres. Just as many of the established stateside classics were directed by studio journeymen from pulp novels, this pre-WWII masterpiece was brought to the screen by the still largely dismissed Julien Duvivier and based on a book written under a pseudonym by a French policeman who had spent time in Algiers. The film nails its setting, allowing the camera to jaggedly cut its way into the narrow corridors of the winding streets that make up the Casbah - often, it feels like the district is actively resisting the film, trying to expel it from the corridors. Meanwhile, Jean Gabin lords over the proceedings in a dominant performance.

Gabin is - if I am allowed to generalize and simplify for a moment - the French Bogart. Though neither actor is traditionally attractive, the camera gravitates towards them effortlessly, almost magically. Both actors required little background or establishing character traits to legitimize their towering presence within a film's universe - they simply were, in the grandest sense of the word. Nowhere is this comparison more apparent than in Pépé le moko, which shares a number of superficial elements with Casablanca, the film which immortalized Bogart. Both movies are set in French Africa populated with double-crossing thieves and deep shadows around every turn, and both center around a doomed romance. More importantly, though, each film has its respective star as both the gravitational pull of the story and the setting's folk hero. Gabin and Bogart must be iconic figures for the motivations of the surrounding characters to make sense, and each star pulls this off with effortless suave.

Besides Gabin, the most interesting element of Pépé le moko is the romance which is Gabin's undoing. Gabin falls in love because he is tired of running and longs for his home in Paris, but the playgirl he falls for seems drawn to him as a novelty. We must rely exclusively on Gabin's admittedly powerful presence to convince ourselves that she really is in love with him and isn't just in it for the thrill. If Gabin had gotten away, would their relationship actually have lasted even as long as the ship's journey back to Europe? This seems to me less a question about whether or not the love story is legitimate and more about whether or not this mystery playgirl represented an actual person (or even just a symbol of personal love) rather than France itself - or at least the France Gabin knew. He discards his "exotic" lover in the Casbah (who then betrays him) with ease, and she seems to sit in for Algiers in general. Gabin's choice is France over Africa, and his final moment is the confirmation of his love for his country - if France can't have him, no one can.

Patriotism might seem like a strange theme for a film that features a decidedly anti-heroic protagonist. But Pépé le moko has little interest in condemning Gabin, even though it is consistently clear that he won't escape a moralistic fate before "Fin" flashes on the screen. Even before noir (and even before pre-noir) cinema glamorized those who burned brightest, even for an instant. Interestingly, we never get to see Gabin's finest moments as a thief in the film, since we enter the story as he is already in hiding. His most cinematic moment, then, is his last, when the Casbah can no longer contain him and France calls him home. Regardless of its allegiances, Pépé le moko is a brilliant and moving work of pre-noir pulp, and one of the defining "movie star" performances of French cinema.

Friday, July 1, 2011

#362: Border Radio

(Alison Anders, Dean Lent, and Kurt Voss, 1987)

It's impossible for me to say if the average person will like this movie. Having grown up in Los Angeles, watching Chris D and John Doe move through the east side of my city for an hour and a half is endlessly fascinating, a reward in itself regardless of the film's plot or technical prowess.

Ignoring for a moment the appeal of this setting, the movie's plot is fairly pedestrian. It centers around a local musician who disappears right as his new album is building buzz. His friends, girlfriend, and apparently an unidentified film crew attempt to track him down. None of the performances are especially convincing and the grainy and rudimentary cinematography gives the film away as a low budget indie for the 1980s.

However, the music is spectacular and the film manages to keep its story fresh without really having much of one. Border Radio is more notable as a document of the mid-80s indie scene than it is as a work of narrative cinema - and I'd much rather watch a film like Mala Noche - but as a pure viewing experience the film drew me in because it was so evocative of my childhood and unique in its depiction of a city that has probably been featured in more films than any other.

#295: Crazed Fruit

(Ko Nakahira, 1956)

Crazed Fruit is one of those rare films that crackles with an energy propelling it towards the future. Someone watched this movie and thought, "Things will never be the same." The film has a lurid sexual tone to match its characters' idle nihilism, but the movie shines because it chooses to depict this new world in such a brazenly straightforward manner. It makes the viewer come to it.

Centered around two brothers lounging at a vacation home with little to do but concern themselves with invented problems, the movie is reminiscent of other youthful stories like The Great Gatsby, Rebel Without a Cause, and Catcher in the Rye. But the film's plot - in which one brother falls in love with a seemingly innocent girl who turns out to be married and sexually promiscuous - is much more inherently controversial than those other works. Indeed, the film's reception indicated a divided critical base with half looking towards the coming cinematic revolution and half hopelessly struggling to maintain the status quo.

What is so impressive about Crazed Fruit is that it manages to feel fresh and edgy even as its position as a transition film is so evident. It's critics are so antiquated and embarrassing now, and yet the film still feels subversive and impressively infused with a shocking sexuality. Crazed Fruit might not be a truly great film, but it's persistently relevant and confrontational, demanding its vaunted position in Japanese film.